New Brunswick History and Other Stuff

The Story of Brook Watson

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This is the story of Brook Watson, who became an orphan at the age of ten years, went to Boston alone, and subsequently lost a leg in a shark attach in Cuba. Despite all of this, he became Commissary General of forces in America, Sheriff and Lord Mayor of London, Member of Parliament for London, and a baronet. His service to the Loyalists at Saint John is remembered in local place names. The story is presented here from the New Brunswick Magazine, Volume 1, 1898, and was written by Clarence Ward.

Brook Watson

Brook Watson

Etching published by James Bretherton in 1788, from the British National Portrait Gallery at

The Story of Brook Watson

Among the many actors in the struggle for independence, which terminated successfully for the American colonists in 1783, was Brook Watson, commissary general to the British forces under Sir Guy Carleton. Considering the prominent part taken by him in the war of the American Revolution, and the very successful and honorable position afterwards attained by him in England, together with the romantic episodes of his boyhood and youth, it is extraordinary how little is generally known of him, and how seldom he is referred to in historical writings, when the events of that stirring time are recalled. The citizens of St. John, are especially interested in his memory, for his counsel and assistance were of great value to the unfortunate exiles who sought these shores on the termination of the contest which deprived them of home and patrimony. As an evidence of their appreciation of the services rendered, and of the respect they had for him, they named one of the streets in the city which they were building “Watson” street, and one of the wards “Brooks” ward, so that the name of Brook Watson is perpetuated among us to the present day.

From his earliest years his life was one of adventure and vicissitude, and nothing in fiction is stranger than his career, which commencing in 1750 a sailor boy in Boston, depending on the good will of those about him, almost strangers, terminated in England in 1807, after he had been commissary general of the forces in America, sheriff and lord mayor of London, member of parliament for London, and a baronet of the United Kingdom. From various sources I have gathered the principal events in his history, but with regard to his connection with New Brunswick my information is meagre, confined to a few documents, and brief mention of important services rendered. That his assistance was of great importance and practical benefit to the Loyalists is undoubted, as is evidenced by the great respect and esteem that was entertained for him by the first settlers of the province.

Brook Watson was born at Plymouth, England, in 1735. His father, John Watson of Kingston upon Hull, was a Hamburg merchant who was unfortunate in business, and both of his parents died when he was not more than ten years of age. He appears to have had but few friends, who were not much interested in him and who sent him to Boston, Mass,, to a Mr. Levens, a distant relative, belonging to Hull, who was engaged in business there. Mr. Levens sent him to sea in a vessel in which he was interested, and while the vessel was at Havana, Watson bad a leg bitten off by a shark when bathing in the harbor. He was taken to the Havana hospital, and treated by the Spaniards with much humanity, and when cured found means of returning to Boston. On his return he heard that his relative had failed and left the place, and he found himself utterly friendless and penniless, and a cripple. The mistress of the house where Mr. Levens had been boarding received him in the most unfeeling manner, and fearing that he would be a burden to her made arrangement to apprentice him to a tailor, very much against his inclination. At this critical period of his life, a friend appeared on the scene in the person of Captain John Huston, of Chignecto, Nova Scotia. Capt. Huston was boarding at the house, and took pity on the friendless boy, and proposed to him to go home with him to Chignecto. He was a trader and owner of vessels, and was then in Boston in one of his own coasters. Young Watson gladly closed with this offer, but before leaving, Huston was put under bonds not to allow Watson to come back and be a charge on the town. The youth returned home with Capt. Huston, who found him such an honorable and honest lad, attentive and obliging and willing to learn and improve himself, that he conceived a particular regard for the boy and treated him rather as a son than as a servant.

This was in 1750, when Watson was in his fifteenth year, the same year that LaCorne began the erection of Fort Beausejour, the English building Fort Lawrence on the south side of the Missiquash, just opposite Fort Beausejour. There was constant skirmishing between these until 1755, when the French were completely routed, and driven from the Isthmus, and the unfortunate Acadians were expelled from the province. During this time Watson was actively engaged in Captain Houston’s business and tending in his store.

On the arrival of the British troops, there came with them Captain Winslow, commissary, who took much interest in Watson, taught him bookkeeping and instilled in him business habits, which laid much of the foundation of his future prosperity. He was also a favorite with Colonel Robert Monkton, the commander of the forces, who employed him in adjusting his books and transacting his business. In fact, at the time he appears to have been regularly employed in the service, for in a letter written by him to the Rev. Dr. Brown dated London, July 1, 1791, published in the collections of the Nova Scotia Historical Society for 1879-80, he says, “In September (1755) I was directed to proceed with a party of Provincials to the Baie Verte, then a considerable and flourishing settlement, there to await further orders, which I received the following day, to collect and send to Beausejour for embarkation, all the women and children to be found in that district and on leaving the town to force it, this painful task performed, I was afterwards employed in victualling the transports for their reception.”

As an instance of the courage and capacity of Watson, the following incident, related by Rev. Hugh Graham in a letter to Dr. Brown, dated Cornwallis, March, 1791, is of interest: “Some time after the English forces had taken possession of Fort Cumberland, and the French had retreated to the west side of the river, a number of English cattle had one day crossed the river at low water, and strolled on the French side. This was not observed on the English side till after the tide had begun to make, and then it was much queried if it might be practicable to bring them back. None went forward to make the attempt, only Watson said he would go for one, and indeed they all stood back and let him go alone. He stripped, swam over the riverside, and all got round the cattle, and was driving them towards the river, when a party of French were at his heels. One of them called out, ‘Young man, what have you to do upon the King of France’s land?’ To which Watson replied, that ‘His present concern was neither with the King of France, nor about his land, but he meant to take care of the English cattle.’ This little feat of Watson was talked of with a good deal of pleasantry on both sides, and gained him not a little credit.”

In an obituary notice which appeared in the Gentleman’s Magazine of October, 1807, it is mentioned that he was at the siege of Louisburg with the immortal Wolfe in 1758. I can find no other record of his services in this connection, but presume that he was still employed with his friend and patron, Colonel Winslow.

About this time (1758) he entered into partnership with Mr. Joseph Slayter of Halifax, N.S., a grand uncle of Dr. W.B. Slayter. Slayter was to manage the Halifax, and Watson the Cumberland branch of the business. In 1759, Watson removed to London, and the business was continued until the death of Mr. Slayter, the senior partner, 20 May, 1763. He next became connected with Mr. Mauger, who had been a resident of Halifax, and whose name is commemorated, in “Mauger’s Beach” in Nova Scotia and “Maugerville” in New Brunswick. He was a gentleman of property and made large advances to Watson. They went into partnership and did a large business in the North American trade.

In 1760, Brook Watson married Helen, daughter of Colin Campbell of Edinburgh. In spite of his crippled condition from the loss of his leg, his life in England was an active one. He was among the first of those gentlemen who, in 1779, formed the Light Horse Volunteers, who were of great assistance in suppressing the alarming riots in 1780.

In 1781 he was appointed commissary general in the army of North America, under the command of Sir Guy Carleton, and remained in that duty till the end of the war.

I have previously mentioned the esteem in which he was held by the Loyalists. In the following extract from a letter written by him to the Rev. Dr. Brown in July 1791, he modestly alludes to the friendly services he was able to do for them at the conclusion of the war:—

In 1755, I was a very humble instrument in sending eighteen hundred of those suffering mortals (French Acadians) out of the Province. In 1783, as Commissary General to the army serving in North America, it became my duty under the command of Sir Guy Carleton, now Lord Dorchester, to embark thirty-five thousand Loyalists at New York to take shelter in it, and I trust all in my power was done to soften the affliction of the Acadians, and alleviate the sufferings of the Loyalists, who were so severely treated for endeavoring to support the Union of the British Empire; they had great reason to bless the considerate mind and feeling heart of Lord Dorchester, under whose directions and providential care, ever awake to their wants, I had the pleasing task of liberally providing for them everything necessary to their transportation and settlement, with provisions for one year after their arrival, and this allowance was still longer continued to them by the public. To the eternal honour of the nation will be the record of their having considered the particular case of every individual who claims to have suffered by their loyalty, and after a ruinous war which added one hundred and twenty millions to the public debt, granted compensation for their losses, and relief for their sufferings to the amount of between three or four millions, besides annuities amounting to sixty thousand pounds a year.

After the war, many Loyalists who came to St. John had claims against the British government for heavy losses in lands and goods by reason of their adherence to the crown, and from their knowledge of the business abilities and honesty of character of Watson, they put their claims in his hands for settlement. The officers of the Colonial army, who ranked with those in the Imperial service, were placed on half pay, and made him their agent for recovering their allowance. As an instance, I may mention the case of Christopher Sower, king’s printer for New Brunswick. At the close of the war he went to London to get compensation for his losses. He sought the aid of Brook Watson, who in addition to an allowance in money, procured for him a pension with the office of deputy postmaster general and king’s printer of New Brunswick. In gratitude for the assistance rendered he named his only son Brook Watson Sower.

At the meeting of the legislature of New Brunswick in 1786, Brook Watson was appointed agent for the province, a position he held until 1794. At the session of that year the following resolution was passed:—“Resolved, This House taking into consideration the necessity of having an agent residing in England, and His Majesty’s service having required the attendance of Brook Watson, Esq., late Member of Parliament and Agent of the Province, with his Majesty’s forces on the Continent, Resolved, that the thanks of this House be communicated to Brook Watson, late Agent of this Province for his past services.”

On his return to England at the conclusion of peace, he was rewarded by parliament by a grant of £500 a year to his wife. In January, 1784, he was elected member of parliament for the city of London, and on the dissolution was re-elected. About the same period he was made a director of the Bank of England, and an alderman for Cordwainers ward. In 1785, he was sheriff of London and Middlesex and had the honor of being chairman of the committee of the House of Commons during the debate on the Regency bill. He was again elected to Parliament in 1790, but resigned his seat on being appointed commissary general to the army on the Continent, under the command of the Duke of York. In 1796 he retired from the service, and was elected lord mayor of London. During his term of office two serious events occurred, the sailors of the Royal Navy mutinied, and the Bank of England (of which he was a director) was restrained from making specie payments. In March 1798, he was commissioned commissary general of England, and in November, 1803, in approbation of his public services he was created a baronet of the United Kingdom. The baronetcy was conferred on Watson, with remainder in default of male issue to his grand nephews William and Brook Kay, sons of his niece Anne Webber by her husband William Kay, of Montreal. These grand nephews were born in Montreal, William in 1777, and Brook in 1780. William succeeded to the baronetcy on the death of his uncle in 1807, and died unmarried in 1850. He was succeeded by his brother Brook, who died in 1866, whose son Brook is the fourth baronet. He was born in 1820, is married but has no children. His half brother William is heir presumptive.

Brook Watson died at East Sheer, in Surrey, October 2, 1809, leaving no children. An obituary of him gives the following description of his character. “He was through life to his king and country a constitutional loyal subject; a diligent, faithful servant; a firm merciful and upright magistrate; to his wife a most affectionate and tender husband; to his relations a kind and tender friend, to his friendships consistent; in faith a firm Christian; in deeds a benevolent, honest man.”

Clarence Ward


Written by johnwood1946

April 8, 2015 at 8:40 AM

Posted in Uncategorized

One Response

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  1. Thank you for your informative bio of Brook Watson. I knew about him earlier, but not as much detail. As you mention Christopher Sower named his son after Brook Watson. This naming of Brook became a tradition in the Sower family and continues to this day. I am a descendent and my middle name is Brook, as was my father’s first name. My father’s grandmother was a Sower, who was a daughter of Brook Watson Sower Jr.

    Peter Brook Tomlinson

    May 26, 2015 at 11:35 PM

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