Local and Atlantic Sociability: Military Engineer William Booth

Bonnie Huskins

William Booth, an 18th-century British military engineer, was a citizen of the Atlantic World.[1] He was posted to various locations throughout the British Empire, beginning in Gibraltar in 1774, where he was eventually promoted to Director of the Mines. He was sent home during the Great Siege (1779-83) due to shell shock, but was then posted to Halifax, Nova Scotia, in 1785. There he served as Acting Commander of Engineers until a year later, when he was posted further down the Nova Scotia coast at Shelburne. Booth languished in Shelburne until December 1789, when he obtained leave to return home “due to a domestic loss.” (In fact he had lost his 39-year old wife Hannah (née Proudfoot) to tuberculosis). In 1790, Booth was ordered to Chatham, where he was second in command, then proceeded to Sheerness, Plymouth, and finally to Jersey (Channel Islands) where he worked on Napoleonic fortifications. Two milestones occurred for Booth in 1800: he was promoted to Lieutenant-Colonel; and was superannuated to the Royal Invalid Engineers. Twenty-six years later he died in Bristol at the age of 78 years, with his second wife, Sarah (nèe Porter) at his side.

William Booth Journal Société Jersiaise, Lord Coutanche Library

William Booth Journal
Société Jersiaise, Lord Coutanche Library

Booth left behind traces of his life, including drawings and paintings (he was a talented artist), military and genealogical records, and at least two personal journals. Barry Cahill contends that the journal kept during Booth’s Shelburne posting is “among the most substantial and important but least known and least consulted documents of Loyalist Nova Scotia.”[2] I have also consulted the journal written by Booth while posted to Jersey in 1799-1800. Comparing both journals provides valuable insights into two inter-related themes which inform much of my current research: the significance of sociability and social sets; and the relationship between the local and the global. I define social sets as “collections of intersecting and overlapping social circles” comprised of those with whom one normally socializes. Colonial historian Bradford Wood argues that these social sets were essential to social and material survival in the colonial era.[3] The social sets formed by Booth in Shelburne and Jersey provide some tentative conclusions about the fit between the local and the global in the 18th century Atlantic World.

Due to Booth’s tendency to board in town rather than in the barracks, he formed a series of close relationships with locals in his various postings. Indeed, it is largely due to the persistent efforts of Booth’s friends in Shelburne that he recovered from the trauma of losing his wife, as well as a bout of ill health. One of his social sets in Shelburne revolved around an elderly Loyalist physician named George Drummond, who had tended to Hannah while she was ill. Through Drummond, Booth was introduced to a range of men in Shelburne with whom he dined, drank, conversed and played cards. Booth’s other social set revolved around his landlady, Loyalist Jane Holderness, and her children and acquaintances. Holderness often sent him food when he was ill, and soon they developed a close relationship, often meeting to have tea and gossip. Almost every day, either Jane Holderness and her children, or Dr. Drummond and his male friends would visit Booth after Hannah’s death, invite him to dinner, take tea, drink claret, smoke, talk about books, exchange books, go for constitutionals, or play backgammon. I think we may safely call these instances of grassroots sociability a vital form of social support in colonial era.[4]

During Hannah’s illness and subsequent passing, neither Booth nor Hannah were able to turn to their kin for support, for they were scattered throughout the Atlantic World. Indeed, all that Booth could manage in the immediate aftermath of Hannah’s passing was to scribble off a short note to her brothers in London and Grenada, Edmund and Samuel Proudfoot, as the vessel which carried the mails to Halifax was leaving immediately: “The grief I labor under at this moment in the loss of your dear Sister [is such] that I must drop My pen saying only that she died of a nervous fever – Sunday 22nd: inst.” Booth later wrote longer letters to his brothers-in-law, detailing the circumstances of their sister’s death, but he was not to receive many comforting letters in return, as Shelburne harbor froze over during the winter of 1789, and few vessels were able to get through.

In Booth’s Jersey journal, we see the formation of another series of local social sets. As in Shelburne, Booth boarded in town (St. Helier), so he formed a close relationship with his landlord, a mason named William Thacker. He also supped with the island’s most prominent residents, including the “Duc de Bouillon” (Philippe d’Auvergne, a naval officer and heir to the Duchy of Bouillon in Luxembourg), and Madame de la Trinitė and her daughters at a seigneurie in Jersey called Trinity Manor. But there are differences in the nature of Booth’s social sets in Jersey compared to Shelburne. On Jersey, Booth formed a social set which was simultaneously local and transnational, comprised of military officers, many of whom he knew from previous encounters. He regularly socialized with these officers in “The Club” which met periodically at Mitchell’s Hotel in St. Helier to sup, drink, and play cards.[5]

The social sets in Jersey and Shelburne were self-contained and seldom overlapped. Drummond’s social set in Shelburne rarely overlapped with that of Holderness, and the Shelburne social sets rarely overlapped with those in Jersey. Indeed, Booth made few references to his Shelburne acquaintances while in Jersey. Perhaps this is because these social sets were products of the immediacy of the local, and were animated by a form of everyday sociability. They seemed to be most significant in times of immediate need. While Atlantic World historians have quite rightly tended to focus on the transnational parameters of the early modern period, this is a reminder not to overlook the significance of the local in certain contexts. As Bradley Wood has articulated: “external contacts and associations could never fully transcend the continuing, concrete, and far more frequent experiences of social interaction within more confined geographical parameters.”[6]

Another of Booth’s transatlantic social sets (besides the military officers) included his in-laws, the Proudfoot family, who were prominent merchants in London, and had a slavery plantation in Grenada. Booth invested in mercantile enterprises with his brothers-in-law, and his wife owned two female domestics from their plantation when posted in Shelburne. These transatlantic social sets were not animated by the same sense of immediacy as the local social sets. Indeed, it often seemed as if they were held together through the power of correspondence, which we know was the case for many immigrant families in this period.[7] Yet these transatlantic social sets were more long-lasting at the end of the day.

Perhaps this provides some insight into the fit between the local and transatlantic for well-travelled citizens of the Atlantic World like William Booth: local social sets provided immediate support, yet were oft-times short-lived, whereas transatlantic sets were scattered and often times remote, yet provided a sense of connectedness not only over space but time.

Bonnie Huskins teaches Canadian and American history at the University of New Brunswick and St. Thomas University. She studies the local history of Atlantic Canada within the context of a wider web of Atlantic World connections and comparisons. She is also the Loyalist Studies Coordinator at UNB.

[1] This phrase is adapted from David Hancock’s classic monograph, Citizen of the World: London Merchants and the Integration of the British Atlantic Community, 1735-1785 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1995).

[2] Barry Cahill, “Preface,” in William Booth, Remarks and Rough Memorandums: Captain William Booth, Corps of Royal Engineers, Shelburne, Nova Scotia 1787, 1789, edited and annotated by Eleanor Robertson Smith (Shelburne: Shelburne County Archives and Genealogical Society, 2008), V-VII.

[3] Bonnie Huskins, “`Remarks and Rough Memorandums’: Social Sets, Sociability, and Community in the Journal of William Booth, Shelburne, 1787 and 1789,” Journal of the Royal Nova Scotia Historical Society, Vol. 13 (2010), 105; Bradford J. Wood, “‘For Want of a Social Set’: Networks and Social Interaction in the Lower Cape Fear Region of North Carolina, 1725–1775,” Robert Olwell and Alan Tully, eds., Cultures and Identities in Colonial British America (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2006), 45–69, 325–328.

[4] For my interpretation of Booth’s time in Shelburne, see Huskins, “‘Remarks and Rough Memorandums.’ The original journal is housed in the Esther Clark Wright Archives at Acadia University, Wolfville, Nova Scotia.

[5] The original journal is housed in the Lord Coutanche Library, at the Société Jersiaise building in St. Helier, Jersey,  reference PEO/1/BOO.

[6] Wood, 47.

[7] E. Jane Errington, “Webs of Affection and Obligation: a Glimpse into Families and Nineteenth-Century Transatlantic Communities,” Journal of the Canadian Historical Association, ns, 19 (2008), pp. 1–26; Greg Stott, “The Persistence of Family: A Study of a Nineteenth-Century Canadian Family and Their Correspondence,” Journal of Family History, 31 (2006), pp. 190–207.

Image: William Booth, A Black Wood Cutter at Shelburne, Nova Scotia. Library and Archives Canada, Acc. No. 1970-188-1090 W.H. Coverdale Collection of Canadiana. Used with permission.

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