William Dawson Lawrence, 1817 – 1886

Nova Scotia Museum Marine History Collection MP400.87.1

Thinking Big

The 19th century in Nova Scotia was a time of legendary shipbuilders. Around the province, they conceived and constructed hundreds of wooden ships — and no one was better at the trade than Maitland-based W. D. Lawrence.

Lawrence was born in Ireland, but came to Nova Scotia as an infant when his parents moved to Hants County. He was educated by his mother and then attended a school in Five Mile River. Then, like thousands of others during that era, he was drawn to building ships. He started out as an apprentice in Dartmouth shipyards, designing his first ship for an employer in 1849. It was not long, however, before Lawrence began to design, build and operate ships for himself and his partners. Those ships were usually destined not for coastal trade but for deep sea voyages, carrying cargoes anywhere in the world. That trade and the eventual sale of the vessels made W. D. Lawrence a wealthy man.

In addition to the world of ships and commerce, Lawrence was a justice of the peace and had a career in politics. He was elected to the provincial assembly in 1863 as an advocate of free public education and broadening the vote to include all males, not just property owners. When the idea of Confederation came along, he was adamantly opposed.

In 1874, Lawrence oversaw the construction of the William D. Lawrence (2,459 tons; 262 feet long), the largest wooden ship ever built in the Maritimes. It was one of the largest square-rigged vessels in the world. Building it was costly, but Lawrence recouped the investment and made great profits from the ship over time, and more when he sold it in 1883.

Lawrence also found time to write. He published an eyewitness account of his great ship's initial three-year voyage to exotic ports and wrote articles, often on moral issues, for provincial papers.