Sir Samuel Leonard Tilley was born on 8th May 1818, in the parlour bedroom of the quaint house now known as the Tilley House, located in Gagetown. The house was initially purchased by his great-grandparents, Samuel and Elizabeth Tilley, from the local physician Dr. John Frederick Augustus Stickles, around 1805.
When Samuel Tilley passed away in 1814, ownership of the house transferred to his grandson, Thomas Morgan Tilley, who married Susan Ann Hunt Peters on 5th April 1817. Immediately after moving in, the young couple began extending the original structure, completing renovations just in time for the birth of their first child, Samuel Leonard Tilley, in May 1818.
Thomas Tilley, a proficient carpenter and storekeeper in Gagetown, along with Susan, had eight children, of which their eldest, Samuel Leonard Tilley, remains the most renowned. Samuel received his education at the Madras School in Gagetown, leading a typical life for the time. Although no images of a young Thomas or Susan Tilley exist, a portrait of their eldest children, Samuel Leonard Tilley and his sister Elizabeth, was painted by local artist Thomas MacDonald in the late 1820s. The portrait of Samuel Leonard Tilley, a unique artifact, is the earliest known image of a Father of Confederation.
Samuel Leonard Tilley began to apprentice as a pharmacist in a Saint John drugstore when he was 13 years old. In 1838, he became a certified pharmacist and opened Peters and Tilley “Cheap Drug Store!” with his cousin Thomas W. Peters that same year. In 1848, Peters retired and Tilley ran the business as “Tilley’s Drug Store” until 1860 when he sold the pharmacy due to the demands of his political career.
On May 6, 1843, Samuel Leonard Tilley married Julia Ann Hanford from Portland, Saint John. A daguerreotype from the late 1840s captures the couple during their early years of marriage.
By 1850, Tilley had reached the zenith of his business career. He was well-off, had a growing family, and had deep-rooted connections in Saint John and Queens County. He could have easily led a contented life, but his personal beliefs, sense of duty, and circumstances were soon to steer his life in a different direction.
With the daily influx of ships from around the globe, carrying goods and people from distant lands, New Brunswick and its residents were exposed to a world beyond their shores. The prosperity brought about by the shipping and shipbuilding industries turned the region into one of the wealthiest centres in North America and the most prosperous area of British North America. Given the thriving nature of Tilley’s business, it is likely that he and his family enjoyed the benefits of a cosmopolitan society.
Yet, from early on, Samuel Leonard Tilley displayed a more serious side. Guided by his Loyalist ancestry, he felt an obligation to serve his fellow citizens, engaging in local activities including teaching Sunday school.
In 1844, spurred by his religious convictions, Tilley joined the committee of the Portland Total Abstinence Society, advocating for legislation enforcing prohibition. A tragic story recounts how he happened to be nearby when a young girl ran to seek help following a brutal murder in the city, a crime fuelled by alcohol. This girl’s cries reportedly haunted Tilley for the rest of his life. When the American Sons of Temperance organization set up a chapter in New Brunswick, Tilley was quick to lend his support. He was not a vehement activist for prohibition; instead, he campaigned with reason and calmness, convincing many to join his cause through logic rather than fervour.
Over time, Samuel Leonard Tilley found his footing in politics. As part of a new generation that dared to challenge the traditional Loyalist stance of strict obedience to higher political authorities, Tilley pushed for democratic reforms. His goal was to grant more control over provincial matters to New Brunswick and its elected officials.
From that point onward, Samuel Leonard Tilley held a series of political positions: he served as Provincial Secretary, Premier, and delegate to the Confederation Conferences, earning his title as a Father of Confederation. He was a federal cabinet minister, including a term as Finance Minister, and notably, he was the only individual to serve twice as Lieutenant Governor. In recognition of his contributions to Canada and the Empire, Queen Victoria knighted him in 1879.
Despite being a reformer who broke away from Loyalist political traditions, Sir Samuel Leonard Tilley was undeniably shaped by his heritage: he had a strong social conscience, a deep sense of duty and public service, a profound belief in God and the moral guidance of the church, and unwavering loyalty to the Queen and the country. His legacy and that of the Loyalists continues to shape our political, economic, and cultural establishment through individuals inspired by his work down to the present day.
Sir Samuel Leonard Tilley died of blood poisoning in 1896 after accidentally cutting his foot at his summer home in Rothesay.
Samuel Tilley was instrumental in ensuring that New Brunswick became one of Canada’s first four provinces in 1867. The national holiday commemorating Confederation on 1 July was known as Dominion Day from 1867 to 1982, when the holiday became Canada Day.
The University of New Brunswick paid tribute to Sir Leonard by naming Tilley Hall in his honour. The ceremony to lay the cornerstone was held on May 16, 1967, led by Mrs. H.P. MacKeen, the granddaughter of Sir Samuel Leonard Tilley. The building was officially inaugurated in May 1967. Construction of a five-story extension began in November 1969, creating additional space for the Mathematics department as well as the Romance Languages department.
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