Born in 1753 at Castleton, County Cork, Ireland, Richard John Uniacke enjoyed the wealthy life of the landed gentry. At 16, Uniacke was articled to a Dublin attorney, and his career path was set. However, after a quarrel with his father, he fled Ireland at age 20 and arrived in Philadelphia in 1774.There he met Moses Delesdernier, a Swiss-born resident of Nova Scotia seeking settlers for lands on the Bay of Fundy. Uniacke accepted Delesdernier’s invitation to come to Nova Scotia to work for him. At age 21, Uniacke married Delesdernier’s 12-year-old daughter, Martha Maria.
Late in 1776, Fort Cumberland, near present-day Amherst, was unsuccessfully attacked by a force of American Revolutionary sympathizers from Maine during the “Cumberland Rebellion.” Uniacke was involved in trade in the area and was arrested on suspicion of treason. He was taken to Halifax as a prisoner, however, the charge against him was later dropped. Shortly after, Uniacke returned to Ireland to complete his legal training.
He returned to Nova Scotia in 1781 and was appointed Solicitor General. The following year, Uniacke was elected to the Nova Scotia House of Assembly. Later, he became the Speaker of the House and gained a reputation for his eloquence and quick wit. His private law practice flourished and made Uniacke a wealthy man. His appointment as Advocate General in the Nova Scotia Vice-Admiralty Court increased his fortune and stature.
Uniacke was able to use his wealth to educate his 12 children. He also directed much of his fortune to the construction and maintenance of his home in Halifax and his country estate at Mount Uniacke. Completed by 1815, the 11,000 acre estate was a symbol of Uniacke’s success in the New World.
He died in his bed at Mount Uniacke in 1830 after a long career as a lawyer and politician. He had served as Attorney General from 1797, with 49 of his 77 years devoted to public service in Nova Scotia.
Richard John had twelve children, eleven with his first wife, Martha Maria, who died in 1803 at the age of 40. In 1808, Uniacke married Eliza Newton, daughter of a British military officer, and the couple had one son. According to one Uniacke biography, Uniacke and his six sons shared an impressive physical stature–each standing over six feet tall. In their lifetimes, a number of Uniacke’s sons followed his career path in public service, occasionally gaining notoriety along the way. Uniacke’s third son Richard John became a well-known lawyer, politician, office holder and judge in the province. Perhaps this son’s largest claim to fame, however, was that he fought against William Bowie in the last duel in Nova Scotia in 1819.
Son Norman Fitzgerald was educated as a lawyer, only the second Nova Scotian to be admitted to the English Bar. Throughout his lifetime, he played an active role in Nova Scotian politics and governance, serving as militia officer, lawyer, office holder, politician and judge. Son James Boyle Uniacke entered politics in 1830 when he was elected to the House of Assembly for Cape Breton County. He lead the first responsible government in Canada when he became the first Premier of Nova Scotia (1848-1854), serving concurrently as the colony’s Attorney-General.
A missionary at heart, son Robert Fitzgerald grew up to be an evangelical clergyman of the Church of England and a social activist. A devoted and well-loved parish pastor, Uniacke was responsible for the construction of numerous churches in the province during his lifetime, including one near Uniacke Estate in Lakeland. Committed to education for all, he established elementary schools open to poor children of all religious persuasions.
Although at least two of his daughters would return to Uniacke House to live with their father, they first travelled extensively and lived the furthest away from home in: Scotland, Ireland, Italy and the Greek island of Corfu. Daughter Anne Margaret, married a captain with a British Rifle Regiment, and spent the rest of her life in Ireland, ancestral home to the Uniackes. Uniacke made at least one voyage back to Ireland to assist his daughter with financial matters, and visit other Uniacke family members while having a family genealogy drawn up.
His oldest daughter Mary, also married into the military, becoming wife to the Commander in Chief of the Royal Naval Fleet in Halifax, and gained the title of Lady Mary Mitchell. She was married in a triple ceremony with her sister and brother on their parent’s 30th wedding anniversary. Mary was widowed early in her marriage when she was pregnant with their first child. She and her daughter Maria, returned to live at Uniacke House in 1825.
Uniacke’s fifth child, Alicia, was immortalized in a painting by American portrait artist, Robert Field. Her portrait still hangs in the house at Mt. Uniacke. Alicia married a man from Scotland and they moved back to his estate and had four children. It is recorded that she died in Rome at the age of 51.
Eleanor Rebecca married an Inspector General of military hospitals and it is recorded that she lived on the Greek island of Corfu where she died in 1849. She was 59.
Built as a summer home for Richard John Uniacke, a Nova Scotian Attorney-General, the estate was prominently located along the stage coach route from Halifax to Windsor, a testimony to Uniacke’s wealth and personal achievement.
The family summered in the area as early as the 1790s, probably staying in a farmhouse on the original land grant. Construction of the new house and out-buildings began in 1813 and was completed three years later. Although he maintained a house in Halifax, Uniacke would spend most of his time living in semi-retirement at the estate until his death in 1830.
Nostalgic for his native Ireland, he modeled his property after the Irish country estates, or working farms, he had known as a child. His estate included a large family home, a number of barns, a coach house, guest house, wash house, baths, privy, hot house, caretaker’s house and an ice house.
Most of the outbuildings were clustered near the main house and the barn, with the hot house in the nearby orchard, and the boat house placed at the end of a well-placed allée of trees extending from the house to the lake. Standing on the impressive portico, one could view stage coaches en route from Halifax and the sweeping vista encompassing Lake Martha and Norman Lake, with tranquil fields in the distance and an expansive garden in front of the house.
Uniacke was a gentleman farmer at heart and devoted himself to clearing and improving woodlands and wetlands, experimenting with composting materials and methods, and growing a variety of agricultural and horticultural crops. He also kept horses, cattle, sheep, pigs and poultry. He was interested in the latest agricultural methods and spent his last years as a country gentleman improving his land and growing exotic plants in his hothouse. Late in life, he planted acorns he carried back from Ireland. Today, visitors can still see some of the mighty oaks he planted.
The fields and pastures may have been fenced, but, as the land was improved, hedges were planted and roads and open fields were edged with dry-stone walls and lined with trees. Trees were also used to form gateways, and planted in the fields to add to the picturesque beauty of the place. The brook was improved with stone walls and willow plantings.
Stone walls have been discovered in what is now forest, evidence that many of the 100 acres cleared for Uniacke have since returned to the wild. His efforts to create a self-supporting estate were not successful due to the unsuitability of the land for farming, but the house remained a popular summer getaway for the family for generations.
The grounds of Uniacke’s estate were designed in the English Landscape Garden style which was popular in the early 1800s. A key feature of this style was a long, uninterrupted view, or vista, and the one at Uniacke’s estate was unrivaled in its day.
Sheep, grazing in the distance, contributed to the idyllic scenery one could admire from the portico of the grand house. To contain the sheep and keep them from wandering onto the lawns, Uniacke constructed a natural-looking barrier called a haha wall–rather than building a fence–to avoid obstructing the panoramic view. Visitors to Uniacke Estate can still view this haha wall, one of only two known to remain in Canada.