Judge Mather Byles DesBrisay (1828-1900)

A Man of Many Hats – Judge, Lawyer, Insurance Agent, Coroner, Politician, and Historian

Mather Byles DesBrisay is probably better known as a historian than a judge or politician. His essay on the “History of the County of Lunenburg” is still consulted by historians and families wanting to know more about the region's rich history. Most importantly, he is the founder of the DesBrisay Museum in Bridgewater.

Mather Byles DesBrisay was born in Chester, Lunenburg County, on March 19, 1828 to Lucretia Woodward and Thomas Belcher DesBrisay, M.D. He studied law at Dalhousie University and was admitted to the bar in 1851, practicing his profession in Halifax and Chester. Mather DesBrisay eventually moved to Bridgewater to set up his law practice. That is where the story of the DesBrisay Museum begins…

In 1860, DesBrisay had begun collecting curiosities. Unfortunately, most of his small collection was destroyed by fire in the boarding house in which he lived. DesBrisay started to rebuild, adding to the few salvaged artifacts, and eventually assembled another collection in his residence called “Ivy Banks" at 55 Pleasant Street. DesBrisay and his wife Ada (Harley) DesBrisay (1840-1925) welcomed visitors to view his growing collection. He would routinely stop by the Bridgewater marine wharf to see what he might trade or add to his collection. In 1880, a school teacher wrote to Judge DesBrisay thanking him for the courtesies extended to her class during a visitation to his Museum. This letter sets the founding year of DesBrisay's museum.

DesBrisay delved into politics in 1863 and served as Coroner, speaker of the assembly, Liberal M.L.A., and County Court Judge for Lunenburg, Queens, and Shelburne Counties. Known as “the Judge,” DesBrisay was a well-known figure on Bridgewater streets and enjoyed a wide acquaintance in and out of the county. In his obituary, he was described as “of a sympathetic and kindly disposition, philanthropically inclined, and a great lover of domesticity. He always manifested a vigorous interest in everything which had for its object the advancement and welfare of this town." 

Judge DesBrisay died on April 8, 1900. It was noted in the local newspaper that “the Judge owned the finest private museum in the province and probably in the Dominion.” The Judge’s funeral procession included school children in recognition of the great interest he had taken in the public schools.

Following his death, Mrs. DesBrisay sold the Judge’s collection to Mayor E.D. Davison Jr. (1845-1902) (son of E.D. Davison, the Lumber King), who presented it to the Town of Bridgewater in 1901. The collection was then moved from the DesBrisay residence across the street to the Court House at 80 Pleasant Street, and placed under the care of William E. Marshall, L.L.B. (1859-1923), Bridgewater’s town clerk.

In 1938, the need for extra space at the Court House made it necessary to move the collection elsewhere. Volunteers with the Women's Institute of Bridgewater thus took over as caretakers of the collection, housing it on the second floor of the building they occupied on King Street behind the Court House. In 1961 when the Women’s Institute building was condemned and dismantled, the museum collection was moved into storage at Acadia Gas Engine's warehouses in Bridgewater at south King Street (now the Shipyards Landing). The collection remained there until 1966 when it made the final move to Bridgewater's completed Centennial Project on Jubilee Road.

DesBrisay Museum is a community museum whose mission is to celebrate our community’s heritage, arts, and culture through research, preservation, interpretation, and exhibitions. The museum is open year-round to visitors from all over the world and is governed by a Commission of the Town of Bridgewater and managed by staff and volunteers.



DesBrisay Museum, 130 Jubilee Road, Bridgewater, NS