Category Archives: Upper Canadian history

‘Muddy York Mud: Scandal and Scurrility in Upper Canada’ by Chris Raible


1992,  272 pages including appendix.

I came across this book just as I was about to go to Canada in 2011 to research the Upper Canada period of ‘my’ Judge Willis‘ career.  I began reading it and became increasingly excited that it captures the small-town, censorious attitude of a small Canadian outpost of Britishness in the 1820s so well. No wonder an English judge, full of his own importance, fell foul of this intermarried web of government officials!  But then there were bags to pack and planes to catch, and I didn’t finish it. I’ve just returned to reading it, some three years later, and almost at the end of my first draft instead of dabbling around in the shallows of my early research.   On this second and now completed reading, it doesn’t so much open up new areas (thank goodness, I must say), but it does confirm and add colour to the context of 1820s York (Toronto) in a highly readable and informed manner.

The central event of this book is what has come to be known as the Types Riot.  Late on the summer afternoon of 8 June 1826, when the editor of the Colonial Advocate newspaper was away, nine young  ‘gentlemen’ smashed their way into the newspaper office, emptied the type cases from their cabinets, strewed fully made-up printing frames across the office, then carried type cases across the road, along the wharf,  and threw them into the bay.  They were not drunk; they made no attempt to disguise themselves and they were watched without intervention by several bystanders, including two magistrates.

The argument of this book is that there is a direct link between the Types Riot and a series of satirical articles published some weeks earlier  in the Colonial Advocate known collectively as the Patrick Swift commentaries.  These articles, published at very great length over several issues, were a fictitious report entitled ‘A faithful account of the proceedings at a general meeting of the contributors to the Advocate, held in Macdonnell’s Parlour on the evening of Monday, May 1st 1826’.  These ‘contributors’ were ostensibly gathered to select a new editor for the Advocate as, supposedly, the present editor, William Lyon Mackenzie, had resigned.  ‘Patrick Swift’, [described as “a grand nephew of the famous Doctor Johnathan Swift, Dean of St Patrick’s in Dublin” and the author of Gulliver’s Travels]  was selected. The ‘report’ described the debate and ribald comments of this drunken group of fictional characters.

In this way, ventriloquizing through the fictional ‘Patrick Swift’, the real-life editor of the Colonial Advocate, William Lyon Mackenzie launched on a tirade against the pretences of the Upper Canada ‘gentry’. In a thirty page, small-font appendix to the book, Raible reproduces the commentaries, annotating them to identify the victims of the humour:  judges, lawyers, the attorney general, prominent clergymen and even the lieutenant-governor and his wife.

As Raible says:

The notorious “Patrick Swift” satires, published by William Lyon Mackenzie a few weeks before the Types Riot trashing of his Colonial Advocate printshop, contained a number of explicit barbs intended to prick the over-inflated egos of the members of the little York elite.  That he succeeded, and thereby provided a group of men with socially acceptable justification for acting out their personal grievances against the outspoken editor, has been a theme throughout this book. (p. 229)

In the short chapters of this book, Raible ranges chronologically and episodically over a number of grievances and scandals that led to and flowed from the Types Riot.   It’s not an easy task: many of the events occurred in geographically disparate locations, across a long period of time. Although by themselves they are trivial  and petty, together they add up to the abuse of power by a puffed-up and mutually distrustful clique with the levers of judicial power in their grasp.

Raible keeps the tone light, with no apparent historiographical framework. There are footnotes (called ‘Sources’) and a bibliography, but you’re certainly not aware of them while reading the book. There’s a tongue-in-mouth jocularity that runs through the book, and it reflects the rambunctious/nostalgic tone of the antiquarian books that have provided much of the source material.  For Australian readers, there’s definitely a touch of the ‘Garryowens’ about it.

‘A Biography of Robert Baldwin: The Morning-Star of Memory’ by Michael S. Cross


Michael S. Cross A Biography of Robert Baldwin: The Morning Star of Memory, 2012, 367 p & notes

The first chapter of this biography begins with a jolt. It opens a month after the main protagonist’s death, with four men gathered around his corpse: his son, his brother, his brother in law and a surgeon. The surgeon cut across the abdomen to replicate a caesarean scar, and Robert Baldwin’s final wish was complete. His wife had died from long-term complications of a caesarean twenty-three years earlier, and Robert Baldwin was now to meet her in heaven bearing the same scar.

This opening chapter sets the tone for this biography, which seeks to unite the personal and emotional with the political. Australian readers are probably not familiar with Robert Baldwin, who is lauded as one of the founding fathers of self-government and who, along with Louis-Hippolyte La Fontaine, headed the Reform party in joint Anglo-Canadian governments in Canada between 1836 and 1851 . In Australia, with an overwhelmingly British 19th century population, we are not particularly alert to the nuances of an Upper Canadian politician championing the political equality of the French Lower Canadian province. It was a luxury of mono-culturalism that Canada did not share.  Conversely, our own historiographical emphasis on self-government (in, for example Peter Cochrane’s Colonial Ambition) tends to see Canada as an example to emulate as a more constitutionally-advanced sibling, rather than a fellow colony going through much the same battles with the Colonial Office within the same time frame.

Robert Baldwin was born in Upper Canada in 1804. His father, Dr. William Warren Baldwin was one of those multi-talented colonial gentlemen who combined a career as medical doctor, school teacher, attorney and politician. W.W. Baldwin was wealthy, forthright and dominant, and Robert was very much in his father’s shadow. He was admitted to the bar and was eventually elected to  the Assembly, but he was no orator, often speaking in barely a whisper.  He married his cousin Eliza, initially against the wishes of his family, and was heart-broken when she died nine years later. Even though he had chafed against his father as a son, he became very much like him with his own children: critical, cold and domineering.

The author, Michael Cross, keeps the emphasis strongly on the psychological and emotional aspects of Robert’s personality. He was a son overwhelmed by the dominant presence of his father; he was prone to depression; he loved deeply and mourned obsessively. Each chapter begins with an italicized and imagined epigraph that counts down the years since Eliza’s death.

The triumph that the first Reform government had seemed to represent was melting away. He was beset on all sides as death had gain reached out and into the family. Only in memory could he find relief. Eliza had been dead for eight years. It was April 1844 (p.158)

Or another one:

It would be prudent and fitting to stop here, now that responsible government was accomplished. Little more was needed than to fill up the great achievement with the few institutions of national culture that would complete it. How proud Eliza would be. She had been dead nearly twelve years. (p. 230)

I can see what Cross is doing here, chapter after chapter, (using Eliza as a touchstone; using Eliza’s death as a tethering-point to the chronology) but it does become rather contrived and mawkish. He makes a good case for this extended grieving for Eliza being a bedrock emotion, fundamental to Baldwin’s personality, by keeping it running throughout the narrative, rather than consigning it to an early chapter and not referring to it again. But I think I would have appreciated a widening of context here. To our eyes his obsession with Eliza’s death seems morbid and bordering on phobic. Was it? I’ve been aware of similar, disabling, obsessive grief expressed by fathers in World War I- was that a new phenomenon or was there an older tradition of overwhelming masculine grief? Was Baldwin’s grief another (albeit earlier) version of that exemplified by Queen Victoria in 1861? Or was it aberrant even at the time?

Alongside this ongoing drum-beat of Baldwin’s emotional and psychological state, Cross writes a political biography that traverses many of the big issues of 19th century Canadian history: the 1837 Rebellion, the Durham report, the Montreal Riots of 1849, Irish immigration after the famine and the rise of the Clear Grits. I must admit that most of my reading about Upper Canada has petered out at 1841 with the Act of Union that combined largely- English Upper Canada with largely-French Lower Canada, but I was able to follow the political narrative fairly easily (if uncritically).

As an Australian historian, I’m interested that in the lead up to responsible government, Baldwin was so comfortable with what we would call party politics. In Australia at the time, there was still an aversion to ‘party’ as being something disreputable and compromising.

I have the advantage, I suppose, of familiarity with both Canadian and Australian history of the time that enables me to detect the empire-wide issues that each government had to grapple with. I found myself surprised that Canada was not, as I had believed, constitutionally streets ahead of New South Wales, which still felt itself hampered by its ‘penal colony’ origins. Instead, politicians in both colonies were tussling with the same Colonial Office personnel who had far more of an empire-wide perspective than can be detected when dealing with one colony alone.

I came across Robert Baldwin in my own work through his friendship with my research interest, John Walpole Willis. Cross does not spend a great deal of time on the 1820s, which preceded Baldwin’s election to the Assembly, although Willis’ dismissal became a rallying cause to the reform-party dominated government in the early 1830s.  The chronological weaving of this book is interesting and unconventional, with the 1837 Rebellion dealt with rather cursorily at first, but referred to several times in retrospect in later chapters.

Willis did not appear to make many firm friends in his life.  In Upper Canada, his main friendships seemed to be with John Galt and Robert Baldwin,  although Willis tended to downplay his social connection with Baldwin later. Although of a similar social background and education to the ‘Family Compact’ elite, Robert’s politics put him firmly in the Reform camp, and his actions as a barrister in Willis’ courtroom during his brief tenure in Upper Canada, meant that they were both oriented towards the same political direction. I was interested to see whether there was a similarity in political beliefs between the two men beyond the convenience of a common cause at the time. There probably was. Although Baldwin was staunchly in favour of responsible government, and devoted his whole political career to its attainment, he was no democrat. He was firmly committed to British institutions and declared that he hoped to die a British subject (p. 314). Like many of the British reform politicians who had supported the 1832 Reform Bill, he found that his Upper Canadian colleagues were not content to stop at responsible government, but wanted to push further.   He wanted change, but not rapid change; he wanted popular participation but not democracy, and he wanted to preserve the best of the gentry-dominated past (p. 284).

I find myself indulging in a flight of–‘if history’. If Willis had stayed in Upper Canada, would he have gone on to voice many of the political opinions that Baldwin later did? I suspect that he would have.



Putting history in its place


Well, well, well- I’m on ITunes U! (and so are some of my fellow LaTrobe-ites who read this blog!) There’s some interesting papers there, and a video of Henry Reynolds on the History of Tasmania.

The full title of my paper is “Global Positioning Systems: Circuits of Empire Large and Small”.  It was delivered at Putting History in Its Place, a conference held at La Trobe University in September 2012.

It’s labelled as “Movement around the Imperial Network” on I-Tunes.  When I played it through I-tunes it seemed to be brutally truncated at the end, but my downloaded version ran through to the end.

‘The Galts: A Canadian Odyssey’ by H. B. Timothy

1977, 175 p.

Well, now that I’ve read a book written by John Galt about Canada, an autobiography by John Galt, and now finally this biography of him, I’ve got to admit that the biography wins hands down.  It’s set me off wondering about the relationship between autobiography and biography, especially when considering a literary figure, as John Galt is.  I can only think of two other cases where I’ve read a writer’s autobiography followed by a biography penned by another person: Janet Frames Angel at my Table trilogy  paired with Michael King’s Wrestling with the Angel, and Patrick White’s Flaws in the Glass paired with David Marr’s Patrick White: A Life.  In terms of feeling that I understood the character, the biography trumped the autobiography each time, no matter how beautifully or incisively the self-penned work was written.

Am I surprised by this? I don’t know. The autobiography of a writer, by its very nature, will be framed by the author’s own self-image and imbued with a literary sensibility and becomes  source material itself for the biographer, as well as a work in its own right.  The biographer can challenge, contextualize and interrogate the self that is portrayed by the autobiographer, bringing the questions, perspectives and judgments of the outsider in a way that the autobiographer cannot. The autobiography is undertaken at a particular time of a life not yet fully lived- not on the deathbed as a rule!- and the biographer can know things to which the autobiographer is oblivious or blind.

This biography of the author John Galt is written by a Canadian academic who brings with him the nationalist agenda of claiming Galt as part of a significant Canadian family dynasty, even though John Galt (1779-1839) spent only a small proportion of his life in Canada itself, and  he set relatively few of his books there.  As a result, the author privileges Galt’s experience with Canada as a lobbyist and Canada Company promoter and administrator over his identity as a literary figure.  I’m interested in Galt’s Canadian connection, too, so even though Galt in his autobiography sees Canada as just one thread of his life story,  I’m glad that H. B. Timothy has teased it out in this way.

One of the things that I have been grappling with in dealing with my own research interest (Justice John Walpole Willis) is cracking through the brittle, rather volatile early-Victorian masculinity that is displayed by both men, cloaked in obsequious language and intellectual self-possession.  While living in Upper Canada Willis and Galt became friends, for whatever reason, and they obviously recognized some commonality between themselves.  The autobiography, because it emerges from such a  brittle, rather volatile man, exemplifies this sensibility but it does not interrogate it.  The biography is able to do so somewhat more easily.

Then there is the knowledge of subsequent events and broader context that a latter-day biographer can bring as well: the ‘unknown unknowns’ if we want to get all Donald Rumsfeldian about it.  In this case, Timothy suggests that there was an element of set-up at play: that members of the Established Church back in England acted in the interests of Anglican Church interests in Upper Canada in engineering Galt’s financial downfall (is ‘conspired’ too strong a word?).  He explores the possibility that Maitland and the Family Compact elite had Galt under surveillance even before he set foot in Canada, and that his links with people active in politics to the embarrassment of the administration rendered him suspect from the start.  If so, there’s an element of rather touching, unwitting naivete  about the autobiography because of his unawareness of these larger political forces at work.  This rather tragic edge enhances the autobiography, rather than working to its detriment.

‘The Autobiography of John Galt’ by John Galt

1833, 2 volumes

John Galt published this autobiography in 1833, some six years before his death in 1839 at the age of sixty.  It starts off with a number of early memories: falling into the fire at his grandmother’s house and causing his cousin’s legs to be scalded by the kettle; watching lilies grow, and seeing a postcard of Niagara Falls.  In a more carefully constructed memoir, he could have used these early memories as organizing devices because illness, the Romantic view of the sublime and nature, and the settlement of immigrants in Canada emerge as major themes of his life. However, apart from a mention of Niagara Falls later in the book, he does not do so and the book trails off near the end into a vindication of his work with the Canada Company and a list of his literary, cultural and (to a lesser extent) scientific contributions.   These are prodigious, if somewhat arcane today, as his entry in the Canadian Dictionary of Biography attests.

Although he only lived in Canada for four years, it takes up a large section of his autobiography, much of which is spent explanation of his actions and the injustice of his dismissal from the Canada Company, a company established originally to purchase the Clergy Reserves dotted throughout the new Canadian frontier lands, but which swapped these lands for a huge tract of land at Lake Huron purchased for a uniform 3 shillings and sixpence per acre.   Such land companies (seen also in the Van Diemens Land Company and Australian Agricultural Company) were part of the debate over immigration, crown land, ‘wastelands’ and Wakefieldianism of the time.  This section was my main reason for reading the book, interested in Upper Canada as I am, so imagine my consternation when the version I was reading had an editor’s footnote that a number of rather boring letters about his conflict with the Governor there had been omitted because they weren’t very interesting!  However, I’ve since found another version of the autobiography, and perhaps the editor was right.

A sizeable proportion of the book is also devoted to his literary work, largely influenced by his time in Europe doing the Grand Tour, hanging out with Byron and acting like an early-nineteenth century gentleman should act.  He does describe his methodology of “theoretical history” which underpinned his writing of Bogle Corbet, whereby he fictionalized factual material.  But there’s lots of impenetrable poetry, and further sallies into the literary debates of the day, much of which eluded my understanding.  It’s very much an autobiography of the head rather than the heart, and very much a work of its time.  If, in some sort of hackneyed time machine scenario, I were to meet him today, I think I’d be rather intimidated and wary of him. I would very much be aware as L.P Hartley famously said “The past is a different country; they do things differently there.”

Availability: Available online at Google Books and Internet Archive- downloadable as epub and pdf.  How grateful I am that I’m writing my thesis now and not 20 years ago. I’d be holed up in some Rare Books Room, if indeed I was even able to locate a copy of this book here.

Read because: The friend of my thesis topic is my friend too.  Mind you, he’d be my BFF (best friend forever) if he’d been a bit more forthcoming.  As it is, I read it for slightly thesis-oriented curiosity value.

‘Bogle Corbet’ by John Galt

1833, 334 p.

You may not have heard of Bogle Corbet, or of its author the Scottish writer John Galt but he was an incredibly prolific author, celebrated in both Scotland and Canada as an important Romantic-era author who based his narratives on “theoretical history” drawn from his observations and empirical facts . Indeed, there is a whole field of “Galt Studies” with books and conferences- none of which had entered my Antipodean awareness, I must admit.   I have a particular interest in John Galt because he socialized with my research interest, Judge Willis, when they were both in Canada in 1828.  But although John Galt may have a higher profile in Canada, and especially in Guelph which he helped establish in the 1820s, he’s not exactly a household name in Australia.

Bogle Corbet  is fiction, but it is very much the sort of book that you might expect a land and emigration entrepreneur, as Galt was, to write.  It is not autobiography, but instead a distillation of the ‘typical’ immigrant experience that he observed as part of his own role, especially as it related to the Canada Company.   However, the span of his narrative works, and particularly Bogle Corbet has prompted a reappraisal of him as a transnational author, and hence important in historical and cultural studies today.

Bogle Corbet is,  I gather, amongst his many books the one  that deals most with the immigrant experience. It is a product of its time and taste, and rather forgettable.  It comes as a three-volume edition, available through the Internet Archive and, dear me, if ever a format encouraged verbosity it must have been the three-volume novel. It is a thinly-disguised immigrant tract, aimed at the gentleman settler market, and although the fictional young Bogle travelled far from his Scottish origins- London, West Indies, back to Scotland, then Canada- not much seems to happen in this book.

The historian in me enjoyed seeing the historical reality of British emigration fictionalized, but it’s not exactly riveting stuff.  Originally of Jamaican birth of Scottish planter parents, Bogle Corbet was sent back to Scotland for his education, as was the usual practice. He seemed to fall into a career as a Glasgow merchant, a very Scottish profession, and when business faltered after the Napoleonic Wars, he travelled to the West Indies to see how their contacts were faring over there.  His observations of slavery were of the time, but the language used in characterizing the negroes sits very uncomfortably today.  I don’t even want to quote from it:  it is better left submerged in this rather obscure book.  He returned to Scotland, married rather diffidently, and when his financial prospects failed to improve, he decided to emigrate to Upper Canada instead.  His status and contacts ensured that he became the leader of an emigration scheme, shifting poor Scottish labourers over to a dedicated settlement in Upper Canada, and although some were tempted to go south into America, several soon returned chastened by their experience to take up labouring jobs to raise the money to purchase their own farms eventually (in good rather Wakefieldian fashion).

There’s a rather neat little switch where his reminiscences all of a sudden burst into the present tense, and some clever meta-narrative with a couple of self-referential passages where he comments on the act of writing. But to be honest, such gems are few and far between.  I have a particular reason for reading this book, but you probably don’t and frankly, there are better ways to spend 300-odd pages.

If I haven’t discouraged you completely, you can download all three volumes at the Internet Archive or as an e-book at Google Books.

‘A Life of Propriety’ by Katherine M. J. McKenna

Katherine M.J. McKenna A Life of Propriety: Anne Murray Powell and her Family 1755-1849 , Montreal & Kingston, McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1994 , 260 p. & notes

Judges’ wives don’t tend to get much of a look-in in the judicial biographies written about their husbands. As you might expect, in such books the emphasis is on the judge and his interactions on the bench and amongst his judicial peers and government officials.  The wife and children- if they are acknowledged at all- tend to cluster off-stage in the folds of the curtains.

Not so in this book, which consciously focuses on Anna Murray Powell, the wife of  Chief Justice William Dummer Powell, of the Kings Bench Upper Canada. It was her husband’s position that gave Anna Powell her own prominence within York (Toronto) society, but I suspect that she would have been the subject of biography in any event.  The Powell family were prolific letter-writers, and more importantly, the letters were saved and now are scattered between archives in Ottawa, Toronto, Boston, New York and Washington.  Anne herself generated about 2,500 pages of letters alone, written over a span of 50 years, most particularly to her brother George Murray in New York.  These are rich letters for the social historian- full of family news and waspish commentary about York society- and they provide a solid basis for a study of Anna Powell and her family in her own right, not just as the wife of the Chief Justice.

Anna Murray Powell was born in Wells, England in 1755 to parents of a middle class background.  She emigrated at the age of 16 with her Aunt Elizabeth, who had herself emigrated to the New World at the age of thirteen and established a thriving millinery business in Boston.  On a trip back ‘home’, Aunt Elizabeth was horrified by the new ideals of middle-class female domesticity becoming popular in England, which did not sit well with her own ideas about female independence and business activity.  She did not have children of her own, and as seemed to be common at the time, ‘adopted’ her nieces and brought them back to Boston to manage her business.  What might have been a good solid business experience for a young man was greeted by Anne and her sister with reluctance and resentment.  She was mortified by working in ‘trade’ and she carried this sensitivity about her pre-marriage working life throughout her life, and indeed it may have contributed directly to the stiff-necked and inflexible ‘propriety’ that she demanded of her family, and all other York inhabitants in her social circle.

The book is divided into four parts. Part I ‘Learning and Living the Lessons of Propriety’ is largely biographical, tracing Anne’s childhood and adolescence, prolific childbearing years (nine births) and her establishment of her status within York society.  The narrative then bifurcates into a gender-based analysis of her family relations.  Part II ‘The Intersections of Male and Female Gender Roles’ examines Anne’s relationship with the men in the family: husband, brothers and sons.  Part III ‘The Transmission of Female Gender Roles’ examines education, marriage and childbirth within women’s lives in Upper Canada, and closes with a fascinating analysis of the lives of her three daughters.  Part IV ‘Conclusion’ deals with her life as widow and elderly matriarch- an aspect of women’s lives that is often dismissed in a few sentences- a life-stage which, as we (I) embark on an increasingly-lengthened old age will probably attract more historical scrutiny than it may have received in the past.

The book draws heavily on Barbara Welter’s 1966 article ‘The Cult of True Womanhood’ (American Quarterly, 18, 1966 p.151-74), a fairly dated article for such a recent book, and a choice that was questioned by several of the reviewers I have read.  McKenna cites Davidoff and Hall’s Family Fortunes, but it is the True Womanhood trope that she returns to most often.

Despite Anne’s strict insistence on ‘propriety’ and her incorporation of it into her own identity, you have to admit that her children were a bit of a disappointment.  The ‘good’ sons tended to die tragically, leaving the family with the duds.  Among her daughters, there was one ‘good’ daughter who trumped her mother in the fertility stakes, popping out ten children in an alarming succession. Another daughter remained the unmarried maiden aunt, a companion to her mother and built-in helpmate to her spawning sister.  The most fascinating chapter was that concerning the ‘unnatural’ daughter, Anne Murray Powell Junior.  It is  a very nineteenth-century take on the difficulties with parenting a wilful and troubled adolescent daughter.  The story of Anne Jnr.’s infatuation with John Beverley Robinson, the future attorney-general, has been told by other historians, but I suspect not with the sensitivity that McKenna brings to the situation.  It all ends tragically, and although the expectations and language of these unyielding 19th ‘pillars of society’ in their treatment of their daughter might not sit well with us today, the experience of parenting, loving, and losing transcends these differences.

Anne Murray Powell’s voice through her letters to her family is strong, censorious and inflexible.  Her letters are laced with a religious sentimentality which does not quite cover the snippiness, complaint and smugness that she expresses in almost the same breath.  Through the richness of the family archive, and through McKenna’s own insightful treatment, you feel as if you have been in the presence of a formidable woman.  I think I prefer her at a distance.

Sourced from : La Trobe University Library

Read because: it’s set in York at a time very close to my own research interest.



‘Family Life and Sociability in Upper and Lower Canada 1780-1870’ by Francoise Noel

2003, 384 p.

Family Life and Sociability in Upper and Lower Canada 1780-1870’ by Francoise Noel, 2003

In this case, the book’s title tells you exactly what the book is about- family life, sociability and Upper and Lower Canada.  Because my research interest is Upper Canada, and for such a limited period of time (i.e. 1827-9), I’ve tended to restrict my reading as much as I can to that small canvas. I haven’t really explored Lower Canada (i.e the French-speaking part) at all.  This book, which draws on diaries and letters as its source material, straddles both the Upper/Lower Canada divide. Its focus is  on family and social life, which are  not constrained by political borders  and so I am venturing into new geographical regions in this book!

The diaries she uses are mainly general records of daily activities, including visits received and made, family and community events, daily work and weather.  They are the sort of diaries that often pass off the details under the terse phrase “the usual”.  There’s not a lot of introspection in them, and they focus more on the social than the individual.

For the individual focus, she turns to family correspondence, which became increasingly important in the 19th century as part of the rise of the middle class, heightened in the case of Canada by the waves of migration and distance.  Letters were the key to maintaining family links, exercising patronage and sharing family culture and information.  Again, they were not necessarily personal confidences, as they were often handed around the family.  Although she did not consciously limit the study to any one social group, the nature of the sources resulted in a bias towards writers with more education and the ability to write.  She also draws upon portraits of the period, but this too leans towards those with the wealth to either encourage drawing and sketching within the family, or to commission portraits commercially.

The book is organized in three parts.  Part I, ‘The Couple’ takes a chronological life-stage approach, starting with courtship and engagement, moving to marriage, housekeeping and married life.  Part II ‘Parents and Children’ traces childbirth and infancy, childhood, and parent/child relationships as children approached adulthood and started the cycle again.  In this regard, the book reminded me of Amanda Vickery’s  Behind Closed Doors: At Home in Georgian England.   Noel  highlights those aspects which reflect specifically Canadian conditions: the ready availability of land for all children which influenced English hereditary patterns more tailored towards preserving a limited estate for the eldest son;  the shortage of women; the frequent absence of husbands; and distinctions between English advice literature on childrearing appearing in the newspapers and the ‘Republican Motherhood’ ideal being promulgated in the nearby American states.

Part III departs from the focus on the immediate family and moves into ‘Kinship and the Community’.  One of the most striking impressions she noted was the wide extent of social networks over great geographical areas.  As she says:

The social networks that supported individuals and families were composed of [these] overlapping categories of friends, neighbours and kin, and to focus exclusively on any one would make us lose sight of the complexity and extent of these networks. (p. 132)

The degree of socializing is startling- constant coming and going, visiting, staying over for weeks and months. New Year was particularly important- more so than Christmas- and social activity focused on the Jan-Feb winter season.  It is strange to my Antipodean sensibility to think that you would deliberately choose to socialize during the coldest, most snow-bound  time of the year, and that snow made transport easier through sledding across a smooth surface rather than more difficult along unmade roads.  Otherwise, though, social life amongst the elite seems fairly similar to that in Australian colonies – subscription balls, governors balls, picnics, fairs, horse racing, sermons.  But the extended family was central to this sociability, and in this, I suspect, Australia and Canada differed, at least in the early years of Australian free settlement. Siblings might travel out to the Australian  colonies in pairs, or one by one to join their family already here, but networks of cousins, aunts and uncles developed gradually. The injection of single-male travel to Australia through the pastoral industry and later the gold rush deferred the highly complex integrated family pattern found in Canada for some decades.There are extended families In Australia of course, but in comparing 1840s Canada and 1840s Australia, family connections and sociability seem much stronger in the former.

The author is largely content to let the writers speak in their own words, and there is not a great deal of theorizing in this book. I was interested in this book to see how Noel would deal with her informants.  She introduces the main ‘characters’ early in the introductory chapters, especially in establishing their identity as discrete families with their own family trajectory, interspersed generously with portraits then and there (rather than saving up for an insert later in the book).  It surprised me a little that in the closing chapters she seemed to backfill on the Papineau family in particular, who to my reading, seemed very well established earlier in the book.   For other, smaller family groupings, I found myself wondering “Hold on? Have I met this person before?”  A very good index, which not only listed the family, but also life-stage details (e.g. marriage, children) and page numbers, helped to re-establish the family in my mind when I’d forgotten them.  She  also has sources that are particularly useful for one particular theme (e.g. childbirth) but who provide little information in relation to her other themes.  These informants tended to star in one or two sections, but then disappeared from sight entirely.  I found myself wondering what happened to them.

The portrayal of life-story and wider sociability that she stitches together here is so rich that I found myself forgetting that , by her own admission, many of the diaries especially that she dealt with are rather humdrum documents.  Here she has the advantage of being able to range over several sources, picking the eyes from them.  In this regard I envy her-  when you are focussing on an individual you have to content yourself with the documents you actually have (terse, scrappy and incomplete though they may be), rather than the full and densely informative ones you crave.


‘The Canada Company and the Huron Tract 1826-1853’ by Robert C. Lee

Robert C. Lee The Canada Company and the Huron Tract 1826-1853: Personalities, Profits and Politics, Toronto, Dundurn, 2004, 304 p.

Thomas Carlyle is supposed to have said “Show me the man you honour, and I will know what kind of  man you are.” In this spirit, I read this book not out of any over-riding interest in the Canada Company per se, but because its first director, John Galt, was a close friend of Judge Willis’ in Canada.  It would seem that both men considered the other an honorable man.  They socialized in York together and they supported each other, so I was interested to see what sort of man John Galt was.

Lee’s description of John Galt is as follows:

A man of many talents, he was a well-travelled, big-picture visionary who was at once restless, energetic, scholarly, absent-minded, combative, disorganized, opiniated and well-connected in high places… (p.45)

John Galt  was born in Scotland in 1779, the son of a ship’s captain and an eccentric mother.  Even though he was extremely tall, he suffered from ill-health throughout his life and was educated at home.  His literary bent was established in childhood, and he become well known for his book A Statistical Account of Upper Canada (1807) which he cobbled together without setting foot in the place, largely from the observations of his cousin who worked as a captain on the Great Lakes.  He commenced studying law, but after a breakdown in his health, he travelled to Greece and Malta,  hung out with Byron, and organized the shipping of the Elgin Marbles.

He  published a number of literary works including novels, plays and fictionalized autobiographies.  He supplemented his literary career with work as a parliamentary lobbyist, first for the backers of canal building in Scotland, then for Loyalists along the Niagara frontier seeking redress for their losses in the 1812 War .  He became lobbyist and later operations manager for the Canada Company, which had a plan to purchase lands in Upper Canada that had been set aside for government and church purposes,  survey and package them up for sale to British emigrants.  When the Anglican Church in Upper Canada resisted losing their land, the Canada Company was offered instead a huge, unsurveyed expanse of First Nation land called the Huron Tract. In the final settlement in 1826, the company purchased 1.3 million acres of crown reserves throughout Upper Canada, the Huron Tract, and a million other scattered acres for the uniform price of 3s.6d per acre.

It is sobering to remember that, despite its blustering proclamations of policy, the Colonial Office was often making things up as it went along, especially in the early 19th century.  In the early 1820s the empire stretched across the globe and was still growing, but Britain itself was squeezed by the post-Napoleonic  War slump.  There simply wasn’t the money to pour into infrastructure for the immigration that Britain was encouraging as a solution to domestic unemployment.  There were demands for compensation and rewards for soldiers who had fought in the Napoleonic Wars, loyalist settlers who had fought in the War of 1812 in America, or schemes for resource development and convict labour in New South Wales and Van Diemens Land.  And that’s where private enterprise came in.

In what seemed like a win-win situation, charters were given to private companies of London-based stockholders to purchase huge tracts of land at a fixed price, with the expectation that the company would take over responsibility for infrastructure and settlement schemes.  There may well be others, but I’m aware of the Canada Company, the Australian Agricultural Company formed in 1824 and the Van Diemens Land Company in May the same year.  The two Australian companies were formed with a view to establishing a pastoral industry to provide wool for Britain’s industrial sector  using convict labour, while the Canada Company was established to encourage agricultural settlement by British settlers to counter the American influence from the south.

It was a huge outsourcing of colonialism, and within twenty years the Colonial Office was backtracking, realizing that perhaps they could have asked more for the land given so liberally.  My only real awareness of these companies was that there was a sense of disquiet over the sheer size of the holdings appropriated and privatized in this way, and the linking of the Van Diemen’s Land company with the Cape Grim massacre.   I  was surprised to learn that these three companies were so long-lived.  The Canada Company was dissolved in 1954 with its final licence cancelled in 1961; the  Australian Agricultural Company (now known as AACo  )is  the largest cattle producer  in Australia holding 7 million hectares of land across Queensland and the Northern Territory, and the Van Diemen’s Land Company still exists.

And as for John Galt and John Walpole Willis?  Well, they were kindred spirits in personality, and their fortunes rose and fluctuated in Upper Canada along a similar trajectory.  They both clashed with members of the elite in York, and fell out with the Governor.  When Willis was removed, he put his family affairs into Galt’s hands, but Galt was removed by the board of the company back in London some six months later.

The emphasis in this book was on the Canada Company, and Galt played a role only in the opening chapters.  If I want to find out more about him, I’m going to have to look elsewhere, and I’m tempted to dip into some of his writing instead (especially his autobiography).  But quite apart from John Galt himself, the book provided an insight into the tension between a board of directors back in London, and “localitis” -i.e. the tendency of their operations managers sent out to Canada to become too embroiled in local politics, too generous in public works, and too squeamish to enforce the company’s interests at all costs.  It’s a sobering thought in these days of multinationals and state-based foreign enterprises.

‘The Civil War of 1812’ by Alan Taylor

640 p. 2010

It’s taken me a while to post this review.  I’d borrowed the book while in Melbourne, hoping to finish it before heading over to Canada, where I would hear the author speaking at the Canadian Historical Association conference.  I wasn’t able to finish it in time and, lured by the cheapness of books overseas,   ended up buying my own copy.  It was too heavy to cart around, so after completing it, I sent it home surface mail.  It hasn’t ‘surfaced’ so far, though.

Living on the other side of the globe, I hadn’t realized the challenge to both Canadian and American histories in the title.  But I had taken this book with me into our communal kitchen, where two American fellow-travellers were making breakfast.  “The Civil War of 1812?” he read from the spine of the book, “But the Civil War was in the 1860s”.  Americans tend to ignore the War of 1812 completely (even though they commemorate it every time they sing the Star Spangled Banner), while Canadians tend to see it in terms of a British/American conflict rather than a civil war amongst erstwhile compatriots.

But I think that Alan Taylor , an American historian, has chosen the title of this book very deliberately.  The full title  is “The Civil War of 1812: American Citizens, British Subjects, Irish Rebels and Indian Allies” , a title so long that it almost obviates the necessity of reading the book.  It is a title that sums up his argument very neatly: that the War of 1812 arose from fundamental disagreements about the world view of kindred people- beween Federalists and Republicans in America; between different definitions of “loyalty” in the states that were to become Canada; amongst Irish immigrants, and between the Aboriginal tribes who aligned themselves on either the Republican or British sides.  It was just as much a civil war as the conflagration some 50 years later.

In many ways, this book is a sequel to his earlier book The Divided Ground, and it shares many of the features of that book.  Chapters are headed with single words e.g. ‘Blood’, ‘Crossings’, ‘Scalps’.  As with his earlier book, his focus is on people, flawed as we all are by incomplete and uncertain views of the future, and acting for the best as they saw it, on the  knowledge they had at the time.  There are more players in this drama than in his earlier book, however, and when I heard him speak at the conference, he mentioned his fear that there were perhaps rather too many.  He was right to be concerned: he skates that thin line  but manages not to cross it.  He is helped in this, as he was in his earlier book, by a well-constructed index.

The book is constructed chronologically, but it is not at all a string of battles, written in that laudatory and sychophantic style that many military histories adopt.  Like John Keegan before him, he focusses on the felt physical experience of battle, embodied in pain, blood, smells and fear.  He also highlights the contingency and uncertainty of a civil war, in particular, where ‘loyalty’ can be so easily framed as ‘partisan’ activity with such brutal vindictiveness afterwards.

His focus in almost entirely on the war on the northern border, with only fleeting attention given to the battle of New Orleans and the burning of the White House- the aspects of the 1812 war that, to the extent that Americans remember it at all, are central to the American narrative.  He points out that the American victory at New Orleans was not a turning point at all, but that the the negotiations for ending the war had been set in train prior to this.

Next year will be the bicentenary of the war, and I’m sure that this book has been published with an eye to this market.  It should do well, especially with the paperback version due out later in the year.  It is immensely readable, even for a southern-hemisphere reader with limited knowledge. It mounts a challenge to the American hubris that discounts the war of 1812 as just a skirmish and the accompanying narrative that presents the Revolution as an all-powerful and irresistible phenomenon from the start.  In Taylor’s hands, the contingency and unpredictability is returned to the past- something that we do well to recognize.

You can hear a podcast interview between the author and Lewis Lapham here.

Rating: 9/10

Reason read: Because there was a roundtable with the author at the Canadian Historical Association conference, and because it predates my work on Upper Canada in the 1820s.