A highly partisan rival of William Lyon Mackenzie who mellowed into a respected administrator.
Each month in the run-up to the municipal election on October 27, Torontoist will profile one of the 64 people who served as Mayor of Toronto—people who shaped the city, displayed colourful personalities, or managed to do both.
Mayoral historian Victor Loring Russell observed that George Gurnett was “perhaps the man most devotedly involved in the early development of municipal government in Toronto.” During his nearly 30 years as councillor, mayor, and police magistrate, Gurnett gradually refocused his energies from fiery partisanship to city building.
Born in England around 1791-1792, Gurnett briefly lived in Virginia before moving to Upper Canada in 1826. The following year, he launched the Gore Gazette newspaper in Ancaster. Initially, he supported the left-leaning Reformers, but he soon became a mouthpiece for the Family Compact–backed Tories. His support extended to involvement in the tarring and feathering of a local Reform candidate in 1828.
A frequent editorial target was rival publisher William Lyon Mackenzie. Though they were amicable during Gurnett’s early days in Ancaster, they soon insulted each other in their papers—Gurnett stated that Mackenzie lacked “principle, honour and decency,” while Mackenzie declared, “George is quite crazy, that’s for certain!” Their feud continued when Gurnett moved to York in 1829, where he relaunched his paper as the Courier of Upper Canada. Gurnett was merciless toward his political opponents—in the wake of brawls between Reformers and Tories in 1832, Gurnett referred to a group led by Hogg’s Hollow namesake James Hogg as “a herd of the swine of Yonge Street.”
Relations between Gurnett and Mackenzie remained frosty when both were elected to Toronto’s inaugural city council in 1834. Gurnett would represent St. George’s Ward (whose initial boundaries were Bathurst Street, King Street, Yonge Street, and the lake) for the next 17 years. While the Reform majority placed Mackenzie in the mayor’s chair, Gurnett led the opposition. Their combativeness reached new heights during a November 1834 debate over hiring a new city clerk. Gurnett complained that the recommended candidate was an outsider from Kingston unfamiliar to the rest of council. He suggested a Toronto resident should fill the post, precipitating an argument with the mayor. While Reform councillors requested calm, Mackenzie ruled Gurnett out of order and repeatedly asked him to sit down. Gurnett refused, prompting Mackenzie to have him taken into custody. A Tory motion to allow Gurnett to sit down failed. Gurnett’s punishment? He was forced to listen to a 15-minute lecture from Mackenzie, after which Gurnett’s allies fled the council chamber. Repeated failures to meet quorum over the next few meetings effectively brought council’s first term to an end.
Gurnett became the city’s first Tory mayor when council appointed him to the post in January 1837. Early in the term, he chaired a committee investigating temporary relief for the poor during the winter: the result was the establishment of the House of Industry, which Gurnett believed would curtail “the vice of intemperance, street begging, pilfering, dissipation, indolence, and juvenile depradation of the destitute.” He also oversaw the macadamizing of city streets and the construction of the original St. Patrick’s Market. Later that year, Gurnett prepared to defend the city from the rebels gathering outside it. Gurnett later criticized the disloyalty of the rebels, who “must ever be looked upon as determined and irreconcilable enemies of the Government of the Country—who will ever be ready—in the event of any successful demonstration of the enemy—to flock to the standard of that enemy.”
When Gurnett’s one-year mayoral term ended, he continued to sit on council’s key infrastructure committees, and served as both a regional magistrate and clerk of the peace. His recommendation in 1840 to create a waterfront park was never followed through on. He was the favoured mayoral candidate when Reformers failed to prevent his re-election to council in 1841, but his chances evaporated after he was accused of renting a house to a brothel keeper. He cut old political connections, a move that resulted in a physical assault when he attempted to cancel the annual Orange Order parade in 1844. As chair of the board of health in 1847, Gurnett unsuccessfully pressed for funding to build a new hospital to serve the influx of refugees from the Irish famine. When a typhus epidemic hit the city that June, he conducted daily crisis meetings.
Gurnett’s actions during the epidemic and his extensive council experience aided his return to the mayor’s chair in January 1848. Downplaying his past partisanship in his acceptance speech, Gurnett hoped that councillors would promote the best interests of their constituents. Over the course of three one-year terms, Gurnett handled crises ranging from a cholera epidemic to the Great Fire of 1849. He acted firmly against Tories upset by the signing of the Rebellion Losses Bill and the drift to responsible government—he called in troops to prevent rioting following the signing of the bill in May 1849, then ordered the arrest of leaders of a Tory mob who threatened to disrupt Governor-General Lord Elgin’s visit that October.
Shortly after the January 1851 municipal election, Gurnett resigned his council seat to become the city’s first police magistrate. Among his backers for the post was Canada West premier Robert Baldwin, who a decade earlier had declared Gurnett the head of “an ignorant and violent faction” that ruled the city. The Reformer-friendly Globe had no issue with Gurnett’s new appointment.
Mr. Gurnett has been a most efficient magistrate for many years—as times have gone, he has acted with considerable firmness and fairness—and has expended much time and trouble on the affairs of the City. Tory though he be, we think all parties will be satisfied with Mr. Gurnett’s appointment.
Gurnett remained as police magistrate until he died from a stroke in November 1861. The Globe’s obituary called Gurnett an “upright and honourable man.” He outlived his old rival Mackenzie by nearly three months.
Additional material from A City in the Making by Frederick H. Armstrong (Toronto: Dundurn, 1988); SARS in Context: Memory, History, and Policy, Jacalyn Duffin and Arthur Sweetman, editors (Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2006); Historical Essays on Upper Canada: New Perspectives, J.K. Johnson and Bruce G. Wilson, editors (Ottawa: Carleton University Press, 1989); The Rebellion of 1837 in Upper Canada, Colin Read and Ronald J. Stagg, editors (Ottawa: Carleton University Press, 1988); Mayors of Toronto Volume 1 1834-1899 by Victor Loring Russell (Erin: Boston Mills Press, 1982); the January 14, 1848 edition of the British Colonist; the March 24, 1832 edition of the Courier of Upper Canada; the December 28, 1850 and November 18, 1861 editions of the Globe; the Fall 2011 edition of the Journal of Canadian Studies; and the April 18, 1989 and January 3, 2010 editions of the Toronto Star.