Our longest-serving mayor of the 19th century, known for his flamboyant dress, physical prowess, and conflict-of-interest scandal.
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.
John George Bowes was Toronto’s longest-serving mayor of the 19th century, presiding over city council for six one-year terms. But although he was popular with the public at the time, Bowes is usually remembered for the financial scandal that dominated his third term, and for his role in creating the railway barriers that launched the eternal arguments about access to the city’s waterfront.
Born circa 1812 in County Monaghan in Ireland, Bowes migrated to Upper Canada in 1833. Within a decade, he’d established a successful dry goods business based at Yonge and Wellington streets. According to the Dictionary of Canadian Biography, Bowes “acquired a reputation as an astute businessman, and his genial personality made him popular among Torontonians. It was said that few had warmer personal friends.” Despite amassing great wealth through various business ventures, Bowes was viewed as a man of the people, and known for his flamboyant dress and personality—during the ground-breaking ceremony for the Ontario, Simcoe and Huron Railway [PDF] in 1851, for example, he reportedly appeared in his cocked hat, sword, knee breeches, and silk stockings.
According to historian Victor Loring Russell, Bowes was “a barrel-chested man of notable physical prowess who, it was said, was ‘an ugly customer in a row.'” That strength was needed in the rough-and-tumble world of mid-19th-century politics: it was once reported that “Mayor Bowes got a broken head.” Bowes entered the political realm when he was appointed as one of the first trustees of the City’s common school (the forerunner of the modern public system) in 1847. Three years later, he joined city council as an alderman for St. James Ward, and pushed the redevelopment of the waterfront for railway use—which personally benefitted him thanks to his financial interest in the Toronto and Guelph Railway.
Three councillors stepped forward on January 20, 1851, to nominate Bowes for the mayoralty. According to the Globe, they believed Bowes had the right qualifications for public office in that he was “independent in worldly circumstances, and independent of any office that might shackle him in the free exercise of his opinions.” He was elected by a 13 to 11 vote. Bowes gained the confidence of his peers, pushing ahead with pro-railway and other motions to help develop the infrastructure of a growing city.
But his third term became dominated by a conflict-of-interest scandal known as the “Ten Thousand Pound Job.” During the spring of 1852, Canada West Premier Francis Hincks schemed with Bowes to replace depreciated bonds issued by the City of Toronto to the Ontario, Simcoe and Huron Railway—in which Bowes had invested—with a new, more valuable issue. The two leaders quietly bought 40,000 pounds’ (the local currency before the dollar) worth of old bonds and, as was permitted under provincial legislation devised by Hincks, exchanged them for 50,000 pounds worth of new ones. The result? A tidy 10,000-pound profit before expenses.
By early 1853, rumours were spreading about their dealings. Political opponents cried for blood—William Lyon Mackenzie called for a parliamentary inquiry, while George Brown saw the situation as the perfect opportunity to drive Hincks out of public life. At City Hall, councillor John Smith moved a resolution on October 10, 1853, to censure the mayor for “having practiced such systematic deception towards the Council collectively and its members individually”—adding, for good measure, that he had “forfeited the confidence of the Citizens of Toronto and of their representatives on this Council assembled.” Sparks flew at the council meetings that followed, as motions were proposed that alternately condemned and excused the mayor’s actions. Claims of whitewashing were made after municipal and provincial investigative committees declared that, despite their lack of candour, Bowes and Hincks had not violated any existing laws. This was the breaking point for eight city councillors who resigned on November 3: the departing members, feeling their concerns about Bowes’ actions were repeatedly overruled by the majority of council, felt that they had to exit an institution they no longer trusted.
The City sued Bowes to reclaim his profits. The court found Bowes innocent of fraud, but ordered him to repay because he was acting as a City representative. The scandal barely dented Bowes’ popularity—though he didn’t run in the January 1854 municipal election, he was elected later that year to the provincial assembly. He returned to city council in 1856, and unsuccessfully ran for mayor during the first public election for the post in 1859.
Bowes’s willingness to spend his wealth to regain the mayoralty paid off through a successful pork-barrelling campaign in January 1861. Bowes also managed to develop a support base among the city’s growing Irish population: though he was personally a Methodist, Bowes supported Irish Catholic issues such as the expansion of the separate school system. During his second run as mayor, which also saw the continued development of the railway lands and The Esplanade, the City launched its first streetcar service, the Toronto Street Railway, along Yonge Street in September 1861. There appears to have been little uproar over Bowes’ personal financial stake in the private transit provider.
Running for a seventh term, Bowes faced stiff opposition during the 1864 municipal election. His base had become an issue—the Globe portrayed him as an “obedient servant” of Toronto’s Catholics because of his support for separate schools. Angry Protestants backed Francis Henry Medcalf, the district master of the Orange Lodge. Bowes’ involvement in the “Ten Thousand Pound Job” was used as a weapon against him. The tight race prompted one pro-Bowes paper, the Leader, to prematurely declare his victory in a January 5, 1864, editorial (which would have been pulled quickly in the internet era). “The contest looks well,” the Leader observed. “The ratepayers are nobly redeeming the city. With the villainous and unreasoning combination which has been formed against Mr. Bowes, the wonder is that he has been able to hold his ground.”
Medcalf defeated Bowes by 162 votes.
Bowes’ health declined following the election, and he passed away on May 20, 1864. Obituaries praised his geniality, generosity, and financial acumen. Fellow councillor Samuel Thompson observed that “in educational affairs, in financial arrangements and indeed in all questions affecting the city’s interests, he was by far the ablest man who had ever filled the civic chair. His acquirements as an arithmetician were extraordinary, and as a speaker he possessed remarkable powers.” Through his daughter Matilda, Bowes is the great-great-grandfather of Andrew, Deborah, and Susan Coyne.
Additional material from The Pre-Confederation Premiers: Ontario Government Leaders 1841-1867, J.M.S. Careless, editor (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1980); Recollections and Records of Toronto of Old by W.H. Pearson (Toronto: William Briggs, 1914); Mayors of Toronto Volume 1 1834-1899 by Victor Loring Russell (Erin: Boston Mills Press, 1982); the January 21, 1851 and January 5, 1864 editions of the Globe; the November 5, 1853 and January 5,1864 editions of the Leader; the April 18. 1989 edition of the Toronto Star; the January 1951 edition of Toronto Calling; and city council minutes recorded between January 1851 and November 1853.