Historicist: When William Lyon Mackenzie Nearly Got ‘a slap on the chops’
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Historicist: When William Lyon Mackenzie Nearly Got ‘a slap on the chops’

A look at the ungentlemanly behaviour behind the formation of the Home District Agricultural Society.

King East August 1829

King Street, north side, looking east towards Church Street, August 1829. The York Courthouse stood at the northwest corner of King and Church Streets, seen here between the King Street Gaol (at front left), and St. James Church. James Pattison Cockburn, ‘Toronto or York, capital of Upper Canada, showing Court House and Jail, August 1829.’ Library and Archives Canada, Acc. No. R9266-142 Peter Winkworth Collection of Canadiana.

Late afternoon, July 6, 1830, found William Lyon Mackenzie knocking on the locked courtroom door, having just been ejected from the meeting inside. Suddenly, the door opened, shouts of abuse spewed forth, someone handed him his hat, and the doors were slammed shut and locked once again. It was the second time in as many months that Mackenzie had been ejected from a meeting at the York Courthouse. As he put on his hat and stepped into King Street, Mackenzie pondered pressing charges for assault.

What had Mackenzie done to get tossed out? After all, it was only just a first meeting of an agricultural society for the Home District (The Home District was an early administrative area of Upper Canada that encompassed York and Simcoe Counties. York, the provincial capital, was also the administrative centre of the district). In March, the Upper Canadian government had announced it would offer £100 in annual funding to help start an agricultural society in each district of the province if locals could first raise £50 in membership fees and donations (a significant sum for 1830). Mackenzie was certainly supportive of forming an agricultural society for the Home District, for he had promoted the legislation in the provincial House of Assembly as an elected member for a York County riding, and he continued to promote the subject in his newspaper, the Colonial Advocate. In fact, it was precisely because of his support that he had been physically ejected, for the courthouse meeting of July 1830 was the end of a fight for control of this new organization.

WL Mackenzie

William Lyon Mackenzie later in life. Frontispiece to Charles Lindsey’s The Life and Times of Wm. Lyon Mackenzie, vol. 1. (Toronto: P.R. Randall, 1862).

York elites who lived in around the provincial capital—often identified as the core of the Family Compact—presumed they should control this new agricultural society, just as they controlled most other political and social organizations, both local and provincial. A number lived on estates at the edge of York, where they were already using their wealth and incomes from government appointments to import better breeds of livestock and better varieties of grains, vegetables, and fruits. They didn’t need the government support, as did the thousands of colonists who toiled daily to eke out a subsistence from their patches of farmland. But the elites believed they needed to control this new agricultural society so they might extend their authority to the farmers of the Home District. That they had to resort to violence at the society’s founding meeting was an early exclamation point on their delusions of noblesse oblige.

York was a small town in 1830 that remained deeply connected to both agriculture and politics. Despite a doubling of the town’s population, from 1240 residents to 2860 during the 1820s, official circles in York remained small enough that political opponents regularly encountered each other in their daily lives. In the 1828 provincial elections, voters had elected a majority of reformers to the House of Assembly for the first time in the province’s history. These were a loosely organized group of members opposed to the Tory administration of the province to a lesser or greater degree. Mackenzie became a rookie reform member of the assembly, representing a rural riding of York Countym and regularly demonstrated his ability to furiously and endlessly debate any issue in the legislature at York. Moreover, animosity had become deeply personal since 1824, when William Lyon Mackenzie began publishing scathing condemnations of the privileged few who held power in Upper Canada. In 1826, sons of several of York’s elite families responded to Mackenzie’s attacks by destroying his Colonial Advocate printing shop in broad daylight, a moment known as the ‘Types Riot.’ But the court rewarded Mackenzie substantially for his loss, and he restarted his newspaper with renewed attacks on the elite and their stranglehold on government. Hence, the York elite were furious that Mackenzie was the first to start organizing an agricultural society for the Home District.

Colonial Advocate Mar 11 1830

Colonial Advocate, March 11, 1830.

On March 8, 1830, Mackenzie walked from his office to the York market where he gathered 36 signatures in support of creating ‘The Home District Agricultural Society.’ He then called a public meeting for March 25 at a tavern in York to establish the society and elect an executive for the year. Bad weather and muddy roads meant that only 40 individuals attended. A disappointed Mackenzie thought this support was insufficient, thus the meeting only drafted a proposed constitution to be considered at a new meeting to be held at the York Courthouse on April 8.

Even Mackenzie realized that the agricultural society needed wider support to be a success—especially if the necessary £50 were to be raised. This meant that both gentleman and common farmer, both Tory and reformer needed to unite in their support. He warned that those planning to attend the next meeting would have to “strive to leave their political feelings behind them…and to overcome for a few hours that bitterness of personal animosity which has long made the town of York deservedly a bye-word [sic] and a reproach.” For York, this was too tall an order, and his decision to delay would rob Mackenzie of any advantage.

The attendance on April 8 was worse. Mackenzie was present, but he was not hosting an agricultural meeting. Instead, a packed public gallery was watching him be his own advocate, defending himself in a libel trial that lasted 12 hours, four of which were taken up by his address to the jury. No meeting was held that day, and Mackenzie simply rescheduled the meeting to May 8.

One person who did travel to York for the agricultural society meeting had done so for the express purpose of preventing Mackenzie’s society from being born. Edward O’Brien was a recent immigrant and retired British military officer who farmed property near Thornhill. He was a close associate of several members of the York elite. When he arrived at the courthouse and realized no meeting would be held that day, O’Brien and his unnamed travelling companion “formally adjourned the meeting till further notice.” How they possibly accomplished this ‘formally’ is unclear, but O’Brien decided that he and his soon-to-be brother-in-law, Richard Gapper—another retired British officer who farmed property along Yonge Street between Thornhill and Richmond Hill—would take on the project of forming the agricultural society for the district.

Neither plan materialized because the top echelon of the York elite intervened. D’Arcy Boulton Jr. soon circulated his own petition in support of “forming an Agricultural Society for the Home District,” which gained 21 signatures. Then, on Boulton’s behalf, William Botsford Jarvis placed an advertisement in the Courier of Upper Canada, a newspaper staunchly loyal to the provincial administration, announcing a meeting for the courthouse on May 15.

Boulton, the son the former Attorney General of Upper Canada, had purchased a park lot of some 100 acres just west of York in 1817 on which he constructed a stately brick home known as The Grange. He was a gentlemen farmer who held several government appointments. He had also married Sarah Ann Robinson, making him a brother-in-law to Chief Justice John Beverley Robinson, one of the most powerful political figures in the province. William Botsford Jarvis was Sheriff of the Home District, an appointment his father, the former Home District Registrar, had recently secured for him. William had purchased his 110-acre estate, Rosedale, to the north of York in 1824, and by 1830 the “Sheriff of the Family Compact” had improved it into a showpiece estate by expanding the old farmhouse and by planting orchards, vines, and flower gardens. That Jarvis had sent his notice to the loyal Courier, but not to Mackenzie’s Colonial Advocate, which by all accounts had a much greater circulation throughout the countryside of the Home District, is not surprising. The York elite detested Mackenzie’s newspaper, and William’s second cousin, Samuel Peters Jarvis, had been ringleader of the Types Riot mob in 1826 (Mackenzie simply copied the notice from the Courier to his Colonial Advocate for the benefit of his readership).

Colonial Advocate May 13 1830

Colonial Advocate, May 13, 1830

There are two differing accounts of the first battle that erupted at Boulton’s meeting on May 15, the first by Humphrey Clod, Esq., Major 7th Regiment, York Militia, resident of Thornhill. Clod was actually one of several pseudonyms that Mackenzie had invented, employed to record the events of York society in a third-party voice. The meeting had been called for noon, but when Clod arrived at one o’clock, only two others were present. He left for half an hour, and when he returned, Clod found Boulton Jr. and several others who had signed his petition seated within the bar “as if to represent the aristocracy.” (“Within the bar” meant the area directly in front of the judge’s bench, separated from the public gallery by the ‘bar’ that divided the courtroom space). Clod was offended at the sight. The elites purposefully drew upon all the authority the courtroom provided by assembling within the bar, directly beneath the shadow of the throne and other symbols of the crown mounted above it.

Colonial Advocate Jun 24 1830

Colonial Advocate, June 24, 1830.

Among those Clod identified were the meeting’s organizer, D’Arcy Boulton Jr. and John Elmsley, the son of a former Chief Justice of Upper Canada. John had retired from the Royal Navy at the rank of Captain in 1825 and returned to York to set about administering his father’s sizeable land holdings in the province. He was a director and one of the largest shareholders of the Bank of Upper Canada. As part of his welcome back to the province, his mother had gifted him 60 acres to the northwest of the town. This became Elmsley’s Clover Hill estate.

The Jarvis family was well represented within the bar. Along with William of Rosedale, sat his father Stephen. Joining them was Samuel (the Types Riot ringleader) who had inherited his father’s park lot on the northern edge of York in 1798, and had built a sizeable and well appointed brick house, Hazel Burn, in 1824. He developed orchards, gardens, and kept an extensive fowl house and large rabbit warren in the southern 50 acres of the lot. Samuel’s neighbour to the east, William Allan, also sat within the bar. Among the earliest residents of York, and its pre-eminent merchant, Allan held several government appointments and lived at his Moss Park estate. Mackenzie held a special grudge against Allan, the Police Magistrate, for he had watched the Types Riot without taking any action to stop it.

There were other gentlemen within the bar who also shared some level of animosity towards Mackenzie. James Small, a York lawyer, was the man whose unsuccessful libel trial against Mackenzie had filled the courthouse in April. James FitzGibbon, the War of 1812 hero, was a target of Mackenzie’s ire, for he claimed FitzGibbon had received yet another government appointment in 1828, this time as a reward for collecting money to help pay the £650 in damages awarded to Mackenzie after the Types Riot. Other associates of the York elite who were present included James Small’s brother, Charles C., the owner of Berkeley House, his private home and well-known centre for the gatherings of York’s elite society; Robert Stanton who voiced the views of the Family Compact through his “U.E. Loyalist” section of the government’s official newspaper, the Upper Canada Gazette; John Fenton, the Parish Clerk of St. James Church; Robert G. Anderson, chief teller of the Bank of Upper Canada; Francis T. Billings, the Home District Treasurer; and John W. Gamble, a brother-in-law of William Allan, magistrate and gentleman farmer who managed his properties and mill on Mimico Creek in Etobicoke. Edward O’Brien also returned to York for the meeting. These last two gentlemen appear to represent the very thin representation of the Home District beyond York and the estates at its edge.

When Mackenzie arrived, he joined a small crowd standing in the courtroom’s public gallery. Shortly thereafter, John Elmsley reached across the dividing line formed by the courtroom bar with a request for payment of membership to join the proposed agricultural society. Mackenzie took the request as a clear affront, because he and others present had already met in March to organize an agricultural society for the district.

As Clod reported, Boulton and his associates had not thought out their strategy beyond blocking Mackenzie’s efforts. No one had prepared an agenda or draft constitution for consideration. In fact, they sent someone to Mackenzie’s Colonial Advocate office to retrieve a copy of the resolutions agreed upon at Mackenzie’s March meeting! During this delay, those within the bar looked anxiously at the door in a vain hope that more farmers would appear so that the meeting might “carry an appearance of a farmers meeting.” Francis Billings was dispatched outside numerous times to call farmers in from the streets to attend the meeting but, in Clod’s words, the response he received was “if the meeting was called by D’Arcy Boulton and the big-bugs, our safety lies in steering clear of it—burnt children dread fire.”

If Clod’s reporting is in any way accurate, the paternalistic tone of the meeting—”We give and they receive”—was not well received by those in the public gallery. When one individual within the bar presented his membership as a gift, “from the gentlemen of the town of York to the farmers in the country,” and when another suggested that society officers should be chosen only from among the gentlemen within the bar, the meeting erupted into chaos. Clod reported: “Some of the speakers recommended an adjournment and a meeting to be called in the country—others were for doing what they did quickly —’we are no farmers’ said one—’its their own fault if the country-folks won’t attend when we offer them our aid and the use of this building for nothing,’ quoth a second—’this can scarcely be termed a public meeting,’ added a third, ‘for the public are not with us.'” The uproar became too great and Clod left. He did not report what role Mackenzie might have played in the mêlée.

The version recorded from within the bar was much less dramatic, and suggests that order was soon restored after Clod’s departure. That evening, Edward O’Brien’s new wife, Mary, related in her diary that Edward and her brother Richard had been elected as two of the society’s directors for the ensuing year. The meeting agreed upon a set of resolutions on which the Home District Agricultural Society should be based and raised the necessary £50 through memberships and donations. A draft constitution would be put to members for approval at a first general meeting of the agricultural society, scheduled at the same location for July 6.

Colonial Advocate May 20 1830

Colonial Advocate, May 20, 1830.

The July 6 meeting descended quickly into chaos. According to O’Brien, as recorded in his wife’s diary, soon after the meeting began, Mackenzie rose to speak with “his accustomed impudence.” He had not become a member of the agricultural society, and the society’s temporary executive claimed that only paid members had the right to join the discussion. Mackenzie insisted that members of the public still had a right to speak because the May meeting had produced only resolutions, not a constitution. According to O’Brien, Secretary Elmsley and Treasurer W.B. Jarvis tried to persuade Mackenzie to be quiet, but he persisted. Chairman George Crookshank—owner of several farms and a large estate house that was one of the most readily recognized landmarks when sailing into Toronto Harbour—was asked to suspend the meeting temporarily. Elmsley then grabbed hold of Mackenzie, but let him go when others suggested he should be given a chance to remain silent. But Mackenzie did not, and in O’Brien’s view, “it became quite evident he came for the express purpose of interrupting the proceedings and causing a row.” O’Brien and Gapper seized Mackenzie and forcibly removed him from the courtroom, locking the door behind him so that he could not return. According to O’Brien, the “little blackguard then like a spoilt and ill-behaved baby, kept thumping at the door.” A little while later, George Taylor Denison, resident of his Belle Vue estate west of York, suggested that the door should be unbolted as there were farmers who might wish to come in. He offered to personally see that Mackenzie remained silent, “by giving him a slap on the chops.” When the door was unlocked, Mackenzie had gone. Recalling this incident, O’Brien suggested, “had Mackenzie come in a second time, a tumble from the windows of the Grand Jury room would most certainly be his fate.”

From his point of view, published with the headline “OFFICIAL RIOT,” Mackenzie recalled that when he entered courtroom for the meeting, he had counted some 20 “country people,” and about 30 of the “others.” The latter group—containing many of the same gentlemen from the previous meeting—was again assembled within the bar. Shortly after Secretary Elmsley began to lead the meeting through the clauses of a draft constitution, Mackenzie rose to express his concern about the proposed organization of the agricultural society. His objections were not well received. Those within the bar hissed, clapped, and stamped their feet to silence him. Mackenzie tried to forge ahead with his views, but more voices joined the chorus to shout him down.

Colonial Advocate July 8 1830

Colonial Advocate, July 8, 1830.

Elmsley declared Mackenzie’s views to be “obnoxious to the majority” and threatened to eject him. Shortly thereafter, O’Brien, Gapper, and a Mr. Young, laid “violent hands” on him. After a struggle, the men let Mackenzie go. Chairman Crookshank resumed the meeting, and Mackenzie resumed his criticisms. The howling and stamping from those within the bar recommenced, and Elmsley, O’Brien, Gapper, and Young grabbed Mackenzie a second time and tossed him out of the Grand Jury Room, locking the door behind him. Mackenzie claimed that he then knocked “peaceably” on the door, and it was opened for a brief moment so that Elmsley could hand Mackenzie his hat, while others hurled more abuse at him from within. Elmsley closed the courtroom door and locked it once again. Mackenzie walked to his office planning to press assault charges, for he recalled being struck once, by Richard Gapper he believed.

This was the second time in as many months that Mackenzie had been expelled from a meeting at York and there was a considerable overlap of attendees at both meetings. At the beginning of June, the stockholders of the Bank of Upper Canada had met to elect a board for the ensuing year. Acting as a proxy for two other men, Mackenzie had insisted that this meeting, too, was public and all had a right to attend and speak. Later, “Stockholder” recalled to readers of the Courier of Upper Canada that Mackenzie had become “extremely insolent” and the meeting had to be suspended temporarily. Like Denison’s comment about slapping Mackenzie “on the chops,” “Stockholder” claimed he could barely resist tripping Mackenzie as he finally departed the meeting.

Colonial Advocate July 15 1830

Colonial Advocate, July 15, 1830

Mackenzie’s second editorial about the incident, titled “THE OFFICIAL OUTRAGE!” drew heavily on the symbolism within the courtroom. He—an elected member of the provincial assembly, representing farmers of the Home District—had been “collared and insulted” by Elmsley and his “majesterial compeers” right before the “King’s throne” and coat of arms that represented the very symbol of “descent of authority from above.” He claimed the attack he suffered at the hands of O’Brien and Gapper to be deeply troubling because they were appointed magistrates, yet they chose to employ violence in front of the symbol of the very Crown they had sworn an oath to judiciously defend. All the while, the other magistrates in the courtroom, plus the Home District Sheriff, watched and “evidently enjoyed the riot.” He had a point: this was spectacularly ungentlemanly behaviour. Mackenzie vowed that “a jury of the country” would soon have the opportunity to decide if the conduct of Elmsley, O’Brien, Gapper, and Young had been proper, or whether it deserved “public reprobation.” But Mackenzie did not press charges, for he was able to secure political advantage from the incident. By September 1830, news of King George IV’s June death reached Upper Canada, thus immediately dissolving the provincial legislature and initiating new elections for the following month. Voters in Mackenzie’s York riding reelected him, a result he announced to be a satisfactory verdict on the matter.

The York elite may have won the 1830 battles for control of the Home District Agricultural Society, and in the long run the organization would remain firmly in the hands of the Toronto elite and their associates throughout the Home District. But, in the immediate aftermath, Mackenzie and others watched the Home District Agricultural Society stumble out of the gate. Under the one-year terms of President George Crookshank and President Alexander Wood (a merchant, not a farmer), the society held few events and apparently attracted few farmers. The next president, John Elmsley, would resign abruptly in spring 1834, in consequence of a financial scandal surrounding his efforts to use society funds to increase membership and to host a grand ploughing match that featured locally made ploughs as prizes. Coincidently, that was the very same spring when William Lyon Mackenzie was elected as the first Mayor of the new City of Toronto.

Sources: Colonial Advocate (March 11, March 20, April 1, April 22, May 13, May 20, June 10, June 24, July 1, July 8, July 15, October 28, 1830); Christian Guardian (March 20 and April 3, 1830, September 25, 1833), Archives of Ontario, F 592, Mary Sophia O’Brien fonds (journal #32 April 8, 1830; #36 May 15, 1830; #39, July 6, 1830; #45 November 7, 1830); Courier of Upper Canada ([?] June 1830, September 28, 1833); Upper Canada Gazette (May 27, 1830); Toronto Patriot (May 3 and September 27, 1833; May 1, 1834).

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