The Corporation of Bytown

28 July 1847

Municipal elections don’t get the respect they deserve in Canada. Invariably, far fewer people vote in them than they do in their provincial or federal counterparts. And Ottawa’s municipal elections are no exception. In the 2018 election, the percentage of registered voters who actually voted was less than 43 per cent. In comparison, two-thirds of registered Canadian voters exercised their franchise in the 2015 federal election. Reasons for municipal voters’ apathy include a lack of awareness about what local candidates stand for, and a feeling that municipal governments don’t matter very much. Two hundred years ago, the sentiment was very different. The quest for independent, municipal governments responsible to local ratepayers was a potent political issue that divided communities.

When British sympathizers fled northward following the American Revolution, they brought with them the democratic processes that they had grown up with in New York, Pennsylvania, and New England. These included elected municipal officials and town hall meetings where local issues were publicly thrashed out. For British military leaders in what was to become Canada, such democratic ideas were anathema. After all, hadn’t democracy led to the loss of the southern American colonies? In their view, free elections, even at the local level, threatened peace and order. What was needed was the firm guiding hand of Crown-appointed magistrates and officials.

In 1791, Quebec was divided into two parts under the Constitutional Act—Lower Canada where the French civil code and customs prevailed and Upper Canada where British common law and practices were introduced to accommodate the many English-speaking, United Empire Loyalists. However, General Simcoe, Upper Canada’s first lieutenant governor, was loth to permit democratic notions from taking root in Canada. He was appalled when one of the first acts of the Assembly of Upper Canada was to approve town meetings for the purpose of appointing local officials. He stalled and prevaricated, favouring instead a system of municipal government guided by justices of the peace appointed by the Crown. It took decades for real democracy to be introduced. In the interim, power at both the provincial and municipal level was tightly controlled by a small group of powerful merchants, lawyers and Church of England clergymen who became known as the Family Compact.

Cracks in this authoritarian structure began to show in 1832 when Brockville won the right to have an elected Board of Police. Other towns quickly followed suit. In 1834, the town of York became the city of Toronto under its radical first mayor William Lyon Mackenzie, and held direct elections for its mayor and its aldermen. In 1835, a new Act of the Provincial Assembly transferred municipal powers from the justices of the peace to elected Boards of Commissioners. However, this democratic reform was repealed amidst the Rebellions of 1838 by resurgent conservative forces who managed to frame the debate as between order and loyalty to the Crown on one side and disorder and republican disloyalty on the other.

This set the stage for Lord Durham’s famous investigation into the causes of the Rebellions and possible solutions. In his Report made public in 1839, Durham recommended the introduction of responsible government in Canada with ministers responsible to an elected assembly rather than appointed by the Crown. He also said that “the establishment of a good system of municipal institutions throughout the Province [Upper Canada] is a matter of vital importance. In 1841, the District Council Act was passed by Parliament. It was a compromise between conservative (Tory) forces that wanted to maintain central control over local affairs in order to ward off republicanism and radical (Reform) forces that wanted total local self-government. Districts would be governed by a warden appointed by the Crown and a body of elected councillors. While some municipal officials were appointed by the councillors, certain positions, including that of treasurer, would continue to be appointed by the Crown. It wasn’t until the “Baldwin Act” of 1849 (named for Robert Baldwin) that municipalities in Upper Canada were granted wide powers of self-administration.

The broad forces that were in play in Upper Canada were also in play in little Bytown which was established in 1826 by Lieutenant-Colonel By, the architect of the Rideau Canal. Initially, it was a military town where the British Ordnance Department was the dominant player in the local administration and a major landowner. In the 1830s, Bytown became part of Nepean Township and subsequently the “capital” of the Dalhousie District with an appointed warden. In addition to Bytown, other communities represented in Dalhousie District included Nepean, Gloucester, North Gower, Osgoode, Huntley, Goulbourn, Marlborough, March, Torbolton, and Fitzroy. It was a cumbersome arrangement owing to the size of the district and poor roads.

On 28 July 1847, Bytown gained new status when the Governor General gave his assent to “An Act to define the limits of the Town of Bytown, to establish a Town Council therein, and for other purposes.” Bytown was divided into three wards, with elections held in mid-September for seven town councillors—two from each of North and South Wards and three from West Ward. North and South Wards encompassed Lower Bytown, the home of mainly working class, Roman Catholic, Irish and French settlers. West Ward contained Upper Bytown, the smaller of the two Bytowns, and the home of the upper-class, Protestant, English elite. Given these demographics, Lower Town was broadly Reform territory, while Upper Town was a Tory bastion.

Bytown logo 1850

Emblem of the Mayor and Town Council of Bytown, 1848, The Packet and Weekly Commercial Gazette.

With eligible voters limited to male ratepayers, there weren’t many voters—only 878 men voted in that first Bytown election. Voting was also public. A secret ballot wasn’t introduced until the Baldwin Act was passed two years later. At the time, a secret ballot was widely perceived as being cowardly and a voting method that promoted political hypocrisy. Elected were Messrs. Bedard and Friel from North Ward, Messrs. Scott and Corcoran in South Ward and Messrs. Lewis, Sparks and Blasdell in West Ward. With the four elected from the North and South Wards all reformers, they held a narrow one-vote majority on Council over the three Tory victors elected in West Ward. At the first session of Council, John Scott was elected Bytown’s first mayor by the seven elected councillors who split down political lines: four Reformers versus three Tories.

Scott portrait finished

Portrait of John Scott, First Mayor of Bytown, 1848 by William Sawyer, City of Ottawa

In January 1848, John Scott was also elected to the Provincial Parliament as the member for Bytown—this was an era when politicians could hold multiple elected posts simultaneously. In the second municipal election held the following April, Scott chose not to run leading to the election of Tory John Bower Lewis as the second Mayor of Bytown. In 1849, fellow Tory, Robert Hervey, was chosen as Mayor.

Hervey’s term in office was marred by two major political events—the Stony Monday riots in September 1849 in which Tories and Reformers came to blows, inflamed by Hervey’s own partisan actions and rhetoric[i], and the disallowance of the very Act of Parliament that had incorporated Bytown two years earlier.

The disallowance of the Act has its roots in a dispute between the Town Council and the Ordnance Department. Under its Act of Incorporation, Bytown had the right to expropriate land. Using this power, the Town Council expropriated a strip of Ordnance property along Wellington Street for the purpose of continuing the street “over the hill between the two towns to meet Rideau Street, in a direct line” at Sappers’ Bridge. At that time, Wellington Street made a bulge around the base of Barrick Hill (later known as Parliament Hill). But with the construction of Sparks Street immediately south of Wellington Street to Sappers’ Bridge following the settlement of another dispute over the ownership of the Government Reserve between Ordnance and Nicholas Sparks in Sparks’ favour, Town Council wanted to straighten Wellington Street. According to the Packet newspaper, the piece of land was “of no value” to the Ordnance Department but was “essential to preserve the uniformity of Wellington Street.”

The Town went ahead and straightened the street over the strenuous objections of the Ordnance Department. Ostensibly, Ordnance claimed that the property was necessary for possible future defensive works. The Packet thought the dispute was caused by the “avarice of one or two self-interested individuals” in Ordnance. In late September 1849, rumours started to circulate that the Home Government in London was about to overturn Bytown’s Act of Incorporation passed by the Canadian Parliament and assented to by the Governor General two years earlier. Fearing this possibility, Councillor Turgeon (a future Mayor of Bytown) proposed repealing the offending By-law that had expropriated the land.

It was to no avail. In late October, the hammer came down. Bytown’s Act of Incorporation was officially disallowed by the British Government in the name of Queen Victoria at the request of the Ordnance Department. Bytown’s politicians were thunderstruck. The news “occasioned no little hub-bub,” said the Packet. “The shock was a dreadful one.” Nobody knew what it meant practically. While “magisterial business” would devolve to the Dalhousie District magistrates, what about other business? Could Bytown pay its bills? What about staffing?  The town was described as being in “a bad state” with everything “topsy-turvy.” The Packet fumed at the intrusion of the Home Government in London into a “parish,” i.e. local, matter, and darkly threatened it would be a new argument for the Annexationists (those who wanted the United States to annex Canada).

Map of Ottawa c. 1840, Taylor, 1986

Map of Ottawa, c. 1840 showing Ordnance land and Wellington Street. Nicholas Sparks, another major landowner, successfully fought the Ordnance Department for the return to him of the Government Reserve Land. This allowed for the development of Sparks street to Sappers’ Bridge by 1849. Taylor, John 1986. “Ottawa, An Illustrated History,” James Lorimer & Company, Toronto.

To make matters worse, the Ordnance Department erected a fence across Wellington Street close to Barrick Hill blocking passage of residents to Sappers’ Bridge. Fortunately, there was an alternate route down Sparks Street. The Packet raised its rhetoric called the street closure “a petty act of tyranny inflicted on the habitants of our Town.” It added, “If anything was every calculated to create in the breasts of the inhabitants of this Town an indignant opposition to the British Crown, it is the blocking of one our principal streets.”

Fortunately, municipal business was quickly regularized with the passage of the Baldwin Act, which allowed towns and cities to incorporate, and the holding of new Bytown Town Council elections in January 1850. With John Scott re-entering municipal politics and his election along with a majority of Reform councillors, Scott was re-elected Mayor of Bytown. Consequently, Scott has the honour of twice being the first Mayor of Bytown. The new Council presented “a humble Petition to the Master General and Board of Ordnance, praying that the Hon. Board may be pleased to grant the use of a space of land opposite Wellington Street to be used for street purposes.” Despite the begging, Ordnance refused to budge.

Residents began to wonder if there was something shady going on. One writer to the Packet in 1851 thought that the Corporation was conspiring in favour of Sparks Street merchants to keep traffic routed down this street rather than negotiating for the re-opening of Wellington Street. Finally, in June 1853, almost four years after the road was closed, Ordnance relented. But its terms were steep: the removal of the fence would be at Bytown’s expense; ownership of the strip of land would remain vested in Her Majesty; the road would be closed on May 1st every year to assert the Queen’s right; Bytown would pay a nominal rent of 5/- per year; no buildings could be erected on this strip of land; and Ordnance reserved the right to resume possession should it feel necessary to do so.

In time, the whole issue became moot when the Ordnance Department dropped its plans to fortify Barrick Hill.  On January 1st, 1855, the City of Ottawa, formerly Bytown, was incorporated. One year later, under the Ordnance Lands Transfer Act, ownership of ordnance land in Bytown, and elsewhere, was transfer to the Province of Canada.

 

Sources:

Canada, Department of the Secretary of State, 1873. Report for the Year Ending 30 June 1873, Appendix A., Department of the Interior, Ordnance Lands Branch, Ottawa.

Durham, Lord, 1839. Report on British North America, Institute of Responsible Government, https://iorg.ca/ressource/lord-durhams-report-on-british-north-america/#.

Elections Canada, 2018. Estimation of Voter Turnout by Age Group and Gender at the 2015 General Election, http://www.elections.ca/content.aspx?section=res&dir=rec/part/estim/42ge&document=p1&lang=e#e1.

Mika, Nick & Helma, 1982. Bytown: The Early Days of Ottawa, Belleville: Mika Publishing Company.

Owens, Tyler, 2016. “A Mayor’s Life: John Scott, First Mayor of Bytown (1824-1857),” Bytown Pamphlet Series, No. 99, Historical Society of Ottawa.

Packet (The) & Weekly Commercial Gazette, 1847. “Prorogation of Parliament,” 31 July.

—————————————————–, 1847. “The Corporation Election.” 18 September.

—————————————————–, 1849. “Bytown Corporation,” 20 September.

—————————————————–, 1849. “The Town of Bytown,” 20 October.

—————————————————–, 1849. “The Ordnance Department And The People Of Bytown,” 13 November.

—————————————————–, 1849. “No Title,” 22 December.

—————————————————–, 1850. “The Elections,” 2 February.

—————————————————–, 1850. “Vote By Ballot, Etc.” 23 February.

—————————————————–, 1850. “Town Council Proceedings,” 23 February.

—————————————————–, 1851. “Queries Addressed To No One In Particular,” 21 June.

—————————————————–, 1853. “No Title,” 11 June.

Shortt, Adam & Doughty, A.G. Sir, 1914. Canada and its Provinces : a history of the Canadian people and their institutions, Volume 18, Toronto: Glasgow, Brook & Company.

Taylor, John H. 1986. Ottawa: An Illustrated History, Toronto: James Lorimer & Company.

Whan, Christopher, 2018, “Voter turnout for Ottawa’s municipal elections up from 2014,” Global News, 23 October.

 

 

 

[i] See Story for 17 September.

Lord Elgin Visits Bytown

27 July 1853

What a difference a few years can make! In 1849, James Bruce, 8th Earl of Elgin, 12th Earl of Kincardine, and Governor General of the Province of Canada, had been vilified in the Tory press in Bytown. News of a planned visit by him was greeted with jeers and worse. Shots were fired and rocks thrown in what later became known as the Stony Monday riots between Tories (Conservatives) and Reformers. One man died and many were injured. Serious fighting was only averted by the quick thinking of soldiers stationed on Barrick Hill who interposed themselves on Sappers’ Bridge between the furious armed factions. Needless to say, Elgin’s trip to Bytown was cancelled.

Lord Elgin James Bruce, Earl of Elgin LAC C-000291, 1848
James Bruce, 8th Earl of Elgin, 12th Earl of Kincardine and Governor General of the Province of Canada, 1848, Library and Archives Canada, PA-000291.

The affray was caused by Tory disgruntlement over compensation granted by the Provincial government to citizens of Lower Canada who had incurred losses in the 1837-38 Rebellion. While convicted traitors were denied compensation, the law applied even to those who opposed the government and Royal authority. To Conservatives, this smacked of rewarding disloyalty. Despite Tory pressure and his own personal qualms, Lord Elgin gave Royal Asset to the compensation bill. This action underscored the arrival of responsible government to Canada. On hearing that the bill had passed into law, an enraged Tory mob burnt down the Parliament buildings in Montreal in 1848, thereby launching the quest for a new, safer site for Canada’s capital.

By 1853, tempers had cooled and the vice-regal tour of the Ottawa Valley could finally proceed. This was now an opportunity for the Governor General to take the measure of the small community of Bytown as a possible site for Canada’s new capital city. This time, Bytown citizens and neighbouring communities were going to put their best foot forward in a charm offensive to elicit vice-regal support for the Ottawa Valley. It was a pivotal moment in Bytown’s history.

We are fortunate that Lord Elgin’s visit to Bytown and nearby towns along the Ottawa River was extensively covered in the Ottawa Citizen. As well, we have a remarkable first-hand account written by Mary Anne Friel, the widow of the last Mayor of Bytown and three times mayor of Ottawa. Penned in 1901, when she was quite elderly, Mary Anne Friel’s recollection of the visit corroborates the Citizen’s account of events while adding a delightful personal touches, including a vignette of her dancing with the Governor General at a ball held at the Aylmer home of John Egan, MPP, a prominent area lumberman and politician.

Travelling from Quebec City, the then seat of government, to remote Bytown in 1853 was not easy. Lord Elgin and his entourage left Quebec on Tuesday the 26th of July on the steam John Munn, arriving in Montreal shortly before 6am the following morning. Despite the early hour, the steamer was met at the wharf by hundreds of well-wishers and a full honour guard. From Montreal, the party took the train to Lachine on the St. Lawrence River where it met the steamer Lady Simpson for the journey to Carillon, arriving shortly after noon. At Carillon, Lord Elgin was met by a carriage and four horses sent the previous day from Bytown to convey him over the rough and uncomfortable road to Grenville. From there, Lord Elgin and his company embarked at 3.30pm on the Ottawa Mail Steamer Phoenix for the last stage of his journey to Bytown. The Phoenix, which was met partway by the steamboat Otter filled with well-wishers, finally arrived at Bytown at about 8.30 pm on 27 July 1853—the journey from Quebec having taken more than 24 hours.

At each stop along the way, Lord Elgin was feted, with local dignitaries welcoming him and expressing their support and loyalty. All stressed the importance of the Ottawa River and its tributaries as “repositories of great wealth” that only needed the “fostering hand of Government to make them a source of great individual and provincial prosperity.”

At Bytown, huge crowds started to gather as early as 6pm along the high banks of the Ottawa River and at the wharves to await the arrival of the Governor General and his staff. When the Phoenix came into view, a cannon mounted high above the river, most likely on Barrick Hill or Nepean Point, fired a 21-gun salute. On board the steamship, a band played God Save the Queen which was followed by the skirl of bagpipes. Disembarking from the Phoenix, a tired Lord Elgin was taken by carriage to Rideau Hall, the residence of Thomas McKay, where he was to stay during his short visit to Bytown. (A few years later, the home was rented and then purchased by the Canadian government as the official residence of the Governor General.)

At 10am the next morning, a large procession formed on Sussex Street and greeted Lord Elgin at the Rideau Bridge on the road that led to Rideau Hall. Proceeded by two constables with “wands” (most likely, decorated truncheons indicating their office), the Union Jack and a further two constables with wands, came Lord Elgin’s carriage. Thomas McKay was seated beside him. Following behind the Governor General’s carriage were carriages carrying Mayor Joseph-Balsora Turgeon and members of the Corporation of Bytown, the Warden and County Council, Members of Parliament, the County Judge, the County Sheriff, various members of organizing committees, the clergy and members of professions in their robes of office, including lawyers, doctors, and magistrates. Pulling up the rear were local residents on horseback and members of the public on foot.

The procession wended its way through the streets of Lower Town, crossed Sappers’ Bridge before heading to Barrick Hill where a bower, or arch, was erected at a spot described as commanding “one of the finest views on this continent.” (This was the very spot where the future Houses of Parliament would later be built.) There, Mayor Turgeon addressed Lord Elgin in both English and French. He assured the Governor General of Bytown’s “inalienable attachment to Her Majesty’s person and Government.” In light of what had transpired four years earlier, these words were not just a diplomatic nicety.  Without explicitly lobbying for Bytown to become the new capital of Canada,  the Mayor stressed the geographical position of the community “in the very Centre of Canada, situate on the banks of the majestic Ottawa, one of the largest rivers in British America, at the junction of the Rideau Canal with that river, —having extensive fertile salubrious country above and around us, inexhaustible in timber and minerals, and unequalled in water powers, —therefore we hope we may be excused in anticipating for our intended City a high rank in the future destiny of this great and fast growing country.”

In response, Lord Elgin thanked the Mayor for the hearty welcome accorded to him and said that the purpose of his visit was to become personally acquainted with “the capabilities and requirements of the Valley of the Ottawa.” He concluded by saying that “Bytown and the region of the Ottawa may henceforward reckon me among their most evident admirers.” These words were greeted by “loud and continued cheering,” said the Citizen.

Following more speeches by the Sons and Cadets of Temperance, who lobbied for total abstinence from all intoxicating liquors, the Governor General, his entourage and other notables continued their progress, through the principal streets of Upper Town, before arriving at the Mechanics’ Institute and Athenaeum where an Exhibition had been hastily organized in only ten days by a committee headed by Dr. Van Courtlandt. There were four categories of exhibits—fine arts, manufactured goods, mechanical objects, specimens of natural history, and geological finds. The Exhibition Hall had been tastefully decorated with flowering plants and flags, with a birch bark canoe suspended from the ceiling. High up near the roof was a banner with the words “Only the presage of a coming time.”

The purpose of the displays was to show Lord Elgin that in spite of the rough-hewn outward nature of Bytown, the community was both cultured and prosperous with a sterling future. The highlight of the fine arts collection on display was the Flight into Egypt by Murillo lent by the Bishop of Bytown from the Roman Catholic Cathedral. In the manufactured goods section, fine tweeds produced by the textile factory owned by Thomas McKay were on display as well as other fabrics made in Bytown and New Edinburgh mills. There were also displays of hats, furs and leather products. In the mechanical section were carriages and sleds made by Humphreys and McDougall, agricultural implements, and a biscuit-making machine from Mr. A. Scott, and a lathe and portable bellows supplied by J.R. Booth. Thirty-three specimens of wood were on show as well as window blinds furnished by Messrs. Cherrier, Dickenson & Co. of New Edinburgh. Specimens of natural history included fossils, provided by Mr Billings, and other curiosities were displayed on a wide table that ran up the middle of the hall. To underscore the mineral wealth of the Ottawa Valley, six different kinds of iron ore were on show, along with samples of Nepean cement stone.

Naturally, there were speeches, lots of them. Elgin commented about how pleased he was to hear the addresses read “in the Scottish tongue.” He also indicated that he was fully aware of the importance of the lumber industry to the region saying “the Lumberman is followed by the Farmer who finds in the wants of the lumberman a ready market for the produce of his industry, and the Farmer, in his turn is immediately succeeded by the Mechanic and the Artisan.”

After his stop at the Mechanics’ Institute, Lord Elgin held a levee at Doran’s Hotel that ended at 1.45pm. This was followed by visits to the Anglican and Roman Catholic Cathedrals before returning to Rideau Hall for a sumptuous collation for fifty guests held in a tent erected on the lawn of the residence.

After luncheon, the Governor General and his entourage took carriages to Alymer in Canada East (Quebec) to dine at the residence of John Egan, M.P.P. He party passed again through Bytown, then over the Ottawa River via the Union Suspension Bridge. The streets of the town were decorated with flags and evergreen branches. Several arches ornamented with flags and banners spanned the roads. In front of Messrs. G. Herou & Co., eight trees had been planted, with a large evergreen wreath hung from the front of the building with a twenty-foot banner. In the centre was a large crown.

At the Union Bridge, Lord Elgin witnessed an exciting descent of three cribs of timber decorated with flags through the timber slide around the Chaudière Falls. The signal to launch was given by a musket discharge. In the middle of the Bridge, the Governor General was met by a mounted deputation from Aylmer, escorted by a “cavalcade of the Yeomanry of the Country” to accompany him to Egan’s residence. He then witnessed another timber crib slide on the Canada East side of the bridge before passing under an archway of pines into the village of Hull and onto the road to Aylmer.

The small town of Aylmer was decorated for the great man’s arrival, with a reception held outside as the Town Hall was too small to accommodate the crowds. After the customary speeches, the vice-regal party repaired to the Egan residence where dinner was served, followed by a ball that started at 10pm and Mary Anne Friel’s dance with the Governor General. This was followed by fireworks.

The next day, Lord Elgin’s party voyaged up the Ottawa River on the steamship Emerald, passing Horaceville, the seat of the Honourable Hamnett Pinhey, where the Governor General was greeted by a 21-gun salute, before docking at Quillon (Quyon) for more speeches. From Quyon, the Emerald steamed to Union Village where the vice-regal party took the Chats Falls Horse Railway to portage around the Falls. At the other end of the portage railway, the group boarded the steamer Oregon at Chats Lake to run first to Arnprior, then to the home of Alexander McDonnell at Sand Point, Bonnechere Point, and finally Portage Du Fort, with speeches given at each stop. At Portage Du Fort, Lord Elgin was greeted by 220 Orangemen in full regalia with four white and green banners. After the welcoming speeches, Lord Elgin said that he had been greeted with great kindness by residents of the Ottawa Valley. Alluding to the disturbances of 1848-49, he added that “His day in Canada, as they were aware, had not been entirely cloudless, —but what care we now for the storm that has passed away… We had our dark and cloudy morning here in Canada—we now enjoy our noon-day sunshine.”

The Oregon then retraced its journey, stopping at Fitzroy Harbour where the vice-regal party disembarked for a walk through the village to the mills amidst cheering crowds and gunfire. The citizens of Fitzroy Harbour weren’t shy about recommending Bytown as the new capital of Canada. In an address presented at that stop, the community said that they were glad that Lord Elgin had visited Bytown, “which from its central position in the Province [of Canada], its salubrious climate and its position in the valley of the Ottawa possesses the first claim to be the permanent seat of government.” Lord Elgin replied that it gave him great pleasure to see “a large number of people of all creeds and races – English, Irish, Scotch and Canadians [French] – living together in the upmost harmony and exerting themselves for the advancement of Canada, the common country of the all.”

Afterwards, Lord Elgin and his party took the portage railway again and re-embarked on the Emerald for the return journey to Aylmer. On the way, some of the ladies and gentlemen, “tripped the light fantastic on the upper deck.”  It was dark by the time the group arrived in Aylmer which was brilliantly illuminated. After a short halt, the Governor General and his entourage took carriages back to Bytown, the route lit up by large bonfires set at strategic points.

After spending the night at Rideau Hall, Lord Elgin left Bytown for good at 5.30 the next morning bound for Montreal on the Phoenix—his trip through the Ottawa Valley an unqualified success.

Four years later, Queen Victoria chose Bytown, now renamed Ottawa, as the capital of the Province of Canada.

Sources:

Friel, Mary A. By. 1901. A Reminiscence, 4 November, Historical Society of Ottawa, A 2009-0147, Box #12, City of Ottawa Archives.

Leggett, R.F. 1968. The Chats Falls Horse Railway,” Science Museum, London, 7 February, https://churcher.crcml.org/circle/Research%20Notes/Chats%20Falls.pdf.

Ottawa Citizen (The), 1853. “Lord Elgin’s Visit to Ottawa,” 30 July.

————————, 1853. “Exhibition of the Mechanics’ Institute,” 30 July.

Sappers’ Bridge

23 July 1912

It ended with a crash that sounded like a great gun going off, the noise reverberating off the buildings of downtown Ottawa. After faithfully serving the Capital for more than eighty years, Sappers’ Bridge finally succumbed to the wreckers in the wee hours of the morning of Tuesday, 23 July 1912. However, the old girl didn’t go gently into that good night. It took seven hours for the structure to finally collapse in pieces into the Rideau Canal below. After trying dynamite with little success, the demolition crew rigged a derrick and for hours repeatedly dropped a 2 ½ ton block onto the platform of the bridge before the arch spanning the Canal gave way. Mr. O’Toole the man in charge of the demolition, said that the bridge was “one of the best pieces of masonry that he [had] ever taken apart.”

Sappers' Bridge Burrowes
View of the Rideau Canal and Sappers’ Bridge – Painting by Thomas Burrowes, c. 1845, Archives of Ontario, Wikipedia.

The bridge, the first and for many decades the only bridge across the Rideau Canal, dated back to the dawn of Bytown. In the summer of 1827, Thomas Burrowes, a member of Lieutenant Colonel John By’s staff, gave his boss a sketch of a proposed wooden bridge to span the Rideau Canal, which was then under construction, from the end of Rideau Street in Lower Bytown on the Canal’s eastern side to the opposing high ground on the western side. Colonel By accepted the proposal but opted in favour of building the bridge out of stone rather than wood. Work got underway almost immediately, with the foundation of the eastern pier begun by Mr. Charles Barrett, a civilian stone mason, though the vast majority of the workers were Royal Sappers and Miners. On 23 August 1827, Colonel By laid the bridge’s cornerstone with the name Sappers’ Bridge cut into it. The arch over the Canal was completed in only two months. On the keystone on the northern face of the bridge, Private Thomas Smith carved the Arms of the Board of Ordnance who owned the Canal and surrounding land. The original bridge was only eighteen feet wide and had no sidewalks.

Reportedly, one of the first civilians to cross Sappers’ Bridge was little Eliza Litle (later Milligan), the six-year old daughter of John Litle, a blacksmith who had set up a tent and workshop where the Château Laurier Hotel stands today. Apparently, Eliza was playing close to the Canal bank on the western side when she was frightened by some passing First Nations’ women. She ran screaming towards Sappers’ Bridge which was then under construction. A big sapper picked Eliza up and carried her over a temporary wooden walkway and dropped her off at her father’s smithy.

Back in those early days, there were two Bytowns. Most people lived in Lower Bytown. It had a population of about 1,500 souls, mostly French and Irish Catholics. The much smaller Upper Bytown, which was centred around Wellington Street roughly where the Supreme Court is situated today, had a population of no more than 500. This was where the community’s elite lived, mainly English and Scottish Protestants. The two distinct worlds, one rowdy and working class, the other stuffy and upper class, were linked by Sappers’ Bridge. While the bridge joined up Rideau Street on its eastern side, there was only a small footpath on its western side. The path wound its way around the base of Barrack Hill (later called Parliament Hill), which was then heavily wooded, past a cemetery on its south side that extended from roughly today’s Elgin Street to Metcalfe Street, until it reached the Wellington and Bank Streets intersection where Upper Bytown started. It wasn’t until 1849 that Sparks Street, which had previously run only from Concession Street (Bronson Avenue) to Bank Street, was linked directly to Sappers’ Bridge. During the 1840s, that stretch of path to Sappers’ Bridge was a lonely and desolate area. It was also dangerous, especially at night. It was the favourite haunt of the lawless who often attacked unwary travellers. Many a score was settled by somebody being turfed over the side of the bridge into the Canal. People travelled across Sappers’ Bridge in groups: there was safety in numbers.

Bytown, which became Ottawa in 1855, quickly outgrew the original narrow Sappers’ Bridge. In 1860, immediately prior the visit of the Prince of Wales who laid the cornerstone of the Centre Block on Parliament Hill, six-foot wide wooden pedestrian sidewalks supported by scaffolding were added to each side of the existing stone bridge. This permitted the entire 18-foot width of the bridge to be used for vehicular traffic.

But only ten years later, the bridge was again having difficulty in coping with traffic across the Rideau Canal. There was discussion on demolishing Sappers’ Bridge and replacing it with something much wider. The Ottawa Citizen opined that such talk verged on the sacrilegious as Sappers’ Bridge was “an old landmark in the history of Bytown.” The newspaper also thought that it was far too expensive to demolish especially as the bridge had “at least another century of wear in it.” It supported an alternative proposal to build a second bridge over the Canal.

In late 1871, work began on the construction of that second bridge across the Canal linking Wellington Street to Rideau Street, immediately to the north of Sappers’ Bridge. It was completed at a cost of $55,000 in 1874. It was called the Dufferin Bridge after Lord Dufferin, Canada’s Governor General at that time. Another $22,000 was spent on widening the old Sappers’ Bridge on which were laid the tracks of the horse-drawn Ottawa Street Passenger Railway.

Despite the upgrade, Ottawa residents were still not happy with the old bridge. Sappers’ Bridge was a quagmire after a rainstorm. On wag stated that “It is estimated that the present condition of the bridge has produced more new adjectives that all the bad whiskey in Lower Town.” One Mr. Whicher of the Marine and Fisheries Department was moved to write a 24-verse parody of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poem The Bridge about Sappers’ Bridge. In it, he referred to “many thousands of mud-encumbered men, each bearing his splatter of nuisance.” He hoped that a gallant colonel “with a mine of powder, a pick and a sure fusee (sic)” would blow it up. His poem was well received when he recited it at Gowan’s Hall in Ottawa.

Sappers' Bridge 1878 Wiliam Topley -Library and Archives Canada
Sappers’ Bridge (left) and Dufferin Bridge (right), c. 1878, Topley Studio and Library and Archives Canada. The old Post Office is in the centre of the photograph. Notice the horse-drawn passenger railway in operation on Sappers’ Bridge.

But it took another thirty-five years before the government contemplated doing just that.  As part of Sir Wilfrid Laurier’s plan to beautify the city and make Ottawa “the Washington of the North,” the Grand Trunk Railway began in 1909 the construction of Château Laurier Hotel on the edge of Major’s Hill Park, and a new train station across the street. Getting wind of government plans to build a piazza in the triangular area above the canal between the Dufferin Bridge and Sappers’ Bridge in front of the new hotel, Mayor Hopewell suggested that Sappers’ Bridge might be widened as part of these plans in order to permit the planting of a boulevard of flowers and rockeries to hid the railway yards from pedestrians walking over the bridge. He also added that public lavatories might be installed beneath the piazza.

Sappers' Bridge Demolition Ottawahh
Demolition of Sappers’ Bridge, 1912. The arch of Sapper’s bridge is gone leaving only the broken abutments and rubble in the Canal. The newly built Château Laurier hotel in in the background on the right. Dufferin Bridge is in the centre of the photograph. Bytown Museum, P799, Ottawahh.

In the event, the federal government decided to demolish Sappers’ Bridge. Both the Dufferin and Sappers’ Bridges were replaced by one large bridge—Plaza bridge. This new bridge was completed in December 1912. The piazza over the Canal was also built. It was bordered by the Château Laurier Hotel, Union Station, the Russell House Hotel and the General Post Office. A straw poll conducted by the Ottawa Citizen newspaper of its readership, favoured naming the new piazza “The Plaza.” However, the government, the owner of the site, had other ideas. It decided on calling it Connaught Place, after Lord Connaught, the third son (and seventh child) of Queen Victoria who had taken up his vice-regal duties as Canada’s Governor General in 1911.

In the 1920s and 1930s, the beautification of downtown Ottawa continued. The Federal District Commission, the forerunner of the National Capital Commission, expropriated the Russell Block of buildings and the Old Post Office to provide space for a national monument to honour Canada’s war dead. The war memorial was officially opened in 1939 by King George VI and Queen Elizabeth. In the process, Connaught Place was transformed into Confederation Square.

Little now remains of the old Sappers’ Bridge. Hidden underneath the Plaza Bridge is a small pile of stones preserved from the old bridge with a plaque installed by the NCC in 2004 in honour of Canadian military engineers. The bridge’s keystone with the chiselled emblem of the Ordnance Board was also saved from destruction. For a time it was housed in the government archives building but its current location is unknown.

Sources:

Ross, A. H. D. 1927. Ottawa Past and Present, Toronto: The Musson Book Company.

The Ottawa Citizen, 1871. “editorial,” 3 May.

————————, 1972. “A Dirty Bridge,” 10 April.

————————, 1874. “Sappers’ Bridge,” 9 October.

————————, 1913. “‘Connaught Place’, Cabinet’s Choice of Name for Area Formed By Union of Sappers’ and Dufferin Bridges,” 24 March.

————————, 1925. “Muddy Sappers’ Bridge In the Seventies,” 18 July.

———————–, 1928. “Girl of Six Was the First Female To Cross Sappers’ Bridge Over Canal,” 23 June.

The Ottawa Evening Journal, 1910. “Widening of the Bridges,” 3 June.

———————————–, 1912. “Early Days In Bytown Some Reminiscences,” 27 April.

———————————–, 1912. “When Ottawa Was Chosen The Capital of Canada,” 4 May.

———————————–, 1912. “Bridge Is Blown Down,” 23 July.

———————————–, 1914. “Notable Stones In the History Of The Capital,” 16 March.

Ottawa’s First Newspaper

24 February 1836

Bytown independent title 24-2-1836

On 24 February 1836, the first edition of the first local newspaper appeared on the streets of Bytown, the small village that was destined to become Ottawa. That newspaper was called The Bytown Independent and Farmer’s Advocate. Its banner on the front page under its name proudly read:

“Let it be impressed upon your minds, Let it be instilled in your children, that the Liberty of the Press is the Palladium of all your civil, political and religious rights.—Sumus.”

The newspaper’s proprietor and editor was James Johnson. An Irish Protestant, Johnson had come to Canada in 1815. In May 1827, he settled in Bytown, which had only been founded the previous year. Reportedly a blacksmith by trade, Johnson quickly became a man of considerable property, earning a living as a merchant and auctioneer in the rough, tough frontier community that was Bytown.

The establishment of a newspaper in the small community was no easy feat, and must have taken many months in put into effect. Johnson purchased his press in Montreal. He personally disassembled it and packed the pieces along with its moveable type in boxes for shipment to Bytown. Most likely, he sent the equipment via boat as there were no railways or good highways linking Bytown to the outside world.

The Prospectus of The Bytown Independent and Farmer’s Advocate was dated December 16, 1835, indicating that Johnson had been working on the newspaper for several months before he released its first issue. He committed to publishing the newspaper every Thursday until demand was such that a semi-weekly publication was warranted. He intended “to advocate the national character and interest of every true Briton—Irishmen and their descendants first on the list.” In addition to being the spokesman for the Irish, Johnson promised to “promote the interests and prosperity of the County of Carleton and the Province [Canada West, i.e. Ontario] in general.” However, he also promised to take “the occasional peep into the affairs of our Sister [Canada East, i.e. Quebec]” since the prosperity of the two Provinces were tightly connected.

Johnson proclaimed that on “all occasions,” the newspaper will “uphold the King, and Constitution by enforcing obedience to the laws.” “May the Union Jack of Great Britain never cease to proudly wave over the Citadel of Quebec,” he declared. However, Johnson was very clear that his allegiance did not extend to the King’s ministers and officers, many of whom he believed incompetent and who put their own self-interest ahead of that of the citizens of the two Provinces. He said that they should be “turned adrift to gain a livelihood by their own industry.” Johnson added that “at all times,” would the newspaper speak out against “any misapplication of public monies, or malefaction with which public officers may be charged.”

One thing the newspaper would not do is to wade into religious controversies, except if “a wonton attack is made upon any body of Christians.” Johnson wrote “every man should be allowed to walk in his own peaceful ways without intolerance, as he is responsible for them to God alone.”

The cost of subscribing to the newspaper, which Johnson promised to publish on “good paper” of “a fair size,” was an expensive £1 or $4 per year, exclusive of postage payable semi-annually in advance. Rates for advertising in the newspaper were set at 2 shillings and sixpence for six lines for the first insertion, with every subsequent insertion set at 7 1/2d. Rates went up for larger advertisements. From six to ten lines, the initial rate was 3s. 6d. with subsequent insertions costing 10d. For submissions of great than ten lines, the rate would be 4d. per line for the first time, and 1d. per line for subsequent insertions.

That first edition had a run of about 500 copies, four pages long, which he produced with the help of John Stewart, his compositor. Johnson tried to deliver by hand all the copies of that inaugural issue of the Bytown Independent as he didn’t want to use the Post Office. Johnson, an irascible and opinionated man, was angry at Bytown’s Deputy Post Master and didn’t want to give him the business. “We have always been ill treated by the Deputy Post Master,” he raged. “To have him enlarge his bags for five hundred copies of the Bytown Independent would be unreasonable on our part.”

Johnson requested that friends and foes alike peruse the newspaper and if they didn’t agree with the paper’s politics they could return the issue by the post. Those who retained the issue would be placed on the Subscribers’ List—an early example of what today is called unsolicited supply. Johnson also advised recipients not to keep a copy out of compassion since if necessary he would seek reforms even if they affected “our best friend.”

Johnson pledged that at the end of the year if he was satisfied with himself, he would treat himself and any well-wishers to a bottle of something that would remain nameless.

Politically, Johnson pledged himself to being neither Whig (Reform) or Tory (Conservative). However, it is evident from the newspaper’s coverage of political events that Johnson was an ardent reformer. The newspaper’s account in its first issue of the evolving Canadian political scene provides a fascinating contemporary look into the turbulent period immediately prior to the Rebellions of 1837 when radical reformers took up arms against repressive, non-representative governments in Upper and Lower Canada.

The first issue of the Bytown Independent took place against the backdrop of a change in the leadership of Upper Canada. Sir John Colborne had just been replaced by Sir Francis Bond Head as Lieutenant Governor. Colborne, a military man who had served under the Duke of Wellington during the Napoleonic War, was conservative by nature and served Upper Canada with an unostentatious style. He successively increased the population of Upper Canada through emigration from Britain and instituted a major public works programme to improve communications across the Province. However, while conscious of the need for constitutional reform, Colborne did nothing to address the provincial political grievances.  While many moderates approved of his administration, radical reformers resented his treatment of the House of Assembly, the cost of assisting immigrants, and his use of public funds without the support of the legislature.

Johnson comments on Colborne were scathing and were often close to being libelous. He wrote:

“We can speak of Sir John’s administration from our own knowledge—not from rumours afloat; and we do say this of it, that it was the most puny, partial and political Government that ever any Colony was governed by.”

As well, Johnson, who called Colborne “a scanty head,” accused the Lieutenant Governor of interference in the 1832 by-election in Carleton County. He blamed the election of Hamnet Pinney (or Pinhey), a Tory, over George Lyon, a reformer, by Colborne’s appointment of a corrupt and biased returning officer.

In the newspaper’s first issue, Johnson published the first half of a letter of instructions to Sir Francis Bond Head from Lord Glenelg, the Secretary of State for War and the Colonies in London. (The second half was to appear in the second issue of the Independent.) The instructions refer to the mammoth Seventh Report of the Select Committee, which had been chaired by William Lyon Mackenzie, on the grievances of Upper Canada’s House of Assembly. The chief grievance was the “almost unlimited extent of the patronage of the Crown,” exercised by the Colonial minister and his advisers. Lord Glenelg made it very clear that he did not favour the appointment of public officials by the legislature, or by any form of popular election. He feared that such public officials would not work for the general good and “would be virtually exempt from responsibility.” Far better for the Lieutenant Governor to appoint able men who would not promote “any narrow, exclusive or party design.” Given the explosive contents of Glenelg’s letter, it was astonishing that Head released it to the press.

A lengthy response to Glenelg’s instructions written by William Lyon Mackenzie, which originally appeared in a Toronto newspaper, was also published. Mackenzie wrote that throughout the two Canadas there was a “general feeling of disappointment and regret.” He added:

“If Sir Francis appoints to Executive Council men…known for their ability, integrity, firmness and sincere attachment to reform principles, his path will be smooth and easy…but if His Excellency shall retain in office the avowed enemies of free institutions, men whom the basest governments of England ever knew, have made use of their minions to oppress our country, it will be our duty at once to demand his recall and insist that a government which is in itself the greatest of all grievances be made suitable to our wants.”

Unfortunately, Head went on to alienate reformers—his arrogance and ignorance a disastrous combination.  Although Tories won the General Election in June 1836 owing to Head’s appeals of loyalty to the Crown, his actions against reformers led to rebellion. In late 1837, Mackenzie declared himself president of the short-lived Republic of Canada. But the insurrection quickly fizzled. Mackenzie fled to the United States while Head was recalled in disgrace. These events set the stage for the introduction of responsible government under the leadership of moderates such as Robert Baldwin and Louis-Hippolyte LaFontaine during the following decade.

In addition to giving a contemporary account of the political struggle between reformers seeking what Americans might call a “government by the people for the people,” and Tories desiring to preserve an autocracy run by the Governor, the Bytown Independent also provides a fascinating window into economic life of early 19th century Canada. During these years, it was unclear whether British North America would use pounds, shillings and pence or dollars and cents as its currency. British and America coins circulated side by side. Canadian banks, which had just began to circulate their own bank notes, issued paper money in both pounds and dollars, sometimes simultaneously in the form of dual denominated notes. This currency ambivalence can be seen by Johnson setting the price of an annual subscription to his newspaper at $4 dollars in one place and at 20 shillings (£1) in another. It wasn’t until 1857 that the Province of Canada (the two provinces of Upper and Lower Canada united in 1841) finally chose dollars and cents—economic ties with its U.S. neighbour trumped political and emotional ties with Britain.

There is also a reference in the newspaper to “bons”–a form of alterative paper scrip, usually of small denomination issued by merchants which could be used to buy goods in the issuer’s store. Bon stood for “Bon pour,” French for “Good for.”

Bytown independent 24-2-1836
During the early 19th century, promissory notes (notes of hand) were often used as currency. Endorsed on the back, the notes would pass from person to person as money. Ruglass Wright is probably Ruggles Wright, a son of Philemon Wright who founded Hull. Ruggles, a lumberman like his father, built the first timber slide to transport logs around the Chaudière Falls. In this case, Hugh McGreer is warning potential buyers of the note that he will not pay it if presented.

As well, there is a fascinating reference to “Halifax Currency.” Halifax Currency denoted a way of converting pounds into silver dollars. (It was called Halifax currency after the city where it originated.) One pound, Halifax currency, converted into four silver dollars, or 5 shillings equalled $1. The issuer of a promissory note specified Halifax currency because of the existence of other conversion ratings. For example, in York Currency, which was still in use in parts of Upper Canada in 1836, one silver dollar was worth 8 shillings. To avoid confusion and being short-changed on repayment, it was a sensible precaution to specify the type of currency being used in financial contracts.

Among the advertisements in the newspaper’s first issue are notices from the Post Office listing the times when letters destined for various communities in Upper and Lower Canada had to be received by the Post Office and when letters were delivered at Bytown from these communities. A long list of names of people with mail waiting for them at the Post Office was also provided along with the amount of postage due by them. As these were the days before postage stamps, the recipient of a letter paid the delivery fee. G.W. Baker, the Post Master, warned that unless the amounts were paid by April 5th, the letters would be sent to the dead letter box in Quebec.

Bytown independent Personal ad 24-2-1836
The first personal advertisement. Bytown Independent and Farmer’s Advocate, 24 February 1836. One must wonder whether Daniel Murphy ever reconnected with his sisters.

In another advertisement, Mr. William Northgraves, a watch and clock maker with an office “nearly opposite the Butcher’s Shambles in Lower Bytown,” announced to Bytown residents that from long experience he had acquired “a perfect knowledge of the practical as well as the theoretical part of the science” and was ready to clean and repair all kinds of watches and clocks. Among other things, he could also repair mathematical and surgical instruments, and make all kinds of fine screws. As a side line, he bought old gold and silver.

Two advertisements were placed in the newspaper by Alexander J. Christie. The first he inserted in his capacity as Secretary of the Ottawa Lumber Association announcing a meeting to be held on March 1st at 10 am at J. Chitty’s Hotel to promote the prosperity of the lumber trade. The second was a request for tenders to clear one hundred acres of land close to Bytown.

Christie must have taken a keen liking in the newspaper. He purchased the The Bytown Independent and Farmer’s Advocate from James Johnson after its second issue.  The sale must have surprised the small Bytown community. Christie was a Tory who had helped Hamnet Pinhey win the disputed 1832 Carleton County by-election. Dr. Christie, as he was generally known, was a medical practitioner of uncertain qualifications who had been appointed coroner in 1830 for the Bathurst District in which Bytown was situated. He was also appointed a public notary by Sir John Colborne. Consequently, he represented everything that Johnson had railed against in his newspaper.

Christie relaunched the newspaper a few months later as the Bytown Gazette, and Ottawa and Rideau Advertiser. In his prospectus, Christie claimed that “he comes forward unfettered by a blind adherence to any party.” However, the Gazette’s coverage of political events had a strong Tory bias. The Bytown Gazette folded in 1845 two years after the death of Dr. Christie.

Bytown regained a local reformist newspaper with the establishment of The Packet in 1843 by William Harris. The Packet was to be renamed The Ottawa Citizen in 1851 and remains the most prominent newspaper in the city to this day.

Sources:

Ballstadt, Carl, 2003. “Christie, Alexander James,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, Vol. 7. University of Toronto/Université Laval, accessed 27 July 2018, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/christie_alexander_james_7E.html.

Bytown Independent and Farmer’s Advocate (The), 24 February 1836.

House of Assembly of Upper Canada, 1835, The Seventh Report from the Select Committee on Grievances, chaired by W. L. Mackenzie, Esq., M. Reynolds: Toronto.

Powell, James, 2005, History of the Canadian Dollar, Bank of Canada.

Wilson, Alan, 2003. “Colborne, John, Baron Seaton,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, Vol. 9, University of Toronto/Université Laval, accessed 27 July 2018, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/colborne_john_9E.html.

Wise, S. W., 1972. “Head, Sir Francis Bond,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, Vol. 9, University of Toronto/Université Laval, accessed 27 July 2018, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/head_francis_bond_10E.html.

June & Company’s Great Oriental Circus

12 August 1851

Life was hard in Bytown during the mid-nineteenth century. The small community, which was to become Ottawa, had perhaps 7,000 souls. People laboured long hours, six days of the week, for low pay. For tired workers after-work entertainment options were limited. Many simply repaired to their neighbourhood watering hole. For the well-to-do, Hough’s Dramatic Company, a troupe of five ladies and ten gentlemen, put on dramatic productions—tragedies, dramas and farces—at the Union Hall. A seat at their performances cost 1s. 3d., the equivalent of 25 cents. Those looking to improve themselves could join the Mechanics Institute and Athenaeum or l’Institut canadien français d’Ottawa. Both organizations, which were established in the early 1850s, put on edifying lectures and organized reading rooms and small libraries for their subscribers. For the sportsman, pigeon shooting on Major’s Hill was another popular activity during the annual spring and fall migrations—at least it was until most of the trees were cut down sometime before 1860 destroying the birds’ roosting sites.

circus-june-co-26-7-51
Advertisement for the June & Company’s Great Oriental Circus, The Ottawa Citizen, 26 July 1851.

Given this limited range of entertainment possibilities, imagine the excitement when a circus came to town. For most people, it was their only exposure to the outside world, enabling them to see exotic animals, mysterious peoples, and astonishing acts that they could otherwise only dream about.

The June & Company’s Great Oriental Circus operated by James M. June with his partner Seth Howes came to Canada in 1851 with stops in Montreal and Toronto before coming to Bytown for a three-day visit from the 12 to 14 August, 1851. This was at least the second visit by Seth Howes. In the summer of 1840 he had brought the Equestrian Exhibition of the National Circus of New York to little Bytown which what was then little more than a remote lumbering village.

As the railway had not yet linked Bytown to the outside world, the circus must have travelled to the town by road—an onerous journey given the quality of inter-city highways of that era. The entrance fee was 1s. 3d. There was no price reduction for children; early circuses did not cater to youngsters.

The June & Company circus entered Bytown with the band car in front drawn by its eight Syrian camels “imported at vast expense expressly for this Establishment.” The circus’s advertisement also promised “a greater variety of startling and attractive entertainments than ever before been given by any single Troupe, for the effectual production of which an ‘Unparalleled Array of Talent’ has been secured.” As you can see, circus bombast started early. Most of the circus performances were equestrian in nature. Featured artists included Laverter Lee, the “great English EQUILIBRIST and DOUBLE RIDER, and his Talented Children.” The very large Lee family, which had immigrated to the United States in the 1840s, was a notable show family that provided a number of fine equestrians. The family is also reputed to have invented the “perch act,” where one performer conducts a series of acrobatic tricks on top of a pole that is being balanced by another performer. William H. Cole and his wife Mary Anne also performed. William Cole was a famed contortionist and clown. His wife was a renowned equestrienne who was billed to have come from Astley’s Amphitheatre in England. Astley’s was a famed London circus performance venue during the nineteenth century. Mary Anne Cole was the star of a show called “EXERCISES OF THE MANEGE.” Other featured equestrians were Mrs Caroline Sherwood, Mr. Lipman, “the distinguished dramatic rider” and Mr Sherwood, “the rapid rider.” The acrobats Messrs MacFarland and Sweet also performed. MacFarland was renowned for having executed eighty-seven successive somersaults. To round out the show was the clown John Gossin. Gossin, who was coming to the end of his career when he performed with the June circus, was a witty raconteur as well as a rider and tumbler. In the course of each performance, which started at 2.30 pm and 7.30 pm each day, the camels were introduced in “a new and magnificent Oriental Pageant” called the Caravan of the Desert, “representing the means of travelling in in the East and an Encampment of Wandering Arabs.”

News of the circus’s arrival in Bytown prompted controversy as well as excitement. A week prior to its appearance, a small critical article appeared in The Ottawa Citizen. It read “He of the Gazette,” in noticing the June & Company’s advertisement in the newspaper, invited readers to “a lecture on the immorality of such exhibitions.”  While unnamed, “he of the Gazette” was William F. Powell, a prominent Bytown citizen who had been the editor of the Bytown Gazette. He was to become the Conservative Member of Parliament for Carleton Country in 1854. (Powell Avenue in the Glebe neighbourhood is named in his honour.)

Robert Bell, the reformist and liberal-minded editor of The Ottawa Citizen, mocked Powell. He opined that June & Co. was a “most respectable company,” and that he was “at a loss to appreciate justly the various performances, and the decent and becoming manner with which it was carried on.” He added “Really the Editor of the Gazette is impayable [priceless], when forgetting who he is, he robes himself in the garb of the casuist, and decides for the spiritual benefit of his townsmen, what sort of amusement they are to have, and what are those which might prove detrimental to their morals.” Given the warm reception given to the Circus by Bytown’s residents, Bell said Powell was “preaching in the desert.”  Bell described the performance of Mrs Cole as “lady-like,” and that she had managed her spirited horse in an elegant manner. He also thought Mrs Sherwood was a good equestrian performer. As well, he praised highly the performance of the circus men especially that of John Gossin who Bell described as “a spirited and merry Clown of the troupe who kept the audience in a constant fit of laughter.” In one of the Circus’s performances, Gossin’s jokes about Powell, elicited “a roar of laughter.” Bell hoped that that would teach Powell that his position in the community “is not such as to warrant his giving advices as to what is morally becoming to the ladies of Bytown.”

After June & Company, other circuses stopped regularly in Bytown and later Ottawa through the remainder of the nineteenth century and well into the twentieth. Once the city was accessible by rail, productions also became bigger and more elaborate owing to both supply and demand reasons. Rail service lifted the constraints on what travelling circuses could transport from town to town at reasonable cost. This allowed them to respond to competitive pressures for new and more bizarre acts from increasingly jaded audiences who had become bored with equestrians, tumblers and clowns, the mainstay of early circuses. Perhaps the greatest circuses of the late nineteenth century that came to Ottawa was the famous Barnum & Bailey Circus, billed as “The Greatest Show on Earth.”  So fantastic was the Barnum & Bailey Circus, it warrants its own story.

Sources:

Brown, Col. T. Allston, 1994. Amphitheatres & Circuses, Emeritus Enterprise, San Bernardino, California.

Bytown Gazette (The), 1840. “National Circus–From The City Of New York,” 27 August.

Ottawa Citizen (The), 1851. “June and Co.’s Splendid Oriental Circus,” 9 August.

————————-, 1851. “Theatre,” 16 August.

————————-, 1851. “The Circus,” 16 August.

Circus Historical Society, 2002, http://www.circushistory.org/index.htm.

Slout, William L, 2002. Chilly Billy, The Evolution of a Circus Millionaire, Emeritus Enterprise: San Bernardino, California.