The following is a re-print of a past column by former Advertiser columnist Stephen Thorning, who passed away on Feb. 23, 2015.
Some text has been updated to reflect changes since the original publication and any images used may not be the same as those that accompanied the original publication.
A fine fall afternoon can be an irresistible lure for young boys to abandon the classroom, and to devote their time to exploring interesting places that promise adventure.
That was precisely the intention of 10-year-old Bobby Hillyard of Guelph. On Oct. 1, 1880, he returned from Central School at noon for lunch. His father, Frank Hillyard, was a labourer, residing on Cardigan Street. He normally came home at noon, and the family normally ate their lunch together.
At about 1pm his parents thought Bobby had returned to the school, about a 15-minute walk, for afternoon classes, but instead he had a more interesting afternoon planned.
Instead of climbing the hill to Central School, he crossed the Eramosa bridge, for a rendezvous with four of his chums, two boys named Wanless, and two sons of Thomas Keating, who was clerk of the surrogate court. All were between 10 and 12 years of age.
The boys spent the first part of the afternoon poking around Queen Street, where several houses were under construction. Some of the workmen cautioned the boys that they were playing with fire by skipping school, but none tipped off the authorities. Perhaps they were a little envious of the boys’ seemingly carefree afternoon.
Bobby Hillyard and his chums then went down to the Speed River, looking for excitement, but finding little. By mid afternoon they were bored. They sat around for a while, trying to decide what to do next.
One of them came up with the idea of getting some liquor. Bobby had 15 cents, and one of the Keating boys had some change as well. Pooling their resources, they came up with 30 cents, the price of a bottle of rotgut whiskey.
Bobby was the ringleader of this plot, and he agreed to go and get a bottle. He soon returned with the whiskey, purchased from one of the downtown stores that sold liquor. The boys passed the bottle around. All had a taste or two, but the Wanless and Keating boys made faces, finding the beverage very disagreeable to their taste buds. Bobby Hillyard showed off before his friends, taking gulps from the bottle.
In less than a half hour the bottle was empty, the bulk of it in Bobby’s stomach. The Wanless and Keating boys felt a little ill, but Bobby was obviously in much worse shape, at first moaning, and then seeming to fall asleep.
When they were unable to waken Bobby, his friends went to get some help from people in the neighbourhood. They found a couple of women in one of the houses on Queen Street. They too were unable to rouse young Bobby, though they tried everything they could think of, including the application of cold cloths to his face. They sent the boys to get a police officer.
Meanwhile, a tradesman named John Campbell drove up, with two of his employees. The women asked for his help. Campbell loosened the boy’s shirt, but was unable to revive the boy, whose breath had become laboured. Campbell sent his men to bring Dr. Herod as quickly as possible.
The desperate mission was too late. A couple of minutes later young Bobby stopped breathing as Campbell held him.
Campbell’s men returned a short time later in the buggy, with Dr. Herod in the back seat. He examined the boy, and quickly confirmed that life was extinct. The doctor asked the men to take the body to the Drill Shed for an inquest.
By then, the other boys had returned with a constable. He found the bottle, empty and discarded nearby, and took it for evidence.
Dr. Herod, who was also the coroner, convened the inquest that same evening. It was a short session. The doctor had performed an autopsy, and confirmed that the boy had consumed a large quantity of alcohol. The other boys, devastated and shaking at the consequences of their afternoon’s lark, revealed the story.
The jury deliberated only a few minutes before presenting their verdict: “That Robert Hillyard’s death was caused by and from the effects of whiskey.”
They went further, with condemnations and recommendations: “We also find that the parties supplying the whiskey are gravely responsible for giving same to minors – such young boys in particular. We also recommend in future more stringent measures be taken to see that the Shop Licence Law is strictly enforced.”
The sudden loss of their son was a bitter blow to Frank Hillyard and his wife. Though a common labourer, Frank was well respected in the city, and universally regarded as a hard working family man. The death was also a tragedy to Bobby’s companions, whose seemingly harmless lark had quickly turned to tragedy.
Bobby’s companions did not know where Bobby had procured the bottle.
No name was ever suggested publicly. The legal position of the seller was uncertain. In 1880 there were no laws defining a minimum drinking age.
By convention, it was generally assumed that boys could drink when they began to work, though apprentices were generally forbidden from drinking. As well, younger children were frequently sent to stores to buy alcohol for their parents.
Selling liquor to a boy of 10, on a day when he should have been at school, and without a note from his parents, was considered questionable by most people.
The Bobby Hillyard case certainly sent a message to liquor vendors in Guelph and the surrounding area to exercise more prudence and caution when giving liquor to minors.
To the temperance movement, which was riding a crest of popularity and influence in 1880, Bobby Hillyard became something of a local martyr.
They used his death to prove the poisonous nature of alcohol, and to show that the liquor interests, in their avarice, threw good sense and prudence to the wind in order to secure every possible sale. Liquor inspectors had commenced a crackdown on liquor violations of all sorts in 1880, and the Hillyard case put additional pressure on vendors to comply strictly with both the letter and intention of the laws.
It appears that Bobby Hillyard was the youngest person in Wellington County’s history to die as the result of alcohol consumption. His example was certainly a factor when the county voted in favour of prohibition in 1886.
*This column was originally published in the Wellington Advertiser on Jan. 4, 2008.