In every generation there are a handful of people who stand out prominently in the historical record, and who led lives that continue to be of interest to historians.
Rarely are these people typical of their time and place. Sometimes the lives of those who were less prominent in their time can be more instructive to us today, as they coped with the every-day problems and circumstances of their lives.
An excellent example of the latter is Charles Davidson, whose shadow extends across Guelph for much of the 19th century.
Like many of Guelph’s pioneers, Davidson was a Scotsman, born in Ayrshire in 1816. And like many of those people, he had upper middle class origins.
He was the eldest son of a family that had maintained a large estate, known as Woodside, for many generations. In the 18th century the family established a tannery in connection with the farm.
Davidson received his education at private schools and then at the Ayr Academy. He then returned to the farm, and took over much of the management duties from his ailing father. He spent his spare time reading up on agricultural subjects, and took a particular interest in improving livestock and in plowing and cultivation practices.
A series of bad harvests, resulting from inclement weather, caused the family severe financial losses and discouraged young Davidson to abandon agriculture. His sold out, and the family moved to Glasgow, where Charles Davidson switched careers, apprenticing as a clerk in a grocery business.
Like many young and ambitious men, Davidson decided to move to Canada. Father and son arrived in Montreal in June 1841. Young Charles had an introduction through mutual acquaintances to Sir Isaac Buchanan, who was prominent in politics and headed a wholesale grocery and dry goods business operating in Toronto and Hamilton.
Buchanan gave Davidson helpful advice about getting ahead in Canada, and gave him a letter of introduction to a man named Coleman, at Paris. Coleman advised Charles Davidson to avoid farming, and instead to go into business and operate a store.
Like many Scottish immigrants, Davidson took full advantage of the networks of kinship and friendship that typified the Scots. An old friend of the family in Hamilton put him in touch with a storekeeper in St. Thomas, and he, in turn, set up Davidson with a branch store in Fingal.
Charles Davidson operated the store successfully for three years. Then he received an invitation to move to Guelph, and take over management of a store operated by another family friend named Ross, whose health as failing.
That position lasted only a few months. Davidson then took a job with the British Colonist, the Toronto newspaper, as a travelling agent, selling advertising and subscriptions.
He saw much of southern Ontario during his few months with the Colonist, and as a result gave up his ambitions to farm.
In 1846, five years after coming to Canada, Charles Davidson decided to settle down permanently. He began a partnership in Guelph as a storekeeper on Market Square. The business, known as Jackson & Davidson, was immediately successful, but the business did not survive some irregularities on the part of Jackson.
Davidson wound up the business under the supervision of the creditors. He then moved to Acton and opened another store, this one under his own name exclusively. His ability to use contacts and connections served him well. He captured a large share of the business brought to the village by survey crews and sub-contractors for the Grand Trunk Railway, then under construction from Toronto to Sarnia via Guelph.
After a couple of years, he received an attractive offer to work for James Webster, the co-founder of Fergus. After losing his shirt in several ventures, Webster was then climbing back to his former stature, and like Davidson, used family and business connections to rise. Webster at that point operated a real estate and commission business in Guelph. That would be the final move for Davidson.
His first assignment for Webster was negotiating for land on behalf of Webster for the Grand Trunk right-of-way between Guelph and Stratford. Less than a year later, Davidson had become nervous about his close association with Webster, whose business style was always reckless. Davidson, who was nervous in such an environment, resigned and took over management of the Guelph based Wellington Mutual Fire Insurance Company.
The business was then a small one, but Davidson built it up slowly and steadily over the years, keeping pace with the growth of Guelph and the increasing prosperity of the area.
By the mid-1860s Davidson was solidly established in Guelph. With a group of local investors he put some of his savings into the burgeoning petroleum business at Oil Springs, near Sarnia. He lost heavily in that venture.
After burning his fingers in the oil business, Charles Davidson determined to concentrate his efforts closer to home.
In 1867, as a sideline, he opened a real estate agency in partnership with lawyer P.J. Chadwick. The partners carried on for several years, dissolving the business when the government appointed Chadwick to a judgeship.
It appears that Charles Davidson decided on Guelph as his permanent home soon after joining the Wellington Mutual. In 1858, Guelph voters sent him to the town council table. Two years later he was deputy-reeve, and a member of county council. Though he had eschewed farming, he continued to have an interest in agriculture. Through the decades he was often called upon to act as judge at plowing matches.
Colleagues on council deferred to Davidson’s knowledge of business affairs and his sound, if rather conservative, judgement in financial matters.
In upper-tier politics he was a Conservative, but never became actively involved in political affairs beyond the local level.
Davidson married in 1847, at the age of 31, to Jean Kennedy, daughter of William “Upright” Kennedy, a somewhat eccentric man who built log cabins with the logs standing on end, rather than placed horizontally.
The couple had two sons and three daughters. The younger son was claimed in a drowning accident in 1871.
Charles Davidson left city council after the 1883 term. By then he was 67, an advanced age for that time, and his health was beginning to suffer. Though he went to his office most days, he delegated the bulk of the routine to employees.
By 1897, Davidson’s health had declined to the point of being bed-ridden some of the time. In 1897, he and Jean celebrated their golden wedding anniversary, a rare achievement in that time when life expectancies were shorter than today. Davidson was able to welcome well-wishers, but his health failed rapidly after that. He died peacefully at his home on Feb. 16, 1898, a week before his 82nd birthday.
The family held a private service at Davidson’s house, and then proceeded to St. Andrew’s Church, where three ministers conducted the funeral. Most of the prominent men of Guelph sat in the pews. Rev. Robert Torrance delivered the eulogy. He emphasized Davidson’s integrity and reputation for honesty, and his devotion to family, church and community.
Only a couple of newspapers outside Guelph noted Davidson’s passing. One was the Monetary Times, the leading Canadian business periodical of the day. Through his lengthy term as general manager of the Wellington Mutual Fire Insurance Company, a position he held for 44 years, Davidson’s name was well known inside Canadian business circles.
Charles Davidson’s name is barely remembered today. During his life he was one of the well known men of Guelph and Wellington County. The details of his life reveal as much or more life in his time than the biographies of men much more prominent in the community.