Editor Acton Burrows influenced Wellington – and Canada

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.

The name means nothing to the majority of people today, in Wellington County or elsewhere in Ontario. 

Local history buffs should be familiar with his book, The Annals of the Town of Guelph, published in 1877, though the details of his remarkable life are forgotten.

The name appeared in this column a couple of months ago, in connection with early fish stocking efforts. Acton Burrows served, in 1875, as secretary of what I believe was the first group organized to improve local fishing.

Burrows’ connections with Wellington County date to the fall of 1873, when George Drew, the over-sharp Elora lawyer, hired him to edit a weekly newspaper.

Drew was to carry the conservative banner in the riding of Wellington in the general election of January 1874. Elora already had two newspapers, the Observer and the North Wellington Times, which circulated widely in the north part of the county. Both represented shades of Liberal opinion, with open contempt for Drew and his party in the wake of the Pacific Scandal.

When Burrows arrived in Elora to take up his new job, he had just turned 20. I have been unable to discover how he became associated with Drew.

A recent immigrant from Herefordshire, England, Burrows had been working in Montreal for a few months with the Canadian Illustrated News, a popular weekly magazine. He possessed outstanding literary abilities, a quick intelligence, and a wide-ranging curiosity. He had also acquired political opinions. He was vehemently and passionately conservative.

Burrows was the son of Alfred Burrows, a scientist of some note, who was a fellow of the Royal Geographical Society and of the Linnaean Society, a group of botanists. Young Acton received a very solid education at Saham College in Norfolk.

Drew’s new paper was called the Standard. The election campaign was underway while the ink was still wet on the first issue. Not only did Burrows need to cope with the problems of starting a new publication, but he also had to absorb a working knowledge of local politics and its personalities.

The mudslinging started immediately. Though not yet old enough to vote, Burrows showed he was fully the equal of seasoned journalists such as “Observer” John Smith, whose newspaper career in Wellington County went back to 1845. By coincidence, Liberal candidate Nathan Higinbotham was Smith’s brother-in-law, a circumstance that added further heat to the editorial rivalry.

When the votes had all been tallied, Higinbotham won North Wellington by only six votes, a remarkable event in light of the Pacific Scandal and a less-than-popular candidate in George Drew. A good deal of his strength was due to the deflation by Burrows of the Liberal platform.

As a business, though, the Elora Standard did not prosper. Advertising and subscription revenue paid less than half the bills. His political career in temporary ruin, Drew pulled his support of the paper, and it ceased publication in July 1874, after a life of eight months.

His short-lived career as editor ended, Acton Burrows moved to Guelph and a job as reporter with the Guelph Herald, which had just gone from weekly to daily publication.

After less than a year in the area, Burrows already was a public figure. His youth and outspokenness marked him as an impudent young wise guy. One editor from the north of Wellington challenged Burrows’ editorial opinions in a Fergus bar room. The result was a fist-swinging brawl on St. Andrew Street.

The Craigs, of the Fergus News Record, accused Burrows of leaving Elora with a fistful of unpaid bills. Burrows sued for libel. The case was dismissed at trial, but it attracted a lot of attention during August and September of 1874.

The Guelph Herald, the only consistently conservative newspaper in Wellington in this period, was undergoing a change in ownership. George Pirie had been the proprietor. Pirie’s newspaper career went back to the 1850s, when he had owned the old Fergus Freeholder. The Pirie family sold the Herald to F.J. Chadwick, a man prominent in Guelph business and political circles – he would be mayor in 1877.

James Fahey was the editor of the Herald when Burrows joined the staff in 1874. The following May, Fahey suffered a bad respiratory attack, and went to California for his health. Chadwick elevated Burrows to the post of editor, a few months before his 22nd birthday. He was easily the youngest editor of a daily newspaper in Canada.

Burrows quickly established himself in Guelph. He was active as a director of the Guelph and Ontario Investment and Savings Society, the Mechanics Institute, and the conservation group.

Guelph celebrated its 50th anniversary in 1877. At the beginning of the year Chadwick and Burrows decided that the Herald would celebrate the event with a book, to be written and edited by Burrows.

The Annals of the Town of Guelph appeared in time for the celebrations in April 1877. It is still a remarkable achievement, and a refreshing discovery for those not familiar with it. All too often, local histories paint the pioneer generations as selfless heroes, with anything not throwing the best light on them as best left unsaid. 

Burrows shows the early decades of Guelph as one of conflict and broken dreams for many. Punctuating the milestones in the city’s history are selfish speculators, sleazy election campaigns, gruesome accidents, shady business dealings, particularly with railway projects, and appalling examples of violence and criminal activity. 

Overriding all, though, was a sense that the city had made immense progress in 50 years, convoluted though the path might be. The book is a vivid demonstration that Burrows had a mature understanding of human nature, though he had not yet reached his 24th birthday.

Later in 1877 Acton Burrows acquired a part interest in the Herald. However, his days in Guelph were numbered.

Early in 1878, Conservative Party power brokers hired Burrows to be secretary of an office in Toronto. He helped organize a convention at which the party members approved the National Policy. In the general election of September 1878 John A. Macdonald swept back into power on this anti free trade platform.

With the Toronto office closed, a restless and ambitious Acton Burrows sought new challenges. He found them in Winnipeg, where he worked briefly for a couple of the city’s papers before taking over as editor of the Manitoban in 1879. He immediately joined the Winnipeg Board of Trade, and soon became its secretary.

Burrows interrupted his journalistic career in 1882 when he accepted the post of Deputy Minister of Agriculture, Statistics and Health with the Manitoba government. This was a new position. Burrows gathered information and helped draft government policies for the rapidly expanding agricultural sector of the Manitoba economy.

After five years in the job, Burrows could no longer resist the lure of journalism. He became editor of the Morning Call in 1887. Two years later he established his own publishing company, which produced the Nor-West Farmer. In 1890 he started yet another periodical, the Western World, which he edited until 1898.

About 1883, while poking around the Canadian Pacific yards in Winnipeg, Burrows encountered William Van Horne, the general manager of the company, and later its president. The two men shared many personal qualities, and became lifelong friends.

Van Horne repeatedly lamented to Burrows that there was no trade publication for transportation in Canada. Eventually, in 1898, he convinced Burrows to start one.

In 1898, Acton Burrows left Manitoba and headed east to Toronto, where he founded a new company to publish Railway and Shipping World, which later changed its name to Canadian Transportation.

Anxious to support his own trade, Burrows helped found the Canadian National Newspapers and Periodicals Association, and served as the first president.

As editor of Railway and Shipping World, Burrows established contacts across the country. He took a particular interest in urban transit in the early years of the 20th century, when most cities were building and expanding streetcar lines.

Through the efforts of Burrows, the Canadian Transit Association was formed in 1904.

As a resident of Toronto, Acton Burrows was within striking distance of his old fishing haunts in Eramosa and Erin Townships. He joined the Caledon Trout Club, and as often as possible picked up his rod and hand-tied flies and headed for Wellington County.

As he mellowed with age, Burrows became a desirable and agreeable companion. He quickly made friends with his sparkling wit and storehouse of stories and anecdotes.

Most of Wellington County’s editors between 1900 and 1930 knew Burrows. He inspired some, such as Hugh Templin of Fergus, to advocate conservation projects. Katherine Marston recalled taking a fast-paced eight-mile walk with Burrows in the late 1920s, during which he talked constantly. Though in his mid 70s, Burrows finished fresh as a daisy.

This was a good dozen years before Mrs. Marston took over the Elora Express, but the ideas of Burrows inspired her advocacy of conservation measures. Through his influence on local editors, Acton Burrows can be regarded as one of the fathers of the Grand River Conservation Authority.

In 1934, Burrows turned over the editorship of Railway and Shipping World to his son Aubrey. In retirement he enjoyed the outdoors as much as possible until illness slowed him down. 

The man with the scythe did not catch up with Acton Burrows until 1948, when the old editor had just passed his 95th birthday.

It is a pity that this remarkable career, which has special significance to Wellington County, is so little known. I do not believe that Acton Burrows left any personal papers. There are only a half dozen very brief biographical articles, which do not agree in details or dates.

Nevertheless, Acton Burrows lived a rich, varied and useful life during the decades when Canada matured as a nation. I look at his career with both envy and admiration.

*This column was originally published in the Wellington Advertiser on June 14, 1999.

Thorning Revisited