Elora has tradition of being plagued with oversharp lawyers

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 characteristic of Ontario’s 19th century labour force was that there were far too many professional men – particularly lawyers and doctors – for the amount of work available.

Commentators at the time often lamented this fact, regretting that there seemed to be a perpetual shortage of engineers and skilled technicians.

Part of the reason was the educational system of the time. The curriculum of the grammar schools (equivalent to modern high-schools) emphasized the liberal arts and classics to the detriment of scientific subjects.

As well, much more status went with professional occupations.

With insufficient work to go around, doctors and lawyers frequently got involved in activities outside their occupation. As well, they frequently got themselves into trouble.

Elora’s first lawyer opened his office in 1849. At the time, Elora’s population was about 300. He was James Geddes, son of Crown land agent Andrew Geddes, and brother-in-law of David Gilkison. At first, much of his work involved land sales by the Gilkison estate in Elora and Nichol township, but James Geddes soon became involved in land speculations, in Elora and elsewhere.

Geddes’ law practice prospered, and in about 1855 he took in a partner named McKenzie, about whom little is known. When McKenzie left after a short time, his place was taken by George Drew. Their office was located in the Crown land office, and the close association between the elder Geddes and his son soon landed them both in trouble.

Irregularities in the sale of land in Minto township when it was first opened to settlers led to a provincial inquiry. Much of the township land had been sold in advance of the opening date to Elora businessmen, and James Geddes acted as their agent.

When potential Minto settlers turned up at the Crown land office, Andy Geddes explained that all land had been sold, and then referred them to his son in the adjoining office.

Andrew Geddes’s advanced age (he was 78) saved him from prosecution, but James Geddes barely avoided the hoosegow. His partner, George Drew, deserted him at the first hints of publicity over the scandal.

His reputation ruined, James Geddes declared bankruptcy, sold his residence (the brick house across from the liquor store now known as the V-Edge Cafe), and left town in disgrace.

In 1860, Archibald Gilkison, son of the founder of the village, opened a law office on Mill Street. Much of his business involved the family land holdings in the area. Most of the land had been sold, but there were still instalment payments and deed transfers to be dealt with.

Soon after he opened the office, Gilkison took in 17-year-old Malcolm MacGregor as a law student. When Archy Gilkison left Elora in the mid-1860s, MacGregor took over the practice.

The other Elora lawyer in the early 1860s, George Drew, also took in a student. He was John Jacob, a wandering Newfoundlander who had operated a store on Victoria Street on the south side of the river. When the store burned down, Jacob decided to switch occupations. When he finished his training with Drew, he became a partner in the practice.

Jacob lived for more than a decade with Drew, and in the early 1860s his mother and sister, Maria, did as well. Maria Jacob later married George Drew, but the unconventional household arrangements caused Drew’s numerous detractors to cluck their tongues.

George Drew had little difficulty in finding detractors. An unrepentant snob with a blustering manner, he was also a staunch Conservative at a time when Elora voted 90% or more for Reform candidates.

Many disapproved of Drew’s lack of Sabbath observances, and particularly his boisterous Sunday afternoon croquet matches.

As well as his legal practice, Drew invested heavily in several business ventures, particularly the North Wellington Mills and Distillery in what is now Bissell Park. He also bought and sold property, and owned a number of rental properties, some of sub-standard quality.

A major scandal resulted when he bought the decaying building that had been Elora’s first hotel and rented it to a woman who opened a brothel in it.

Drew’s best friend and sometime business partner was J.M. Fraser, owner of the Elora mill. They were an amusing pair when they walked the street together. Drew was a huge man, well over six feet tall with a bulky frame. The diminutive Fraser barely passed the five foot mark.

Despite the differences in their stature, the pair shared impeccably-tailored clothing and the same strutting, arrogant walk. Local wags quickly dubbed them the “Elora Shanghai Rooster” and the “Elora Bantam Rooster,” Like Fraser, Drew was quick to resort to his fists to settle a point, but due to his size, few opponents risked a confrontation.

Like many lawyers of the time, Drew entertained political ambitions. He was perceptive enough to realize that his chances in municipal politics were hopeless, so he cast his eye to the north. In 1867, he was the Conservative candidate in North Wellington in the first Canadian federal election.

Leaving the law practice in the hands of his partner John Jacob, Drew spent almost six months canvassing the farmers in North Wellington. He had to, because all newspapers in the area were hostile to him.

“Are the farmers of the North Riding sunk so low that they are forced to take up with a lawyer representative?” asked John Smith in the Elora Observer. Nevertheless, Drew carried the riding by a 200-vote majority.

Drew held his seat for only a single term. He was defeated in a heated campaign by Colonel Nathan Higinbotham of Guelph.

Possessing a quick temper, Drew often made indiscrete and thoughtless remarks in public that offended many voters. It was a characteristic inherited by his grandson, George Drew, who served as premier of Ontario and federal Conservative leader.

In the 1872 campaign, Drew took no chances with the press. He started his own newspaper, the Elora Standard, and hired the youthful Acton Burrows to edit it. A skilful and imaginative journalist, Burrows dished out insults and ridicule to Higinbotham’s well-oiled and liquored campaign.

Hoping for a comeback, Drew continued his support of the Standard for two years. When the paper folded, Burrows moved to Manitoba, where he went on to a lengthy and distinguished career in journalism and government.

Following his defeat, Drew was appointed a Queen’s Counsellor. The partisan sentiments of the campaign coloured the newspaper reports of the appointment.

The Toronto Globe: “….a servile follower of John A. and a defeated candidate in the late elections. He ranks as a politician below mediocrity.” The Guelph Mercury: “….a bone thrown him by a government which specially carved out a constituency for him, and was terribly disgusted when, after all the gerrymandering, he lost it. No one, of course, will dream of ascribing the appointment to Mr. Drew’s legal attainments.”

George Drew, Q.C., spent the rest of the 1870s in relative tranquility, practising law, acting as a mortgage broker, and dealing in property.

In June 1882, he was appointed the senior judge for Wellington County. He continued to reside in Elora, commuting to Guelph for court sessions. He sat on the bench until his death in 1891 at the age of 64. His widow, Maria, lived in the Drew mansion (now the Drew House B&B on Mill Street) until 1901, when she moved to Guelph, living there until her death in 1913.

The Drew and Jacob partnership dissolved with Drew’s appointment to the bench. John Jacob practiced alone for a few months, and then took in William H. Gordon as a partner. He was the son of Andrew Gordon, Elora’s well known harness maker, and had studied law with Drew and Jacob in the 1870s.

Jacob and Gordon opened a branch office in Drayton in 1885, with Bill Gordon in charge. This partnership lasted until 1899, when Gordon died suddenly at the age of 41.

Suffering from ill health, John Jacob decided to retire. He died at his home at the northeast corner of Geddes and David Streets, Rosemont Cottage, in 1901.

*This column was originally published in the Elora Sentinel on Dec. 14, 1993.

Thorning Revisited