Huge Reform Party celebration in Guelph after elections of 1848

The history of elections is something of a specialty, exciting some people and boring a larger portion of people to tears.

Election campaigns in Wellington have been civilized affairs for more than a century, but that was not the case in earlier years.

The liveliest period was during the time of the old Province of Canada, between 1841 and the proclamation of Confederation effective in 1867. Locally, the late 1840s and early 1850s were the most exciting.

The Province of Canada had a general election in 1848. The campaign in the Wellington District, which then included not only the county of that name but also much of what later became several adjoining counties, was a particularly lively one. The candidates were Conservative James Webster, the co-founder of Fergus, and A.J. Fergusson, the son of Webster’s partner.

Webster and Fergusson had purchased a portion of Nichol Township, establishing a townsite in 1833, and selling town lots and farms during the 1830s. The two soon differed on the course the settlement should take, and by the 1840s they disagreed on almost everything, including political principles. Webster and the younger Fergusson both had political ambitions, and they clashed several times in elections. Webster was a Conservative, and Fergusson a moderate Liberal.

Webster won the 1848 contest, but the result was immediately protested by Fergusson and his supporters. Most contentious were incidents of intimidation by Webster’s supporters. Gangs of them would hang around the polling stations, threatening those who intended to vote for Fergusson. The secret ballot was long in the future, and voters had to declare their vote publicly.

Webster’s tactics were not unusual, but he overplayed his hand. Several voters complained about the thick lips and cauliflower ears they received for casting their vote for Fergusson.

More serious were tactics employed in the north of the riding. A number of qualified voters complained that they had been prevented from exercising their vote, but the number of votes recorded for those polling stations exceeded the number of qualified voters. The result from the northern area was also a surprise. Webster secured a solid majority there in an area that was widely believed to be solidly Liberal.

Fergusson’s supporters had little difficulty proving the irregularities. The court ordered a new election. This time, with many more eyes watching the polls, Fergusson captured the riding. A second protest, this time by Webster, went nowhere.

Fergusson’s supporters decided to celebrate their victory with a parade and dinner in Guelph on June 13, 1849. The affair was easily the largest political event held in Guelph up to that time. The town, founded only 22 years earlier, had a population of barely 1,000 people, though its importance as the seat of the district government and court offices already gave the town a disproportionate importance.

The parade, which included two bands and many invited guests, formed up at midday. By then, Guelph’s population had tripled as visitors from the surrounding area drifted into town. The timing was good for farmers: most could take a day off between planting season and haying.

The parade began in the Market Square, the area now the site of city hall, the armouries, and the old railway station. At 1:30pm, the procession moved out, proceeding along Waterloo Avenue. Dozens of carriages and people on foot joined it as the procession moved forward to Green’s Tavern, in Guelph Township, for refreshments, and to meet the out-of-town guests invited to the celebration.

At 3:30pm, the procession reformed and returned to the centre of Guelph. Many more joined the return procession, which stretched for about two miles. Most of the people gathered in the market square, around a podium specially built for the day. A.J. Fergusson addressed the crowd, which by then had swelled to about 3,500. He was followed by his father, Adam Fergusson, and remarks from several visiting notables. The speeches ended with three cheers for the Queen and three for the Governor-General, Lord Elgin.

The speeches were short. The speakers did not wish to intrude on the time set for the dinner, which was served in a large pavilion erected in the garden of George Minimack, a Guelph teacher and ardent Liberal supporter. More than 500 people sat down to a meal prepared by hotel keeper John Pipe.

A.J. Fergusson rose at the end of the dinner to offer a few remarks. He said that the day’s events had honoured the success of the Reform Party, as the Liberals then called themselves. He noted that it was a troubling time for politics in Canada, and that demonstrations such as the one that day showed the wide support for the government and its policies, and that the people of the district are not “weak-minded men, and cannot be frightened out of right principles by bug-bear cries or Tory falsehoods.”

The Liberal Party had been victorious in the 1848 election, after a term of Conservative government. Party loyalties, though, were weak during that period, and there was always a danger that a government’s majority could slip away.

Other speakers noted that they were marking with the day’s events “the purity of the franchise over fraud, violence, bribery, and falsehood.” A couple of speakers took an outspokenly Anglo-Saxon line, denouncing the potential of Irish domination, Catholic domination, and other “threats” to the Province of Canada.

The day, blessed by superb late spring weather and the huge turnout, was a gratifying one for Fergusson and his supporters. They had taken something of a chance by not inviting the big names of their party, but that strategy was an effective one. They impressed not only the people of Wellington and Waterloo with their zeal, enthusiasm, and numerical strength, but also sent a message across Canada West that Guelph had joined the list of places that were important politically.

Not everyone in Guelph joined in the celebration. Some people charged that the day was a proclamation by Guelph that it dominated the rest of the riding. A.J. Fergusson took particular care to deny that this was not the case.

The most agitated of Fergusson’s opponents during the celebration was Dr. William Clarke, Guelph’s loudest and most outspoken Tory supporter. He laid a complaint against one of the celebrants for discharging a cannon in St. George’s Square. The Doctor claimed that the noise frightened a horse, resulting in injuries to a teamster.

At magistrate’s court the next day he did not produce the victim, and did not ask for damages, stating that he was only trying to make a point. The accused did not deny firing the cannon, and explained that he had no intention of causing any harm or injury. The magistrate did not levy a fine, assessing the defendant only court costs. Spectators in the court room prevented the defendant from paying, and instead took up a collection among themselves to pay the costs of $1.50.

Clarke had a second charge against a man named Wilson who, he claimed, had put his hands on the Doctor’s shoulders and shaken him violently. Wilson denied the charge, though he admitted that he had used “strong language” in answer to extreme provocations by Dr. Clarke. A.J. Fergusson himself handled the defense for Wilson. He questioned several witnesses who all denied that Wilson had laid a hand on The Doctor, and then told the magistrate that there was not a shred of evidence to sustain the charge of assault.

After a lengthy consultation among the magistrates, they announced their decision to dismiss the case.

It was not a good day for Dr. Clarke, just as the previous day had not been a good day for the rest of Guelph’s Conservatives.


Stephen Thorning