Insufficient evidence to lay arson charges in 1864 Guelph fire

Note: This is the conclusion of the story of the fire at Guelph’s People’s Mills, the town’s second largest flour mill, on June 8, 1864.

Flames continued to flare up, and smoke belched from the ruins of the People’s Mills near the corner of Cardigan and Norwich Streets as the first light dawned on the morning of June 9, 1864.

Property owner W.P. McLaren, of Hamilton, and lessee Charles Whitelaw, of Paris, were on the scene later that day, evaluating their losses.

Speculation on the cause of the fire gripped the population of the town. Few doubted the blaze had been deliberately set, and that caused fears the firebug might strike again.

Those fears became a panic three nights later when flames claimed Jackson’s Tannery, located on the south side of Market Square, near the location of the Guelph Armories. No cause of that blaze was evident, but subsequent developments suggested the tannery fire was not linked to the burning of the People’s Mills.

Earlier that day, Dr. John Howitt, Guelph’s coroner, urged on by many requests, had called for an inquiry into the causes and circumstances surrounding the burning of the People’s Mills. Wholesale hardware dealer John Horsman acted as foreman, and the jury included several of the leading businessmen of the town, including Robert Stewart and James Massie.

In the first session, on June 11, the jury heard several witnesses, and then adjourned for five days to allow time for further investigations.

In other developments, McLaren revealed that he carried fire insurance on the mill to the value of $12,000, and Whitelaw had policies covering the inventory for $4,000. Smoke was still rising from the ruins as McLaren made plans to rebuild. His ambitious goal was to have the mill ready to handle a share of the 1864 grain crop.

Charles Whitelaw acknowledged his gratitude to the Guelph firefighters for saving several of the outbuildings and some of the grain and flour that had been in the mill. He donated $27 – a dollar per man on the force – to Chief Engineer Charles Adsett, to be distributed to each of the volunteer firefighters who had helped fight the blaze. The gifts were equivalent to about $100 per man at today’s purchasing power.

Interest ran high and there was standing room only when Dr. Howitt’s inquest reconvened on June 16. The first witness heard that day was Andrew Gay, who had been manager of the mill since 1858, when Charles Whitelaw leased the mill.

He testified that he had been at the mill, except for meals, the entire day of the fire, and had worked in the office until 7pm, an hour after the rest of the staff had gone home.

He said the chief miller, William Arkell, and Charles Smith had also remained late that evening. He noted that Bill Arkell, son of the head miller, normally slept in a room above the office, and acted as a night watchman.

On the day of the fire, Gay said he and several others had smoked pipes in the office, and that smoking in the mill itself was forbidden, though that rule was not always followed. In any case, on the day in question, all the men had been working in the bran house, a separate building. No one was in the mill itself that day nor in the barrel storage building, where the fire had started.

Most revealing was Gay’s testimony that threats to the mill had been made on two separate occasions, and his belief that the fire began in the barrel house. Around April 1, James McCullough and Adam Horn heard two men at a Guelph tavern vow to burn down the mill. They reported what they had heard to Gay, who in turn advised Charles Whitelaw. In early May, young Bill Arkell heard some threats, which he reported to his father and to Andrew Gay.

At the time of the first threat, Whitelaw authorized a night watchman, who remained on the job for three weeks. The watch resumed after the second threat for two weeks. Whitelaw discontinued the night watch in mid-May, when the inventory dropped below the value of his insurance policy, Gay told the inquest.

The next witness was James Butler, who was working late the night of the fire at Hockin’s barrel shop, near the mill. He testified that he saw flames coming from the barrel house the night of the fire and, after investigating, turned on the alarm.

The most revealing testimony came from young Jim Arkell. He recalled encountering Barney Kelly, who operated a barrel making shop, in an intoxicated condition in a Guelph bar room in early April. Kelly had vowed to burn down the People’s Mills, or get someone to do it for him, if he did not get an order from Whitelaw for barrels. Whitelaw was, in 1864, dealing exclusively with Hockin, Kelly’s chief rival.

Arkell had again encountered Kelly on the night of the fire at Ellis’s Hotel. Kelly had asked him whether the mill was operating that night, and Arkell replied that it had been idle for the past three days. Kelly departed from the bar a little after 9:30. Twenty minutes later the fire alarm sounded. Arkell said that Kelly was only at the hotel briefly, and was not drinking.

Adam Horn, one of the employees at the mill, testified that he had heard threats to the mill from Kelly at the beginning of April.

Jim McCullough corroborated Horn’s testimony, and said that on the day of the fire he had secured the barrel house with a prop against the door. He had been inside, he said, but he was not a smoker.

Bernard Kelly, the man implicated by several witnesses, was next on the stand. He insisted that on the night of the fire he had returned to his home after talking with McCullough at the bar, and had been in bed when he heard the fire alarm. He had dressed quickly and then headed to the burning mill, carrying a ladder which he thought might be useful in battling the blaze.

Under cross-examination, he insisted he had not been at the mill that day. He had left Ellis’s Hotel alone, and had met no one on his way home who could confirm his story.

Head miller James Arkell Sr. was the next to testify. He said he left the mill a little after 7pm on the night of the fire, and believed he was the last to leave.

He confirmed there had been no fires in the mill’s stoves that day, and he had checked that all the doors and windows were closed and locked.

Charles Smith, a clerk at the mill who had been the first at the scene, told the inquest  the fire originated just inside the door of the barrel house, and that a couple of boards had been pried off the building near the door.

The final witness, David McCrae, stated he had heard Bernard Kelly a year earlier complain that he could not sell any barrels to Whitelaw, and that it would serve him right if the mill burned down. At the time, McCrae admitted, he did not take Kelly’s threats seriously, as he was obviously in a drunken rage.

The jury deliberated for a couple of hours, then returned with their verdict. Their finding was that the fire was clearly the work of an incendiary, but they had not heard sufficient evidence to bring charges against anyone. They did not mention Bernard Kelly by name.

Nevertheless, there were few in Guelph who did not consider Kelly to be the guilty party. He had difficulty finding customers for his barrels, and soon left the Royal City.

As events turned out, W.P. McLaren did not rebuild the mill that year. James Goldie, a miller from Galt, eventually bought the property, and began rebuilding on a much larger scale in 1866. The rebuilt mill went into production in 1867.

Goldie, his sons, and new owners in the 20th century produced flour at the mill until the late 1920s. But that is a story for another time.


Stephen Thorning