Rockwood gained police village status 120 years ago

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 peculiar and confusing aspect of Ontario’s early municipal organization was the police village.

The name itself is misleading: the title has nothing to do with the enforcement of law and order.

For over a century, the police village was the lowest level of local government. They were hamlets, governed by three elected trustees, with limited power in the areas of roads, bridges, local improvements, and fire protection.

Provision for police villages was written into the Baldwin Act of 1849, which established the shape of municipal government in the Province of Canada and Ontario. The organization of police villages did not become popular until the 1890s. 

The basic provisions were simple: ratepayers in a hamlet could petition the county council, after seeking the approval of the township in which they were located, to create a police village through a county bylaw.

The minimum requirements were 150 people in an area of no more than 500 acres. When created, there would be an election for three trustees to look after the affairs of the new entity. 

The trustees had no direct taxation power. In essence, they served as a committee of the township council, and could only recommend and ask the township council for a share of general levies or special rates to be levied within the police village. They had limited law-making powers to pass bylaws and regulations for public order and maintenance.

Wellington County gained its first police villages between 1897 and 1900, when Moorefield, Belwood, Hillsburgh and Orton achieved the status. Rockwood and Morriston followed. Last in the county was Eden Mills, created in 1930.

Rockwood’s residents in 1903 decided they would like to have a little more local power and control. With a population of about 450, and a well-established retail sector, Rockwood for years had been one of the largest hamlets in the county. A public meeting in March 1903 turned up no opposition to the police village status. That meeting voted in favour without a dissenting vote, and sent William Harris and Joseph Croft to the next meeting of Eramosa council to enlist the support of councillors.

On April 6, 1903, Eramosa council heard the delegation’s arguments quietly, and raised no questions. Later in the meeting, on a motion by councillors Armstrong and McDougall, council approved the measure with no dissenting arguments.

The police village of Rockwood would consist of the east half of lots 3, 4, 5 and 6 on Concession 4, and the west half of the same lots on Concession 5. Altogether, the area totalled about 800 acres. The motion carried unanimously, with no debate.

Things then moved very quickly. Wellington County council considered the issue at its May meeting. With the required ratepayers petition and Eramosa’s motion on the table, county bylaw 612 passed quickly on May 29 and 30, 1903.

The police village of Rockwood would exist officially effective June 1. Nominations and an election for three trustees were to be held on June 9, and the trustees were to meet on or before June 15.

At the nomination meeting, scheduled for noon hour on June 9, only three names came forward, making an election unnecessary. 

Hugh Black, already designated the treasurer for the police village, acted as returning officer. Should an election have been necessary, it would have consisted of a show of hands of qualified ratepayers at the meeting. William Harris, James Stinson and James Knowles formed Rockwood’s first board of trustees.

At their first meeting on June 15, financial arrangements dominated the discussions. Eramosa council had already agreed to turn over all the dog licence, hotel licence, statute labour tax and property tax raised in Rockwood, less a portion to cover costs common to both Rockwood and the township. Rockwood’s trustees proposed 5%.

Over the next six weeks, the trustees hammered out the arrangements with Eramosa council. The trustees met on Aug. 3 to ratify the agreement, but first adjourned for two hours to attend the funeral of a Harris relative. In the end, Eramosa retained one-sixth of the total amount collected in Rockwood. Hugh Black opened the account books for Rockwood later that day.

Three years later, in 1906, Rockwood’s ratepayers decided to take the next step up the ladder of municipal status. At that time, police villages could be incorporated if they had a population over 500, and if both the affected township and the county council agreed. The new designation did not give a police village a seat at county council, but it did give them slightly more authority on their own, without running to the township council constantly.

The process was a simple one. A petition signed by at least 50 resident ratepayers had to be presented to county council, confirmation of the population from the clerk had to be presented (Rockwood had 560 at this point), and the request had to be advertised in the closest newspaper. Rockwood’s request encountered no objections from any quarter. County council approved the new status on June 2, 1906.

Anticipating approval of their incorporated status, Rockwood’s trustees had attended Eramosa Township council on May 26. The trustees had an ambitious proposal: they desired to issue a debenture for $2,500 to build concrete sidewalks in the village, and proposed to spend a further $500 to erect and operate a street light system. They also sought an additional property tax levy for all Rockwood ratepayers to cover the costs of various civic improvements.

Over the decades, Rockwood had the most active police village board in Wellington. The village was an old one – in the 1850s it had been the first smaller centre with railway facilities, and had built a small but solid base as a shipping point. Growth, though, was slower than the trustees had hoped.

In the early 1950s, Rockwood passed the 700 mark in population, and several of its leaders hoped that the magic number of 750, permitting full village status, was just around the corner. 

Discussions to that end began in 1952, but Rockwood never did become an incorporated village. In the 1950s, there were disputes over the actual population, and a significant group of residents who opposed taking the step to incorporation.

The Ontario government took an increasingly dim view of police villages in the 1950s. There were frequent squabbles between the trustees and municipal councils, and much confusion by residents over which body was responsible for particular services.

Consequently, the authority and power of police village trustees was progressively reduced over the years. Urban sprawl further aggravated the problems, with new residences close to police villages but outside its boundaries.

In 1965 the provincial government abolished procedures for establishing new police villages, and started to encourage the existing ones to disband, transferring their responsibilities to the township councils.

Subsequent legislation permitted townships to provide the services of police villages by area rating the costs to those benefitting from them.

Police villages, Rockwood included, disappeared with Ontario’s major municipal restructuring of the 1990s.

Rockwood residents celebrated the centennial of its police village status in 2003. For many, it was a bittersweet reminder that the village, for most of the 20th century, had a degree of local control over the affairs within its boundaries.

*This column was originally published in the Wellington Advertiser on July 4, 2003.

Thorning Revisited