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 selection of 1854 as the founding of Wellington County was a somewhat arbitrary one.
The first celebration of that date was the centennial observed in 1954. The case for 1854 is a strong one, but claims can be made for several others.
Local government in what is now Ontario evolved slowly from the 1780s to the 1850s, but changes were frequent.
That was especially so in what is now Wellington County. There was no significant settlement here until the 1820s. Before that, the area existed as a largely unexplored area on maps, and one that was moved from one jurisdiction to another.
As well, some of the northern portion of the present Wellington was still Indigenous land until the signing of treaties in the early 19th century.
The slow evolution of local government decelerated settlement somewhat. The policy of the British government during the post-1780 period was to maintain as much central control as possible, in order to avoid another revolution like the recent one in the Thirteen Colonies to the south. At the same time, the British wished to keep administrative costs to an absolute minimum. Consequently, local government evolved as a consequence of the pressures of settlement.
Ontario local government can be dated to Lord Dorchester’s proclamation of 1788, which divided the western portion of what was still the Province of Quebec into four districts: Hesse, Lunenburg, Mecklenberg, and Nassau. The dividing line between Hesse and Nassau extended straight north from the end of Long Point in Lake Erie. That line bisected the area that would later become Wellington County.
The Constitutional Act of 1791 created Upper Canada as a separate British colony. A year later, the first session of the Assembly changed the names of the original districts. Hesse became the Western District and Nassau the Home District.
The four districts proved impossibly large to administer properly, and in 1798 the Upper Canada parliament split each of them. The Niagara District split from the Home District, and the London District from the Western District.
Pressures of settlement led to the separation of more districts. In 1816, the Gore District was severed from the Niagara District. This area consisted of much of the later counties of Brant, Halton and Wentworth, and extended north, with arbitrary lines, to Georgian Bay. Most of the future Wellington, and part of Waterloo, lay within this area. The district offices were established at Hamilton, which already was the commercial and trading centre for the area encompassed by the new political entity.
The provincial assembly made further divisions in the late 1830s. By then, Upper Canada consisted of 20 districts. One of the new ones in 1838 was Wellington, though the new entity was not proclaimed until June 1840. In its original form, the District of Wellington consisted of much of the later Wellington, Waterloo, Grey and Dufferin Counties.
There was considerable political manoeuvring among the villages to gain the administrative offices. Guelph eventually triumphed over Galt, but a strong case was made for Fergus, as a more central location for the jurisdiction. The first District council met in Guelph on Feb. 8, 1842. To maintain central control, the provincial government appointed the warden: A.D. Fordyce of Fergus, who had good political connections with the Toronto elite. At that time there were only eight townships organized within the area of Wellington District: Eramosa, Erin, Garafraxa, Waterloo, Wilmot, Woolwich, Guelph and Nichol.
The most important step in the evolution of local government in Ontario was the Baldwin Act, which came into effect at the beginning of 1850. It later came to be known as the Municipal Act. Championed by Reformer Robert Baldwin, the act abolished the old cumbersome system of Quarter Sessions and government by a select group of Justices of the Peace. New townships, towns, villages could be incorporated easily, and their councils were to be elected by the taxpayers, with minimal property qualifications. Officials such as clerks and treasurers were to be appointed by local councils, not the provincial government. Most importantly, the Baldwin Act vastly increased the power and authority of local government, both at the municipal and county levels.
Wellington District existed only a short time – until 1850. By then, there were 21 townships within its boundaries. The new entity, the County of Waterloo, administered the same area as the county, but possessed more authority than the old district government.
That original Waterloo County council sat for only two years. In its second year, a provincial act separated the town of Guelph from the township, creating the first urban municipality in the county.
In 1851, the provincial assembly created more counties, among them Grey and Wellington. For purposes of administration, however, those two remained with Waterloo for another year. At the 1852 session, 23 townships plus the town of Guelph sent representatives. The official name that year was the United Counties of Waterloo, Wellington and Grey.
For the 1853 session of county council, Waterloo County separated, leaving the United Counties of Wellington and Grey meeting at Guelph, with representatives from 22 municipalities.
Grey established its own county government in 1854. That left Wellington County in much the shape it remains today. That is the strongest argument for observing 1854 as the founding of Wellington County.
Even so, there have been some changes since 1854. Minto and Luther Townships did not exist in 1854; the whole area was originally part of Arthur Township. Minto became a township in 1856. Residents there petitioned for separate status in late 1854. County council approved, but the wheels moved slowly. Minto’s first council did not meet until January of 1857.
Luther was not incorporated until 1860. In 1863, Orangeville incorporated as a village, and became another municipality in Wellington. And in 1869, Garafraxa divided into two townships: East and West.
Other changes in Wellington County were internal ones. Under the provisions of the Baldwin Act, the larger settlements achieved a sufficient population to achieve village status and, if they continued to grow, town status. Beginning with Fergus and Elora in the late 1850s, Wellington eventually contained nine incorporated municipalities, carved out of existing townships.
The British North America Act, creating the Dominion of Canada in 1867, placed jurisdiction over municipal government at the provincial level. Otherwise, there was no change to the county structure as a result of Confederation.
Residents in the north resented the distance between themselves and the county town at Guelph. Agitation for new counties began in the 1860s, but only one was successful. The provincial legislature authorized the creation of the County of Dufferin in 1874, but the new entity was not established until 1881. Three municipalities – East Garafraxa, Amaranth Township and Orangeville – left Wellington to join the new county. Two years later, Luther Township split in two, and East Luther joined Dufferin.
Apart from some annexations of rural areas into urban municipalities, the map of Wellington County remained constant from the exit of East Luther in 1883 until the major restructuring of 1998.
A number of dates are important in the history of Wellington County, but it is easy to argue that 1854 was the most important one. That was the year the county was constituted in more or less its present boundaries, and it was the beginning of the effective local government needed to deal with the demands of rapidly growing communities.
*This column was originally published in the Advertiser on Jan. 9, 2004.