Wellington District government frustrated in 1840s

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.

Last week’s column sketched some of the events leading to the creation of the County of Wellington, in more or less its permanent form, in 1854, and some of the events since then.

The liveliest period, and in some respects the most unstable one, occupied the 15 years or so prior to 1854.

Most people should remember learning about the 1837 and 1838 rebellions in Canada, and the subsequent report by Lord Durham, which led to the union of Upper and Lower Canada, and the later development of responsible government.

School courses generally gloss over the point, but for most people the important changes in the nature of government occurred at the local level. During the 1840s, provincial authorities and their British superiors tried to walk a fine line, avoiding the dangers of revolution as had occurred south of the border, while maintaining a tight political system that still fostered settlement and growth. The inevitable confrontation came at the municipal level: direct local democracy against authority from above.

Lord Durham’s report, commissioned in response to the rebellions of 1837 and 1838, stressed the importance of strong municipal government. When the provincial assembly tackled the issue in 1841, most Tories resisted the introduction of elected municipal councils. Reformers, on the other hand, wanted nothing to do with appointed officials. The resulting legislation to restructure municipal government was a compromise, and one that pleased very few people.

The Wellington District Council, which sat for only a short period, 1842 to 1849, reflected those political tensions. The provincial government appointed A.D. Fordyce of Fergus as warden.

Though well connected and Tory in his outlook, Fordyce soon realized the problems with the basic structure of the system, and frequently took the side of local reformers against the provincial government and its policies. The rest of the council consisted of elected representatives from the townships that had been organized within the district. At the beginning there were only eight. Each township with less than 300 voters could elect one councillor. A second councillor could be sent by those with more than 300 voters.

These numbers should not be confused with population. Only those with substantial property holdings, free of mortgages, could be voters. That provision affected the newest townships more seriously. Some had significant populations, but most settlers in them carried heavy debt loads as they established their farms. On the other hand, a number of women voted if they met the property qualifications. Later, when property qualifications were removed, they would lose this right.

The property qualifications, for both voters and candidates, did not play well in the Wellington District. When the first council met on Feb. 8, 1842, objectors challenged the eight elected councillors, and it was discovered that six of them were not qualified to sit on the council. That left the district council without a quorum. The provincial government had to intervene, and call a second election. The new group met in Guelph on April 14, 1842.

The provincial government, not the district council, appointed the clerk and treasurer. However, through a compromise measure, provincial authorities agreed to make their selection from a list submitted by the District Council. Wellington councillors submitted the names of Richard F. Budd, A.D. Ferrier, and James Wilson as appropriate candidates. The governor-general gave the nod to Budd, effective in May 1842. Prior to that time, Thomas Saunders had acted as interim clerk, and tapped William Hewat to be treasurer. Saunders continued as an assistant to both Hewat and Budd.

Wellington District Council had jurisdiction over roads and bridges, schools, salaries for municipal officials at the township level, the setting of fees, and the cost of the administration of justice. The power to spend was severely restricted. Any public works had to be approved by the provincial surveyor general, and any capital expenditure over $1,200 had to be reviewed by the provincial board of works.

Of all the duties of the district government, roads loomed the largest. The southern portion of the district was filling rapidly with settlers during the early 1840s, and these people could never become prosperous farmers without adequate means of getting their products to market. On the other hand, much of the land in the district was held by absentee speculators. Some had received land grants for military service; others had purchased land in Wellington and elsewhere at low figures, anticipating that future roads and settlement would increase the value of their holdings.

One difficulty was that the district council could levy only a minimal tax on these holdings of one penny per acre. Further, even that tax was proving impossible to collect. Owners were shy to reveal their addresses, and the district council had no power to seize land for unpaid taxes. In most cases, the costs of finding and suing an absentee owner would far exceed the amount of unpaid taxes.

In a letter to Fordyce dated Dec. 26, 1844, Saunders pointed out an alarming trend. At that point, 8% of the 1842 taxes remained outstanding, and the portion of 1843 taxes exceeded 12%. His calculations put the amount of land in the district held by absentee owners at 100,373 acres, which should have been contributing about $3,200 per year to the district coffers. Saunders concluded that “it is much to be regretted no law exists by which this sum could not be regularly collected.”

In 1845, A.D. Fordyce and the Wellington District Council drafted a bylaw imposing a new tax on what they called “wild lands.” It amounted to an additional four-fifths of a penny per acre. For most land, that amounted to about one-half of a percent of the value of the land.

The new tax was a low rate, but far in excess of previous assessments. Fordyce and the other councillors feared that it might not survive scrutiny by provincial authorities. Before passing the bylaw, they sent it to the provincial secretary for scrutiny and an opinion as to its legality.

Interestingly, the cabinet backed down on this issue, which was a hot point in other jurisdictions as well as Wellington. In his reply to Fordyce, the provincial secretary advised that “…I am to acquaint you that His Excellency [the governor general] does not consider that this is a matter in which he could, with propriety, call on the law officers of the crown to give any opinion. It is therefore left to the municipal council to be guided by their own legal advisors.”

The new rate stood, and councillors took a more aggressive stand in collecting it, though with only limited success. The revenue helped finance the major public works project undertaken by the Wellington District: the Guelph and Dundas Road.

The non-resident tax question demonstrates the difficulty the district council had in providing the necessary infrastructure needed to develop the area. Lack of power and insufficient revenue held back development at a time when population and settlement grew at a considerable rate.

Another problem was the efficient administration of government. The treasurer and clerk, in the 1840s, could not pick up a phone and call the warden. They had to write to him at Fergus, and mail service, during the early part of the decade, was only twice weekly. Contact with more remote councillors was even more difficult.

Financial arrangements with the provincial government were equally cumbersome. For example, at the end of every session of a magistrate’s court, the treasurer had to collect the money levied as fines, and forward it, by a bank draft, to the provincial treasurer. On the other side of the ledger, provincial grants to schools were perpetually late in arriving.

Compounded by the difficulties in collecting property taxes, and with delinquent taxes, the treasurer had a constant battle with his cash flow through the year, and had to resort to frequent short-term borrowing. All in all, it was a cumbersome, labour-intensive, and inefficient way to handle the public purse.

The restructuring of municipal government between 1850 and 1854, following the passing of the Baldwin Act, helped resolve many of the problems surrounding the workings of the Wellington District Council.

*This column was originally published in the Advertiser on Jan. 16, 2004.

Thorning Revisited