The David Stirton Memoirs





The material for the following article was contributed by David Stirton and the article itself was composed by Kate Conway for the regular column, “Pioneer Days in Wellington”, which appeared in the Guelph Mercury newspaper in 1899.


Mr. David Stirton




Pioneer Days in Wellington


First voting in Guelph—Woman Suffrage in Puslinch—The Owen Sound Suffrage


A sketch of the first political election has been given, but at that time the elections were held so far from Guelph that little interest was taken in them.


The first Parliamentary election held in Guelph was that of 1841, being the first election after the union of Upper and Lower Canada.  The immense district previously combined for Parliamentary purposes was divided, Wellington being separated from the old Gore District.  There had been two members for the old Gore District, but now one member was to be elected in each division.  Mr. Jas. Durand, one of the old members, a son-resident, carrying on the business of general merchant in Dundas, was determined to run.  He was very popular in Waterloo, and was confident of being elected, as the controlling preponderance of votes lay with the German settlement.  Guelph and the surrounding country opposed Mr. Durand on the ground of his being a non-resident, with no care for Guelph’s interest.  The Reform party was cold on the election, but the Waterloo people were en bloc in favour of Mr. Durand.  The question of opposing Mr. Durand was discussed in Guelph, but it was not known until election day that he was really to have an opponent, when Robert Christie, father of the late David Christie, afterwards a prominent statesman, was nominated.


The nominations and the election were on the same day, and as this was the first election in Guelph, it created quite a commotion.  Mr. Durand was nominated by Jas. Cowan of Waterloo and Mr. Christie by Adam Johnston Ferguson, sr., father of the first judge.


Mr. Christie’s principles were Liberal, but the Conservatives were glad to vote for anyone who would oppose Mr. Durand.  The election was held in a small frame building, two stories high, on the present site of the livery stable west of the Royal Hotel.  The upper part was devoted to the election.  The room was reached by an outside stair, and the crowding and jostling on the steps indicated an unusual excitement.  Dutchmen’s coats brushed the more modern and higher-toned store clothes of the Guelph and Fergus people.  The scene was the more interesting to Mr. Stirton because his team and sleigh containing several voters and the bagpipes formed part of the proceedings.


There was some speech making at the nomination, and after that the voting began.  It was not long until it became evident that Mr. Durand would be elected.  The poll was kept open two days, when Mr. Christie retired.


The next election, known as the Metcalfe election, was held in 1844.  Sir Charles Metcalfe had quarreled with his Government on the question of patronage.  The Government retired and there was a new election.  Mr. Durand was determined to keep the field, against the wishes of the Reformers.  He was opposed by Mr. Webster, of Fergus, a Conservative.


This was the first election in which voting was held in the separate municipalities, consequently the Waterloo voters went to Preston.  A resident of Guelph was sent to Preston as returning officer, with instructions to keep down the Dutch vote, if not by fair play, then by any means that could be more or less legitimately employed.  The voters were required to subscribe to all manner of oaths of which there were legally five or six, and the delay in calling the votes was such that only a fraction of the Dutch vote was polled.  The result in the whole district was that Mr. Webster was elected by seven of a majority.


This was the first occasion of the holding of a Parliamentary election in Puslinch.  The votes were few and the reformers were cold to Mr. Durand.  Mr. Stirton was the only man on the liberal side in the township who took any active part in this election, in connection with which, he relates the following incident.  Mr. Higginson was returning officer, and although the vote was small, there was considerable feeling between the Reform party and the returning officer.


An old, feeble lady was brought to vote, conveyed thither in a lumber wagon drawn by oxen.  She voted, although the officer was remonstrated with that such voting was illegal.  At that time, women were not entitled to vote but they were not positively debarred.  This is the only known case of woman suffrage in the district.  The returning officer voted, although there was no tie, which was also illegal.  The Conservatives had a majority of two in the township, and Mr. Stirton remarked of it in his usual jocular way that the Conservative majority consisted of two old women, which did not particularly please the returning officer.


In the next Parliamentary election, in 1848, Mr. Durand retired permanently, and Adam Johnston Ferguson, jr., the county judge retired from the judgeship, in order to oppose Mr. Webster.


The district included an immense extent of territory from the south boundary of Puslinch to Owen Sound and from the west boundary of Dumfries to the eastern boundary of Erin.  The section between Arthur and Owen Sound was known as the Garafraxa road, and had been given in free grants to settlers on condition of permanent settlement.  Fifty acres were given to each settler, which made sixteen settlers to each mile for sixty miles.  The settlers were entitled to their deeds after certain settlement duties had been performed, but many had not yet received them.  An extra effort was made by Mr. Webster to secure patents for all the settlers from the Government.  A peculiar feature of this election was the introduction of what was afterwards known as the Owen Sound suffrage, a method not previously attempted.


Mr. Ferguson was aware that an attempt was being made to introduce fraud, and so sent responsible people from Guelph to fifteen townships to act as agents.  When these men put in an appearance, they were considered a block on the contemplated proceedings.  The first agent, Walter Benn, sent up to Arthur, was imprisoned in his bedroom.  He was well treated but was never allowed to go to the poll.  Another old man, sent from Pilkington, was carried away to a beaver meadow, sheltered in a haystack, with men set to watch him.


Owing to the Owen Sound suffrage, Mr. Webster was returned by a majority of several hundreds.  Mr. Ferguson, who was competent to judge of the legality of the proceedings, frankly told the electors that he would follow the matter up in Parliament.  Mr. Webster only held his seat for a short time, being unseated during the first session.  Mr. Ferguson then held office until 1857, when he retired to be a candidate for the Legislative Council.  Mr. Stirton succeeded him as a member in 1857.





The preceding article appeared in the remarkable scrapbooks of Herbert Fairbairn Gardiner, volume 149, pages 3-4.  As of May 2003, the Gardiner scrapbooks could be viewed in the Special Collections Department of the Hamilton Public Library, Hamilton Ontario.




Herbert Fairbairn Gardiner



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