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ADDISON, ROBERT, Church of England clergyman; b. 6 June 1754 in Heversham, England, son of John Addison and Ellinor Parkinson; m. 24 Oct. 1780 Mary Atkinson in Cambridge, England, and they had four children, two of whom reached adulthood; m. secondly, probably after July 1807, Rebecca (Plummer?); d. 6 Oct. 1829 in Niagara (Niagara-on-the-Lake), Upper Canada.

Robert Addison attended Trinity College, Cambridge, where he received his ba in 1781 and his ma in 1785. He was ordained deacon in the Church of England on 11 March 1781 and served for a time as curate at Upwell. During the 1780s he was also employed as a tutor for students aspiring to university. By the late 1780s, however, his wife had developed some form of mental illness. Even without that disadvantage, his prospects in the church were not encouraging. At the end of the decade, therefore, possibly following his wife’s death, he applied to the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel for a position as missionary. He was appointed to Newark (Niagara-on-the-Lake), Upper Canada. Addison spent the winter of 1791 at Quebec and arrived at his post in July 1792.

He had great expectations for life in Upper Canada. By the time he died some of them had been realized, but nothing was accomplished easily. When he arrived, Newark, although it was the colonial capital and a forwarding centre for the Laurentian fur trade, was no more than a small village. The adjacent agricultural land was sparsely populated and, at least until the 1820s, most of the people were Presbyterians or Congregationalists. In 1792 Addison was only the third Anglican missionary to be permanently settled in Upper Canada – the others were John Stuart* and John Langhorn* – and the only clergyman of any denomination in the Niagara region. He remained the sole Anglican clergyman west of Ernestown (Bath) until George Okill Stuart* arrived at York (Toronto) in 1801. Not only did Addison have primary responsibility for the whole of the Niagara peninsula but also, from the beginning, he was expected to minister to the Six Nations settlement on the banks of the Grand River. Until 1818, when he turned over this duty to Ralph Leeming*, Addison made two visits to the settlement each year. He never learned the Mohawk language – relying instead upon Joseph Brant [Thayendanegea*] and John Norton as translators – but was as successful among them as could be expected.

Addison was a good preacher and, if not zealous, was at least assiduous in the performance of his duties. He was popular among his parishioners and was always able to report sizeable congregations. If people responded to him well enough on that level, however, there were other ways in which they were not so satisfactory. For example, it was 1809 before his congregation had built a church for him at Niagara, as Newark was then called. There was some consolation perhaps in the knowledge that when it was finally completed St Mark’s was the finest church in the colony. But surely that made it all the more difficult for Addison to bear its fate: St Mark’s was seized and eventually burned by American invaders in 1813. It was not restored until 1821 and stood without episcopal consecration until 1828, when Bishop Charles James Stewart* performed the ceremony.

Similarly, parochial response to Addison was something less than adequate on the matter of his remuneration. When they petitioned the SPG for a missionary in 1790, the citizens of Newark promised a glebe and a house and £100 a year for seven years. Addison made repeated attempts to obtain the money but in the end saw little of it. Prices were high in the isolated community and he suffered some deprivations, especially in the early years. In fact, in 1794 his financial difficulties induced him to seek permission from the SPG to relocate in Nova Scotia. But nothing came of the idea and toward the end of the decade Addison’s position improved considerably. His salary from the SPG was augmented after 1796 by an annual allowance from the government. He also received a stipend as chaplain to the House of Assembly, a position he continued to hold even after the seat of government was transferred to York. Finally, he served as a military chaplain whenever the stationing of a regiment in the area provided an opportunity.

Taken all together, Addison’s financial resources were adequate for his immediate needs. But there was still a difficulty – most of his income would end with his death. Addison was 45 years old at the turn of the century and, at a time when longevity was for the very few, the possibility of leaving his family practically destitute was a source of considerable anxiety. That is probably why throughout his life in Upper Canada he was involved in financial ventures designed to build up an estate.

The most important of these secular activities was land speculation. Beginning in the mid 1790s, Addison displayed a keen interest in acquiring whatever land was available from the government. The records show that by the end of the War of 1812 he had received 27 grants scattered through seven townships in the Niagara area. He also purchased land – for example, 18,000 acres in Norwich Township and Dereham Township (Southwest Oxford Township) in 1800, and 13,000 acres in Nichol Township in 1826. By the late 1820s his total holdings were well in excess of 31,000 acres, making him one of the largest landholders in the colony. When the government attempted to collect high taxes on undeveloped land under legislation passed in 1824, Addison was ready to protect his investment. His name appeared at the head of a petition which opposed the legislation and which was presented to the house. He also joined with William Warren Baldwin*, Thomas Clark, and William Dickson* in appearing before a committee of the assembly to argue forcibly against it.

If Addison’s land speculation was successful, another of his enterprises was not. In 1798 he obtained from the government a lease on a salt spring in Louth Township, although apparently no formal contract was signed. Having no intention of producing salt himself, he spent some money improving the facility and in 1802 sublet it to one Solomon Moore. Problems developed in 1807, when the executor for the estate of Angus Macdonell* (Collachie), the saltworks’ former operator, demanded compensation from Addison for improvements Macdonell had made. Three years later Moore submitted to the Executive Council a petition in which he asked that the spring be given to him and, presumably to strengthen his case, accused Addison of misrepresentation and extortion. In both instances the council proceeded in a brusque and peremptory manner against Addison. The dispute over compensation was eventually – after three years – decided in his favour, but in the contest with Moore, Addison protested his innocence in vain. He appeared personally before the council and presented testimony by Robert Nichol and Thomas Dickson denying the truth of Moore’s allegations. The council, however, chose to believe Moore, and Addison was told that he had no claim on the spring. As it turned out, the spring was not granted to Moore; in fact, it never went into operation again. Addison made one more attempt to regain the property, but it came to nothing, and the accusations Moore had made against him were not cleared up.

Addison’s expectations in the salt spring affair were unrealistic. It was naïve to think that he could maintain a hold on such a potentially valuable resource without a much more vigorous personal involvement than he was able to give. Nevertheless, the behaviour of the council was remarkable. Addison was, after all, a clergyman of the established church whose conduct had never been publicly criticized by military, civil, or religious authorities. Yet the council seemed prepared to believe the worst of him and, in the end, its treatment of him was unsympathetic, even hostile.

The probable reason is that during 1806 and 1807 Lieutenant Governor Francis Gore* came to see Addison as a dangerous radical. Gore was sure that there was an “intimate connection” between Addison and those critics of the administration led by judge Robert Thorpe*, William Weekes*, and Joseph Willcocks*. In the winter of 1806–7 Gore started to move against the anti-government faction and in the course of an investigation uncovered what he thought was evidence of Addison’s complicity. Although the lieutenant governor was convinced, it seems highly unlikely that the connection ever existed.

The problem had all begun in the summer of 1806 when Brant attacked William Claus, head of the Indian Department in Upper Canada, in a speech given before an Indian council at Fort George (Niagara-on-the-Lake) which was attended by Thorpe, Weekes, and Addison. The latter’s presence at the meeting was taken as evidence of his sympathy with the attack and with the views of the political opposition. But Addison had other, more plausible, reasons for attending. The council was held at Niagara, Addison had had a long association with Brant, and he was, after all, the established church’s missionary to many of the Indians who were there. It seems likely that if he had had any subversive interest, it would have been that of a land speculator looking longingly at the Indians’ territories.

There is no evidence linking Addison with the course pursued by Thorpe and his associates through the summer and early autumn of 1806. But in November he, along with Samuel Thompson, a merchant at Niagara, agreed to act as financial guarantors for Willcocks as sheriff of the Home District. By that time Willcocks was openly critical of the government and was, in fact, deeply involved in Thorpe’s campaign for election to the assembly. In early 1807 Gore collected testimony from several witnesses bearing upon Willcocks’s radicalism and transmitted it to London. References to Addison’s agreement to guarantee Willcocks were included. Gore seems to have decided that Addison’s connection with Willcocks was evidence of political sympathy. But that was simply guilt by association. An agreement which provided financial surety for a man whom Addison had known for years and which concerned only actions taken in his capacity as a government official is scarcely evidence of revolutionary intent. In fact, Addison had a very different evaluation of Willcocks. In a letter to Thorpe’s wife, written in the summer of 1807, Addison expressed doubt over Willcocks’s chance of success as a newspaper publisher and politician. Like all Irishmen, he said, Willcocks had no capacity for restraint. What he had to struggle against in his nature was “all the jealousy of power and all the malignity of rank Opposition.” Those are not the words of a political sympathizer.

Addison did write on at least two occasions to the former surveyor general, Charles Burton Wyatt*, who left Upper Canada in 1807 to seek redress in Britain after he had been dismissed by Gore. But there is no evidence that Addison’s letters expressed any radical sympathies and, in any case, Wyatt was not a central figure in the Thorpe group. Wyatt did regard himself as a friend of Addison and when he returned to England he went to considerable trouble to try to arrange a military chaplaincy for him at Niagara. But Addison did not return the friendship. In 1807 he described Wyatt as a man driven by the devil; later, he did not even bother to thank him for his efforts.

It seems clear, therefore, that Addison was not a silent partner of Thorpe, Weekes, and Willcocks during and after the summer of 1806. There remains a possibility, however, that he may have been more friendly with them earlier. If so, his friendship would have come as an outgrowth of his association with the group of Scottish merchants centred in Niagara. Dickson, Nichol, Clark, Robert Hamilton*, and their colleagues were Addison’s parishioners, friends, and business associates. It has been shown recently that until 1806 the main feature of the political life of the Niagara peninsula was a conflict between these large-scale Laurentian traders on the one hand and government officials and representatives and small merchants on the other. Addison probably shared the political outlook of the Scottish merchants and, to the extent that he perceived the Thorpe group as critical of the existing government, he may have seen them as potential allies. By 1807, however, the strident radicalism of Thorpe and Willcocks was beginning to force a realignment of political groups in the Niagara area. The large merchants moved to a position of support for the lieutenant governor and his councils. Addison may have done the same.

In any event, Addison was politically suspect to Gore for years after 1806. In fact it was probably not until he demonstrated his loyalty in the War of 1812 that the earlier suspicions were forgotten. Addison’s parish was in the most vulnerable part of Upper Canada, but he remained at his post throughout the war. He was present to officiate at the military funeral of Sir Isaac Brock*, he stood by helplessly while the Americans burned the town, his church included, and he told the SPG that he had been “plundered made prisoner of war, & harrassed till he was dangerously ill.” Before the conflict was over Addison had witnessed “almost all the sad scenes of Distress which a Country subject to the Ravages of War can suffer.” As it came to a close, the part he had played began to receive public recognition. In 1814 the assembly unanimously voted him £100 in consideration of his work with the wounded soldiers of Fort George and the unfortunate inhabitants of the Niagara area. A year later he was chosen to distribute throughout the region money raised by the Loyal and Patriotic Society of Upper Canada for the relief of those who had suffered wartime damages.

Addison was probably the best-educated man in Upper Canada during his lifetime. When he came to the colony he brought with him a magnificent personal library of 17th- and 18th-century books. But he did not use them, at least not systematically. There was nothing in the new colonial environment to stimulate him and that, combined with a tendency to indolence, he admitted, resulted in only desultory reading and the lack of “excellence in anything.” Nevertheless, he was able to contribute something to the educational history of the province. In 1815 he joined with John Strachan* in a report to the lieutenant governor proposing an organizational plan for public education in the colony. Part of it was accepted and formed the basis of the Common Schools Act of 1816. Strachan was so impressed by Addison’s scholarly attainments as to confess that Addison was the only man in Upper Canada under whom he would be willing to serve in the university he hoped to see established. When the charter for King’s College was issued in 1827, the office of president was vested in the archdeacon of York. But Strachan was willing to offer Addison the position of principal in the new institution. Addison had a momentary reverie in which he saw himself as the senior scholar enjoying the respect of young students. Quickly, however, he returned to reality: he was too old, he told Strachan, and his health was so poor that he would not live to see the university opened.

By the late 1820s Addison had been in Upper Canada nearly 40 years and had lived closer to the centre of colonial affairs than most men. His dedication to his church and his people was supplemented by considerable activity indicating acceptance and respectability. He sat on the Board for the General Superintendence of Education and was closely associated with the grammar school at Niagara; he was grand chaplain of the masonic lodge at Niagara, a member of Niagara’s public library board, and had been, at least once, chairman of the district’s Court of Quarter Sessions. Over the years he was instrumental in the building of churches at Grimsby, Chippawa, Queenston, Fort Erie, and St Catharines. By 1828 his health had failed to the point where he was unable to perform his duties as chaplain to the assembly. He never recovered, dying quietly in Niagara on 6 Oct. 1829. The sermon at his funeral was preached by Strachan.

H. E. Turner

The author wishes to thank A. J. Stevenson of Ottawa for supplying genealogical information on the Addison family.

Information concerning Robert Addison’s land holdings and transactions can be found at the AO in the crown land papers (RG 1), including the township papers (C-IV) for Niagara Township; in the nominal listings of the land record index and the index to land patents by district, 1790–1825 (RG 53, ser.2, 1: f.123); and in the microfilmed collection of Upper Canada land books and petitions (PAC, RG 1, L 1 and 13).

Selections from his correspondence to the SPG appeared in “The Rev. Robert Addison: extracts from the reports and (manuscript) journals of the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts,” ed. A. H. Young, OH, 19 (1922): 171–91, and one of his sermons was published under the title “An old time sermon” in Niagara Hist. Soc., [Pub.], no.5 (1899): 1–7.

AO, MS 35, letter-book, 1827–39, Strachan to Addison, 23 Jan. 1828; unbound papers, Addison to Strachan, 9 Feb. 1828; MS 88, C. B. Wyatt to W. W. Baldwin, 4 Dec. 1812. Niagara Hist. Soc. Museum (Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont.), F-IV-1: 27 (mfm. at AO). PRO, CO 42/343: 104–17; 42/350: 212–91, 456–60, 478–82; 42/357: 254–93; 42/366: 204–7. “Journals of Legislative Assembly of U.C.,” AO Report, 1912. Statistical account of U.C. (Gourlay; ed. Mealing; 1974), 189–93. Strachan, Letter book (Spragge), 75–79. Town of York, 1793–1815 (Firth), 175–78. U.C., House of Assembly, Journal, 1828: 39–63, 92; app., “Report on several petitions, praying for an alteration in the law imposing certain taxes on uncultivated lands.” Valley of Six Nations (Johnston). Joseph Willcocks, “The diary of Joseph Willcocks from Dec. 1, 1799, to Feb. 1, 1803,” J. E. Middleton and Fred Landon, The province of Ontario: a history, 1615–1927 (5v., Toronto, [1927–28]), 2: 1250322. Alumni Cantabrigienses . . . , comp. John and J. A. Venn (2 pts. in 10v., Cambridge, Eng., 1922–54), pt.ii, 1: 14. Armstrong, Handbook of Upper Canadian chronology (1967), 104. Robert Addisons library: a short-title catalogue of the books brought to Upper Canada in 1792 by the first missionary sent out to the Niagara frontier by the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel, comp. W. J. Cameron et al. (Hamilton, Ont., 1967).

Carnochan, Hist. of Niagara. Cowdell Gates, Land policies of U.C. Ernest Hawkins, Annals of the diocese of Toronto (London, 1848). David Thomas, “A history of Anglican beginnings in Niagara,” Religion and churches in the Niagara Peninsula: proceedings, fourth annual Niagara Peninsula History Conference, Brock University, 17–18 April, 1982, ed. John Burtniak and W. B. Turner (St Catharines, Ont., 1982), 27–35. Wilson, Enterprises of Robert Hamilton. A. P. Addison, “Robert Addison, of Niagara,” Canadian Journal of Religious Thought (Toronto), 1 (1924): 420–26. E. A. Brooks, “The little world of Robert Addison, first priest of Niagara (1792–1829),” Canadian Church Hist. Soc., Journal (Toronto), 4 (1960–62), no.1. Ernest Green, “The search for salt in Upper Canada,” OH, 26 (1930): 406–31. A. H. Young, “The Rev. Robert Addison and St. Mark’s Church,” OH, 19 (1922): 158–70.

General Bibliography

Cite This Article

H. E. Turner, “ADDISON, ROBERT,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 6, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed May 26, 2024, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/addison_robert_6E.html.

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Permalink:   http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/addison_robert_6E.html
Author of Article:   H. E. Turner
Title of Article:   ADDISON, ROBERT
Publication Name:   Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 6
Publisher:   University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication:   1987
Year of revision:   1987
Access Date:   May 26, 2024