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CLARKE, CHARLES, businessman, journalist, politician, office holder, author, and militia officer; b. 28 Nov. 1826 in Lincoln, England, elder child of Richard Clarke and Jane Drury; m. first 2 June 1852 Emma Kent (d. 1878) in Williamsville, Haldimand County, Upper Canada, and they had four daughters and one son, Charles Kirk*; m. secondly 1 Aug. 1881 Rose Ellen Halley in Ponsonby, Ont., and they had two sons and a daughter; d. 6 April 1909 in Elora, Ont.

Charles Clarke’s father was the municipal corn inspector in Lincoln; until his premature death in 1835 he may have been part of the small circle of Radicals that emerged there in the 1830s. Charles was educated by two of its leading lights: Thomas Cooper, later of Chartist renown, and George Boole, who achieved fame as a mathematician and logician. By age 14 Clarke had been apprenticed to a local draper, John Norton, also a Radical. After settling in Upper Canada, Clarke would maintain an interest and contacts in Lincoln. In these attachments he found satisfaction and much of his sense of personal authority: he was an immigrant who accommodated himself to his new society without wholly assimilating.

Clarke emigrated in April 1844, just weeks before the expiry of his apprenticeship. Chafing at the prospect of life behind a dry-goods counter, he decided to join his mother and stepfather, John Lincoln Kirk, on a farm near Canboro, in the Niagara District. Four years later the family moved to Elora, near Guelph, a village poised to profit from the opening of townships to the north. In 1850 Clarke and his stepfather went into partnership as general merchants. By 1861 they were able to build a three-storey, brick business-block on Elora’s main street, and Clarke found himself behind a counter after all.

In the meantime, he gained a reputation in political circles as a polemicist of advanced views. As a youth he had taken up the cause of Radicalism, and when the opportunity arose to espouse its principles in Upper Canada, he seized it. In Hamilton in 1849 to acquire business experience, he began writing for the Journal and Express, became its associate editor, and launched a series of articles under the pseudonym of Reformator in such other reform papers as the Toronto Mirror and the Dundas Warder. In these he argued forcibly for the democratization of Canadian political institutions: a wider franchise, the secret ballot, shorter parliaments, and other measures aimed at achieving “purity of representation.” Such reforms would abolish privilege and monopoly, free men from the constraints of rank and custom, and guarantee prosperity and happiness.

Reformator attracted the attention of like-minded men, notably Charles Lindsey, William McDougall, and others associated with the Clear Grit faction of the reformers. Clarke was invited to write the “Planks of Our Platform” series that appeared early in 1851 in McDougall’s North American, in support of radical democratic reform. McDougall also offered him a partnership in his paper, which Clarke turned down. Though his heart lay in journalism, he preferred the greater economic security of retail trade. At the same time, however, he joined with others in establishing in 1852 the Elora Backwoodsman, which provided him with a writing outlet and a political base. He became, as John Charles Dent* was to say, “a Liberal of the Liberals.”

Clarke’s organizational activity as secretary of the Reform Association of the North Riding of Wellington during the 1850s followed from his ideological zeal and won him notoriety as the Elora “Wire Puller.” For Clarke party was less the expression of an interest than the potential embodiment of the people’s will. But, in the face of divisions among the reformers and the radical nature of his own ideology, his hopes were disappointed. Through the break-up of the liberal Hincks-Morin ministry in 1854, he adhered to Clear Grit minister John Rolph*, perhaps because of Rolph’s strict voluntaryism in churchstate affairs, perhaps as a result of personal ties through Joseph Workman*, David Gibson*, and David Christie*. Also, during the period of the ministry, Grit idealists such as Clarke, McDougall, and Christie had become increasingly critical of estranged reform leader George Brown*.

Locally Clarke held office as a member of Elora’s village council in 1858 and 1866, and as reeve in 1859–64 and 1867–68; he served as well on the board of the high school. At the provincial level, he represented the riding of Wellington Centre (1871–86) and then Wellington East (1886–91), winning six successive general elections by acclamation or with comfortable majorities. Passed over three times for a place in the cabinet of Liberal premier Oliver Mowat, he had to be satisfied with terms as speaker (1880–86) and chairman of the public accounts committee (1886–91). He kept his disappointment to himself and in 1891 he was rewarded for his long and faithful service to Mowat with the position of clerk of the legislature; sworn in on 2 Jan. 1892, he occupied the post until January 1907. Brash and outspoken in his youth, he was a reluctant debater in the legislature, and in his maturity he devoted himself to recording parliamentary procedure. The symbolic high point of his political career was the enactment in 1874, on his initiative the previous year, of legislation introducing the secret ballot in provincial elections.

Clarke died at Elora on 6 April 1909. Before his death he published Sixty years in Upper Canada, which is valuable for his recollections of Ontario politics and mlas over a period of 25 years, and for his sense of time and place. His life had spanned an era he was pleased to call, in retrospect, “the most astounding, probably, in the history of the world.” His interests and outlook exemplified those of educated, liberal Victorians of the middle classes. He advocated temperance and agricultural improvement (he was a vice-president of the North Riding Agricultural Society). He also promoted horticulture, ornithology, and natural history as civilizing pursuits that countered the materialism of the age and advanced “the general intelligence of our people.” Along with teacher David Boyle*, he was a critical figure in what historian Gerald Killan has called Elora’s “intellectual awakening” of the 1870s. In local military affairs he had helped form the Elora Volunteer Rifles in 1861, rose to its command during the Fenian raids of 1866, and was later promoted lieutenant-colonel of the 30th (Wellington) Battalion of Rifles. Familiarly known as Colonel Clarke, he became something of a sage in his private and public life. The sage must teach, the young must act: this dictum, from an anti-corn law tract he had written at age 15, might well serve as his epitaph.

Kenneth C. Dewar

In addition to his memoirs, Sixty years in Upper Canada, with autobiographical recollections (Toronto, 1908), and his journalistic endeavours, Charles Clarke’s publications include texts of speeches, Ontario elections, 1879: to the electors of Centre Wellington (Elora, Ont., 1879) and Teachers and teaching; and, Then and now (Elora, 1880), and two articles in Rose-Belford’s Canadian Monthly and National Rev. (Toronto): “Biennial legislation,” 6 (January–June 1881): 340–41 and “The mace and its use,” 7 (July–December 1881): 109–20. As clerk of the Legislative Assembly he prepared The member’s manual of practice and procedure in the Legislative Assembly of the province of Ontario, with decisions of MrSpeaker, from 1867 to 1893, rules of the house, and miscellaneous information (Toronto, 1893), and two subsequent editions: Practice and procedure (2nd ed., 1898), and The member’s manual, Legislative Assembly of Ontario (3rd ed., 1904).

AO, F 26. Lincolnshire Arch. (Lincoln, Eng.), Copy of baptismal certificate. Univ. of Western Ont. Library, Regional Coll. (London), Charles Clarke diaries. Wellington County Arch. (Fergus, Ont.), Clarke coll. Dundas Warder and Halton County General Advertiser (Dundas, [Ont.]), 1848–51. Elora Backwoodsman, 3 April 1852–28 July 1858. Journal and Express (Hamilton, [Ont]), 1 Dec. 1848; 16–19 July, 1 Dec. 1850. Observer (Elora), 1859–68. Toronto Mirror, 1848–51. Weekly North American (Toronto), 1850–53. F. W. C. Abbott, “Charles Clarke: Clear Grit; a political study, 1826–1871” (ma thesis, McMaster Univ., Hamilton, 1964). Canadian men and women of the time (Morgan; 1898). Careless, Brown, vol.1. Cyclopædia of Canadian biog. (Rose and Charlesworth), vol.1. Dent, Canadian portrait gallery, vol.4. K. C. Dewar, “Charles Clarke’s ‘Reformator’: early Victorian Radicalism in Upper Canada,” OH, 78 (1986): 233–52. Gerald Killan, David Boyle: from artisan to archaeologist (Toronto, 1983). Legislators and legislatures of Ont. (Forman). Ont., Chief Election Officer, Hist. of electoral districts (1969).

General Bibliography

Cite This Article

Kenneth C. Dewar, “CLARKE, CHARLES,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 13, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed April 25, 2024, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/clarke_charles_13E.html.

The citation above shows the format for footnotes and endnotes according to the Chicago manual of style (16th edition). Information to be used in other citation formats:

Permalink:   http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/clarke_charles_13E.html
Author of Article:   Kenneth C. Dewar
Title of Article:   CLARKE, CHARLES
Publication Name:   Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 13
Publisher:   University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication:   1994
Year of revision:   1994
Access Date:   April 25, 2024