COLLINS, FRANCIS, journalist, printer, publisher, and office holder; b. c. 1799 in Newry (Northern Ireland); m. 1824 Ann Moore of Newry, and they had four children; d. 29 Aug. 1834 in Toronto.
After receiving what he said was a “tolerable” classical education in Newry, Francis Collins served an apprenticeship in Dublin as a printer and also learned to write shorthand. For a brief period he ran a whig opposition newspaper known as the Ulster Recorder, which, he claimed, was forced to shut down because of pressure exerted by Lord Castlereagh. He emigrated to Upper Canada in 1818 and obtained a grant of 100 acres near York (Toronto). Soon after his arrival he found employment with Robert Charles Horne*, the king’s printer, as compositor on the Upper Canada Gazette. As well, in early 1821 he began reporting House of Assembly debates for the Gazette, as John Carey* was doing for the Observer. His stenographic reports were fuller and in general more accurate than any that had previously appeared in print. Yet he gave more extensive coverage to reform members than to tories, and on one occasion Attorney General John Beverley Robinson* protested in the house that Collins’s report of a debate could not have been “more false, absurd, even ludicrous.” Horne was reprimanded at the bar of the house and he apologized for the report in the Gazette, but he retained Collins, cautioning him to report impartially. “Trifling inaccuracies” Horne later blamed on the cramped quarters assigned to reporters in the gallery – what Collins called “the fiddlers’ box in the cock-loft.”
When Horne resigned as king’s printer in 1821, Collins hoped to succeed him but was told that the office would be given to “no one but a gentleman,” an affront he resented since he traced his ancestry to the ancient kings of Ireland. General satisfaction with his reportorial skill, however, led to his appointment for the 1821–22 session as official reporter to the legislature and also, at about this time, as court stenographer; the position as house reporter he seems to have held for five years. In July 1825 he established his own newspaper, the Canadian Freeman, and at once began attacking the administration of Lieutenant Governor Sir Peregrine Maitland* and his “reptile band” of tory advisers. He protested against the government’s policy in the alien controversy [see John Rolph*] and published a pamphlet on the subject. He also took a firm stand for freedom of the press when a group of young tories raided William Lyon Mackenzie*’s printing-house in 1826, but he held no brief for Mackenzie himself as a man or as a politician. Indeed he expended an arsenal of insulting epithets on most of his fellow editors, whether reformers or tories.
In 1826, following the dismissal of Charles Fothergill* as king’s printer, the chairman of the assembly’s printing committee, Hugh Christopher Thomson, had solicited tenders for printing the journal of the house. Mackenzie got the contract by submitting a bid below the going rates, much to Collins’s annoyance. “We shall have cheap journals this session!” commented Thomson. But when Mackenzie’s press was destroyed by the rioters, he had to turn over the printing to Collins, though he retained his own imprint on the journal’s title page. Collins lost the contract to Mackenzie again in 1827, partly because he could not resist heading his tender “Proposals for Printing ‘Cheap Journals,’” a gibe at Thomson which did not amuse members of the assembly. Collins was cited for contempt of parliament and summoned to apologize at the bar of the house. In January 1828 a motion carried in the assembly to divide the printing of the house among Collins, Carey, and Mackenzie. The following year, while Collins was incarcerated for libel in the York jail, his press published the journals from 9 January to 20 March “by order of the House of Assembly.”
Because of his attacks on the administration in the Canadian Freeman, the executive in 1826 had withheld payment of the stipend voted to him by the assembly for reporting the debates. But instead of restraining him, this action gave him another stick with which to beat the government. Maitland reacted by having Collins indicted on four counts of libel in the spring of 1828. When the editor appeared in court without counsel, he was allowed by judge John Walpole Willis* to make a preliminary statement and took the opportunity to attack Attorney General Robinson, who was prosecuting the case for the crown, for dereliction of duty. Robinson, said Collins, had failed to bring criminal charges against Henry John Boulton* and James Edward Small*, Samuel Peters Jarvis*’s seconds in the fatal duel he fought with John Ridout in 1817; he had also failed to prosecute the rioters who had destroyed Mackenzie’s press. Against Robinson’s protest, Willis instructed Collins to lay this information before the grand jury. True bills were found. In the subsequent trials the seconds were acquitted and the rioters let off with a nominal fine. Willis then recommended that the libel charges against Collins be dropped “in order to quiet the public mind,” but Robinson held them over until the fall assizes.
On Collins’s second appearance in court in October 1828, he was defended by John Rolph and Robert Baldwin*. Three charges were withdrawn and on the fourth he was acquitted. Robinson then laid two new charges, one for a libel on himself, Collins having accused him of “native malignancy,” the other for the journalist’s disrespectful reference to judge Christopher Alexander Hagerman*. The presiding judge in the trial, Levius Peters Sherwood*, was temporarily absent from the bench when the jury brought in a verdict of guilty on the first count only. Hagerman, acting for Sherwood, instructed them to bring in a general verdict, which would cover his own case as well. The jury complied and Sherwood sentenced Collins to one year in jail, a fine of £50, and sureties of £600 for good behaviour for three years – a sentence widely condemned as out of all proportion to the offence.
At public meetings in York and in Hamilton on Collins’s behalf, subscriptions were taken up and protests sent to Lieutenant Governor Sir John Colborne*. On 26 Nov. 1828 and again on 4 December Collins himself petitioned Colborne, who declined to take any action. The assembly then took up his cause and, with only three dissenting votes, passed a resolution asking that his sentence be remitted. When this appeal, too, failed to move Colborne, the assembly drew up a much stronger address to the king praying for royal clemency. The crown’s response was positive and Collins was released in September 1829 after serving 45 weeks in jail, his fine and sureties remitted.
If his persecutors had sought to silence Collins by incarceration they had badly misjudged their man. From his jail cell he had continued to edit the Freeman, denouncing his opponents with scathing sarcasm in a series of “open letters.” After his release he concentrated his editorial attacks mainly on Egerton Ryerson* and the Methodists, and on Mackenzie, whom he accused of republicanism. As a self-professed independent whig, he believed in reform on the British rather than the American model. When in 1831 Mackenzie was expelled from the assembly for libelling the house in the Colonial Advocate, many reformers counted on Collins once again to lead a crusade for liberty of the press. Instead, he branded the Advocate a seditious publication and commended the assembly for ousting a “despicable demagogue.” When Mackenzie set about collecting “grievances,” Collins retorted that there was no grievance a good assembly could not remedy. In Maitland’s administration, Collins contended, “there was much to blame and little to praise,” in Sir John Colborne’s “much to praise and little to censure.” Accused of turning tory, Collins replied that he had joined with “the rankest Tories” to prostrate Mackenzie and his faction, but having accomplished this purpose he would continue to state his political opinions “without regard to sect or party.” By 1833 Collins was in a benevolent mood towards his former tory antagonists, declaring in the Freeman: “It is very well known that ‘the highest law officers of the crown’ prosecuted the Freeman, at one time. . . . Well all that has been forgotten, we believe, on both sides, by the parties concerned, and mutual forgiveness extended.”
During the last three years of his life, Collins became embroiled in a bitter public dispute with the Reverend William John O’Grady*, the Roman Catholic priest in York. Trouble first began when in July 1831 Collins’s brother John had to sue O’Grady for recovery of debt. Reports of this case in the Freeman angered O’Grady, who then refused baptism to Collins’s son. The feud might have subsided had not O’Grady, smarting under a reprimand from Bishop Alexander McDonell*, disputed McDonell’s authority, claiming that he held his commission directly from Rome. Collins was the chief lay supporter of the bishop, and James King the principal ally of O’Grady. When Rome intervened in support of McDonell, O’Grady capitulated and, with King, established a radical reform journal, the Canadian Correspondent, which carried on a weekly vendetta with the Freeman.
But for Collins, time was running out. During the cholera epidemic of 1834 he visited Irish victims in the hospital. Late in August he himself contracted the disease and died soon afterwards. His wife and eldest daughter also succumbed, as did his brother and sister-in-law.
John Charles Dent* wrote of Collins that “his nationality was clearly indicated by his personal appearance, his features being rough-hewn and unmistakably Celtic; while his red hair and beard, usually not very well cared for, gave him an aspect of uncouth wildness.” A complex and paradoxical character, he could be generous, humane, and forgiving, but too often indulged in crude polemics and personal abuse. Opposed to arbitrary power whether of the right or the left, he believed in constitutional reform within the framework of loyalty to the king and the British connection. In an obituary tribute that appeared in the Patriot on 29 Aug. 1834, Thomas Dalton* described him as a true liberal who cared “alike for the honor and dignity of the Crown and rights and welfare of the subject. . . . It is [questionable] if the Press of Upper Canada can now boast so robust an Advocate of Principle as was departed Francis Collins.”
AO, ms 78, J. B. Robinson to Macaulay, 4 March 1821; Hagerman to Macaulay, 11 March 1821; Robert Stanton to Macaulay, 14 Oct., 4 Nov. 1826; 14, 23 April, 10 Nov. 1828; ms 444, B-2-1, Ewen Macdonald to Aeneas Macdonald, 15 Oct. 1831. Arch. of the Archdiocese of Toronto, M (Macdonell papers), AB46.03; CC50.04, .06; CD06.02. MTL, W. D. Powell papers, S. P. Jarvis corr., Jarvis to Powell, 24 Aug., 28 Oct. 1828; 1 April 1829. PAC, RG 1, E3, 15: 1–19; L3, 101: C 12/80; 103: C12/274. Debates of the Legislative Assembly of United Canada, 1841–1867, ed. Elizabeth Abbott [Nish] Gibbs (12v. in 25 to date, Montreal, 1970– ), 1: xxix–xxx. J. C. Dent, The story of the Upper Canadian rebellion: largely from original sources and documents (2v., Toronto, 1885), 1. Town of York, 1815–34 (Firth). U.C., House of Assembly, App. to the journal, 1835, no.21: 133–37. Canadian Correspondent (Toronto), 30 Aug., 6 Sept. 1834. Canadian Freeman, 1825–34. [A. J. Dooner, named] Brother Alfred, Catholic pioneers in Upper Canada (Toronto, 1947), 141–65. H. P. Gundy, “Liberty and licence of the press in Upper Canada,” His own man: essays in honour of Arthur Reginald Marsden Lower, ed. W. H. Heick and Roger Graham (Montreal and London, 1974), 71–92. Charles Lindsey, The life and times of Wm. Lyon Mackenzie . . . (2v., Toronto, 1862; repr. 1971), 1. F. M. Quealey, “The administration of Sir Peregrine Maitland, lieutenant-governor of Upper Canada, 1818–1828” (phd thesis, 2v., Univ. of Toronto, 1968). John Ward, The Hansard chronicles: a celebration of the first hundred years of Hansard in Canada’s Parliament (Ottawa, 1980). Mary McLean, “Early parliamentary reporting in Upper Canada,” CHR, 20 (1939): 378–91.