CULL, JAMES, engineer, businessman, newspaperman, and surveyor; b. c. 1779 in Dorset, England; m. Sarah – and they had six sons and at least two daughters; d. 5 Sept. 1849 in Kingston, Upper Canada.
A brewer, James Cull moved in 1803 from Wareham, Dorset, to Newport, Isle of Wight, where he purchased a brewery; by 1809 he had gone into innkeeping as well. He served as a highway commissioner (1813–25) and possibly as president of a mechanics’ institute. The depth of his training in civil engineering remains uncertain. In an age when engineering was only starting to establish professional standards, Cull gained credibility by being an enthusiast with practical experience. He claimed to have worked as a surveyor for 25 years, to have managed a public waterworks, and to have been employed by the Liverpool and Manchester Railway. In addition, he boasted an acquaintance with gasworks, bridges, and “everything connected with steam and water power.” When he decided to emigrate to the Canadas, he maintained that he and his six grown sons collectively had experience in engineering, brewing, malting, brickmaking, and “general business.”
Cull had helped the emigration agent William Cattermole direct the attention of emigrants from the Isle of Wight and the Portsmouth area to Upper Canada, and he was probably among the “persons of Capital” who accompanied Cattermole to that province in the spring of 1832. Unlike most emigrants, Cull came with technical expertise, and he understood self-promotion. At York (Toronto) he presented letters of recommendation to Lieutenant Governor Sir John Colborne*, who appointed him to the Niagara Township boundary commission in August. He gained an instant reputation as a “gentleman of talent and science.” His claim that he held patents on a wooden railway and his promise to lecture on pneumatics at the mechanics’ institute dazzled development-conscious provincials, and he worked himself into their confidence.
After the passage of an act in 1833 to improve the approaches to York, Cull was introduced to the trustees for the Yonge Street turnpike by John Willson*, a member of the House of Assembly. The trustees accepted Cull’s bid for the construction of one mile of macadamized road, the first stretch of road to be built in Upper Canada using the British invention of compacted layers of broken rock. Cull, however, had underestimated the cost of getting and crushing stone and the difficulties of cutting through hills and crossing streams. The work progressed too slowly for the trustees, who were interested in length, not quality, and they disputed Cull’s billings. On 16 Sept. 1833 they took the uncompleted road out of his hands. Arbitration favoured Cull’s claim for losses, a decision upheld by select committees of the assembly and the courts. The trustees, refusing to pay, produced a report in 1835 with spiteful references to Cull as one “who professed to be a Civil Engineer.” The conflict brought out fundamental incongruities between British engineering practices and the technical possibilities and financial capability of a lightly settled colony in a harsh environment [see Thomas Roy]. At the time of this dispute Cull was listed in the Toronto directory of 1833–34 as an engineer and also as a proprietor of a wharf and warehouse.
Cull turned to publishing in 1835. Under his editorship and proprietorship, the Albion of U.C., which probably commenced publication that fall, tried to distinguish itself from Toronto’s characteristically partisan press by presenting articles on agriculture, science, and engineering. Strongly conservative, Cull printed pro-government broadsides during the election of 1836 but his political editorials skirted the issues of principle then disrupting the colony. Dispute was seen as an impediment to raising capital and proceeding with public works. Cull recommended, for example, that the clergy reserves should be leased to poor immigrants at low rents and the revenues applied to “Religious and Moral Education, Bridges and Roads.” He ignored entirely the political reality of strong denominations struggling over the reserves.
From an office in Toronto’s market building, Cull promoted several ventures related to both printing and development. As secretary of the Emigrant Society of Upper Canada, he forwarded copies of the Albion to societies in the United Kingdom, a ploy he hoped would attract advertising as well as alert Britons to the colony’s prospects. In April 1836 he unsuccessfully attempted to raise capital for a gazette of Upper Canadian “post towns,” which would have included a census and lists of institutions and manufacturers. In November he launched another newspaper, the Royal Standard, and, along with a publishing associate (possibly a Mr Osborne) and three reporters, he approached the House of Assembly with a proposal for preparing an official report of debates as a feature of the newspaper. Though recommended by a committee of the assembly, the scheme was narrowly defeated.
The Albion carried Cull in many directions, but engineering was at its heart. In February 1837, for instance, he published a plan for improvements to Toronto. Yet whatever the Albion might have done to restore his engineering reputation, it is clear from his published appeals for capital and the scant advertising in the newspaper that it was a financial failure. In 1836 Cull had secured a public inquiry into his conduct on the Yonge Street project and the trustees’ report. The inquiry confirmed in January 1837 his ability as a road-builder, thus removing, Cull claimed, the “stigma which has been cast upon him.” He closed both the faltering Albion and the Royal Standard the following month, but winding them up created a chain of claims and accusations. After withdrawing from publishing, Cull continued to strive for an engineering position, possibly his sole avenue for advancing his fortune; in March 1837 he petitioned Lieutenant Governor Sir Francis Bond Head* for an appointment.
Cull’s return to road-building came under difficult circumstances: he had to supervise the macadamizing and straightening of the Kingston–Napanee road during depression years (1837–39). Undaunted, he defended the concept of public debt before sceptical agrarians, insisting that a properly constructed road would save money over the years. His 1838 report on the road, essentially a lecture on development, offers a glimpse of a headstrong engineer accenting quality and his “experience at home” while condemning Upper Canadian demands for haste and economy. His contempt for subcontracting sections of the road to farmers and his argument that damages to farms by road-crews were balanced by increased property values both had reason, but they also demonstrated his misunderstanding of local circumstances. His logic in laying out a portion of the route through a swamp was lost on farmers by-passed by the road; others alleged that Cull’s men had stolen logs for the construction of marsh crossings. Such were the travails of a man of inappropriate standards and straight lines.
The upswing in public works during the 1840s briefly strengthened Cull’s prospects. In the summer of 1840 he conducted a survey of the harbour at Port Stanley, following which he returned to Toronto expecting permanent employment with a proposed gasworks. After undertaking preliminary research, including a trip to Montreal for information, he was replaced on the project in October 1841. Within a week, however, he was directing work on the London–St Thomas road as surveyor for the London and Brock districts, reporting to the provincial Board of Works. Briefly, in 1843, he assumed the direction of work on the London-Port Sarnia road (both roads were probably macadamized), but the board considered his progress too slow. He was removed in November 1843 from the road-work and probably from the district surveyor’s office. His protest spilled out the discontent of a decade: he claimed that he was “discarded, deprived of the means of subsistence, and degraded.” Cull nevertheless found official employment again, for in 1846 he was working as a civil engineer and surveyor with the Ordnance department at Kingston. In August of that year he attempted, evidently without success, to become licensed as a public land surveyor. He died of cholera three years later. In its obituary the British Colonist noted that he had founded a public bath in Toronto and had advocated a system of water, sewer, and gas utilities for the city.
Exceedingly keen, believing himself to be thoroughly knowledgeable, but perhaps only stolidly able, Cull had a destiny of modest ends to hopeful starts. He is rescued from obscurity by his supervision of the first section of macadamized road in Upper Canada. His succession of appointments reflects the colony’s growing need for skilled civilians, but, in the context of that demand, he figures as a transitional character. He functioned as a conduit for British practice, with technical specifications displacing local requirements. In contrast, younger and possibly more able engineers such as Nicol Hugh Baird, John George Howard*, and Casimir Stanislaus Gzowski* knew how to blend their skills with political awareness and provincial needs. Unable to match the rising qualifications among engineers, Cull resorted to petitions and patronage to secure himself, but toward the end of his career he lacked the formal credentials that had become important.
ACC, Diocese of Toronto Arch., Church of the Holy Trinity (Toronto), reg. of baptisms, 1844–61, nos.8–9. CTA, RG 1, B, James Cull to Mayor [R. B. Sullivan] and Aldermen, 4 May 1836; Cull to Mayor [Gurnett George], 20 Feb. 1837; Cull to Mayor [George Monro], 19 Oct. 1841. Dundas Hist. Soc. Museum (Dundas, Ont.), James Lesslie diary, 28 May–2 June 1832. Isle of Wight County Record Office (Newport, Eng.), Index of deeds; Reg. of births, marriages, and burials. PAC, RG 1, E3, 19, 43; RG 5, A1: 64050–52, 73907–15; C1, 3, file 358; RG 11, A2, 93; RG 68, General index, 1651–1841: 71. J. A. Macdonald, The letters of Sir John A. Macdonald, 1836–1857, ed. J. K. Johnson (2v., Ottawa, 1968–69), 1: 40. U.C., House of Assembly, App. to the journal, 1835, 1, no. 12; 2, no.44; 1837, no.29; 1839, 2, pt.i: 181–87; Journal, 1836–37: 41, 56, 84–85, 93–95, 166, 175, 181; 1837–38: 288. Albion of U.C. (Toronto), 5 Dec. 1835; 2–16 April, 21–28 May, 2 July 1836. British Colonist, 15 Sept. 1849. Hamilton Gazette, and General Advertiser (Hamilton, [Ont.]), 26 Oct. 1840. Early Toronto newspapers (Firth), nos.16, 19. Toronto directory, 1833–34, 1837. History of the county of Middlesex, Canada . . . (Toronto and London, Ont., 1889; repr. with intro. by D. [J.] Brock, Belleville, Ont., 1972), 13, 194. The Royal Canadian Institute, centennial volume, 1849–1949, ed. W. S. Wallace (Toronto, 1949), 185. M. S. Cross, “The stormy history of the York roads, 1833–1865,” OH, 54 (1962): 1–24.
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Cite This Article
John C. Weaver, “CULL, JAMES,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 7, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed March 25, 2023, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/cull_james_7E.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:
|Author of Article:||John C. Weaver|
|Title of Article:||CULL, JAMES|
|Publication Name:||Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 7|
|Publisher:||University of Toronto/Université Laval|
|Year of publication:||1988|
|Year of revision:||1988|
|Access Date:||March 25, 2023|