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DERBISHIRE, STEWART, public official; b. perhaps in 1794 or 1795 in London, England, son of Dr Philip Derbishire of Bath, England, and Ann Masterton of Edinburgh, Scotland; d. 27 March 1863 in Quebec, Canada East.

Stewart Derbishire was of a type common enough in 19th century Canada, the middle class English adventurer. He drifted through a number of careers in England before coming to Canada. First an ensign in the 82nd Foot, he then studied law and was called to the bar in 1830. He gained some notoriety in 1832 as defence lawyer for the Dorchester labourers accused of machine smashing. His legal career gave way to journalism, for the Whig Morning Chronicle. He went to Spain as its correspondent in 1837 during the civil war. Typically he could not maintain journalistic neutrality. He joined the Carlist side and later fought with the British forces, under General George de Lacy Evans, which intervened in 1837. For his services Derbishire was decorated by the queen of Spain.

On his return to England the quiet life in George St, Adelphi, made him restless. He was ready to throw over his new journal, the Atlas, which he had begun to edit in the fall of 1837, when he heard of the mission of Lord Durham [Lambton*] to Canada. Writing to Durham in January 1838, Derbishire impressed the earl sufficiently to obtain employment. He arrived in New York in April and there began the first part of his mission, gathering information on rebel activities and on the causes of the Lower Canadian uprising.

Derbishire’s reputation as an advanced Whig won him interviews with William Lyon Mackenzie, John Rolph, and Edmund Bailey O’Callaghan* in New York, Denis-Benjamin Viger in Montreal, and more humble folk throughout Lower Canada. Derbishire reported to Durham in May 1838 that the habitants had “no practical grievances,” that it was “the malaria of political agitation” which had produced the rebellion. The malaria, he felt, was still active; Derbishire found alarming signs of rebel activity throughout the border region of the province. His constant warnings during 1838 and 1839 to Durham, Lieutenant Governor George Arthur* of Upper Canada, and Sir John Colborne won him something of a reputation as an alarmist. Although Arthur was impressed by Derbishire and was inclined to continue his services after Durham’s departure, Colborne warned that Derbishire was “very credulous” and that he should not be encouraged.

Derbishire served other functions, beyond excited reporting. He was Durham’s press agent, cajoling and threatening editors into writing favourably about Durham’s régime. And in November 1838, in an effort to summon reinforcements to Lower Canada, he carried dispatches from Canada to Fredericton and Halifax in a hazardous winter dash through the wilderness.

His official employment ended with Durham’s departure in November 1838. Derbishire then spent some time in the United States gathering information on the Maine-New Brunswick border dispute for the British government. In 1840 he returned to Montreal to edit the Morning Courier. Re-establishing his close ties with government under Governor General Sydenham [Thomson*], Derbishire allowed the Courier to be used as a vehicle for official propaganda. He got his rewards in 1841. Under Sydenham’s patronage, Derbishire was elected to the assembly for Bytown (Ottawa), although he had no connection with it. That September he was appointed queen’s printer along with George-Paschal Desbarats of the Montreal Herald. The latter position proved more durable than the former. Despite his constant boasts of close relations with the governors general, Derbishire was a poor member of parliament, unskilled even in managing local patronage. He was saved from the embarrassment of electoral defeat by new legislation which prohibited the queen’s printer from sitting in parliament; as a result, he did not stand for re-election in 1844. He remained queen’s printer until his death in 1863.

The income from the post eased Derbishire’s chronic financial difficulties. His first wife was wealthy but they were estranged; she and their children remained in England while Derbishire adventured in Canada. So serious were his personal financial problems that he was declared outlaw in England in 1841 for absconding on debts. His appointment as queen’s printer and the death of his wife in 1842 resolved some of his entanglements. But his finances were never easy, for as an obituary noted, “His hospitality was proverbial” and he was generous to a fault towards the needy. His second marriage, however, was happier than the first. He left at his death six children from the two marriages.

The queen’s printer died at the capital, Quebec, on 27 March 1863. His grandiloquent career ended with a suitably ostentatious funeral attended by two cabinet ministers, three judges, and an impressive array of military officers.

Michael S. Cross

PAC, MG 24, A27, 37; A40, 23, pp.6878–84; B 14, 2, pp.287–301, 321–26, 344–49; 5, pp.932–34, 941–49; 12, pp.2540–49; 19, 4, pp.1009–40, 1044–45, 1056–59, 1066, 1075–90, 1104, 1108–10, 1116–30, 1136–42, 1147–60, 1190–1205, 1211–13, 1221–34, 1243–15, 1255–59, 1265–70, 1276–85, 1290–98; 5, pp.1301–7, 1318–22, 1327–36, 1350–52, 1356–59, 1367, 1372–82, 1483–86, 1491–1500, 1519–37, 1548–49, 1568–70, 1592–94, 1598–99, 1605–8, 1620–49, 1657; 6, pp.1680–81, 1709; 13, pp.3978–98; 19, pp.4817–18; 22, pp.5900, 5929; RG 1, E1, 77, pp.204–5. PRO, WO 44/30–32 (mfm. at PAC). Arthur papers (Sanderson), II, 17984, 18993; III, 6970, 7576, 16768, 203, 3056, 31920, 35455, 46465, 47172. [Stewart Derbishire], “Stewart Derbishire’s report to Lord Durham on Lower Canada, 1838,” ed. Norah Story, CHR, XVIII (1937), 4862. [Charles Grey], Crisis in the Canadas, 1838–1839: the Grey journals and letters, ed. W. G. Ormsby (Toronto, 1964), 177. Bytown Gazette ([Ottawa]), 184044. Montreal Transcript, 31 March 1863. Quebec Daily Mercury, 28, 31 March 1863. Cyclopædia of Canadian biog. (Rose, 1888). Lucien Brault, Ottawa old &c new (Ottawa, 1946), 140–19.

General Bibliography

Cite This Article

Michael S. Cross, “DERBISHIRE, STEWART,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 9, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed August 23, 2014, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/derbishire_stewart_9E.html.

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Permalink: http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/derbishire_stewart_9E.html
Author of Article: Michael S. Cross
Title of Article: DERBISHIRE, STEWART
Publication Name: Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 9
Publisher: University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication: 1976
Year of revision: 1976
Access Date: August 23, 2014