FIRTH, WILLIAM, office holder; b. 21 July 1768 in Norwich, England, son of William and Elizabeth Firth; m. Anne Watts, and they had five children; d. 25 Feb. 1838 of influenza in Norwich.
The son of a Norwich merchant, William Firth became a barrister and in 1803 was appointed steward of the city, a post in which he acted as city counsel and presided over the sheriff’s court. Probably resident in London while he held the stewardship, he resigned soon after being commissioned (19 March 1807) attorney general of Upper Canada through the influence of William Windham, colonial secretary.
He arrived at York (Toronto) in time to take up his duties in November 1807, with high expectations for what turned out to be a brief and unhappy colonial career. His office had been vacant since the appointment (22 Jan. 1806) of his predecessor, Thomas Scott*, to the chief justiceship of the province. He got on well with Scott and also – in spite of a dispute over back salary and fees – with D’Arcy Boulton*, the solicitor general, who had been performing his duties. He was, however, soon dissatisfied with most of his colleagues, with his status, his income, his prospects, and with life at York. In April 1808 he asked for a transfer to Lower Canada as chief justice. In what may have been his only exercise of tact, he first ensured that Scott did not want the Quebec post; but his application failed. Thereafter he became one of the malcontent officials who plagued Lieutenant Governor Francis Gore*’s first administration.
He was entirely without sympathy for any kind of political dissent. It was at his persistent urging that Gore agreed to the unsuccessful prosecution of Joseph Willcocks* for seditious libel. On Firth’s advice, and against that of judge William Dummer Powell*, Gore also dismissed the troublesome assemblyman David McGregor Rogers* from his post as registrar of deeds for Northumberland County. When the law officers in London upheld Powell’s opinion in spite of Firth’s vehement objections, the attorney general’s prospects of being Gore’s confidant ended.
Firth’s stipend was £300 sterling a year – about half the cost of his removal to Upper Canada – plus an indeterminate amount in fees. His attempts to increase his fees made him a nuisance to Gore and a target for Powell’s resentment of English appointees to Upper Canadian offices. Firth began with a list of 19 minor claims, submitted for the opinion of the new chief justice of Lower Canada, Jonathan Sewell. Sewell’s reply of 22 Sept. 1809 agreed with some of the claims, but allowed no fee higher than £2. Firth next claimed fees on all the standard forms issued through his office, although they required no more than his formal signature. On 9 March 1810 the Executive Council declined to audit this last claim. The House of Assembly also asserted the right to reduce legal fees in the Court of King’s Bench, from which Firth drew about three-quarters of his income, and to limit his discretion as attorney general in choosing the level of courts for public prosecutions. His protest, in which Boulton joined, that the resulting fee table was “incapable of supporting any professional character as a Gentleman,” was ineffective. It was cold comfort for him when on 14 March 1811 a committee of the council did acknowledge that some of the fees of office he had demanded were in accord with Lower Canadian practice, which had been adopted for the upper province in 1802 but never specifically authorized by imperial authority.
By the time of this partial success Firth was virtually without friends in the provincial administration, Scott having decided that as a former attorney general he had a conflict of interest in assessing the fees of that office. Firth proceeded to overreach himself in March 1811 by claiming that all legal instruments under the great seal of the province were invalid without his signature. By doing so he obscured the assembly’s challenge to his authority as public prosecutor and revived a dispute among officials over their shares of the fees on land grants, threatening the jurisdiction as well as the income of the provincial secretary, William Jarvis*. While maintaining that his presence was necessary for the legality of most acts of government, he asked leave to press his case in London. Gore refused: he was offended by Firth’s breaches of administrative harmony, he had already consented to the absence of the solicitor general, and he was about to go on leave himself. When Firth left anyway in September 1811, Gore recommended his dismissal. Firth left his plate, crystal, and library in the care of his business agent, William Warren Baldwin, who also took charge of his debts and his unsatisfied claims for fees.
Firth was at first confident that he would not only win his demands but also prevent the return to Upper Canada of Gore, the man who, as he told Baldwin, had “clouded my prospects in life.” From his first memorial to the Colonial Office in January 1812 to the testimony that he volunteered against Gore in the libel suits later brought by Charles Burton Wyatt and Robert Thorpe, he identified the lieutenant governor as the deliberate and spiteful agent of his misfortunes. After Gore’s departure in October 1811 the Executive Council, which Firth denounced as “abandoned and inquisitory,” had added to his grievances. It twice refused, “under the very peculiar Circumstances in which Mr. Firth abandoned his Duties in this Province,” to pay the travel expenses of his last judicial circuit in Upper Canada. It did at length agree on 14 March 1812, following the opinion of the law officers in London, that he should receive the fees of office that Sewell had recommended in 1809. Beyond that, all he obtained was a ruling from the secretary of state, Lord Bathurst, that he was entitled to half his salary and fees from the date he left the province until 13 April 1812, when his removal from office was confirmed.
He went back to his legal practice, being promoted to serjeant at law in 1817, and ended his career where it had begun, on the Norfolk circuit. He may not have prospered at the bar. Apart from frequent expressions of affection for his children, his long correspondence with Baldwin shows an increasingly insistent and querulous concern about money. In 1820 he applied for a land grant in Upper Canada, but was refused on the grounds that he was not a resident. For the last year of his life he may have received an income under the will of his eldest daughter, Lucy Rosalind Proctor Firth. He died intestate with assets of less than £200 sterling.
Firth wrote four political pamphlets, all published in Norwich. The first, An address to the electors of Norwich . . . (1794), opposed war with France because it would harm trade, but in the rest he gave vent to a rigid and bitter toryism. In A letter to Edward Rigby . . . (1805) he complained that the mayor of Norwich had not celebrated the victory of Trafalgar enthusiastically enough. A letter to the Right Rev. Henry Bathurst . . . (1813) condemned the bishop of Norwich for advocating the end of civil disabilities for Roman Catholics and Protestant dissenters. The case of Ireland set at rest . . . (1825) attacked Robert Peel’s intended Irish reforms; it had been Peel, when under-secretary of state for War and the Colonies, who informed him of his dismissal from office. The fullest expression of Firth’s enduring hostility to Roman Catholicism was his book, Remarks on the recent state trials . . . (1818), which also argued for more severe punishment of traitors and more rigorous suppression of public disorder. He had returned to England with “joy in once more beholding this blessed Country,” as he wrote to Baldwin in 1812, but he found as much there to arouse his disapproval as he had in Upper Canada.
[Firth left no papers of his own, but his business correspondence with W. W. Baldwin, preserved in the latter’s papers at the MTRL and at PAC, MG 24, B 11, includes much personal and political comment. The course of his claims for fees is documented in the records of the Executive Council (PAC, RG 1, E3). His death certificate, dated 25 Feb. 1838, is in the GRO (London). The Norfolk Record Office (Norwich, Eng.) contains the administrative bond for his estate (Norwich Archdeaconry administrative bonds, 1838, no.5) and his daughter’s will (Norwich Consistory Court wills, 1839: f.321). Notices relating to Firth are in the Norfolk and Norwich Register, 1822; the Norfolk Chronicle: or, the Norwich Gazette, 28 March 1807; and the Norwich Mercury, 3 March 1838. Information with respect to his legal career is in Clarke’s new law list . . . , comp. Teesdale Cockell (London), 1820: 12, 24, 292; and in the volume for 1822. For secondary accounts see particularly Paul Romney, Mr Attorney: the attorney general for Ontario in court, cabinet, and legislature, 1791–1899 (Toronto, 1986), and also two works by W. R. Riddell: “William Firth: the third attorney-general of Upper Canada, 1807–1811,” Canadian Bar Rev. (Toronto), 1 (1923): 326–37, 404–17, and The bar and courts of the province of Upper Canada, or Ontario (Toronto, 1928). s.r.m.]
© 1988–2023 University of Toronto/Université Laval
Cite This Article
S. R. Mealing, “FIRTH, WILLIAM,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 7, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed March 21, 2023, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/firth_william_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:||S. R. Mealing|
|Title of Article:||FIRTH, WILLIAM|
|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 21, 2023|