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Original title:  Charles Fothergill. Maker: Grove Sheldon Gilbert (American, 1805–1885). Medium: Oil on canvas. Date: 1834. Courtesy of the Royal Ontario Museum, © ROM.

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FOTHERGILL, CHARLES, naturalist, artist, writer, businessman, office holder, jp, printer, newspaperman, publisher, and politician; b. 23 May 1782 in York, England, son of John Fothergill and Mary Anne Forbes; m. first December 1811 Charlotte Nevins, and they had at least three sons; m. secondly 19 March 1825 Eliza Richardson at Port Hope, Upper Canada, and they had at least four sons and two daughters; d. 22 May 1840 in Toronto.

Charles Fothergill’s father, a maker of ivory brushes and combs, belonged to a prominent Quaker family that had deep roots in the Yorkshire dales and claimed descent from one of William the Conqueror’s generals. Fothergill’s most eminent recent kinsmen were an uncle, James Forbes, author of Oriental memoirs, and two great-uncles: Dr John Fothergill, the naturalist and philanthropist, and Samuel Fothergill, a Quaker minister. Charles was trained to his father’s business, but the ethos of trade repelled him and he rejected a commercial career in favour of scientific and artistic pursuits. He was devoted from childhood to natural history and, when only 17, published the Ornithologia Britannica, an 11-page folio classifying 301 species of British birds. His next publication, The wanderer, was a miscellany of tales, essays, and verses, typical of the debased sentimentalism of the period, which purported to show the superiority of virtuous to vicious conduct.

The young Fothergill was profligate and soon beset by debts. In 1804 he went to London and tried to make his fortune as an actor, but he abandoned this design on finding that the profession offered no security and would compel him to play second fiddle for a long time to senior but (as he thought) less talented performers. He also tried in vain to secure a commission in the Royal Navy. While in London he mixed with devotees of the “fancy” sports (including the leading prize-fighters, James and Thomas Belcher) and proceeded with various literary labours, chiefly a “Natural and civil history of Yorkshire.” He spent much of 1805 in northern Yorkshire on field research for this project, and from May to November 1806 he toured the Orkney and Shetland islands to collect material for a similar work on “The northern isles of Britain.” By 1812 he was employing several celebrated engravers, including Thomas Bewick, Samuel Howitt, and John Thurston, to prepare plates for these works and for a large-scale study of British fauna (chiefly birds), but he managed to publish only his Essay on the philosophy, study, and use of natural history (1813), which was intended partly as an advertisement for the larger treatises. From 1807 to 1812 he dwelt at various places near York or Leeds and squandered his patrimony on racehorse breeding.

In 1811 Fothergill married Charlotte Nevins, daughter of a Quaker woollen manufacturer near Leeds, after an ardent courtship which succeeded despite (or perhaps because of) her father’s condemnation of him as “flighty and romantick.” Fothergill claimed to be a profligate no longer, but he was constantly afflicted by financial troubles arising partly from his literary projects and partly from disastrous business deals, mainly connected with his stud. In 1813 he began to study medicine at Edinburgh but had to flee to the Isle of Man to avoid arrest as a debtor. Here, after a last attempt to publish his “Northern isles,” he turned to agriculture, but his farming investment (financed by loans wheedled from his relations) was wiped out at once by the collapse of agricultural markets at the close of the Napoleonic Wars.

Fothergill had long thought of emigrating: at first to Jamaica, where an uncle was a planter, then either to the Cape of Good Hope or to Pennsylvania, where his father-in-law claimed title to large estates. He eventually chose Upper Canada, arriving there in February 1817. He presented himself to the lieutenant governor, Francis Gore*, as the precursor of a settlement of English gentlemen, and he secured the reservation of part of Monaghan Township for their settlement and a personal grant of 1,200 acres on Rice Lake. Settling at Smith’s Creek (Port Hope), which he saw as the natural maritime outlet for the Rice Lake region, Fothergill opened a store and bought much realty, intending to develop the harbour commercially. He befriended the Rice Lake Ojibwas, aided humbler settlers in the newly opened townships of Cavan, Emily, and Monaghan, and began to play a leading role in the life of the Newcastle District, becoming Port Hope’s first postmaster in 1817, a magistrate in 1818, and a member of the district land board in 1819. In 1818 he was personally thanked by the new lieutenant governor, Sir Peregrine Maitland*, after successfully confronting Robert Gourlay* at a public meeting at Amherst (Cobourg).

By 1820 Fothergill owned a brewery and distillery at Port Hope and a sawmill and grist-mill on the present site of Peterborough. Unfortunately, he had over-extended himself in his usual way. His store failed, his property was seized for debt, and he withdrew from Port Hope to the seclusion of his estate near Monaghan (where his “colony of gentlemen” had never materialized). At the end of 1821 he was happy to be appointed king’s printer (effective 1 Jan. 1822) and move to York (Toronto). At last, in his 40th year, Fothergill possessed two objects he had long desired: a printing-press and the prospect of a steady income.

Fothergill brought to the printing business his penchant for large schemes. His predecessor, Robert Charles Horne, had issued an unofficial newspaper supplement (the York Weekly Post) along with the official Upper Canada Gazette and published an almanac. Under Fothergill both newspaper (called from 18 April 1822 the Weekly Register) and almanac grew larger, affording an outlet for his literary energies. His most ambitious project, a comprehensive annual digest of political, agricultural, scientific, and cultural information to be called the “Canadian annual register,” came to nothing. Even so, when Fothergill ceased to be king’s printer, fellow newspaperman Francis Collins* acclaimed him for the “very superior” taste and talent he had shown as both printer and writer.

None the less, Fothergill’s years in the office (January 1822 to January 1826) were fraught with calamities, both private and professional. Not all were his own fault: during the months from May to November 1822, while his wife was dying of tuberculosis, Fothergill himself suffered a prolonged illness and his infant son perished in agony from meningitis. Other disasters were of his own making, however, among them his entanglement in the “Spanish Freeholder” scandal.

In the Weekly Register of 7 Oct. 1824, Fothergill warmly commended a letter to him, which he cited as “A ‘freeholder’s’ letter to ‘pawkie,’” but declined to publish it because he feared it was libellous. A week later, William Lyon Mackenzie* published in the Colonial Advocate a gross libel on the chief justice of Upper Canada, William Dummer Powell*, disguised as a letter written in 1718 by “A Spanish Freeholder” to “Lord Chief Justice Van Pawkie, at the Hague.” Mackenzie claimed that this letter was the one Fothergill had praised. Powell, who for years had been at odds with Lieutenant Governor Maitland, complained to Maitland that Fothergill had given a favourable notice to the libel, but Fothergill vehemently denied that the letter in the Advocate was the one he had cited. When Fothergill made a public denial, Maitland refrained from making him produce his letter. Maitland may not have believed Fothergill, though, and his displeasure with the king’s printer can only have been increased by the new row with Powell which Fothergill’s blunder had provoked.

Fothergill’s worst troubles as king’s printer had to do with money. Owing to his extravagance and inefficiency, more than once he had to ask the government for an advance. His high charges in an increasingly competitive trade cost him a large amount of government business and made it hard for him to secure payment of his accounts. These financial troubles reached a climax when he presented his bill for printing the provincial statutes of 1824. Until 1823, this job had been done for a fixed tariff of £80, which for several years past had been lower than cost. In 1824 Fothergill persuaded the legislature to adopt a system of payment by the page at a rate 40 per cent higher than that allowed in the government’s official schedule of charges. He then printed that session’s statutes in large type, heavily leaded, a format which needed nearly twice as many pages as the old one and inflated his bill to £882. The government paid it, in response to his plea that he faced ruin, but decided later to reclaim £367 10s. Fothergill was forced in November 1825 to execute a bond for this sum payable on demand.

Even so, when Maitland dismissed Fothergill two months later it was for political reasons. Since the early 1820s Fothergill had made a remarkable political shift. During the general election of 1820 he had intervened in the Durham County contest by mobilizing the mainly Irish settlers of the new back townships on behalf of George Strange Boulton* (brother of Solicitor General Henry John Boulton*) against the eventual victor, Samuel Street Wilmot (the favourite candidate of the front-township “Yankees” and an associate of Surveyor General Thomas Ridout*). In the Weekly Register, Fothergill eulogized the lieutenant governor, defended his administration, and proclaimed Upper Canada a land of opportunity. In 1824, however, he stood for parliament against both Wilmot and Boulton, waging a campaign in which he disparaged Upper Canada’s economic stagnation, denounced lawyers as parasites, and proclaimed the motto “agriculture and internal improvement, without the aid of those who eat more than they earn.” Fothergill received much “Yankee” support at the poll, especially after Wilmot resigned, and fought Boulton to a tie. The returning officer cancelled three of Fothergill’s votes and returned Boulton, but the House of Assembly ordered a new election at which Fothergill trounced Wilmot, who stood with Boulton’s backing.

During the session of 1825–26, Fothergill emerged as a leading spokesman of the parliamentary opposition. He mounted an attack on land-granting policy and conducted a committee of the whole on the state of the province, described by Maitland as a “Committee on grievances,” which adopted resolutions on such topics as the alien question, immigration, the post office, and the independence of the judiciary. For this reason, on 5 Jan. 1826 he was dismissed without notice from the king’s printership (but not, as has been stated, from the postmastership of Port Hope, which he had given up six years previously). His dismissal caused a sensation, and a public subscription was taken up for his benefit. Fothergill now moved back to the neighbourhood of Port Hope.

From 1825 to 1828, Fothergill’s parliamentary speeches and actions were prominently featured in the Colonial Advocate. Fothergill himself was recognized as a leading member of the parliamentary opposition. In 1827 it was he who was first selected, along with John Rolph*, to undertake the mission of protest (eventually executed by Robert Randal*) against the Naturalization Bill. But although Fothergill and his fellow reform leaders agreed in opposing the provincial administration, their political principles were far from identical. Fothergill idolized the “mixed” constitution of 18th-century Britain and wished Upper Canada to become a viceroyalty with a legislature that possessed the right to impeach the crown’s provincial advisers for malfeasance or unconstitutional conduct. Such views alienated him from those reformers who favoured popular sovereignty, whether under American or British political institutions. Fothergill’s persistent pressure for the annexation of Montreal also estranged him from an Upper Canadian opposition that was increasingly aware of French Canadian susceptibilities. In March 1829, with his capital dwindling and himself in constant fear that the government would demand payment of his bond, Fothergill wrote to the new lieutenant governor, Sir John Colborne*, and the attorney general, John Beverley Robinson*, to seek a subsidy for a pro-government newspaper that he hoped to set up at Port Hope. His application failed and the paper never appeared.

Fothergill was not re-elected to parliament in 1830. In the next year or two he moved to Pickering Township, where the family of his second wife (an Irish Quaker farmer’s daughter) was settled. Here he put his remaining wealth into a scheme to erect mills and found a town (to be called Monadelphia) on the site of the present town of Pickering. Again he seriously over-extended himself, but the disaster that befell this project took the form of a fire which destroyed his mills just after their completion in 1834. Fothergill blamed this calamity on the malice of a poacher whom he had punished severely, in his capacity as magistrate, out of anxiety to save the Lake Ontario salmon fishery. At the general election of 1834, Fothergill stood as a “conservative reformer” in the riding of 3rd York but was trounced by Thomas David Morrison*, a supporter of Mackenzie.

Throughout his Upper Canadian sojourn, Fothergill pursued goals befitting the savant with a sense of public duty. Ever active as a naturalist, he continued to hope in vain that he might publish in some form his projected work on the fauna of the British empire. He did, however, complete two manuscripts of value for his time: “An essay descriptive of the quadrupeds of British North America,” which won him the silver medal of the Natural History Society of Montreal in 1830, and an essay on the dangers facing the Lake Ontario salmon fishery, which was read at the Literary and Historical Society of Quebec in 1835. As a cultural entrepreneur, he joined William Rees* and William Dunlop in 1831 to form the Literary and Philosophical Society of Upper Canada at York. To Fothergill’s indignation, this short-lived institution was first spurned by John Strachan* and John Beverley Robinson and then taken over by them.

In 1835 Fothergill initiated a scheme that rivalled in grandeur the founding of King’s College (University of Toronto). For two years, at first in collaboration with William Rees and then alone, he laboured to set up a “Lyceum of Natural History and the Fine Arts,” which was to include a museum, an art gallery, a botanical garden, and a zoo. He invested much of his remaining wealth in this venture, but his requests for public patronage exceeded what either the government or the legislature was prepared to offer. During the last few years of his life he made plans to show in Toronto the thousands of natural history specimens he had collected for this project, but there is no evidence of a public exhibition.

Fothergill’s last venture involved a return to journalism and politics. In the fall of 1837 he liquidated most of his Pickering property and bought up two Toronto newspapers (George Gurnett*’s Courier of Upper Canada and William John O’Grady’s Correspondent and Advocate) in order to set up the Palladium of British America and Upper Canada Mercantile Advertiser under the nominal proprietorship of his son Charles Forbes Fothergill. The first number was issued only two weeks after the Upper Canadian rebellion, and Fothergill insisted from the start that the chief cause of this calamity was the unconstitutional domination of the provincial government by the “family compact.” For several months the Palladium, handsomely printed and the largest newspaper in the province, was the most outspoken voice of opposition in Toronto, but, according to Samuel Thompson*, who was hired to manage the paper in 1838, Fothergill lost interest in it long before it ceased to appear some time after May 1839. Fothergill died penniless less than a year later. Many of his papers and most of his museum were destroyed in a fire a month after his death.

Fothergill’s career was an unbroken sequence of failures that were largely of his own making. He was well read in both general and scholarly literature but vitiated his promise by espousing projects far beyond his financial, if not his intellectual, means. He bemoaned his lack of patronage in Britain, and in Upper Canada he found it galling to be denied preferment by a clique of officials whom he thought beneath him in both breeding and education. In neither country, though, did he adopt any rational plan to achieve by his own efforts the wealth and leisure he needed for his scholarly projects, and in Upper Canada he squandered his one bite at the cherry of public patronage. His self-destructive risk-taking is probably traceable to an obsessional neurosis akin to that of the compulsive gambler.

Fothergill’s writing was often ponderous and verbose, but on topics that engaged him deeply it could be forceful and direct. He also had a gift for oratory, but he lacked the coolness needed to prevail in committee and caucus and to persuade practical men to patronize his projects. His chief legislative achievement – an act promoting the formation of agricultural societies – is nowadays thought to have done little to encourage agricultural progress in the province. Fothergill was sadly out of place in the inordinately materialistic society of Upper Canada, but he also had a fatal penchant for ignoring the realities of his environment. His few surviving water-colours of the Ontario landscape are all highly idealized renderings. None the less, Fothergill’s political importance in the years 1824–30 was considerable. He was then the foremost exponent of “conservative reform” views in the province, and his image of gentility and respectability was useful to the emergent reform movement at a time when many people still equated “party” activity with disloyalty.

It was not as a politician, however, but as an observer and depicter of nature that Fothergill excelled. R. Delamere Black calls Fothergill’s zoological descriptions “amazing” in their minuteness and accuracy, and his water-colour studies combine the same traits with the “spirit and freedom” that Fothergill himself thought were the highest attributes of the bird-painter’s art. According to James Little Baillie, “As a naturalist and an illustrator of animals, he ranked with the best of his period.” Had Fothergill managed to publish his work, he might have achieved some of the fame of Thomas Bewick and John James Audubon. He found it bitterly ironic that, right at the end of his life, he was engaged in scientific correspondence by Audubon: a man who had succeeded where he himself had failed.

Paul Romney

The Charles Fothergill papers at the UTFL (ms coll. 140) comprise a miscellany of notebooks, letter-books, diaries, and rough manuscripts, with a small quantity of correspondence. They include a partial draft of his projected work on the Orkneys and Shetlands and a diary of his life in London, 1804–5. The notebooks contain all that survives of his field-work. Volumes 20, 22, 25, and 28 relate to Canada and are the subject of “Charles Fothergill’s notes on the natural history of eastern Canada, 1816–1837,” ed. R. D. Black, Royal Canadian Institute, Trans. (Toronto), 20 (1934–35): 141–68. Volumes 12, 26, 31, and 32 relate to Britain, the last two being an interleaved copy of Thomas Bewick, History of British birds . . . ([2nd ed.], 2v., Newcastle, Eng., and London, 1797 [actually 1798]–1805), interesting for Fothergill’s water-colour embellishments of some of the plates. Volume 3 is a mutilated volume of water-colours and sketches, including a few exquisite drawings of birds. Volume 21 is a diary of his trip from Montreal to York (Toronto) by sleigh in 1817. Volumes 9–11a have been published as The diary of Charles Fothergill, 1805: an itinerary to York, Flamborough and the north-western dales of Yorkshire, ed. Paul Romney (Leeds, Eng., 1984). Fothergill’s manuscript “An essay descriptive of the quadrupeds of British North America . . .” (1830) is at McGill Univ. Libraries, Blacker-Wood Library.

Four water-colours by Fothergill of the Upper Canadian landscape are known. The three in the Royal Ont. Museum’s Sigmund Samuel Canadiana Building (Toronto) are reproduced in Mary Allodi, Canadian watercolours and drawings in the Royal Ontario Museum (2v., Toronto, 1974); the fourth, of Port Hope in 1819, is in family possession. The Sigmund Samuel collection also contains a portrait of Fothergill, painted around 1834, by Grove Sheldon Gilbert Fothergill’s principal publications are Ornithologia Britannica: or, a list of all the British birds; in Latin and English . . . (York, Eng., 1799); The wanderer; or, a collection of original tales and essays, founded upon facts, illustrating the virtues and vices of the present age . . . (2v., London, 1803); An essay on the philosophy, study, and use of natural history (London, 1813); the York almanac, 1823–26; and the Toronto almanac, 1839. In addition, he published two newspapers: the Upper Canada Gazette, 1822-January 1826 (including the Weekly Register from 18 April 1822 until at least 29 Dec. 1825), and the Palladium of British America and Upper Canada Mercantile Advertiser (Toronto), 20 Dec. 1837–May 1839. He also edited and annotated W. L. Mackenzie, Mackenzie’s own narrative of the late rebellion . . . (Toronto, 1838).

Important manuscript sources are PAC, RG 1, E3; RG 5, A1; and RG 7, G16C. The James Little Baillie papers at the UTFL (ms coll. 126), boxes 38–38a, contain Baillie’s manuscript life of Fothergill and a variety of research materials. The principal secondary sources are three works by Paul Romney, “A man out of place: the life of Charles Fothergill; naturalist, businessman, journalist, politician, 1782–1840” (phd thesis, Univ. of Toronto, 1981), “A conservative reformer in Upper Canada: Charles Fothergill, responsible government and the ‘British Party,’ 1824–1840,” CHA Hist. papers, 1984: 42–62, and “The Spanish freeholder imbroglio of 1824: inter-elite and intra-elite rivalry in Upper Canada,” OH, 76 (1984): 32–47; and one by J. L. Baillie, “Charles Fothergill, 1782–1840,” CHR, 25 (1944): 376–96. The family background is documented in John Fothergill, Chain of friendship: selected letters of Dr. John Fothergill of London, 1735–1780, ed. B. C. Corner and C. C. Booth (Cambridge, Mass., 1971); R. H. Fox, Dr. John Fothergill and his friends; chapters in eighteenth century life (London, 1919); and Bernard Thistlethwaite, The Thistlethwaite family; a study in genealogy (London, 1910).

General Bibliography

Cite This Article

Paul Romney, “FOTHERGILL, CHARLES,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 7, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed May 26, 2024, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/fothergill_charles_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:

Permalink:   http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/fothergill_charles_7E.html
Author of Article:   Paul Romney
Title of Article:   FOTHERGILL, CHARLES
Publication Name:   Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 7
Publisher:   University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication:   1988
Year of revision:   1988
Access Date:   May 26, 2024