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MANNING, ALEXANDER HENDERSON, contractor, businessman, and politician; b. 11 May 1819 in Dublin, son of William Manning; m. first 6 Feb. 1850 Adeline Augusta Whittemore in Toronto; m. secondly 1 Aug. 1861 in Sherbrooke, Lower Canada, Susan Celina Smith, daughter of Hollis Smith*, and they had two sons and two daughters; d. 20 Oct. 1903 in Toronto.
Alexander Manning was educated in Dublin and he emigrated in 1834. After working as a carpenter in Toronto, he went to Ohio in 1838. He returned to Toronto two years later, establishing himself as a builder and a partner in a sawmill. He was a subcontractor on the Welland Canal in 1842–43 and a partner with Robert Petch in erecting in Toronto, to the design of William Thomas*, the Fireman’s Hall and Mechanics’ Institute in 1845–46 and stores planned by John George Howard* for A. V. Brown in 1847. Apparently helped in his early career by a brother-in-law, Toronto merchant Ezekiel Francis Whittemore*, Manning became one of the city’s prominent contractors. He executed several significant projects, among them the construction of the Toronto Normal and Model schools in 1851–52.
Manning’s rise was paralleled by his efforts to secure municipal office. Unsuccessful in 1855 in his first attempt to become an alderman, he was elected in St Lawrence Ward in 1856 and again in 1857. At the same time, he invested heavily in Toronto real estate, but, according to an agent for R. G. Dun and Company in 1860, he was overextended. Manning none the less carried on, often amid controversy. He built roads in Grey County in the 1860s but was criticized when he demanded payment for extra work, a claim that was later cited by opponents as an example of his greed, particularly where public moneys were involved. From 1870 to 1874 Manning joined with Toronto builder William Farquhar to do the masonry and brickwork for the Library of Parliament in Ottawa. Manning’s role in the project is uncertain. His close Conservative connections may have helped in getting the contract, but they also appear to have caused trouble after the Liberals took office in 1873. The Department of Public Works was reluctant to settle the account, and Manning pressed the Conservatives for payment after they had returned to power in 1878. He apparently had an interest as well in the early Toronto Street Railway and he engaged in railway construction in Vermont, Pennsylvania, New York, and Canada.
Manning had returned to politics in 1867 as an alderman for St Lawrence Ward, a seat he would retain through 1873. His wealth and status were demonstrated in 1870 by his acquisition for $14,000 of Holland House, the impressive mansion of the late Henry John Boulton*. In 1872 he put himself forward for mayor, then chosen by a vote of council members, but he was defeated. The following year he obtained the position, on 20 January. During his mayoralty, Manning accomplished several of the goals he had set when he took office: a commissioner was appointed to take charge of public works, the mode of assessment and tax collection was reformed, and the privately owned waterworks was bought by the city. But assessment reform and the acquisition of the waterworks were controversial, and led to divisions within council and the electorate. Public allegations of irregularities in tendering for improvements to the waterworks contributed to Manning’s trouncing at the polls when he sought election by popular suffrage in 1874. Still, he would be remembered, not least by himself, as one of Toronto’s finest mayors for his term in 1873.
While in office, Manning had secured the first of many large government contracts for work in the 1870s on the Welland and Cornwall canals. In March 1879, in partnership, he obtained in addition the contract for the 67-mile section of the Canadian Pacific Railway between Eagle River and Keewatin, in the difficult terrain west of Lake Superior. Not only did construction prove tough and more costly than contracted for, but the awarding of the contract was under suspicion from the start. Rumours abounded of influence peddling. Manning’s Conservative sentiments were well known and one of his partners, John Shields, was an organizer for the party. A royal commission appointed in 1880 to investigate the CPR found no evidence that the contract price had been rigged, but it noted with dismay the irregularities in the tendering process.
The process was not the least of the concerns facing Manning’s partnership. Financial problems almost drove them into bankruptcy and in July 1883 they were forced to surrender their contract. Manning seems to have retired from contracting soon after, his reputation sullied by this railway venture. Accusations of impropriety, hurled at him sporadically in the past, dogged him ever after.
These difficulties do not seem to have hindered Manning’s return to municipal politics in 1884. Although he had come third in the mayoralty race in 1879 and had declined nomination in 1881, he had maintained a voice as one of the city’s largest ratepayers and as president of the Property Owners’ Assocation, which challenged assessments and monitored council’s extravagances. Late in 1884, 5,500 citizens petitioned him to stand for mayor in 1885. He acceded and campaigned, the Globe reported, on his record as “the best mayor Toronto had ever had,” a claim which even that journal, his fiercest critic, acknowledged; he promised clean water, businesslike government, and fiscal restraint. He ran as an independent, but admitted the importance of Conservative support in his victory over John Jacob Withrow*. Manning again showed himself to be an efficient mayor. He was an able administrator and kept taxes low, although some said he did so merely because he was a major ratepayer. In his bid for a second term, he was defeated in January 1886 by a reform and temperance candidate, William Holmes Howland*. Manning’s presidency of the Toronto Brewing and Malting Company was used to great effect by the temperance movement during the campaign. The Globe attributed Manning’s defeat to his unpopularity and to the opposition of the Toronto Typographical Union, then in a bitter dispute with the Toronto Daily Mail, which supported Manning. The defeat ended his political career, but not his interest in city affairs.
Manning was prominent in many Toronto organizations, particularly the Home for Incurables, which he had founded during his mayoralty in 1873 and of which his wife, Susan, was secretary for a number of years. Devoted Anglicans, they were active parishioners of St James’ Cathedral. He was president of the Irish Protestant Benevolent Society, the St Patrick’s Society, and the National Club. In business, he was a member of the Toronto Board of Trade from 1886, a director of the Traders Bank of Canada and the Canadian Bank of Commerce, a president of the Toronto Dry Dock and Shipbuilding Company, and, at his death, the president and largest shareholder of the North American Land Company Limited. In 1891 he was one of the figures attempting to secure control of the Toronto Street Railway. His major investment was properties in Toronto, on some of which he built significant edifices. In 1884 he engaged Edward James Lennox* to design the Manning Arcade, a large office block on King Street West. He also built Manning Chambers, at Queen and Bay, which housed the law firm of his son-in-law, Edward William Hume Blake, son of his counsel and political opposite, Edward Blake*. When Manning died, he owned real estate, most in Toronto, valued at $537,000.
A patron of the arts, Manning was an investor in the Grand Opera House, which opened in 1874 [see Charlotte Nickinson]. It soon suffered from financial difficulties and, in 1876, Manning acquired the theatre at auction. Its destruction by fire on 29 Nov. 1879 cost him $50,000 because it was only partially insured. He had it rebuilt in just 51 working days and operated it until his death.
In personal life, Manning suffered several family tragedies. He was predeceased by his first wife in 1861, his daughter Blanche in 1884, his son Alexander Frank in 1888, and his second wife in 1893. When he died in 1903, he left the bulk of his $799,000 estate to his surviving son and daughter.
A. H. Manning was one of the businessmen who most benefited from the rise of Toronto. Early convinced of the city’s possibilities, he constructed and owned many of its buildings and invested most of his earnings in real estate. The political connections he made likely aided him in branching out into larger projects, but his pursuit and execution of these contracts sullied his reputation and sometimes marred his political career. As a politician, he was a representative of the new moneyed men in Toronto, and was often accused of being part of a ring of jobbers and self-promoters. At the same time, he was a consistent advocate of financial probity in civic government and of improvements to services. The solid tomb he built for himself and his family in St James’ Cemetery befits a man whose business was building, and whose wealth brought him influence, a propensity to ostentation, and a rich man’s sense of duty to his community.
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