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PROUDFOOT, WILLIAM, lawyer, judge, and educator; b. 9 Nov. 1823 near Errol, Scotland, son of William Proudfoot*, a Presbyterian minister, and Isobel Aitchison; m. first 4 May 1853 Anne Howatson Thomson (d. 1871) in Toronto, and they had five daughters and a son; m. secondly 1875 Emily Ann Cook (d. 1878) in Hamilton, Ont., and they had a son; d. there 4 Aug. 1903.

William Proudfoot immigrated from Scotland to Middlesex County, Upper Canada, with his parents in 1832. Like many of his siblings, he was educated by his father at home, a farm near London. The family was reform-minded in politics, and he would become a staunch, lifelong member of the Reform and Liberal parties. Proudfoot was apprenticed to storekeeper Richard Smith in 1835 but he enrolled as a student of the Law Society of Upper Canada in 1844. He articled at the prominent Toronto firm of William Hume Blake*. The Blake family and its interest in equity jurisprudence were to become important touchstones in Proudfoot’s professional life. He was called to the bar in Michaelmas term 1849, and began practice in Toronto with Charles Jones.

Appointed master and deputy registrar of the Court of Chancery for Hamilton in 1851, Proudfoot was the first holder of these positions in a court recently reformed and presided over by W. H. Blake. He resigned in 1854 to enter into partnership with Samuel Black Freeman and William Craigie in Hamilton. Proudfoot ran the firm’s equity department, described by contemporaries as one of the most profitable in Upper Canada. Equity, which dealt primarily with real-property rights, was generally thought to be more lucrative and prestigious than other types of legal practice. Following the dissolution of the partnership in 1862, Proudfoot practised in a number of short-term associations in Hamilton. He was nominated for a provincial qc in 1872, but refused to allow the distinction to be confirmed by the federal government, an action that revealed his support for Ontario’s position in an early dispute over provincial rights [see Sir Oliver Mowat].

Upon the promotion of Samuel Henry Strong from chancery to the Ontario Court of Appeal in 1874, Proudfoot succeeded him on 30 May as vice-chancellor; the other vice-chancellor was Samuel Hume Blake*, and the two men would share the office for seven years. Chancery was absorbed into Ontario’s High Court of Justice in 1881 as a result of the fusion of common law and equity. It none the less remained a discrete division of this court, and continued to be doctrinally influential by virtue of the province’s specification that equitable principles should govern when they conflicted with legal rules. Working with chancellor John Godfrey Spragge* and his successor, John Alexander Boyd*, Proudfoot wrote approximately 400 judicial decisions reported in the Upper Canada Chancery Reports and the Ontario Reports. Knowledgeable observers, including Alfred Henry Marsh, Proudfoot’s son-in-law and author of the History of the Court of Chancery . . . (Toronto, 1890), regarded him as strong on legal reasoning but weak on factual analysis. The editors of the Canada Law Journal (Toronto) characterized his judgements as cold and dry expositions of law, limited in force and originality of expression. Proudfoot’s decisions also show a tendency to reason abstractly from first principles, and a penchant for ecclesiastical and real-property issues. He resigned from the court on 8 May 1890 as a result of deafness.

Proudfoot was designated professor of Roman law, jurisprudence, and English legal history at the University of Toronto in 1884. Serving intermittently in that role until 1900 with teaching colleagues William James Ashley, Edward Blake*, and David Mills, he assisted in the creation of a theoretical but unaccredited alternative to practical training in law under the auspices of the law society’s professional school at Osgoode Hall [see William Albert Reeve*]. From a peak of teaching activity in the late 1880s, the university’s faculty of law waned during the 1890s, and it was joined with the department of political economy at the turn of the century.

A number of the articles published by Proudfoot during his professorship focused on Roman law. His scholarly interest in Roman and European law was shared by such academically minded contemporaries in the Toronto bar as John James Maclaren and Augustus Henry Frazer Lefroy*, and this common interest prompted the editor of the Canadian Law Times (Toronto), Edward Douglas Armour, to call for a renewed professorship of Roman law following Proudfoot’s retirement. But this late-19th-century Ontario fascination appears to have been more the result of antiquarianism and pretensions to scholarly elegance than commitment to constructive cross-pollination between civil law and common law. Roman jurisprudence was evident in only a handful of Proudfoot’s decisions, although a court of equity could have treated it as a living source of law with relative jurisdictional ease.

In 1884–85 Proudfoot chaired the judicial inquiry into the charges of bribery and conspiracy against Christopher William Bunting* and others. As an ex-officio bencher of the law society from 1890 to 1903, he headed its library committee, which had responsibility for the student library at the Osgoode Hall school. Proudfoot participated in the Hamilton Association for the Advancement of Literature, Science, and Art and in the Toronto-based Canadian Institute and Industrial School Association, acting as president of each. As well, during the late 1870s and 1880s he was a founder and promoter of the exclusive, international summer community of Beaumaris on Lake Muskoka. The Canadian contingent there was comprised largely of academics and clerics. Proudfoot died in 1903 at his summer home on the “mountain” at Hamilton, as a result of a fall.

William Proudfoot’s reputation must be based primarily upon his workmanlike service to Ontario’s last Court of Chancery, and upon his scholarship and teaching of comparative law. His writing is representative of a short-lived flirtation in Ontario with ancient law that is best understood as an aspect of legal professionalization. The academic promotion of Roman and civil jurisprudence was one of a number of initiatives taken by Ontario’s late-Victorian bar to bolster its scientific and scholarly image.

G. Blaine Baker

William Proudfoot published three articles on Roman law in the Canadian Law Times (Toronto): “Specific performance of contracts in the civil law,” 2 (1882): 1–14; “Specific performance of contracts in the Roman law,” 14 (1894): 257–75; and “Restraints on the alienation of property in the Roman law,” 16 (1896): 101–16. The first article is signed “Anonymous” but the author is identified in a cross-reference to it in the 1894 piece. Proudfoot also contributed “Some effects of Christianity on legislation” to the Canadian Institute, Trans. (Toronto), 2 (1890–91): 159–75.

AO, RG 8, I-6-A, 12: 236; RG 22, ser.305, no.16308. Law Soc. of Upper Canada Arch. (Toronto), 1-5, barristers’ roll; common roll; 24-1 (Libraries and Reporting Committee, minutes). Daily Mail and Empire, 6 Aug. 1903. Globe, 5 May 1853, 5 Aug. 1903. Hamilton Spectator, 4 Aug. 1903. Toronto Daily Star, 4–5 Aug. 1903. G. B. Baker, “The reconstitution of Upper Canadian legal thought in the late-Victorian empire,” Law and Hist. Rev. (Ithaca, N.Y.), 3 (1985): 219–92, esp. 262–85. J. D. Blackwell, “William Hume Blake and the judicature acts of 1849: the process of legal reform at mid-century in Upper Canada,” Essays in Canadian law (Flaherty et al.), 1: 132–74. Elizabeth Brown, “Equitable jurisdiction and the Court of Chancery in Upper Canada,” Osgoode Hall Law Journal (Toronto), 21 (1983): 275–314. Canada Law Journal, 26 (1890): 290. Canadian Law Times, 19 (1899): 309; 23 (1903): 356. Canadian men and women of the time (Morgan; 1898), Cyclopædia of Canadian biog. (Rose and Charlesworth), vol.2. I. M. Drummond, Political economy at the University of Toronto: a history of the department, 1888–1982 (Toronto, 1983), esp. 17–42. The Ontario law list and solicitors’ agency book . . . , comp. J. L. Rordans ([6th]–7th eds., Toronto, [1870]–73). The University of Toronto and its colleges, 1827–1906, [ed. W. J. Alexander] (Toronto, 1906), esp. 161–67. Univ. of Toronto Monthly, 4 (1903–4): 1–4 (obit. article by A. H. Marsh). The Upper Canada law list . . . , comp. J. L. Rordans ([ 1st–5th eds.], Toronto, 1856–66). Patricia Walbridge Ahlbrandt, Beaumaris (Erin, Ont., 1989), esp. 53–54.

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G. Blaine Baker, “PROUDFOOT, WILLIAM (1823-1903),” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 13, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed October 1, 2023, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/proudfoot_william_1823_1903_13E.html.

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Permalink:   http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/proudfoot_william_1823_1903_13E.html
Author of Article:   G. Blaine Baker
Title of Article:   PROUDFOOT, WILLIAM (1823-1903)
Publication Name:   Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 13
Publisher:   University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication:   1994
Year of revision:   1994
Access Date:   October 1, 2023