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THOMSON, SAMUEL ROBERT, lawyer; b. c. 1825 at St Stephen, N.B., the fourth son of Skeffington Thomson, Church of England rector at St Stephen; d. 19 Nov. 1880 in London, Eng.

Samuel Robert Thomson studied law with his eldest brother George, and was admitted an attorney on 5 Feb. 1846. Following his admission to the bar on 3 Feb. 1848, he practised briefly at Fredericton, then at Saint John, where he was in partnership for many years with Robertson Bayard until the latter’s death. He was made a queen’s counsel in 1871 or 1873. Thomson also ventured into politics: he was defeated in at least one contest for the New Brunswick assembly.

Thomson enjoyed an unusually high reputation as a barrister both in New Brunswick and abroad. His first major case was in 1860 when he served as counsel for the tenantry before the P.E.I. Land Commission which included John Hamilton Gray* for the crown, John William Ritchie* for the proprietors, and Joseph Howe for the tenantry. Though the commission’s recommendations were disallowed in London, the land question was finally resolved in favour of freehold tenure. In 1875 Thomson along with Louis H. Davies* was again retained by the tenantry to appear before the arbitration commission set up to settle the P.E.I. land claims. Perhaps the most significant tribute to his ability was that of William Henry Pope, who, though an ardent defender of the landlords’ property rights, described a crucial speech by Thomson in 1860 as “the most eloquent ever delivered in the colonial building.”

Before the 1875 arbitration closed, Thomson returned to New Brunswick to defend Acadians charged with murder and sedition following disturbances at Caraquet, Gloucester County, in January 1875. The incident was linked directly to the Common Schools Act of 1871 which withdrew public assistance from denominational schools. Catholic sentiment interpreted the bill as against the spirit of Article 93 of the British North America Act; the government and courts upheld that “de jure” denominational schools did not exist at confederation. Four years of unrest in the province culminated in the incident at Caraquet, in which two men were killed. Thomson, rather than an Acadian barrister, was retained, as much for his calmness in the face of the sectarian emotions roused by the case as for his ability. Though the charges were upheld at the Gloucester sessions before Chief Justice John C. Allen* in December 1875, Thomson, in a highly acclaimed manoeuvre, had the verdict quashed on technical grounds by an appeal in the New Brunswick Supreme Court the following June.

Thomson’s most important case was heard before the Joint High Commission which met at Halifax in 1877 under the stipulations of the Treaty of Washington of 1871 to determine the amount of compensation the United States should pay Canada for the use of her inshore fisheries. Though Alexander Tilloch Galt*, the commissioner appointed by Great Britain, was pessimistic about the outcome of the case, he was obviously heartened by the prospect of Thomson’s summing up the argument for the crown. Galt’s hopes were well founded, for on 23 November the commission made an award of $5,500,000 in favour of Canada. When Thomson died, his colleagues recalled his speech as the highlight of his career.

In September 1880 Thomson contracted typhoid fever while on the Northumberland circuit. Despite growing ill health, he sailed for England on 30 October to argue a case before the Privy Council. His illness became progressively worse after his arrival in London on 9 November, and he died ten days later. His body was transferred to Saint John. His wife, Catherine McDonell, whom he had married less than five years before, was expecting their third child at the time of his death. Thomson died while still in the prime of his professional life. Of his career H. J. Morgan* wrote, “There was not a trial, criminal or civil, of any importance, during the past twenty years in New Brunswick in which Thomson did not take a leading part.”

Bernard Pothier

N.B. Museum, Webster colt., Court record, Caraquet murder case, 1875. PAC, MG 27, 1, D8 (Galt papers). Queen’s University Archives, Alexander Mackenzie papers (on microfilm in PAC, MG 26, B1 (Mackenzie papers, general correspondence)). Daily News (Saint John, N.B.), July 1876, December 1880. Daily Telegraph (Saint John, N.B.), July 1876. Examiner (Charlottetown), September-October 1860, August-September 1875. Islander (Charlottetown), August-October 1860, August 1861. Le Moniteur acadien (Shédiac, N.B.), septembre-décembre 1875. Morning Freeman (Saint John, N.B.), September-November 1875, June-July 1876. Award of the Fishery Commission. Documents and proceedings of the Halifax Commission, 1877, under the Treaty of Washington of May 8, 1871 (3v., Washington, 1878). Judgement of the Supreme Court of New Brunswick in the case of Maher v. the town council of Portland (1873), reported sub nomine Ex parte Renaud, 14 New Brunswick Reports (I, Pugsley, 1876), 273, and in G. J. Wheeler, Confederation law of Canada; Privy Council cases on the British North-America Act, 1867 . . . (London, 1896), 338–62. The case was appealed to the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council in 1874, and the judgement is reported in Wheeler, Confederation law . . . , 362–67. Can. biog. dict., II. The Canadian legal directory: a guide to the bench and bar of the dominion of Canada, ed. H. J. Morgan (Toronto, 1878). Dom. ann. reg., 1880–81. Lawrence, Judges of New Brunswick (Stockton), 401. G. H. Lee, An historical sketch of the first fifty years of the Church of England in the province of New Brunswick (1783–1833) (Saint John, N.B., 1880). C. C. Tansill, Canadian-American relations, 1875–1912 (Carnegie endowment for International Peace: Division of economics and history, pub., New Haven, Conn., London, and Toronto, 1943). Onésiphore Turgeon, Un tribut à la race acadienne: mémoires, 1871–1929 (Montréal, 1928).

General Bibliography

Cite This Article

Bernard Pothier, “THOMSON, SAMUEL ROBERT,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 10, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed October 2, 2023, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/thomson_samuel_robert_10E.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/thomson_samuel_robert_10E.html
Author of Article:   Bernard Pothier
Title of Article:   THOMSON, SAMUEL ROBERT
Publication Name:   Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 10
Publisher:   University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication:   1972
Year of revision:   1972
Access Date:   October 2, 2023