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TOWNSHEND, WILLIAM, office holder and politician; b. c. 1745, probably in Wales, son of Richard Townshend of Wrexham; m. c. 1790 Flora Stewart, daughter of Chief Justice Peter Stewart and Helen MacKinnon, and they had six sons and two daughters; d. 5 Dec. 1816 in Plymouth, England.

Little is known of William Townshend’s life before he became collector of customs and naval officer for St John’s (Prince Edward) Island. He may have obtained the appointments because of a family connection with George, Viscount Townshend. His enemies later asserted that he had powerful friends in England, although Sir Cecil Wray, an absentee proprietor for whom he acted as agent, is the only one noted as a patron. The office of collector had been given to William Allanby in 1765, but it appears that he had little interest in the colony for Governor Walter Patterson* noted in 1783 that Allanby had been absent for nine years and was not likely to return. During his absence no shipping or customs records had been kept.

Townshend came to the Island in 1784 and that December he was appointed to the Council, Patterson noting that, as he had been “so unexceptionable since his arrival,” he could not be refused a seat. The appointment placed him firmly within the colony’s little establishment and he was quickly involved in Patterson’s lengthy efforts to seize land from absentee proprietors. A member of Council in April 1786 when legislation relating to the seizure was passed, Townshend was named in the charges later made against officers of the government. He had, however, objected to the measures because of irregularities in their passage and resigned as a result of their adoption. The complainants noted in their summary of evidence in 1789 that Townshend, who had resumed his seat in April 1787, had temporarily “admitted the advances of his brother officers.” When the Privy Council brought down its report in 1789 it concluded that he had innocently been drawn into the affair, and he was one of the few officers in the colony who was able to avoid dismissal and disgrace.

On the arrival of Lieutenant Governor Edmund Fanning in November 1786 Townshend had promptly aligned himself with the anti-Patterson faction. Fanning responded by writing in November 1787 to the Home secretary praising Townshend as a “zealous advocate in support of the measures of His Majesty’s Government.” No doubt some of Fanning’s enthusiasm stemmed from the part Townshend had taken in the elections of July and August 1787 by which Fanning hoped to end the hold Patterson’s group had on the House of Assembly. Charges were made to Council on 20 August that Townshend had campaigned vigorously in the election and although he denied the accusation it is clear he was an active Fanning supporter.

Townshend’s zeal extended beyond political action. From the time of his arrival on the Island he was energetic in administering customs legislation, and after the ease of the Allanby period his enforcement soon created difficulty in the colony. He crossed Patterson in 1786 by seizing the property of merchants who had imported goods from the United States with Patterson’s consent. Townshend’s action was precipitated by a complaint made that year by another merchant, John Cambridge*, but Townshend delayed acting until he had checked at Halifax, N.S., to obtain “more qualified and discriminating ideas of the Powers of a Governor & Council.” This delay, and allegations from Cambridge that Townshend had been allowing smuggling from the Îles de la Madeleine, led to an investigation by the commissioners of customs. When the case was settled early in 1788 Townshend was cleared and the report concluded that Patterson and Attorney General Phillips Callbeck* had “very improperly interfered in the Business of the Customs.”

In June 1788 Townshend tried to seize goods that had been brought ashore at Patterson’s farm. He landed there with a party of soldiers but was repelled by 25 men, most of whom were Patterson’s servants. He was later successful: the goods and the schooner from which they had been landed were seized and sold by order of the Vice-Admiralty Court sitting in Charlottetown. Over the next two years he made several seizures, including vessels belonging to John Cambridge and his fellow merchants William Bowley and John Hill*. Whether these were legitimate seizures is difficult to determine because Townshend was over strict in his application of the customs laws, making no allowance for the conditions existing in the colony. By challenging the leading merchants he involved himself in protracted litigation.

The result was that in 1791 Townshend was named by Cambridge, Bowley, Hill, and several leading absentee proprietors as one of those forming an illegal combination to rule the Island. Besides reviving charges of exorbitant and illegal fees which had been made against Townshend to the commissioners of customs, Cambridge and the others accused him of such offences as connivance in the smuggling of tobacco, disposing of blank registration forms, and oppressive seizures. Several of the accusations grew out of an incident in which Townshend had charged Hill with illegal acts in relation to the registration of a new vessel; in fact, these were merely technical irregularities which could have been overlooked. The general tenor of the 1791 action was that Townshend, in league with Chief Justice Stewart, Lieutenant Governor Fanning, and Attorney General Joseph Aplin, had planned to oppress Hill and Cambridge. Townshend, the deponents alleged, had told Hill that the government officials were preparing to “carry things with an high hand against those who had opposed them.” When the accusations were heard in London that year Townshend presented a detailed defence but it does not appear to have impressed the investigating committee. However, the following year the committee concluded that the claims could not be considered proved because they were “as fully and positively denied, as they are charged.”

Whether it was Townshend or the merchants who had been chastened by their experience the number of smuggling cases heard before the Island courts dropped considerably. The only one to attract attention after 1792 was that brought against James Douglas, agent to James William Montgomery, in 1797. Douglas complained that it had been initiated in retaliation for his having brought a suit against Chief Justice Stewart. Three years were to pass before Douglas was acquitted.

Although Townshend was reported to be seeking a post in a more eligible spot at this time, whatever efforts he made were rot successful. His health declined after 1800 but in spite of continuing illness it was Townshend rather than senior councillor Thomas Desbrisay who was named “Temporary Commander in Chief’ of the Island in October 1812 following the removal of Lieutenant Governor Joseph Frederick Wallet DesBarres*. As administrator, Townshend seems to have done little more than follow the instructions of the Colonial Office during his tenure of less than a year. His most significant act was the removal of James Bardin Palmer* from the posts he had held under DesBarres, but the move had been requested by officials in London. This did rot prevent Townshend from boasting that rather than a “turbulent divided and . . . Anarchial Colony” the new lieutenant governor, Charles Douglass Smith*, would find a “peaceable regular and . . . a well satisfied People.”

The remainder of Townshend’s life appears to have been uneventful. His health continued to decline and he died on a visit to England in 1816. Although linked to the Island establishment by marriage and by virtue of his post, he seems to have been able to avoid becoming embroiled in the politics of the colony. The increase in trade and shipbuilding in the latter years of his service was easily handled without incident by the office he supervised. Despite a stormy beginning he had become by the end of his career what Patterson had first suggested in 1784 – an unexceptionable man.

H. T. Holman

PAC, MG 9, C3; MG 23, E5; E7, 2; RG 7, G8D, 44: 88, 249. PAPEI, Acc. 2810, Ira Brown papers, no. 138; Acc. 2849, Palmer family papers, no.8; RG 1, Commission book, 1812; RG 5, Minutes, 1784–1817; RG 6, Supreme Court, case papers, 1784–1800; minutes, 1784–1800; RG 9, Customs, shipping reg., 1 (1787–1824). PRO, CO 226/8: 63, 163; 226/9: 172; 226/11: 193; 226/12: 3, 22, 24, 26, 240, 247; 226/13: 282; 226/14: 73, 90, 400; 226/16: 186; 226/18: 118, 131, 166, 214; 226/19: 221; 226/22: 229; 226/23: 57; 226/24: 74; 226/26: 13, 15; 226/27: 31; 226/28: 24; 226/30: 7; 226/31: 5, 12; 226/32: 251, 304, 308, 311; 226/43: 257. SRO, GD 293/2/19–20. Supreme Court of P.E.I. (Charlottetown), Estates Division, liber 1: f.116 (will of William Townshend). [John MacDonald?], Remarks on the conduct of the governor and Council of the Island of St. John’s, in passing an act of assembly in April of 1786 to confirm the sales of the lands in 1781 . . . (n.p., [1789]), 64–65. [J.] B. Burke, A genealogical and heraldic history of the colonial gentry (2v., London, 1891–95; repr. 2v. in 1, Baltimore, Md., 1970), 2: 684.

General Bibliography

Cite This Article

H. T. Holman, “TOWNSHEND, WILLIAM,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 5, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed June 25, 2024, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/townshend_william_5E.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/townshend_william_5E.html
Author of Article:   H. T. Holman
Title of Article:   TOWNSHEND, WILLIAM
Publication Name:   Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 5
Publisher:   University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication:   1983
Year of revision:   1983
Access Date:   June 25, 2024