WATSON, SAMUEL JAMES, journalist, poet, author, dramatist, and librarian; b. c. 1842 near Belfast (Northern Ireland); m. Margaret Janet; d. 30 Oct. 1881 in Toronto Ont.
Available details of Samuel James Watson’s life are surprisingly few considering that he was librarian of the Legislative Library of Ontario for nine years. He had at least one brother in Canada, referred to as “J. M.,” possibly the John M. Watson appointed assistant librarian after Samuel’s death. There is mention of another brother, Isaac, who may also have worked at the legislature.
Samuel Watson was educated at the Royal Belfast Academical Institution before coming to Montreal about 1857 where at one time he worked as a journalist on the staff of the Herald. His knowledge of shorthand allowed him to act as a recorder, transcribing parliamentary proceedings, and in this capacity he reported the confederation debates of 1865. By 1871 he was in Toronto working as a reporter for the Globe; he was also employed as a sessional writer for the Ontario Legislative Assembly transcribing at various meetings. In February 1872 he was hired by the assembly at $20 per hour to record committee hearings of the “Proton Outrage” investigation [see Abram William Lauder]. On 1 July 1872 he became librarian of the Legislative Library of Ontario. During the union period there had been a library that followed the peripatetic assembly; at confederation it was located permanently in Ottawa [see Alpheus Todd]. Watson’s chief responsibility was to build up a new collection in Toronto. He increased the meagre 1, 395 volumes held in 1872 to well over 10,000 by 1881, and prepared a catalogue of the holdings. He also began an interlibrary loan service with the Université Laval in Quebec City and the Quebec legislature. The value of his work may be reflected in his annual salary which climbed from $800 to $1,400 in 1881. In 1878 his health failed and the legislature granted him funds to visit Hot Springs, Ark. He recovered somewhat and continued as librarian, but was in poor health until he died.
In addition to writing for daily newspapers, Watson had published a variety of works. In 1870 a serial historical romance, “The peace-killer; or, the massacre of Lachine,” appeared in the Canadian Illustrated News. With the late-17th-century French-Iroquois wars for a background, the tale, resembling mid-19th-century popular fiction, relates the enmity between an evil Abenaki and a noble Huron chief whose sister loves a courageous French solider. In 1874 Watson published the first volume of The constitutional history of Canada (a second volume was unfinished at his death), a study of Canada and its basis in the British constitution. Ravlan, a poetic drama set in Celtic England, appeared next, in 1876, with a long poem, “The legend of the roses.” Inspired by the medieval Voiage and travayle of John Maundeville, Kt., the “Legend” tells of a Christian maid saved from burning at the stake by Christ who changed the fire into red and white roses. The verse is workmanlike but suffers from too much philosophical rambling about weighty concerns. Ravlan, an inferior work in many ways, provides a typical example of literary poetic drama of the time in Canada with its pseudo-Shakespearian diction and verse, prolix sententious style, conventional melodramatic plot set in the distant past, and tragic ending. Finally, in 1880, Watson published The powers of Canadian parliaments, an examination of the Ontario government in relation to the federal one, the governor general, and the British parliament. It is surprisingly detailed for the work of a man neither a constitutional lawyer nor a scholar. In part it was a response to Are legislatures parliaments? A study and review, by John Fennings Taylor, which had appeared the previous year.
Watson is rarely spoken of now and is probably remembered only as the author of Ravlan. But the details of his life reveal a man of broader scope and accomplishment than Ravlan would suggest. He is a good example of those peripheral figures who have quietly sown the seeds of our present learning and literature in Canada.
Samuel James Watson was the author of The constitutional history of Canada (Toronto, 1874); The legend of the roses: a poem; Ravlan: a drama (Toronto, 1876). A shorter form of the poem, “The legend of the roses,” was first published in Canadian Illustrated News (Montreal), 24 Dec. 1870. He also wrote “The peace-killer; or, the massacre of Lachine,” which was published in weekly instalments in the Canadian Illustrated News, 2 July–27 Aug. 1870. This historical novel was translated, probably by Emmanuel-Marie Blain de Saint-Aubin, and published as “Le Brandon de discorde, ou le massacre de Lachine,” in L’Opinion publique, 10 févr.–13 avril 1876. His last work was The powers of Canadian parliaments (Toronto, 1880).
CTA, Toronto assessment rolls, St Andrew’s Ward, 1873, 1878; St George’s Ward, 1881. PAC, MG 27, I, J13. Ont., Legislative Assembly, Journals, 1873: 12–14; 1874 (2nd session): 4–5; Legislature, Sessional papers, 1873, III, no.41; 1875–76, III, no.10; 1877, II, no.6; 1878, I, no.3; 1879, IV, no.12; 1880, III, no.12; 1881, III, no.12; 1882, VI, no.59. Globe, 31 Oct.–2 Nov. 1881. Irish Canadian (Toronto), 3 Nov. 1881. Toronto World, 31 Oct. 1881. Dominion annual register, 1880–81. Toronto directory, 1867–89. O. A. Cudney, A chronological history of the Legislative Library of Ontario (Ottawa, 1969). M. D. Edwards, A stage in our past, English-language theatre in eastern Canada from the 1790s to 1914 ([Toronto], 1968), 95–96.É.-Z. Massicotte, “Samuel-James Watson,” BRH, 24 (1918): 76.