WELLS, JOSEPH, army officer, politician, and university official; b. 19 June 1773 in the parish of St Martin Ludgate, London, son of Joseph Wells, silk merchant, and Mary —; m. 10 June 1813 Harriett King of St Botolph parish, Aldersgate, London, and they had eight sons and two daughters; d. 4 Feb. 1853 in Toronto.
Joseph Wells began his army career in 1798 after serving as a lieutenant with a locally raised unit, the Sheffield Volunteers. In January he purchased an ensigncy and the following May he was promoted lieutenant in the 43rd Foot. Joining a portion of the regiment stationed in Martinique in 1799, he was appointed adjutant in 1800 and purchased a commission as captain in 1804. He was promoted to the rank of major seven years later and to lieutenant-colonel of the 2nd battalion in 1814. With his regiment he took part in some of the hardest fighting of the Napoleonic Wars. After having served in the expedition to Copenhagen in 1807, he was transferred to the Iberian Peninsula and fought under Sir John Moore during the latter’s campaign and retreat of 1808–9. He was the senior surviving officer of the 1st battalion after the storming of Badajoz in April 1812, but was himself so severely wounded that he was unable to take command; he was awarded gold and silver medals for his bravery in this action and silver medals for service in two other battles.
With the return of peace in 1815, and an imminent and large reduction of forces, Wells, like other officers, was faced with the prospect of being placed on half pay. At first he appeared to avoid this fate when he secured an appointment as inspecting field officer of militia in Upper Canada in November 1815 and soon afterward he came out to North America with his wife of some two years and two infant children. “To his great mortification” the position was abolished shortly after his arrival. In 1817 he was placed on half pay, which he retained until 1827 when he sold his commission for £4,000.
The hope of pursuing his military career had brought Wells to Upper Canada and to its little capital, York (Toronto), but almost at once he appears to have been very much at home in his new surroundings. The province’s closely knit governing group welcomed the handsome officer, with his relatively high military rank and honourable record of service to king and empire. Wells soon established himself as a significant figure in the community. He had been granted 1,200 acres of land in 1817 and could also buy land cheaply. In 1821 he purchased from the McGill family a 200-acre estate called Davenport about five miles north of York, where he and his descendants would live for the next half-century and more. He was on the first board of directors of the Bank of Upper Canada [see William Allan] in 1822 and was to become one of the original directors of the Welland Canal Company three years later. Wells had been named to the Legislative Council in 1820, a life appointment and strong proof of the high regard which he had quickly won from Lieutenant Governor Sir Peregrine Maitland and his circle. In the same year he was made a trustee of the Upper Canada Central School at York, a school run by Joseph Spragge* on Church of England principles and favoured by the governing group. Then in 1823 Maitland named him to the Board for the General Superintendence of Education. Wells became treasurer of that board under the chairmanship of the Reverend John Strachan*, a post and an association which were later to lead him into much grief.
Further evidences of Wells’s standing were forthcoming. After Strachan secured a charter, in 1827, for King’s College (University of Toronto), Wells was appointed bursar, at an annual salary of £150, presumably because of his experience with the board of education. He had responsibility for administering the very considerable endowment, both in lands and in money, which had been assigned to the college. “Not, by profession, an accountant,” Wells was quite unequipped to discharge these duties efficiently. Meanwhile, however, he continued to acquire new responsibilities. When the new lieutenant governor, Sir John Colborne*, determined that it would be premature to open King’s College and that the province needed a good preparatory school instead, the way was open for the establishment in 1829–30 of Upper Canada College, to be funded in part from the King’s College endowment. Fatefully, it seemed appropriate to name the bursar of the latter to be the treasurer of the former. It was clear that the lieutenant governor had high confidence in Wells: in 1830 Colborne appointed him to the Executive Council and three years later named him registrar of King’s College. The regard in which he was held by his neighbours was indicated in the forming of the St George’s Society; Wells’s name stood first among those who proposed the society, and in 1836 he was elected its first president.
There is no evidence that Wells played a determining role in Upper Canada’s political history, yet two events in 1836 gave him some prominence. First, Colborne, as the last notable act of his administration, signed patents for the endowment of some 44 Anglican rectories; clearly, Wells, as an executive councillor, endorsed this act, despite the uproar it caused in the province. Shortly afterward his conduct was somewhat more ambiguous. The new lieutenant governor, Sir Francis Bond Head*, enlarged the council by appointing two reformers, Robert Baldwin and John Rolph*, as well as John Henry Dunn, a government official but not identified with the “family compact.” After a few weeks, perhaps inevitably, the governor and the reformers fell out, and the council broke up. Somewhat unaccountably, Wells and the other conservative councillors, George Herchmer Markland* and Peter Robinson*, joined with the reformers and with Dunn in signing a protest against Head’s manner of conducting the government, and on 12 March 1836 the entire Executive Council resigned. Wells may not have intended any flirtation with the reform cause, but the action allowed Head to write later in A narrative that by appearing to endorse the doctrine of responsible government the conservative councillors had “at once impeached the conduct and practice of their whole lives.” Yet Head relented almost at once: in a footnote he wrote of Wells that “a more loyal man does not exist in Upper Canada.”
Although secure in his reputation as a loyal and highly regarded officer, Wells was to suffer embarrassment and even humiliation in 1839. That March the House of Assembly requested information about the finances of King’s College and Upper Canada College. The lieutenant governor, now Sir George Arthur, asked Wells for a report and in consequence discovered, as he later noted, that it was “impossible to conceive anything more neglected than the affairs of the University have been.” Under Arthur’s prodding, the council of King’s College set up a special committee to investigate, and a sorry tale emerged. Although it appeared that Wells had been conscientious and personally honest, it was also clear that his business methods had been hopelessly sloppy, that clear records did not exist, and that he had not kept college finances separate from his own. The investigation further revealed that Wells had lent more than £5,000 to the president of King’s College, John Strachan, without adequate security and had made unsecured loans to others as well. In consequence, on 8 July 1839 Wells sent a rather abject letter of apology to the college council, referring to his “self-acknowledged censurable conduct” and to his “unaccountable neglect” in keeping his accounts. He noted, however, that even if he had kept proper records, they would not have been available, for he had destroyed “a mass of papers” when his property and person were threatened during the rebellion of 1837–38. To make restitution for the more than £13,000 due the university, he assigned to the council mortgages and other securities worth more than half that amount and proposed to pay off the balance over the months and years to come. A few days later the council determined to dispense “with his further services as Bursar and Registrar,” and on 27 July Henry Boys* was appointed to replace him.
There was little disposition, at least in official circles, to place heavy blame on Wells. Lieutenant Governor Arthur wrote, “Poor man he is much to be pitied, for had the College Council done their duty he never cd. so much have neglected his & have plunged himself into such difficulties.” Chief Justice John Beverley Robinson* found it “hard to believe that he has done anything dishonestly.” These estimates were a tribute to Wells’s standing in the dissolving “family compact.” A subsequent inquiry into university finances by Robert Easton Burns*, John Wetenhall, and Joseph Workman*, moreover, concluded in 1852 that “disbursements” in the decade 1829–39 had not been “extravagant”; indeed, they had been “moderate,” compared with those of the years 1839–49. Nevertheless, the incident was also proof of the need for the improved administrative procedures that were inaugurated by Arthur and by his successor Lord Sydenham [Thomson*].
During his last dozen or so years, Wells withdrew to the life of a gentleman farmer on his large estate north of the city. In the funeral sermon for Harriett Wells, who predeceased her husband by two years, the Reverend John George Delhoste MacKenzie* described Joseph Wells as “one of our Christian patriarchs.”
Guildhall Library (London), ms 3857/3 (St Botolph Aldersgate, London, Reg. of baptisms, marriages, and burials), 10 June 1813; ms 10214 (St Martin Ludgate, London, Reg. of baptisms, marriages, and burials), 16 July 1773. PAC, MG 25, 97. Arthur papers (Sanderson). J. C. Dent, The story of the Upper Canadian rebellion; largely derived from original sources and documents (2v., Toronto, 1885). Gentleman’s Magazine, January–June 1853: 448. F. B. Head, A narrative, with notes by William Lyon Mackenzie, ed. and intro. S. F. Wise (Toronto and Montreal, 1969). J. G. D. McKenzie, A sermon, on occasion of the death of Clarence Yonge Wells, preached October 20th, 1850, at St. Paul’s Church, Toronto (Weymouth, [Eng.?], 1852). Univ. of Toronto, Commission of Inquiry into the Affairs of King’s College Univ. and Upper Canada College, Final report (Quebec, 1852). U.C., House of Assembly, App. to the journal, 1839, 2: 408–28. Doc. hist. of education in U.C. (Hodgins), vols.1–3. G.B., WO, Army list, 1799–1828. R. G. A. Levinge, Historical records of the Forty-Third regiment, Monmouthshire Light Infantry, with a roll of the officers and their services from the period of embodiment to the close of 1867 (London, 1868). Morgan, Sketches of celebrated Canadians. Lucy Booth Martyn, Toronto: 100 years of grandeur; the inside stories of Toronto’s great homes and the people who lived there (Toronto, 1978). Robertson’s landmarks of Toronto, vol.3. A. S. Thompson, Spadina: a story of old Toronto (Toronto, 1975).
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Cite This Article
G. M. Craig, “WELLS, JOSEPH,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 8, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed March 23, 2023, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/wells_joseph_8E.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:
|Author of Article:||G. M. Craig|
|Title of Article:||WELLS, JOSEPH|
|Publication Name:||Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 8|
|Publisher:||University of Toronto/Université Laval|
|Year of publication:||1985|
|Year of revision:||1985|
|Access Date:||March 23, 2023|