WORRELL, CHARLES, lawyer, landowner, businessman, office holder, justice of the peace, militia officer, and politician; b. c. 1770, probably in Barbados, third son of Jonathan Worrell, perhaps by Catherine, his second wife; d. unmarried 6 Jan. 1858 in London.
Charles Worrell, born into a prosperous Barbadian landowning family which by 1800 had removed to Juniper Hall, Mickleham, in Surrey, England, was trained as a lawyer and practised briefly at Lincoln’s Inn. This career was cut short when, in the first decade of the nineteenth century, Jonathan Worrell undertook to settle land on his sons in anticipation of his own death. Jonathan decided that the bulk of the family estates in Barbados was to go to the two eldest sons, William Bryant and Jonathan, and, in compensation, began in 1803 to purchase land on Prince Edward Island for Charles and the fifth son, Edward (the fourth son had taken up an army career). In the hope of imitating their father’s success in Barbados, Edward and, more especially, Charles were drawn into the Island’s affairs.
Jonathan Worrell’s acquisition of Lot 41 in 1803 began the formation of what was eventually a huge estate. Next year the father and his two sons purchased 17,000 acres on Lot 39 and one-third of Lot 40 (lots were approximately 20,000 acres each). Both Charles and Edward now moved to the Island and began construction of Morell House on Lot 40 as a base of operations. In 1804 Plowden Presland, an absentee proprietor, gave Charles control as his agent over Lot 42. Edward bought 10,000 acres of his own on lots 38 and 39 in 1813. When Jonathan died in 1814, the two brothers formed a firm, C. and E. Worrell, and transferred £3,286 to their father’s estate in order to extinguish any claims by other family members to property on the Island. Charles also inherited a small portion of the Sedgepond plantation in Barbados, but apparently took no interest in it and sold it to Edward in 1841.
Charles had enrolled in 1810 as a barrister for the Supreme Court of Prince Edward Island, but used his profession only as a convenience for transacting land purchases and conducting commercial ventures. He was committed to, indeed almost obsessed with, the continued expansion of his land holdings. In 1824 he purchased 10,000 acres from Presland on Lot 42, and obtained the other half of this lot in 1839; he gained control of Lot 43 in 1834, and closed the mortgage on it in 1841. His final major purchase, in 1840, was the 10,000 acres of the undersized Lot 66. Edward had returned to England by 1830 and sold his portion of the partnership to Charles in 1836. The Worrell estate, at its peak in 1843, consisted of lots 39, 41, 42, 43, 66, and large sections of lots 38 and 40 – more than 100,000 acres.
Worrell’s lands formed a solid block around St Peters Bay in Kings County. St Peters had been the centre of French settlement on the Island prior to the conquest and was attractive to British settlers at the turn of the century because over 2,000 acres were already cleared. To a proprietor this meant that, with little or no effort, he could attract settlers anxious to avoid the initial hardships of wilderness farming. As a result, much of the first settlement was secondary, involving Highlanders who had drifted eastward from the uncleared lands of lots 34–36 where they had originally been planted. Unfortunately, the long-term outlook for this north-shore community was not bright. The inescapable reality was that the lots Worrell collected were mostly poor agricultural land. As the century proceeded, and as the rest of the Island filled out, the population in his district and the number of acres under cultivation remained at a standstill. In 1803 the population on the lots Worrell would eventually control was just under 2,000, in 1833 just over 2,000; acres under cultivation went from 5,226 to 6,030. The importance of the community relative to the rest of the Island declined.
Worrell’s determination to acquire lots persisted despite the agricultural deficiencies of the area and he made no sustained effort to attract new settlers, although in 1805 he did join William Townshend* and John Cambridge* in presenting Lieutenant Governor Joseph Frederick Wallet DesBarres* with a memorial claiming that he and other proprietors, including John MacDonald* of Glenaladale and Lord Selkirk [Douglas*], were making efforts to settle their lots and advance the Island’s prosperity. His decision to set rents as high as two shillings sterling per acre on lots averaging only 50 acres, with leases of 40 years, when average rents on the Island were one shilling per acre on 100-acre lots with leases of much longer duration, merely reinforced geographic reality in discouraging settlement and gave him a reputation as an eccentric land manager. The only signs of improvement noted by travellers in the 1820s were Morell House and buildings on the adjacent farm. Nevertheless, Worrell did have some successes. As a resident, rather than an absentee proprietor, he took a passionate interest in the management of his estate. He reduced the impact of his high rents upon his tenants by his willingness to accept labour and/or produce (mostly potatoes) as payment. His constant supervision virtually eliminated squatters and free cutting of timber, problems which plagued other proprietors. With four shipyards, five sawmills, and a carding-mill on his land, he was able to exploit its non-agricultural resources and afford employment to many tenants. These ventures could not, however, compensate for the basic agricultural deficiencies of the land, and by the time Worrell left the Island he had dissipated his wealth, leaving himself, according to Edward Whelan*, “in a condition not superior to that of his poorest tenants.”
Worrell occupied an anomalous social and political position on the Island: neither an absentee proprietor nor a member of the Charlottetown élite, he ruled over his own fiefdom on the north shore. Family ties and intermarriage were essential for social intercourse, and Worrell’s unmarried state further isolated him from his neighbours and local peers. To visitors he appeared “rather shy and diffident.” Given the size of his holdings, he could hardly avoid becoming a justice of the peace (1806), a high sheriff (for 1808), or a lieutenant-colonel in the local militia, but he did not enjoy such intrusions on his time and did not use the opportunities these offices provided to socialize with other Island worthies. And although he maintained a Kings County seat in the House of Assembly during the years 1812–13 and 1818–20 (by having his agents round up his tenants and escort them with banners and bagpipes to the polls), he was never permanently attached to any political faction. A member of the so-called “cabal” which unseated Lieutenant Governor DesBarres, and a conspirator in the movement which brought about the removal of Lieutenant Governor Charles Douglass Smith, he was motivated in both cases by a personal concern to protect property from high taxes or escheat.
Worrell was appointed to the Council in 1825, acting as president that year, and retired in 1836 only to be reappointed to the Legislative Council three years later after Lieutenant Governor Sir Charles Augustus FitzRoy restructured the councils. During this time Worrell was not an active or leading participant in the Council’s affairs. His interest was aroused only by questions directly affecting proprietorial concerns, escheat being the most obvious but also such bread-and-butter issues as land tax assessment and road-building legislation. Worrell seems to have used his office primarily as a window on local political trends in order to transmit intelligence to fellow proprietors resident in London. It was London that Worrell saw as the centre of real political decision making on proprietorial questions, an understanding which, however correct, distanced him from a Charlottetown élite intent on expanding local power.
At the very time when his land acquisitions had reached their peak, Worrell began to consider retirement to England. He was now in his seventies and was, according to some, showing signs of senility. He resigned from the militia in 1840 and from the Legislative Council three years later. In 1844 he began to sell his land but, unfortunately, found less interest in it than he had hoped; two years later he advertised his property for sale as a block but no acceptable offers were forthcoming. Buyers hesitated, probably because of difficulties Worrell encountered in collecting rent from his 400 tenant families. Tired and frustrated, he turned over his Island affairs to a board of trustees headed by Theophilus DesBrisay and left for England in 1848. The board served him ill and he was to wait six more years before the estate was finally sold. In a transaction amounting to a swindle, William Henry Pope* purchased the land in 1854 for £14,000 and then sold it to the Island government later that year for £24,100. Worrell was thus provided with a belated taste of the problems absentee proprietors had often encountered by trusting local agents. The delay in the sale, the poor administration of the land in the interim, and the probable corruption of the trustees meant that Worrell’s last years in London were property heavy and cash lean.
But his estate was to retain a symbolic significance, for the government’s acquisition of it was a landmark in the evolution of the land question on the Island. It was the first in a series of government purchases intended to transfer land title from large proprietors to small tenant farmers [see Sir Samuel Cunard*]. Yet the importance of the estate as such should not overshadow the formidable character of Charles Worrell himself, and the rare example he provides of a large resident proprietor.
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