bonus features: george gurnett

This post offers supplementary material for an article I wrote for Torontoist, which you should read before diving into this piece.

In an opinion piece published on November 30, 1833 complaining about the rejection of his expense claims in covering the provincial assembly, Gurnett described his editorial policy for the Courier of Upper Canada. He avoids mentioning that the “the true interests of this province” he believed in tended to coincide with Tory/Family Compact policies:

In the management of our journal, we have never courted, or deferred to, what is usually called public opinion; neither have we courted the approbation of persons in authority, or in fact of any individuals whatever. Our sole object has been to promote to the utmost extent of our ability and our means, the true interests of this province; and in the pursuit of that object; we have advocated those principles which we believed to be most conducive thereto; those principles we declared clearly and distinctly, when we first appeared before the public some seven odd years ago.

The same edition of the Courier included the following ad touting Gurnett’s printing services:

Printing Establishment
(South angle of Market Building)

Every description of Letter Press Printing, can now be done in the first style and on the shortest notice, at the above named Establishment, which has a more extensive assortment of Type, including Greek and Hebrew Letters, and every variety of Book and Job Type, large and small, than any other office in the country.

Books, Pamphlets, Circulars, Catalogues, Auction Bills, Steam Boat Notices, Circus and Play Bills (with Plates of every description, if required) executed with neatness and dispatch.

If you’re curious to read the Courier, hard copies covering most of 1833 reside at the University of Toronto’s Thomas Fisher Rare BookLibrary. The papers may be physically fragile, but the opinions expressed within them are anything but.


The conflict between Reformers and Tories on Toronto’s first city council in 1834 spilled out into public, sometimes with deadly results. Thanks to the research for this piece, I’m thinking of doing a future installment of Historicist on the incidents of July 29-30, 1834, where a political meeting convened by William Lyon Mackenzie to protest Tory blockage of higher taxes to fund sidewalks and roads ended with the death of five people when a temporary balcony collapsed in the market square. Gurnett was injured in the melee, and reported in the Courier on the poor reaction of some Reformers to the carnage:

There was nothing half so horrid, not even the mangled bodies of the dead and dying, as the vociferous yell of triumph which a party of Mr. Mackenzie’s adherents...set up when they saw those mangled bodies laying before them, a yell which they accompanied with clapping of hands, waving of hats, and with the exclamation of “There go the d—d Tories!” and “The d—d Tories are down now!”


In the lead-up to the Rebellion of 1837, Mackenzie attacked Mayor Gurnett in a broadside aimed to stir up the population:

Our enemies in Toronto are in terror and dismay—they know their wickedness and dread our vengeance. Fourteen armed men were sent out at the dead hour of night by the traitor Gurnett to drag to a felon`s cell, the sons of our worthy and noble minded brother departed, Joseph Sheppard, on a simple and frivolous charge of trespass, brought by a tory fool; and though it ended in smoke, it showed too evidently [Governor-General Sir Francis Bond] Head`s feelings.

For constrast, here’s a longer excerpt of what Gurnett wrote about those who participated in the Rebellion of 1837, specifically those who resided north of Toronto, in a report he submitted to Governor-General Sir George Arthur in November 1838:

It is my firm conviction that no change for the better has, or ever will take place in their political sentiments. That to a man they entertain and cherish the same sentiments, while their personal feelings are more hostile to the Government, and to the loyal party by whom they have been defeated, than they were previous to the late rebellion. It is but fair to presume that at least the greater proportion of the persons engaged in that rebellion had succeeded in persuading themselves—however false and fallacious their reasonings—that they were engaged in a just cause. Their subsequent defeat and punishment were not likely to convince them of their error. Instead of feeling grateful to the Executive for the pardon which has been extended to them, they look upon the punishment which they have received as persecution which they have sustained in a good cause—a cause which they yet evidently confidently believe will ultimately succeed. “Our day is coming” or sentiments to that effect are constantly expressed by them when irritated or excited. The feelings of these people have been greatly aggravated too by the manner in which most of them have been received on returning to their former neighbourhoods. By the taunts, sneers and open insults, to which they are continually subjected from their political opponents—“Rebel” “Jail bird” and other  similar offensive expressions being frequently hurled at them. This is calculated greatly to exasperate their feelings, and not the less so because they do not at present feel themselves in a condition to resent the insult. Upon the whole therefore, although these people are too much awed and subdued by recent events to risk any overt act of rebellion under existing circumstances, yet they must ever be looked upon as determined and irreconcilable enemies of the Government of the Country—who will ever be ready—in the event of any successful demonstration of the enemy—to flock to the standard of that enemy.


Gurnett’s work upon returning to the mayor’s chair in 1848 appears to have impressed his council colleagues enough that when it came to the annual appointing of the role in January 1849, he was re-elected by near-unanimous vote. The lone dissenter was George Duggan, who had his own mayoral ambitions. The British Colonist noted that while Duggan “admitted the efficiency of Mr. Gurnett as a most indefatigable member of the Council,” he disliked the notion of re-electing anyone as mayor when there were plenty of other candidates (like himself) available.

Among Gurnett’s defenders was alderman Dr. Joseph Workman:

He referred to the approach of the cholera, and the extraordinary exertions of Mr. Gurnett, under the most trying circumstances, in exposing himself to the greatest personal danger, on behalf of the sick and afflicted. He thought this a most fitting time to bury all their former differences I oblivion—to let bygones be bygones, and commence a new leaf, particularly when they were threatened with the pestilence, and when, moreover, it would require the united efforts of the Council to carry them through their financial and other difficulties of the year, with any degree of credit.

Additional material from The Selected Writings of William Lyon Mackenzie, Margaret Fairley, editor (Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1960); William Lyon Mackenzie: Rebel Against Authority by David Flint (Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1971); The Rebellion of 1837 in Upper Canada, Colin Read and Ronald J. Stagg, editors (Ottawa: Carleton University Press, 1988); the January 12, 1849 edition of the British Colonist; and the November 30, 1833 edition of the Courier of Upper Canada.


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