The appointment of Sir Francis Head as lieutenant-governor of Upper Canada in 1835

This article was published in the Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History, iii (1975), 280-91. 

The reasons for the appointment of Sir Francis Bond Head as lieutenant-governor of Upper Canada in November 1835 have always been a mystery. From his own vivid account, no one seems to have been more surprised by the offer than Head himself when he was summoned from his post as an assistant Poor Law Commissioner in the depths of Kent. "It had blown almost a hurricane from the S.S.W. – the sheep in Romney Marsh had huddled together in groups – the cattle, afraid to feed, were still standing with their tails to the storm – I had been all day immured in New Romney with the board of guardians of the Marsh Union; and though several times my horse had been nearly blown off the road, I had managed to return to my lodging" where, his mind "full of the unions, parishes, magistrates, guardians, relieving officers, and paupers of the county of Kent", he fell into deep and deserved sleep. However, about midnight, I was suddenly awakened by the servant of my lodging, who, with a letter in one hand, and in the other a tallow candle, illumining an honest countenance, not altogether free from alarm, hurriedly informed me, That a king's officer had come after me!" To his "utter astonishment", Head found that he was being pressed to accept the lieutenant-governorship of Upper Canada, with the request that he call on Lord Glenelg, the Colonial Secretary, at 8.30 a.m. in London. Next morning the bewildered and protesting Poor Law functionary was prevailed upon to go to Canada. Furthermore, as the Radical M.P. Joseph Hume explained to his friend William Lyon Mackenzie, the ministers were anxious to appoint a civilian after the failure of Major-General Sir John Colborne, and Head was accordingly persuaded to sell his own commission, and thus lose his retirement pay as a former officer. Within a few weeks, he had arrived in Toronto, where he was greeted with placards describing him as "A TRIED REFORMER".[1]  He assumed the government of a province drifting into a major constitutional crisis. Two years later he left it in the aftermath of rebellion.

Naturally, it has often been asked how a man who proved so unsuitable came to be appointed to such a difficult post – for in 1835 the Whig government regarded Upper Canada as more than a routine problem. However, a scornful contemporary dismissed it as a "very paltry appointment" barely worth even trying to account for. Head's defenders accepted that the ministers' choice "seems to have been a sheer blunder – an unlucky one for themselves, but very lucky for the Crown and its subjects".[2] One contemporary guess at the mechanics of the appointment put it down to Court influence: Lady Head's nephew had married one of William IV's illegitimate daughters. This FitzClarence connection had helped Head to secure a knighthood as a mark of royal favour in 1831, and made plausible an assertion that Head had been "thrust upon" the government by the king.[3]

Historians have been equally diverse in their opinions. Samuel Smiles, the codifier of the Victorian doctrine of betterment through self-help, characteristically asserted that "Major Head had already made his mark in England, and it was thought that, with his shrewdness, common sense, and knowledge of men and their ways, he might be able to quench the growing embers of discontent." William Smith was confident that Joseph Hume was somehow responsible, but even he regarded the whole affair as a "puzzle". S. F. Wise, the most recent commentator, has echoed Smiles in pointing out that Head was less of a nonentity than he has sometimes been portrayed. But Head's own biographer despaired of finding the truth: "Perhaps the best explanation of Sir Francis's appointment is that none can be given at all. It was purely chance."[4] One picturesque theory held that Sir Francis Head was appointed in mistake for his cousin, Sir Edmund, a very different personality who subsequently served as lieutenant- governor of New Brunswick and governor-general of Canada. Sir Francis Hincks claimed to have been told by John Arthur Roebuck, a Radical M.P. and colonial enthusiast, "that there was no doubt whatever that the appointment had been made by mistake, and that Sir Edmund Head was the person for whom it had been intended." Hincks had Roebuck's "positive assurance" for the story but did not know his source, although he later found that an unnamed "distinguished statesman" had heard the same tale – which is not necessarily a corroboration.[5] The theory was attacked as a "persistent fallacy" by James A. Gibson in 1938.[6] He argued that there was no contemporary evidence for the story, and pointed out that Head's Narrative (his self-serving defence of his governorship) was frequently misleading.

According to Gibson, although he would later prove a competent colonial governor, in 1835 Edmund Head, was too young to be considered and too little known to be confused with Sir Francis. Gibson did not pretend to explain how Head got his job, but merely wished to rule out what Helen Taft Manning and John S. Galbraith later called "the fantasy that Head's appointment was the result of a clerical error".[7]  They argued that the "wrong Head theory was completely destroyed" by their publication in 1961 of extracts from Lord Howick's diary.[8] Howick was a member of the cabinet which appointed Colborne's successor, and his diary left no doubt that Francis Head was the man the ministers wanted.

In fact the careful paragraphs designed to show that the messenger was not sent off in the wrong direction are all tilts at a windmill. True, the governmental machine of the 183os was not perfect, and the Whig cabinet was little more than the sum of often ill-matched parts. But even so there are reasons for rejecting so attractive a tale. Roebuck, from whom Hincks had the story, was fond of retailing the ignorant blunders of government in colonial matters, but he never publicly made such a damaging charge. There is, too, a tradition that Lord Lansdowne, a leading member of the cabinet, was interested in the career of Edmund Head at that time, and if so any simple blunder at cabinet level would have quickly come to light.[9]

However, this does not altogether rule out a mistake at some earlier stage. The cabinet may not have been guilty of mistaken identity, but could Head have been recommended to them by someone who had confused the cousins? For there remains the problem that at the time when Francis Head was so unexpectedly sent to Canada, Edmund Head was interested in an appointment in the colonies. Between 183o and 1836, Edmund Head was a Fellow of Merton College, Oxford, and according to his cousin, Sir Francis, who was oblivious of academic terminology, "a very clever and learned fellow" too. But by April 1835, when he enrolled at Lincoln's Inn to read for the bar, Edmund Head was planning to leave Oxford. In January 1836 he became an assistant Commissioner for Poor Law – exactly the post his cousin Sir Francis had recently held. In January 1837 Edmund Head's close friend, George Cornewall Lewis, wrote to him from Malta, where he was on an official mission of enquiry, assuring him that he had been right to take an office in England rather than one in the colonies. Later the same year, Lewis wrote: "The more I see of colonial life, the more I am satisfied that you did rightly in preferring your present employment, with all its drawbacks, to the colonial service."[10]

Could the two cousins have been confused? They often were. Even when Sir Edmund Head had made his reputation in the colonial service, confusion was frequent. In 1861 The Times solemnly referred to Canada's  governor-general as "Sir Francis Head" and when Sir Francis began a campaign to secure a pension in 1864, the Hansard writers recorded references to him as "Sir Edmund". Even the Colonial Office once bound the governor-general's dispatches in a volume whose spine was engraved "Sir F. Head" on the spine.[11]  As early as 1835 Francis Head's friend, the publisher John Murray, thought the two men must be brothers,[12] and strangers might have been forgiven for confusing them altogether. The rulers in nineteenth-century England referred to each other by their surnames. With a common name, confusion might be expected to arise – this was why so many Smiths adopted a second, hyphenated surname. But Head was not a common name and, hence, paradoxically its rarity might cause a mistake: somebody hearing a reference to "Head" could easily assume that the Head he knew was the only person who could be meant. There is a similar story of mistaken identity affecting another part of the empire. In 1881 Sir Charles Dilke thought that Jan Hendrik Brand, president of the Orange Free State, should be knighted, and accordingly wrote on a cabinet circular, "I think Brand should be knighted". Other cabinet ministers initialled their approval – and the Speaker of the House of Commons, Henry Brand, was awarded the GCB.[13] In the case of the Heads, there is even a possibility of a three-way confusion, for Sir Francis had an elder brother, Sir George Head, who in 1829 had published a dull book on Canada.[14] Thus, in 1835, it would have been possible to make three different statements about three different men : Head had written a book about Canada; Head had written about South America and was a successful Poor Law official; Head hoped for a colonial appointment. It would have been understandable if someone had concluded that all three referred to the same individual.

So far the appointment seems as mysterious as ever. However, there is evidence to suggest that Head did not tell all he knew about his appointment, and it may be possible to sketch at least a plausible hypothesis: the ministers appointed Sir Francis Head on the nomination of Lord Brougham. Head seemed reasonably well qualified for the task, and at the moment of his appointment a combination of circumstances prevented too close a Colonial Office enquiry into his suitability. Apparently a good choice in himself, his appointment would conciliate two powerful figures whose goodwill the government needed. Henry Brougham was a prominent member of the radical wing of the Whig party. He had come as close as the unreformed system had permitted to being a "populist" figure in politics, creating a large "out-of-doors" following by taking the lead in attacking slavery and championing the wrongs of the estranged Queen Caroline. He reached a pinnacle of effective mass support in 1830 when he was elected for the large and popular constituency of Yorkshire. At that point, he was manoeuvred by his suspicious Whig allies into a tactical error. His main interest was law reform, and he was persuaded to become Lord Chancellor, which meant taking a peerage and thus partly cutting himself off from his base of popular support. As Lord Chancellor he had taken a leading part in creating the new Poor Law of 1834. Recommendations to senior posts in the Poor Law were in the hands of the Lord Chancellor, and applications were made to him on Francis Head's behalf. In October 1834 Head was appointed Assistant Commissioner for east Kent, and in the following spring he published a thinly anonymous article vaunting his work there in the Quarterly Review. It is likely that Brougham had suggested that the article be written, for on its appearance Francis Head wrote to him: "I hope you will not be offended at my considering you as a patron to whom I am most deeply indebted."[15] Brougham certainly did not take offence, and although by now a declining star, he was still able to advance his protégé's interests. In November 1834 the king briefly dismissed the Whigs from office. When they returned, in April 1835, their leader, Lord Melbourne took the opportunity to exclude the troublesome Brougham from office. However, to avoid an open breach with a powerful figure, the Lord Chancellorship was left vacant until early in 1836. The intervening period was one of uneasy relations between Brougham and his late colleagues, whom he still energetically supported in Parliament.

Shortly after reaching Canada, Francis Head announced his arrival and first impressions of the country in a brief note to Brougham. The letter began: "I am not at all certain that I shall remain here, but whether I be removed or not, I shall always feel indebted to you for having given me a lift which no one thought me worthy of, but yourself."[16] In telling his dramatic tale of a midnight offer of the lieutenant-governorship, Francis Head seems to have been guilty of suppressio veri. He may well have had no advance knowledge of the offer, but he apparently did discover who had put his name forward.

Did Brougham make a mistake? The possibility is supported by an oblique remark by Charles Buller that Head's appointment stemmed from "the accident of an injudicious patron".[17] If so, how did such a confusion arise? A possible source of misunderstanding is Sir Thomas Frankland Lewis, father of Edmund Head's closest friend, George Cornewall Lewis. Lewis, who was the first chairman of the Poor Law Commission, had also been chairman of the 1828 Parliamentary committee on Canada. If Edmund Head were interested in a career either with the Poor Law or in the colonies, his friend's father would have been an obvious person to consult. The elder Lewis took a friendly interest in Head's career, and as he had a reputation for being both verbose and dull, it is possible that he planted the muddled idea in Brougham's mind that someone called Head aspired to a job in the colonies.[18]

But to speculate why Brougham should have put Head's name forward is not enough. Why did the ministers accept the nomination? The actual process of appointment can be traced through Lord Howick's diary. Son of the second earl Grey, whose ministry had carried the Reform Bill, Howick had entered the cabinet in 1835 as Secretary at War. His real interest was the colonies, but he had declined to be considered for such a major office, and Glenelg had become Colonial Secretary. Unfortunately, Glenelg was an indecisive personality, and management of colonial business in the cabinet was quickly assumed by the more forceful Howick. On 16 November there was, he recorded, "some little discussion on the selection of a Governor for Upper Canada", but the question was not resolved until ministers met over dinner two days later, the occasion for a long and inconclusive discussion in which Howick "very strongly supported the pretensions of Sir Francis Head", with some wavering support from Glenelg. After the meal, Howick "got Lord Melbourne to give a grumbling consent to Sir F. Head's being chosen". The next morning, the nineteenth of November, Howick called at the Colonial Office to "stimulate" Glenelg into making Head an immediate offer, in the hope of being able to put his name before the king, whom Glenelg was due to visit at Brighton the following day. By the time Glenelg had put in an appearance, and the Poor Law commissioners had been contacted to discover the whereabouts of their peripatetic assistant commissioner, it is understandable that the message was delivered at midnight.[19]

Thus it is possible to reconstruct the process of Head's appointment. But what of the motives behind it? Some suggestions may be made. Howick's only recorded contacts with colonial affairs in the weeks before he championed Head's appointment in cabinet were with his cousin, Sir George Grey, Glenelg's parliamentary under-secretary, and James Stephen, then the assistant permanent under-secretary at the Colonial Office. Howick and Stephen consulted closely in Canadian matters and it was a letter from Stephen, received while touring country houses in the late autumn, that had first conveyed to him "a most deplorable account of the state of affairs in Upper Canada & of the misconduct of the Governor".[20] On returning to London, he had a long talk with Stephen on colonial affairs on 13 November – less than a week before Head's appointment. It is therefore likely that Howick heard of Francis Head from Stephen. Stephen is also a plausible link with Brougham: in February 1836, he told the diarist Charles Greville that "he had known Brougham above thirty years".[21]  On the morning of his appointment Head had a long interview with Stephen in the Colonial Office, and perhaps he learnt the source of his nomination then.

But why did the normally efficient Stephen endorse a man who proved so unsuitable? Colonial appointments were, of course, difficult posts to fill, and mistakes were made. In this case, there was a particular personal involvement: Stephen himself was among those being considered for the lieutenant-governorship. It is unlikely that he wished for the job – another Downing Street

official, Henry Taylor, had already refused it.[22]  In his different way, Stephen would probably

have proved as unsuccessful as Head himself  -- and his own self-knowledge possibly prompted him to look favourably on an alternative candidate. It is more likely, however, that Stephen's unbending rectitude would have prevented him from making enquiries about Head's suitability which might have seemed indirectly to foster his own interest. Furthermore, the need to select a new lieutenant-governor for Upper Canada came at an awkward moment in the internal affairs of the Colonial Office. There had never been much personal or political sympathy between Stephen and his nominal superior, the easy-going and old-fashioned permanent under-secretary, R. W. Hay. On 12 November, Howick learnt from George Grey that the two men had quarrelled, and that, in consequence, Stephen was refusing to take more than his strict share of duties – in effect, working to rule. Glenelg too had been drawn into the row, and his relations with Stephen had also become cool.[23] Thus the one man who might have been efficient enough to ask hard questions about Head's fitness for office was both debarred from doing so by his own potential involvement in the appointment, and discouraged by his temporary isolation within the department. Neither Hay nor Glenelg would have had the energy to pursue the subject.

Why did the cabinet accept Francis Head? He was chosen in part to resolve a deadlock. Several possible candidates were discussed by ministers at their meeting on 18 November, but each name produced desultory disagreement. It is true that Francis Head was the most military of the candidates mentioned by Howick – Stephen and Denis Le Marchant were civil servants, Sir Charles Vaughan the British minister in Washington.[24] But Head had left active service ten years earlier, and had only served in the unfashionable Royal Engineers. In an aimless and confused discussion it was not surprising that the best informed and most forceful member of the cabinet, Howick, would get his way. Nor would Head have seemed altogether unfitted. It was felt that Sir John Colborne, a high-ranking military officer, had not been equipped to deal with the problems of Upper Canada. Francis Head had never risen above the rank of Major, and had a decade's experience of civilian life. He was known from his popular writings to possess a lively mind, and a bent for travelling around to investigate problems for himself. Furthermore, he seemed efficient. The Elizabethan Poor Law had been administered on a basis of parish autonomy. One of the controversial features of the new Poor Law had been its invasion of time-honoured local autonomy to create "Unions" – groupings of parishes that frequently cut across traditional local boundaries. Head had created twelve such unions in east Kent with great speed and efficiency, an achievement publicised in his Quarterly Review article.[25] It was plausible to believe that a man who had made such short work of radically remodeling an encrusted local government system might have the energy and ability to smother incipient discontent in Canada by dealing with the shortcomings of the colonial administration. Buller believed that the Poor Law commissioners had "passed him on with much commendation to Lord Glenelg",[26] and indeed if his employers were sounded out, they could hardly have reported unfavourably on the work of their man in east Kent.

Thus Head's selection was more plausible in itself than has sometimes been indicated. Furthermore, it was an appointment which might help conciliate two important and potentially hostile personalities. Returning to office in 1835 with an uncertain majority in the House of Commons, the Whigs were hardly strong enough to coerce the Lords, where they were hopelessly outnumbered. Although Melbourne had dropped Brougham, both sides took care to avoid a final breach throughout 1835. With Brougham himself proclaiming his diligent support for the government in the upper house,[27] there was good reason for conciliating him where possible. Francis Head seemed a reasonable choice on general grounds, and if his appointment was a gesture that might help prevent Brougham from moving into open opposition in the Lords, so much the better. Moreover, Head's appointment would also be acceptable to a more dangerous threat than Brougham. A year earlier, William IV had dismissed the Whigs from office. Although subsequent events – not least Melbourne's return to office – suggested that he had pushed the royal prerogative too far, the king made no secret that his political sympathies now lay elsewhere. In particular, he made difficulties about Canada. When the Earl of Gosford was sent out as governor-general at the head of an investigating commission, William IV told him he would never consent to surrender the Crown lands or to make the Legislative Council elective, and openly threatened to have Melbourne's cabinet impeached. A similar scene took place when Sir Charles Grey, one of the commissioners, took his farewell of the king. Rumours of the outburst reached the press. The Times complimented him as "a sound and manly hearted Briton" but added "in all reverence for our Sovereign, we are not sure that such extra-official and irregular warnings are the best and safest modes through which a King of England with responsible advisers can communicate his commands". The king himself recognised that he was wrong to indulge in such open denunciations of his ministers but – in attempting to delete words like "conciliatory" and "liberal" from Gosford's instructions – he bluntly told Melbourne:

"You cannot wonder at my making these difficulties with a Ministry that has been forced on me."  It was possible that the king might attempt to use Canada as a pretext for ousting the Whigs once again. Melbourne thought it "better not to quarrel with him", adding with some understatement that he was "evidently in a state of great excitement".[28] Here again was a compelling reason for choosing Sir Francis Head as lieutenant-governor of Upper Canada. Far from Head's being "thrust upon" the government by his wife's Court connections, the ministers could trade on his personal acceptability to the king to appoint someone who – they assumed – would carry out their policies without provoking a further royal crisis. Thus two days after the official messenger had been sent into the depths of Kent, Howick thought it worth noting in his diary that "the King had taken Sir F. Head's appointment as Governor of Upper Canada very well".[29] It would prove to be the ministers' bad luck that Francis Head was acceptable to William IV partly because he had the same habits of thought and simple talent for political analysis.

The final problem which arises is, why did Head not reveal the full story of his appointment in his Narrative? One reason was certainly a desire not to spoil a good story. He probably was dragged from his bed to be offered a colonial governorship and it would have been a lame anticlimax to have added that, maybe as early as the next morning, the mystery had been explained. Of one of his books, a friendly reviewer once wrote: "There is a vast amount of truth in the work of Sir Francis Head, but the difficulty is to seize that truth at the point of its integrity, and before it has evaded you in the brilliant labyrinth into which it escapes, ever and anon, in spite of the most watchful."[30] But Head had other reasons for consigning Brougham to the labyrinth of obfuscation. His Narrative was published in 1839 with the specific purpose of discrediting the Durham Report. Brougham was known to be Durham's foe, one of the leading critics of his Canadian mission and the man who brought about his downfall over the Bermuda ordinance. Head was too clever a campaigner to label himself as a creature of Durham's principal enemy in a book intended to discredit Durham's Report. Furthermore, Head had quarrelled with Brougham himself, when his patron had delivered a scathing attack on his administration. In three letters, published in The Times in July 1838, he castigated Brougham for undermining the authority of the executive in Canada. He used his talent for sarcasm to point up the picture of Brougham as a politician who meddled in all subjects without ever understanding any of them. "As the chief patron of useful knowledge, your Lordship may deem it necessary that your brilliant talents, like the sun, should in rotation shine upon the people of the globe, successively leaving in utter darkness those who a few hours ago were basking in meridian splendour." This was vintage Head, fired by bitterness at his own abandonment. But there were humbler tones too. It was "an act of kindness rather than hostility" to correct Brougham's errors. Mysteriously, he closed: "Before the public, however, I desire only to appear as your Lordship's faithful and obedient servant." Such language throws doubt on one possible hypothesis, that Head had discovered that Brougham had not, after all, been instrumental in sending him to Canada. Despite his anger, he felt himself indebted to his antagonist.[31] Still, Brougham's criticisms had been too wounding for Head to acknowledge his former patron, while the fallen Chancellor had a remarkable facility for never admitting his mistakes.

Nonetheless, it seems that Head never wavered in his belief that Brougham's influence lay behind the appointment that shaped his career. In 1864 Head began a campaign to secure pensions for former colonial governors. His case was based largely on his personal grievance: in his country's service he had been prevailed upon to give up a secure post in the Poor Law, which he had never recovered, along with his military pension, to take on the thankless task of governing a colony.[32] After a quarter-century of silence, he wrote to Brougham, enclosing the memorandum of his claims. Brougham, he acknowledged, had disapproved of his conduct in Canada, but he urged him to put that aside, and read the case he had presented. The appeal was accompanied with much underlining of words, and seems to have been an appeal to Brougham's conscience. Head's tone certainly suggests that he felt he was addressing the man who had placed him in the Canadian morass.[33]

 This account of the appointment of Sir Francis Head admittedly rests upon a large measure of conjectural reconstruction from relatively slight evidence. By the tests of reasonable probability which are used to establish historical knowledge, we may never be able to recover the whole story. But there is no mystery about this: even with the office of governor-general of Canada, the leading appointment in the colonial service, it is frequently impossible to trace much solid information about the machinery of appointments. At best, appointing a colonial governor was "a stab in the dark".[34] There is a suspicion of mistaken identity in the circumstances of Head's original nomination, but that apart his selection was really no more incredible or inexplicable than any other colonial appointment of the time.[35]

Afterword (2022)  One core problem in writing about the life of Sir Francis Bond Head, who lived into his eighties, is that his life was dominated (and, to some extent, distorted) by two eventful years in Canada. In his Dictionary of Canadian Biography article ("Head, Sir Francis Bond", x, 1972), S.F. Wise set Head's career in its broader framework but naturally concentrated on his role in Upper Canada. In dealing with the appointment, Wise accepted the research by Gibson, Taft Manning and Galbraith, concluding that the cabinet, led by Howick, was "convinced by Head’s vigorous administration of the new poor law and his writings on the subject that he was the conciliator needed in Upper Canada", although he proved to be "an astonishing choice". It is an indication of the slow academic communications of half a century ago that I did not have access to Wise's article, published in 1972, when I was writing my article on Head's appointment in Australia in 1973-4. I am happy to remedy the omission now. Another perspective on Head's Canadian experience was offered in Ged Martin, "Sir Francis Bond Head: a Lieutenant-Governor from his Private Papers", Ontario History, lxxii (1981), pp. 145-170. There have been few specific explorations of Head's activities as lieutenant-governor of Upper Canada, although he looms large in C. Read and R.J. Stagg, eds, The Rebellion of 1837 in Upper Canada: a Collection of Documents (Champlain Society, Don Mills, Ont., 1985). One useful exception is S.T. Cadigan, "Paternalism and Politics: Sir Francis Bond Head, the Orange Order, and the Election of 1836", Canadian Historical Review, lxxii (1991), 319-47. The way in which Canada overshadowed Head's subsequent career was explored in Ged Martin, "Self-Defence: Sir Francis Bond Head and Canada 1841-1875", Ontario History, lxxiii (1981), pp. 3-18. I also attempted an even-handed overall assessment in "Head, Sir Francis Bond, first baronet (1793–1875), colonial governor and author" in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004), acknowledging that Melbourne called Head "a damned odd fellow", and Peel dismissed him as "crack-brained". My offering was intended to supersede "Head, Sir Francis Bond (1793-1875)" published in the original Dictionary of National Biography (1891), the work of a writer and ex-Army officer, H. Manners Chichester, which concentrated on Head's experiences in Argentina in 1825-6. Chichester's bald statement that Head "administered the affairs of Upper Canada with marked ability at a time of great difficulty, arising out of the bitter jealousies between the provinces" was notably wide of the mark.

The longer term reflection on the mystery of Head's appointment must surely emphasise the difficulty in persuading anyone who combined ability with gentility to agree to go out and govern a colony. The journey was long and – at least until faster steamship communications developed in the eighteen-sixties – usually unpleasant. Colonies were distant and isolated communities, generally deficient both in social amenity and material comfort. Exile overseas delayed and probably disrupted subsequent career prospects in Britain, while restricting the educational opportunities and marriage prospects of the governor's children.[36] It is no surprise that, in the first half of the nineteenth century, most colonies were ruled by the army officers who had been ordered out to command the local garrisons. One of Head's problems in Upper Canada was that, as a mere Major (and retired), he was outranked by his predecessor, General Sir John Colborne, who remained in Canada as commander-in-chief. This contributed to his fatally flamboyant decision in 1837 to send to Lower Canada the remaining small detachment of troops that Colborne had been prepared to leave as a nucleus and rallying point against possible insurgency, a gesture that encouraged disaffected radicals to believe they would meet with little resistance in attempting a coup.

In 1865, the discontented lieutenant-governor of New Brunswick, Arthur Gordon, consulted his neighbour, Sir Richard MacDonnell of Nova Scotia, about the possibility of pursuing a colonial career. Gordon, the son of Lord Aberdeen, was in his first overseas appointment. MacDonnell, an Anglo-Irish lawyer, had survived postings in the Gambia and two small West Indian islands, before successive promotions to South Australia and Nova Scotia. (Soon afterwards, his vocal lack of enthusiasm for the project to unite the British North American saw him on his way to Hong Kong.) MacDonnell flatly advised Gordon against a life in the colonial service. "I should decidedly say that if you have the means to feel independent – and having as you do the entrée into society, I cannot conceive a more fertile source of disappointment, and – when the best years of your life have been expended in the Colonial service – of regret that you had so devoted them."[37] Unfortunately, a classic example of a penurious younger son, Gordon lacked the wealth that would have enabled him to live a secure life in Britain, leaving only the colonies as an acceptable field for employment. In 1888, he noted that his diaries were "a record of a wandering and to a great extent a wasted life, and are full from end to end of unfulfilled intentions, disappointed hopes, unrealized projects, and unsatisfied ambitions."[38] Arthur Gordon would probably have been unhappy wherever he had lived, but his dissatisfaction with his career is perhaps understandable when set against the background of lonely exile successively in Trinidad, Mauritius, Fiji and Ceylon. The decision to send the untried assistant poor law commissioner for east Kent to Canada in 1835 should be considered against this background of frustration and personal tragedy.


[1] Francis B. Head, A Narrative (3rd ed., London, 1839), 23-4, 24-31, 33.  A reissue, edited by S. F. Wise (Toronto, 1969) contains a useful introduction. For biographical information, see Sydney Jackman, Galloping Head: the Life of the Right Honourable Sir Francis Bond Head, Bart., P.C., 1793-1875 Late Lieutenant-Governor of Upper Canada (London, 1958). For the recall of Colborne, see Gerald M. Craig, Upper Canada: The Formative Years 1784-1841 (Toronto, 1963), 224. [The Afterword further discusses coverage of Head's career. Head's private correspondence confirms the tale of the midnight messenger. He was staying at the George in Cranbrook, still operating in 2022.]

[2] Monthly Review (London), n.s., i, (April 1839), 596-7; The Times (London), 28 March 1839.

[3] Westminster Review, xxix (1838) 466, quoted by Jackman, Galloping Head, 70. [Head's knighthood was in the Royal Hanoverian Order, which was not a highly regarded distinction.]

[4] Samuel Smiles, A Publisher and His Friends (2 vols, London, 1891) ii, 365; William Smith, "Sir Francis Bond Head", Canadian Historical Association Report for 1930, 25-38; S. F. Wise (ed.), Sir Francis Bond Head: A Narrative, xvi ff; Jackman, Galloping Head, 70.

[5] Sir Francis Hincks, Reminiscences of His Public Life (Montreal, 1884), 14-15.

[6] James A. Gibson, "The 'Persistent Fallacy' of the Governors Head", Canadian Historical Review, xix (1938), 295-7.

[7] Helen Taft Manning and John S. Galbraith, "The Appointment of Sir Francis Bond Head: a New Insight", Canadian Historical Review, lii (1961), 50-2.

[8] Wise, Sir Francis Bond Head: A Narrative, xv.

[9] John Arthur Roebuck, The Colonies of England (London, 1849), 150–1n; D. G. G.  Kerr, with J. A. Gibson, Sir Edmund Head: a Scholarly Governor (Toronto, 1954), 9–10n.

[10] Lewis to Head, Malta, 10 Jan., 3 Oct. 1837 in Gilbert F. Lewis (ed.), Letters of the Right Hon. Sir George Cornewall Lewis, Bart., to various friends (London, 1870), 72-3, 90-1. The sequence of tenses does not justify J. A. Gibson's deduction that Edmund Head "appears to have contemplated accepting an unknown colonial appointment in 1837, but not earlier", Gibson, loc. Cit., 1938, 297. For Edmund Head's early career, Kerr, Sir Edmund Head: a Scholarly Governor, 5-10. For Francis Head's comment on his cousin, Jackman, Galloping Head, 67.

[11] The Times, 4 Feb. 1861; Hansard's Parliamentary Debates, 3rd series, clxxiv, 20 April 1864, cols. 1946, 1949-50; UK National Archives, CO 42/614.

[12] Jackman, Galloping Head, 67.

[13] Roy Jenkins, Sir Charles Dilke: A Victorian Tragedy (London, 1958) 172n. There was some justification for honouring the Speaker, as 1881 had been a year of severe disruption by Irish members in the House of Commons. However, the Dictionary of National Biography described the GCB as an "unusual honour" and Brand was widely thought a weak Speaker. Moreover, the President of the Orange Free State was knighted the next year.

[14] Sir George Head, Forest Scenes and Incidents in the Wilds of North America (London, 1829).

[15] University College, London, Brougham MSS, 3175, F. B. Head to Brougham, Canterbury, 26 April 1835. For the article, Quarterly Review, 53 (April, 1835) 473-539.

[16] University College, London, Brougham MSS, 14372, F. B. Head to Brougham, Toronto, Upper Canada [1836]. On 1 Dec. 1835, Head wrote to his sister-in-law; "I never solicited this new office, and I had no desire to accept it", quoted by Jackman, Galloping Head, 163. In 1836 Brougham went into retirement, ceased to attend Parliament and took no part in public life. This increases the probability that the "lift" Head referred to was the Canadian appointment. Head's reference to the possibility of his "removal" suggests that he may have written after the unauthorised disclosure of his instructions to the Upper Canadian Assembly.

[17] Edinburgh Review, lxxxv (1847) 359. Until 1846 Brougham had regularly contributed to the Edinburgh Review, which may explain why the reference was not more explicit.

[18] W. M. Torrens, Memoirs of the Right Honourable William Second Viscount Melbourne (2 vols., London, 1878), i, 327. The Lewis family papers (Harpton Court Collection, National Library of Wales) are incomplete and contain very few items for 1836-7. Later correspondence of Sir Thomas Frankland Lewis does indicate interest in Edmund Head's career. I am grateful to Mr. D. Emrys Williams for this information.

[19] University of Durham, Grey Papers, Diary of 3rd Earl Grey, 11 April 1835, 16, 18, 19 Nov. 1835. The entries for 18 and 19 Nov. are printed in Manning and Galbraith, loc. cit., 51-2. [Howick's abbreviations have been written out in full.]

[20] University of Durham, Grey Papers, Diary of 3rd Earl Grey, 3 Nov. 1835. Colborne had been informed of his early recall in a dispatch of 28 Oct. 1835. Craig, Upper Canada, 224, 293.

[21] University of Durham, Grey Papers, Diary of 3rd Earl Grey, 13 Nov. 1835; C. Lloyd (ed.), The Greville Memoirs (London, 1948), 101, entry for 9 Feb. 1836.

[22] Autobiography of Henry Taylor (2 vols, London, i885), ii, 233-4.

[23] University of Durham, Grey Papers, Diary of 3rd Earl Grey, 12 Nov. 1835.

[24] Howick referred to "Le Marchant". This was almost certainly the civil servant, Denis Le Marchant. His brother, Sir Gaspard, later to be governor of Newfoundland and lieutenant-governor of Nova Scotia, was fighting in the Carlist wars in Spain as an irregular, and probably would not have been considered. Cf. Manning and Galbraith, loc. cit., 52.

[25] Jackman, Galloping Head, 62-7. Opposition to the Poor Law was bitter in east Kent, and was an element in the growth of a millenarian movement in the area. Its leader, the self-styled Sir William Courtenay, led a band of followers in a bloody clash with troops in 1838. Thus Sir Francis Head had the doubtful honour of rebellions following both his major terms of public service. [P.G. Rogers, Battle in Bossenden Wood: the Strange Story of Sir William Courtenay (London, 1962), 85ff. mentions protests against the New Poor Law.]

[26] Edinburgh Review, lxxxv (1847) 360-1. At the time of writing this article, Buller, holding the nominal post of Judge Advocate, was acting as additional under-secretary at the Colonial Office, which may add to the value of his evidence.

[27] A. Aspinall, Lord Brougham and the Whig Party (Manchester, 1927) 219-20.

[28] P. Ziegler, King William IV (London, 1972) 274-5; Lady Dorchester (ed.), Recollections of a Long Life by Lord Broughton, (6 vols, London, 1911), v, 41-3; The Times, 8 July 1835.

[29] University of Durham, Grey Papers, Diary of 3rd Earl Grey, 21 Nov. 1835. Head's cousin, Caroline Burges, later wrote to his son Frank: "We all regret poor William the fourth's death, not only because he was a good King, but because your Father would not have been treated as he has been if the poor old King had been alive." Bodleian Library, Oxford, Bland Burges Papers, C. Burges to F. S. Head, 22 Nov. 1838.

[30] Review of Head's Emigrant, The Times, 17 Nov. 1846.

[31] Hansard's Parliamentary Debates, 3rd series, xl, 2 Feb. 1838, cols. 664-85; The Times, 6, 13, 28 June 1838.

[32] The subject was raised in the House of Commons by Sir William Jolliffe on 11 July 1864, and was discussed several times in the next year. Hansard's Parliamentary Debates, 3rd series, clxxvi, cols 1332-9.

[33] University College, London, Brougham MSS, 30582, F. B. Head to Brougham, Croydon, 5 June 1864.

[34] A phrase from my review article "Was There a British Empire?", Historical Journal, xv (1972) 562-9, in which the problem of appointing colonial governors is discussed. A parallel case is the appointment of Sir Charles Hotham as governor of Victoria in 1853. The British government apparently wished to appoint a strong man. Like Head, Hotham proved a difficult man to work with, and he emulated Head's mistake of treating political discontent as the work of agitators. Hotham's conduct played the same role in causing the Eureka affair as Head's had done in the Mackenzie rising. Historians have similarly been puzzled at the appointment of such an unsuitable man: again, simple misreading of character by British ministers seems to be the explanation. Interestingly, Hotham, like Head, had made his reputation partly in South America. Cf. G. Serle, The Golden Age (Melbourne, 1968), 155-203.

[35] In this article it is assumed that had more been known about Sir Francis Head's character he would not have been offered a colonial governorship. However, he was to be considered for another colonial appointment in 1852. Lord Derby wrote to Disraeli: "What do you say to sending Sir Francis Head (if he will go) as our Commissioner to Jamaica? He is very much in want of employment, was ill-used in Canada, and is just the slap-dash sort of person to deal with so desperate a case, and so intractable a body, as Jamaica and her present Legislature. (Hughenden MSS, B/XX/S/too, undated [1852].) [The Hughenden MSS are now (2022) held by the Bodleian Library, Oxford.]

[36] The sense of second-best was splendidly captured in Hilaire Belloc's 1907 parable of Lord Lundy, whose career in British politics declined to a final condemnation: "… My language fails! / Go out and govern New South Wales!"

[37] Library and Archives Canada, Fonds Stanmore, reel 2, MacDonnell to Gordon, 7 February 1865.

[38] J.K. Chapman, The Career of Arthur Hamilton Gordon, First Lord Stanmore 1829-1912 (Toronto, 1964), 347.

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