This Week in Peterborough: 1879


Irish tenant farmers being evicted from their home in County Clare, c. 1879. (from the National Library of Ireland, via Wikimedia Commons)

As we dig ourselves out after Tuesday’s big snowfall, I thought that would be fun if I could tie that mess into what was happening in 1879.  Alas, Peterborough of yore did not cooperate — if there was adverse weather going on in the town in mid-November of that year, the newspapers did not see fit to mention it.  However, that does not mean that nothing at all was going on!

Click on, for a followup on an earlier piece, an angry council meeting, tough times in the Old Country, and a brief mention of naughty pictures…

In the post on 1876, we discussed at length the murder of Mary Ryan by her husband.  James Ryan was convicted of the crime, but the death sentence was commuted in this case to life in prison, on account of his precarious mental state and fears over what his execution would do to his parents.  And, in November of 1879, that sentence was itself set aside, apparently at the behest of some of the residents of Peterborough, and Ryan was released.  From the Peterborough Times, November 15th:

“The petition to the Government urged the state of the prisoner’s mind, which had become somewhat deranged and clouded, and asked that, on behalf of his aged parents, whose health and spirits were broken by the absence of their only son, that he be released and sent home to cheer and comfort them in their old age.  These pleadings seemed too strong for the pardoning power and the government erred on the side of mercy, and let him go.”

James Ryan’s father, Patrick Ryan, was major mover and shaker in Peterborough at that time — he operated the town’s tannery, and owned a number of buildings on George Street.  However, the Times did not seem to feel that this had had any influence on the situation, or at least did not give voice to any suspicions that it might have had.


“Riotous and Disorderly Meeting of the Town Council.” Peterborough Times, November 22nd, 1879.

Peterborough was embroiled in a bit of a political scandal at this time, as the result of some investigative journalism on the part of the Times.  The newspaper had discovered that there was next to no supervision of the actions of successive town Treasurers, with one of the results being that a number of the town’s prominent members (including our old friend, Sheriff James Hall) had not paid any taxes on some of their assessments.   The problem does seem to have been limited to lack of oversight – the Times was quick to point out that the under-taxed individuals had not been deliberately withholding money, but rather had simply never been billed.  Nor was there (much) suggestion that the Treasurer had been engaged in fraud.  The upshot of the fractious Council meeting mentioned in the headline above — there was a great deal of shouting, apparently — was essentially a resolution to fix the problem and move on.

Apart from the concerns over how the books were being managed, the newspapers from mid-November of 1879 do paint a picture of a town beginning to spread its wings in some interesting ways.  A letter-writer to the Examiner, published in the November 20th issue, called for the re-opening to public traffic of the stretch of Water Street between Dalhousie and Sherbrooke Streets, which had been completely occupied for some time by the brickyard belonging to Robert Romaine.  That enterprise, however, was not doing particularly well, and the letter-writer felt that it was time “to have the street opened, graded and restored to its legitimate use, the Queen’s highway…”  In a similar vein, on the November 27th, the Examiner editorialized on the subject of the lack of public parks:

“The condition of the cities and larger towns of Ontario in not having public parks to beautify them, is one of the first things that strikes a stranger.  This is the result of carelessness, or rather want of thought on the part of the people who have had in hand the laying out and subsequent building up of the towns…  Peterborough is not singular in this respect, though it is in a better position in the way of procuring breathing spaces than most towns of its size.”

On the park issue, the wheels ground slowly, but they did grind.  Peterborough founded a Parks Commission in 1884, and this move was eventually followed by the establishment of Jackson Park in 1893, and Nicholls Oval Park a year later.


1910 postcard of Jackson Park (via Virtual Reference Library)

The other area of civic improvement being given the eye by the press at this time was the fire department.  Peterborough had hitherto been equipped with only a single fire engine, and both letters and editorials were beginning to point out that this was no longer enough.

Turning to the wider world, Ned Hanlan, the soon-to-be world champion rower, was back in the news at this time, negotiating for a re-match with American Charles Courtney.  Hanlan, you may remember, had defeated Courtney in 1878, but the first attempt at a rematch, in early October of 1879, came to naught after someone sawed Courtney’s boat in half the night before the race.  Suspicion was directed at both parties, but no culprit was ever firmly indentified.  A month later, the two were haggling over how to settle the matter, and at a November 14th meeting in Rochester, New York, they agreed to meet on December 9th, on the Potomac River in Washington.  The Examiner, reporting on the meeting, noted that it was rancorous (“…the roughest [Hanlan’s people] had ever had.”).  In any case, the Potomac race did not end up happening until May of 1880, and Hanlan won it in a stroll, collecting a purse of $6000.

Overseas, the news that interesting Peterborians the most at this time involved Ireland — not surprise, given the town’s ethnic origins.    A minor famine, combined with long-term unhappiness over the conditions of tenant farmers, led to a period of civil unrest usually referred to as the “Land War,” which the Examiner for November 27th summed up in this way:

“The condition of Ireland to-day excites great and real uneasiness.  Many Irish landlords are leaving the country under threats of assassination.  Insurrectionary placards are posted in Mayo and other counties, calling upon the Irish people to rise in arms.  The Government have determined to put strong measures in force at once to maintain public order.”

Rent strikes, boycotts, and similar sorts of agitation were the main weapons of the Land War, although actual violence was a regular occurrence as well.  The Land League, under the leadership of Charles Stewart Parnell, was the main defender of the tenant farmers, and it was eventually suppressed by the British Government.  However, the upsurge in Irish nationalism at this time did not go away, and culminated in the Easter Rising of 1916.

With that, we are nearly finished with 1879.  Next time out, we’ll look at late November of 1880!  However, before we do that, I did mention something about risqué pictures, and here it is:


Peterborough Examiner, November 27th, 1879.

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2 Responses to This Week in Peterborough: 1879

  1. Pingback: This Week in Peterborough: 1880 | Peterboriana

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