This Week in Peterborough: 1891


An 1891 Conservative election poster showing Sir John A. MacDonald hoisted on the shoulders of figures representing Agriculture and Industry. (Library & Archives Canada, MIKAN #2834401)

There was, in mid-February of 1891, a single story hogging most of the column inches in the Peterborough newspapers.  If you have been following this series closely, you may be tempted to guess that it is political in nature, and if so you are correct!  It was, once again, election time…

Click on, then, for politics, more politics, and extra politics!  Also a famous arrival on the Peterborough scene, and a notorious crime in England.


Peterborough Examiner, February 14th, 1891.

Even apart from the Big News, which we will get to in a little while, the Peterborough newspapers still found time to peer overseas, and to find things relatively quiet there.  Among the stories they were following, however, was the series of horrifying slayings taking place in the Whitechapel district of London, England.  On February 13th, 1891, Frances “Carroty Nell” Coles, whom the Peterborough Examiner described as “belonging to the abandoned class of females” was found dying of a cut throat in an alley.  As you can tell from the headline above, her murder was quickly attributed to the unknown “Jack the Ripper,” even though it had been a couple of years since his last known killing.  Coles’ murderer, Jack the Ripper or otherwise, was never caught — the man initially arrested for it, James Sadler, was later determined to have been too drunk to commit the act.

There was tragedy to be had on this side of the ocean as well.  On February 12th, a boiler exploded at the Quebec Worsted Company’s plant on the outskirts of Quebec City.  The next day’s Examiner reported 21 dead and four more dying, including three children under the age of 15.  The cause of the explosion was unknown, but there were suspicions about fires that had been set to deal with some frozen pipes.


1897 Newfoundland stamp showing a “Fisherman Bringing Gifts to Britannia.” (via E-Bay)

To turn away from death and destruction, mid-February of 1891 found the colony of Newfoundland in a severely annoyed mood, politically-speaking.  The reason?  The colony had been given permission to negotiate a free-trade deal with the United States, and had proceeded to do so.  At that point, however, the British government had refused to ratify the deal, partially at the behest of the government of Canada.  The February 14th Examiner summed up Newfoundland’s reaction:

“The resolutions declare that [Newfoundland] views with profound disappointment and alarm the failure of Her Majesty’s Government to carry out its solemn obligations to the colony, and is aware of the interference of Canada in relation to this matter, and… cannot fail to appreciate the same as a menace to the independence of the colony…”

Neither Canada nor Britain, of course, wanted any incentive for competition in economic dealings with Newfoundland — in fact, it is something of an oddity that the British allowed the deal to be negotiated in the first place.

And that brings us neatly to the Big Story, both in Peterborough and in the nation: the run-up to the 1891 Canadian federal election.  It was to be an impassioned affair (they often were), with the main issue being, as in Newfoundland, free trade with the United States.  Sir John A. MacDonald’s Conservatives, who held a parliamentary majority at dissolution, were opposed to free trade, favouring maintenance of high tariffs to protect Canadian manufacturing.  The opposition Liberals, now led by Wilfrid Laurier, asserted that free trade would bring great economic benefit, particularly in the agricultural sector.  “[T]here is a great country to the south of us whose goods we want and which wants ours.  Let our [railway] cars go down full and return full,” said former Liberal leader Edward Blake at a rally in Toronto on February 13th (quoted in the next day’s Peterborough Examiner, a bastion of Liberal support at the time).

Over the entire debate loomed the prospect of annexation to the United States.  The Conservatives used annexation to whip up fear of free trade, not to mention of disloyalty to the British Empire.  “The Old Flag, the Old Policy, the Old Leader” was the rallying cry of the Tories, and their Peterborough newspaper, the Review, was scathing in a February 13th editorial:

“[The Liberals] have adopted a policy given to them from the States, and that would throw this country into the hands of the Republic.”

The Review, in the same editorial, also went on to quote the editor of the Buffalo News, who had written on February 5th that “[s]hould the Liberals triumph, all doubts will set at rest as to what is Canada’s destiny.  It will not be so many years before she will be knocking at the door of your Uncle Sam.”


Sir Wilfrid Laurier, in about 1891. (via

The Liberals themselves, meanwhile, were left to defend themselves from these accusations.  Their line was that the Conservative Party was too tied to the British aristocracy, and thus too rife with anti-American feeling, to be taken seriously when accusing others of being pro-annexation.  From the Examiner, on February 10th:

“Let Canada be put into the hands of men who are under no extraneous influence, who have none but Canadian interests to serve, who look on the people of the United States not as our enemies, but as our partners on this continent, and sincerely desire to cultivate their goodwill — all will then go smoothly, without any peril to our independence.”

Meanwhile, nominations were underway in Peterborough for the coming election.  James Stevenson, the sitting Conservative MP, was nominated again for that party in Peterborough West, while his East Riding party colleague would be John Burnham, who had been defeated in 1887.  The Liberals were to be represented by Richard Hall in the West Riding of the County, while Thomas Rork won that party’s nomination in the East.


The Edison General Electric Works in Peterborough under construction, 1891. (via

Local supporters of the Tory policy of high tariffs to protect manufacturing could point, in mid-February of 1891, to a momentous development in the town’s history as support for their views.  The Edison General Electric Company was in the process of constructing its first ever factory in Canada, there where it still operates to this day on Park Street (the plant officially opened on April 20th, 1891).  The Review, on February 10th, was all too happy to point out the connection between GE’s arrival and the big election issue:

“The plan of the buildings shows that an immense area will be covered and company expects to have six hundred employees in the shops.  But why did this company wish to expend hundreds of thousands of dollars in Canada to build shops instead of doing all their work under one management in their immense shops in Schenectady?  Because there is an import duty on the articles they manufacture.”

Whether this appeal had the desired effect is difficult to tell, but it seems likely that it did.  On March 5th, both Peterborough ridings went to the Conservatives, although it was perilously close in Peterborough East — Burnham won it by only 29 votes out of more than 3600 cast.  Nationally, too, the forces of protectionism won out, as MacDonald’s Conservatives were returned to power with another majority government, albeit a slightly smaller majority than they had previously enjoyed.

That, however, was still in the future, and there was a great deal of political shouting to be done before then.  Peterborians who wished to get away from that could look forward to performances of William B. Bradbury’s “Cantata of Esther, the Beautiful Queen” at the Opera House on the 12th and 13th of February.  The February 10th Examiner noted that there would be “a distinctly separate caste of the principal characters each night.  This will make the second evening’s performance quite as interesting as the first, and, besides, allow of a greater variety of local talent.”

And that is about all for this week in 1891!  However, it should be noted that this is probably the last edition of this series in which we will deal with Sir John A. MacDonald.  “The Old Leader” had little time to enjoy his electoral success, as he died at the age of 76 on June 6th, 1891.  When we next check in, to look at mid-February of 1892, we will find Sir John Abbott in the Prime Ministerial chair.


Peterborough Examiner, February 11th, 1891.


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