This Week in Peterborough: 1896


A schoolhouse in Manitoba, 1896. (via Wikimedia Commons)

On March 19th, 1896, a late winter storm, “the most terrific of the season” according to the Peterborough Review, caused travel disruptions and other hardships through eastern and southern Ontario.  And the angry weather was apt — a match for the political mood both in the Dominion of Canada and in Peterborough itself.

Click on, for foreshadowing in Africa, angry words in Parliament and in Peterborough, and other things…

Most of the international attention at this point in history was on north-eastern Africa, and in particular on the aftermath of the Battle of Adwa.  On March 1st, Ethiopian forces had routed the Italians at Adwa, bringing an end to the First Italo-Ethiopian War, not to mention causing the collapse of the Italian government.  However, the focus in the Peterborough newspapers was on the effect of the battle on British policy.  Even a decade later, Britain was still dealing with the aftermath of the 1885 defeat of Colonel Gordon at Khartoum in Sudan (next door to Ethiopia), an event that had directly involved men from Peterborough.  From the March 18th Peterborough Examiner:

“The Italian defeat at [Adwa] has kindled the fires of fanaticism in the desert, and made expedient a British demonstration of military force on the Nile… In that event, Gordon’s death would be avenged through Italy’s reverses.”


An Ethiopian rendering of the Battle of Adwa, fought on March 1st, 1896. (via Wikimedia Commons)

Britain did indeed mount an expedition under Lord Kitchener later on in 1896, but Peterborough’s boatmen were not required on this occasion.  However, there was other African news in the papers that did presage a war in which Canada took part.  The March 18th Examiner reported that “[t]he pot in Transvaal is still simmering,” and within a few years it would boil over into the Second Boer War.  In March of 1896, the “simmering” was due to a failed British South Africa Company raid on the Transvaal Republic, in what is now South Africa.  We will revisit the Second Boer War in this series once it has broken out.

Momentous doings abroad, then, but they were overshadowed by the political goings-on in Canada.  Mid-March found the Canadian Parliament embroiled in debate over legislation to end the Manitoba Schools Crisis.  The affair was a messy one, combining as it did national questions of language, religion, and the division of provincial and federal powers. In 1890, the Manitoba government had proposed to abolish the denominational schools in favour of a public system, and to get rid of schooling in French.  The Conservative government opposed this move, as did the province’s Catholic and French minority.  By March of 1896, the Conservatives were trying to push through legislation to compel Manitoba to keep its separate schools.  Interestingly, the two main Peterborough newspapers – generally fierce political opponents — both supported the idea of a negotiated settlement to the crisis, rather than a legislated one, although they of course differed on the question of who was to blame for the situation.

The final debate over second reading of the Manitoba Schools Bill (aka “The Remedial Bill”) took more than two days, from Wednesday the 18th until the wee hours of the morning on Friday the 20th, and it was at times a fiery one.  The opposition Liberals were obviously against it, but so were some members of the Conservative caucus who saw the bill as an infringement on provincial government powers.  Conservative leaders, including Prime Minister Sir MacKenzie Bowell, were accused essentially of bribing their own party members to support the legislation.  On March 17th, independent MP D’Alton McCarthy arose during Question Period in the House of Commons and said that the Conservative Party “proposed to force its followers to eat dirt, and some of them would for a consideration.”  For this he was rebuked sternly by the Speaker.

The opposition parties, meanwhile, were having a political field day with the Conservatives’ struggles.  On March 18th, a Peterborough Review editorial accused Liberal Party leader Sir Wilfrid Laurier of having “the most  implicit understanding” with the Manitoba government to keep the school issue festering until the next federal election, which was only a few months away.  If the accusation was true — and it is quite possible that it was, as Laurier was no political fool — the gambit worked.  Within a month Bowell had stepped down, leaving Sir Charles Tupper to lead the Conservatives into the election , and the Manitoba Schools Questions was to become the dominant issue of the campaign, which suited the Liberals just fine.


1896 editorial cartoon depicting a perplexed MacKenzie Bowell trying to make up his mind while Wilfrid Laurier looks on from safe distance. Note the hockey sticks! (Image Source)


When the election itself arrived , the Conservatives were demolished in Quebec for failing to preserve French Catholic education in Manitoba, but also lost considerable support in Ontario for actually trying to preserve it in the first place.  In particular, the party lost the backing of the Orange Order, ostensibly due to interference in the political doings of Manitoba, but more likely out of sheer anti-Catholic and anti-French feeling.  On June 23rd, Laurier’s Liberals were elected with a majority of the seats (despite losing the popular vote), and 18 years of Conservative government came to an end.  Shortly thereafter, the Manitoba Schools Question was answered with a compromise that allowed Catholic and French education in schools in which there were enough French and Roman Catholic pupils to warrant it.

The Manitoba Schools Question was not the only matter shortening tempers in Peterborough in mid-March.  March 17th, then and now, saw the celebration of St. Patrick’s Day, and the combination of the town’s ethnic makeup and the turmoil in Ireland itself led to an angry public exchange of views.  On the evening of the 17th, the Opera House hosted a lecture (Mr. J.A. Devlin spoke on “Ireland’s Patriotism – Ireland’s Future”) and concert.  When Mr. J.W. FitzGerald arose to give formal thanks to the speaker, he used the occasion to launch a blistering attack on the Rev. Mr. Symonds, Parson of St. Luke’s Anglican Church and Chaplain of the local chapter of the Orange Order.  Rev. Symonds, in a recent speech to the Sons of England, had spoken glowingly of Britain’s “charity” towards Ireland, and it was this that raised FitzGerald’s ire on St. Patrick’s Day.  The next day’s Examiner contained a verbatim transcript of what FitzGerald had to say:

“I am afraid the reverend parson has… mistaken the beautiful word “charity” for insolence and insult to a race and nation older and longer civilized and Christianized than his own.  Ireland is not his country.  Ireland is our country; the country of our fathers, and in spite of all England’s persecutions will continue to be the land of our kindred.  Ireland is the peer and not the pauper of England, and the sons of Ireland are the peers of the sons of England, in flood, in field, with pen or sword, in the forum or in the ring.  Ireland despises, and has despised, English charity as she has her soup.  “Ireland is constantly in need,” the reverend chaplain says.  Yes, because England is constantly stealing from her.  Ireland wants her own, of which England’s charity has plundered her, of which British bribes and penal laws have robbed her…”

Reverend Symonds, for his part, responded with a letter published in the March 19th Examiner, in which he claimed that FitzGerald had “misunderstood, misrepresented and misquoted [his] remarks.”  Whatever the truth of the matter, no more seemed to come of it.


“Where to Go To-night” from the Peterborough Review, March 19th, 1896.

On to happier matters!  Peterborians were apparently reading up a storm at this time; the March 16th Examiner reported that the Peterborough Public Library trailed only Hamilton’s and Toronto’s in terms of number of holdings by Ontario libraries.  And it would be remiss of me not to mention, at this point, how appreciative I am of that venerable institution for its help in creating this blog; the PPL’s microfilm archives of Peterborough newspapers provide the bulk of the research material for this series.

The changing of the seasons meant that hockey time was coming to a close for another year at this time in 1896, but it was doing so with a flurry.  The town’s roster of teams now included the Peterborough Young Ladies’ Hockey Club, and they were busy arranging games against some of the local men’s squads.  But the week’s biggest hockey draw was a visit by the Ottawa Electrics, in town despite the storm for a March 19th game against the Peterborough Hockey Club (“The Peterboroughs”).  The next day’s Review described the contest as “the hottest and finest exhibition of hockey ever witnessed on local ice.”  While Ottawa emerged victorious on this occasion, by a 3-2 score, the paper went to say that the Peterboroughs had “lost to one of the best teams in the Dominion, and they have no reason to be ashamed, for they put up a really fine game.”

Next time, we’ll look at late March of 1897, when hopefully things will be a little quieter politically…

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