19th Century, Culture, Institutions, People

Hunky Guys of Kingston’s Past, Part Two

This is the second section of Hunky Guys of Kingston’s Past (see Part One here), featuring a few more contentious figures than the first section.

Read on for Part Two! Sorry it’s so long, there’s a lot to pack in here.

Charles Edward Poulett Thomson, 1st Baron Sydenham, Governor-General of Canada

Engraving of Lord Sydenham. (click image to go to source)

Engraving of Lord Sydenham. (click image to go to source)

Handsome, vain, charming, and with a notorious eye for women, Lord Sydenham reads like something out of a Victorian novel. He was born Charles Edward Poulett Thomson in 1799 in Surrey, England, and after attending school, began working in Russia at the family company, J. Thomson, T. Bonar and Company of London and St. Petersburg. Over the next several years Thomson was able to travel widely over Europe, learning to speak Russian, French, German, and Italian. However, he didn’t enjoy the merchant business, and was anxious to be accepted into the aristocracy.

Politics proved to be his next step. In 1826 Thomson was elected as a liberal in Dover (with help from Jeremy Bentham!). Despite being criticized in the House of Commons for giving boring speeches and looking like “a barber’s apprentice,” chancellor of the Exchequer John Charles Spencer, Viscount Althorp, made Thomson treasurer of the Navy and vice-president of the Board of Trade. In 1834, he became full president.

After rejecting an offer to be chancellor of the Exchequer himself in 1839, Thomson was appointed governor-in-chief of British North America (and requested a hefty salary). His task was essentially to unite Upper and Lower Canada, broadly following the example of his predecessor in the position, Lord Durham. He arrived in Quebec in October of that year, an unpopular figure for the French, who referred to him not unsurprisingly as “le poulet.”

The government of the united Canadas was to be anglophone (and anglicizing), and despite Lower Canada’s much greater population, Thomson would have to choose an anglophone capital in which to hold government. Toronto was too far west and had proved itself vulnerable during the War of 1812, and Montreal was too far east and too French. Kingston was smack in the middle of the two, and so it was chosen. (Of course it was much more complicated than that, but you get the idea.)

Kingston had been fairly salivating to be capital, and couldn’t be more pleased with the choice. Meanwhile, Thomson was having a grand old time seducing Canadian women and promoting the joys of French cuisine. According to John Richardson, “his sacrifices to Venus were scarcely less copious than those rendered to Bacchus,” and diarist Charles Greville called him, in an oft-quoted passage, “the greatest coxcomb I ever saw, and the vainest dog.” Thomson capped off his cosmopolitan reputation by being made a peer in 1840, as Baron Sydenham of Kent in England and Toronto in Canada.

However, Thomson – now Sydenham – wasn’t too fond of Kingston as a place to live. After the province of Canada was created on February 10, 1841, Sydenham moved into Alwington House (located around the present neighbourhood of Alwington Place; the house burned down in 1958) in May of that year. His sulkiness immediately made a bad impression: after attending church at St. George’s on May 28, he was apparently bored out of his mind by the sermon and vowed never to go there again. Kingstonians were displeased with his behaviour – however, they wouldn’t have to be for much longer.

On September 4, 1841, Sydenham was allegedly being entertained by a lady in Kingston when he forgot he had made plans for dinner that evening. He quickly galloped back to Alwington on his horse, which stumbled and fell on the way. Sydenham contracted tetanus from his injuries, and died on September 19 at Alwington. In his will, he left money to his housekeeper and her baby. You can read between the lines.

Okay, I’ve deliberately played down Sydenham’s political career because a) I wanted to do more of a character sketch, and b) you can read about it elsewhere in depth, coming from people who understand political history far better than I do. But despite Sydenham’s carousing, illnesses, and the fact that his system of government in Canada was faltering even before he died, he was devoted to his duties and took his role as Governor-General seriously. He was a controversial figure then and now, but in uniting the Canadas, he laid the foundations for Confederation. At his funeral, crowds of thousands lined King Street from Alwington to St. George’s, where, despite his vow, he is buried. Lord Sydenham is a divisive figure, but a great example of how Canadian history is not as dull as it sometimes seems!

Reverend Thomas Liddell, first principal of Queen’s University

Portrait of Rev. Thomas Liddell, c. 1835 by Sir Francis Grant. From Stewart and Wilson, Heritage Kingston, p. 119

Portrait of Rev. Thomas Liddell, c. 1835 by Sir Francis Grant. From Stewart and Wilson, Heritage Kingston, p. 119

Poor Reverend Liddell. Like Lord Sydenham, he was also not thrilled with his post in Kingston and eventually got so frustrated that he left and refused to come back. Liddell was born in Stirlingshire, Scotland, in 1800 and obtained his degrees at the the universities of Glasgow and Edinburgh. He was ordained in 1829, and a few years later became minister at Lady Glenorchy’s Church in Edinburgh.

At the same time in Kingston, some prominent Presbyterians had gotten together and founded a college for liberal arts and theological training. On October 16, 1841, after considerable effort, a royal charter was signed certifying the college as “Queen’s College at Kingston.” (Fun fact: while cleaning my room recently I found an old student card form which states that your personal information is collected by Queen’s under the authority of the royal charter. Queen Victoria: authority beyond the grave.) Just eleven days later, the colonial committee of the Church of Scotland selected Liddell as the principal of the new university.

Liddell arrived in Kingston that December, expecting to find, you know, a school and some students. Instead, the place hadn’t even opened yet and no one was enrolled. Liddell’s first task as principal was therefore to go from town to town, looking for students and asking for donations, a task he was likely not pleased with. However, the university eventually opened on March 7, 1842 in a frame house on Colborne St. (67 Colborne to be exact, it’s still standing but covered in brick), with one other professor and twelve students. Liddell taught courses in Hebrew, church history, theology, math, logic, and moral philosophy.

Things must have soured for Liddell pretty quickly, because he almost immediately began arguing that there wasn’t a need for more than one university in Canada West: there was also the Methodist Victoria College in Cobourg, the Catholic Regiopolis College in Kingston, and the Anglican King’s College in Toronto, set to open in 1843. Liddell wanted to amalgamate them into a “University of Toronto,” but to his dismay no one else did, and the issue was dropped by 1845.

Meanwhile, back in Scotland, the Presbyterian church had split in 1843 into the Church of Scotland and the Free Church of Scotland, a division which eventually made its way to Canada. Despite Liddell’s best efforts, Queen’s lost two-thirds of its students and ten trustees to this secession, and Liddell’s divinity class was left with precisely one student.

The move to Kingston hadn’t been a happy one for Liddell: his school was shrinking, his health was worsening, and his baby daughter had died in 1842. By 1846, he felt it was high time he packed his bags and went home. Over the next several years, as Queen’s fortunes improved, representatives asked him to come back to the university, but he always refused. In 1850 he formally severed his ties with Queen’s, and took up a post at Lochmaben, Scotland, which he remained at until his death in 1880.

Like Lord Sydenham, Thomas Liddell is someone who had a foundational role in developing Kingston as we know it today, yet kind of hated the place. But who can blame him? Queen’s was a ramshackle operation for years, and probably only improved during Liddell’s time there. I wonder what he would think if he came back today!

E.J.B. Pense, editor of the British Whig

(click image to go to source)

Hair like that will get you places. (click image to go to source)

The Kingston Whig-Standard, then called the British Whig, was founded in 1834 by Edward John Barker, another well-travelled Kingstonian who had lived in Syria and Malta, among other places (and who was very conservative, despite the paper’s name). In the 1840s, Barker took on a partner called Michael Lorenzo Pense, who ended up marrying Barker’s daughter. Et voilà: Edward John Barker Pense was born in 1849.

E.J.B. Pense spent much of his childhood working around the British Whig offices, and when his grandfather Edward Barker retired in 1871, he was given the newspaper to run. Despite being only twenty-two, Pense had a head for business and knew what the public wanted to read. Upon assuming control in 1872, he immediately changed the Whig’s focus to a liberal one and updated its format and style, which had the effect of doubling the newspaper’s circulation within a few years. Soon, the British Whig was earning praise from newspapers like the Rochester Herald and the Montreal Gazette.

Pense didn’t just take the obvious routes to success. For example, he spent extra time working on the Weekly British Whig, a weekly format of the paper that had a mostly rural circulation and had been declining in popularity for years. Pense actually managed to reverse this trend, and the weekly edition of the Whig became popular again. Pense also published two Anglican periodicals: in 1897 he began the Ontario Churchman, and later bought one called Church Life, for which he hired a female editor.

During Pense’s tenure, the British Whig kept expanding, and moved several times. In 1876 it moved to Brock Street, in 1882 to 336 King Street East, and in 1895 to 306 King Street East, the red brick “Whig Building” still standing across from Market Square. The newspaper was also one of the first businesses to get a telephone after they were introduced in Kingston in 1880.

Back in these days, any man like E.J.B. Pense wasn’t complete without a political career, and of course Pense had one too. Beginning as an alderman for Frontenac Ward, he was elected mayor of Kingston in 1881 – the youngest mayor up to that point. In 1902, he became a Liberal candidate for the provincial election and won, although he was eventually ousted by the 1908 election.

Pense had a lot to fall back on, though. He had a large family, and in 1907 had bought the villa St. Helen’s, which he renamed Ongwanada. He had also served on numerous local committees, and had been president of the Canadian Press Association. There was also a railway town in Saskatchewan named after him, as CPR liked to do stuff like that in those days. (It’s now part of Regina, apparently.)

When E.J.B. Pense died suddenly in 1910, he received praise from newspapers across Ontario. The Stratford Beacon said he was “at once one of the ablest and most upright men in Canadian journalism,” and Kingston was sad to lose such a prominent citizen. The Whig wasn’t the only newspaper in town, but Pense helped it become one of the best – and the only one that’s lasted until today.

I hope you enjoyed this round-up of Hunky Guys from Kingston’s Past! My aim, as with everything on this blog, is to show that Kingston history and Canadian history isn’t all old guys meeting up and having polite disagreements, but that a lot of it is way more wild and interesting than you’d think – and that a lot of cool stuff happened right here in this very town. And if some of our historical figures just happened to be attractive men, well, so much the better!


Biography of Lord Sydenham in the online Dictionary of Canadian Biography

Osborne, Brian S. and Donald Swainson. Kingston: Building on the Past. Westport, ON: Butternut Press, Inc. 1988.

Biography of Thomas Liddell in the online Dictionary of Canadian Biography

Fetherling, Douglas. A Little Bit of Thunder: The Strange Inner Life of the Kingston Whig-Standard. Toronto: Stoddart Publishing, 1993.


2 thoughts on “Hunky Guys of Kingston’s Past, Part Two

  1. cadeauca says:

    Another great post! What an interesting collection of historical figures. You’re right, Lord Sydenham sounds like a scoundrel out of 19th century novel! Also, if I was Pense’s wife, I would’ve shaved that monstrous mustache off while he was sleeping.

    Slightly off-topic, but I love hearing historical ways to insult people. Barber’s apprentice, vain dog—that sort of stuff cracks me up.

    • Thank you so much! I know, it must have been hard if you didn’t like mustaches in the mid-late 19th century, because virtually everyone had them. And this is getting even more off-topic, but at the Stratford Festival they actually sell little books of insults from Shakespeare’s plays, they’re pretty funny!

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