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Lord Sydenham
Chapter I - Early Years and Foreign Travel


THE place of Lord Sydenham as one of the makers of Canada is somewhat unique. That a stranger to Canada, occupying the position of governor-general for less than two years, should have exercised so decisive an influence on the political destinies of the country, implied the conjunction of notable personal qualities and an important national crisis. It implied, on the one hand, a very critical condition of the vital interests of the country, the balancing of great forces in a condition of unstable equilibrium susceptible of being committed to any of several different futures. On the other hand, it implied certain striking qualities of personality, which fitted the governor to handle firmly, yet discreetly, difficult and complex situations, in such a manner as to bring confidence out of uncertainty, and commit to a definite and logical development a conflicting mass of dangerous and fateful forces. Looked at from the point of view of its significance for Canada, Lord Sydenham's life, before his appointment as governor-general, is interesting chiefly as showing what were the original qualities of his personality, and what activities and influences shaped their development and prepared him to deal with the critical situation which he had to face, not only in Canada, but in other British provinces of North America.

In comparing the details of his life with those of previous Canadian governors, we recognize that though his predecessors numbered among them several very able and conscientious men, yet in no case did their social surroundings and practical experience before assuming their duties in Canada prepare them to take a really intelligent and sympathetic view of the political, economic, and social conditions with which they were to deal. As a rule, they failed to estimate at all correctly the actual needs of the colony, or the probable future which was in store for it. In these respects Lord Sydenham's previous training and experience gave him a great advantage over his predecessors. Not only his personal inclinations, but his business and political associations had prepared him to be much more intelligently responsive to Canadian conditions than the majority of that class of Englishmen from which colonial governors were commonly chosen.

The fact that he was the spontaneous choice of the city of Manchester as its representative in the House of Commons signified much, for Manchester was the most typical of those enlightened and enterprising centres of English industry which gave to Britain her unique supremacy during the nineteenth century. It was the special centre also of those liberal arid progressive ideals looked upon at the time as almost revolutionary in their radical optimism, but now regarded as the commonplaces of daily practice. Lord Sydenham, as we shall see, was in thorough sympathy with these new and enlightened .deals, and yet, as a man of wide experience of the world and its movements, he was not so radical in details as some of his friends and supporters, nor so impatient with existing conditions as to demand that the necessary reforms should be put in practice immediately and completely. He recognized that that was most likely to endure which was accomplished gradually, and whole carried with it the support and confidence of the intelligent body of the people.

As a statesman and cabinet minister, Lord Sydenham frankly professed his allegiance to the new standards of liberty and responsibility, even when it involved public disagreement with some of his ministerial colleagues. Some of these colleagues were to live to see his aspirations carried into practice by those who were at that time political opponents. In the light of the influence which Lord Sydenham was to exercise on the future of Canadian political development, these features of his life and character are of much interest and importance. We shall consider, therefore, more particularly those circumstances and incidents of his earlier career which prepared him for his work in Canada. It will be necessary also to trace, in outline at least, the conditions which led up to the crisis in Canadian affairs which furnished at once the need and the opportunity for a man of Lord Sydenham's qualities. Having furnished a sketch of the man and of his problem, we may then follow with some detail his conduct of Canadian affairs.

One of those large and permanent mercantile establishments characteristic of the stability and integrity of British trade, and partaking in the permanence of its connections and the respectability of its traditions something of the character of the aristocratic institutions of the country, was the firm of J. Thomson, T. Bonar k Co. of London. For upwards of a century this house had been engaged in the Russian-Baltic trade, one of the oldest of the British mercantile connections, and had its regular establishment in St. Petersburg as well as in London.

The heads of such important trading-houses were pretty certain to be connected sooner or later with the British aristocracy, which in no small measure has been indebted to these alliances for the maintenance of its wealth and its physical and mental vigour. John Thomson, father of the future Canadian governor, added to his name, in 1820, that of Poulett in memory of his mother, the heiress of one branch of the ancient family of Poulett in Somersetshire. He married in 1781 the daughter of Dr. Jacob of Salisbury. Charles Edward Poulett Thomson, afterwards Lord Sydenham, was born at Waverley Abbey in Surrey on September 13th, 1799. He was the youngest of nine children. His mother being in poor health at the time of his birth, he entered upon life with a somewhat impaired constitution, which greatly hampered him in later years, and contributed to his early death.

Even as a child he was noted for his natural gifts of grace and beauty, which afterwards assisted in no small degree in winning the favour and support of those who are essential to majorities, but are more susceptible to manners than to methods. His earlier education was obtained chiefly through private schools and tutors, and in the fateful year of Waterloo, at the early age of sixteen, he entered upon the practical education of life in the St. Petersburg office of his father's firm. There he remained for upwards of two years, enjoying the freedom and educative influence of what was at that time one of the most interesting social centres in Europe.

His connections gave him the entree to the most distinguished society of St. Petersburg, and his personal qualities gained for him the special intimacy of such interesting and highly cultured members of the Russian nobility as Count Woronzoff, Russian ambassador to England during the period of the French Revolution, Count and Countess Sabloukoff, special friends of his family, and the Princess Galitzin. All of these were highly cultured people, thoroughly versed in European politics and diplomacy, and patrons of art and letters. In such society, at his impressionable age, young Thomson's natural charm of manner was specially cultivated. Nor was his general education neglected, for he maintained an intimate correspondence with his former tutors, and received from them valuable counsel as to his studies. Owing to illness he returned to Britain in the autumn of 1817, and immediately afterwards accompanied his mother and two youngest sisters to Nice, where the winter was spent. The following summer was devoted to European travel, and the next winter was passed at Naples. Another tour through the south and west of France occupied much of the following summer. Having availed himself of the varied educational advantages to be derived from travel, and his health being fully restored, young Thomson once more returned to mercantile pursuits in the London house.

The interesting experiences, however, of his life in St. Petersburg, and the social and other advantages which he had enjoyed in foreign travel, rendered it difficult for one of his eager temperament to settle down immediately to the routine of mercantile life. His tastes and experience inclined him strongly towards a career in diplomacy. His extensive acquaintance with European languages, particularly Russian, French, German, and Italian, his refined manners and courtly address, and his intimate associations with several important personages in the diplomatic service, rendered his choice a very natural one, and gave reasonable promise of success. But, amid the many claims for such positions at that time, his influence was not sufficient to procure him a suitable appointment, and his failure did much to reconcile him to a life of business to which he now seriously devoted himself. Having acquired a thorough familiarity with the details of the business in London, he returned, in 1821, to the office of the firm in St. Petersburg, with a share in the management and profits of the business. Taking the land route by way of Berlin and Riga he improved his practical knowledge of the business and resources of the districts and cities through which he passed. In St. Petersburg he resumed his acquaintance with its literary and diplomatic circles, making full use of his opportunities for extending the range of his knowledge and culture.

Still eager for travel and observation, he spent the winter and spring of 1822-3 in a journey to Moscow and central Russia, including Kiev and Orel. In the course of this journey he enjoyed the hospitality of several of the Russian nobility in the«r country houses. On the 1st of August, 1823, he undertook another journey through the southern and eastern provinces of Russia. Among other places he visited the famous fair of Nishni Novgorod. an exchange centre for the overland trade of Europe and Asia, and the last survivor of the great European fairs which at one time controlled the trade of the continent. Embarking on the Volga at Nlshni Novgorod, he followed the whole course of that great Russian waterway, stopping from time to time to visit Tartar tribes and Catholic and Protestant colonies upon its banks. After a short stay at the historic city of Astrakhan at the mouth of the Volga, he retraced his route as tar as Tzaritzin, crossed to the Don, and descended that river to Teherkask, reaching the Sea of Azov at Taganrog. From there he visited the Caucasus, and returning by the Crimea arrived at the seaport of Odessa about the middle of November. Thence he took the ijreat highway through southern Russia to Poland, via Brody and Cracow, and on to Vienna, amid whose brilliant society he spent the remainder of the winter of 1823-4.

The journals kept by this ardent young traveller indicate the intelligent thoroughness with which he studied the social and economic conditions of the countries through which he passed, steadily adding to those funds of knowledge and experience which he afterwards put to such effective use as president of the Board of Trade in the British cabinet. Leaving Vienna at the end of April he reached Paris only in time to attend the bedside of his dying mother. Returning to London with an experience of men and affairs quite unusual for a young man of those times, he devoted himself steadily for some years to the business of his firm, sharing the management with his elder brother and partner, Andrew.

The long depression which followed the close of the great European wars ending with Waterloo, was slowly dissolving, in the early twenties, before the thrift and industry of the people. In Britain in particular capital was being once more accumulated beyond the needs of immediate industry. In consequence, the rate of interest declined, credit was re-established, and opportunities were being sought, both within and without the country, for the employment of surplus funds. Conditions were propitious for the launching of new enterprises. Those first started were, for the most part, singularly fortunate, and these examples lent impetus to the new movement. There was little or no experience to warn against over speculation, and the natural consequences followed. The new speculative movement was flowing with a strong current when young Thomson returned from Europe and entered actively into business.

Among the most promising foreign investments were those connected with British companies formed to exploit the reputedly rich mines of Central and South America, regions just liberated from the yoke of Spain and having their independence recognized by Canning. In fact, the first great speculative fever of the nineteenth century was upon the country. The ardent and optimistic nature of young Thomson could not but respond to the all but universal wave of speculation which swept through the land. As Tooke tells us m his History of Prices, "Princes, nobles, politicians, placemen, patriots, lawyers, physicians, divines, philosophers, poets, intermingled with women of all ranks and degrees (spinsters, wives, widows)—hastened to venture some portion of their property in schemes of which scarcely anything was known except the names." Fortunately for the ardent young merchant his elder brother and partner, Andrew Thomson, strongly deprecated his engaging n such speculative ventures. Hence, though he entered actively into the direction of several of the American mining companies, his losses when the crash came were not so great as they might otherwise have been. The results of the great panic towards the close of 1825 furnished a sharp but salutary lesson which added a new phase of experience by no means lost upon the future Canadian governor.


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