Few people today, other than historians, know the name of Robert Gourlay. But, for a few years after the end of the War of 1812, he was one of the most prominent characters in Upper Canada: in the eyes of the governing elite, he was a troublemaker who needed stopping. At a time when the population of the province was around 77,000, it was easier for one individual to attract attention than it would be any time afterwards. And Robert Gourlay attracted attention as few others have in their time.
To make him even more interesting, Gourlay arrived in Upper Canada as a visitor, not intending to stay very long, and with no intention of causing the kind of uproar he did in his short time there. Born in 1778, he had already gained a reputation in England and in his native Scotland as a reformer, writing a number of pamphlets and books on subjects such as government reform. He came to Canada in 1817 to inspect some land in the Niagara region which his wife had inherited, hoping to sell it and return to Scotland soon afterwards.
Intrigued by the political and economic scene he found in Upper Canada, he decided to make a survey of the province, following the template of a similar study conducted in Scotland. He sent out a questionnaire to the various Townships, seeking replies to thirty-one questions regarding all aspects of life, social, economic, political, and agricultural. This raised the suspicions of the governing elite, known to history as the Family Compact, generally descendants of Loyalists, with a very conservative view of society.
A follow-up series of township meetings organised by Gourlay convinced the authorities that he was a dangerous radical in the same style as trade union activists then operating in England. He was arrested and accused of sedition, was put on trial twice, but cleared by successive juries. This made him even more dangerous in the eyes of the Compact, and was jailed when he refused to leave the province. The authorities finally banished and returned him back to England in 1819. It had been a tumultuous two years. As a result, he is known as “The Banished Briton” in the older histories.
But his short and dramatic visit to Upper Canada produced a wealth of information drawn from his Township surveys, and he published the results in two volumes, “Statistical Account of Upper Canada”, in 1822. It was a lengthy and detailed description of the province in the first months of 1818. From the historian’s point of view, it is a wonderful source, albeit needing some corroboration from more recent and perhaps more objective writers. For all his energy and application, Gourlay was an easy man to dislike, rather too convinced of his own abilities and talents. He seemed to be unable to resist using extreme and insulting language about the ruling elites of the province, which only added to the strength of the opposition which grew up against him. But his treatment by the authorities, including by the very influential and conservative John Strachan, Anglican Bishop and political powerhouse, was undeserved, and reflected the prevailing Loyalist and imperialist climate of the day. Gourlay didn’t help his situation by referring to Bishop Strachan as “the parson of York”.
In introducing the area of Eastern Ontario to his British readers in 1822, Gourlay noted the role rivers played in commercial life, and even suggested the benefits that could accrue should the St. Lawrence and Ottawa Rivers be joined via a canal on the Rideau.
“From the townships adjoining the Ottawa, and the rivers Rideau and Petite Nation, which empty into the Ottawa, the produce is transported in boats down that river to Montreal, and goods are remitted through the same channel. The head waters of these streams communicate by short portages with those which fall into the St. Lawrence; and by means of locks and canals, an inland navigation might be easily effected between the St. Lawrence and the Ottawa, to the benefit of commercial intercourse, and the security of the province in time of war. The forks of the Rideau, around which the townships of Oxford, Marlborough, and Gower, are situated, are expected to become an emporium of interior commerce. They afford advantageous situations for water works, especially for the manufacture of iron, and it is said there is a good supply of ore in the Vicinity.”
Among the Townships contacted by Gourlay for his Statistical Account, was Wolford, which, at the time, included the settlers in Oxford, Montague and Marlborough Townships. In May, 1817, the population of the Township was recorded in the Wolford Township Book at 319. Oxford-on-Rideau had only 71 inhabitants, almost all living in the west of the Township near the border with Wolford. Gourlay had no direct information on which to base his estimates of population, assuming that Oxford would have around the same number of inhabitants as Wolford. However, the response to his survey from the Township of Wolford can be supplemented by the information in the Township’s municipal records from the period, which are found in the Archives of Ontario. And it is from these that an account of the life in the region in 1818 can be compiled.