WIDDER, FREDERICK, Canada Company official; b. 1801 in England; d. 1 Feb. 1865 in Montreal, Canada East.
Frederick Widder’s father, Charles Ignatius, was a London director of the British land and colonizing venture, the Canada Company. When Frederick Widder was sent to Upper Canada in 1839 to join the company’s resident co-commissioners, William Allan* and Thomas Mercer Jones, he was probably being groomed to replace Allan, whose advancing years and Family Compact connections had become liabilities. Jones was only relatively less vulnerable to the criticism of Reformers, as Archdeacon John Strachan’s son-in-law, and because of his baronial social and business style at Goderich, where he conducted the administration of the company’s million-acre Huron Tract. During the 1830s William Allan, based in Toronto, had given waning attention to the company’s other immense holdings, the former crown reserves scattered throughout Upper Canada. It was evident to Widder that the Huron Tract and crown reserves operations demanded co-ordination. General outcries against the provincial government’s administration, especially of lands, forced the company to anticipate its own share of criticism, and to set its house in order.
Frederick Widder possessed those qualities of enterprise, efficiency, and moderation so much encouraged by another newcomer to Canada in 1839, Governor General Charles Poulett Thomson*, later Lord Sydenham. Although Widder would remain free of political or government attachments, he applauded the business-like atmosphere of Sydenham’s regime. Displaying marked administrative talents, counselling with moderate men, and building a reputation for amiability and hospitality, he steadily gained respect among business and government leaders. Entrepreneurs such as William Hamilton Merritt, governors such as Sydenham and Sir Charles Metcalfe*, and senior Crown Lands Office officials admired his enterprise and envied his success in selling company lands. He was active in the St George’s Society and as lay vice-president of the Anglican diocesan Church Society concerned himself with his church’s endowments. In the process of arriving at such prominence, Widder soon displaced Allan and eclipsed Jones who got entangled in local politics in the Goderich area. Widder’s methods recommended themselves more favourably to the company’s court of directors.
Largely through Widder’s efforts, the company escaped censure in the general examination of the public administration begun by Sir George Arthur* and continued by Thomson. By 1841 Allan had been eased out, and Widder began to move as boldly as John Galt*, the company’s first commissioner – even restoring some of Galt’s tactics. In many ways, too, Widder anticipated Clifford Sifton*’s efforts to publicize Canada and lure immigrants. He revived the company’s printed prospectus distributed throughout Canada and Britain. Books and pamphlets were widely circulated free or at cost, among them reissues of Dr William “Tiger” Dunlop*’s 1832 Statistical sketches of Upper Canada . . . and three pamphlets of the 1840s by J. J. E. Linton of Stratford. Company agencies were established through prominent commercial and shipping firms at 27 British ports and agricultural centres.
Widder departed, however, from Galt’s earlier insistence that the industrial poor should be ignored in preference for “persons of substance and respectability” from Britain’s agricultural areas. Seeking sales to offset charges of unwarranted speculation, and anxious to discourage new local cliques like that of the prosperous gentlemen farmers in Colborne Township near Goderich, Widder would accept settlers with less literacy or farming experience. He also recruited settlers already established in Canada. In 1842 every provincial postmaster received the company’s prospectus for distribution, posters went to seigneuries in Canada East, and agents were contacted among the Maritimes’ Scots. By the 1850s, with land sales booming, Widder’s emphasis on experienced Canadian settlers supplanted the older appeals to British emigrants.
In 1843 Widder visited New York’s German community and was impressed by their agricultural skills and capital resources. The company’s directors agreed to employ an agent, William Rischmuller, to persuade Germans in the United States and Germany to come to the Huron Tract. In addition, Widder appointed James Buchanan as the company’s resident agent at New York, and commissioned British consulates in Europe and shipping agencies at Bremen (Federal Republic of Germany) and Le Havre (France) to attract continental immigrants. Although Rischmuller defaulted, Widder persisted in the effort and established a German immigrant agency at Quebec in 1850 on the eve of a large-scale German migration. A growing German community in the Huron Tract was proof of his initiative. Indeed, throughout the 1840s and 1850s the court of directors exercised less supervision of its Canadian operations than formerly, generally acquiescing in Widder’s strategies and approving his tactics.
Widder also won several major departures in financial operations. In 1842 he argued that most settlers were more interested in good initial terms to purchase or lease land than they were in obtaining favourable sites. Accordingly, he introduced in the Huron Tract a policy of deferring payments for a longer time, and he gave settlers an option to lease initially. In fixing prices for company lands, Widder carefully reviewed earlier surveys and turnover records, as well as soliciting advice from “long established, well informed settlers.” He achieved a reduction in inspection and evaluation costs and complemented it by an imaginative attack on the delicate problem of collections. Widder devised an elaborate schedule correlating international grain prices as an index of Canada’s economic condition: collections would only be pushed under favourable market conditions, thus avoiding adverse criticism in periods of general hardship. The results of this experiment were so gratifying in the Huron Tract that in 1843 the policy was extended to the company’s other lands.
Another of Widder’s important innovations in 1842 was the Settlers Provident Savings Bank, offering highly competitive terms and more accessible banking services. To woo prosperous emigrants, company settlers were enabled to enjoy free exchange and remittance facilities to Britain – and after 1850, through Rothschilds at Quebec, to Germany. Many of these facilities were centred on the Huron Tract, and despite the estrangement between himself and Jones, Widder could depend upon the cooperation of a new company servant in the Huron Tract, his younger brother Charles.
By 1844 Widder ambitiously proposed to Governor Metcalfe that the Canada Company should undertake on commission the administration of the province’s public lands, beginning with the clergy reserves. Bishop Strachan, who had been demanding that the government grant the Church of England the management of its share of the clergy reserves, seized the opportunity offered by Widder’s proposal to discredit the company and Widder and to bolster Jones’ position with the directors. In a bitter and anonymous series of open letters, Strachan rebuked Widder and condemned his whole career as a company official. Widder’s bold proposals were rejected by Governor Metcalfe as “noteworthy” but open to “insurmountable objections.” From such visions, Widder turned to railway promotion. With his assurance of increased land sales, the court of directors readily agreed to become the British agent to sell stock in a railway from Toronto to Goderich. Widder successfully fought opposition from a league of Jones, the Colborne Clique, and American promoters who supported a rival line from Buffalo, N.Y., to Goderich. With Jones’ dismissal in 1852 over the railway issue, Widder’s attempt to bring the company’s province-wide operations under his control in Toronto was finally successful. The company would participate in and profit directly by the expansive railway ventures of the 1850s.
Widder’s success was reflected in his personal style of life. The drawing room of his stately residence on Front St, Lyndhurst, glittered, as John Ross Robertson* observed, as “the centre of social attraction from the mid-forties till the early sixties.” The Widders’ two daughters married distinguished Prussian and English military officers. A son and another daughter had both died in 1849.
Perhaps labours and successes had come too regularly to Frederick Widder. By the early 1860s his health, and that of his wife, Elizabeth Jane, were broken. Moreover, his authoritative conduct of the company’s affairs was coming into question. In 1864 his resignation for reasons of health was accepted. Lyndhurst was sold to become the mother house of the Loretto Abbey. During their journey home to retirement in England, Mrs Widder died in Montreal in November 1864. Some two months later the effects of a paralytic stroke claimed her husband.
PAO, Canada Company papers; Merritt (William Hamilton) papers; Strachan (John) papers. Aliquis [John Strachan], Observations on the history and recent proceedings of the Canada Company; addressed in four letters to Frederick Widder, esq., one of the commissioners (Hamilton, [Ont.], 1845). Gates, Land policies of U.C. H. J. M. Johnston, “Transportation and the development of the eastern section of the Huron Tract, 1828–1858” (unpublished ma thesis, University of Western Ontario, London, Ont., 1965). C. G. Karr, “The foundations of the Canada Land Company, 1823–1843” (unpublished ma thesis, University of Western Ontario, London, Ont., 1966). Robina and K. M. Lizars, In the days of the Canada Company: the story of the settlement of the Huron Tract and a view of the social life of the period, 1825–1850 (Toronto and Montreal, 1896). Robertson’s landmarks of Toronto, V. Wilson, Clergy reserves of U.C. G. C. Patterson, “Land settlement in Upper Canada, 1783–1840,” Ont., Dept. of Archives, Report (Toronto), 1920.