GAY, JAMES, carpenter, innkeeper, gunsmith and locksmith, musician, and poet; b. 24 March 1810 in Bratton Clovelly, England; m. there 27 Aug. 1833 Elizabeth Stanlake, and they had five children; d. 23 Feb. 1891 in Guelph, Ont.
James Gay apprenticed to his grandfather as a carpenter and then set up a small business in Plymouth before immigrating to Upper Canada in 1834. Settling in Guelph that summer, he began working with hotel-keepers John Thorp, proprietor of the British Hotel, and William Dyson, who owned the Red Lion Tavern. Gay prospered and in 1842 built a two-storey frame building called Gay’s Inn, which he owned and ran until he sold it in 1865. By 1847 he was also the proprietor of the Bullfrog Inn and at some point during this period ran a third hotel, the Durham Ox. After selling Gay’s Inn he returned to carpentry and later became a gunsmith and locksmith, with a shop in the market square. Gay was also known for his skill with the flute, and was often called upon to provide music for dancing in the open following agricultural fairs.
Probably in the late 1860s Gay suffered an attack of “brain fever” which left him with reduced mental powers and, it appears, a passion for poetasting that sustained the enthusiastic and lifelong production of doggerel. On the strength of its publication in newspapers and collections he proclaimed himself “Poet Laureate of Canada and Master of All Poets.” In the early 1870s he acquired a two-headed colt and took it, probably in 1873–74, on a 15-month tour of England, Ireland, and the Channel Islands. Back in Canada in 1875, he exhibited the colt at fall fairs in Guelph and in other Ontario towns. He charged ten cents to view the colt and, for an additional five cents, sold copies of his poems. In the late 1870s he apparently served as guarantor for a tax-collector whose failure to return the requisite funds to the authorities, Gay claimed, ruined him financially. Perhaps as a result of this episode he moved to Belleville, Ont., in November 1879, but not before the Guelph Daily Mercury and Advertiser had described his poetry as “rot.” Immediately after setting up business as a gunsmith and locksmith in Belleville he brought a libel suit in early January against the Mercury and the Belleville Free Press. The jury found for Gay, but notice of appeal was served. At a mock trial held a few days later the decision went against the poet, and there the matter ended. Gay remained in Belleville until September 1881, when he returned to Guelph.
Gay appears to have gone back to England on at least two other occasions, in 1860–61 and in 1882–83. The latter trip seems to have provided the inspiration for his first book of verse, Poems by James Gay, poet laureate of Canada, master of all poets; written while crossing the sea in 1882. It was published in Guelph in 1883, evidently at the expense of Harry P. Dill, United States consul, who mailed copies to his American friends as samples of Canadian poetry. A notice about the book in the Detroit Free Press prompted a request from a British publisher for a volume of Gay’s poems. The poet responded by sending a batch of unpublished work. Bought for £25, the poems were published, probably in 1885, as Canada’s poet: yours alway James Gay, poet laureate of Canada & master of all poets this day. The introduction quoted one of the poet’s letters, “Then you can Publish / These Poemes and Send / Them Through England / And no mistake you will / Find they will Sell like / Hot cakes.” Canada’s poet also contained a letter of dedication to Tennyson, which began, “Now Longfellow is gone there are only two of us left. There ought to be no rivalry between us two.”
In his last years Gay continued to be a well-known figure in Guelph, distinguished by his old-fashioned frock-coat and battered silk hat, his ubiquitous flute, and his habit of talking in rhyme and of quoting his latest verse. He was immortalized as a folk figure by William Arthur Deacon in The four Jameses.
Little of James Gay’s poetry has survived apart from the selections in W. A. Deacon, The four Jameses (Ottawa, 1927; rev. ed., Toronto, 1953; repr., intro. Doug Fetherling, 1974), and the volume published as Canada’s poet . . . , intro. James Millington (London, [1885?]). The only known copy of Poems by James Gay . . . written while crossing the sea in 1882 (Guelph, Ont., 1883) is a typescript facsimile dated 1927–28, preserved – along with some correspondence and biographical information concerning Gay – among Deacon’s research notes for The four Jameses in UTFL, ms coll. 160, box 38. The Univ. of Guelph Library, Arch. and Special Coll., holds a four-page pamphlet entitled Christmas carols for ’82 (Guelph, ), which was probably privately printed by Gay.
Daily Intelligencer (Belleville, Ont.), 12 Nov. 1879–13 Sept. 1881. Guelph Daily Herald, 24 Feb. 1891. Guelph Daily Mercury and Advertiser, 9 May 1879–24 March 1883, 24 Feb. 1891. Guide to the literary heritage of Waterloo and Wellington counties from 1830 to the mid-20th century; an historical bibliography of authors and poets, comp. G. [A.] Noonan et al. (Waterloo, Ont., 1985). A. L. Hinds, Pioneer inns and taverns of Guelph (Cheltenham, Ont., ). L. A. Johnson, History of Guelph, 1827–1927 (Guelph, 1977). “James Gay, ‘The Poet of the Day,’ was a genial old man,” Guelph Evening Mercury, centennial ed., 20 July 1927: 118.