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AYLEN (Vallely), PETER, timberer; b. 1799 in Liverpool, England; d. probably October 1868 in Aylmer, Que.

Peter Aylen, the “King of the Shiners,” had a brief and bloody period of fame in the mid 1830s when he dominated the Ottawa valley by violence. He came to Canada about 1815, according to legend a runaway sailor. The story is given credence by his change of name: when selling land in 1837 he used what was apparently his legal surname, Vallely. Little is known of his life before the 1830s although it is clear he worked his way up to a significant position in the Ottawa valley timber trade. In 1832, by then a resident of Nepean Township, Carleton County, Upper Canada, Aylen was prominent enough to be a partner in the “Gatineau Privilege.” He joined with the leading timberers on the Upper Ottawa – Ruggles, Tiberius, and Christopher Wright, Thomas McGoey, George Hamilton*, and C. A. Low – to obtain a monopoly on exploitation of timber on the Gatineau River. This profitable partnership, in which each participant took out 2,000 sticks of red pine per annum, continued until 1843. Aylen’s connections in the timber trade were strengthened by his marriage to Eleanor, sister of William and John Thomson, two major Nepean timberers. Her sister married another leading Ottawa timberer, Peter White.

Aylen was a man of insatiable ambition and was prepared to take any measures necessary to advance his interests. The increasingly competitive situation in the Ottawa valley timber trade of the 1830s led Aylen to adopt violence as a business tactic. He was the most vigorous of a number of timberers who raided the limits of competitors, destroyed rivals’ booms and rafts, and attacked and dispersed competitors’ timber crews. Aylen also capitalized on the large pool of Irish labourers left unemployed by the completion of the Rideau Canal in 1832. Setting himself up as a champion of the Irish in their struggle to obtain jobs in the French Canadian-dominated timber camps, he employed only Irishmen, thereby winning their fighting support for his violent business tactics.

In virtual control of the river by 1835, Aylen moved the struggle into the community of Bytown (Ottawa), in an apparent attempt to seize political and economic control of the town. From 1835 to 1837 Aylen and a band of perhaps 200 Irishmen remained in Bytown after winter operations and terrorized the village. The “Shiners,” as his followers were known, virtually controlled the working class Lower Town, and engaged freely in physical assaults and petty larceny. The lack of a professional police force allowed the Shiners to act with impunity. The pattern was set in July 1835 when Aylen was arrested for assault; the enraged Shiners went on a rampage which ended when they destroyed a canal steamer in Bytown harbour. The local magistrates soon learned that Aylen was untouchable.

Aylen’s hegemony over Bytown lasted for two years, and was strengthened by his disruption of local institutions, including the Nepean Township Council, whose annual election meeting was broken up in January 1837 so that municipal officers could not be elected. Peace was re-established on the river, however. In March 1836 the Ottawa Lumber Association was created to stop violence in the trade. Aylen was one of its first officers, apparently feeling he had gained all he could from the use of force on the river. Indeed the association provided him with early advantages. Its first cooperative venture was improvement of the Madawaska River to ease the passage of timber. Aylen’s timber operations were on the Madawaska and he was placed in charge of the improvements.

In Bytown, Aylen’s hold was broken in the spring of 1837. Shiner rioting reached a peak in March of that year. As a prominent Bytown merchant, James Johnston*, wrote to the lieutenant governor, Sir Francis Bond Head*: “Mr. Peter Aylen . . . has already proved to all Bytown, that he neither respects himself, nor fears God, or Man. The laws are like cobwebs to him. There are now several warrants out for his apprehension, but there is not a constable in Bytown, who will undertake to arrest him.” It was Aylen’s attempt to have Johnston murdered on 25 March 1837 which shocked the community into action. The magistrates, supported by a citizen organization, formed armed night patrols and swore in special constables to arrest lawbreakers. With determined community action, the Shiners were brought under control in April and May 1837.

Aylen realized that his career in Bytown was over. In 1836 he had leased out most of his property in the area when he came to reside in the town. The transactions tell something of his wealth. He rented out a property of 150 acres on the Richmond Road, three miles from Bytown, containing a two-storey house, barns, and stables, a blacksmith shop, and a store; he also let a 300-acre lot and house in Horton Township and 12 ten-acre woodlots near Bytown. After his defeat in the spring of 1837, he leased his Bytown home and store and sold his wife’s dower land, 250 acres in Nepean Township. Aylen moved to a farm on the north side of the Ottawa River, near Symmes’ Landing, from which he continued his timber business.

In his new life, Aylen became a virtual pillar of respectability. The year following his move, he was one of four trustees elected to build a church in the settlement. He was a member of the Hull Township Council in 1846, an assessor of the new town when Symmes’ Landing was incorporated as Aylmer in 1847, and superintendent of roads in the Ottawa County Council in 1855–56. In 1848 he had been appointed a justice of the peace. His new-found respectability was handed on to his sons, one of whom became a lawyer, one a doctor, and still another both a doctor and a lawyer.

Aylen’s business grew apace; he added a saw mill at the Chats Falls on the Ottawa to his interests in the mid 1850s. His family, along with those of most major timber firms on the Ottawa, was represented on the 1849 Annexation Manifesto by the signature of his son, Peter. Aylen had not given over his old ways altogether, however. In 1851 his timber limits on the Madawaska River were confiscated by the Crown Lands Office because of his “illegal proceedings” and failure to pay the required dues. The leopard, leader of Aylmer society that he might be, had not entirely changed his Shiner spots.

Michael S. Cross

PAC, MG 24, B2, 3, p.3757; D8, 13, pp.4507–8; 21, pp.8120–21; 23, pp.8837, 8850–51, 8866; 30, pp.12601–2, 12831; 32, pp.14359–60; 36, pp.16559–60; 37, p.17544; I9, 11, pp.3240–42; 22, pp.5830–31; I40, 1, pp.219–21 (mfm.); RG 1, E1, 76, pp.485–86; L1, 31, p.679; 45, p.111; RG 5, A1, 152, 15 June 1835; 155, 13 July 1835; 156, 5 Aug. 1835; 158, 20 Oct. 1835; 159, 17 Nov. 1835; 174, 10 Jan., 16 Feb. 1837; 175; 176, 6 May 1837. PAO, RG 1, C-IV, Nepean Township, Ottawa front concessions 1 and 2.

     Bathurst Courier (Perth, [Ont.]), 183537. Bytown Gazette ([Ottawa]), 183645. Bytown Independent and Farmers’ Advocate ([Ottawa]), 1836. Globe, 25 Dec. 1856. Packet (Bytown [Ottawa]), 184651. Lucien Brault, Hull, 1800–1950 ([Ottawa], 1950), 41; Ottawa old & new (Ottawa, 1946), 6770, 12728. A. A. Gard, Pioneers of the upper Ottawa and the humors of the valley . . . (4pts. in 1v., Ottawa, [1906]), pt.ii, 7, 12, 22, 3334, 3940; pt.iv, 8. J. L. Gourlay, History of the Ottawa valley: a collection of facts, events and reminiscences for over half a century (Ottawa, 1896), 5253, 174. M. S. Cross, “The Shiners’ war: social violence in the Ottawa valley in the 1830s,” CHR, LIV (1973), 126. Miller Stewart, “King of the Shiners,” Flamboyant Canadians, ed. Ellen Stafford (Toronto, 1964), 63–81.

General Bibliography

Cite This Article

Michael S. Cross, “AYLEN, PETER,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 9, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed December 9, 2023, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/aylen_peter_9E.html.

The citation above shows the format for footnotes and endnotes according to the Chicago manual of style (16th edition). Information to be used in other citation formats:

Permalink:   http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/aylen_peter_9E.html
Author of Article:   Michael S. Cross
Title of Article:   AYLEN, PETER
Publication Name:   Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 9
Publisher:   University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication:   1976
Year of revision:   1976
Access Date:   December 9, 2023