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d. 22 Feb. 1927 in Victoria


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Original title:  "Honourable William Hume Blake, 1809-1870.", [ca. 1849], (CU181110) by H. Hunter and Company. Courtesy of Glenbow Library and Archives Collection, Libraries and Cultural Resources Digital Collections, University of Calgary.

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BLAKE, WILLIAM HUME, lawyer, politician, and judge; b. 10 March 1809 at Kiltegan, County Wicklow (Republic of Ireland), the son of Dominick Edward Blake, a Church of Ireland clergyman, and Anne Margaret Hume, the daughter of William Hume, a wealthy Irish parliamentarian; d. 15 Nov. 1870 at Toronto, Ont.

William Hume Blake belonged to an ancient and influential Irish family centred in Galway. His branch of the family had been converted from Roman Catholicism to Protestantism in the 18th century, and Hume, as he was usually called, grew up in his father’s rectory. He was given a sound education, receiving a ba from Trinity College, Dublin, in 1828. From that year until 1831 he studied medicine in Dublin, but he apparently gave it up because he was repelled by the crudities of the dissecting room. In 1832 he married his first cousin Catherine Hume*, a pious, intelligent, and ambitious woman, who provided stability and leadership for the family of four children they were to have.

In 1832 Blake left Ireland on a chartered vessel as one of a group of prosperous and well-educated relatives and friends. Among them were the Reverend Benjamin Cronyn*, future Anglican bishop of Huron, the Reverend Dominick Edward Blake, Hume’s eldest brother, George Skeffington Connor, a lawyer and Hume’s brother-in-law, a number of evangelical Anglican clergymen, Hume’s widowed mother and two single sisters, and other relatives by marriage. The group was dominated by the clergymen who, with the cooperation of the archbishop of Dublin and Archdeacon John Strachan of York (Toronto), were seeking placements in Upper Canada. They arrived in Quebec City in September 1832, and Hume and Dominick Blake proceeded to Middlesex County, Upper Canada, where Dominick became rector of Adelaide and Hume took land at Bear Creek, near Strathroy. Hume began to clear the land and built a primitive log house in which his son, Dominick Edward*, was born in October 1833. But the Blakes soon discovered that they were not suited to pioneer life and in the fall of 1834 moved to Toronto, where Hume studied law under Simon E. Washburn. A second son, Samuel Hume*, was born in 1835. In February 1838 Blake was called to the Upper Canadian bar. He also had a private income which enabled him to take his son Edward to Ireland in 1836 for a “change of air,” and it was supplemented by the money Catherine earned giving music and language lessons. Blake and his wife, who demonstrated intense affection for their two sons and two daughters, were deeply involved in educating their children.

Blake became an outstandingly successful lawyer, active in most areas of legal practice. He participated in several spectacular criminal cases, built a large equity practice, and was quickly recognized as one of the leading chancery lawyers in Canada West. His preference was for practice in the Court of Nisi Prius, which he considered the stepping stone to prominence in business, the judiciary, and government. His early eminence was revealed in 1841 when Governor General Sydenham [Thomson*] attempted to appoint him a judge of the Surrogate Court of the Home District. Blake declined the honour, but in 1848 was named a qc.

Hume Blake was an aristocratic Anglican, without a liberal or radical background in Ireland, yet, like many successful Irish Anglicans, he favoured the reform rather than the conservative side in politics. A brilliant speaker, and a man whose loyalty was unquestioned in the rebellion of 1837–38, during which he served as paymaster of a government battalion, Blake was useful to the Reformers during the difficult years following the rebellion. In spite of his youth he emerged during the early 1840s as an important Reform leader. At that time he entered a legal partnership with two active Reformers, Joseph Curran Morrison* and George Skeffington Connor, and also formed associations with such key Reform leaders as Robert Baldwin* and Francis Hincks*. In 1843 Baldwin, then attorney general for Canada West, entrusted Blake with “the Crowns business on the Eastern Circuit.” Blake had a significant role in the bitter and divisive election of 1844, following the resignation of the Baldwin – L.-H. La Fontaine government over a disagreement with Sir Charles Metcalfe* about whether a responsible ministry or the governor controlled patronage. At an important Reform meeting in Toronto Blake moved a resolution identifying responsible government as an Englishman’s right: “Ministerial Responsibility to the people of this country for every act of the Executive connected with our local affairs, is an essential ingredient of our Constitution.” Blake contested the 2nd riding of York against the incumbent Tory, George Duggan*. He defended the British connection, and assured the electors “that your conservatism, like my own, consists of attaining for our fellow countrymen that control over the exercise of executive power in all its branches, which is enjoyed without question in England.” Blake lost and was bitter about the “slander and falsehood more foul and base than ever yet disgraced an electoral contest.” Later in 1844 Blake, his earlier defeat still rankling, agreed to run in a by-election in Simcoe, telling the electors that he did so regardless of the recent victory in the general election of moderate Conservatives led in Upper Canada by William Henry Draper*, who, he said, had won through shameful abuses. Though Blake strongly attacked Draper’s “friend of the Governor” stance as “dangerous [and] subversive of all liberty,” he declined to campaign actively and was soundly defeated early in 1845 by William Benjamin Robinson*. Robert Baldwin Sullivan*, however, attributed Blake’s defeat to the influence of the Orange Order, “the source of power and influence in great things. . . .’’

Blake continued to be politically active, and Hincks even suspected that he aspired to the Reform leadership. Blake ran in the 3rd riding of York in the election of 1848 and again placed heavy emphasis on the attainment of responsible government. In spite of his absence from Canada because of illness during the campaign, he secured an easy victory. The election resulted in a sweeping Reform victory, and La Fontaine and Baldwin were asked to form a ministry. Baldwin wanted Blake to become solicitor general for Canada West, a post to which he was suited because of his talents and interests. At this time there was no clear convention about solicitors general being members of the cabinet. Blake’s counterpart for Canada East, Thomas Cushing Aylwin*, had occupied a seat in cabinet in 1842–43, and in 1848 resumed his place in the cabinet. Blake learned that he would not have a cabinet seat and resented this invidious distinction. At the same time strong retrenchment men like Hincks opposed any unnecessary cabinet appointments on grounds of cost. Hincks finally suggested a compromise which removed the difficulty: Aylwin was appointed a judge, and Blake accepted office on 22 April 1848. Governor General Lord Elgin [Bruce] reported to Colonial Secretary Lord Grey that the “Solicitors-General are not to be in the Council. . . .” Blake suffered some embarrassment over the incident: the anti-government Montreal Gazette meanly suggested that Blake had refused a cabinet place because he would not associate “with certain of the Ministry.” In the necessary by-election Blake easily secured re-election in 3rd York.

His ministerial position was important, despite his lack of cabinet status. A modern historian has said that 19th century solicitors general were theoretically supposed to conduct the “nonpolitical” legal work of the government, but that in practice they and the attorneys general ruled on points of law submitted by other departments. The law officers co-ordinated much of cabinet business, directed political strategy in parliament, and made rulings – not always on points of law – which were considered rulings of the whole cabinet. It is clear that Blake did in fact attend cabinet meetings, and at the close of his ministerial career was bitterly attacked by the Conservative Toronto British Colonist for “meddling in the affairs of Government. . . . [Blake], perhaps as much as [any] member of the executive, controlled the measures of Government, without appearing to have a seat at the Council Board.” Nevertheless, Blake also had much detailed and non-political work connected with his office which involved appearances in court and a great deal of travel.

Blake was often a sick man during the 1840s. He experienced “severe attacks of gout” and suffered from a mysterious malady whose symptoms were irritability, anxiety, and instability. In 1847 a friend told Blake there was “no mean” in his “efforts and anxieties, it is all extreme. . . . It is one of the inseparable qualities of a too ardent nature.” So serious was Blake’s condition that in mid September 1847, during the election campaign, he, Catherine, and Edward took an extended European tour. In London Blake learned that he might be suffering from liver and heart ailments. After wintering in Paris, where Hume and Edward witnessed the sacking of the Tuileries in February 1848, the family returned to Toronto in the spring. But Hume’s nervous illness continued, often precipitated by “severe mental exertion.” With the pressures of the solicitor generalship he had assumed, he had so deteriorated by August 1848 that Catherine asked Baldwin “to persuade him as much as possible to abstain from everything calculated to engage too deeply, or excite too . . . fully his ardent enthusiastic mind. . . . I know the weakness of his mind is such, that he cannot enter moderately upon any occupation. . . .”

In 1849, at La Fontaine’s insistence, the Reform government introduced a bill for the payment of losses incurred during the rebellion in Lower Canada in 1837–38. Blake disagreed with the policy, and his explanation in a letter to R. B. Sullivan reveals much about his general approach: “This incurable disposition to waste our strength and means in toilsome and dangerous efforts to acquire mere baubles, and those, too, somewhat dangerous ones, whilst we neglect great and noble objects . . . will sooner or later be our ruin. Whether we are to exist as an appendage of Great Britain or annexed to the States, whatever is to be our condition, our very existence as a country depends upon the completion of our navigation. . . . Why should not our thoughts and energies be fixed upon our condition and the means of its improvement, instead of conjuring up the whole race of infernal spirits to plague and torment us. . . .” Moreover, Blake resented the fact that the government’s supporters from Canada West, most of whom opposed the measure, were not consulted until after the bill had been tabled in the legislature. He nevertheless felt obliged to support it. Indeed on 15 and 16 Feb. 1849 he delivered a major speech on the bill, analyzing the Upper Canadian political situation in pre-rebellion days, and taking as his theme the difference between self-serving loyalty to the person of a governor and his misguided policies and a higher loyalty to the maintenance of a free constitution. With controlled, relentless fury he turned the loyalty question back on the Tories: “I have no sympathy with the would be loyalty of honorable gentlemen opposite, which, whilst it affects at all times peculiar zeal for the prerogative of the Crown, is ever ready to sacrifice the liberty of the subject. . . . True British loyalty owes allegiance alike to the Crown and the constitution.” Unfortunately, Blake allowed his address to become a demagogic assault on the Tory members, whose disagreement with government policy was characterized as “factious opposition” and who were seen as racial murderers: “I did feel disposed to advise them to . . . propose the erection of a gibbet before every French Canadian’s door, and offer up an holocaust of 700,000 men to appease the British feelings of Canada.” Sir Allan Napier MacNab received vicious treatment, being described as a rebel to the constitution and the country. Blake’s speech was a sensation. La Minerve described it as “replete with logic, with master-strokes of argument and proof – severe, irrefragable, ironical, cutting,” and said Blake proved himself “decidedly a great orator.” But he himself admitted that he had acted rashly: “Had I come with more mature preparation, with a note or two for my guidance possibly my language might have been more measured.” In defence of a policy with which he disagreed, Blake had intensified the bitterness of partisan warfare and accentuated the personal hatreds that disfigured political debate.

The response from Conservative members was immediate and nasty. Several duelling challenges were issued, one by John A. Macdonald* on Friday, 16 February. A duel was prevented by the quick action of the speaker. Macdonald made proper submission to the house but Blake was unavailable. On the Monday he appeared at the bar of the house to explain. It was assumed then, and has been since, that Blake could not be found late on 16 February because he wished to avoid facing Macdonald in an “affair of honour.” Blake had to admit privately that he had failed to display “that cool measured step which ought to have distinguished the Solicitor-General.” A proud and sensitive man, after submitting himself to the humiliation of appearing at the bar of the assembly, and doubtless knowing that he had been labelled a coward, he submitted his resignation because of the “painful position in which some persons have thought it right to place me. . . .” La Fontaine refused the resignation, and Blake’s career was saved.

Other rash acts followed. When the parliament buildings in Montreal were burned in April after the Rebellion Losses Bill had passed, Blake had to be dissuaded from addressing the arsonist mob which might very well have lynched him. With the city given over to riot, Blake armed himself “with a thick walnut ruler” and to the horror of his wife “paraded the town alone. . . .” When La Fontaine released several Tory rioters Blake argued passionately with him that “he had disgraced himself forever & rendered the govt contemptible.” In May he wounded two rioters with a pistol when a mob attacked Têtu’s Hotel during a ministerial banquet. The excess of “feeling” which he admitted to his brother was thus sustained for a lengthy period.

Had La Fontaine accepted Blake’s resignation, Blake would have left office without completing the massive reorganization of Upper Canada’s judicial system for which he is best remembered. In 1843 Blake had accepted appointment, along with Robert Easton Burns and James C. P. Esten, to a commission charged with examining the “practice and proceedings” of the Court of Chancery. Court reform had been a sensitive area, for the entire legal structure had been profoundly unpopular for many years. Many left-wing Reformers regarded the equity court as a device whereby lawyers exploited a vulnerable public, and advocated instead a simplified, less expensive system of legal administration. Many lawyers, however, wanted an enlarged court of chancery, additional common law court services, and an improved appeals system. There was a third motive force for legal reform at work behind the scene. Although Blake’s private views remained secret, he regarded many of Upper Canada’s powerful superior court judges as Tory hacks. He attributed his electoral defeat in 1845 to the intimidation by Conservative judges of many lawyers who might otherwise have aided the Reform party in elections. In 1845 he complained to Baldwin that “it is the thought of offending judges whose decrees are absolute, and who thus hold the fate of transgressors in their hand which has driven the bar into the ranks of our opponents.” Blake wanted to reduce the authority of the judges, whom he accused of acting as a veritable “inquisition,” and argued, “Give us the court of appeal, and you do more to liberalise the bench & bar than can well be conceived.” He also shared with many professional colleagues the view that the single Court of Chancery judge, Vice-Chancellor Robert Sympson Jameson*, was incompetent. Indeed in 1845 Baldwin accused Blake of supporting judicial reform “for the sole purpose of getting rid of [Jameson].”

The commissioners investigating the Court of Chancery reported to Draper’s Conservative régime in 1845 without making any recommendations for fundamental changes, but Blake’s criticisms made during their investigations were clearly regarded as representative of the legal profession. In 1845 he publicly expressed his views in A letter to the Hon. Robert Baldwin . . . upon the administration of justice in western Canada, arguing that the existing system was defective because there was no effective appeals system, and because the Court of Chancery under a single judge had neither healthy respect for the law nor true freedom for the citizen. The solution was relatively simple: the Court of Queen’s Bench should be divided into two common law courts; there should be three equity judges in a reformed court of chancery; and a court of appellate jurisdiction should be provided by “the assemblage of these several judges, in a court, to be termed the Court of Exchequer Chamber. . . .”

In spite of Baldwin’s profound reservations, Blake took up his proposed reforms when he entered the ministry in April 1848. He was encouraged to proceed by the legal profession, and he consulted with the judges before his reforms were introduced as a series of bills in March 1849. They secured fairly easy passage through the assembly and received royal assent on 30 May 1849. Two superior common courts “of equal and concurrent jurisdiction and of equal dignity,” Queen’s Bench and Common Pleas, were established, each with three judges. The chief justice remained on the Queen’s Bench. Chancery was enlarged by the addition of two vice-chancellors, and a Court of Error and Appeal, consisting of the judges of all three courts and presided over by the chief justice, was established. Restricted appeals to the queen in her privy council were still permitted. Blake’s most constructive work as a minister was thus accomplished.

Yet Blake’s rash behaviour during the riots and annexation crisis in the same spring of 1849 must have confirmed any doubts Baldwin retained about Blake’s suitability for office. It probably accounts in part for the decision to remove Blake from the government. His appointment as chancellor of Upper Canada was logical in view of his high standing as an equity lawyer, though Conservatives and Clear Grits concluded that he had reformed the Court of Chancery in order to create a personal sinecure worth £1,250 per annum. He was offered the post on 10 Sept. 1849 and assumed his new office on 1 Jan. 1850. Baldwin, who had been far from enthusiastic about Blake’s legal reforms, was to leave politics in 1851 when a majority of Upper Canadian Reform members indicated by vote their opposition to Blake’s reformed Court of Chancery. When explaining his decision to leave public life Baldwin made it clear that the reforms had been inspired by Blake, though he acknowledged that as attorney general he himself was ultimately the “party responsible.”

Blake’s later years were busy, and probably unhappy. Nonetheless he functioned efficiently as leader of the court, at least for a time. He cleared away a mass of business that had accumulated during the indolent regime of Jameson. Contemporaries considered his work successful, and W. R. Riddell*, the historian of the courts of Upper Canada, found Blake’s judgements “entitled to respect, but from changed circumstances and practice they are now little quoted.”

Blake always had a profound interest in university affairs, and from 1843 to 1848 served as the first professor of law at King’s College, Toronto, beginning with an annual salary of £100. As an Anglican and a lawyer he defended the college against the secularization movement, even to the point of working with John Strachan, who was a long-time enemy of the Blake family. Nevertheless Blake accepted as inevitable Baldwin’s scheme to secularize the college in 1849. He intensified his involvement with higher education in 1853, when he accepted the chancellorship of the University of Toronto. His term was unpleasant. After 1854 he had to deal with Allan MacNab’s government; his relationship with Governor General Sir Edmund Walker Head, who took an intimate interest in the university, was marred by bitter quarrels, especially over the appointment of a Tory, John Langton*, as vice-chancellor. Blake also involved himself in internal university feuds concerning the management of Upper Canada College and the building committee for University College. In 1856 he resigned the university chancellorship.

His health again broke down in 1856, and he discovered that he had diabetes. There being no cure, he could only seek rest and medical advice abroad. His problems were complicated by the financial panic of 1857, which badly damaged his investments and forced him to live frugally. Hume and Catherine returned to Canada in September 1857, but he was unable to attend to his duties for long periods of time and finally resigned as chancellor of Upper Canada on 18 March 1862. Blake had declined a knighthood in 1859 but accepted an appointment as a judge of the Court of Error and Appeal in 1864, a post for which he qualified as a retired chancellor.

In 1864 John A. Macdonald appointed Blake chairman of the Railway Postal Service Commission which was to examine the Grand Trunk Railway’s request for a higher postal subsidy from the government. The request had been denied by the preceding Reform government, but Macdonald was resolved to assist the politically potent railway. He considered Blake “a man of large and liberal ideas in money matters,” and Blake’s committee duly recommended further assistance to the Grand Trunk and other lines.

The commission did its work in Quebec City from January to March 1865. Blake and his wife enjoyed their renewed participation in public life, but he was still seriously ill; and to his other afflictions he now added “impairment of vision.” His financial problems continued, and his peace was disturbed by unhappy disputes, often over money, with his brother’s children. He was forced to seek a calmer atmosphere abroad in 1867. Yet contacts with people became more and more “painful inflictions.” He was able to take great pleasure in his elder son’s political success during the early years of confederation, but never recovered his health. Until his death in 1870 he was a pathetic figure, wracked by physical pain, nervous incapacity, and ruined hopes.

William Hume Blake was a tragic figure. He possessed enormous natural abilities, and an excellent education had increased an almost limitless capacity to assimilate new knowledge and ideas. Unfortunately, his physical and mental impairments, difficult to diagnose in the 20th century but nonetheless real, prevented him from fully realizing his powers. Thus he was an unstable man with enthusiasm but also an excess of passion. In law his abilities resulted in immediate and spectacular success, but he failed to sustain this drive and opted for a political career. In office he demonstrated fervent devotion to British freedoms and oratorical brilliance, but his instability resulted in frustration, rashness, and overzealous partisanship, which were an embarrassment to his colleagues. On the bench he was able to function successfully, though for only a few years. Yet as a lawyer and politician he made a major contribution to court structure and as a judge his efforts to adapt English authority to the needs of Canadian economic development were of particular significance.

Donald Swainson

[The author is indebted to Professor R. C. B. Risk for valuable assistance in preparing the legal aspects of this biography.  d.s.]

MTCL, Robert Baldwin papers. PAC, MG 24, B14; MG 26, A; MG 30, D111. PAO, Blake family papers, I, 1. W. H. Blake, A letter to the Hon. Robert Baldwin . . . upon the administration of justice in western Canada . . . (Toronto, 1845); Separate report of MrBlake’s speech on the rebellion losses (Montreal, 1849). Can., Prov. of, Executive Council, Copy of a report of a committee . . . for the performance of the railway postal service . . . ([Quebec], 1865); Legislative Assembly, Journals, 1844–5, 2, app.J.J.; 1848–49. Documentary history of education in U.C. (Hodgins), IV–VIII, XI–XV. Elgin-Grey papers (Doughty). “The Hon. William Hume Blake,” Canada Law Journal (Toronto), new ser., VI (1870), 281–83. [Catherine Hume (Blake)], “The riots of 1849 in Montreal,” CHR, XV (1934), 283–88. [John Langton], Early days in Upper Canada: letters of John Langton from the backwoods of Upper Canada and the audit office of the Province of Canada, ed. W. A. Langton (Toronto, 1926); “The University of Toronto in 1856,” CHR, V (1924), 132–45. Macdonald, Letters (Johnson and Stelmack). Reform Assoc. of Can., Proceedings at the first general meeting (Toronto, 1844). British Colonist (Toronto), 1844, 1849, 1851. Globe, 1844, 1848–49, 1870, 1895. Cyclopaedia of Canadian biog. (Rose, 1886). Dent, Canadian portrait gallery, III. Political appointments, 7841–67 (J.-O. and N.-O. Coté). D. R. Beer, “Transitional toryism in the 1840’s as seen in the political career of Sir Allan MacNab, 1839–1849” (unpublished ma thesis, Queen’s University, Kingston, Ont., 1963). C. R. W. Biggar, Sir Oliver Mowat, a biographical sketch (2v., Toronto, 1905). Creighton, Macdonald, young politician. A. W. Currie, The Grand Trunk Railway of Canada (Toronto, 1957). Dent, Last forty years. Hodgetts, Pioneer public service. J. D. Livermore, “Towards ‘a union of hearts’: the early career of Edward Blake, 1867–1880 (unpublished phd thesis, Queen’s University, Kingston, Ont., 1975). George Metcalf, “The political career of William Henry Draper” (unpublished ma thesis, University of Toronto, 1959). Joseph Pope, Memoirs of the Right Honourable Sir John Alexander Macdonald, G.C.B., first prime minister of the dominion of Canada (2v., Ottawa, [1894]). Read, Lives of the judges. W. R. Riddell, The bar and the courts of the province of Upper Canada, or Ontario (Toronto, 1928); The legal profession in Upper Canada in its early periods (Toronto, 1916); Upper Canada sketches: incidents in the early times of the province (Toronto, 1922). Joseph Schull, Edward Blake: the man of the other way (1833–1881) (Toronto, 1975). Sissons, Ryerson. W. S. Wallace, A history of the University of Toronto, 1827–1927 (Toronto, 1927). G. E. Wilson, The life of Robert Baldwin; a study in the struggle for responsible government (Toronto, 1933). W. N. T. Wylie, “Toronto and the Montreal annexation crisis of 1849–1850; ideologies, loyalties and considerations of personal gain” (unpublished ma thesis, Queen’s University, Kingston, Ont., 1971). Toronto World, 21 June 1892.

General Bibliography

Cite This Article

Donald Swainson, “BLAKE, WILLIAM HUME,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 9, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed February 22, 2024, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/blake_william_hume_9E.html.

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Permalink:   http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/blake_william_hume_9E.html
Author of Article:   Donald Swainson
Title of Article:   BLAKE, WILLIAM HUME
Publication Name:   Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 9
Publisher:   University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication:   1976
Year of revision:   1976
Access Date:   February 22, 2024