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BRISTOW, WILLIAM, political journalist; b. 25 Dec. 1808 in Birmingham, England; last known to be living in 1868.

As a young English immigrant in Quebec City, Bristow plunged into the agitation for reform of parliament in Lower Canada and for union with Upper Canada. In 1836 he wrote articles for the Union in support of constitutional reformer Andrew Stuart* and in 1837 became secretary of the Quebec Constitutional Association, which included as members Stuart, Thomas Cushing Aylwin*, George Pemberton, and John Neilson*. In letters to Neilson’s Quebec Gazette in 1841 Bristow described responsible government for United Canada and backed Robert Baldwin*’s resolutions introduced in the assembly of the Province of Canada.

Bristow next did editorial work for the Montreal Times and Daily Commercial Advertiser, a Reform newspaper founded in 1841; he contributed also to the Pilot and Journal of Commerce, founded by Francis Hincks* in Montreal in 1844 – the same year George Brown* founded the Globe in Toronto. He was a leading contributor to the Canadian Economist from the time of its founding by the Free Trade Association in 1846. Bristow gave a public lecture on “Free trade” in Montreal in 1846.

“The atrocious condition in Kingston Penitentiary” under the Tory warden Henry Smith provided Bristow with another editorial subject. The penitentiary, long an institution proudly displayed to such travellers as Charles Dickens, was now the subject of rumours of corruption, nepotism, and serious maltreatment of prisoners. In 1848, during the ministry of Baldwin and Louis-Hippolyte La Fontaine, Bristow was among the five commissioners, including George Brown and Adam Fergusson, appointed to investigate conditions in the penitentiary. Hearings were held in Kingston; then in November–December 1848, Bristow and Brown toured American penal institutions, returning to Montreal to draw up the commission’s report. This report urged the dismissal of Warden Henry Smith and proposed wide reforms of the Canadian penal system.

The Montreal Pilot, in which Hincks was inactive after January 1848 when he joined the ministry, was now an object of Conservative attack, and its offices were wrecked during the riots over the Rebellion Losses Bill of April 1849 [see James Bruce]. Rollo Campbell*, who had become the new owner, offered editorship of the paper to Bristow. In his hands, the Pilot rallied Reform opinion in Canada East. It also led the opposition to the Tory British American League, and to annexationism, which reached its peak of influence during the fall of 1849. Bristow spoke against annexation to the mechanics’ institute in Montreal in January 1850 in a lecture entitled “The commercial prospects of Canada.” Acknowledging the evils rising from fiscal impediments to Canadian trade, he nevertheless insisted on Canada’s greater advantages in contrast to the United States because of the St Lawrence. The speech was extensively quoted in English periodicals, including the London Times, and brought Bristow a letter of congratulation from Earl Grey, via Lord Elgin [Bruce], the governor general. Lord Elgin, reporting that October to Lord Grey on a political banquet held in Montreal, included an account of another speech by Bristow, which urged interprovincial connections and the “spirit of Federation.”

Meantime the report on the abuses at Kingston Penitentiary had been published, and had stirred the wrath of John A. Macdonald*, political ally of Warden Smith. Macdonald attacked the commission in Parliament in 1850 and again in 1851, asking for a committee of inquiry into its work. In a letter of 1851, Macdonald growled, “I hope Bristowe will meet the fate of his co-Commissioner Brown, who has been completely hoed out at Haldimand.” Bristow had now been appointed member of the new board of Kingston Penitentiary, and, with Brown, the first paid government inspector of the institution.

Bristow continued to edit the Pilot until 1854, supporting the government of Hincks and Augustin-Norbert Morin, and emphasizing its efforts to open new channels of trade. In the 1854 election Bristow ran in Montreal, but was defeated by John Young*. Returning to journalism, he established the Argus in 1854. Reform forces were regrouping, and Bristow’s Argus entered into debate with La Minerve. He focused on the mutual economic advantages for the Canadas in these days of railway expansion. The Argus also attacked the ministry of the Liberal-Conservative coalition, alleging abuses in departmental organization.

In May 1856 Bristow was called as a witness by a parliamentary committee of inquiry into the charges hurled by Macdonald against Brown and the penitentiary commission. Bristow’s testimony stressed the joint nature of the commission’s work, and the meticulous methods it had followed in taking evidence. Ultimately Macdonald was rebuked by the committee for his accusations of the suborning of witnesses and false recording or suppressing of evidence. But the politically biased committee refused to take a clear stand on the extent to which there might have been errors in the original report.

Bristow continued to be a personal friend of Brown, and was listed among those attending a Grit convention in Toronto in November 1859. The Argus had ceased publication in November 1858, and Bristow had become editor of the Montreal Transcript, owned by John Lovell*. In 1862 he was appointed with Thomas Storrow Brown* and George Sheppard to a financial and departmental commission to inquire into “the efficiency of the system of keeping the public accounts and the manner in which they were checked and audited,” and later acted as editor of the report of this commission, 1863–64. Bristow then announced his editorial days were ended. In 1864, when the Quebec Daily Mercury, floundering after the defeat of John Sandfield Macdonald*, lost its editor, the rival Quebec Gazette called, “Ho, Mr. William Bristow . . . able writer,” suggesting that the veteran journalist might take over the editorship. But Bristow remained in Montreal through a period of depression in the newspaper world, when many papers, including the Transcript and the Pilot, were in financial difficulty.

Bristow was among the earlier members of the Canadian Press Association, founded in 1859; his name appears in the association’s lists of 1868. We lose sight of him after that. Bristow’s work as a political journalist had been consistently hard-hitting – a little heavy in tone for today’s taste, but with an undeviating emphasis on the development of Canadian economic strength through the expansion of water and rail transport.

Elizabeth Waterston

William Bristow, The commercial prospects of Canada; a lecture delivered before the Montreal Mechanics’ Institute, on Tuesday evening, January 29, 1850 (Montreal, 1850). Can., Prov. of, First report of the financial and departmental commission, May, 1863 (Quebec, 1863); Second report of the financial and departmental commission, February, 1864 (Quebec, 1864); Legislative Assembly, Journals, 1849, III, app.B.B.B.B.B. Hincks, Reminiscences. Macdonald, Letters (Johnson and Stelmack), I, 178, 501. Argus (Montreal), 1854–58. Montreal Transcript, 1858–60. Pilot (Montreal), 1849–54. Canada, an encyclopædia, V. The Canadian newspaper directory . . . (Montreal, 1892), 17–56. Morgan, Bibliotheca Canadensis. A history of Canadian journalism . . . (2v., Toronto, 1908–59), I. Careless, Brown, I. Christie, History of LC. W. H. Kesterton, A history of journalism in Canada (Toronto, 1967).

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Cite This Article

Elizabeth Waterston, “BRISTOW, WILLIAM,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 9, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed June 23, 2024, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/bristow_william_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/bristow_william_9E.html
Author of Article:   Elizabeth Waterston
Title of Article:   BRISTOW, WILLIAM
Publication Name:   Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 9
Publisher:   University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication:   1976
Year of revision:   1976
Access Date:   June 23, 2024