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CAWTHRA, JOSEPH, merchant and politician; b. 14 Oct. 1759 in Yeadon, England, son of Henry Cawthra and Mary Brown; m. 29 Jan. 1781 Mary Turnpenny, and they had at least nine children (six sons and three daughters); d. 15 Feb. 1842 in Toronto.

Joseph Cawthra sprang from substantial yeoman stock in Yorkshire, his forebears having dwelt in the parish of Guiseley, near Bradford, for several generations. His earliest known vocation was that of woollen manufacturer; in 1792 or 1793 he built one of the earliest steam-powered carding-, spinning-, and fulling-mills in the county. Family tradition states that he arrived in Upper Canada in 1803 after a brief stay in New York. By his own contemporary account, however, he lived in New York from 1803 until the spring of 1806, when he opened a general store, with an emphasis on apothecary’s wares, at York (Toronto). Between 1806 and 1809 he was joined by his family. His profits during the War of 1812 helped to make him one of the most substantial merchants of post-war York, and in the 1820s he was a major importer of teas and other groceries.

Cawthra’s first political act in Upper Canada was to sign a declaration in August 1807 hostile to the party of Robert Thorpe, the recently dismissed justice of the colony’s Court of King’s Bench. In the 1820s and 1830s, however, he was a stalwart of anti-government politics in York. In 1828 he promoted the candidature of Thomas David Morrison* as the town’s member in the House of Assembly and took part, though an Anglican, in the “Central Committee” formed at York to coordinate the campaign against King’s College (University of Toronto), which reformers viewed as an element in John Strachan*’s strategy to establish the Church of England in the colony. In July of that year his name headed the petition of freeholders in the Home District to the imperial government in support of the recently dismissed justice of the Court of King’s Bench, John Walpole Willis*. It was in this petition that Upper Canadian reformers first formally demanded that the provincial administration be responsible to the House of Assembly. Cawthra’s prominence on this occasion provoked Lieutenant Governor Sir Peregrine Maitland* to malign him, and other leading signatories, with characteristic mendacity in a letter of 12 September to Colonial Secretary Sir George Murray. “Mr. Cawthra came also from the United States: he was a Shoemaker for many years in this Town, and now keeps a Shop – he can barely write.” In fact, Cawthra’s sojourn in the United States had been relatively brief, he had never been a shoemaker, and he could write as well as Maitland.

In electoral politics Cawthra has often been confused with his sons John and William*. John, not Joseph, was mha for Simcoe from 1828 to 1830. Joseph, not William, was an alderman for St Lawrence Ward on Toronto’s first city council, which was elected in 1834 and dominated by reformers [see William Lyon Mackenzie*]. He was defeated in January 1835, but William was elected an alderman for his father’s old ward a year later. Joseph’s spell of municipal office, his sole venture into electoral politics, reflected not only his prominence in reform circles but also his active engagement in civic affairs.

Although Cawthra was a leading merchant, his attitude towards the Bank of Upper Canada [see William Allan*] was for a long time consistent with his politics. In evidence given to the House of Assembly’s select committee on the state of the provincial currency in 1830, he decried its privileged position as the only chartered bank in the colony and advocated a more competitive financial market. On this occasion he declared that he had never been a director or stockholder of the bank. Later that year, however, he acquired his first shares in the bank, possibly in order to stand as an “anti-establishment” candidate for its directorate, along with Jesse Ketchum*, Thomas David Morrison, and Robert Baldwin*. He was elected to the directorate in 1835, and re-elected in 1836 and 1837. He had nothing to do with founding the Bank of the People, which was set up in 1835 by other leading reformers, including James Lesslie* and John Rolph*.

This was the background to his controversial role in shoring up the Bank of Upper Canada during the financial crisis of May and June 1837. The suspension of payment in specie by banks in the United States set off a run on banks in the Canadas. The situation in Toronto was aggravated by William Lyon Mackenzie’s newspaper campaign against the banks, in which he urged his readers to cash in their banknotes and withdraw their deposits in specie. On 17 May Mackenzie reported that Cawthra had visited all the banks in town the day before in order to cash in notes. Cawthra retorted that he had deposited more than £1,000 in the Bank of Upper Canada on that day and had a total of £15,000 deposited there. Francis Hincks*, the cashier of the Bank of the People, then swore an affidavit that William Cawthra, Joseph’s right hand in his business, had cashed £600 of that bank’s paper on the 16th and had declared his intention of cashing in paper at the city’s other banks, including the Bank of Upper Canada. Joseph replied with an affidavit that he had deposited a large sum in the Bank of Upper Canada on the 16th and had withdrawn none since. At the end of June, he had to make a public denial of the rumour that his £15,000 was deposited under a private arrangement which precluded the bank from applying it to the payment of other obligations. Another report stated that Cawthra, a director, had offered to buy the bank’s stock during the crisis at a discount of 20 per cent.

It seems likely that, on 16 May, the Cawthras had withdrawn specie from the Bank of the People, and perhaps from other Toronto banks, in order to shore up the Bank of Upper Canada. One might expect Mackenzie to have vilified them for doing so, and it is perhaps a measure of Joseph’s prestige in reform circles that Mackenzie made excuses for the Cawthras instead, repeatedly acknowledging Joseph’s long years of devotion to the reform cause and ascribing his conduct to necessity. Cawthra, explained Mackenzie, had £30,000 or more, including his deposits, tied up in the Bank of Upper Canada and was therefore compelled to defend the institution against his better judgment.

Cawthra was an anomalous and enigmatic figure in early Toronto society: anomalous in being a wealthy Anglican merchant who was involved in the Mackenzieite reform politics of Toronto and York County in the 1830s, and enigmatic because there is no surviving evidence of his reasons. Family tradition records his antipathy for the “family compact” and ascribes his adherence to the Church of England to the personal advice of John Wesley, the father of Methodism, not to leave it. It seems plausible that Cawthra was a man of independent views, with sufficient financial independence to indulge them. The financial crisis of 1837 forced him to choose between Mackenzie’s anti-capitalist politics and the exigencies of capitalism in crisis, but Mackenzie’s rebellion later that year made the contradiction insignificant in practical terms. At the next general election, in 1841, the reformers were led by Robert Baldwin, whose family were old and heavy investors in the Bank of Upper Canada, and their candidates in Toronto were John Henry Dunn* and Isaac Buchanan*, leading capitalists for whom Cawthra voted, probably without qualms.

Paul Romney

AO, RG 4–32, 1408/1880; RG 22, ser.155. PAC, RG 1, L3, 96: C8/41; 97: C9/59. City of Toronto poll book; exhibiting a classified list of voters, at the late great contest for responsible government . . . (Toronto, 1841). Town of York, 1793–1815 (Firth); 181534 (Firth). U.C., House of Assembly, App. to the journal, 1835, no.3; Journal, 1830, app.: 21–48. Colonial Advocate, 14 June 1827; 2 Oct., 4 Dec. 1828; 18 Feb. 1830; 10 June 1834. Toronto Patriot, 16 Jan. 1835; 19, 26 May, 30 June 1837; 18 Feb. 1842. History of Toronto and county of York, Ontario . . . (2v., Toronto, 1885), 2: 26–27. Past and present; notes by Henry Cawthra and others, comp. A. M. [Cawthra] Brock (Toronto, 1924).

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Cite This Article

Paul Romney, “CAWTHRA, JOSEPH,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 7, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed December 18, 2014, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/cawthra_joseph_7E.html.

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Permalink: http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/cawthra_joseph_7E.html
Author of Article: Paul Romney
Title of Article: CAWTHRA, JOSEPH
Publication Name: Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 7
Publisher: University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication: 1988
Year of revision: 1988
Access Date: December 18, 2014