CLERK, GEORGE EDWARD, journalist; b. 18 March 1815 at Penicuik House, near Penicuik, county of Edinburgh, Scotland; son of Sir George Clerk, 6th Baronet of Penicuik, and Marie Law; d. 26 Sept. 1875 at Montreal, Que.
George Edward Clerk was born of an aristocratic but poor Scottish family whose manor was Penicuik House (to be devastated by fire in 1899). The barony of Penicuik, of which his father was the sixth holder, had become in 1646 the property of the Clerk family; earlier it had been distinguished by its attachment to the Stuart cause George Clerk, born in 1787, had married Marie, daughter of Ewan Law, in August 1810; she bore him eight sons and four daughters.
George Edward was the second of the eight sons. He studied at Eton, then, thanks to political backing, entered the Royal Navy as a midshipman; by this means he had an opportunity to sail along the west coast of Africa and witness many moving episodes of the slave trade. Early in the 1830s, he also formed part of the crew of a warship placed at Sir Walter Scott’s disposal for a Mediterranean cruise.
Politics had put him into the navy; politics took him out of it after two years, a change of ministry having occurred. One of the openings available to a young Scottish aristocrat was therefore closed to him. There remained the army and the church, but neither offered enough attraction to a young man fired by the thought of a life of adventure. He therefore decided to emigrate to Australia, where for 14 years he was a sheep-farmer. An affliction of the eyes, caused by the intense reflection of sunlight on dry and sandy soil, forced him to return to Scotland.
In the meantime an important event had occurred in his life: he had been converted to Catholicism through reading a book by Nicholas Wiseman. Hitherto he had been somewhat indifferent to the question of religion; his one desire henceforth was to make his life conform as exactly as possible to the creed which he had espoused with one single surge of heart and mind.
On 7 Oct. 1847, while on his way to visit Australia a second time, he came to Montreal. He intended to stop there only for a short time, but an attack of rheumatic fever brought on by dampness first made him prolong his stay; then conjugal and paternal love – on 27 Nov. 1849, at Laprairie, he married Marie-Louise-Élisabeth Dupuis – introduced into this wanderer’s existence an exemplary stability, by giving him permanent roots in the Canadian metropolis.
To earn a living, Clerk first tried his hand at being a notary. He then got in touch with Bishop Ignace Bourget* and Abbé Joseph Larocque*, editor of the Mélanges religieux. Thanks to them he had access to the library of the bishop’s palace, and this allowed him to establish the bases of the philosophical and theological culture that was to ensure his success and authority as a journalist.
But it was only after the American Orestes Augustus Brownson, on 2 May 1850, had declined the invitation of Bourget and Larocque to become editor of a paper they had intended to entrust to his experience as a Christian publicist, that they turned to Clerk. Warmly encouraged by two spokesmen of the Irish Catholics of Montreal and Quebec, the bookseller James Sadlier and the parish priest Patrick McMahon*, the Scotsman accepted. On 8 May he laid before the bishops a rough draft of a paper, and they agreed to it. Three days later a circular informed the public that the English-speaking Catholics would soon be provided with a publication dedicated to the defence of their faith and their rights: “Impelled by the needs of the day, and at the request of several laymen who are deeply distressed that Catholicism in Canada does not have a single organ in the English language to repel the ceaseless attacks of Protestant journals, we have reached the following decision. We fully approve, as being an undertaking beneficial to religion, of the publication of a religious newspaper in English, provided that it is attached to no political party.”
From then on it was a highly intriguing spectacle for Montrealers to watch the brisk campaigns conducted by this authentic Scotsman who became, with no ulterior motive, the herald and acknowledged defender of the largest English-speaking Catholic group in Canada, the Irish. Clerk, as a personality as well as a journalist, did not lack the characteristics, even the peculiarities, which arouse and retain the curiosity of the public, always partial to those men whose appearance and behaviour strike a note of originality in the monotony of the mass. With broad shoulders, eyes of a deep blue usually concealed behind glasses that were equally blue, hair brushed well back from his forehead, sidewhiskers and moustache trimmed in the style of the period, a cleanly chiselled mouth, original in his dress to the point of eccentricity, Clerk, although an unflagging worker, abandoned his pen and his books as often as he could to stroll through the streets in all weathers, carrying his inseparable cotton umbrella which he had brought from Australia, accompanied by friends, and followed by two or three dogs.
He entitled his paper, the first number of which appeared on 16 Aug. 1850, the True Witness and Catholic Chronicle. This title indicated a whole programme. It was also a declaration of war on John Dougall*, of the Montreal Witness, and George Brown, the founder and editor-in-chief of the Toronto paper the Globe. An emigrant Scotsman was wielding the claymore against two other Scotsmen, emigrants like himself. With truly Caledonian fervour on both sides, a struggle then began on the shores of the St Lawrence which certainly lost none of its fire for not being waged on the banks of the Clyde.
As well as being the uncompromising champion of the Catholic faith, Clerk showed himself the determined opponent of the Liberals, especially when they belonged to the Institut Canadien To the great satisfaction of the clergy, his preferences inclined him towards the Conservative party. Bishop Bourget wrote to him on 3 Oct. 1860: “When one looks through your columns with a modicum of attention, one is soon convinced that you are a true conservative, working at full strength to link this colony firmly with the mother country; and to succeed in this undertaking you are setting powerfully in motion, with your irresistible logic, the religious principle, which is indeed the one solid basis of civil and political society.”
It was only when he thought that the interests of Catholicism were at stake that Clerk deviated from this political line, as he did for example over confederation. “In 1865,” Laurent-Olivier David* wrote, “a public meeting called by the opponents of the plan for confederation took place in one of the rooms of the Institut Canadien-Français. During the discussion a man got up and began to speak in English; he declared emphatically against this change of constitution, and quoted as an example of the dangers that it contained for the French Canadian Catholic minority the history of the Catholics in Scotland and Ireland. His powerful build, his military bearing, and his incisive, energetic manner of speaking gave the impression of great physical and intellectual vitality.” David, who did not yet know him, learned then that the speaker was George Edward Clerk, “the famous editor of the True Witness.” And David added: as Clerk “had always given evidence of independence in politics, the opponents of Confederation were happy to have such a powerful assistant in their struggle against the new constitution.”
The journal of which Clerk was the owner and practically the sole editor appeared every Friday. It was printed by John Gillies, who saw to its circulation. In 1858 the True Witness had 2,837 subscribers and was distributed by agents in 21 areas. In the following year Clerk transferred the ownership to Gillies, who made many trips to Canada West, the Maritimes, and Nova Scotia to increase the number of subscribers.
Despite Gillies’ efforts, the financial situation of the True Witness always remained precarious. From the time the paper was started, Bishop Bourget had assured Clerk that he could count on an annual sum of $600, $200 coming from the bishopric, $200 from the Sulpicians, and $200 from the diocese of Quebec through the intermediary of the vicar general, Charles-Félix Cazeau*. If by chance one of these sources happened to dry up, Clerk did not fail to approach the bishop of Montreal and remind him of his initial promise. Thanks to this meagre subsidy, Clerk held on heroically to his post as editor, although there remained “very scanty means with which to support his large family,” as vicar general Alexis-Frédéric Truteau wrote to Bishop Bourget on 18 Feb. 1870. Indeed, of the Clerk-Dupuis marriage 11 children had been born; nine of them, six boys and three girls, reached adult age. The youngest of the sons, Jean-Pio-Robert, was to marry a daughter of Senator Laurent-Olivier David, who expressed his warm admiration for Clerk in some well-informed pages later published in Les gerbes canadiennes.
A quarter of a century of exhausting work and militant journalism had undermined Clerk’s health, and he was finally struck down by a severe attack of angina pectoris in February 1875. Surrounded by his family, and having received the last sacraments of the church, he passed away on 26 Sept. 1875.
ACAM, RLB, 11, p.450. Mandements des évêques de Québec (Têtu et Gagnon), III, 571–72. L.-O. David, Les gerbes canadiennes (Montréal, 1921), 67–80. Robert [Philippe] Sylvain, Clerc, garibaldien, prédicant des deux mondes : Alessandro Gavazzi (1809–1889) (2v., Québec, 1962), II, 323–29. Agnes Coffey, “George Edward Clerk, founder of the ‘True Witness’; a pioneer of Catholic action,” CCHA Report, 1934–35, 46–59; “The True Witness and Catholic Chronicle; sixty years of Catholic journalistic action,” CCHA Report, 1937–38, 33–46.
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Cite This Article
Philippe Sylvain, “CLERK, GEORGE EDWARD,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 10, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed June 1, 2023, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/clerk_george_edward_10E.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:
|Author of Article:||Philippe Sylvain|
|Title of Article:||CLERK, GEORGE EDWARD|
|Publication Name:||Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 10|
|Publisher:||University of Toronto/Université Laval|
|Year of publication:||1972|
|Year of revision:||1972|
|Access Date:||June 1, 2023|