DCB/DBC Mobile beta


New Biographies

Minor Corrections

Biography of the Day

MILLS, Sir THOMAS – Volume IV (1771-1800)

d. 28 Feb. 1793 in London, England


Responsible Government

Sir John A. Macdonald

From the Red River Settlement to Manitoba (1812–70)

Sir Wilfrid Laurier

Sir George-Étienne Cartier


The Fenians

Women in the DCB/DBC

The Charlottetown and Quebec Conferences of 1864

Introductory Essays of the DCB/DBC

The Acadians

For Educators

The War of 1812 

Canada’s Wartime Prime Ministers

The First World War

COCKRELL, RICHARD, author, educator, office holder, surveyor, editor, and publisher; b. 1769 or 1773 in Yorkshire, England, son of an officer of the East India Company; m. 1800 Mary Stewart, and they had three children; d. 7 July 1829 in Ancaster, Upper Canada.

Richard Cockrell came from a family with connections in the army and navy and in the East India Company. He attended school and college in England, graduating at 21, and then proceeded to the study of law and medicine, which he gave up some time in the early 1790s in order to visit North America. He went first to the United States but by 1795 was in Newark (Niagara-on-the-Lake), Upper Canada. On his arrival he seems to have been promoting some sort of colonization venture: in June 1795 he petitioned for a grant of land on the Thames River sufficient to accommodate 40 families. When the Executive Council turned down this petition, Cockrell and one Thomas Otway Page petitioned for a grant of 1,200 acres, apparently in the Newark area. The council responded with grants to Cockrell and Page of 200 acres each; Cockrell’s was in Windham Township. For some reason, he did not take it up, probably because in 1796 he obtained a town lot in Newark.

Mainly as a result of his experiences in the United States, Cockrell published at Newark in 1795 a pamphlet entitled Thoughts on the education of youth. This is a remarkable document, the first piece of writing on educational theory and practice published in English in North America, preceding by 13 years the first such effort in the United States. Significantly, it was also the first non-governmental publication in Upper Canada, appearing after the publication of Lieutenant Governor John Graves Simcoe*’s speech at the opening of the first parliament and the laws passed by the first and second sessions of that parliament. Cockrell’s Thoughts reveals modern views on such aspects of education as discipline and pedagogy, but one of his major concerns was the deplorable state of the teaching profession in Upper Canada. Referring to teachers as the “mushroom gentry,” Cockrell lambasted them for having “neither abilities nor address to recommend them, scarce knowing B from a bull’s foot.” To improve this situation, Cockrell proposed adoption of the American practice of examining teachers before appointment, a practice not as widespread in the United States as he supposed. His advocacy of object-lesson learning and the use of spellers in reading instead of the Bible marks Cockrell as an educator well ahead of his time. His commendation of American educational practices foreshadowed an attitude in Canadian education that has continued to the present day.

In 1796 Cockrell opened a school in Newark, teaching writing, arithmetic, and bookkeeping. Although his name is now virtually unknown, he appears to have been one of the outstanding pioneer schoolteachers. Probably in 1797 he moved to Ancaster to establish another school, which the most eminent teacher of the day, the Reverend John Strachan*, described as “an excellent mathematical school.” Cockrell also taught school in Wellington Square (Burlington), Cobourg, York (Toronto), and then back at Niagara (Niagara-on-the-Lake); in 1817 he and another teacher, John Conner, were operating a common school in Grantham Township. Among his students in these schools were William Hamilton Merritt*, Allan Napier MacNab*, John Brant [Tekarihogen], and members of the Butler, Crooks, and Bolton families.

After moving to Ancaster, Cockrell was made a deputy sheriff of the Home District, and thereupon applied for additional land “in Consideration of the office he holds.” The council rejected his request, but in 1811 Cockrell did obtain a grant of 400 acres in Garafraxa Township, north of present-day Guelph. His success in obtaining a second grant was probably due to his career as a surveyor over the preceding decade. He had begun work as a private, unlicensed surveyor after his arrival in Ancaster – one source claims that he had moved to the settlement to survey the lands of John Baptist Rousseaux* St John – and in 1798 he had angered the administrator of the province, Peter Russell*, by conducting an unauthorized survey of the Six Nations lands on the Grand River. Fortunately for Cockrell, this crisis blew over, and in 1802 or thereabouts he was licensed as a deputy provincial surveyor. In the years that followed he conducted surveys in several townships, including Saltfleet, Grantham, and Niagara. As well, in June 1818 he published Thoughts on the subject of land surveying . . . , a book that included severe criticisms of the Surveyor General’s Office.

In 1810 Cockrell was made a judge of the Newcastle District, but he does not appear to have taken up the appointment. He participated in the War of 1812 as an army surveyor, and according to a family tradition was present at the battle of Lundy’s Lane in July 1814. At the close of the war he became founding editor of the Spectator, published by Amos McKenney at St Davids from 15 March 1816. In February 1817 the paper became known as the Niagara Spectator, and the following August its office was shifted to Niagara, where Bartemas Ferguson became its publisher. In 1818 Cockrell moved to Dundas; there he and the powerful businessman Richard Hatt* founded the Upper Canada Phoenix, the first newspaper published in the province west of York. This newspaper probably ceased publication the next year, thereby bringing to an end Cockrell’s journalistic career.

Little is known of Cockrell’s politics. In the election of 1800 he was a candidate in the riding of Norfolk, Oxford and Middlesex but lost to Surveyor General David William Smith*; he later contested the election on the grounds that the returning officer, Thomas Welch*, had acted improperly. In ensuing years Cockrell remained free of any taint of political extremism. In 1801 and 1802 he apparently played a devious game with Asa Danforth, leading him to think that he supported plans for an invasion of Upper Canada from New York State but at the same time forwarding Danforth’s incriminating letters to the provincial authorities. On the other hand, Cockrell does seem to have had reformist sympathies. In 1816 the Spectator embroiled itself in controversy by attacking the Loyal and Patriotic Society of Upper Canada, a body whose moving spirit was John Strachan, and the following year Cockrell was called before the bar of the House of Assembly for publishing in his paper an election address by James Durand that had been harshly critical of the government. There is also little doubt that Cockrell was a supporter of Robert Gourlay*. To begin with, Cockrell was a close friend of Richard Hatt, himself a supporter of Gourlay in the early stages of his agitation, and Hatt’s friends generally followed his lead on political matters. Furthermore, as late as June 1818 the Phoenix was diligently reporting on the township meetings that had been called in response to Gourlay’s appeal.

Cockrell was a freemason – in 1796 and again in 1816 he served as grand secretary of the masonic lodge that met in Newark. As for his religion, a committee of the assembly in 1830 claimed that he was “believed to be a Presbyterian.” An artistic man who dabbled in verse and excelled in painting and drawing, Cockrell is also said to have delighted in “speechifying, and song-singing assemblies.” In appearance, he was described as “tall, with regular features, rather florid complexion, gray eyes, and a wealth of dark-brown billowy hair, which was tied at the back with a bow of black ribbon.”

In 1829 Cockrell decided to return to England to secure for his children their inheritance, but he died on 7 July at Ancaster of a “sudden and severe illness.” An obituary declared that he “was endowed by nature with talents far above mediocrity; and was highly and justly esteemed for many amiable qualities.”

J. Donald Wilson

Richard Cockrell’s pamphlet Thoughts on the education of youth (Newark [Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont.], 1795) has been reprinted by the Biblio. Soc. of Canada (Toronto, 1949).

AO, Pamphlet coll., 1935, no.65, Alicia Cockrell Robinson, “‘The Upper Canada Phoenix’ and ‘The Niagara Spectator’” (photocopies, n.p., n.d.); RG 1, A-I-1, 23: 90–98; 55: 129; A-I-6: 2944, 3131, 3348, 4135, 5048, 5080, 5350, 5661, 5684. PAC, RG 1, L3, 89: C1/39, 116; 90: C2/11, 98; 98: C10/40; RG 5, A1: 659–61.; 687–89, 758–62, 8821–22, 15359–60. “Ancaster parish records, 1830–1838,” comp. John Miller, OH, 5 (1904): 163. Documentary history of education in Upper Canada from the passing of the Constitutional Act of 1791 to the close of Rev. DrRyersons administration of the Education Department in 1876, ed. J. G. Hodgins (28v., Toronto, 1894–1910), 1. “Grants of crown lands in U.C.,” AO Report, 1929: 103. Joseph Neef, Sketch of a plan and method of education, founded on an analysis of the human faculties, and natural reason, suitable for the offspring of a free people, and for all rational beings (Philadelphia, 1808). “U.C. land book B,” AO Report, 1930: 33, 106. Colonial Advocate, 31 July 1828. FarmersJournal and Welland Canal Intelligencer (St Catharines, [Ont.]), 22 July 1829. Niagara Spectator (Niagara [Niagara-on-the-Lake]), 1816–17. Upper Canada Gazette, 30 Nov. 1796. Upper Canada Phoenix (Dundas, [Ont.]), 16 June 1818. W. D. Reid, The loyalists in Ontario: the sons and daughters of the American loyalists of Upper Canada (Lambertville, N.J., 1973), 309. Ancasters heritage: a history of Ancaster Township (Ancaster, Ont., 1973). J.-P. Wallot, Intrigues françaises et américaines au Canada, 1800–1802 (Montréal, 1965). W. S. Wallace, “The periodical literature of Upper Canada,” CHR, 12 (1931): 4–22.

General Bibliography

Cite This Article

J. Donald Wilson, “COCKRELL, RICHARD,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 6, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed February 28, 2024, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/cockrell_richard_6E.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/cockrell_richard_6E.html
Author of Article:   J. Donald Wilson
Title of Article:   COCKRELL, RICHARD
Publication Name:   Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 6
Publisher:   University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication:   1987
Year of revision:   1987
Access Date:   February 28, 2024