COUNTER, JOHN, baker, entrepreneur, and politician; b. 18 April 1799 in Devonshire, England, second son of Susannah and John Counter; m. in April 1822 Hannah Roode of Kingston, Upper Canada, and they had six children, two dying in infancy; d. 29 Oct. 1862 at Kingston.

John Counter came to Kingston with his parents about 1820. At first a baker and confectioner, he later expanded his commercial interests into transportation and real estate. In 1831 he bought waterfront land in Kingston and a year later built a handsome combined residence and commercial building (demolished in 1973) which he named Plymouth Square. He had added to this building three times by 1840 and had also extended his waterfront holdings.

Counter’s first recorded investment in Kingston was in August 1826 when he bought a £25 share in the Cataraqui Bridge Company. In January 1836 he formed, and was first chairman of, the Kingston Stave Forwarding Company based on Garden Island opposite the town. A joint stock company, it became Calvin, Cook, and Counter in 1838. Counter left the firm in 1843, and Delano Dexter Calvin* and Hiram Cook expanded the business to include shipbuilding; the firm continued until 1914. Counter also formed the Marine Railway Company for ship repair and shipbuilding in April 1836. He started it with his own capital, then opened it to public subscription. It expanded into supporting industries and came to include a sawmill, an iron foundry, extensive shops, and wharfage rights.

At a public meeting on 30 Dec. 1835 Counter moved a resolution, seconded by John Mowat*, urging the incorporation of Kingston as a town. Counter continued to promote the measure, judging that it would bring increased business and improve property values, and signed the petition which finally brought incorporation in 1838. He sought a council seat in the town’s first election but was defeated. However, he served as mayor in 1841, 1842, and 1843, and was the first mayor of the city of Kingston in 1846. Elected again in 1850, 1852, 1853, and 1855, he resigned in June 1855 because his shares in the local gas company were considered to constitute a conflict of interest. In 1851, Counter, whose politics were expressed as “Kingston,” was nominated by the Reformers to run against John A. Macdonald* in the Kingston City riding but he refused to campaign. He did oppose Macdonald in 1854 but received only 265 votes to Macdonald’s 437.

Counter had been instrumental in forming the Board of Trade in Kingston in December 1839. As its president (he was the first to hold that post) he organized in 1841 a canvass of the town to find accommodation for government officials when Kingston became the home of the parliament of the united Province of Canada, giving up his own home to the vice-chancellor, R. S. Jameson*, and renting the new offices of the Marine Railway to the government. In 1842, as mayor, he went to England to borrow money so the town could erect a municipal building befitting the then capital of the province [see William Coverdale]. With Macdonald he gave a clock for the tower of the new building, completed in 1844, which became the city hall when Kingston was incorporated as a city in 1846. A strong supporter of the Wesleyan Methodists, Counter donated generously to the building fund for the Victoria Street chapel in 1847. He gave the land and laid the cornerstone, on 17 April 1851, for the Sydenham Street Church, and he served on its management committee.

Before the Grand Trunk Railway came to Kingston in 1856, Counter started a car ferry to Cape Vincent (N.Y.), hoping to make Kingston the distribution centre for American goods in Canada. To speed up and improve this service he promoted the Wolfe Island, Kingston, and Toronto Railroad and the Wolfe Island Railway and Canal Company. The latter project, a canal across Wolfe Island, which he had conceived in 1836, was incorporated in 1851 and finally put in operation in 1857. By then, other railways provided alternatives to the Cape Vincent-Kingston route and it was completed too late to be profitable.

Counter borrowed heavily to support his numerous interests and also to open the first subdivision in Kingston. In 1852 he had the highest assessment in the city. In October 1855 he could not meet a large mortgage payment and his financial obligations forced him into bankruptcy. At the time Counter’s business enterprises began to fail his personal life was beset with tragedy. Within ten years he lost his brother, two grandchildren, his two sons, and his wife. The country house he built in 1847, named South Roode to honour his wife, was taken over by a bank in 1856, the same year that his extensive holdings were disposed of by chancery sale.

John Counter died six years later at the home of his son-in-law, in virtual obscurity. Only a brief notice appeared in the local newspaper on the death of a man who had devoted his life to the welfare of his adopted home.

Margaret S. Angus

Anglican Church of Canada, Diocese of Ontario, Synod Archives (Kingston, Ont.), St George’s parish register, 1822. Cataraqui Cemetery (Kingston, Ont.), gravestones. Kingston Registry Office (Kingston, Ont.), records for water lot 22; park lot 2 and subdivisions; and farm lot 22, east  1/2. PAC, RG 31, 1861 census, Kingston City, ward 2. QUA, Kingston Town Council, proceedings, 1838–45; Kingston City Council, proceedings, 1846–55. British Whig and General Advertiser for Canada West (Kingston, [Ont.]), 7 April 1838, 21 Nov. 1843, 29 Jan. 1844. Chronicle & Gazette (Kingston), 20 April 1835; 2, 16, 23 Jan., 2 March, 20 April 1836; 7 Dec. 1837; 17 Aug., 7 Dec. 1839; 7 March 1840; 24 Feb., 7 April 1841; 7 April, 16 May 1842. Chronicle and News (Kingston), 7 Dec. 1848, 11 Aug. 1849, 14 Jan. 1853, 16 March 1855. Daily News (Kingston), 18 July 1854; 12 June, 10 Oct. 1855; 28 March 1856; 2 Nov. 1861; 29 Oct. 1862. Kingston Chronicle, 7 Aug., 15 Sept. 1826. Creighton, Macdonald, young politician, 140, 171. E. E. Horsey, Kingston, a century ago; issued to commemorate the centennial of Kingston’s incorporation (Kingston, Ont., 1938).

Cite This Article

Margaret S. Angus, “COUNTER, JOHN,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 9, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed July 24, 2024,

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:   Margaret S. Angus
Title of Article:   COUNTER, JOHN
Publication Name:   Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 9
Publisher:   University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication:   1976
Year of revision:   1976
Access Date:   July 24, 2024