DAWSON, WILLIAM EDDISON, businessman, magistrate, office holder, and politician; b. 1 Oct. 1829 in Leeds, England, son of William Dawson and Mary Best; m. 27 June 1855 Ann Ferrant Compton, and they had four sons and five daughters; d. 10 Dec. 1902 in Charlottetown.
William Eddison Dawson was one of three children of a Yorkshire cloth manufacturer who died prematurely. Educated at the common school in Leeds before training in a civil engineer’s office, he came with his mother and family to Prince Edward Island in 1843.
As a young man, Dawson began work as a clerk in the Charlottetown dry-goods firm of John Thomas Thomas, whom he joined as a partner in 1855. Dawson’s marriage that year connected him to prominent local businessmen. In 1861 he opened his own hardware and grocery store when Thomas left the Island. Four years later a reporter for R. G. Dun and Company noted that Dawson was “doing very well” and had “whatever credit he wishes” for his business. His continuing prosperity and his role as a founder in 1863 and a director of the Union Bank of Prince Edward Island placed him among the city’s mercantile élite.
Dawson participated vigorously in community life. He became a county magistrate early in his career and was a member of the school board for 14 years, some of them as chairman. A Methodist, he served successively as a class leader, steward, and superintendent of the Sunday school. He helped to found the Young Men’s Christian Association in Charlottetown in 1856 and was a member of its executive. He was also a vice-president and after 1892 president of the British and Foreign Bible Society on Prince Edward Island. In 1877, amid considerable debate over prohibition, he served on a special civic liquor-licensing board. A Conservative in politics, he was a president of the Queens County Liberal-Conservative Association, but despite this involvement, he had limited influence at the federal level. His complaints about being overlooked in the allocation of patronage on the Island were largely ignored, and his ambition to be made a senator in 1891 provoked little interest in Ottawa.
Dawson was much more effective as a civic politician. He was a Charlottetown city councillor for seven years between 1861 and 1874 and was mayor in 1878–82 and 1894–98. His initial election as mayor followed the refusal of reformer Jedediah Slason Carvell* to accept renomination and evidenced a popular desire for continued efforts to eliminate financial mismanagement. Dawson oversaw changes to the tax system whereby the burden of payment was removed from tenants and placed upon property owners, and a policy of prompt collection of arrears was pursued. The electorate, facing a downturn in the economy, also wanted budgetary retrenchment. Thus, despite his belief that the city needed a waterworks, Dawson postponed action while keeping the issue alive. But pragmatism and efficiency were not enough, and he was rejected in 1882 by voters convinced that he had become unresponsive to popular feeling and was monopolizing the city’s highest office. A waterworks was subsequently built during the mayoralty of Thomas Heath Haviland* and that debate was replaced by a controversy over the installation of sewers. Voters returned Dawson to office in 1894 to resolve the issue and to break a deadlock in council. He was successful on both counts and retired with a reputation as a defender of high ethical standards for public officials, financial restraint, and judicious civic improvement.
William Dawson led an active, constructive life that exemplified the values of his age. He was a man of merit, if not fame, and on his chosen stage played a substantial role with persistence and distinction.
The Atlantic Canada Newspaper Survey database, available on-line through the Canadian Heritage Information Network, administered by Communications Canada (Ottawa), contains numerous references to Dawson’s commercial and financial dealings.
Baker Library, R. G. Dun & Co. credit ledger, Canada, 9: 338, 345, 370, 394, 409. NA, MG 26, A. PARO, Acc. 2702/151; RG 20, esp. vols.2–11. P.E.I. Museum, Geneal. Div. files. Trinity United Church (Charlottetown), RBMB (mfm. at PARO, Acc.3295A/5 and 3295M/1). Daily Examiner (Charlottetown), July–August 1878, January 1882, January–February 1894, January–February 1898, 10–11 Dec. 1902. Daily Patriot (Charlottetown), January 1882; 14, 27 March, 11 April, 8 May 1893; January–February 1894; January–February 1898; 10–11 Dec. 1902. Patriot (Charlottetown), July-August 1878. D. [O.] Baldwin, “The Charlottetown political elite: control from elsewhere” and “‘But not a drop to drink’: the struggle for pure water,” in Gaslights, epidemics and vagabond cows: Charlottetown in the Victorian era, ed. D. [O.] Baldwin and Thomas Spira (Charlottetown, 1988), 32–50 and 103–24, respectively. Benjamin Bremner, Memories of long ago, being a series of sketches pertaining to Charlottetown in the past (Charlottetown, 1930). H. J. Cundall, “The early days of the Young Men’s Christian Association and Literary Institute,” Prince Edward Island Magazine and Educational Outlook (Charlottetown), 6 (1904): 192–201.