FELTON, WILLIAM BOWMAN, landowner, office holder, jp, militia officer, and politician; b. 1782 in Gloucester, England, son of John Felton, an officer in the Royal Navy, and Elizabeth Butt; d. 30 June 1837 at Belvidere, his residence near Sherbrooke, Lower Canada.
William Bowman Felton was among the half-pay officers who came to British North America to establish themselves as landed gentry at the close of the Napoleonic Wars. He had served as purser for the British fleet in the Mediterranean between 1800 and 1812, and then as agent-victualler at Gibraltar until 1814. He resigned this permanent post on the understanding that he would become consul-general in Tuscany (Italy), but the recommendation of Lord William Cavendish Bentinck, commander of the British forces in Sicily, was rejected by the Foreign Office. At loose ends, Felton submitted a proposal to the Colonial Office whereby he and members of his family would move to, and invest £20,000 in, a large block of land in British North America. The colonial secretary, Lord Bathurst, agreed to grant 5,000 acres to Felton and 1,200 acres to each of his four associates, his brothers Charles Bridgeman and John, and his brothers-in-law William and Charles Whitcher. In the spring of 1815 Felton embarked with his wife, Anna Maria Valls, whom he had married on Minorca in 1811, and their first child, William Locker Pickmore*.
Upon arrival at Quebec, Felton was dismayed to learn that the grant had been reduced to 4,000 acres, with 2,000 for himself. Nevertheless, he proceeded to inspect the sparsely settled Eastern Townships to which Bathurst had directed his attention because of their vulnerability to American attack. Colonel Frederick George Heriot was establishing a military settlement, Drummondville, near the mouth of the Rivière Saint-François, so Felton chose the more centrally located Ascot Township, farther upriver. In the spring of 1816 he established his family on an elevated location christened Belvidere, several miles from Hyatt’s Mill (Sherbrooke). With the aid of 59 British labourers who had accompanied him on three-year contracts, as well as a number of Canadians hired at Trois-Rivières, Felton was able to claim in the fall that 1,000 acres had been cleared and tilled. Bathurst consequently authorized the granting of the other 5,800 acres which had been promised, plus 100 acres for each British labourer who wished to settle once his contract was satisfied.
Like the other farmers in this economically isolated region, Felton raised livestock, there being no means of shipping grain to markets, but his hunger for land far exceeded the requirements of any agricultural activities. By 1818 he had purchased most of Sherbrooke’s mills and mill sites at a cost of over £5,000, yet he was not interested in becoming a merchant or an industrialist for he leased most of the property to Charles Frederick Henry Goodhue, a local entrepreneur. Conveniently neglecting to mention that he had already been granted all the land originally promised, in 1821 Felton began to demand more land on the grounds that he had invested the £20,000 agreed upon. Bathurst not only consented to a 5,000-acre grant to Felton the following year but in 1826 he added still another 5,000 acres with unspecified “usual reservations” for Felton’s children and labourers. By 1830 Felton had patented grants for 15,813 acres, mostly in fertile Ascot Township, while 10,861 acres had been patented for his children in neighbouring Orford Township.
To develop his extensive holdings, Felton attempted to overcome the isolation of the townships. In 1817 he served as a commissioner to oversee the expenditure of £50,000 on a road from Ascot Township to Drummondville, but five years later the road was still barely passable, and his subsequent schemes to supervise road projects went nowhere. Absentee landowners and the system of crown and clergy reserves were among the chief deterrents to settlement and a viable road network, so in 1825 Felton turned to the idea of a colonization company which would acquire much of this undeveloped land and invest capital in the region. Copying the example of the newly formed Canada Company [see John Galt], Felton recruited prominent Lower Canadian entrepreneurs who agreed to raise £1,000,000 (sterling) locally and in Britain. The plan was for the Lower Canada Land Company, as the project was called, to obtain all the crown lands and one-third of the clergy reserves south of the St Lawrence River in the districts of Montreal and Trois-Rivières and to build roads, bridges, schools, churches, presbyteries, and mills, as well as to recruit British settlers. In London Felton negotiated a union with a sister company and an unofficial agreement with the Colonial Office, but Lord Dalhousie [Ramsay], the governor-in-chief, took a strong stand against such monopolistic companies. The under-secretary of state for the colonies, Robert John Wilmot-Horton, was strongly committed to the project, but a financial panic in the fall of 1826 killed chances to raise the necessary capital. When it was revived as the British American Land Company in 1833, Felton was no longer involved. Not only did his appointment as commissioner of crown lands, in 1827, preclude any direct participation, but he now favoured a more active role in colonization for the Colonial Office. Its participation, of course, would enhance his own role, whereas the existence of a company would greatly reduce his importance as commissioner. Nevertheless, when requested by the Colonial Office to report upon lands suitable for the company, Felton chose the Eastern Townships, where his own investments would inevitably benefit.
Felton’s road and colonization schemes may have been less than successful, but he did manage to influence the establishment of the legal institutions which would enforce law and order as well as encourage capitalist development in the region. He complained to the authorities about the widespread smuggling, counterfeiting, and livestock rustling engaged in by settlers on both sides of the border with Vermont. He and members of his clan became justices of the peace, and in 1821 he was appointed lieutenant-colonel in the local militia. In 1823 the judicial district of Saint-François was finally established, Felton’s influence ensuring that Sherbrooke was designated as the seat of the court, and that his brother Charles Bridgeman became protonotary and Charles Whitcher district sheriff. In 1824 Felton, Whitcher, and Moses Nichols were commissioned to erect a permanent jail and court-house, a task which took five years at a cost of £2,660 raised by themselves. By 1832 the court tax which they had been authorized to collect as reimbursement had produced only £210, but still the Patriote leader, Louis-Joseph Papineau*, opposed any government subsidy for the building.
Papineau’s intransigence was probably due in part to Felton’s association with the tory element of the Legislative Council ever since his appointment to that body on 4 April 1822. His imperialist views coincided nicely with the economic interests of the Montreal and Quebec merchants, but occasionally they could clash. He was also in conflict with the more conservative members of the council when he supported a bill to provide members of the assembly with salaries, although he argued that it would work against its radical sponsors by freeing farmers from the hold of absentee lawyers, notaries, and “petty merchants.” Felton again championed the free yeoman against the petit bourgeois of the assembly when he attacked that body’s attempt to strengthen sanctions against agricultural labourers who broke their engagements. They were not a servile class, he proclaimed, but the sons of the poorer landed proprietors, and they would only degenerate in city prisons. Felton’s agrarianism had definite limits, however, for he vehemently opposed the bill on the fabriques [see Louis Bourdages*] on the grounds that it would weaken the beneficial influence the Catholic Church exercised over the habitants. Paradoxically, especially for someone who promoted the strengthening of British influence in Lower Canada, Felton was not at all concerned about preserving the privileges of his own Church of England. He not only opposed the clergy reserves, but also took up the cause of extending the civil privileges of the Protestant sects. Felton, then, was not an arch-tory – he even tried to persuade the Colonial Office to give in to the assembly’s chief demands in 1826 – but in general he took a hard line against any concessions which would weaken the political position of the Anglo-Protestant minority in Lower Canada.
Felton’s most important public role was that of the province’s first commissioner of crown lands. He had probably received the appointment because of his considerable experience, including that obtained in his role as local crown-lands agent since 1822, and as compensation for the scuttling of his colonization company. The public sale of crown lands, to be managed by him, was, in fact, designed as an alternative to the company. Felton, who travelled widely as commissioner, rigorously enforced the collection of payments, but he did not hesitate to ignore instructions which would have increased the hardships of settlers by the levying of interest charges and the abolition of the quitrent system for pauper immigrants. He alienated the Clergy Reserves Corporation after 1828 by charging less than the market value for the reserves he sold and by refusing to set aside parish glebes. Opposed though he was to absentee proprietorship, Felton had a natural bias towards large resident landholders. Governor Lord Durham [Lambton] later charged that Felton had sold most of the clergy reserves to speculators; his agents certainly did auction some 1,200-acre blocks of crown land to individual purchasers, thereby arousing resentment among local smallholders
The governor and the colonial secretary defended Felton against attacks by the Clergy Reserves Corporation and disgruntled residents of the townships, but his greed for land eventually gave his enemies the opportunity to destroy him. In 1835 Surveyor General Joseph Bouchette, whom Felton had openly accused of extreme incompetence, if not corruption, provided compromising documents to Bartholomew Conrad Augustus Gugy*, the member of the assembly for Sherbrooke, who had been feuding with the Felton clan. As chairman of the assembly’s standing committee on grievances, Gugy charged that during the 1820s Felton had taken advantage of his position as local crown-lands agent to sell certain crown lots in Ascot Township as his own property. He had had the letters patent issued in the purchasers’ names, explaining to those who raised questions that he had eliminated the time and expense required to have the legal title issued in his own name before transferring it to his clients. Gugy’s committee and the assembly demanded his immediate dismissal, but the governor, Lord Gosford [Acheson], gave him his first chance to defend himself. Felton replied that he had considered the lots in question part of his five per cent commission as crown-lands agent. Gosford was not convinced by Felton’s story; however, it could be neither proved nor disproved because Felton had never filed a claim specifying the lots he had set aside for himself. Gosford thus had to drop the legal proceedings initiated against Felton, but in August 1836 he suspended him as commissioner of crown lands.
Felton had quite simply become a political embarrassment to the British authorities, for even the tory press in the Eastern Townships was blaming him for the growth of radicalism in the region. Felton might nevertheless have escaped the wrath of his superiors had he not alienated their trust in the process of claiming crown land for his children. In 1828 the Colonial Office had reduced from 1,200 acres to 200 Felton’s request for each of his nine children. Yet the draft of patents from the attorney general’s office had somehow specified nine parcels of 1,200 acres each in Orford Township, and had been signed in November 1830 by the unsuspecting, newly arrived governor, Lord Aylmer [Whitworth-Aylmer]. Felton had not questioned this surprising reversal, later explaining that he had assumed Governor Sir James Kempt* had undergone a last-minute change of heart before leaving Lower Canada in October 1830. The matter went unnoticed until 1834 when the colonial secretary, Edward George Geoffrey Smith Stanley, reviewed the land grants to Lower Canada’s legislative councillors. Thomas Spring-Rice, Stanley’s replacement, was far from impressed with Felton’s explanation. He nevertheless felt that Felton was probably innocent of falsifying the documents, and he decided not to advise his dismissal provided the extra acreage be rescinded immediately. In January 1835 Felton hastened to offer his compliance, but legal complications arose in transferring titles because most of his children were still minors. The Executive Council then agreed to accept Felton’s offer to pay for the land at market value. The evaluation was delayed for a year, however, and by the spring of 1836 the governor was in no position to make concessions; the assembly was demanding the dismissal of Felton as commissioner of crown lands. Gosford required a complete revocation of the excess grant, and Felton again agreed to cooperate, but his suspension in August appears to have changed his mind. Late in 1836 Felton was dismissed and by the following summer he was dead, after having endured the final humiliation of a victory by Bouchette, who had sued him for libel. The cases against his heirs dragged on for many years, until the final one was dropped in 1876.
Felton’s widow was forced to sell most of the Sherbrooke properties to the British American Land Company in 1838, and in 1841 poverty forced her to rent Belvidere and move to Quebec with her dependent children (there had been a total of 12). The eldest son, William Locker Pickmore, remained in the area as a lawyer and politician, and most of the daughters married scions of the province’s élite, but Felton’s dream of founding a family of landed gentry died with him. In so far as his impact on the Eastern Townships is concerned, he was probably resented no more for what he did than for what he and the other English office holders represented, the British government’s distrust and disdain of the founding American settlers.
ANQ-E, CE1-46, 3 juill. 1827; T11–501/D13, D24. ANQ-MBF, CN1-6, 1816–20. McCord Museum, M21585. PAC, MG 24, B2; RG 1, El, 36–45; L3L; RG 4, A1; RG 68. Private arch., J.-P. Kesteman (Sherbrooke, Que.), J.-P. Kesteman, “Histoire de Sherbrooke . . .” (typescript, 1979), 1. PRO, CO 42; CO 324/73–102. Elmer Cushing, An appeal addressed to a candid public . . . (Stanstead, Que., 1826). G.B., Parl., House of Commons paper, 1826, 4, no.404: 1–381, Report from the select committee on emigration from the United Kingdom. L.C., House of Assembly, Journals, 1823, 1834–36; Legislative Council, Journals, 1822–37. “Parliamentary debates” (Canadian Library Assoc. mfm. project of the debates in the legislature of the Province of Canada and the parliament of Canada for 1846–74), 7 March 1855. British Colonist and St. Francis Gazette (Stanstead), 1823–37. Missiskoui Standard (Frelighsburg, Que.), 1835–37. Montreal Gazette, 1815–37. Quebec Gazette, 5 April 1821. Sherbrooke Gazette and Townships Advertiser (Sherbrooke), 1832–37. Vindicator and Canadian Advertiser, 1835–36. Joseph Bouchette, The British dominions in North America; or a topographical description of the provinces of Lower and Upper Canada . . . (2v., London, 1832). L.-P. Demers, Sherbrooke, découvertes, légendes, documents, nos rues et leurs symboles ([Sherbrooke, 1969]). Philip Goldring, “British colonists and imperial interests in Lower Canada, 1820 to 1841” (phd thesis, Univ. of London, 1978). Norman Macdonald, Canada, 1763–1841, immigration and settlement; the administration of the imperial land regulations (London and Toronto, 1939). Jules Martel, Histoire du système routier des Cantons de l’Est avant 1855 (Victoriaville, Qué., 1960). Maurice O’Bready, De Ktiné à Sherbrooke; esquisse historique de Sherbrooke: des origines à 1954 (Sherbrooke, 1973). Ouellet, Bas-Canada. Charlotte Thibault, “Samuel Brooks, entrepreneur et homme politique du XIXe siècle” (thèse de ma, univ. de Sherbrooke, 1978). Ivanhoë Caron, “Historique de la voirie dans la province de Québec,” BRH, 39 (1933): 438–48. J. I. Little, “Imperialism and colonization in Lower Canada: the role of William Bowman Felton,” CHR, 66 (1985): 511–40.
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Cite This Article
J. I. Little, “FELTON, WILLIAM BOWMAN,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 7, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed March 25, 2023, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/felton_william_bowman_7E.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:||J. I. Little|
|Title of Article:||FELTON, WILLIAM BOWMAN|
|Publication Name:||Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 7|
|Publisher:||University of Toronto/Université Laval|
|Year of publication:||1988|
|Year of revision:||1988|
|Access Date:||March 25, 2023|