GRAY, EDWARD WILLIAM, merchant, notary, lawyer, office holder, and militia officer; b. 4 Dec. 1742 in London, England, son of John Gray; d. 22 Dec. 1810 in Montreal, Lower Canada.
Edward William Gray came to Montreal in May of 1760 aboard the British warship Vanguard. Settling there, he engaged for a few years in the general trade of the colony. In 1764 he served as deputy registrar, acting provost marshal, and deputy commissary for the District of Montreal; that December, as provost marshal, he arrested the soldiers suspected of assaulting the merchant Thomas Walker* and transported them to Quebec. On 12 June 1765 he was formally appointed deputy for the Montreal District of the absentee provost marshal, Nicholas Turner. He was commissioned a notary public on 7 Oct. 1765 and a lawyer three years later. On 13 Jan. 1767 Gray married Margaret Oakes and through his marriage became related to the fur traders Forrest Oakes* and Lawrence Ermatinger*. About this time as well he opened a vendue and commission business, importing goods from London merchants, advertising their arrival in the local press, and then auctioning them; he also sold on commission.
In 1775, at the beginning of the American revolution, Gray was appointed major of a corps of volunteers he had raised among the Montreal merchants. During the rebel occupation of the city that winter, he was regarded with suspicion by American brigadier-general David Wooster, the civil and military administrator of Montreal and district. When Major-General Richard Montgomery*’s defeat at Quebec on the night of 30–31 December became known, Wooster ordered the arrest of Gray, Ermatinger, and ten other prominent citizens, but he was obliged to release them under public pressure. On 16 Jan. 1776 he demanded the disarming of three Montreal suburbs considered loyal to the British, and to ensure the cooperation of the citizens he had Gray and René-Ovide Hertel* de Rouville taken hostage; however, once again public opinion forced Wooster to release his prisoners. Ultimately he decided to rid the city of its most prominent loyalists and on 6 February, when Gray and three Canadians, including Georges-Hippolyte Le Comte* Dupré and Thomas-Ignace Trottier* Dufy Desauniers, refused to surrender their British commissions as militia officers, they were arrested and imprisoned at Fort Chambly.
On 1 May 1776, perhaps even before Gray’s release, Governor Guy Carleton appointed him postmaster at Montreal, a position he held until replaced by Edward Edwards in 1786. Gray was also named on 1 May 1776 to succeed Turner as provost marshal, but with the title of sheriff. As sheriff Gray served summonses to witnesses and defendants in court cases, executed writs of distraint against accused debtors, and enforced punishments imposed by the courts, including arrests and the maintenance of prisoners in jail, and the selling of property at auction for payment of debt. Another of his duties was the collection of rents due to the government from leased crown and clergy reserve lots. Under an ordinance of 1787 the sheriff became responsible also for summoning grand jurors to hear criminal cases in the Court of King’s Bench. The task of compiling jury lists was not always easy, and Gray kept a list “of Persons who . . . treated me with Contemptuous language.” His average annual income as sheriff between 1777 and 1786 was £471, of which approximately £100 was salary and the rest fees.
Gray received a number of other commissions after the American withdrawal from Canada in 1776. On 25 June he was appointed by Carleton to a three-man commission to investigate in the District of Montreal the nature and extent of Canadian collaboration with the enemy during the American invasion; that August he was named a justice of the peace. He received a commission as notary for the province at large on 23 Aug. 1781, but because of his many official duties, he practised little. In April 1783 he was appointed a manager, responsible for ticket sales, of a lottery for the building of a new jail at Montreal; the lottery apparently failed for the old prison, dating back to the French régime, continued in use.
Even though a full-time sheriff, Gray maintained his commercial interests. In November 1785 he acquired at auction the printing equipment of Fleury Mesplet*, but was then obliged to rent it back to Mesplet, who was the only person in Montreal capable of using it; Gray finally sold the press to Edward Edwards about 1794. In August 1787, the same month that his brother Jonathan Abraham advertised the opening of a vendue and commission business in Montreal, Gray announced that he was continuing his auction business, located on Rue Saint-Vincent, despite rumours to the contrary; these had been generated perhaps by his neglect of the concern as a result of illness and the demands of the sheriff’s office. Indeed, he felt that he could expand, even though conditions were far from favourable for such a venture; the North West Company was absorbing many of the smaller merchants, and others found it more economical and practical to order through large importing houses in the city. On 1 May 1792, in order to ensure continuation of the business, Gray took into partnership his nephew by marriage Frederick William Ermatinger*, giving him a one-third share in the firm, now called Gray and Ermatinger. Gray withdrew in October 1795 because his position as sheriff was occupying most of his time. He had already relinquished his post of justice of the peace in 1791, and in 1798 he ceased entirely to practise as a notary. Jonathan Abraham, who had received a commission as notary for the District of Montreal on 31 March 1796, and had it extended to Lower Canada at large in 1798, eventually became one of the most prominent notaries in Montreal. As a member of the commercial community Gray had been active in the merchants’ attempts to influence the political and economic direction of the colony [see George Allsopp]. In 1784, for example, when Lawrence Ermatinger experienced financial difficulties, Gray complained that there was no law in the colony to enable a creditor to recover his money from a bankrupt or sue the bankrupt’s debtors. In 1790 and 1791 he was a director of the Montreal branch of the Agriculture Society, which sought to stimulate commercial agriculture in the colony.
Gray continued to be active in the militia and on 16 July 1787 was appointed by Lord Dorchester [Guy Carleton] colonel commandant of the British Militia of the Town and Banlieu of Montreal; thereafter he was commonly known in the city as “the Colonel.” Jonathan Abraham became an ensign in the regiment the same year, was promoted lieutenant by 1790, and became captain in 1803. By the early 1790s the British inhabitants of Lower Canada had begun to fear that the French revolution, through its influence on the Canadians, might overthrow British rule in the colony. When in July 1794, following the example of Quebec, some citizens of Montreal under the chairmanship of James McGill formed an organization to support British rule – called simply the Association – Gray became a member of its managing committee. In October 1796 he was “roughly seized” by a number of Canadians influenced by revolutionary thinking and news of an imminent French invasion of Canada and was prevented from arresting a Canadian charged with disobeying a controversial road law. Three years later he was a member of a committee, which included McGill, Simon McTavish, and John Richardson*, to receive and remit voluntary subscriptions raised to aid Britain in the prosecution of the war in Europe.
Throughout the 1790s and early 1800s Gray continued to accumulate government appointments. He was a returning officer in Montreal for the House of Assembly elections in 1792, 1796, and 1801. On 29 May 1805 he was appointed a commissioner for the building of churches and parsonages and on 22 July a commissioner for repairing them. As sheriff he was responsible for the Montreal prison, and in March 1804, at the request of Lieutenant Governor Sir Robert Shore Milnes*, he reported on the reasons for its distressing inability to contain its occupants. The debate over the financing of a new prison became one of the more heated in Lower Canadian politics.
In addition to all his public and business activities Gray was active socially. He had joined the freemasons on 16 Oct. 1760 aboard the Vanguard, and on 12 March 1762 was secretary of a meeting in Montreal to organize the first lodge in the city, later called St Peter’s No.4, Quebec. In 1779 he was an instigator of the movement to establish a branch in Montreal of the Quebec Library, founded that year by Governor Haldimand. Although they were from a Quaker background, Edward William and Jonathan Abraham were members of the Protestant Congregation of Montreal, an Anglican body; in 1789 Edward William was one of its trustees and Jonathan Abraham its treasurer, and in 1805 both were members of the committee for building Christ Church [see Jehosaphat Mountain].
Edward William Gray died in 1810 after an illness of eight days, having been sheriff, his obituary noted, “with honor to himself and satisfaction to the public.” According to his request, he was buried without pomp in the Protestant cemetery (Dufferin Square), but the funeral was attended by a large number of his friends and fellow citizens. He was survived by his wife (they had no children) and succeeded as sheriff by Frederick William Ermatinger. Gray’s brother, Jonathan Abraham, died on 31 July 1812; another brother, John*, became first president of the Bank of Montreal.
ANQ-M, CE1-63, 13 Jan. 1767, 24 Dec. 1811. PAC, MG 11, [CO 42] Q, 85: 321; MG 19, A2, ser.3; MG 23, GII, 3, vols.3, 5–6; MG 24, 120; RG 68, General index, 1651–1841: ff.7, 223, 305, 323–24, 531, 572–73, 654, 666. “First masonic initiation in Quebec,” PAC Report, 1944: xxxii. “The Walker outrage, 1764,” PAC Report, 1888: 5. Montreal Gazette, 19 Nov. 1789, 19 Oct. 1790, 23 June 1808, 21 Jan. 1811. Quebec Gazette, 8 Aug. 1765; 23 July 1772; 11 March 1779; 8, 15 May 1783; 9 Sept. 1784; 16 July 1785; 29 June 1786; 6 Sept. 1787; 16 July 1789; 28 Oct. 1790; 24 May 1794; 10 Jan. 1811. Caron, “Inv. de la corr. de Mgr Denaut,” ANQ Rapport, 1931–32: 133. “List of members and first meeting of the Montreal Grand Lodge,” PAC Report, 1944: xxxii-xxxiii. Quebec almanac, 1780: 33; 1782: 24; 1791: 84; 1800: 88. W. H. Atherton, Montreal, 1535–1914 (3v., Montreal and Vancouver, 1914), 2: 55. Hochelaga depicta: the early history and present state of the city and island of Montreal . . . , ed. Newton Bosworth (Montreal, 1839; repr. Toronto, 1974), 103. Neatby, Administration of justice under Quebec Act, 41, 52–53, 100, 334–36, 342–43. S. M. Scott, “Chapters in the history of the law of Quebec, 1764–1775”
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Cite This Article
Myron Momryk, “GRAY, EDWARD WILLIAM,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 5, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed June 8, 2023, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/gray_edward_william_5E.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:||Myron Momryk|
|Title of Article:||GRAY, EDWARD WILLIAM|
|Publication Name:||Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 5|
|Publisher:||University of Toronto/Université Laval|
|Year of publication:||1983|
|Year of revision:||1983|
|Access Date:||June 8, 2023|