DCB/DBC Mobile beta


New Biographies

Minor Corrections

Biography of the Day


b. 16 April 1760 in Lausanne, Switzerland


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

HEAD, Sir EDMUND WALKER, colonial administrator; b. 16 Feb. 1805 at Wiarton Place, near Maidstone, England, son of Sir John Head and Jane Walker; m. 27 Nov. 1838 Anna Maria Yorke and they had three children; d. 28 Jan. 1868 at London, England.

Edmund Walker Head’s grandfather had immigrated to South Carolina but after losing his holdings as a loyalist sympathizer during the American revolution he returned to England. Edmund’s father held an Essex living for many years. Edmund himself received his schooling at Winchester, and in 1823 entered Oriel College, Oxford, as a fellow-commoner. He took his ba in 1827. For two years he travelled on the Continent, then became in 1830 a fellow of Merton College, Oxford, where he was lecturer in classics and held various offices. During the next few years he continued his travels, in Italy, Spain, and Germany, an experience which gave him a foundation for his later writing on European art and literature; he was also to become one of the most accomplished linguists and philologists of his generation. In 1836, while retaining his fellowship and presumably because of financial reverses in his father’s family, he began his civil career. He was named an assistant Poor Law commissioner, his area being the west of England and a part of Wales. After his marriage in 1838 he resigned his college fellowship according to the rules of the university. Earlier that year Head had succeeded his father as 8th, and last, baronet.

In 1840 Head was promoted assistant Poor Law commissioner for the metropolitan area of London and late in 1841 was appointed one of three chief commissioners under the Poor Law Act of 1834. Resident in London, he continued his literary pursuits, especially a work on schools of European painting which was published in three volumes from 1846 to 1854. When the Poor Law Act lapsed in 1847, Head lost his emolument of £2,000 and in compensation he was offered an appointment as lieutenant governor of New Brunswick at £3,000, succeeding Sir William MacBean Colebrooke. He assumed this post on 11 April 1848, in Fredericton, having brought with him his family and a private secretary, Richard Theodore Pennefather.

It had been apparent at the time of Head’s appointment that the Colonial Office was concerned to implement in New Brunswick a considerable advance towards “Responsible Government,” in particular some measure of ministerial accountability. Its policy of requiring the maintenance of confidence in the Executive Council by a majority of the elected members of the legislature was known and in part implemented in Canada and Nova Scotia, but in the confused political state and frontier society of New Brunswick there had been no real opportunity for principles to become incorporated into practice. Thus a new governor in New Brunswick still had to be prepared to direct as well as to invite advice, to instil vigour in administration as well as to counsel prudence in the management of resources, and to encourage self-reliance as an antidote to the tendency of blaming all economic evils on the home government. In a province of 200,000 inhabitants, widely separated by geography and by patterns of settlement and commercial development, the new governor had his work cut out for him.

On 20 May 1848 Head formed what has been described as the first “responsible” government in New Brunswick. He retained in the Executive Council two previous members, Edward Barron Chandler* and Robert Leonard Hazen*, and continued William Boyd Kinnear as solicitor general; he added Lemuel Allan Wilmot* as attorney general, John Richard Partelow as provincial secretary, and Charles Fisher*, among others. In a situation without recognized “parties” Hazen had been the ostensible leader in the assembly, as Chandler had been in the Legislative Council. Wilmot and Fisher were regarded as “reformers”; Partelow had been mayor of Saint John, and was noted for his skills in political “management.” Characteristically, Head now referred to the council a host of petty grievances of a kind previously left to the governor and encouraged members to draw up considered proposals for recommendation to him. He summed up his position on 21 July 1849 thus: “A Governor’s power is mainly that nothing can be done without him.”

One of the main problems of the colony in 1848–49 was the economic necessity of regaining some balance between its speculative lumber trade and the until then booming shipbuilding enterprises, on the one side, and its neglected agriculture and its fisheries on the other. Head welcomed the evidences of interprovincial cooperation which both led to and flowed from a conference on fisheries at Halifax in 1849. The most attractive solutions to pressing economic problems, however, appeared to be threefold: railways, reciprocity with, or annexation to the United States. If a railway could be constructed between Halifax and Quebec, employment would rise and immigration, especially from Britain, would be encouraged. Following the report of a survey, various proposals were made involving the home government as guarantor for the interest on loans needed for its construction; the home government was unwilling, however, to enter into any such arrangement, and so between 1849 and 1851 the negotiations virtually came to a standstill. Various promoters in British North America, Joseph Howe* a prime enthusiast among them, overstated their case by making it appear that Britain owed something to the North American provinces in compensation for the removal of their preferred entry into British markets in 1849. To the threats of annexation which were heard in 1849 Head provided a measured answer in an important dispatch to Lord Grey on 15 September: “The words ‘annexation’ or ‘independence’ are heard as subjects for discussion in the mouths of persons whose loyalty was their peculiar pride. . . . ‘Annexation’ for the most part represents nothing but the desire of access to the markets of the United States & ‘independence’ expresses a feeling that . . . the connection is not valued by the Mother Country.” The opening of markets came eventually by reciprocity in trade with the United States established by the treaty of 1854 embracing Canada and the neighbouring provinces. As early as 1849 it became apparent that participation by the United States was predicated on opening the North Atlantic fishing grounds to American fishermen, but the advantages of reciprocity were generally held to outweigh any temporary disadvantages. Specific New Brunswick interests were, however, advanced meanwhile by free trade with Nova Scotia in 1848 and by Head’s advocacy of a uniform British North American currency in silver.

One of the consequences of economic stresses and of agitation over railways, fisheries, and reciprocity was a stirring of interest in some closer union of the British North American provinces. Writing to Colonial Secretary Lord Grey in March 1849, Head had tried to moderate the impact of some of the language used in the legislature expressing disappointment at the failure of the railway proposals: “[The] depression of our material interests and the want of importance implied in a diminished consciousness of identity with the Mother Country have naturally directed the eyes of stirring and intelligent men to some source of colonial importance which may compensate for these losses, and thus it is that the notion of an union of the British North American Colonies has embodied itself . . . .” This line of thought was further developed in a lengthy memorandum written some time during the winter of 1850–51. Head was to write, more than once, that separation from Britain was not an inevitable consequence of progress in democratic government. His incisive summary of the basic requirements of federalism for Canada was linked with the vision of a new nation which should extend from sea to sea, in which the forms and the substance of the British constitution should come to maturity, and in which the inhabitants should “stand in conscious strength and in the full equipment of self-government as a free people bound by the ties of gratitude and affection.” It seems clear that Head’s interest in a federal structure, no doubt whetted and strengthened by discussions with Lord Elgin [Bruce] in 1850, remained a steady and intriguing concern although he was to vary his opinion of its practicality from time to time.

In 1850 Head had to face the problem of appointing a successor to Chief Justice Ward Chipman* and the event underlined how little cohesiveness there was among members of the Executive Council, as well as the extent to which the lieutenant governor had still to rely on his own responsibility. When no unanimous expression of opinion came from the council, Head took the matter into his own hands. Having apparently ascertained that Chandler, leader in the Legislative Council, was less set on receiving the office than he had earlier suggested, Head recommended that James Carter*, the senior puisne judge, be named chief justice and that Lemuel Allan Wilmot be appointed to the bench. It is known that Head did not further consult the Executive Council about these appointments, nor inform it until after Lord Grey had approved, and Carter and Wilmot had accepted, the appointments. Some local animosity resulted, and in 1851 an attempt was made by the six members from Saint John to bring down the government by combining criticism of the governor’s conduct with an expression of lack of confidence in the council. But the tactic did not succeed; only one member of the council resigned, Charles Fisher, who had in any case failed of re-election to the legislature in 1850, and at the end of his calculated gamble Head was able to bring into the council two of the “dissidents,” Robert Duncan Wilmot* and John Hamilton Gray*. His assessment of the degree to which public feeling was agitated, and of the necessary extent of his responsibility as governor in a matter he insisted must be dealt with on judicial and not on partisan political grounds, turned out to be remarkably accurate.

It was characteristic that, the immediate political storm having abated, Head seized the opportunity to outline a legislative programme for deliberate consideration during 1851. It embraced proper procedure for the initiation of money votes, proper registration of voters, county authority for certain county requirements, approaches to an elective legislative council, commutation of judges’ fees as a charge on the civil list, better regulation of the common schools, and the appointment of a statutory commission to consider changes in legal procedure for readier access to the courts. Some enabling legislation resulted.

Head also began in New Brunswick the encouragement of public education and the arts for which he was distinguished all his life. He brought an old friend, the geologist Sir Charles Lyell, and Professor James Finlay Weir Johnston* of Durham, an agricultural scientist, to the province to give public lectures. He secured the appointment of a commission of inquiry for King’s College, Fredericton, where in 1850 there were more professors than students, and a meagre course of studies largely in the classics. Two of the commissioners were Egerton Ryerson*, superintendent of education for Canada West, and John William Dawson*, then superintendent of education in Nova Scotia and later principal of McGill University [see Edwin Jacob]. The governor gave evidence before the commission based on his experience in the University of Oxford and his conviction that means to study the sciences, medicine, and law were needed for the colony.

Lord Grey had stated in 1851 that Head’s appointment “was the best hit he had made since he had been in office.” No doubt such an assessment lay behind the Duke of Newcastle’s decision to appoint him governor general in succession to Lord Elgin. The latter may indeed have proposed Head as his successor. Head had declined an offer of Guiana, as he was in 1864 to decline Ceylon, ostensibly on grounds of Lady Head’s health, but he accepted Canada with alacrity, and travelled from Fredericton to Quebec without returning to England. He was sworn in on 19 Dec. 1854.

In the larger colonial arena of Canada the governor’s initiative was less obvious – indeed Head encouraged the practice by which he did not as a matter of course attend meetings of his Executive Council – but the practical problems were no less constant. From 1854 onward the permanency of the union of the Canadas stood in some doubt. Economically, the advantages of the Reciprocity Treaty in part offset the effects of the loss of protected entry into British markets, but there was continuing unrest as a sequel to many unwise speculations, both public and private, for example in the timber trade, flour milling, railway shares, and some bank stocks, all of which, together with general business activity, had declined between 1847 and 1849 and were slow in recovering. Politically, there was uneasiness about the possibility of a legislative majority in one province of the union imposing some measure on the other province. The convention of requiring a double majority was in fact threatening to imperil the union itself. Sir Allan Napier MacNab’s days as leader were numbered but he had declined to retire voluntarily and the governor did not want publicly to disavow him. In his own words, Head “sat still,” and in May 1856 when three members of the council, including John A. Macdonald*, resigned, ostensibly because there was a majority of Upper Canadian members against them, the governor used the occasion to reconstitute the government. The new administration of Macdonald and Étienne-Paschal Taché had to repudiate the “obnoxious dictum” of double majority although the concern about it did not die. It may be said that the real emergence of party government dates from the disappearance of MacNab, as in 1856 moderate Conservative John A. Macdonald took over from him and began to make common cause with George-Étienne Cartier* in Canada East; George Brown* headed a Reform persuasion which discovered affinities with some of the Rouges, chiefly led by Antoine-Aimé Dorion*. But party organization of itself could not avail against the crippling effects of the “double majority,” nor did ministerial coalitions have any stability until 1864, after Head’s time.

It was federation, however, of which Head was to be the most eloquent single advocate, which would in the end provide the basis for effective political cooperation. The Colonial Office might say, drily, in 1858, that no difficulties had arisen for which federation was an obvious solution; they thought of it as a “device chiefly favoured by politicians.” Head attempted to demonstrate that so far from being an “abstract” question it was an intensely practical matter, and a means of giving a proper sense of importance to the queen’s subjects in British North America. He regarded federation as a question on which the duty and interest of Britain seemed to coincide; and what the Colonial Office implacably regarded as “a barren symmetry” in 1858, Head continued to champion as the condition of “something like a national existence” (a phrase used by Lord Durham [Lambton*]).

Head’s strongest advocacy came after he had analysed the practicability and possible consequences of a lesser union of the three Maritime provinces. In writing to the colonial secretary, Henry Labouchere, in September 1856 he had said that knowledge and experience had changed his belief in the practicability of a legislative union of Canada with the three “lower colonies.” In such a union, he added, the “process” would be a long one, and he could have “no personal interest” in the matter. In London the following year (July 1857) he wrote again to Labouchere that a legislative union of the three lower provinces would be “more practicable” than a federal union with Canada, but that the lesser union “would not in any way prejudice the future consideration of a more extensive union.” He remained flexible and appears never to have given up wholly the idea of a federal union of all the British North American provinces. When it came forward again it was in character that Head should also outline the parliamentary mechanism for achieving it: the queen’s sanction of the principle, then a conference of provincial delegates whose working conclusions should be incorporated into a statute of the parliament at Westminster. But the content was intended to be Canadian, originating in British North America, and it was not contemplated that there should be interference or dictation from London.

Head’s advocacy of federation was hastened and crystallized by two developments: speculation about the future of the Hudson’s Bay Company territories west of the Great Lakes and the choice of a capital for the Province of Canada. By diligent study from 1856 on he learned a good deal about the extent and resources of that vast area at a time when the Colonial Office was imperfectly informed and even the London officers of the HBC were hazy about administrative details. He was also a correspondent of Edward Ellice, a leading figure in the company. In the early part of 1857, probably following discussions in Toronto with Robert Lowe, vice-president of the Board of Trade, Head prepared an extensive memorandum on the future of the company’s territories and the steps by which some of the more accessible parts of them might be politically linked with Canada and opened up for settlement. Head was in London in 1857 when the select committee on the HBC was deliberating, and there was a considerable resemblance between his known views and the final conclusions of the committee. Its report identified the Red River and Saskatchewan areas as suitable areas for early settlement, foreshadowed arrangements for local government, and urged the cession of designated areas to Canada “on equitable principles.”

The political crisis sparked by the question of the capital of the Province of Canada, which had had a migratory seat of government for several years, began in March 1857 when both houses of the Canadian legislature addressed the queen asking her to exercise her royal prerogative and choose “some certain place” for the capital. The governor invited the five principal cities (Kingston, Montreal, Ottawa, Quebec, and Toronto) to send in statements of their claims. Publicly Head said it would be inappropriate for him to appear to offer any advice on behalf of the Executive Council on a matter specifically referred to the queen’s discretion. Privately, he wrote a confidential memorandum coming down strongly on the side of Ottawa, albeit as the least of several evils, and there seems little doubt that it was on the strength of this representation that the queen made her choice of Ottawa in late 1857 (Head was in England at the time). Legislative turmoil followed in 1858: there were 14 separate divisions before Ottawa was confirmed. Also in the meantime the celebrated “double shuffle” occurred.

This sudden change of ministries arose directly out of a vote on the capital question. The government led by Cartier and Macdonald chose it as an occasion to resign. Head sent for George Brown, but warned him, as a governor was constitutionally entitled to do, that because there had been a general election only the year before and there was doubt whether Brown and his colleagues did indeed command the support of a majority in the legislature, he could not give any pledge that he would grant a dissolution if it should be asked for. Brown, Dorion, and their associates were sworn into office but, under the prevailing usage, they thereby forfeited their seats in the house until returned at by-elections. The opposition then carried a vote of no confidence; Brown asked for dissolution, which Head, against the background of his previous warning, refused. Brown’s administration there upon resigned, on the crest of a spate of journalistic venom in the Globe which never relaxed during Head’s remaining residence in Canada. Cartier was asked by Head to form the government, and he, Macdonald, and their colleagues, by shifting portfolios and adroitly relying on an ingenious interpretation of the relevant act (20 Vict., c.17), avoided the necessity of seeking re-election. The manoeuvre was legal under the existing law, but it looked like sharp practice, and was widely condemned. One of the sequels was a ministry pledge in August 1858 to seek a federal solution of difficulties which were by then widely recognized as inescapable otherwise. Though his own conduct in the events surrounding the double shuffle was hotly questioned on the one side, and publicly and officially vindicated on the other, Head was thereafter less happy in his working relationships, partly because his last months in Canada were also overlaid by painful domestic affliction (the death by drowning of his only son) and recurring ill health.

The governor accompanied the Prince of Wales and the Duke of Newcastle on the royal tour in Canada and the United States in 1860. He travelled to England on leave, and after his return to Quebec in February 1861 expected to be only a caretaker until his successor should arrive. Even so, the strains and tensions within Canada meant continuing attention to some everyday “practical” questions. Reciprocity with the United States had opened the way to many new channels of trade, though the impact upon transportation and communication was not immediately recognized. Yet no authority was prepared to build other than local lines without financial guarantees from Britain, and when the several provinces failed to agree on shared contributions for an intercolonial line, the matter was dropped until the years after Head’s departure. He had to live through the economic and political consequences of this uneasy situation.

Head continued to seek improvement in everyday relations with the government of the United States. He had called on President Franklin Pierce in Washington in 1854 during the Crimean War, and was constantly anxious for the effect upon Canada of civil war between the North and the South which he long foresaw. His dispatches of 1860 and interviews during his brief return to London in the autumn of that year pressed upon the home government the urgency of safeguarding Canadian (and British) interests. When civil war did break out in 1861, Head’s last year of office, the vexed questions of effective defence for Canada and the public requirement of maintaining a steady neutrality towards the United States were his major preoccupations. He steadfastly refused to sanction public attempts to enlist men in Canada for the Northern armies, or to allow export of arms to any American source.

The changed nature of his office, when Head left it in October 1861, is underlined by the considerable difficulty of the Colonial Office in naming his successor. After a number of refusals, the post was accepted by Viscount Monck*. In September the colonial secretary had written to Head to thank him “for the manner in which you have always co-operated with me for the good of the Colony and the spirit in which you have conducted the business in circumstances which whilst they render the Governor but little dependent on the Secretary of State enable him to keep that Functionary in a state of constant effervescence if he is either too much afraid of responsibility or too little inclined to consult the home authorities.” After his return to England Head made one brief essay into politics by contesting, unsuccessfully, an election in the Yorkshire riding of Pontefract. In April 1862 he was appointed one of the three unpaid civil service commissioners and served until his death six years later.

On 2 July 1863, however, on the reorganization of the proprietorship of the HBC, Head was elected its governor. The reorganization reflected in part the imagination and driving energy, on both sides of the Atlantic, of Edward William Watkin, who had visited Canada in 1861 in the interest of bondholders of the Grand Trunk Railway Company, and who now combined this interest with a proposal to build a telegraph line from Halifax to British Columbia and a wagon-road westward from the head of Lake Superior. Watkin saw in the reorganized company an encouragement to his large designs. On the other hand the governor and committee were convinced before the end of 1863 that their interests required some satisfactory definition of the company’s rights and responsibilities in its territories under the terms of its charter, even if this involved the creation of new political authorities to deal with increasing settlement and the mounting problems of law and order. Sir Edmund as governor of the HBC was unwilling to proceed as rapidly as Watkin wished. For two months he discussed with the colonial secretary, the Duke of Newcastle, the possible transfer of authority and compensation for the company’s territorial and mineral claims. But Newcastle (who may indeed first have suggested Head’s governorship to the old HBC proprietors) would not recommend for Head’s proposed crown colony on the prairies a basis either of money payments to the HBC or a sharing of land with it. Newcastle left office in mid 1864 and there was no real progress on transfer or compensation until shortly before Head’s death in 1868.

Sir Edmund was evidently much at home in the literary world of London of these years. He had been made kcb and a privy councillor in 1857; his colonial service over, Oxford and Cambridge conferred honorary degrees upon him, and he was elected a fellow of the Royal Society. He served as both secretary and treasurer of the Athenaeum, the famous literary club. He died suddenly in 1868, of a heart attack, although he had long feared that the mild epilepsy he suffered from might become a threat to his health. He had left many memorials other than his official achievements, among them the architecture of University College, Toronto, in whose design he had taken great interest, and works on art, poetry, the Norse sagas, and philology which he published from 1833 to 1864.

Any assessment of the importance of Head in the office of governor general makes it clear that Head confirmed some enduring characteristics. The queen’s representative was not a figurehead; he had (then as later) the right to warn, to guide, to intervene in an emergency such as in 1858. Head had shown discernment about the situation of the Canadas. There are few more eloquent passages in our political literature than his memorandum, written at some time before July 1858: “Gratitude for past indulgence or forbearance is no bond in politics . . . the federal principle – the assumption that two communities holding a sort of quasi independence were going to live together – was implied by the previous giving of equal representation to each. The poison of disunion had been left in the political system, ready at any moment to influence to the utmost the rivalry of race, language and worship which would at any time be kept down only by the greatest tact on the part of the Govt. & the utmost forebearance on the p[ar]t of all . . . .” Yet Head was convinced of the real necessities of Canadian unity. After seven years in the rough and tumble of Canadian politics in the 1850s he could write: “It should never be forgotten that the interests of Upper and Lower Canada are essentially the same. The St. Lawrence as the outlet to the ocean of the vast system of inland lakes is a link which must bind them inseparably together if they are to retain their place as the chief colony of England in America, and to achieve future greatness as the home of a united people.”

In these same turbulent years, any alert governor would have had to take account, as Head did, of two slow decisive movements. The first was the continuing education of British political leaders in the meaning of responsible government. The second was the linking together of the lessons of political experience with an innate feeling of self-importance in the minds of British subjects overseas, and the corollary that political leaders would in the long run have to profess disinterested motives and high standards of conduct, and respond with clear administrative vigour.

His own concept of his office developed against a background in which, on many matters, he got no real assistance or guidance from the Colonial Office itself. He, more than any of his predecessors, had to make his own decisions. The Colonial Office once argued that if the home government entirely disapproved of Head’s proposals for federation, the governor “would be left with no alternative but to resign his office, with the effect of increasing greatly the difficulties and embarrassment of Government at home.” But that, after all, had been one of the plain implications of responsible government in Canada, and Head knew it as well as anyone in Downing St. This understanding was a positive achievement in the progress of parliamentary government in Canada. The vigour of Head’s ideas, the invariable clarity and grace with which he expressed them, his understanding of the physical necessities of government and of those human qualities which make its course run smoothly and swiftly, all added to the stature of his office and to his own claims for affectionate remembrance.

James A. Gibson

[This biography is based largely on D. G. G. Kerr’s study, Sir Edmund Head, a scholarly governor (Toronto, 1954), on which the author collaborated, and on the author’s dissertation “The life of Sir Edmund Walker Head, baronet” (unpublished phd thesis, Oxford University, 1938). These works include detailed bibliographies concerning Sir Edmund Walker Head. To them should be added J. A. Gibson, “The Colonial Office view of Canadian federation, 1856–1868,” CHR, XXXV (1954), 279–313; “The Duke of Newcastle and British North American affairs, 1859–1864,” CHR, XLIV (1963), 142–56.  j.a.g.]

General Bibliography

Cite This Article

James A. Gibson, “HEAD, Sir EDMUND WALKER,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 9, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed April 16, 2024, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/head_edmund_walker_9E.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/head_edmund_walker_9E.html
Author of Article:   James A. Gibson
Title of Article:   HEAD, Sir EDMUND WALKER
Publication Name:   Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 9
Publisher:   University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication:   1976
Year of revision:   1976
Access Date:   April 16, 2024