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HENSLEY, JOSEPH, lawyer, office holder, politician, and judge; b. 12 June 1824 in Tottenham (London), England, son of Charles Hensley and his wife Louisa Margaretta; m. 8 Sept. 1853 Frances Anne Dover Hodgson in Charlottetown, and they had four daughters; d. 11 May 1894 at Clifton Springs, N.Y., and was buried in Charlottetown.
Joseph Hensley was the second son in a family of ten. He was educated by private tuition and at Hackney Grammar School, Middlesex. In 1841, at the age of 16, he emigrated with his family to Prince Edward Island. His father, a retired naval commander, quickly gained entry into the Island’s rather narrow social élite. Hensley Sr established an estate called Newlands in Charlottetown Royalty, and was active as a landowner and businessman. In 1842 he was appointed to the colony’s Legislative Council by Lieutenant Governor Sir Henry Vere Huntley*, who was trying to build up his own following in the administration. The same year, Joseph Hensley began to study law under Robert Hodgson*, a key member of the local “family compact,” attorney general, and president of the Legislative Council. He was called to the bar on 6 Jan. 1847. Six years later, in 1853, he married Hodgson’s only daughter. In 1857 he was appointed a qc.
In many ways, Joseph Hensley seemed destined to become a member of the “family compact” himself. He was a devout Anglican of high social standing, with important connections in the local church hierarchy. And yet, when he entered the political arena, he chose to throw in his lot with the Reformers, the proto-liberal party led by George Coles*, a self-educated businessman. In 1851, after the granting of responsible government, he served as law clerk to the House of Assembly and in the fall, despite the fact that he held no seat in either the Legislative Council or the assembly, he was appointed solicitor general. In the session of 1853 the Reform cabinet split over Coles’s attempts to replace fees for government officers with fixed salaries. Against this backdrop Hensley was named attorney general in April and joined the Executive Council. In the ensuing election, he ran for the assembly in the riding of Georgetown and Royalty. He lost and the Reformers themselves were defeated. Undeterred, in December 1853 Coles had Hensley named to the Legislative Council, where he joined his father.
Coles’s administration was forced to resign early in 1854 because of its minority in the House of Assembly, and a new tory administration took office. Hamstrung by the liberal majority in the Legislative Council and the Reform sympathies of Lieutenant Governor Sir Alexander Bannerman*, the administration of Edward Palmer* and John Myrie Holl* experienced increasing difficulties. Citing the need to let the house reflect an electorate newly expanded by the provisions of the Franchise Act of 1853, Bannerman dissolved the assembly after just one sitting and in the subsequent election, in June 1854, the Reformers were able to regain their majority.
In Coles’s second administration, Hensley resumed his role as attorney general, serving from July 1854 to July 1858. While not as prominent as Coles or James Warburton, he played an active part in the various reforms the government carried out. In bitter elections fought in June 1858 and March 1859, with the place of religion in the colony’s free education system the chief electoral issue, the Coles government was stalemated, then defeated, and the Reform party passed into opposition. Hensley had resigned from the Legislative Council in May 1858 to run for the assembly in the 3rd District of Kings on the understanding that he could not be reappointed to the council if defeated. He lost, and when another general election became necessary the following March, he did not contest the riding.
Under pressure to find some solution to the generations-long land question on Prince Edward Island, the new tory government established a commission in 1860 to investigate problems arising from the leasehold tenure system that prevailed. Along with New Brunswick lawyer Samuel Robert Thomson*, Hensley was appointed by the government to represent the tenants’ cause. The commissioners’ report, which advocated conversion of leasehold to freehold, either through government purchase using a loan guaranteed by the imperial government or through compulsory arbitration between proprietor and tenant, was released in 1861 but ultimately set aside by the British government. Although he played a secondary role to Thomson throughout the proceedings, Hensley was consistently identified by witnesses as one of the few lawyers in the colony possessing the confidence of the tenantry, and his political career appears to have benefited from his participation.
Hensley returned to politics in March 1861 when he won a by-election in the solidly liberal 1st District of Kings. He retained his seat in the general election of January 1863, though the liberals were again defeated by the anti-popery issue. Four years later, in February 1867, they swept to power. Re-elected, Hensley once more assumed the office of attorney general under the leadership of George Coles. With the passage from the political scene of many of the liberal stalwarts of the 1850s, including James Warburton and Edward Whelan*, Hensley acquired a key place in the new administration. As Premier Coles’s mind gradually gave way, he shouldered more and more of the burden of leadership. By the session of 1868 he was de facto leader of the government in the House of Assembly. In that capacity, he helped to guide through the house a new education bill, which restored the principle of free education, and he parried opposition attempts to split the liberal party over the question of government endowment for Roman Catholic schools; a separate school system was impractical, he said. Coles’s decline continued, and in August 1868 Hensley succeeded him as president of the Executive Council and leader of the government.
As liberal leader, Hensley assumed the policies of his predecessor. He opposed confederation with the Dominion of Canada; he continued to use the Land Purchase Act of 1853 to buy out willing proprietors and lobbied the British government to guarantee a loan sufficient to complete the dismantlement of the leasehold system; and in an era of religious extremism he sought to reconcile the Catholic and Protestant elements within his party. Although his brief premiership was relatively uneventful, beneath the surface of events tensions mounted in the party between advocates and opponents of denominational schools. On 18 June 1869, less than a year after taking over the government, Hensley was appointed assistant judge of the Supreme Court of Prince Edward Island and vice-chancellor in the Court of Chancery, a position created during his last legislative session. Quietly he passed from the political scene, and Robert Poore Haythorne succeeded him as premier. Within 18 months, the liberal government had disintegrated.
Secure in his distinguished appointment, Hensley performed his judicial duties impartially and competently for the next quarter century. In 1869, as attorney general, he had been the prosecutor in the murder trial of George Dowie, whose execution was the last public hanging on Prince Edward Island. As judge he presided in another sensational murder case, the trial of William Millman, in 1888. Controversy attended his business affairs when the Bank of Prince Edward Island, of which he was president, failed in 1881. Hensley, who was in England for health reasons at the time of the crisis, was absolved of any responsibility for the collapse. In general, his career passed without incident after his retirement from politics. His death in 1894 was attributed to “inflammation of the brain.”
Joseph Hensley was eulogized in obituaries for his “great moderation and strictest integrity.” “His motives were pure,” the conservative Charlottetown Examiner observed. “He never was an extreme partisan or a very hot advocate.” The quality was rare in an era of unbridled partisanship and violent political warfare. It seems ironic, then, that his very moderation and lack of “heat,” coupled with the brevity of his tenure as premier, have consigned him to virtual oblivion in Island history.
PAPEI, Acc. 2694; Acc. 2849/239–40; RG 1, 5: 42–43, 137, 207; RG 5, minutes, 1851; 1853–54, esp. 21 April 1853; 1867–69, esp. 14 March 1867; 9 Jan., 20 Aug. 1868; 6 Feb., 18 June 1869. P.E.I. Museum, Geneal. files. PRO, CO 226/79, Bannerman to Grey, 12 Sept. 1851; 226/89, Daly to Stanley, 26 June 1858; CO 227/9, Grey to Bannerman, 21 Oct. 1851; Newcastle to Bannerman, 8 July, 12 Aug. 1853, 23 Jan., 4 Feb., 4 Sept. 1854. Supreme Court of Prince Edward Island (Charlottetown), Estates Division, liber 13: f.543. Abstract of the proceedings before the Land Commissioners’ Court, held during the summer of 1860, to inquire into the differences relative to the rights of landowners and tenants in Prince Edward Island, reporters J. D. Gordon and David Laird (Charlottetown, 1862). P.E.I:, House of Assembly, Debates and proc., 1861–69; Journal, 1861, esp. 14 March; Legislative Council, Debates and proc., 1856–58; Journal, 1853, esp. 13 December; 1854–58. Daily Examiner (Charlottetown), 12 May 1894. Examiner (Charlottetown), 1851–69, esp. 24 May, 5 July 1858; 18 March 1861; 5 Jan. 1863; 21 Nov. 1864; 4 Feb. 1867. Island Argus (Charlottetown), 2 March 1875. Islander, 8 Jan. 1847; 1, 22 July, 9 Sept. 1853; 21 Sept. 1855; 10 April 1857; 11, 25 June 1869. Patriot (Charlottetown), 19 June 1869; 11–12, 18–19 May 1894. Royal Gazette (Charlottetown), 25 May 1841. Cyclopædia of Canadian biog. (Rose and Charlesworth), vol.2. P.E.I. directory, 1864. I. R. Robertson, “Religion, politics, and education in P.E.I.” D. O. Baldwin and Helen Gill, “The Island’s first bank,” Island Magazine (Charlottetown), no.14 (fall–winter 1983): 8–13.