JAMESON, ROBERT SYMPSON, lawyer, judge, politician, and office holder; baptized 5 June 1796 in Harbridge, England, son of Thomas Jameson and Mary Sympson; m. 1825 Anna Brownell Murphy in London; they had no children; d. 1 Aug. 1854 in Toronto.
Of a modest but aspiring family, Robert Sympson Jameson was born in Hampshire and raised and educated at Ambleside in the Lake District. From childhood he was a close friend of Hartley Coleridge, son of Samuel Taylor Coleridge and himself a poet, who later dedicated three sonnets to him. Jameson was admitted to study law at Middle Temple, London, in 1818 and was called to the bar in 1823. For the next six years he worked in London as an equity draftsman and during this time co-edited two volumes of bankruptcy case reports, but he continued his literary interests through an association with the London Magazine and the preparation of an edition of Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary of the English language.
Jameson first met Anna Murphy in the winter of 1820–21. After a protracted and intermittent courtship, they began an unhappy marriage in 1825. The incompatible pair lived together until 1829 when Robert gained appointment in the West Indies as the chief justice of Dominica; Anna, already launched on a promising literary career, travelled to the Continent. Jameson’s four years of “wearisome banishment” in the tropics brought frustration; he sought unsuccessfully to reform the judicial system which the powerful local slave owners manipulated to their personal advantage. Repelled by the West Indies, categorized by him as a “dismal, vulgar, sensual, utterly unintellectual place,” he declined an offer of the chief justiceship of Tobago (Trinidad and Tobago) and returned to London in 1833. Possibly through the efforts of influential friends, he was promptly made attorney general of Upper Canada that March in place of Henry John Boulton*, who had been dismissed from office. He assumed his duties in York (Toronto) in June 1833, the last Upper Canadian attorney general to be appointed by the British government.
Jameson capably performed the large and varied business of his new office, handing down legal opinions, reporting on petitions, reviewing applications for licences and patents, and dealing with legislative, administrative, and judicial matters. Although an outsider, he soon found himself embroiled in the turbulent provincial politics of the 1830s. During the election of 1834, he and Ogle Robert Gowan*, the ever-active leader of the Orange order, ran successfully as “Constitutional” candidates for the riding of Leeds; however, their reform opponents, William Buell* and Mathew H. Howard, proved their charges that voters had been intimidated by Gowan’s supporters, and the results of the election were controverted. In an 1835 by-election, violence again nullified Jameson’s victory, and he was not a candidate when yet another by-election was held the following year.
Anna finally consented to join her husband late in 1835 and set out for Toronto in the fall of 1836. She found provincial society insufferable, however, and left permanently after less than a year, having secured an annuity and a separation agreement from Robert and collected material for another travel book. Winter studies and summer rambles in Canada (1838) met with great success but Anna’s husband, always anxious about his position, did not welcome her caustic account of the province.
With or without a wife, Jameson had secured a respectable niche in Upper Canada. In 1837 he was appointed vice-chancellor of the newly created and long overdue Court of Chancery, the chancellorship being nominally held by the lieutenant governor of the province. As vice-chancellor, he also became a member of the Court of Appeal. His training in English equity made him one of the few capable local candidates for the demanding post, the jurisdiction of which included cases of fraud, accident, and account; co-partnerships; and matters relating to trusts and mortgages. Although for more than a decade he handled the onerous load of the court alone and with dignity, some solicitors became impatient with his excessive caution and respect for precedent. Jameson’s limited practical experience, the cumbersome procedures inherited from English equity, and the presence in the court of several outstanding lawyers such as William Hume Blake*, James Christie Palmer Esten*, and Robert Baldwin Sullivan, further complicated his task as vice-chancellor. A drinking problem, starting probably in Dominica, also progressively reduced his effectiveness.
During his years in Upper Canada, Jameson’s official and social position drew him into many activities, often involving contentious political issues. He served as treasurer of the Law Society of Upper Canada during 1836–41 and 1845–46. He was a member of the Legislative Council for the province of Canada between 1841 and 1853, and its first speaker until 1843. He sat on the council of King’s College (University of Toronto) from 1834 and was one of the first councillors of Trinity College when it was founded in 1851. In 1842 he became chief superintendent of education, though the actual work of the department was carried out by his deputy superintendents, Jean-Baptiste Meilleur* in Lower Canada and the Reverend Robert Murray in Upper Canada. Jameson also served on a number of important government commissions including those concerned with treason during the rebellion of 1837–38, with the operation of the Indian Department and the Inspector General’s Office in 1839, with the establishment of a lunatic asylum in Toronto in 1840 and with its superintendence from 1841 [see William Rees*], with the review and adjudication of claims to unpatented land grants between 1841 and 1848, and with the practices of the Court of Chancery in 1842 and 1843.
Other activities reflected his personal interests. As Henry Scadding* recalled years later, Jameson “was a man highly educated and possessing great taste, and even skill, in respect of art. He was a connoisseur and collector of fine editions. His conversation was charged with reminiscences and anecdotes of . . . the Coleridges, Wordsworths and Southey, with all of whom he had been intimate in his youth.” Jameson helped to organize and served as president of both the Toronto Literary Club (1836) and the St George’s Society (1839–41, 1848), and was a founding patron of the Toronto Society of Arts (1847). He also helped found the Anglican Church of St George the Martyr, Toronto, and was president of the British Emigrant Society of Upper Canada (1835) and of Thomas Rolph’s Canadian Emigration Association (1840). In 1845 he established a gold medal, which he designed himself, to be awarded for “proficiency in History and English Composition” at King’s College.
By the late 1840s Jameson’s position was declining. He had sought to retire from the vice-chancellorship as early as 1847, and in 1849 had to have a leave of absence from the Legislative Council because of his “shattered health.” George Ridout* spoke for many members of the bar when he wrote to Attorney General Robert Baldwin urging Jameson’s retirement as vice-chancellor. With the reorganization and expansion of the Court of Chancery in 1849, William Hume Blake, who had piloted the reforms, became chancellor and James Christie Palmer Esten, senior vice-chancellor; Jameson was demoted to junior vice-chancellor. A year later, a broken man, he resigned on a government pension of £750 a year. He had already sold the house he had built for his wife to Frederick Widder* and seems to have been speculating heavily in land. In 1854 Jameson died of pulmonary consumption while in the care of the Reverend George Maynard, an eccentric master at Upper Canada College, and his wife Emma. To them and not to Anna, he willed his personal effects and his “property on Queen Street” in what is now the Parkdale section of Toronto. His burial at St James’ Cemetery, Toronto, in the family vault of his late friend Lieutenant-Colonel Joseph Wells, received little notice.
Jameson’s life was marred by ruined ambitions and personal unhappiness; however, he served with dignity and self-sacrifice, if not always great distinction, in many important and constructive capacities for more than two decades. His efforts and contributions deserve more attention than they have received. This neglect is probably due in large part to the more renowned and colourful career of Anna Jameson, whose published letters give an all too sketchy and jaundiced view of Robert Sympson Jameson.
Robert Sympson Jameson is the editor of two volumes of Cases in bankruptcy . . . containing reports of cases . . . [1821–28]; and a digest of all the contemporary cases relating to the bankrupt laws in the other courts, the first co-edited with T. C. Glyn and the second with Basil Montagu (London, 1824–28); and two editions of A dictionary of the English language . . . ; with the pronunciation greatly simplified, and on an entire new plan; revised, corrected and enlarged, with the addition of several thousand words, compiled by Samuel Johnson and incorporating John Walker’s pronunciation guide (London, 1827; 2nd ed., 2v., 1828). His publications also include various judicial decisions and reports of government commissions.
A miniature of Jameson as a young man is reproduced in Anna Jameson: letters and friendships (1812–1860), ed. [B. C. Strong] Mrs Steuart Erskine (London, 1915); an oil portrait of the mature Jameson painted by John Wycliffe Lowes Forster* around 1919 for the Law Soc. of U.C. (Toronto) appears in Clara [McCandless] Thomas, Love and work enough: the life of Anna Jameson ([Toronto], 1967).
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Cite This Article
John D. Blackwell, “JAMESON, ROBERT SYMPSON,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 8, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed June 10, 2023, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/jameson_robert_sympson_8E.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:||John D. Blackwell|
|Title of Article:||JAMESON, ROBERT SYMPSON|
|Publication Name:||Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 8|
|Publisher:||University of Toronto/Université Laval|
|Year of publication:||1985|
|Year of revision:||1985|
|Access Date:||June 10, 2023|