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KIRBY, JOHN, businessman, militia officer, office holder, jp, and politician; b. 1772 in Knaresborough, England, son of John Kirby and Ann —; m. first Mary Nixon, née Macaulay; m. secondly 28 Feb. 1822 Cecilia Bethune (d. 1842), daughter of John Bethune* and widow of Walter Butler Wilkinson; he had no children; d. 19 Dec. 1846 in Kingston, Upper Canada.

John Kirby came to North America from Yorkshire with his parents in 1774 and settled with them on a farm near Fort Ticonderoga (near Ticonderoga, N.Y.). His father joined the British quartermaster general’s department two years later at St Johns (Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu), Que., where he located with his family after the American revolution. Though John Sr’s name was expunged from the United Empire Loyalist list in 1798 by Upper Canada’s Executive Council, on the grounds that it had been improperly inserted, he had apparently “shared in the troubles to which all loyalists were exposed.” For John Jr the resulting family sympathies, contacts he made during the 1780s, and the opportunity to better his lot undoubtedly prompted him to move to Kingston, the small, tightly knit loyalist settlement where he gradually established himself as a merchant.

Kirby was introduced into the community and its commerce by Robert Macaulay*, who married his sister Ann in 1791. John may have worked as an agent in New York for the firm of Macaulay and Markland prior to its dissolution in 1792 or 1793. Kirby, who claimed to have taken up residence in Kingston in 1796, continued in the business with Macaulay until the latter’s untimely death in 1800. John and Ann then assumed joint control of the diversified business, forming John Kirby and Company, which lasted until 1817. In addition to running its storage, wharfage, and commission business, John exported flour and other local produce on his own account and imported goods from the United States for sale in Kingston. And, perhaps because of a shortage of capital, he entered into other partnerships to finance specific projects, including (with Captain Henry Murney) the importing of tobacco and gin, and (with Thomas Clark*) the trans-shipment of goods at Queenston.

By the early 1820s, it seems, Kirby was financially secure and confident enough to conduct alone his general forwarding and merchandising business, together with other diverse interests. He was an agent for various business figures, including in 1823 Henry Atkinson, the Royal Navy’s timber contractor at Quebec, and in 1826 Allan Macpherson of Napanee. Kirby engaged in extensive land speculation, and frequently lent money to associates. After the War of 1812 he had expanded his activities to include part-ownership in two steamships on Lake Ontario, the Frontenac, launched in 1816 [see James McKenzie*], and the St George, launched in 1834. As well, in 1826 he was one of the founding subscribers of the Cataraqui Bridge Company, an interest he maintained for the next ten years, serving first as a director and then as president.

By the mid 1820s Kirby’s growing reputation as one of Kingston’s most successful and respected businessmen was augmented by his participation in community projects undertaken to promote the economic development and prosperity of the area. Initially it was undoubtedly self-interest that prompted him to enter loose associations with other businessmen for such purposes. In 1813, for example, he was one of those who formed the Kingston Association, which attempted to regulate business by agreeing to “issue and accept bills for the convenience of making change.” Six years later, he joined a group that wanted to regulate the fraudulent valuation of the halfpence of various currencies then in circulation by accepting only the British halfpenny. Kirby’s interest in monetary matters also led him into an increasing involvement with banking institutions in the colony. By July 1817 he had become a trustee of the Bank of Upper Canada at Kingston, which was awaiting royal assent for a charter. The next year a private bank of the same name (later known as the “pretended” Bank of Upper Canada) was established, but Kirby’s involvement in this institution is uncertain [see Thomas Dalton]. In February 1819 he was selected to sit on a committee established to investigate the feasibility of introducing a savings bank in Kingston, and in 1822, when such a bank was established, he was elected one of its vice-presidents. After the “pretended” Bank of Upper Canada had been outflanked by the Bank of Upper Canada at York (Toronto), he seems to have moved quickly to support the latter. In 1823 his expertise and involvement were put to use by the provincial government, which appointed Kirby, his nephew John Macaulay* (the York bank’s Kingston agent), and George Herchmer Markland* as commissioners to investigate and settle the affairs of the pretended bank. In 1830 Kirby became a director of the Bank of Upper Canada and ten years later was made a director of the Commercial Bank of the Midland District.

In the 1820s he had also been active in efforts to promote the union of the Canadas, a cause fervently advocated by John Macaulay, and to coordinate Kingston’s business affairs more closely with those of Montreal. His own business concerns, together with his commitment to community development, led him to help organize the St Lawrence Association in 1824 to encourage the improvement of navigation on the St Lawrence. In addition, he supported in 1835 the proposed construction of a canal from Loughborough Lake to Kingston and in 1836 plans to improve the Welland Canal. In the latter year he represented landowners in the arbitration on drowned lands along the Rideau Canal. The economic advancement of Kingston, he clearly realized, depended on the development of the colony as a whole, and he did all in his power to enhance both.

Business was not his only, or perhaps even his primary, concern. Like others of his generation and class, he believed that he had a responsibility to serve the community at large. Shortly after his arrival in Kingston he began an active and long connection with the Church of England. In 1802 and again in 1810 he served as a warden at St George’s Church. In the 1820s, as his wealth and prominence grew, Kirby became a principal subscriber to the building fund for a new church and, along with Thomas Markland, Peter Smith*, Christopher Alexander Hagerman, and others, he was appointed to the committee to oversee the project. In 1842 he was a founding member of the Midland District Society, established to promote religion in the area, and throughout his residency in Kingston, it appears, Kirby was one of those who ensured that the local Anglican minister had an adequate income. His formal participation in church affairs was supplemented, particularly after 1815, by a growing commitment to the various social reform organizations beginning to appear in Upper Canada. In keeping with his belief that adherence to the dictates of God and to organized religion was essential to social order and public virtue, he helped found the Kingston Auxiliary Bible and Common Prayer Book Society in 1817, and served as its treasurer until 1827. He was vice-president of the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge during much of that period, a member and president of the St George’s Society in the 1830s, and in the following decade a founder and vice-president of the Association to Promote Christian Knowledge and for the Propagation of the Gospel among Destitute Settlers.

Kirby obviously realized, however, that religious instruction alone was not enough to ensure order and prosperity. Education was also essential. Thus he supported the building of a local school in 1815, subscribed to the newly established Queen’s College in 1840, and served as treasurer of the Midland District School Society between 1842 and 1844. In 1811 he had joined other concerned citizens in underwriting financially the shaky Kingston Gazette [see Stephen Miles*], and in the 1810s he conscientiously donated time and money to the local library, as he did later to the Kingston Mechanics’ Institute. As well, he was a founding member of the local agricultural society in 1819 and throughout the 1820s served as a manager for the Kingston Assembly, which organized lectures, dances, and other events.

After 1815, however, it had become evident to Kirby and other prominent townspeople that churches and schools alone could do little to alleviate the problems created by the flood of immigrants into Kingston. Often destitute, diseased, and disillusioned, many were ill prepared to start life in the New World. Christian duty and public order demanded that something be done, and Kirby and other community leaders rose to the occasion. In 1817 he became a founding member of the Kingston Compassionate Society, which he served as treasurer. Two years later, he joined the Committee on the Means of Supporting Paupers in Kingston and in 1820 made a considerable donation to the Kingston Benevolent Society. His continuing concern prompted him in 1832 to stand as president of the Emigrant Society of Kingston. During the 1820s and 1830s, Kirby also gave his whole-hearted support to his wife’s activities in the Female Benevolent Society, and frequently added to its coffers. It was not just residents of Kingston who benefited from his philanthropy. When fire wreaked havoc in New Brunswick’s Miramichi valley in 1825, he organized and chaired the local meeting to collect subscriptions. And while in the Legislative Council (1831–41), he was instrumental in directing government funds to hospitals and private charities throughout the colony.

Perhaps one of the most significant and, for Kirby, most satisfying achievements was his work to gain adequate health care for those in the Kingston area. His interest began in 1809, when he added his name to a petition to the government requesting land for a hospital. Ten years later he subscribed to a hospital building fund. It was not until 1832, however, when a cholera epidemic threatened local residents, that Kirby became directly involved. As chairman of the newly formed Kingston board of health, he put considerable time and effort into organizing and implementing measures, such as the regulation of local sanitation, intended to arrest the disease. In addition, Kirby and his committee established a cholera hospital and provided facilities for quarantining prospective victims, most of whom were recently arrived immigrants. When cholera struck again in 1835, 1836, and 1837, he again chaired the board of health and directed its activities.

Kirby was known in Kingston for far more than his business interests and philanthropic endeavours, however. A political conservative throughout his life, he was an ardent supporter of the province’s tory administration. Upper Canadians had a duty, he believed, to support the government and the crown. Accepting the need for order and stability in society, he believed that some men, like himself, were by virtue of their wealth, rank, and ability called to lead. Prompted by this conviction, he was a member of the local militia, rising in 1838 to the rank of lieutenant-colonel and becoming a year later commanding officer of the 1st Regiment of Frontenac militia.

Much of Kirby’s political career, and his influence, resided within the confines of eastern Upper Canada. In 1813 he was appointed road-master for Kingston and the surrounding township; five years later he was commissioned as a magistrate for the Midland District, a position he held until his death. He was appointed returning officer for Frontenac in 1816 and eight years later became commissioner for elections. Though politics was never a central part of his life, Kirby’s beliefs and business and personal connections with such prominent families as the Marklands, Macaulays, and Herchmers made him a member of Kingston’s influential tory élite. In the complex factionalism which characterized Kingston’s tories, he sided with John Macaulay and George Herchmer Markland and by the late 1820s his reliability as a tory was apparent. Not only had he publicly repudiated radical politics and the activities of Robert Gourlay* in 1819, but he had signed frequent petitions supporting the lieutenant governor and the colonial administration. In 1824 he was a principal subscriber to the fund established to erect a monument to Sir Isaac Brock*, who had become an increasingly important symbol, to the province’s tories, of Upper Canadian and not just British courage and loyalty. Subscribing to the fund was not only a social action but an almost obligatory demonstration of loyalty.

Such good public service and Kirby’s growing prominence were recognized in 1831 by his appointment to the Legislative Council. Throughout the next ten years, he travelled to York to take part in colonial policy making. Though he apparently cut back his business activities – he leased his wharf and store to George Wheatley Yarker in 1833 – he remained particularly interested in the economic development of the colony, giving considerable attention to proposed banking legislation and supporting measures to improve colonial transportation and communication. But Kirby never forgot his responsibilities to his town. In the mid 1830s he was instrumental in obtaining a government grant for a new hospital there and he supported, without success, a motion to establish a provincial quarantine station in the area.

Kirby’s sympathy toward the provincial administration became clearly evident in 1837–38 when, in his view, political unrest threatened to destroy those political and social institutions he had spent much of his life defending. During the rebellion he joined many others in expressing his concern for the security of the colony, and a year later was pleased to be a member of the militia court martial convened at Fort Henry to try Nils von Schoultz and other Patriots captured near Prescott. The aftermath of the rebellion and the report subsequently presented by Lord Durham [Lambton] dismayed Kirby, however, who, despite his earlier support of commercial union with Lower Canada, was apprehensive in 1839 about Durham’s proposal for the union of the provinces. In correspondence with John Macaulay he questioned the plan, as did other extreme conservatives, and reacted fearfully to the possible use of French in parliament and the courts. The one consolation, to Kirby, was that Kingston was to be the new capital.

Kirby’s concern about union and the new government and his own deteriorating health undoubtedly contributed to his failure to be reappointed to the Legislative Council in 1841. Yet it seems that he did not regret his permanent return to Kingston and private life. During the last years of his life, Kirby, in semi-retirement, was once again able to devote his attention to those concerns that most interested him. Between 1841 and 1845 he served as an associate judge in the Midland District Assizes. In 1844 he apparently headed the petition inviting John A. Macdonald* to run in Kingston in the provincial election that fall. As the grand old man of Kingston, president of the St George’s Society, and commanding officer of the local militia, Kirby became involved in ceremonial duties, and he resumed his participation in local church and school affairs. For perhaps the first time in his life, he now had time to travel with family and friends. Having no children of his own, he had taken a keen interest in the concerns of his nephews, John, William*, and Robert Macaulay. He and John, through common business and political interests, had become particularly close, and this relationship, and that with his sister Ann, seemed to become even closer in the 1840s.

At the time of his death in December 1846, Kirby was, as the editor of the Argus commented, “one of a class which we regret to say is speedily passing away from amongst us.” The people of Kingston remembered him as an astute businessman, “successful in mercantile pursuits,” who was always “hospitable and unostentatious . . . freely bestowing his substance and his sympathy where the call of benevolence or charity invited his attention.” John Kirby had been, in all senses, a tory gentleman. In his long life he achieved personal wealth and influence. As one of the early settlers in Upper Canada, he had watched and materially contributed to its establishment and growth. He had also proven himself to be a staunch advocate of the loyalist ideal and, by example, had supported the conservative ideals of service and stewardship. Indeed, Kirby was one of the generation that had been instrumental in the establishment of Upper Canada as a British and conservative society.

Jane Errington

AO, MS 78; RG 22, ser.155. PAC, RG 1, L3, 268: K3/7; 270: K8/1, 24; 271: K11/33; 271a: K13/14; RG 5, A1; B25, 4, 4 July 1824; RG 16, A1, 133, files for 1806–10, 1815; 134, file for 1820; 135, files for 1823–24; RG 68, General index, 1651–1841: 432, 670. QUA, 2199c, letter-books, Richard Cartwright to Peter Hunter, 31 March 1801; 2244, minutes, 1842–44; 2254. Kingston before War of 1812 (Preston). The parish register of Kingston, Upper Canada, 1785–1811, ed. A. H. Young (Kingston, Ont., 1921). U.C., Legislative Council, Journal, 1832, 1836–37. Argus; a Commercial, Agricultural, Political, and Literary Journal (Kingston), 22 Dec. 1846. Chronicle & Gazette, 1833–46. Kingston Chronicle, 1819–33. Kingston Gazette, 1811–18. Upper Canada Herald, 15 March, 22 Nov. 1825; 13 Nov. 1830. Heritage Kingston, ed. J. D. Stewart and I. E. Wilson (Kingston, 1973). K. M. Bindon, “Kingston: a social history, 1785–1830” (phd thesis, Queen’s Univ., Kingston, 1979), 438–42. Margaret [Sharp] Angus, “The Macaulay family of Kingston,” Historic Kingston, no.5 (1955–56): 3–12. H. P. Gundy, “The Honourable John Kirby of Kingston,” Douglas Library Notes (Kingston), 9 (1960), no.1: 2–4.

General Bibliography

Cite This Article

Jane Errington, “KIRBY, JOHN,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 7, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed May 24, 2024, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/kirby_john_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:

Permalink:   http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/kirby_john_7E.html
Author of Article:   Jane Errington
Title of Article:   KIRBY, JOHN
Publication Name:   Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 7
Publisher:   University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication:   1988
Year of revision:   1988
Access Date:   May 24, 2024