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ROLPH, THOMAS, surgeon, author, and emigration agent; b. 1801 or 1802 in London; m. Frances — d. 17 Feb. 1858 in Portsmouth, England.

Thomas Rolph’s family, social, and educational background is unknown. In 1823 he received an apothecary’s licence from the Society of Apothecaries in London but there is no evidence that he took further medical qualifications. In 1832 he left England for a brief tour of the West Indies and the United States on his way to Upper Canada. He arrived there in the summer of 1833 and settled in Ancaster where he began to practise as a surgeon on 13 August. He also bought and sold small amounts of land in Brooke and Ancaster townships between 1834 and 1837. In July 1838 he was appointed surgeon to the 1st Regiment of Gore militia and in December to the 6th Provisional Battalion. In May 1840 the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Upper Canada refunded Rolph’s membership fee on the grounds that he had “exhibited no qualifications for being elected a member.” Thus, Rolph’s status as a surgeon must be regarded sceptically.

Rolph became known as a proponent of assisted emigration from Britain to the Canadas along the lines being advocated by Sir Robert John Wilmot-Horton and Edward Gibbon Wakefield*. In 1836 he presented his views in A brief account, together with observations, made during a visit in the West Indies, and a tour through the United States of America, in parts of the years 1832–3; together with a statistical account of Upper Canada. This book and other evidence indicate that Rolph travelled widely in Upper Canada for he describes in detail many features of the province’s towns, villages, and townships. He depicts Upper Canada as a desirable location for British emigrants with capital and farm labourers who would work hard and not expect an easy life.

Rolph began his career promoting emigration when he went to Britain with Roman Catholic Bishop Alexander McDonell* who had been interested in immigration for some years. They left in June 1839 and in September presented to Lord John Russell at the Colonial Office a scheme for large-scale systematic emigration with government assistance. The government rejected this scheme, as it did many others, on the grounds of expense.

Rolph remained in Britain until July 1840, travelling, speaking, and writing as an unofficial promoter of emigration to the Canadas. He assisted in the formation of societies which, along with landowners, were to provide the means for indigent emigrants to go to the Canadas. In December 1839 the Central Agricultural Society of Great Britain and Ireland made him an honorary member and corresponding secretary for British North America. In February 1840 the Highland and Agricultural Society of Scotland (an association of landowners) made him an honorary member of its emigration committee and the North American Colonial Committee appointed him its honorary secretary. He was a member of this committee’s delegation to Russell seeking government aid for emigration, which Russell refused.

All these activities were fully reported in Canadian newspapers, thereby making Rolph a prominent figure upon his return in September 1840. He delivered speeches at dinners given in his honour and afterwards helped organize local emigration societies. In October a central coordinating body, the Canadian Emigration Association, was formed in Toronto to collect information on lands and jobs and send it to British emigration societies or make it available to arriving immigrants. The association delegated Rolph as its representative in the British Isles.

Rolph’s prominence so impressed Governor Lord Sydenham [Thomson*] that he appointed him “Emigration Agent for the Canadas” in December 1840. Rolph was in the British Isles from January to August 1841, arriving back in Canada in September. In February 1842 Governor Sir Charles Bagot* reappointed him as official emigration agent. He returned to Britain but in July the colonial secretary, Lord Stanley, wrote to Bagot criticizing Rolph’s activities and advising that his appointment be ended. The reason given was that Rolph had incautiously encouraged indigent emigrants with the expectation that they would receive government aid. Neither the British nor the Canadian government intended to assist penniless emigrants; indeed, Canada wanted them discouraged. Rolph left Britain in August and ceased to be Canada’s emigration agent in December.

Another reason for official disfavour towards Rolph was his involvement, beginning in 1841, with the British American Association for Emigration and Colonization. This was a commercial association which intended to purchase lands in British North America and promote emigration of the poor on Wakefieldian principles. It collapsed early in 1843 because it did not get British or Canadian government approval and could not raise its projected capital.

Rolph was in Canada from September 1841 to March 1842 and from August to November 1842. He delivered speeches about his work and defended his involvement with the association. In October 1842 the Legislative Assembly voted to pay him £500 for his services under Bagot’s appointment. The next month he returned to England but by August 1843 was back in Canada.

Beginning in 1839 Rolph had also petitioned the Colonial Office on behalf of two other causes, but without success. He sought guarantees against deportation to the United States of fugitive slaves in Upper Canada as well as special government provision for their education. The other cause was the request of the Ursulines and Sulpicians in Lower Canada for the return of property which had been confiscated by the British. As well, from 1841 Rolph advocated the voluntary emigration of blacks from Canada to Trinidad where the sugar planters were seeking workers to replace their freed slaves. He even acted briefly in 1843 as an emigration agent in Upper Canada for the governor of Trinidad.

Rolph left Canada at the end of 1843 and probably never returned. In 1844 he published his best-known work, Emigration and colonization; embodying the results of a mission to Great Britain and Ireland, during the years 1839, 1840, 1841, and 1842. The book contains detailed descriptions of his travels in the British Isles and in Upper Canada, reports of speeches (by himself and by others), and accounts of the societies he formed or helped to form. Something of a trial of endurance, even for ardent admirers of Rolph, it also served as a justification of his activities and of himself. By January 1845 he was settled in Portsmouth where he practised as a surgeon until his sudden death on 17 Feb. 1858. The previous day he is supposed to have seen the tombstone of a young woman which carried the inscription “killed by Dr. Thomas Rolph.” By ten that evening he had become “insensible” and the next morning he died of a “Serious apoplexy.”

Opinions on Rolph vary. H. I. Cowan sees him as a minor figure in colonization, seeking to enrich himself from land sales, while W. S. Shepperson believes Rolph did much to promote Scottish emigration. The truth is difficult to discover because Rolph’s claims cannot be taken at face value. Although emigration from the British Isles increased from 1839 to 1842, too many causes operated to give Rolph a major share of the credit. The most that can be definitely said for Rolph is that he expanded interest in Canada among prospective emigrants in England and Scotland.

Wesley B. Turner

Thomas Rolph is the author of A brief account, together with observations, made during a visit in the West Indies, and a tour through the United States of America, in parts of the years 1832–3; together with a statistical account of Upper Canada (Dundas, [Ont.], 1836), a second edition of which was issued under the title A descriptive and statistical account of Canada: shewing its great adaptation for British emigration; preceded by an account of a tour through portions of the West Indies and the United States (London, 1841). Rolph’s other works include Canada v. Australia; their relative merits considered in an answer to a pamphlet, by Thornton Leigh Hunt, Esq., entitled “Canada and Australia” (London, 1839); Colonisation: a natural, safe and effectual mode of relief for national distress (London, 1847); Comparative advantages between the United States and Canada, for British settlers, considered in a letter, addressed to Captain Allardyce Barclay, of Ury (London, 1842); The emigrant’s manual: particularly addressed to the industrious classes and others who intend settling abroad; together with “The memoranda of a settler in Canada” . . . (London, n.d.); and Emigration and colonization; embodying the results of a mission to Great Britain and Ireland, during the years 1839, 1840, 1841, and 1842 . . . (London, 1844). Additional works are listed in the British Museum general catalogue.

AO, RG 1, C-III-4, 10: 12; RG 53, ser.2-2, 3. GRO (London), Death certificate, Thomas Rolph, 17 Feb. 1858. PRO, CO 42/467, 42/468, 42/497; CO 43/98, 43/101, 43/102, 43/144–45 (copies at PAC). Wentworth Land Registry Office (Hamilton, Ont.), Alphabetical index to deeds, Ancaster Township (mfm. at AO, GS 1394). Arthur papers (Sanderson). Debates of the Legislative Assembly of United Canada (Abbott Gibbs et al.), vol.2. Morgan, Bibliotheca Canadensis. Canniff, Medical profession in U.C. H. I. Cowan, British emigration to British North America; the first hundred years (rev. ed., Toronto, 1961). W. S. Shepperson, British emigration to North America; projects and opinions in the early Victorian period (Minneapolis, Minn., 1957). J. K. A. Farrell [O’Farrell], “Schemes for the transplanting of refugee American negroes from Upper Canada in the 1840’s,” OH, 52 (1960): 24549.

General Bibliography

Cite This Article

Wesley B. Turner, “ROLPH, THOMAS,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 8, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed May 24, 2024, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/rolph_thomas_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:

Permalink:   http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/rolph_thomas_8E.html
Author of Article:   Wesley B. Turner
Title of Article:   ROLPH, THOMAS
Publication Name:   Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 8
Publisher:   University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication:   1985
Year of revision:   1985
Access Date:   May 24, 2024