SEXTON, JOHN PONSONBY, advocate, editor, and municipal official; b. 11 June 1808 in Quebec, son of John Sexton and Helen Halpen; d. in Montreal, Que., 18 March 1880.
John Ponsonby Sexton was the eldest son of John Sexton, native of Limerick, Ireland, former officer of the 49th regiment and employee of the Crown Lands Department, Quebec. His mother was related to the Ponsonby family. He was educated at the Petit Séminaire of Quebec and studied law in Montreal where he was admitted to the bar on 9 Feb. 1829.
Sexton joined the law firm of A. Jones and practised successfully in Montreal for 11 years. In 1835 he became editor of the Irish Advocate, a moderate reform journal temporarily created to draw Irish support from the Vindicator and Canadian Advertiser, a stalwart proponent of the Patriote cause. Although, in the invective which followed, the Vindicator branded Sexton a prominent Orangeman, there is no evidence to suggest that Sexton converted to the Protestant faith. He remained an active member of the St Patrick’s Society and the Irish Roman Catholic Temperance Society, and, in 1844–45, served as first vice-president of both organizations.
On 12 Sept. 1840 Sexton became Montreal’s first city clerk under the new charter of 1840, at a salary of £300, winning this appointment over the recorded opposition of five of the six French Canadian members of the city council. Since the corporation had no legal department Sexton drafted most of the municipal by-laws. In 1841 the city provided him with an assistant, Richard D. Bodley. Sexton, a prescient and exacting administrator, twice persuaded the lethargic city council to appoint land assessors if the corporation was not to lose the annual tax revenue. On one occasion, the city would otherwise have lost the whole revenue from the west ward amounting to about £5,000. In 1846 Sexton’s foresight saved the entire assessment of the city, an estimated £30,000. In 1849 Sexton refused to follow his Montreal merchant friends into the annexation movement.
From 1852 until 1859 he served as clerk of the Recorder’s Court, a local court established to try violations of municipal laws. Upon the recommendation of the city council, Sexton was on 2 April 1859 named recorder by the governor general, Sir Edmund Walker Head*, and he held this position until his death. He served as a major in the militia of Lower Canada. On 28 Feb. 1873 he was made queen’s counsel.
In St Paul’s Presbyterian Church, on 15 Feb. 1834, Sexton married Jane Elizabeth Carswell, the daughter of a Montreal merchant in wine and spirits. They had one son, James Ponsonby, an author and advocate, and two daughters. Jane Sexton died on 23 Jan. 1849, at the age of 49. Ten years later, on 7 June 1859, Sexton married Lolitia Keys, the widow of Francis McDonnell.
Sexton, a competent civic administrator, has been described as “a man of learning, ability and great literary attainment and an able writer.”
AJM, Registre d’état civil, Notre-Dame Parish, 1880; Registre d’état civil, St Paul’s Presbyterian Church, 1834, 1835, 1849; Registre d’état civil, St Patrick’s Church, 1859. AVM, Procès-verbaux du conseil municipal, 1–67. [Bruce and Grey], Elgin-Grey papers (Doughty), II, 456–58. Le Courrier de Montréal, 17 mars–21 mars 1880. Le Nouveau Monde (Montréal), 16 mars–21 mars 1880. Pilot (Montreal), 1–17 April 1859. True Witness and Catholic Chronicle (Montreal), 24 March–18 April 1859. Vindicator and Canadian Advertiser (Montreal), 18 Aug. 1835–10 Jan. 1838. P.-G. Roy, Les avocats de la région de Québec, 404. Hector Berthelot, Montréal; le bon vieux temps, É.-Z. Massicotte, édit. et compil. (2v., Montréal, 1916), II, 107–10. Histoire de la Corporation de la Cité de Montréal, depuis son origine jusqu’à nos jours . . . , J.-C. Lamothe et al., édit. (Montréal, 1903), 410–12. F.-J. Audet, “1842,” Cahiers des Dix, VII (1942), 221, 253–54. Léon Trépanier, “Les attributs de la mairie de Montréal,” Cahiers des Dix, XXXI (1966), 203–11.