SHENSTON, THOMAS STRAHAN, harness-maker, businessman, office holder, jp, inventor, philanthropist, and author; b. 25 June 1822 in London, England, son of Benjamin Shenston and Mary Strahan; m. 30 Dec. 1843 Mary Lazenby, and they had two daughters and six sons; d. 15 March 1895 in Brantford, Ont.
Thomas Strahan Shenston, the son of a self-employed painter, spent his childhood in London. At age nine he left school to work as an errand-boy for a neighbouring shopkeeper. His father, whose business was not prospering and who despaired of arranging apprenticeships for Tom and his four brothers, immigrated with his family to Upper Canada in the spring of 1832. He purchased land first in Woolwich Township, near Guelph, and then in 1834 at DeCew Falls, near St Catharines. Tom worked for wages on neighbouring farms until 1837, when his father apprenticed him to a St Catharines harness-maker. Leaving his apprenticeship early in 1841, he sought a likely location for a business, first trying Chatham but later that year moving to Woodstock. His harness-making and saddlery business seems to have prospered until a fire in March 1848 destroyed a commercial block he owned and his nearby house and workshop, none of which was insured. Although he quickly reopened, towards the end of the year he confronted financial embarrassment and withdrew from business.
Shenston’s financial difficulties were somewhat eased by a number of patronage appointments he received for his service in the reform cause. On instruction from politicians Robert Baldwin* and Francis Hincks*, he had orchestrated reform opinion in Oxford County through petitions, informal canvassing, public meetings, and, in 1847, the promotion of a sympathetic newspaper. Most significant, however, were his efforts as election agent for Hincks in the difficult 1847 and 1851 campaigns. Shenston’s rewards included appointments as magistrate (1849), clerk of Oxford County (1850), municipal returning officer for Woodstock (1850), and census commissioner (1852). In 1853, despite the opposition of Clear Grit politician David Christie*, Hincks obtained for Shenston appointments as registrar, magistrate, and commissioner for the Court of Queen’s Bench for the new Brant County, whereupon he moved to Brantford. Although Shenston gave up his trade at this time, like many 19th-century artisans he remained somewhat of a tinkerer and amateur inventor. He obtained patents on an inkstand and car brakes, and devised a perpetual calendar. His efforts at marketing his inventions, however, met with little success.
The position of county registrar not only paid a salary, it afforded Shenston access to potentially profitable information about land values and transactions. Free from charges for title searches and registration, he could investigate, assemble, and trade property and, in effect, run a real estate business. Others sought his services because the variety of registered documents at his command – land records, chattel mortgages, partnership agreements, incorporations, and court judgements – revealed the extent and location of the wealth of most county residents. Thus, creditors sought his assistance, presumably for a fee, in collecting debts. In the 1870s the Canadian Bank of Commerce commissioned him to evaluate the credit worthiness of Brantford’s major manufacturers and wholesalers and to attract their accounts to the bank. Moreover, at a time when land and mortgages constituted major investment opportunities, his position made him an ideal choice as an estate executor and financial agent.
Shenston also accumulated other local business interests. He was appointed agent for the Hartford Fire Insurance Company and the Canada Life Assurance Company in the early 1860s, was variously secretary and treasurer of the profitable Brantford Waterworks Company (1870 to 1889), and promoted the formation and assumed the presidency of the Royal Loan and Savings Society of Brantford (1876). Fulfilling his public duties and dabbling in private interests brought him some success: at his death his estate was worth nearly $65,000.
In a letter of 1876 Thomas Shenston had prayed that “by the grace of God I will never be a rich man.” To avert that prospect, from the 1870s he expended at least $2,000 annually on charitable causes. His generosity most frequently found its expression in support for evangelical and missionary work. In 1860 he helped found and acted as secretary for Brantford’s short-lived Young Men’s Christian Association, and for a decade beginning in 1869 he personally ran the Brantford Orphans’ Home which he and Ignatius Cockshutt* financed. A committed Baptist, he was a major force in the establishment in 1867 of the Canadian auxiliary to the American Baptist Missionary Union and in its reorganization in 1875 as the Baptist Foreign Missionary Society of Ontario and Quebec. Shenston was the author of a history of its work in India, Teloogoo mission scrap book (1888).
Shenston wrote a number of books, in itself a remarkable achievement for someone with so limited an education. People who examine them, however, understand why he had to publish them himself and why he encountered difficulties distributing them. Shenston wished to convey to his readers information he himself had found useful as a municipal official and, more important, as a Christian. Thus, his books lacked originality and mixed facts, testimony, and extensive excerpts from other works with his own commentary. Negative assessments of the works he submitted to publishers upset him but did not deter him, for he remained certain that his own difficult spiritual progress justified his role as a witness to God’s power. A believer in adult baptism, he had experienced conversion relatively late, at age 35, after considerable personal doubt and much pressure from his father.
Shenston’s writings reflected his evaluation of himself as a materially and spiritually successful man and in the 1880s, in the Brantford Expositor, he offered his own life as an example to working men dissatisfied with their lot. “Education outside of the school house,” mastery of a trade and “muscular toil,” thrift, and the denial of liquor, cigars, and theatres – these comprised “the road to comparative wealth.” Shenston’s prescription may have reflected some of his own qualities, but in an age of emergent industrial capitalism it was hardly a realistic prescription for others.
Thomas Strahan Shenston is the author of: A few friends of the reform cause will meet at my house for consultation . . . ([Woodstock, Ont.?, 1847?]); A letter to the inhabitants of the town of Brantford, respecting the late extraordinary conduct of the mayor (Brantford, [Ont.], 1856); The Berean (Brantford, 1862), printed by “Thomas S. Shenston; (Amateur) Printer”; The sinner and his saviour, no record of the first edition of which is available (a second edition was published in London, Eng., [ 1879]); Teloogoo mission scrap book (Brantford, 1888); A jubilee review of the First Baptist Church, Brantford, 1833 to 1884 (Toronto, 1890); and Gleanings (Guelph, Ont., [ 1893]). He is the compiler of The county warden and municipal officers’ assistant . . . (Brantford, 1851); The Oxford gazetteer; containing a complete history of the county of Oxford, from its first settlement . . . (Hamilton, [Ont.], 1852; repr. Woodstock, 1968); and Private family register of the Shenston and Lazenby families ([Brantford], 1864), which he also printed.
AO, MU 7101; MU 7222–40. MTRL, Broadsheet Coll., several items by T. S. Shenston; T. S. Shenston papers. Benjamin Shenston, Minutes in reference to my leaving England ([Chicago, 1937]). Daily Courier (Brantford), 16, 19 March 1895. Weekly Sentinel-Review (Woodstock), 4 Dec. 1891. J. M. S. Careless, Brown of “The Globe” (2v., Toronto, 1959–63; repr. 1972), 1: 72, 74, 76, 191. W. [G.] Ormsby, “Sir Francis Hincks,” The pre-confederation premiers: Ontario government leaders, 1841–1867, ed. J. M. S. Careless (Toronto, 1980), 148–96.