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SHIRREFF, CHARLES, businessman, author, office holder, and jp; b. 26 July 1768 in Leith, Scotland, son of Robert Shirreff and Barbara Menzies; m. first 29 May 1793 Jane Wilson, and they had four sons and a daughter; m. secondly 14 Sept. 1808 Jane Coxon, with whom he had two sons and two daughters; d. 5 May 1847 in Bytown (Ottawa), Upper Canada.

Charles Shirreff came from a Scottish family of merchants and shipbuilders which had been involved in the Baltic timber trade. He left his business in Leith and immigrated to Upper Canada in 1817, settling near Smith’s Creek (Port Hope) on Lake Ontario. Through connections with the provincial administration, he obtained a grant of 5,000 acres in the upper Ottawa River valley, to which he moved in 1818. Plunging into land promotion and the timber trade, he founded the settlement of Fitzroy Harbour, where he built a grist-mill in 1831. An early advocate of linking the Ottawa to either Lake Huron or Lake Simcoe by canal, that year he published his ideas in a pamphlet, Thoughts on emigration and on the Canadas, as an opening for it, which proposed bringing labourers to build public works, such as the Huron route, and then turning them to agricultural settlement. His plans largely came to nothing, however, and it was in the timber trade that he left his mark.

Shirreff was not himself a large operator but, cognizant of the problems created for the timber interests by illegal cutting, he became their leader in making representations to the Upper and Lower Canadian governments for the regulation of cutting on public lands. In 1826 a system had been introduced whereby the post of deputy surveyor general of woods was revived in each province to control the licensing of lumbermen, in part by limiting the size of timber berths. To collect dues, an agency was formed with an office at Bytown, concentrating on the Ottawa valley and responsible for both sides of the river and its tributaries above the Chaudière Falls, in addition to the Gatineau and Rideau rivers. Shirreff was offered the agency but deferred in favour of his son Robert, who assumed the position in 1826. Charles warned that two officers were necessary: one in Bytown to measure timber and take bonds, and one in Quebec to accept the payment of dues when the rafts were sold. The governments, however, believed that, no matter how impractical, the collection of dues should be at Bytown. Charles, without formal appointment, handled the business at Bytown from the start and Robert collected payments at Quebec.

Charles allied himself with the lumbermen in advocating the reform of this system and modifications to it. A new one, devised by George Hamilton, a leading timber merchant, but proposed by Shirreff, was adopted in 1832. It permitted lumbermen to make an application to the commissioner of crown lands for limits, with a description of their boundaries and the quantity of timber they proposed to cut. The Bytown office would collect a down payment in the fall on the anticipated dues, with the balance being paid at Quebec in the spring. The new system favoured the industry since a lumberman could underestimate his expected cut and thus minimize the down payment at a time when he needed cash for the winter’s operation.

But if Shirreff sided with Hamilton, he was not a cipher for such large operators. This was apparent in the difficulties over what became known as the Gatineau privilege. An association of lumbermen, including Peter Aylen* and the firm of Hamilton and Low, all of whom had legal limits on the Gatineau River, had undertaken improvements there for driving purposes. They were angered in the winter of 1831–32 to find that a number of lumbermen were cutting illegally on the river. Further, Hamilton protested in March, Shirreff was encouraging others to take up berths there for the following year. Represented by Hamilton, the association requested in August 1832, and received from the Lower Canadian government three months later, a reservation of the Gatineau from the public sale of limits.

The creation of this monopoly caused an uproar in Bytown. Other lumbermen had started winter operations without proper licences, a practice which was condoned by the Bytown timber office. Shirreff complained vociferously in November, claiming that limits on the Gatineau, “a chief seat of the Timber trade,” had been removed from public competition and therefore from his control. He urged Commissioner William Bowman Felton to reverse the privilege in order to prevent the seizure of the property of the excluded lumbermen, “who will certainly not submit . . . without a struggle.” Unfortunately for Shirreff, a commission of inquiry formed in January 1833 found in favour of leaving the privilege in place. Out-manœuvred politically, he found his authority undermined. Soon he was to find his reputation destroyed.

The cause was a scandal in the collection of dues. In 1830, after the departure of Robert Shirreff on an extended trip to the United States and England, Alexander Shirreff had come in to help his father at Bytown and an agreement had been reached with a firm at Quebec, Jones, Murray and Company, to handle the agency’s business there. When this firm went bankrupt in 1833 it was revealed that Charles had been allowing the company to accept promissory notes rather than bonds as security for the timber dues it collected and that the provinces had lost approximately £3,600. Some historians have suggested that the Shirreffs deceived the governments and, perhaps, lined their pockets and those of local merchants with public funds. The charge of deceit, however, is difficult to comprehend. Charles testified in 1836 before a select committee in Upper Canada that the government had recognized, through correspondence, his informal role in the collection process. Equally as certain, government officials had been aware of the role played by Jones, Murray and Company since they had expressed concern over a private firm acting in the place of public appointees.

The nub of Shirreff’s problems lay, perhaps, in relations with officials. He and Robert had never enjoyed good relations with Lower Canada’s Crown Lands Department, especially with Felton, who was himself facing charges of fraud in land dealings. Completely exasperated by the Shirreffs over the Gatineau privilege and annoyed at Charles’s practice of collecting dues on illegal timber rather than seizing it, he was determined to curb Charles’s discretion in licensing. What the commissioner did not appreciate was that the government’s unwillingness to finance accurate surveys made the boundaries of limits loose and trespass an easy misdemeanour. Finally, he had become convinced that collections should be made by a public official, but he apparently did not order Shirreff to cease employing Jones, Murray and Company. The problem was not that Charles had concealed his activities, but rather that they were so well known and were subjected to such criticism, especially by Felton, that a crisis had become a scandal.

As to the question of purloining funds, there is little evidence that this occurred. Shirreff, who had served as a magistrate since 1826, was not confronted during the investigation of 1836 with charges of fraud or corruption. There is no doubt that he did well out of the collectorship, doubling as a kind of agent for directing prospective settlers and for collecting slidages at Chats Falls, near Fitzroy Harbour. He had clearly been derelict, however, in not demanding that Jones, Murray and Company obtain proper securities for the dues collected. The recommendation of the select committee that securities be required in the future was the closest Shirreff came to censure. Yet the finding of incompetence was enough to ruin his authority as collector. He and Robert vacated the Bytown office in 1836, though there is no evidence to indicate whether this was a voluntary withdrawal or a dismissal. Their replacement, James Stevenson*, was considered to have more financial acumen than Charles Shirreff, but the eventual continuation of the system of making payments at Quebec confirmed its practicality.

Charles Shirreff turned to his other business and settlement enterprises. In 1837 he erected a sawmill at Fitzroy Harbour and by 1839 had opened a store. He died in Bytown in 1847.

Robert Peter Gillis

Charles Shirreff is the author of two pamphlets, A few reasons against any change in the system of our colonial lumber trade and Thoughts on emigration and on the Canadas, as an opening for it, both published at Quebec in 1831.

ANQ-Q, E21/1877–78. AO, MU 3289. PAC, MG 11, [CO42 Q, 338–1: 177, 179; 375-2: 350–60; RG 1, L1, 30: 441, 450; L3, 458:] S11/237; 462: S13/146, 150, 156–57; 463: S14/80; RG 5, A1: 68315–18; RG 68, General index, 1651–1841: 457. U.C., House of Assembly, App. to the journal, 1836, app.54. Packet (Bytown [Ottawa]), 8 May 1847. The Oxford companion to Canadian history and literature, ed. Norah Story (Toronto, 1967), 609–10. Lucien Brault, Ottawa old & new (Ottawa, 1946). M. S. Cross, “The dark druidical groves: the lumber community and the commercial frontier in British North America, to 1854” (phd thesis, Univ. of Toronto, 1968), 272–73. S. J. Gillis, The timber trade in the Ottawa valley, 1806–54 (Parks Canada, National Parks and Hist. Sites Branch, Manuscript report, no.153, Ottawa, 1975). R. S. Lambert and Paul Pross, Renewing natures wealth; a centennial history of the public management of lands, forests & wildlife in Ontario, 17631967 ([Toronto], 1967), 41–42.

General Bibliography

Cite This Article

Robert Peter Gillis, “SHIRREFF, CHARLES,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 7, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed May 21, 2024, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/shirreff_charles_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/shirreff_charles_7E.html
Author of Article:   Robert Peter Gillis
Title of Article:   SHIRREFF, CHARLES
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 21, 2024