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b. 4 March 1794 in Boucherville, Lower Canada


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SMILEY, ROBERT REID, printer, newspaperman, and businessman; b. 1817 in Ireland, son of Samuel and Agnes Smiley; m. 2 Nov. 1847 Margaret Switzer; d. 10 May 1855 in Hamilton, Upper Canada.

Robert Reid Smiley immigrated with his parents to Kingston, Upper Canada, at an early age. He was apprenticed as a printer with the Kingston Herald, rose to be foreman, and later worked, also as foreman, for the British Whig. In 1844 he moved with the seat of government to Montreal, where he was employed by the printers J. Starke and Company and wrote on political matters for various journals.

Hamilton at that time had a high tory newspaper, the Hamilton Gazette, and General Advertiser, run by George Perkins Bull*. Its style was mild mannered and its interests increasingly theological. A group of leading conservative businessmen, which may have included Sir Allan Napier MacNab*, wanted a newspaper to express their views with the same vigour and aggressiveness that Solomon Brega was showing in his reform paper, the Journal and Express. A member of the group, grocer and druggist Edwin Dalley, had discussions with Smiley in Montreal as a result of which Smiley agreed to set up a newspaper in Hamilton, Dalley having indicated that he would give any financial assistance required. Smiley brought his younger brothers, John Gibson and Hugh Creighton, with him to Hamilton.

On 15 July 1846 the first issue of the Hamilton Spectator, and Journal of Commerce, a four-page semi-weekly, appeared. In May 1850 a weekly edition was added “For Country Circulation” and two years later publication of a daily began. Each prospered. The circulation of the semi-weekly in 1850 rivalled that of Toronto’s Globe and British Colonist. On the day of Smiley’s death the Spectator appeared in a new enlarged format indicative of its continued influence throughout the large area west of Toronto. The key to this success lay in Smiley’s great industry, his excellent business habits, and the scope and vigour of his writing.

The Spectator’s editorial policy was considered moderate conservative. It made attacks on reformers as violent and vituperative as any in the province, being especially uncompromising in its abuse of Louis-Hippolyte La Fontaine*, whom it denounced as a dictator. The moderation of its conservatism was confined to church-state issues. For example, in 1847 Smiley approved the unsuccessful compromise settlement of the university question proposed by the government of Henry Sherwood. In 1850 he condemned the revival of agitation over the clergy reserves question as a ministerial device intended to distract public attention from the Rebellion Losses Act, but later he came round to supporting secularization of the reserves. A Presbyterian of the Church of Scotland connection, he was critical of the privileges and claims of the Church of England, hostile to the Free Church, and proud of the unanimity with which his denomination voted tory.

But if contemporaries saw the Spectator as moderate conservative, they also regarded it as the mouthpiece of the ultra-tory leader, MacNab. The paradox was not as absolute as it appears. From the late 1840s MacNab’s ultra-toryism was more a matter of past associations and the necessities forced upon him as party leader than of deeply held convictions. On the other hand, Smiley was more extreme than MacNab in his criticisms of Governor Lord Elgin [Bruce*], La Fontaine, and Francis Hincks*. In 1853 Smiley publicly denied that MacNab had influence over or a financial interest in the Spectator. Privately, he expressed distrust of the knight and was critical of his selfishness. Yet both locally and provincially the Spectator supported MacNab with remarkable consistency. It was, for example, bitterly hostile towards William Henry Draper*, a leader of moderate conservative governments from 1843 to 1847, towards his successor Henry Sherwood, and towards Ogle Robert Gowan*, all political enemies and rivals of the Hamilton tory. In 1854 Smiley, influenced in part by his friendship with John Sandfield Macdonald*, advocated a coalition between the conservatives and the independent or opposition reformers of Upper Canada, but when MacNab led the conservatives into government with not only the Lower Canadian moderates but also the Hincksites, whom Smiley had denounced, the editor executed an immediate about-face. The Spectator became the leading Upper Canadian press representative of the conservatives in the new combination of political groups.

Smiley was also interested in civic affairs. He was a keen advocate of local improvement, pressing for such developments as lighted streets. When the Hamilton Gas Light Company was formed in 1850, he was one of its first directors. Through all the vicissitudes of its early history, Smiley supported the Hamilton-based Great Western Rail-Road Company, faithfully reporting its progress, boosting its prospects, and defending it against rivals. When the Grand Trunk Railway, Hincks’s emerging colossus, threatened the Great Western’s monopoly west of Toronto, the Spectator was outraged and subsequently Smiley resisted strenuously any suggestion of amalgamation of the two competing companies. From the complex and ferocious fighting which developed within the Great Western in 1853 and 1854 Smiley at first stood aloof. Ultimately he came out strongly against the prominent Hamilton merchant, Isaac Buchanan*, who, with Charles John Brydges*, dominated the board. The Buchanan–Brydges proposal to purchase the Erie and Ontario Railroad Company together with associated properties was one reason for his stand, since it meant the building up of Niagara (Niagara-on-the-Lake) at the expense of Hamilton. MacNab’s opposition to Buchanan and Brydges was another.

Little is known of Smiley’s private life. He was described as “a pale young man of short stature, slim build, and by no means robust health.” There was one child of his marriage, a son who died in October 1850. That year Smiley purchased land in the eastern part of Hamilton on which he erected a large house in Tuscan villa style. Completed in 1854, the house was referred to as Smiley’s Castle more often than by its real name, Rose Arden. Smiley enjoyed his castle for only six months before his death from consumption. The disease seemed to have been halted by a trip abroad in 1851. He was planning another, and had been appointed honorary commissioner to the universal exposition in Paris in 1855. But on 10 May 1855 he died, a few hours after leaving his work at the paper. His large funeral was attended by freemasons, Oddfellows, and members of the Hamilton Typographical Society. The tributes on his death were unusually warm and numerous.

Smiley left to his wife and his brothers a money-making newspaper which has lasted to this day, a first-class steam printing plant, a bindery, a lithographing and printing outfit, the Ancaster Woollen Mill, and one of the finest residences in the city, all acquired in less than ten years.

Donald Robert Beer and Katharine Greenfield

AO, RG 22, ser.155, will of R. R. Smiley. HPL, Arch. file, C. R. McCullough papers, pp.1–6 (photocopies); Clipping file, Newspapers – Canada, Canadian journalism ser., xvii–xix; Hamilton biog.; Hamilton – Newspaper, general, “A bit of local news history”; Scrapbooks, Richard Butler, “Saturday musings,” 2: 9, 53, 63; 3: 40, 98, 126, 147, 201–2, 219; 4: 18–19; H. F. Gardiner, 216: 10; Hamilton Spectator, 1: 16; Historic houses in Hamilton, 1, pt.2. PAC, MG 19, A2, ser.2, 3, pt.2, Smiley to Ermatinger, 20 March 1850, 15 Feb. 1851. British Colonist (Toronto), 1850. British Whig, 1840. Christian Guardian, 19 June 1850. Daily Spectator, and Journal of Commerce, 5, 28 Aug., 15 Sept. 1854; 15, 17 May 1855. Globe, 1850. Hamilton Gazette, and General Advertiser, 1845. Hamilton Spectator, and Journal of Commerce, 15 July 1846–10 May 1855, especially 21 July 1847, 22 June 1850. Journal and Express (Hamilton), 1845. Kingston Herald, 1840. Death notices of Ontario, comp. W. D. Reid (Lambertville, N.J., 1980). DHB, 1: 24, 30, 37, 58, 135–44, 182–83. Marriage notices of Ontario, comp. W. D. Reid (Lambertville, 1980). Montreal directory, 1843. Hamilton Spectator, 15 July 1896, 16 July 1921, 15 July 1936. E. S. Vickers, “The Victorian buildings of Hamilton,” Wentworth Bygones (Hamilton), 7 (1967): 50–51.

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Cite This Article

Donald Robert Beer and Katharine Greenfield, “SMILEY, ROBERT REID,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 8, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed March 4, 2024, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/smiley_robert_reid_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/smiley_robert_reid_8E.html
Author of Article:   Donald Robert Beer and Katharine Greenfield
Title of Article:   SMILEY, ROBERT REID
Publication Name:   Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 8
Publisher:   University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication:   1985
Year of revision:   1985
Access Date:   March 4, 2024