SPENCE, ROBERT, teacher, journalist, and politician; b. 1811 at Dublin (Republic of Ireland); d. unmarried on 25 Feb. 1868 at Toronto, Ont.
Robert Spence immigrated to Upper Canada in 1836 and taught school at Dundas, where public education began with his contract with the village authorities in 1840 to teach for a wage of 2s. a month per pupil. To augment his income he was at various times a worker in the paper mill at Crook’s Hollow near Dundas, a commission merchant, and an auctioneer.
With the launching of the Dundas Warder and Halton County General Advertiser on 24 April 1846 Spence embarked on a new career as a newspaper owner and editor. The paper reflected Spence’s enthusiasm for liberal principles and reform, and was a principal instrument in furthering his public career. It remained under his control until 1859, except for the period 1849 to 1853, when it was sold to Samuel I. Jones.
An editorial campaign begun in 1846 advocating the incorporation of Dundas as a town was successful, with elections first held on 18 April 1848. Spence was actively involved in the movement and was elected a ward councillor. By 17 Nov. 1848, however, he was striking out in editorials against his fellow councillors, dubbing them “despots” and accusing them of “jobbing.”
In 1850 Spence was elected the first warden of the united counties of Wentworth and Halton. During his two-year term of office he became more widely known and was well regarded. James Durand, a former member of the assembly, reported to Robert Baldwin* in February 1850 that “Mr. Spence our Warden . . . made the speech of the day, it was well timed and tempered, and I am sure made a favourable impression on all who heard it. . . .” Spence ran in the 1854 election for the legislature as an independent in Wentworth North and defeated another Reformer by 506 votes to 339.
Spence entered the legislature at a watershed in the evolution of Canadian political parties. He nominated George-Étienne Cartier* as speaker of the assembly, thus demonstrating his support of the government of Augustin-Norbert Morin and Francis Hincks*, whose fortunes were about to be eclipsed, and his opposition to the Clear Grits and more advanced Reformers. The Hincks–Morin administration fell a few days after the legislature convened in September 1854 and a new government was formed by Sir Allan MacNab, an arch-Tory, in alliance with Morin. Their coalition government had considerable support from moderate Reformers, including Spence, who was appointed postmaster general and considered a representative of a moderate political outlook in the cabinet.
The Hamilton Spectator in October 1854 described Spence’s acceptance of office as “shameful recreancy” and cried that “the riding is betrayed.” It appeared that an independent Reformer who had marched with Reformers for a decade or more had turned coat to accept office under a Compact Tory. Yet Spence could claim, quite credibly, that he had campaigned for good measures and not for party loyalty, that he had supported people who would achieve these good measures in legislation, and that he had at all times voted with a majority of his fellow Reformers, splintered though the movement was among moderates who supported the government and the Clear Grits and supporters of George Brown* who opposed it. At the by election in early October 1854 necessitated by his accepting office, Spence defeated William McDougall*, the Clear Grit editor of the North American, by 542 to 207 votes.
As postmaster general Spence appears to have been a competent administrator who made a contribution to the reorganization of the civil service. He continued James Morris’ policy of providing post offices for every hamlet; he abolished heavy postage on newspapers, and improved the handling of money orders and registered mail. His alignment with the coalition ministry in 1854 had, however, earned the lasting enmity of the Clear Grits, whose power was increasing, and in 1855 they launched the Dundas Tribune and Wentworth Chronicle to work against him. His political career was ended in 1857 when he was defeated by William Notman*, a Clear Grit. Within a few months of his defeat Spence was appointed collector of customs at Toronto. He continued in that office until his death.
MTCL, Robert Baldwin papers, James Durand to Baldwin, 28 Feb. 1850. Dundas Warder and Halton County General Advertiser (Dundas, [Ont.]), 3, 31 July 1857. Hamilton Gazette, (Hamilton, [Ont.]), 29 June–12 Oct. 1854. Hamilton Spectator, 26 July, 4 Aug., 11, 12 Sept. 1854; 3 Dec. 1857. Cornell, Alignment of political groups. Dent, Last forty years. The history of the town of Dundas, comp. T. R. Woodhouse (3v., [Dundas, Ont.], 1965–68).