SWABEY, WILLIAM, soldier, civil servant, farmer, and politician; b. 13 June 1789 in England, son of Maurice Swabey and Catherine Bird; m. 4 Aug. 1820 to Mary Ann Hobson by whom he had seven sons and four daughters; d. 6 Feb. 1872 in England.
William Swabey, a native of Buckinghamshire, spent 18 years in the British army. He rose to the rank of captain in the Royal Horse Artillery, and fought at the battle of Copenhagen, in the Iberian peninsula, and at Waterloo. In 1840, several years after his retirement from the army, Swabey and his family immigrated to Prince Edward Island. He took up residence in Charlottetown Royalty, and leased two farms, comprising about 100 acres, which he cultivated with his family’s help. He used the most modern farming methods and frequently advertised surpluses of hay, wheat, and turnips.
Immediately upon his arrival in the colony, Swabey began to play an active and visible role in organizations such as the Colonial Church Society and on various committees to promote improvements. In November 1841 he was appointed to the Legislative Council by the lieutenant governor, Sir Henry Vere Huntley*, who was a personal friend. He attended one session the following spring, and then, at the urging of Huntley, resigned to run for a seat in the assembly. He contested Prince County, Second District, as a Tory in the general election of 1842 and lost; two years later, he was reappointed to the Legislative Council, where he remained until his return to England.
Swabey, who had been described at the Colonial Office as “a great Tory,” transferred his support to the Reform party in the mid 1840s and went on to establish himself as its leading spokesman in the Legislative Council. This change may have been related to an alteration in the political sympathies of the lieutenant governor. Huntley, who had been called a tyrant for his use of troops to suppress Escheat disorders in 1843 [see John McDonald], had broken with the Tories for reasons perhaps more personal than political. Huntley’s feud with leading members of the family compact was widely known, and he left the Island as a Reform hero in 1847.
When responsible government was attained in 1851, Swabey joined the Executive Council of George Coles’ Liberal government, was appointed registrar of deeds, and later became commissioner of public lands. He held these major positions, and about a dozen smaller ones, for most of the period until the Liberals were defeated in 1859. He was especially vocal on the land question and increasingly advocated a radical approach as gradualist measures failed to abolish leasehold tenure. Swabey’s other major interest was education; he served 18 years on the Board of Education, actively promoted the Free Education Act of 1852, and vehemently defended its non-denominational aspect when the Bible question arose [see Coles].
William Swabey was a vigorous Liberal partisan; both his ability and his change in party affiliation made him a controversial figure – a fact amply demonstrated when he returned to England in 1861. The farewell dinner tendered to him as a Liberal, and the salute fired in his honour as a lieutenant-colonel in the militia, caused a series of bitter exchanges in the local press. The verbiage did not explain why Swabey left the Island; it is quite possible that, at the age of 72, he simply wished to retire, and to spend his last years in his native country.
[PRO, CO 226/89, 201–16, is particularly important because it includes a letter from William Swabey to Dominick Daly*, 30 June 1858, which gives Swabey’s account of the Bible question from 1845 to 1858. See also: CO 226/91, 173–75; 226/92, 11–21; 226/94, 144–51.
Prince Edward Island, Legislative Council, Journals, 1842, 1844–61; Debates, 1856–60. The debates of 1861 were not published in a bound volume; for the 1840s, the early 1850s, and 1861 consult the reports of the debates in the Island newspapers. For reports of the farewell dinner for Swabey see: Examiner (Charlottetown), 18, 25 Nov., 2, 16, 23 Dec. 1861, and Islander (Charlottetown), 22, 29 Nov., 13 Dec. 1861. Also see: Examiner (Charlottetown), 9 Feb. 1857. Island Argus (Charlottetown), 12 March 1872. Monitor (Charlottetown), 26 April 1859. Patriot (Charlottetown), 14 March 1872. Royal Gazette (Charlottetown), 19 April, 10 May, 21 June 1842. Robertson, “Religion, politics, and education in PEI.” i.r.r.]