THOMPSON, SAMUEL, printer, editor, politician, and businessman; b. 27 Aug. 1810 in London, England, youngest of 11 children of William Thompson and Anna Hawkins; m. first in 1863 Elizabeth Cooper (d. 1868); m. secondly in 1871 Mary S. Thomson, and they had one son; d. 8 July 1886 in Toronto, Ont.
Samuel Thompson’s father died in the year Samuel was born and his mother used part of a substantial inheritance to obtain a good education for her son in a day-school and then in a commercial academy. When he was 13, however, she lost most of the money in poor investments and Samuel was apprenticed to a printer. Having completed his apprenticeship he entered the timber trade under an older brother, but when two of his brothers decided to emigrate to Canada in expectation of quick wealth from farming, Samuel went along.
Arriving in York (Toronto) in September 1833, the three brothers lived successively in St Vincent, Sunnidale, and Nottawasaga townships in Upper Canada. They bought land in the first but farmed and worked on government road contracts in the latter two. When the brothers finally settled near Bradford in 1837, after two of their sisters had joined them, Samuel left the farm and sought a job in Toronto. Although he had had Reform sympathies since his apprenticeship days and many of his acquaintances in Toronto were Reformers, at the outbreak of rebellion, shortly after his arrival in Toronto, Thompson saw the issue as one of republicanism against monarchy and turned out to defend his sovereign.
Four months’ enrolment in the city guards followed the suppression of the uprising, and then Thompson began a long career in the newspaper and printing business. For a few months in 1838 he was the manager of the Palladium of British America and Upper Canada Mercantile Advertiser for Charles Fothergill*. When this ceased publication in 1839 he bought a share in the Toronto Commercial Herald, but soon sold out, probably because of the strong Orange bias of the paper. At the same time as the sale, he entered into partnership with booksellers William and Henry Rowsell to manage their printing business, which included the production of the Church as well as the Maple-Leaf; or Canadian Annual, a Literary Souvenir, to which Thompson submitted prose and verse. Thompson remained in partnership with Henry Rowsell until 1859.
In 1848 Thompson became editor of the Toronto Patriot under Edward George O’Brien*. The next year Ogle Robert Gowan* and Thompson took over the paper and they added the semi-weekly United Empire in 1852 before dissolving the partnership in 1853 by judicial arbitration. Thompson then bought the British Colonist, with two partners, from the widow of Hugh Scobie* and became editor. With the subscription list from the Patriot and $5,000 a year from John Hillyard Cameron* to keep the paper independent, the Colonist did well; by 1857 it printed four editions including the News of the Week, or Weekly Colonist, and had a total weekly circulation of 30,000. The financial panic of that year, however, severely damaged Cameron who ceased his subsidy. Because Thompson had maintained a moderate and independent editorial stand, he was offered support from both political factions. George Brown* and the Grits offered funds to keep the Colonist independent but Thompson, a moderate Conservative since the rebellion, turned to John A. Macdonald*. The money Macdonald offered was declined with gratitude, however, when George William Allan offered support, his only stipulation being that the newspaper had to be a Conservative, but not necessarily a ministry, organ.
Thompson did support the government of Macdonald and George-Étienne Cartier* in spite of this freedom and the move cost him subscribers. In early 1858 the Colonist was sold to Daniel Morrison* and George Sheppard, and in July Thompson was involved in setting up the Atlas in Toronto to compete with the Colonist. Later in the year he bought back the Colonist and merged the two newspapers. In 1858 he also secured the government printing contract and followed the government to Quebec the next year. In 1859–60 he published a cheap newspaper, the Quebec Weekly Advertiser, and his job-printing firm operated in Toronto and Quebec. In 1860 he also published Thompson’s Mirror of Parliament, a forerunner of Hansard. In spite of all this activity the years in Quebec were difficult ones. The legislature reduced the amount of its printing and stiff competition hurt his other business. His creditors kept him going for a year but he finally became insolvent and his firm went under.
His employees were faithful after this set-back and several of them bought most of the firm’s assets. Thompson was soon back in business in Quebec with four new partners including Robert Hunter and George MacLean Rose*, who would later form Hunter, Rose and Company. This respite was a short one, however, as Thompson was accused by French mlas, including Cartier, of having slandered French Canadians in his paper. He lost the support of the government and switched his political allegiance to the alliance which was forming between John Sandfield Macdonald* and Louis-Victor Sicotte. But he was soon threatened with arson and sold his business in Quebec. Declining a government job, he instead moved back to Toronto in 1860.
Upon his return, Thompson, no stranger to other parts of the business world – he had served as secretary-treasurer of the Toronto and Guelph Railway from 1852 to 1855 – became managing director of the Beaver Mutual Fire Insurance Association. The company, formed a year or two before, was not in a healthy state but Thompson was persuaded to take up the post by his old friend and former partner Henry Rowsell. Until 1876, when legislation compelling insurance companies to deposit a substantial sum of money with the government as security forced the company (after 1869 the Beaver and Toronto Mutual Fire Insurance Company) out of business, Thompson oversaw an expansion from 200 to 74,000 policies. He must have had a good deal of his own money invested in the company because its closing forced him to sell his household furnishings.
There were not many opportunities for Thompson at age 66. The publishing field was closed to him, although he did some writing and his autobiography was partially serialized in Rose-Belford’s Canadian Monthly and National Review in 1881. His former public service career was long behind him; he had served first as a councillor and then as an alderman for St George’s Ward from 1849 to 1854, and was active on various standing committees of the city council including the important finance and assessment committee at a time of substantial growth in the city. In the 1850s he had been vice-president of both the board of trade and the St George’s Society.
For a time he contemplated a return to a much earlier career. When he was 71, his second wife, who was from well-connected loyalist stock, purchased land near Saskatoon (Sask.) from a colonization company so Thompson could take up farming. The company failed, however, and he turned to another aspect of his long career, that of bringing knowledge to the people of Toronto. In 1847, as secretary of the Commercial News Room, Thompson had arranged for its union with a new literary society, the Toronto Athenæum, in order to set up a library for the people of the city. In 1855 the Athenæum united with the Canadian Institute, of which Thompson was a member, and provided a free library. When the Toronto Public Library was set up in 1883 Thompson, who had recently lost a chance to become librarian at the University of Toronto because of a change of presidents, applied for the job of interim chief librarian. In his application he pointed out his service in setting up Toronto’s first free library and suggested that the libraries of the Canadian and mechanics’ institutes be joined with the new one. Though much in need of the money, Thompson was denied the post because of his age and instead was made the manager of one of the library’s branches.
On the salary from this position he, his wife, and their young son lived in reduced circumstances but, having survived several personal catastrophes, Thompson did not despair. He communicated with the newspapers on political and national questions, was active in the York Pioneer Society, wrote poetry, and discharged his duties at the library. No doubt the warm reception accorded his memoirs, Reminiscences of a Canadian pioneer for the last fifty years, published in 1884, confirmed his belief that the many vicissitudes of his career had not been without value.
Samuel Thompson was the author of Reminiscences of a Canadian pioneer for the last fifty years: an autobiography (Toronto, 1884; repub. Toronto and Montreal, 1968), the publisher of Thompson’s Mirror of Parliament (Quebec), 1860, and a contributor to Maple-Leaf; or Canadian Annual, a Literary Souvenir (Toronto), 1847–49, and Rose-Belford’s Canadian Monthly and National Rev. (Toronto), 7 (July–December 1881).
PAC, MG 24, 1140. Mackenzie’s Weekly Message (Toronto), 1 Dec. 1853, 28 Dec. 1855. Dominion annual register, 1886. Early Toronto newspapers (Firth).