Source: courtesy Wikimedia Commons
WHITWORTH-AYLMER, MATTHEW, 5th Baron AYLMER, army officer and colonial administrator; b. 24 May 1775, the eldest of five children of Henry Aylmer, 4th Baron Aylmer, and Catherine Whitworth; m. 28 July or 4 Aug. 1801 Louisa Anne Call, daughter of Sir John Call; they had no children; d. 23 Feb. 1850 in London.
Matthew Aylmer was only 10 when he succeeded his father in the ancient Irish barony of Aylmer and 12 when he entered the 49th Foot as an ensign. He became a lieutenant in 1791 and a captain in 1794. In 1798 he participated in an abortive British raid on Ostend (Belgium), was captured, and spent six months in a French prison. He won high praise from his commanding officer, Lieutenant-Colonel Isaac Brock*, for his role in the battle of Egmont-op-Zee (more properly Egmond aan Zee, Netherlands) in 1799. Two years later he rose to the rank of major in the 85th Foot, and in 1802 to lieutenant-colonel; however, he was then placed on half pay until June 1803 when he joined the Coldstream Foot Guards. On 25 July 1810 he became a colonel and an aide-de-camp to the king and on 4 June 1813 a major-general. He served as the assistant – and then from January 1812 as the deputy – adjutant general to Lord Wellington’s army and commanded a brigade in several major battles of the Peninsular War, during which he was awarded the Military Cross with one clasp. He was given a kcb on 2 Jan. 1815 and knighted on 6 June. In 1814 he had been appointed adjutant general of the British forces in Ireland, where he remained until 1823. From 1823 to 1830 he was without employment and spent much of his time wandering across Switzerland and Italy. He was promoted lieutenant-general on 27 May 1825 and that year, upon the death of his uncle, the Earl of Whitworth, he changed his family name to Whitworth-Aylmer. He was made colonel of the 56th Foot in 1827 and transferred to the 18th Foot five years later.
Aylmer’s enforced idleness ended when Sir James Kempt* resigned the administration of Lower Canada. In June 1830 the secretary of state for the colonies, Sir George Murray, who had also served with Wellington in the Peninsular War, offered the position to Aylmer. On 11 August Aylmer was appointed commander of the forces in North America, and on 13 October he landed at Quebec; he assumed control of the administration one week later. His commission as governor-in-chief was dated 24 Nov. 1830, but it was not formally registered at Quebec until 12 Feb. 1831. Aylmer had few obvious qualifications for his position; he had never served as a civil administrator, he had no political experience, and he came to Lower Canada, by his own admission, “a perfect stranger to all that relates to the country.” Yet Murray’s choice was based on more than friendship. Aylmer was one of the more distinguished and capable officers of his rank, he was a francophile, and, as Louis-Joseph Papineau* noted, he spoke French “with the greatest ease and elegance.” Although leaning to the conservative side in British politics, he was not a partisan, and the reformers in the Canadas, reassured by their contacts in Britain, received him as “an able and clever man conciliatory in his disposition, liberal in his principles, and cincerely [sic] anxious to do good.”
Recognizing his lack of knowledge, Aylmer none the less predicted that he would soon “be out of the Awkward Squad.” He embarked on a series of tours which eventually took him to every part of Lower Canada, and he pronounced himself pleased with “the country, the people and the Climate.” He and Lady Aylmer took their viceregal responsibilities seriously, contributing generously to a variety of causes, such as an emigrant fund, the Female Orphan Asylum, and the Quebec Driving Club (one of a number of organizations of which Lady Aylmer became patroness). They sought to foster the arts and culture, and attended many community activities, from ploughing matches to annual races in Trois-Rivières where Aylmer donated a silver cup to be awarded for a horse bred within the province. A wealthy man, Aylmer entertained frequently and lavishly at the Château Saint-Louis, the governor’s residence; yet he avoided the error “into which most of our Governors have fallen . . . ,” noted the Montreal reform newspaper, the Vindicator and Canadian Advertiser, “of attempting to impress on the minds of the ‘natives’ a something transatlantically superior pertaining to themselves.” During a visit to the Indian reserve at Lac des Deux Montagnes he joined in the dancing when “obliged” to do so.
Aylmer wished particularly to convince French Canadians of his benevolence. Shortly after his arrival he donated money for a tablet over the spot “where lay the remains of brave Montcalm [Louis-Joseph de Montcalm*].” He disagreed vehemently with those who advocated a policy of assimilation, arguing that there were not British subjects “more loyal and true – than the People of Lower Canada” and that assimilation would weaken their loyalty and drive them into the arms of the United States. He defended the seigneurial system and sought permission to grant seigneurial lands under crown control to French Canadians who could not afford to purchase on freehold tenure. He exhibited a genuine desire to distribute government patronage with the utmost impartiality, reintegrating militia officers whom a predecessor, Lord Dalhousie [Ramsay], had dismissed for opposition to the administration, increasing the number of French Canadians on the bench, ensuring a balance between francophones and anglophones on the commission of the peace, and making 8 of his first 14 appointees to the Legislative Council French Canadians. In 1831, to prove that he was “free of all party connections,” he offered seats on the Executive Council to Patriote leaders Papineau and John Neilson. Although both refused, Aylmer successively appointed the francophone reform members of the House of Assembly Philippe Panet*, Dominique Mondelet*, and Hugues Heney. Undeniably, he did not go far enough; the Legislative and Executive councils and the high echelons of the civil service continued to be dominated by anglophones unsympathetic to the demands of the assembly. None the less, he went as far as, and at times farther than, his superiors in London wanted and, at least initially, he convinced Papineau that “he likes and desires the good of the province.”
The legislature met for the first time under Aylmer in January 1831 when, labouring under “a severe indisposition,” he delivered his speech from the throne “literally from my bed.” Throughout the session he worked diligently to remedy the grievances of the assembly, many of which, he admitted, were “well founded.” He introduced economies in the civil service, presented nearly all the executive documents requested by the assembly, protested to the British government delays in examining reserved colonial legislation, refused to bend regulations for interested parties, demanded more rigorous standards in accounting for public funds, launched an investigation of abuses in the land-grant system, and induced the judges (with the exception of Chief Justice Jonathan Sewell) not to attend the Legislative Council while the Colonial Office deliberated on a long-standing demand for their exclusion from that body. In proroguing the legislature in March, he enquired for “any stray complaint” which the assembly had neglected.
Aylmer’s most controversial effort to appease came after the assembly petitioned for the dismissal of Attorney General James Stuart*, an outspoken opponent of the Patriote party, at the end of the session. Under pressure from the assembly, in September Aylmer suspended Stuart pending adjudication of its charges in Britain. Reprimanded by the Colonial Office for suspending Stuart before he was given the opportunity to defend himself in the assembly, Aylmer rightly pointed out that not to have acted would have provoked “the utmost degree of ferment and agitation.” In November 1832 the Colonial Office dismissed Stuart, who unsuccessfully challenged Aylmer to a duel. He was hailed as a martyr by those among the British minority in the colony who believed that Aylmer “dare not displease Mr. Citoyen Papineau by whom . . . he is held completely under cow.” Aylmer’s decision had enhanced his reputation with the reformers, however, and particularly with Papineau, who had earlier entertained the Aylmers at his country estate in June 1831. But though “on good (I may say cordial) terms” with Papineau, Aylmer was aware that a great gulf existed between them on a number of questions.
For more than a decade the main preoccupation of the assembly had been to obtain control of the provincial revenues, including those reserved to the crown by the Quebec Revenue Act of 1774 [see Sir Francis Nathaniel Burton*]. Murray’s Whig successor at the Colonial Office, Lord Goderich, instructed Aylmer to submit a pared-down list of estimates to the assembly and to request a permanent civil list preparatory to a surrender of the crown revenues. The assembly paid little attention to Goderich’s estimates and none to his request for a civil list, although it did vote supplies for one year. Ignoring Aylmer’s advice to the contrary and influenced by his parliamentary under-secretary, Lord Howick, Goderich introduced a bill into parliament in the summer of 1831 surrendering the crown revenues unconditionally, and in September he ordered Aylmer to reconvene the legislature and again request a comparatively modest civil list. The assembly, however, refused salaries to several officials on Goderich’s list and, when Aylmer foolishly tried to coerce it by hinting that he would reserve any bill deviating from Goderich’s intentions, it refused permanent salaries to any officials. It seems unlikely that Goderich’s proposals, which were rejected by 42 to 9, would have been accepted by the assembly even had Aylmer been more astute, and the disappointed governor closed the session in late February 1832, acknowledging that his friendly relations with the leaders of the Patriote party had been sorely strained.
In 1832 deterioration of those relations accelerated after three French-speaking Canadians were shot by British troops on 21 May during a turbulent by-election in Montreal [see Daniel Tracey*]. Aylmer’s sympathies lay with the soldiers, and although he wrote to Papineau regretting the deaths, he refused to intervene in the subsequent judicial process, even when Papineau requested a military inquiry. He encouraged Solicitor General Charles Richard Ogden* to bring the case before a grand jury but later publicly praised the jury’s exoneration of the military. Thereafter Papineau pointedly declined to attend receptions at the Château.
The anger of the Patriote party was fuelled by a cholera epidemic which in 1832 killed more than 7,000 people in the colony. Aylmer had prepared for the outbreak by persuading the legislature to establish a quarantine station at Grosse Île and a board of health at Quebec and to authorize such facilities elsewhere when necessary. Although Aylmer conscientiously enforced the quarantine regulations and issued money to the boards of health and the Montreal Emigrant Society, the measures proved wholly inadequate. Moreover, by insisting that only the law officers of the crown should prosecute he hindered the work of the boards, and by encouraging flight to reduce the incidence of cholera in the cities he contributed to the spread of the disease. Yet, on balance, he did not deserve the censure of the assembly, which also criticized him for issuing funds without its approval and for failing to control the influx of immigrants. In fact, Aylmer did wish to limit immigration and proposed to raise money by a tax on immigrants. When the assembly met in November 1832, it was in an angry mood; it declared Mondelet’s seat vacant on his appointment to the Executive Council, passed a supply bill making no provision for a civil list, which the Legislative Council felt compelled to reject, and adopted an address, similar to one it had itself rejected in the previous session, demanding an elective legislative council.
To Aylmer these actions demonstrated intransigence, and he requested authorization from London to use the unappropriated funds surrendered to the legislature by Goderich’s Revenue Act of 1831. Edward George Geoffrey Smith Stanley, later Lord Stanley, who replaced Goderich at the Colonial Office in April 1833, sympathized but would not act until the assembly had been given an opportunity to reconsider. Consequently, when Aylmer reconvened the legislature in January 1834 he virtually invited a confrontation. He refused to grant the assembly contingency funds of £7,000 and reserved 11 of the 12 bills passed by the legislature, disallowing the 12th. In return the assembly refused to vote supplies and passed 92 resolutions of grievance, including one demanding the governor’s recall. Asserting that the resolutions were tantamount to a “Declaration of Independence,” Aylmer sent to Stanley a draft bill restoring to the government control over the revenues surrendered to the assembly by Goderich’s Revenue Act. Stanley was prepared to rescind Goderich’s act, and he referred the 92 resolutions to a select committee of the House of Commons, which he assumed would exonerate Aylmer. But Stanley was replaced in June 1834 by Thomas Spring-Rice, an easy-going Irish Whig, who was determined to avoid confrontation. Spring-Rice persuaded the Commons committee to attribute the conflict in Lower Canada simply to “mutual misconceptions.” After meeting with delegates from the assembly, he authorized Aylmer in September to borrow £31,000 from the military chest for unpaid salaries, assuming (erroneously) that the assembly would agree to repay the loan. Aylmer was dismayed by Spring-Rice’s actions and by the failure of the select committee to vindicate his conduct.
Ironically, Aylmer had led the Colonial Office to adopt a more conciliatory policy by insisting that the radicals in the assembly were losing support. During the sessions of 1833 and 1834 a rift had developed within the Patriote party, and Aylmer sought to exploit it, in particular by cultivating the hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church, which opposed the policies of the radicals. Although a devout member of the Church of England, Aylmer was unusually tolerant in his religious views, wishing, for example, to alter the oath taken by justices of the peace so that he could appoint Jewish magistrates [see Aaron Ezekiel Hart*]. He attended mass in the Roman Catholic cathedral as well as in his own, refused to go to the services of a local Anglican priest who had protested Aylmer’s giving pecuniary aid to the Catholic Church, offered the Ursulines of Quebec refuge in the Château when a fire broke out in their convent, recommended that the Roman Catholic bishop be appointed to the Executive Council, and discouraged the Colonial Office from interfering with the Sulpician estates. In addition to cultivating the church, Aylmer deliberately chose his nominees for government posts from among the more conservative and “respectable” members of the Patriote party.
Aylmer’s appointments, however, had the effect of weakening the moderates in the assembly, since appointees lost their seats. In any case Aylmer was himself an inadequate instrument for multiplying vendus. Progressively disenchanted with what he considered to be the ignorance and ingratitude of French Canadians, he had begun by September 1832 to argue that “British influence in Lower Canada . . . must ere long be paramount” and that French Canadians must “finally reconcile themselves to a fate which cannot be averted.” In October he warned Sir John Colborne*, lieutenant governor of Upper Canada, that “when the king’s Subjects are spoken of as Foreigners and the Canadians as a Nation held in subjection by another Nation, it becomes the constituted Authorities to be upon their Guard.” By the spring of 1834 he was convinced that so long as the assembly was composed largely of French Canadians “the Constitution of the Province . . . will never work beneficially.” After the passage of the 92 Resolutions his primary concern was to reconcile the American-born population in the Eastern Townships and the rapidly growing Irish communities in Montreal and Quebec by appointing representatives from both groups to positions of importance. In June 1835 he strongly endorsed the application of “an association of gentlemen” from the townships for permission to purchase a large quantity of land on terms similar to those given to the British American Land Company [see Sir Alexander Tilloch Galt*], despite vehement opposition from the assembly.
Gradually, in fact, Aylmer had come under the influence of the old official group. In April 1834 he appointed David Chisholme, one of Dalhousie’s protégés, coroner of Trois-Rivières. When John Fletcher was unable to accept a promotion on the bench suggested as recompense for “the persecution of the House of Assembly to which he has been exposed for a series of years,” Aylmer recommended Samuel Gale*, who had acted as Dalhousie’s agent in England in 1828 and served as counsel to the officers in command during the Montreal “massacre.” This recommendation encountered strong opposition at the Colonial Office but was accepted under pressure from Aylmer on condition that the next vacancy would be given to a French Canadian.
Gale’s appointment alienated many moderates on both sides. Aylmer added to his unpopularity by refusing money to Montreal during a second outbreak of cholera in 1834 and by retreating to the governor’s cottage at William Henry (Sorel) during the height of the outbreak. Late that year the radicals won a sweeping victory at the polls, virtually eliminating the moderates from the assembly. Aylmer was not displeased with this result, arguing that it had “roused a feeling (hitherto dormant) in the British Population,” which might, however, “lead to very serious results, unless prudently managed.” He enthusiastically approved the formation of militant constitutional associations at Quebec and Montreal, and warned that the British minority were no longer prepared to accept domination by the assembly. He blamed the Patriote victory on “the Complacency with which the Canada Committee [of 1834] listened to sham Grievances” and predicted that the new assembly would be less reasonable than its predecessor. When the assembly met in February 1835, he made his prediction reality by refusing to issue money for the assembly’s contingencies. In return the house again refused supplies and complained that Aylmer was prejudiced against French Canadians. On 18 March Aylmer prorogued the legislature and called upon Britain to find a solution to the constitutional and financial impasse.
The solution adopted by the Colonial Office was to replace Aylmer. Spring-Rice had begun to search for a successor in the autumn of 1834 and had promised Aylmer another government if he would resign. But Aylmer wanted exoneration, and he suggested sending a parliamentary commission to examine the assembly’s charges. In April 1835 a three-man commission was appointed, but its head, Lord Gosford [Acheson], would also become Aylmer’s replacement. Aylmer bitterly resented his dismissal and was further antagonized when Gosford, who assumed control of the government on 24 Aug. 1835, dissociated himself from his predecessor. Aylmer’s mood was not improved by a terrifying return voyage, described by Lady Aylmer in Narrative of the passage of the “Pique” across the Atlantic (London, 1837). Once in England, he attempted without success to obtain approval of his conduct by refusing appointment as commander of the forces in Ireland unless he got it. However, he did coerce the government into awarding him a gcb, on 10 Sept. 1836, and on 23 Nov. 1841 he became a general, but he never obtained an English peerage, to which he felt entitled, or another administrative post. On 23 Feb. 1850 he died in his London home of an aneurysm of the heart.
On leaving the colony Aylmer had expressed regret that his “anxious endeavours to promote the general welfare of Lower Canada, should have fallen (as they have) so far short” of his initial expectations and burst into tears when the small crowd which had gathered at the wharf cheered. In truth, Aylmer is a tragic figure. He was well meaning and as competent as most of the military men sent to govern British North America following the Napoleonic Wars. But Lower Canada required a governor with political skill, and as Aylmer had noted in October 1831, “I cannot look for advice, or support here, beyond the circle of my own family composed of Soldiers like myself; & on . . . [the other] side of the Water I am totally destitute of Political Connexions.” Largely unprepared, he had found himself “called upon all at once to contend against those whose lives have been devoted to the Study of Law & Politics.” The Vindicator and Canadian Advertiser declared that Aylmer had “earned a niche in Canadian History, alongside of the Craigs [Sir James Henry Craig*] and Dalhousies, and gained for himself the execration of half-a-million people”; the Whigs blamed him for the failure of their conciliatory policy; and historians sympathetic to them, such as Helen Taft Manning, have echoed this assessment. Yet, although Aylmer was guilty of serious errors of judgement, much of the criticism of him is unfair. Many of his blunders, as historian Fernand Ouellet notes, “were more or less provoked,” and he never became as violently francophobic as Craig or Dalhousie, never lost his temper in public, never closed the doors of the Château to his opponents. He contributed to ethnic polarization in Lower Canada, but he was not responsible for it, nor could he, any more than Gosford, a civilian with considerable political experience, have prevented its development. Moreover, Aylmer was handicapped by the rapid changes of government in Britain during the early 1830s, serving under five secretaries whose views on Lower Canada differed sharply. Without “Political Connexions” in Britain, he was sacrificed to facilitate accommodation with the Lower Canadian assembly; the sacrifice, ironically, was in vain for by then the train of events leading to the rebellions of 1837–38 was probably irreversible.
PAC, MG 24, A43; F66, 1; RG 1, E1, 40–41; RG 68, General index, 1651–1841: 72. PRO, CO 42/230–57; CO 43/28–30; CO 387/1–11. L. A. [Call Whitworth-Aylmer, Baroness] Aylmer, Narrative of the passage of the “Pique” across the Atlantic (London, 1837); “Recollections of Canada, 1831,” ANQ Rapport, 1934–35: 279–318. L.C., House of Assembly, Journals, 1830–35. Montreal Herald, 8 Sept. 1832; 18, 23 Aug., 2 Oct. 1834; 8 Jan., 9 Feb. 1835. Quebec Gazette, 13, 17, 24 Jan., 19, 24 Feb., 5 March, 9, 21 April, 20 June, 29 Aug. 1834; 2 Jan., 23 Feb., 26 June, 10 Aug., 9, 16 Sept. 1835; 30 March 1850. Times (London), 26 Feb. 1850. Vindicator and Canadian Advertiser (Montreal), 19 Oct., 26, 30 Nov., 21, 24 Dec. 1830; 1 Feb., 24, 28 June, I July, 27 Dec. 1831; 3, 7 Feb., 2 March 1832; 21 March, 12 May, 23 June 1835. Burke’s peerage (1890), 73. G.B., WO, Army list, 1788–1850. Geoffrey Bilson, A darkened house: cholera in nineteenth-century Canada (Toronto, 1980). Ouellet, Lower Canada. Rumilly, Papineau et son temps, vol.1. Taft Manning, Revolt of French Canada.