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WILLIAMS, JENKIN, lawyer, office holder, seigneur, judge, and politician; b. c. 1734 in Wales; m. Anne Jones, and they had at least three children; d. 30 Oct. 1819 at Quebec, Lower Canada.

Jenkin Williams left Wales in 1767 in order to avoid a lawsuit against him for forgery. He emigrated to New York to continue practising as a lawyer without harassment. There he met William Smith*, who advised him to settle at Quebec instead. Williams reached that town in September 1767 and on 16 October secured a commission as a lawyer. He quickly succeeded in making a favourable impression on people. Only a few months after he arrived Attorney General Francis Maseres* judged him to be “a very worthy well-behaved man, very sober and assiduous, and of sufficient abilities to make a good attorney”; already he foresaw a profitable career for Williams in the colony.

In 1768 Williams was appointed register of the Court of Chancery. In the autumn of 1773 he was made a commissioner, along with Adam Mabane* and Thomas Dunn, to act during the absence in England of the province’s chief justice, William Hey*. In May 1776 Governor Guy Carleton selected him to serve, together with François Baby and Gabriel-Elzéar Taschereau, as a commissioner to visit the parishes between Trois-Rivières and Kamouraska in order to conduct an inquiry about people who might have helped the rebels during the American invasion [see Benedict Arnold; Richard Montgomery*]. Less than a decade after his arrival in the colony Williams was regarded by Maseres as one of the two foremost British lawyers there, the other being Henry Kneller*. The Canadians held him in high esteem and often called on his services, according to the attorney general; even François-Joseph Cugnet*, whom Maseres termed a severe critic, was said to have expressed the opinion that Williams was worthy of being elevated to the bench.

Williams also soon succeeded in ensuring for himself a comfortable financial situation if not prosperity; he was able to have his children educated in England and to purchase several properties by the 1770s. In November 1770 he paid 10,000 livres, the equivalent of £450 or £500, for a large property on Rue Saint-Jean, where he took up residence. Two years later he purchased by tender another lot next to his home, with a house and outbuildings. In addition, from 1772 to 1776 he bought several lots on the Rivière Saint-Charles, where he made his country home. In July 1777 Williams sold his residence to Chief Justice Peter Livius* for £1,250 but continued living in Upper Town with his family, which included at least one son. On 4 September he and his wife purchased the fief of Montplaisant, a property detached from the fief of Villeray and located outside the Saint-Louis gate; Williams took the oath of fealty and homage for it in May 1781.

By 1777, as his career developed, Williams had become justice of the peace, clerk of the Legislative Council, and clerk of the Court of Appeal. He kept the first clerkship until 1791 but had to give up the second to become solicitor general, a position to which he was named on 14 Dec. 1782 and which he held until Jonathan Sewell* replaced him in October 1793. In appointing Williams to the solicitor generalship, to which was attached the office of inspector general of the royal domain, Governor Haldimand was filling a post that had long been vacant. The decision was in fact directed against Attorney General James Monk*, who had alienated the governor’s trust through his conduct and who was thus deprived of some of the lucrative functions he had exercised till then. As a result Monk developed a hostility to his colleague. When Haldimand decided in 1783 to retain the services of Williams in his action against John Cochrane [see James Dunlop] because he thought Monk too deeply compromised with the merchant group, his choice did nothing to heal the breach between the two men.

In 1784 Williams returned to England, where he saw Smith and Carleton. During his meetings with Lord Sydney, the Home secretary, he apparently asked for the chief justiceship of Quebec, which was vacant. In fact, since Livius’s removal from office in 1778, Williams had been serving as one of the three commissioners appointed to act in his place. Lord Sydney gave him to understand, however, that the old charge of forgery still standing against him impeded his accession to such a high office, especially since the unhappy matter was not unknown in the province of Quebec. Because he was sympathetic towards Williams, Sydney told him to take steps to have the criminal proceedings lifted, and Williams eventually succeeded in doing so. Otherwise his services were giving complete satisfaction to his superiors; his presence in the colony was considered indispensable and he was soon asked to return to his post. He received instructions from Carleton and sailed on 2 Nov. 1785 for Quebec.

When Monk was dismissed in the spring of 1789, Williams anticipated that the choice of attorney general would fall on him; then, with the resignation of Edward Southouse, he hoped to succeed to the post of judge of the Court of Common Pleas. But in vain. This double disappointment left him with the impression that his long record of service was rather badly rewarded. After being chosen as clerk of the new Executive Council which had been created by the Constitutional Act of 1791, he finally was elevated to the bench on 12 Jan. 1792, succeeding Mabane, who had died a few days earlier, on the Court of Common Pleas in the District of Quebec. When the judiciary was reorganized in December 1794, he moved to the Court of King’s Bench.

During the 25 years in which he had practised as a lawyer Williams had never disappointed the expectations held of him. His legal opinions reveal that he was a competent jurist, able to make fine distinctions and be completely impartial, even on the politically divisive questions of the day. Of a temperate, even conservative bent, he generally remained aloof from partisan struggles. Although he did play an active role in the committee set up in the autumn of 1773 to demand an assembly, a year later he avoided joining his compatriots who sought repeal of the Quebec Act. On the question of the law in force in the province, his opinions, without showing bias, were nevertheless rather of a kind that the Canadians found gratifying. For example, he deplored the attitude of the British who were demanding that English law be reinstituted, particularly in commercial matters; he considered that their position was based on ignorance fostered “by some misinformed English Practitioners.” But he correctly judged that under the Quebec Act English law had to govern in all transactions concerning land held in free and common socage, particularly in matters of descent and dower. Again, on the question of replacing the seigneurial system he submitted to the Legislative Council at the time of the 1790 inquiry [see Thomas-Laurent Bédard*] a report which, far from echoing the prejudices of the British, was confined to a descriptive analysis of the consequences of instituting land tenure in free and common socage; it was apparent that in his opinion the great majority of censitaires, who were of small means, would suffer seriously from the change in land tenure and that this disadvantage would in the end be more important than the advantages which the crown and the seigneurs might draw from it. His views were of a sort to please Carleton, as well as Haldimand. Neither of them had, for that matter, failed to show him their esteem, since they had called upon him over the years to discharge increasingly important duties.

Although he was in his 60s, Williams nevertheless continued to be active. From the 1790s he also exercised the functions of commissioner to receive the oath from assemblymen and legislative councillors as well as from office holders. He was a member of the commission responsible for administering the Jesuit estates. As attorney for Haldimand’s sole legatee, Williams sold the fief of Grand-Pabos to Felix O’Hara in 1796; in 1801 he was appointed attorney for the executors of former governor Murray* to conduct the sale of the seigneuries of Rivière-du-Loup and Madawaska to Henry Caldwell. He continued to engage in land transactions on his own account. Having repurchased in 1801 the two properties that he had previously owned on Rue Saint-Jean, he lived on one and then resold it for £1,500 in February 1806. Two months later he bought the house on Rue Saint-Louis owned by John Elmsley, who had died the previous year; he let it go in March 1811 for £1,200, having purchased from John Richardson* the previous month two properties, one with a large stone house and outbuildings on Rue des Pauvres (Côte du Palais), for £1,800, paying £450 in cash. Williams had also received 400 acres in Milton Township in 1803 and 26,810 acres in Stanfold Township in 1807.

After 20 years on the bench Williams retired on 22 May 1812 because of his advanced age. He then received an annual pension of £500 as a “reward for his long and meritorius services.” He retained until death the office as honorary member of the Executive Council to which he had been appointed on 7 Jan. 1801, and as well remained a member of the Legislative Council, to which he had acceded two years later. On 13 July 1819 he bequeathed almost all his property to his wife, as well as some lands to his grandchildren Anne Margaret and John Jenkin McLean. Williams died at Quebec on 30 Oct. 1819. He had had a long career during which he commanded respect and won well-deserved honours through his loyalty and competence. His funeral was held in the Cathedral of the Holy Trinity on 3 Nov. 1819.

Andre Morel

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Andre Morel, “WILLIAMS, JENKIN,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 5, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed December 2, 2023, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/williams_jenkin_5E.html.

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Permalink:   http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/williams_jenkin_5E.html
Author of Article:   Andre Morel
Title of Article:   WILLIAMS, JENKIN
Publication Name:   Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 5
Publisher:   University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication:   1983
Year of revision:   1983
Access Date:   December 2, 2023