WRIGHT, GEORGE, office holder, businessman, militia officer, jp, judge, politician, and colonial administrator; b. 29 Dec. 1779 in Charlottetown, son of Thomas Wright* and Susanna Turner; d. there 13 March 1842.
George Wright’s father, who became in 1773 the first surveyor general of St John’s (Prince Edward) Island, founded one of its many office-holding families, and was most remembered by contemporaries for the number of his offspring. George worked for him for years as deputy surveyor. On 28 Dec. 1807 he married Phebe Cambridge, daughter of John Cambridge*, a prominent proprietor and merchant; the couple had six children. A younger brother Charles* subsequently married another Cambridge daughter, thus furthering the important alliance between the two families.
In 1808 George entered a partnership with Cambridge and his son Lemuel. It was dissolved in June 1813, and George was left in control of the firm’s brewery and mills at Bird Island (Wrights) Creek, near Charlottetown. His business appears to have prospered.
In the mean time Wright had begun collecting offices, appointments, and emoluments in typical Island fashion. He served as high sheriff in 1810–11. During the War of 1812 he was rapidly promoted from captain of militia to major to lieutenant-colonel. In January 1824 he became a jp with the rank of custos rotulorum, and an assistant judge of the Supreme Court in 1828. He was a prominent lay member of St Paul’s parish in Charlottetown, a founder of the Central Agricultural Society (1827), and then its president (1830).
Wright had also been appointed to Council on 10 July 1813, just prior to the arrival of Lieutenant Governor Charles Douglass Smith*. In the early years of Smith’s government Wright was regarded as an associate of James Bardin Palmer*, and his defiance of Smith in 1815 over a militia disturbance led to Smith’s unsuccessful attempt to dismiss him from Council. Throughout the controversies involving Smith in the early 1820s Wright kept a low profile, frequently absent from Council for critical meetings but generally supportive of the administration. As senior member and president of Council, he found himself administering the colony from 10 Dec. 1825, the first of five times he served as its chief executive officer on an interim basis. This stewardship, during the absence of Smith’s successor, John Ready, in England, lasted exactly a year. In his role as administrator, Wright carried on routine business, chaired meetings of Council, sent reports to the Colonial Office, acknowledged dispatches, and forwarded petitions and other papers. One of his few decisive actions was the suspension of James Luttrell DesBarres as controller of customs for neglect of duty, complaints having been preferred by Lemuel Cambridge and other Island merchants.
On 12 Nov. 1827 the complex at Bird Island, consisting of a grist-mill, barley mill, sawmill, and distillery, all fitted with extensive machinery, was burnt to the ground by a fire which started in a drying kiln. Much of Charlottetown turned out to fight the fire or observe the spectacle; members of the Fire Engine Company were present in their “caps and tippets” but, unfortunately, without their fire engine; one from the garrison proved insufficient to stanch the flames. According to contemporary reports Wright suffered £1,500 worth of damage and was totally uninsured. Fortunately for George, his brother Charles, the surveyor general, died the following April and he assumed the office, the third member of his family to hold it. Although he remained in business of some sort, making several trips to Bristol, England, in the 1830s, he relied chiefly on his offices and lands to maintain his standard of living.
Wright served as administrator from 19 May 1834 to 29 Sept. 1834 while Lieutenant Governor Sir Aretas William Young* visited England, and again from 2 Dec. 1835 to 30 Aug. 1836 between Young’s death and the arrival of Sir John Harvey*. On both occasions he appears to have carried out routine business but not to have taken many initiatives. By the 1830s the land question was in fierce agitation, with the establishment of the Escheat party led by William Cooper*, and remaining uncontroversial was not easy. In one of Wright’s few recorded political statements he defended in 1837 an action he had taken as administrator in granting land in Georgetown Royalty, despite resolutions by local inhabitants and the House of Assembly, on the grounds that making grants was standard practice and no rights had been lost by the residents, since they had become enfranchised only after the grants had been made. On the other hand, he joined delegates from the Island in September 1838 in testifying before Lord Durham [Lambton] to the evils of the proprietorial system and the need for reform.
Wright served briefly as Island administrator in 1837 and 1841 before and after the tenure of Sir Charles Augustus FitzRoy*. Although it is true that special legislation was subsequently passed to confirm the actions he had taken in 1841, he had not been “without constitutional authority” as one scholar has insisted, since the precedent had long been established that the president of Council headed the administration in the absence of the lieutenant governor.
Hardly a major political figure on the Island, George Wright was an excellent exemplar of the prominence enjoyed by descendants of many of its early officers and of the perpetuation in certain positions of what amounted to hereditary claims (the day after Wright’s death his son George* was provisionally appointed surveyor general). He also demonstrated, of course, both plural office holding and the close connection of Island officialdom with proprietorial and business interests. The wonder is that he emerged relatively unscathed from the political imbroglios of his time.
PAC, MG 24, B133 (photocopies; copies at PAPEI). PAPEI, Acc. 2810/12; Acc. 3466, marriage licence, 26 Dec. 1807; RG 1, commission books, 72; RG 5, minutes, 10 July 1813, 6 Jan. 1824; petition, 1 July 1806. P.E.I. Museum, File information concerning George Wright. PRO, CO 226/43: 243–45 (mfm. at PAPEI). St Paul’s Anglican Church (Charlottetown), Reg. of baptisms, marriages, and burials (mfm. at PAPEI). Lydia Cambridge Wright, “Lydia’s perilous landing at St. George’s Bay,” ed. N. J. de Jong, Island Magazine (Charlottetown), no.11 (spring–summer 1982): 3. Prince Edward Island Gazette, 16 Aug. 1819, 17 Feb. 1820. Prince Edward Island Register, 20 Dec. 1825, 12 Dec. 1826, 13 Nov. 1827. Royal Gazette (Charlottetown), 15 March 1842. Duncan Campbell, History of Prince Edward Island (Charlottetown, 1875; repr. Belleville, Ont., 1972), 77. Canada’s smallest province: a history of P.E.I., ed. F. W. P. Bolger ([Charlottetown, 1973]). MacKinnon, Government of P.E.I., 89. Elinor Vass, “The agricultural societies of Prince Edward Island,” Island Magazine, no.7 (fall–winter 1979): 31–37.