Kingsford, William (DNB01)

From Wikisource
Jump to navigation Jump to search

KINGSFORD, WILLIAM (1819–1898), historian of Canada, born on 23 Dec. 1819 in the parish of St. Lawrence Jewry, London, was the son of William and Elizabeth Kingsford of Lad Lane. Educated at Wanostrocht's well-known school in Camberwell [see Wanostrocht, Nicholas ], he was articled at an early age to an architect, but, finding the office uncongenial, enlisted in the 1st dragoon guards in his seventeenth year. He went with his regiment to Canada in 1837, became sergeant, and in 1840, through the influence of his friends at home, obtained his discharge, much to the regret of the colonel, Sir George Cathcart [q.v.], who offered to procure a commission for him. On the death of that officer in the Crimea, Kingsford wrote a touching tribute to his memory, which appears in Lady Cathcart's life of her husband.

Entering the office of the city surveyor of Montreal in 1841, he qualified in due course as civil engineer, and obtained the position of deputy city surveyor, a post which he held for three years. He resigned this situation to begin the publication of the Montreal 'Times,' in company with Murdo Mclver. Two years later he returned to his profession, entered the public works department, and among other undertakings made a new survey of the Lachine canal. In 1849 he was engaged in the construction of the Hudson River railroad in the state of New York, and in 1851 proceeded to Panama as assistant engineer to J. J. Campbell, who was then building the isthmus railway. Returning to Canada in 1853, he surveyed for the Grand Trunk the tracks from Montreal to Vaudreuil, from Montreal to Cornwall, from Brockville to Rideau, and, under A. M. Ross, who had the construction of the work in charge, laid down the lines of the present Victoria Bridge. He was chief engineer of the city of Toronto for a few months during 1855, but resigned to re-enter the service of the Grand Trunk, in whose employment he remained till 1864. He acted at first as superintendent of the line east from Toronto, and afterwards as contractor to maintain the section that runs from that city westward to Stratford. He came to England in 1865, made one or two general surveys on the continent for English firms, and reported to Thomas Brassey [q. v.] on the railway possibilities of the island of Sardinia.

In 1867, at the instance of English capitalists who looked forward to the building of the Canadian intercolonial railway—one of the conditions of the new federation—Kingsford went once more to Canada, where he remained during the rest of his life. As the dominion resolved to build the line as a government work, he was disappointed in his immediate expectations, but soon obtained employment, which included the enlargement of the Grenville canal and the draining of the township of Russell in Ontario. The last-mentioned work caused him to fix his permanent residence in Ottawa. When the Mackenzie government came into power in 1872 Kingsford was appointed dominion engineer in charge of the harbours of the great lakes and the St. Lawrence. He continued in this post till 31 Dec. 1879, when he was cashiered by Sir Hector Langevin, who had become minister of public works in the second Macdonald administration.

The dismissal of so important a civil servant in so summary a fashion gave rise to hostile comment at the time as an act of extreme partisanship, and was brought to the notice of the Canadian House of Commons. The minister defended himself by saying that, having made certain changes in the working of his department, the services of a special engineer in charge of harbours was no longer necessary. Kingsford published the correspondence and proceedings in a pamphlet entitled 'Mr. Kingsford and Sir Hector Langevin' (1882). There seems no doubt that Kingsford was unfairly treated.

Thus rudely cast on the world at the age of sixty, Kingsford began the great work of his life, the history of his adopted country. He was well prepared for the task. Besides his own language he was master of French, German, Italian, and Spanish. He had already contributed largely to the press, and put forth a number of substantial pamphlets: 'The History, Structure, and Statistics of Plank-roads,' 1852; 'Impressions of the West and South,' 1858; 'The Canadian Canals: their History and Cost,' 1865, a work supplemented later by articles in the 'Monetary Times,' Toronto; and a monograph on Canadian history entitled 'A Political Coin.' His professional engagements gave him a full knowledge of Canadian topography, while his early experience in the army, supplemented by assiduous reading, enabled him to comprehend a military situation. Kingsford set himself in 1880 to the serious study of the archives of Canada, which were collected at Ottawa, and he continued the work almost without intermission for the next seventeen years

The firstfruits of his labour, 'Canadian Archæology,' appeared in 1886, and was soon followed by the 'Early Bibliography of Ontario.' He published the first volume of the 'History of Canada' in 1887. The tenth volume, which concludes his task and brings the narrative of events to the union of Upper and Lower Canada (1841), was printed in 1898, the preface being dated 24 May. Taken as a whole, the work justifies Kingsford's anticipations and the warm reception it received in England and Canada. It is the fullest and fairest presentation of Canadian experience that has been given to the world. Queen's University at Kingston and Dalhousie in Nova Scotia signified their appreciation of his labours by conferring on him the degree of LL.D. McGill University gave his name to a recently endowed chair of history.

Kingsford was a fellow of the Royal Society of Canada, to which he contributed several papers, and a member of the Canadian Society of Civil Engineers. He survived the completion of his history only a few months, and died on 28 Sept. 1898.

In 1848 he married Maria Margaret, daughter of William Burns Lindsay, clerk of the legislative assembly of the province of Canada. Queen Victoria bestowed on his widow a civil list pension of 100l. in recognition of his services.

[Morgan's Can. Men and Women of the Time, p. 539; Canadian Magazine, January 1899; Canadian Gazette, London, 6 July 1899; Canadian Sessional Papers, Supplementary Report on Public Works, 1890, p. 23; Wrong's Toronto Univ. Studies, i. 10, ii. 18; Bourinot's Bibliography, Roy. Soc. Canada, p. 47; Toronto Globe, 29 Sept. 1898; Parish Register, St. Lawrence Jewry. E.C.; private information.]

T. B. B.