Wednesday, July 30, 2014

The Jarvis Family: 60 Years Fighting Revolutionaires And Radicals — And How It All Backfired

UK TOUR DAY THIRTEEN (LONDON): I returned to London for the last few days of the Toronto Dreams Project's UK Tour. And on my first day back, I headed to this spot on The Strand. It's in the middle of the city, on the edge of the financial district, just a few blocks from Trafalgar Square, right around the bend of the Thames from the Westminster. I came here because in the very late 1700s and very early 1800s, this place was home to the Crown & Anchor tavern, a hotbed for radical politics with a special connection to one of the most conservative families from the early history of Toronto.

The story of William Jarvis starts on the other side of the Atlantic — in Connecticut. This was back in the days when being an American meant you were British, too. And Jarvis liked it that way. He was deeply loyal to the Crown. When the American Revolution broke out in the 1770s, he was convinced the rebels were wrong. So even though he was just a teenager, he joined the British army. He spent the next few years fighting against the Patriot rebels as a member of the Queen's Rangers.

But Jarvis, of course, had picked the losing side. And he paid a heavy price. At the end of the war, he tried to return to his home in Connecticut. But he wasn't welcome there anymore. One day, while he and his family were on their way to a picnic, they were attacked by a mob of angry Patriots. That kind of thing was happening to Loyalists all over the brand new United States. Just a few years earlier, pro-British opinions had been accepted as conventional wisdom; now, they were treason. Jarvis' own sister was attacked over and over again in the wake of the Revolution, her home invaded, her children threatened with bayonets, her husband eventually driven to suicide. While she and tens of thousands of others escaped north to the British colonies in Canada, William Jarvis fled across the Atlantic to England. He spent the next nine years living here in London — in exile.

He wasn't alone. Thousands of American Loyalists headed for the British Isles, including a young woman by the name of Hannah Owen Peters. She was the daughter of the Reverend Samuel Peters, a slave-owning Anglican preacher so famously reviled that more than 200 years later, he got his own chapter in a book called Jerks in Connecticut History. He, too, had been driven out of his home by violent Patriot mobs. And he, too, came to London. Hannah followed him here.

So it was in England that William probably met Hannah for the first time (although they were both from important Connecticut families, so it could have been earlier). And it was here that they got married. The ceremony was held at a church just a few blocks from Buckingham Palace: St. George's Hanover Square (the exact same spot where, a century later, Sir John A. Macdonald would marry his second wife while he was in town negotiating Confederation).

St. George's Hanover Square
Soon, the new couple would become one of the founding families of Toronto. While they were living in London with Hannah's dad, Jarvis was still in close contact with his commanding officer from his days in the Queen's Rangers: John Graves Simcoe. And when Simcoe was chosen as the first Lieutenant Governor of Upper Canada — a brand new province specifically created to be a home for Loyalist refugees — he picked Jarvis to be part of the government.

But that wasn't the only new job Jarvis was going to have in the new province. And that's where the Crown & Anchor tavern comes in.

In the late 1700s and early 1800s, the Crown & Anchor was one of the most important taverns in all of England. Some of the biggest names in Britain came here to drink and to argue, to hold meetings and give lectures: people like Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Samuel Johnson, William Godwin, Thomas Hardy and William Hazlitt. The tavern was especially famous as a hotbed for left-wing politics. It became an icon of its time, synonymous with the Radicals and Reformers who were fighting to make England more democratic. Many of them were being thrown into prison for their ideas, some charged with treason and locked away in the Tower of London. At the Crown & Anchor, hundreds and sometimes even thousands of them gathered in the elegant and spacious rooms, listening to speakers, holding meetings, or throwing a party when someone was finally released from jail. They used the tavern to print pamphlets and radical texts like Thomas Paine's Rights of Man, a defense of the French Revolution. They were also ardent supporters of the American Revolution. In other words, they were the ideological opposites of William Jarvis.

But there was lots of space at the Crown & Anchor. Not everyone who held a meeting there was a radical. Far from it. And in the very late 1700s, the tavern was home to a series of meetings by the most famous secret organization in the world: The Freemasons.

A new province in Canada meant a new Grand Lodge. And the Freemasons in London just happened to have a brand new member who was going to be living there. William Jarvis had been inducted into the organization just a month earlier. So, at one of their meetings at the Crown & Anchor, they chose him to be the very first Provincial Grand Master of the Provincial Grand Lodge of Upper Canada.

Of course, the famous Masonic secrecy means that we can't be entirely sure what kind of a Grand Master Jarvis was. But he also played a much more public role as a prominent member of another anti-democratic, conservative-minded group trying to concentrate power in the hands of a few well-connected members: The Family Compact. Over the course of Toronto's first few decades, just a few Loyalist Tory families — the Jarvises among them — managed to keep most of the power in the new province to themselves, cracking down on anyone who argued in favour of democratic reform.

William Jarvis & Samuel Jarvis, ROM
And when you read about Jarvis and his role in that early Toronto government, the same kind of adjectives keep popping up: "inefficient and careless", "incompetent and corrupt", "incompetent, lazy, selfish and dishonest". Even worse than that, the Jarvis family was one of the very few families in the history of Toronto to own slaves. And when Simcoe wanted to outlaw the practice, the pro-slavery members of his government — including, presumably, Jarvis — forced a compromise that saw it gradually phased out instead.

The Jarvis family doesn't seem to have gotten along very well with Toronto's other founders, either. William once tried to challenge four men to a duel all at the same time; Hannah called the rest of the city's ruling class "a lot of Pimps, Sycophants and Lyars." When one of their slaves escaped, the man wrote a letter to Jarvis explaining why: "your wife vexed me to so high a degree that it was far beyond the power of man to support it..."

One of their sons, Samuel Jarvis, would end up inheriting their confrontational attitude. As a young man, he infamously killed a teenager in a duel under suspicious circumstances — probably over gambling debts. And as a member of the Family Compact, he became one of the arch-enemies of William Lyon Mackenzie. The rebel mayor's politics had been deeply influenced by the American Revolution and those same Crown & Anchor reformers; he'd even met at least one of them during a trip to England and used his own Torontonian newspaper to print the writings of Thomas Paine, just like they'd done in London. He drove the Jarvis family nuts. In fact, it was Mackenzie who came up with the "Family Compact" nickname.

Once, when Mackenzie called Samuel Jarvis a murderer for killing the man in the duel, the young Jarvis struck back. In a bizarre echo of the Patriot attacks that had terrorized his own family in the United States, he organized an angry mob, dressed them up in a parody of First Nations clothing, and attacked Mackenzie's home and business while he was out of town. His family was there, though; they hid in fear while the rioters destroyed Mackenzie's printing press and threw the type into Lake Ontario. We call it The Type Riot.

It backfired. Mackenzie sued and got a big settlement, enough to expand his newspaper business. Now, his radical politics had an even bigger voice: within a few short years, he'd become the first mayor of Toronto and led a rebellion against British rule. On the day he marched his army down Yonge Street, the Jarvis family were there again, taking up arms just like they'd done in the United States 60 years earlier. In fact, it was a ragtag force led by their cousin — Sheriff William Botsford Jarvis — who turned Mackenzie's rebels away.

But the days of the Family Compact were numbered. True democracy was going to come to Canada anyway. And despite having to spend years in exile, Mackenzie would be a leading voice in Canadian politics for decades to come. In a weird twist, thanks to the Type Riot, it was the conservative Jarvis family who had helped to make it happen.


A dream for Samuel Jarvis at St. George's Hanover Square
Crown & Anchor, right, an empty construction lot now
The Crown & Anchor
Crown & Anchor, right, in a famous political cartoon
Another political cartoon, inside the Crown & Anchor


A version of this story will appear in
The Toronto Book of the Dead
Coming September 2017

Pre-order from Amazon, Indigo, or your favourite bookseller
Read more posts about The Toronto Dreams Project's UK Tour and the connections between the history of Toronto and the United Kingdom here.

I wrote a full posts about Samuel Jarvis' duel for Spacing here. You can learn more about Henry Lewis, the slave who escaped from Jarvis, thanks to the Archives of Ontario here. The Toronto Museum Project has William Jarvis' Queen's Rangers coat on display online here, along with some words about the Toronto Purchase from former mayor David Crombie. You can learn more about William Jarvis' sister, Polly, whose husband was driven to suicide by the American Patriots in this PDF. His cousin shares his own account of the war — and the Patriot attack on the Jarvis family — here and more about it here. Jarvis' entry in the Dictionary of Canadian Biography is here. And there's more about him in Eleven Exiles: Accounts of Loyalists of the American Revolution, which is on Google Books here. Plus, you can learn more about the Crown & Anchor tavern here and here.

You can still see the gravestone of John Ridout — the teenager Samuel Jarvis killed in the duel — in the doorway of St. James Cathedral on King Street East. 

This post is related to dream
09 The Ghost of John Ridout
Samuel Jarvis, 1826


  1. I am a descendant of Samuel Jarvis I would like to know if any of the family were married to First nations woke.

  2. I ment women sorry.