Simcoe County history
One of Simcoe County’s early politicians was a fireplug of a man, gifted athlete and admired lawyer.
Angus Morrison was born Jan. 20, 1822, in Edinburgh, Scotland.
His father, a discharged sergeant of the 82nd Royal Highland Regiment, and a widower, brought the family to Upper Canada in 1830, settling in Georgina Township. Farming didn’t fit his father’s personality and, a year later, Angus’s father opened the Golden Ball Tavern. He might have been inspired by his marriage to the daughter of famous Upper Canadian bar owner John Montgomery, of Montgomery Tavern fame, where the main battle of the 1837 Rebellion took place. (Montgomery was a Barrie resident and is buried there.)
Angus joined the law firm of his brother, J.C. Morrison, in 1839 as a clerk and was called to the bar in 1845. He later opened his own firm at 110 King St. W., Toronto. It would become one of the leading firms in the province.
But it wasn’t even law that made Angus’s name. He was famous in Toronto for his athletic abilities, his dash, his broad chest, thick, curly hair and mutton-chop sideburns and his fashion sense. He was an avid rower and was declared champion of Toronto Bay in both 1840 and 1841 in the annual sculling races. He was also one of the city’s leading curlers – an accomplished skip with the Toronto Curling Club, taking part in all-day competitions on the frozen lake.
His connections, formed through his various sporting endeavours, the St. Andrew’s Society and a growing family helped to propel his legal practice. A corporate law solicitor, Morrison acted for the Canadian Bank of Commerce, University of Toronto, Ontario Building Society and many other influential corporations and organizations.
This profile made his transition to politician easy, and in 1853 he was elected alderman for St. James’ ward.
The next year, Francis Hincks’s government of the province of Canada fell, thanks to a scandal based on profits Hincks made from the sale of shares of the Ontario, Simcoe and Huron Railroad. Hincks was a major proponent of a British North American rail line, leading to the Grand Trunk Railway, but his government fell amid the whiff of corruption.
An election was in the offing and Morrison was selected as the Reform candidate for a new riding, Simcoe North, at the convention held in Barrie.
Morrison was an excellent politician, with interests spanning not only most of Simcoe County stretching north from Kempenfelt Bay, but also Toronto.
He toured his riding regularly, keeping in touch with the residents. He was also good at spreading the wealth. His light but effective touch with the awarding of government contracts balanced many interests and kept many happy.
At the top of his list of priorities was the promotion of transportation improvements – especially anything that would link Barrie, Orillia, Midland, Penetanguishene, Collingwood, Georgian Bay and Lake Simcoe with Toronto and Lake Ontario.
That meant railways, roads and canals.
And those all meant big money for the riding.
His success at engaging government investment in his riding led to his success at the polls and he was acclaimed in election after election. But canals connecting Lake Simcoe with Lake Ontario, and Lake Simcoe with Georgian Bay, soon ran against some logistical problems. Expensive rail lines that were not well-run were soon mired in debt, hurting not only the upper government, but the county as well. Morrison was a director of Northern Railway, so it was a personal issue, too.
Actually, it was even more personal. His brother, J.C., was president of the railway. There were a number of investigations into the rail lines and none found a problem with the behaviour of the two Morrison brothers. (This included the investigation that took down Hincks’s government earlier.)
That said, there was a series of problems with what the rail line was trying to do. The railway tried to establish a shipping service out of Collingwood, but that service couldn’t pay for itself. These were early days and the blueprint for rail success in Ontario had yet to be created.
Morrison’s opponent loaded up on these glitches and failures as ammunition. Morrison loaded up on sandwiches and alcohol. Food and booze were used to encourage voters to support the politician who supplied the best and most drink and food. The Orillia Packet reported, “Whiskey was sent into the Townships in streams.” The campaign was boisterous and at times violent.
He was later wooed by Conservatives in a riding in the Niagara Peninsula, which he won by a majority – a small majority, but a majority all the same.
He continued participating in politics outside of Simcoe County for two decades – including as mayor in Toronto. As mayor, Angus had the opportunity to award Ned Hanlan for his winning of a sculling match – the same one Angus had won as a young man.
His law firm thrived and he became a Queen’s Counsel in 1873 at the age of 51. He died in his 60th year. It “was a shock to the entire community and his funeral, a municipal event, was reported to have consisted of more than 90 carriages.”
Morrison’s work on developing the infrastructure of Simcoe County early in its history led to a boom in settlement there. Colonization roads built on his recommendation helped draw new blood into the interior of the county, away from the shores of Lake Simcoe and Georgian Bay. Rail lines, linking Bradford with Barrie and Collingwood and Orillia and points between, helped new industries grow, giving the new settlers quick and easy access to goods and materials they no longer had to wait for to come from Toronto, Montreal or even overseas.
The Barrie Examiner reported on his funeral that of the “almost 100 carriages, 20 had travelled over roads in existence only because of Angus Morrison’s conviction about the importance of Simcoe North to the future of the Canadian Nation!”
Clearly, people in Simcoe North had long memories.
Tom Villemaire is a former editor of papers in Simcoe County, including the Orillia Packet & Times, Midland Free Press, Barrie Examiner, Innisfil Examiner and Enterprise-Bulletin, and is the author of two history books. He now runs historylab.ca, podcasts and can be reached at email@example.com.