Duty or else: our first 'councillors'
By Alun Hughes

Nowadays, if the bylaw officer objects to the height of your fence, it is because the fence is too high. But in early times it was just the opposite.
So when Thorold residents at their 1801 township meeting resolved that fences were to be "five feet high", that was the minimum height. This had nothing to do with privacy. Animals running wild were a major concern in Upper Canada, and the regulation was designed to prevent livestock from escaping their enclosures and wreaking havoc on other people's land.

Responsibility for enforcing fence height and design fell to the Fence Viewers, who were one of six classes of officers elected at the annual township meeting, the others being the Town Clerk, Assessors, Collector, Poundkeepers and Town Wardens. (There were also Road Overseers, but they were just Fence Viewers doing double duty.)

It is interesting to consider what the roles of these early "councillors" were, as specified by the Parish and Town Officers Act and related legislation in 1793.

The photo (right) shows a couple of early Fence Viewers in action, and they don't look impressed. The Poundkeepers, whose job it was to catch and impound stray animals, would have had their work cut out if a porous fence like that were allowed to stand.
Someone else involved with animals, albeit indirectly, was the Town Clerk, who recorded the marks by which farmers identified their livestock. The earliest entry, dated January 18, 1796, in the old Thorold Township Minute Book reads, "Richard Swayze has recorded his ear mark for his chattle [sic] sheep and hogs a half penny the upper side of the right ear and a hole in the left ear." The Clerk's position required a modicum of literacy, a rare commodity among early settlers, for it also involved taking minutes and compiling "a true and complete list" of inhabitants.

Two other important offices were those of Assessor and Collector. The Assessors had to value "the real or personal property, goods or chattels" of every householder, and assign taxes according to an eight-step schedule. Starting with a tax of 2/6 (two shillings and sixpence) for an assessed value of £50-100, the tax increased in increments of 2/6 for every £50 until £350-400, which was taxed at 17/6. Persons assessed at more than £400 paid 20/-, while anyone worth less than £50 was exempt.

Above graphic illustration: C.W. Jefferys, The Picture Gallery of Canadian History.
This sounds straightforward enough, but in reality, was not. The Assessors were usually drawn from "the lower order of people" and were often illiterate, received no guidelines on how to do their work, and the possibilities for abuse were immense. They did not always visit the properties to be assessed, the rich and influential commonly received preferential treatment, and electors had a clear interest in choosing Assessors who could be depended on to assess low and keep taxes down.

The taxes were collected by the Collector (who also served as bailiff in cases of default), but the money did not remain in the township. Instead, it went to the district Treasurer, to be used mainly for building courthouses, jails and bridges (though not roads), bears and wolves, and paying members of the provincial Assembly. This had major implications for the office of Town Warden. The Wardens had the responsibility of overseeing township property, but since the township effectively had no property, they had little to do in the early years.

The same could not be said for the Road Overseers (the Fence Viewers wearing their other hats). They had the unenviable task of enforcing statute labour, the duty of each inhabitant to build and repair roads and bridges, erect fences in dangerous locations, destroy "weeds … hurtful to the purposes of husbandry," and perform emergency duties on snow-covered roads in winter - all without remuneration. Wagon-owners had to provide a team and driver for six days of road work annually, and others had to work for twelve days (and supply their own tools). Needless to say, these were major commitments, and fines were imposed (10/- for wagon-owners, 5/- for others) to encourage compliance.

Of the various township officers, the only one guaranteed payment under the 1793 act was the Collector (3 per cent of the taxes collected). The Clerk, if he was lucky, might receive pin money, but the others did not even get expenses. Given that officers lacked any real power (this lay with the district and provincial authorities) and had to work gratis for long periods of time, and given the very real possibility of making enemies of neighbours, one wonders why anyone ran for election in the first place.

The answer is that they had no choice. The early inhabitants of Upper Canada inherited an obligation to perform public service that had a long history both in Britain and the American colonies. If nominated and elected, an individual was expected to perform his duties without complaint and without payment (though no one could be forced to serve more than one year in three). Indeed, so strong was the obligation that township officers could be fined 40/- for failure to do their job.

History has many lessons to teach us, but surely no one would ever suggest that present-day councillors should work for free and be fined if they don't fulfill their duties.

© Alun Hughes 2004

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