Thorold's first municipal election
By Alun Hughes

There were no lawn signs, glossy brochures, newspaper ads, nor all-candidates meetings, nothing resembling a present-day election campaign. When the citizens of Thorold elected their first council in 1799, it was a very low-key affair. Though not a council in the modern sense - more a group of officers chosen to perform various duties for the coming year - the election did mark the start of local government in Thorold.

Our political system today is democratic, but back then, things were very different. When the first Europeans settled in the Niagara Peninsula in the 1780s they were subject to military rule - understandably so, as the American Revolutionary War was in progress and the Commandant at Fort Niagara held sway. Essentially the same system continued after the war's end in 1783, and it was years before settlers gained any form of local autonomy.

The immediate post-war need to maintain law and order led to the appointment of former Loyalist officers as magistrates, but it was not until 1788, following growing settler discontent, that the authorities did anything more. And that was to divide what is now southern Ontario into four districts called Hesse, Nassau (which included the Niagara Peninsula), Mecklenburg and Luneburg.

Various officials were appointed to each district, among them a clerk, a sheriff, judges, coroners, and justices of the peace or magistrates. The last-named had various duties, such as regulating domestic animals running at large, overseeing licensed taverns, appointing minor officials and superintending highways. Also, a Land Board was established in each district to oversee the distribution of land.

Further changes followed the Constitutional Act of 1791, which created a new province of Upper Canada ruled by a Lieutenant-Governor, with appointed executive and legislative councils and an elected legislative assembly. A year later Lieutenant-Governor Simcoe divided the province into 19 counties, one of which was Lincoln - not the Lincoln we remember today but a much larger one encompassing the entire Peninsula and beyond.

None of this provided anything like modern representative government. Both the province and districts were ted by appointed positions, which Simcoe hoped would foster a hereditary political aristocracy, the very antithesis of democracy. The counties served no governmental function; instead they were units for organizing the (the Lincoln was gazetted in 1794), for granting land, and for parliamentary representation. The original survey townships like Thorold had no function at all, other than providing an organized framework for land ownership.

Thorold's first councillors, from the Township Minute Book.
However, the growing call for proper local government could not be ignored, and the first tentative step toward this occurred in 1793 with the passage of the Parish and Town Officers Act. This authorized the convening of annual meetings in each township to elect a clerk, two assessors, a tax collector, from two to six highway overseers/fence viewers, one or more poundkeepers and two town wardens.

Grimsby has the distinction of holding the first ever township meeting - on April 5, 1790, three years before the act. Townships like Niagara and Stamford followed in 1793, but Thorold did not meet until later. The original township minute book, preserved in City Hall, gives the date of the first meeting as "the first Monday in March 1799," though other entries in the book indicate Thorold had a clerk (Obadiah Hopkins) as early as 1796.

The officers elected in 1799 were John Waterhouse (clerk), Andrew Hansel and Jonathan Hagar (assessors), John Decow (collector), John Wilson Senior and Leonard Misener (poundkeepers), Robert Wilkerson and George Coucke (town wardens), and George Bowman, Jacob Upper, John Hill Junior, Henry Damude and Alexander Brown (road masters).

Township meetings were led on those of colonial New England, but had much less power and were always answerable to the district magistrates. The only legislative authority granted by the 1793 act was regulating the height of fences; a year later control of animals running at large was added.

As a result, the early Thorold minutes do not make very interesting reading, consisting of little more than a listing of those elected. In 1801, however, we learn "The inhabitants unanimously resolve the fences to be five feet high and there shall not be any holes exceeding four inches below the fourth rail from the bottom … and all creatures shall run at large."

The very earliest meeting site is unknown, but in 1802 and from 1806 to 1809 the venue was Israel Swayze's house (where the Summers farmhouse now stands on Beaverdams Road). Between 1810 and 1816 they were mostly held in Samuel Swayze's tavern at the intersection of Beaverdams and Marlatts roads.

There is much we don't know about these early meetings. How many people came to vote? Were the elections contested? Did the officers receive any payment? What sort of budget did they command? All we can say for certain was that the voters would have been few in number, since they met in a house, and the population of Thorold was very small anyway.

© Alun Hughes 2003

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