Thurrald - the Lincolnshire link
By Alun Hughes

It is one thing to know the source of a placename; it is something else again to explain how a place got its name. So while we all know that Thorold was named for Sir John Thorold (or Thurrald, as he called himself) of Lincolnshire, England, how and why this came about is less obvious.

It is all-too-easy to get it wrong when it comes to names. Take for example York, the former name for Toronto. Toronto was the original Mohawk name of the place (it meant "where there are trees standing in the water"), and it was renamed York by John Graves Simcoe, first Lieutenant-Governor of Upper Canada. Check almost any book on Toronto and it will tell you that the switch to York was made on August 27, 1793, when Simcoe ordered a 21-gun salute to mark the Duke of York's victory against the French at the Siege of Famars in Holland in May.

The explanation sounds plausible and has a nice dramatic ring to it (after all, the honoree was none other than the Grand Old Duke of nursery rhyme renown), but it is wrong. A reading of Simcoe's correspondence reveals letters dating back to November 1792 that refer to "Toronto (now York)" or "York (late Toronto)," indicating the renaming took place long before the victory celebration.

John Graves Simcoe

The real explanation is much more prosaic, and is found in policies introduced by Simcoe for naming the various parts of Upper Canada. These policies explain not only York, but also how Thorold got its name - at least in part.

When Simcoe arrived in Upper Canada in 1792, his very first priority was to prepare for elections to the Legislature. Elections require ridings, but neither of the existing subdivisions of the province - into districts and townships - would serve this purpose. So Simcoe and his Executive Council spent six days in Kingston in July poring over maps and dividing the province into new units, which he called counties.

On July 16, Simcoe issued a proclamation defining the county boundaries and announcing their names. East of the Bay of Quinte the counties were mostly named for significant persons in Britain - Addington, Leeds, Dundas and Stormont are examples. But elsewhere, in a deliberate attempt to foster unity and a sense of Britishness in the new province, they were named for the counties along the east coast of England.

This was done in a very systematic manner. The westernmost counties in Upper Canada were named Kent and Essex for the southernmost counties in England, and then Simcoe proceeded eastward in Upper Canada and northward in England until he reached Durham and Northumberland and the Scottish border. The entire Niagara Peninsula fell in Lincoln County (there was no Welland County initially), and Toronto in York County.

Though there is no proof, there is strong circumstantial evidence that the Executive Council named townships at the same meeting. Again it was done systematically, borrowing names from the "parent" county in England. Thus in York County you find the townships of York, Pickering, Whitby and Scarborough, all Yorkshire names. And the townships of the Niagara Peninsula, which had previously borne numbers, were given Lincolnshire names.

Some Niagara townships - for example Grantham, Stamford, Louth, Crowland and Grimsby - were named for places in Lincolnshire. (A notable exception is Newark, also the name of the first capital of Upper Canada, for the English Newark lies just outside Lincolnshire in Nottinghamshire.) Others were named for people with a Lincolnshire connection - these include Clinton, Pelham, Bertie, Willoughby and of course, Thorold.

So the naming of Thorold follows a pattern, but this still does not explain why Sir John himself should be so honoured. Was he a personal friend of Simcoe's? He may have been, but there is no proof. Did he even know Simcoe? The answer has to be yes, for they were both members of parliament in 1791 when the Constitutional Act that created Upper Canada was debated. However, since Simcoe was an MP for only one year, their acquaintance may have been limited.

The original counties of Upper Canada (Ontario History, Vol. ix)
Various secondary sources state that Sir John got the nod because "he took an interest in colonial affairs," but this doesn't help much, for all MPs would have had such an interest. So what was it then? What did Sir John do that merited recognition?

Ironically, when we delve deeper, we only find reasons why he should not have had a township named for him!

He was an MP for over 15 years, but by all accounts was a rather ineffectual one. He rarely spoke in the Commons, and when he did (usually on the topic of wool) he spoke poorly. One source stated, "He is a sensible man, and sometimes speaks in the House, but he wants that brilliancy of elocution which gives effect and grace to reasoning, and is therefore not at all eminent in the present list of parliamentary orators."

Furthermore, though he sat as an independent, he usually voted with the opposition, especially after William Pitt the Younger became prime minister in 1783. To quote another source, "His conduct in all points opposing Government has given offence to many persons of consequence and interest."

One would have to assume that Simcoe was one of these persons, for Sir John is said to have opposed two major initiatives that Simcoe supported. The first was the decision to fight the rebel colonies in the American Revolutionary War (in which Simcoe served gallantly for the King as leader of the Queen's Rangers), and the second was the passage of the Constitutional Act (which created Upper Canada and gave Simcoe his big chance in life).

Why, therefore, would Simcoe choose Thorold? Perhaps he really respected Sir John and simply overlooked their differences. But we have no way of knowing, and the real reason why Thorold got its name remains a mystery.

© Alun Hughes 2004

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