Baron Sydenham

Charles Edward Poulett Thomson, Baron Sydenham (1799-1841), was an English merchant turned politician. As governor general of British North America, he attempted to implement the recommendations of the Durham Report.

Charles Thomson (the father did not add his mother's family name, Poulett, to his own until 1820) was born on Sept. 13, 1799, the youngest child of a prosperous merchant with extensive Russian trade connections. He was privately educated, never attending a public school or university, and at 16 went to Russia in the employ of his father's firm. After extensive travels, during which he became fluent in several languages, he made several unsuccessful attempts to obtain a diplomatic post and after further experiences in Russia returned to England in 1824. In 1826, much against his family's wishes, Poulett Thomson was elected member of Parliament for Dover and in 1832 for both Dover and Manchester; although he had not sought the second seat, he chose thereafter to sit for it.

Poulett Thomson in politics was an ardent reformer whose friends included John Stuart Mill, Jeremy Bentham, and Joseph Hume. An able student of the relatively new subject of political economy, he was a strong exponent of free trade, and his first speeches in Parliament quickly attracted the attention of his Liberal colleagues. In 1830 he was appointed vice president of the Board of Trade and treasurer of the navy and, in 1834, president of the Board of Trade. In 1839, offered a choice between becoming chancellor of the Exchequer or governor general of British North America, Poulett Thomson chose the second, happy by now to escape the heavy grind of Cabinet and parliamentary sessions.

Poulett Thomson had used his ministerial positions to institute many enlightened reforms, not only in the steady reduction of customs duties but in the general improvement of Britain's trade relations. He had helped found the School of Design to enhance the marketability of British products and had worked hard for the recognition of international copyright; he had also reformed the parliamentary procedure for private bills, most of which concerned the incorporation of companies. His greatest achievements, however, came in Canada, where he arrived as governor on Oct. 19, 1839.

What is now central Canada was then racked by bitter disputes, not only between French-speaking and English-speaking Canadians but, in both Lower and Upper Canada, between oligarchical executives and more popular elements; abortive revolutions had occurred in 1837-1838.

Lord Durham, Poulett Thomson's predecessor, had in 1838, in a report which assumed the ultimate assimilation of the French Canadians, advocated the union of the two colonies and proposed making the executive responsible to the elected branch of the legislature. Poulett Thomson's assignment was to accomplish both these tasks, and in the face of enormous difficulties he completed the establishment of the Province of Canada and laid the groundwork fundamental to responsible government. He did the same for a system of municipal government, resolved the complex problem of the Clergy Reserves (tracts of land for the support of religious institutions), and contributed to the settlement of the Maine boundary dispute. He was elevated to the peerage in 1840 and died in Kingston, Ontario, on Sept. 19, 1841.

Further Reading on Baron Sydenham

Two sound biographies of Sydenham are George Poulett Scrope, ed., Memoir of the Life of the Right Honourable Charles Lord Sydenham (1843), and Adam Shortt, Lord Sydenham (1926). Scrope was Sydenham's admiring brother, and most of his book is a narrative of Sydenham's Canadian career by his secretary, T. W. C. Murdock.

Additional Biography Sources

Meynell, G. G. (Geoffrey, Guy), A bibliography of Dr. Thomas Sydenham (1624-1689), Folkestone: Winterdown Books, 1990.

Meynell, G. G. (Geoffrey Guy), Materials for a biography of Dr. Thomas Sydenham (1624-1689): a new survey of public and private archives, Folkestone: Winterdown Books, 1988.

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