Simcoe County history

By Tom Villemaire, Special to Postmedia Network

Sir Thomas Wardlaw Taylor became one of the country’s leading legal lights, as Canada grew from provinces scattered across the top of the continent to a single united nation. And, like many of the country’s leading legal minds, his career started in Simcoe County — or, to be more precise, the lessons he learned in Simcoe County encouraged him to resume a legal career.

Britton Bath Osler (Toronto people might recognize the name, as the law firm he founded exists as one of the country’s premier law firms), Sir William Glenholme Falconbridge, D’arcy McCarthy (Toronto people might also recognize his firm’s name as his Barrie-based office had a Toronto branch that exists to this day as one of the country’s premier law firms), James Robert Gowan, Henry Albert Harper, Hewitt Bernard, Hector Mansfield Howell, Sir Sam Steele (one of the country’s leading law enforcers) and so on have all figured prominently in the development of law in the country. Some of these became ministers of the Crown, and others were advisers to prime ministers, but all have links to a sparsely populated, rural community in what was, in the 19th and early 20th centuries, considered northern Ontario.

Taylor wasn’t born in the county. He was born March 25, 1833, in Auchtermuchty (seriously), Scotland. His at-home education — described as “irregular, sometimes stimulating, but generally undisciplined” — came from his mother, who was hindered by what was called a “weak constitution” and who suffered from illness regularly. It was augmented with a stint at the University of Edinburgh, where he started his legal studies. But the demands of working in a law office coupled with lectures that were “austere and undemanding” caused him to drop out of law and finish his university education with a bachelor of arts, first in Greek and a second in Latin.

His family left Scotland when his father took a professorship with United Presbyterian Seminary in London, Ont.

Taylor was advised he should probably not explore law in the new province but instead take up agriculture.

I mean, farming is easy, right?

So, off he went to work at the well-established farm operation of the Christie family in South Dumfries Township, west of Hamilton. This was an old part of Ontario, where pioneer settlement had been ongoing since after the American Revolution. The Christie farm — where future politician senator David Christie would work alongside Taylor — was a booming concern.

Taylor saw a big and successful farming operation with plenty of hired help available (including many recently freed slaves looking for a place to work to support their newly freed families) and was sold on farming.

It all seemed so easy.

In 1854, at the age of 21, he purchased 230 acres outside of Barrie. It was raw, uncleared land, covered in giant virgin forest towering overhead.

Imagine the promise.

Imagine a 21-year-old, home-schooled by his mother, who, in Scotland, lived in a large, rambling manse that went with the large church his father preached at, strolling through the forest that was now his farm.

Imagine him trying to convince surrounding pioneers who were busy trying to clear their own land to come and work on his property, or, even better, trying to hire from the limited pool of available labourers who would go to the highest bidder.

Imagine Taylor, who’d just spent a year working as a labour overseer, at a large, established farm and who lived in the Christie mansion at the farm, relaxing in the rudimentary hovel he had to build himself, recalling the success of that farm and recalling the parties he’d attended.

Compare that to the relative isolation of living in a deep forest where seeing another person was a cause for celebration — but only rarely would that passing soul have time for a visit.

One biography said, “The isolation, crude manners of his neighbours, arduous labour, and lack of reliable help forced him to concede that pioneer farming was ‘plainly not my proper vocation.'”

Clearly, just being near Barrie in the heart of Simcoe County provided Taylor with one of the most important lessons of his education: Farming isn’t easy.

So, instead of gaining an indifferent farmer, Canada gained a brilliant legal mind.

Taylor went back to law school — the Law School of Upper Canada.

He was described as ready to take on “heavy responsibilities” and to take the initiative. Even though he was “only a clerk” at this point, he was managing the office at which he articled. He was described as a “serious student of law” and developed “a mania for the technicalities of bygone times.”

He became an authority on the inner workings and rationale of the courts and was called to the bar in 1858.

He went on to restructure the Court of Chancery, which governed laws of equity, including trusts, land law and matters affecting vulnerable people. After practising law for only two years, he wrote a book, Orders of the Court of Chancery, in which he explained how the court worked. He wrote an expanded version three years later.

That same year, 1863, his young wife died, leaving him to care for his three children. He remarried the following year, which allowed him to take up his old routine of a heavy work schedule.

He continued to write books on the law as he worked his way through a series of troubled areas of the courts that required streamlining.

He was later appointed to the Queen’s Bench of the Manitoba Court. That court had a reputation for its irregular sittings and had a “formidable backlog of work.”

Taylor gained a reputation for “speedy and efficient treatment of cases and it grew as he sat every day except Sunday, including evenings, in order to clear the accumulated docket.”

He did not tolerate nonsense in his court and was recognized by his peers as a legal authority of great range.

At the age of 54, he was made chief justice and twice was made administrator of the province of Manitoba.

When Queen Victoria visited Manitoba in 1897, Taylor was created a knight bachelor.

He retired in 1899 and died in 1917. He is remembered as a judicial model of tolerance and restraint, who actively discouraged “silver-tongued oratory” in his “business-like courts.”

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, podcasts and can be reached at