Rebels and Reformers: Edward Lesslie

The Museum’s new exhibition Rebels and Reformers: Dundas on the Road to Responsible Government covers a very significant era in Canadian history from a Dundas perspective. There is a lot of background information that we simply could not include in the exhibit. Here we offer more details about some of the characters, events, and movements within this critical time in our country’s development.

Edward Lesslie (1765-1828)

Edward Lesslie, as described by his son, was a family man, a devout Christian, a man with a social and political conscience. Also, he was a product of his time, that combination of independent Calvinist mind and intellectual enquiry that characterized and produced the exploration of new ideas, both philosophical and scientific, called the Scottish Enlightenment.

Edward Lesslie was a book seller, stationer, and purveyor of a noted brand of writing ink in the “radical toun” of Dundee. Unlike his native town, however, Lesslie remained a reformer and radical all his life. The 1790s were turbulent times as reformers absorbed the lessons and ideas thrown up by the two “revolutions” of the day; the American secession from Britain and the French revolution. The circulation of the writings of Tom Paine and the French writers and philosophers added fuel to the demand in Britain for change. Change meant parliamentary reform in a nation where the ballot was restricted and many towns, such as Dundee, were unrepresented in Parliament.

As a bookseller, Lesslie was perfectly placed to be a conduit for radical literature. We know that he was denounced as a radical by a government informer and that, in 1793, he was a witness in the sedition trial of Rev Thomas Fyshe Palmer, a Unitarian minister accused of distributing an anti- war pamphlet on behalf of the Friends of Liberty. Lesslie was called as a witness but narrowly escaped imprisonment, or even transportation to Australia when he admitted to having possessed, although not destroying most of the pamphlets that Palmer had left with him, “Because I thought it was not safe to have them in my custody,” (Proceedings…). The next time we encounter Lesslie is in November 1795, when a petition was to be lodged at his ship for the collection of signatures. This petition was one of many sent to Parliament protesting the proposed extension of the treason acts (later the Gagging Acts), a bid to destroy domestic radicalism. Around the time, Lesslie’s name appeared in the account book of a well-known Edinburgh radical bookseller as the recipient of reformist writings, including Tom Paine’s Age of Reason. Lesslie’s sympathies continued to lie with the parliamentary reformers and he became an agent for the Whig opposition paper, the Scots Chronicle and the Edinburgh Gazetteer, although there is no evidence to suggest that he was a member of the Dundee Whig party. Even though by 1820, Lesslie had decided to try his fortune in the colonies, he once more acted on his political sympathies when he organized a subscription for Queen Caroline, the estranged wife of George IV, whose case had become a Whig cause. The national crisis erupted in the wake of the King’s divorce proceedings against his Queen, had been seized upon by the Whigs as an opportunity to make political capital and strike at the monarchy.

As befitted a devout Christian with a sense of civic responsibility, Lesslie was among those who contributed to the Dundee Dispensary in 1793, with the object of expanding the facilities by acquiring a “house” for an infirmary. In fact, he became a member of the infirmary board in 1819 (Donnelly). Spoke at meetings on distress in 1817. Lesslie’s concern for the poor went beyond medical care; he contributed to their relief in 1813 and spoke at meetings on distress in 1817. He is known to have contributed to the Dundee Auxiliary Bible Society. In local politics, he favoured borough reform (Donnelly, 67). But Lesslie had other more intellectual pursuits, and true to the spirit of the Scottish enlightenment he was a member of the Dundee Rational Institute formed in 1809. This group of artisans and small shopkeepers met twice a week to hear lectures and discuss scientific and other subjects, although talk of religion and politics was banned. Indeed, the Institute had gathered equipment for members to do their own scientific experiments, made up a museum and put together a small library of enlightenment classics. William Lyon Mackenzie was also a member of the rational institution, and it is said that he was its first librarian, although Edward Lesslie would assume this post in 1811, shortly before the society was dissolved. Lesslie’s enthusiasm for the promotion of knowledge was perhaps responsible for his reputation as a seller of cheap books of the kind that the artisans and small shop keeps of the Rational Institution could afford.

According to James Lesslie, his father decided to emigrate in 1819 for family and economic reasons. With a large family of 12 children, six of whom were sons, it was unlikely that the book business would be able to support it. That was in good times, but the conclusion of the Napoleonic Wars brought widespread unemployment and economic depression. The weaving towns in central Scotland were hard hit, and Dundee had been an important centre of the linen industry. Discontent brought disorder was a revival of radical politics and, consequently, harsh reprisals from the authorities. A warning was delivered to all radicals in Dundee, in November 1819, with the arrest on decidedly flimsy grounds of George Kinloch, a member of the local gentry. The message was that if a man of his station could be accused of sedition and sentenced to transportation, then the less privileged were even more vulnerable. Although James Lesslie stated that the main reason for emigrating was economic, the Lesslies would not have been the first family to flee the country on account of the political situation.

Now that the war with the American states was over, Canada looked like a “land of opportunity” a place for young men to thrive, according to James Lesslie’s memoir. Therefore, in April 1820, John Lesslie, age 20, with his companion, William Lyon Mackenzie, a one time employee of the Lesslies, set sail in the Psyche for British North America to try his luck and with sufficient stock to open a store. First, John set up shop in York; two years later, Mackenzie was despatched to Dundas, the commercial centre of Gore District, to open another store. The rest of the family was to have followed in 1822, but sickness meant that only James, accompanied by Brother Charles and sister Grace arrived in Quebec in a ship laden with coals and more goods. As this stock was not needed in York, James went to Kingston where he set up a business. Finally, in 1823, the family were united when Edward, his wife Grace and the other children arrived and made their way to Dundas. The family business of Edward Lesslie and Sons was now launched in British North America.

Music for a Cause: Rebels and Reformers Lecture Series Event

HPO Composer-in-Residence, Abigail Richardson-Schulte, will be presenting the stories and music of composers who were either inspired or coerced by military leaders; from Beethoven and Napoleon to Shostakovich and Stalin.

Date: March 30th

Time: 7:30 P.M. to 8:30 P.M.

Free Admission. Seating is on a first-come, first served basis.

Feature Exhibition Rebels and Reformers Opening March 18

The Dundas Museum & Archives is enthusiastic to announce the opening of our latest feature exhibition, Rebels and Reformers: Dundas on the Road to Responsible Government, which will be showing in the third gallery from March 18 until June 3.

The exhibit will feature nods to local urban legends such as Mackenzie’s cave, accompanied by key rebel relics and beautifully crafted artifacts. These include the Durham banner, cups and saucers used by Sir Allan MacNab, the goblet presented to Mrs. Ogg by William Lyon MacKenzie, and many more.

Unstable. Volatile. Chaotic. These words describe what it was like in Dundas and Canada in the early 1800s. This instability ultimately led to a new method of government and set us on the path to the system that we enjoy today. Rebels and Reformers: Dundas on the Road to Responsible Government tells the story of the reform movement, highlighting the Dundas connection to people and events during this fascinating time in Canadian history.

Book Launch at the Dundas Museum & Archives: Canada and the United Nations: Legacies, Limits, Prospects

Wednesday, March 8 from 6 P.M. until 9 P.M.
Canada and the United Nations examines Canada’s international role and our relationship towards the United Nations. It was edited by Dr. Colin McCullough, a former Wilson Institute postdoctoral fellow, and Dr. Robert Teigrob, a professor of history at Ryerson University in association with The L.R. Wilson Institute for Canadian History at McMaster.

Join us as Drs. McCullough and Teigrob share some valuable insight on Canada’s place in the international community. Both will be available for questions, photos, and book signings. Copies of Canada and the United Nations will be available for sale for $30 (cash).


Upcoming Events at the DMA

Family Day is just around the corner on Monday, February 20th, and there is LOTS happening at the Dundas Museum and Archives. Including a BRAND NEW iPad Scavenger Hunt Adventure, games, crafts, English Country Dancing and more.

We say farewell to Hemlines: The Fashion (R)Evolution on February 20. But opening on March 18 is Rebels and Reformers: Dundas on the Road to Responsible Government. This exhibit highlights the role Dundas and Dundasians played in the years leading up to responsible government. If you want to know more about the early history of this community — and your country — this exhibit is for you. It will be entertaining and informative!

There is always something to do at the Museum. We hope to see you soon!