The Private Life of a Very Public Man

By Nancy Luno, originally published August 22, 2011

William Lyon Mackenzie and His Family

August 28, 2011 is an illustrious anniversary. The day marks 150 years since the death of one of Toronto’s best known and most controversial figures, William Lyon Mackenzie. While there’s no dearth of information available on Mackenzie, we’ve gone to three people who know him, or his former house, intimately:

Nancy Luno, Heritage Toronto’s Programs Coordinator, is the author of A Genteel Exterior: The Domestic Life of William Lyon Mackenzie and his Family (1990), a very significant work on the home life of Mackenzie which has guided the interpretation of Mackenzie House museum in Toronto. She brings some of that research to us here, and gives us a moving account of Mackenzie in the context of his family.

Historian Chris Raible has spent many years researching and writing about Mackenzie and his period. Best known, perhaps, forMuddy York Mud: Scandal and Scurrility in Upper Canada (1993), Chris has taken a unique look at Mackenzie for us, by viewing him through the portraits made in his own day, and up to the present. Chris’ pictorial tour illustrates how the memory of Mackenzie, like that of other important historical figures, has been shaped and reshaped by later generations according to their own interests.

Andrea Terry is a historian whose recently completed dissertation, “Living History in Canada, Representing Victorian Culture in the Multicultural Present”, examined Mackenzie House (with two other museums) and its evolution into a “living history” museum. How did Mackenzie’s last house avoid demolition to become a City of Toronto museum? And how has that museum been shaped by Toronto’s current cultural diversity? Andrea shares her take on those questions here.

If you’d like to find out more about Mackenzie House, visit

Click on the links for Part 2 and Part 3 for a series on Mackenzie

Gary Miedema, Chief Historian

By Nancy Luno
Heritage Toronto Programs Coordinator

Every once in a while, the name of Toronto’s first mayor, William Lyon Mackenzie, resurfaces in the public domain. Leading up to the Toronto election last October, someone calling themselves ‘@RebelMayor’ (and meaning Mackenzie) made comments about the campaign on Twitter. Later, newly elected Mayor Rob Ford referenced Mackenzie during his inaugural address.

Most of us who were educated in an Ontario elementary school encountered William Lyon Mackenzie when studying the short-lived 1837 Upper Canadian Rebellion – with Mackenzie portrayed either as the comically ineffectual leader or as a champion of responsible government. While the issues surrounding the Rebellion have captured the imaginations of scholars, playwrights and poets, the story of Mackenzie’s personal life and family is just as fascinating.

That story survives to a large extent because Mackenzie left behind a wonderful “paper trail.” Scattered throughout his letters, his business accounts, the six weekly newspapers that he launched, and his ‘clipping files’ are choice titbits about daily life in the 1800s. What emerges from these records is a story that reads like something novelist Charles Dickens might have penned – hard times, a child born out of wedlock, exile, madness and death. (1)

It begins with the birth of William Lyon Mackenzie in Dundee Scotland on March 12, 1795. Six weeks later William’s father died, leaving mother Elizabeth to raise her only child alone. Despite the family’s somewhat straightened circumstances, young William received a good basic education, and then worked as a shop clerk before opening his own general store. The poor economic climate in Britain following the end of the Napoleonic Wars made things difficult, so Mackenzie decided to try his luck in the colonies. In 1820, he sailed from Glasgow with John Lesslie, the son of a family friend. Shortly after their arrival in Canada, they opened a book and drug store in the Town of York (Toronto).

In 1821 Mackenzie moved to Dundas to open a branch store of “Mackenzie & Lesslie.” In the spring of 1822, Elizabeth Mackenzie joined her son in Dundas. Travelling with her, according to family tradition, was 19-year-old Isabel Baxter, reportedly chosen by Elizabeth as a wife for her son. Three weeks after Isabel’s arrival in Canada, she and William were married.

Elizabeth also brought her 8-year-old grandson with her. James Mackenzie was born in 1814, when his father was 19, the offspring of a liaison between William and Isabel Reid, who worked as a servant for a farmer. Little is known about this first Isabel; why she and Mackenzie never married, or when or why she gave her son into the care of his paternal grandmother. It is clear however, from letters written by James later in life, that he was aware of his origins, and though he wrote to his biological mother as a young man, he considered his grandmother to be his true mother.

One cannot help but wonder what young Isabel Baxter thought of the whole situation, or whether she had any idea of what was to come! Here she was, setting up house in a new country, with a husband seven years her senior, whom she barely remembered from school, and her mother-in-law and step-son. A year later, she had an infant daughter – the first of thirteen children she would bear. Seven of them survived to adulthood. During thirty-nine years of marriage, William and Isabel would move house at least twenty times.

The first move came in 1823 when Mackenzie moved his family to Queenston and opened another general store, after a falling out with Lesslie. Shortly thereafter Mackenzie took a step that would have a profound effect on their lives. In May 1824 he became a printer-editor and published his first newspaper, the Colonial Advocate. By autumn, he had realized that if he was serious about commenting on the Upper Canadian political scene, he would have to move to York, the provincial capital.

That move wasn’t entirely a happy one. Just before leaving Queenston, Isabel gave birth to their second daughter – she didn’t live long enough to even receive a name. And a month after their arrival in York, their first born, 18 month old Isabel, died of smallpox.

While the move to York may have brought Mackenzie closer to the colonial parliament, that didn’t necessarily guarantee that his printing business was going to make money. By 1826 he was on the verge of closing his debt-ridden paper. He was saved by an act of hot-headed Tory vandalism. In June 1826, some younger members of the establishment – upset about several satires Mackenzie had written on the Family Compact (the ruling elite) – broke in and wrecked the printshop. This attempt to silence Mackenzie had the reverse effect – when authorities declined to press criminal charges, he took the perpetrators to civil court, where he was awarded £625 for damages – enough to pay off his debts and revitalize the Advocate! (2)

This sketch (dated 1849-51) by William Cawthra shows the building where Mackenzie had his print shop and home at the time of the Types Riot. The house was at the corner of Palace (now called Front) and Frederick Streets, a couple of blocks east of the St. Lawrence Market. Cawthra was not entirely satisfied with his drawing, noting that “Front sh’d be a little higher above windows.” Toronto Reference Library, T 11122.

With the behaviour of the Family Compact around the ‘Types Riot’, and all the free publicity, it was probably inevitable that Mackenzie should take the next step and enter politics. In 1828, Mackenzie was elected to the Legislative Assembly. He served nine years as a member of the Upper Canadian legislature, an outspoken critic of the government.

During these early years in York, Mrs. Mackenzie had four more daughters. Elizabeth, her third child, lived less than a year. However the next three girls proved to be stronger – Barbara, Janet and Helen all survived to adulthood.

In the spring of 1832, the Reformers decided to send Mackenzie to the Colonial Secretary in England with a list of grievances about the government in Upper Canada. Mrs. Mackenzie accompanied him, leaving her three daughters (all under 6 years) behind. I presume she was able to go because there was lots of family help. Besides Grandma Mackenzie and 17-year-old James, the Baxter grandparents and siblings, who had immigrated to Canada at some point, also probably helped out.

William and Isabel were away for over a year, returning in August 1833, along with a baby brother born in England. Unfortunately Joseph Hume Mackenzie was not strong and in October the Mackenzies followed another tiny coffin to the Presbyterian Burial Ground. In an era before vaccinations and antibiotics, such a high infant mortality rate was not uncommon. Mackenzie himself noted that perhaps half of the people he knew had “lost their first or second child.”

The trip to England had been of limited political success. Nonetheless Mackenzie pressed on, resuming his seat in the House. And in March 1834, he added another job to his busy schedule – he became the first Mayor of the newly incorporated City of Toronto. After serving one 1-year term, Mackenzie decided not to run for re-election in 1835, preferring to concentrate on his work as a member in the House of Assembly. During the mid 1830s, two more daughters – Margaret and Elizabeth (the second child given this name) – were born, and despite some political setbacks, the family was apparently prospering.

From 1835 until March 1837, the Mackenzies rented a large brick house, complete with a cellar kitchen and a wonderful garden, on York Street, about half a block south of Queen Street, where the Ballet Opera House stands today. We know from Mackenzie’s papers that this house was a favourite, held up as the ideal by which all subsequent residences were measured – at least until they moved to the Homestead on Bond Street. This photograph by Armstrong, Beere and Hime looking north up York Street from King to “Lawyers’ Hall” (Osgoode Hall) shows how the area had filled in by 1857.
City of Toronto Archives, SC 498 – 16.

By the summer of 1837, the tide began to turn, as discontent with the political situation grew. Mackenzie toured the province, organizing meetings to show the government the concern of its citizens about the state of Upper Canada. Somewhere along the way this activity changed from simple agitation for reform to preparing for a coup d’état. On December 4, amidst great confusion, farmers began to gather at John Montgomery’s Tavern on Yonge Street in preparation for a march to take over the city. (3) After several days of indecision, rumours, disputes among themselves and a couple of skirmishes, the rebels were routed on December 7 by the hastily gathered militia.

Rewards were offered for the capture of the rebel leaders in a Proclamation issued by Lieutenant Governor Sir Francis Bond Head. Despite a price on his head of £1000, Mackenzie escaped, arriving in Buffalo on December 11. He left behind a life of reasonable comfort. According to his first biographer Charles Lindsey, Mackenzie had the largest and best printing establishment in Upper Canada, and a bookstore containing 20,000 volumes. He also owned property outside of Toronto. All this was essentially lost when he fled. In the unsettled days following the Rebellion, some of Mackenzie’s moveable property was vandalized or stolen, while part of it went to pay some of his creditors. (4) Mackenzie also left behind his family – his mother, his wife and their five surviving daughters. James Mackenzie, now 23 and trained as a printer, wasn’t in Canada though, having moved to the United States some months earlier.

There was a short-lived attempt by Canadians exiles (including Isabel, who had joined her husband on December 25) and American sympathizers to launch a second attack on Canada from a camp set up on Navy Island in the Niagara River. The camp was shut down after a month and Mackenzie gradually distanced himself from the self-styled “Patriots” – and began looking for a way to make his living in the United States.

Meanwhile correspondence about the family flew back and forth across the border. In May 1838, Isabel’s unmarried sister Margaret, who was apparently in charge of the household in Toronto, brought the family by lake ferry and canal boat to join the Mackenzies in New York. Ironically, the lake steamer that transported them – The Traveller – was the very one that had been ordered out of winter storage to transport volunteers to Toronto to put down the Rebellion. (5) Imagine for a moment if you will – Miss Baxter, worrying about luggage, tickets, and Grandmother Mackenzie, almost 90 – and trying to keep Barbara, Janet, Helen, Margaret and Elizabeth, all under 11 years of age, from falling overboard!

Although Charles Snider drew this sketch of The Traveller around 1915, it nonetheless gives an idea of the kind of transportation common on Lake Ontario after the arrival of steam.
Toronto Reference Library, T 16111.

At various times the family lived in Rochester, Albany and New York City, moving yearly, looking for better but cheaper houses to rent. “Reminiscences” scribbled by Mackenzie on scraps of paper, record times when there was almost no food in the house, or the children stayed home from church or school because they had “no clothes fit to go.”The twelve years the Mackenzies spent in exile were filled with poverty, illness and wandering. Mackenzie worked at a variety of jobs, published three short-lived newspapers, and wrote books and articles. Unfortunately none of these were very lucrative, so the family was in constant financial difficulty. Friends tried to help by making “donations” to the cause of “Canadian freedom”, or sending gifts. However, Mac’s fierce pride and independence limited the kinds of assistance he would accept.

During the exile, three healthy “Yankee” children were born; William Lyon, George, and the baby of the family, Isabel Grace. The exile was also marked by heartbreaking illness and death. Mackenzie’s mother Elizabeth died in 1839, aged 90 years. In 1848, 12-year-old Margaret died of congestive heart failure. That same year, Barbara, now in her early 20s, had a mental breakdown and was hospitalized for three months in the Bloomingdale Insane Asylum.

But finally after twelve weary years the exile ended. In January 1849, a bill was passed by the parliament of the United Canadas, granting an amnesty to all those accused of committing crimes during the Rebellion. In May of 1850 the Mackenzies moved home to Toronto.

Mackenzie set about catching up – trying to collect old debts and regain property lost during the Rebellion and reading the journals of the legislature, with an eye on re-entering the political arena. In 1851, he won a by-election in Haldimand, assisted by 21-year-old Janet who travelled with her father during the campaign. Mackenzie was re-elected three more times, serving as Haldimand’s member for seven years. And of course, he started another newspaper – Mackenzie’s Weekly Message!

The family moved into a rented house on Yonge Street, just north of the present-day Eaton Centre, the first of three post-exile residences. A servant girl was employed and the four youngest children enrolled in school. For a little while Bill and George attended Upper Canada College and Elizabeth and Isabel Grace, the Wellington St. Ladies Academy. How could they do this so soon after all those bleak years in exile? The Mackenzies were probably initially assisted in their move by family and friends. And Mackenzie conducted business and ran up bills – as was his practice (and I suspect also that of many of his contemporaries) – on credit, on the strength of his expectations, of old debts being paid off, and future income.

During his later years in parliament Mackenzie continued to be a force to be reckoned with – he worked hard and spoke his mind. However he never returned to the prominent role he had during the glorious 1830s. A new system of government – in which political parties played an important role – was evolving and he was too independent-minded to adapt to this system. His inability to compromise, and the decline of his abilities with increasing age, also earned the derision of many colleagues. By 1858, he was tired and fed up, so he resigned his seat.

During the 1850s, despite trying to put good face on it, the family continued to suffer from pecuniary embarrassment. One person outside the family who was probably aware of the situation was James Lesslie, brother of John and a long-time friend of the family. But how to help such a proud and independent person like Mackenzie without making it seem like charity? Lesslie found the solution.

In 1856, he started a fundraising campaign to provide a “Homestead” for Mac, “as a token of gratitude by the people of Canada, for his unswerving integrity and consistency during a long period of useful public life.” The idea worked because Mackenzie felt he was still owed money for past services. And it was a success – over 3000 people contributed in amounts ranging from fifty cents to $50!

In the summer of 1859, the fundraising committee bought a brick row house on Bond Street, just south of present-day Dundas Street. Mackenzie was quite pleased. Writing in October 1859, he said: “my family now reside in a more comfortable dwelling of their own than they or I ever before occupied.” Resident in the house, besides Mr and Mrs, were Helen, Elizabeth, Isabel Grace and George, as well as Catherine Byrns, an Irish servant girl.

Mackenzie seems to have been hopeful that several other family members would join them, but that never happened. Janet had married Charles Lindsey in 1852, so her place was naturally elsewhere. William Lyon Jr. had taken off for New York in 1856 after an argument with his father, apparently about his choice of careers. While there was always a chance that Bill might return home, Barbara never would come to Bond Street. She was admitted to the Provincial Lunatic Asylum in Toronto, for the second time, in 1856. She died there in February 1860, aged 32, according to the asylum register “from the effects of burning her clothes.”

Amidst family troubles and financial worries, Mackenzie retired to the Homestead to sort his papers and work on his memoirs. This last project was never published – he died on August 28, 1861 at age 66. While in life he had taken much abuse, in death the critics were more kind. The newspaper obituaries were long and generally complimentary. The funeral cortege was reportedly half a mile long and included, according to the Evening Leader, the Mayor and members of Toronto City Council, MPP’s, “staunch supporters and friends” and “a large representation of even his old-time opponents.”

William Lyon Mackenzie’s grave in The Necropolis cemetery in Cabbagetown is marked by a memorial stone commemorating a number of members of his extended family. It shows the Mackenzie name on one side, and (as seen here), the Lindsey name on the other. Nancy Luno, 1990s


What happened to the other players in this family drama, after Mackenzie’s death, is a whole other story, some of it yet to be uncovered. Briefly, what is known is this:

Isabel Baxter Mackenzie lived in the Homestead on Bond Street with daughters, Helen, Elizabeth and Isabel Grace, for another ten years. In 1871, they moved to 19 Charlotte St. in the King and Spadina area, renting the Bond St. house to tenants, possibly for the income. When Mrs. Mackenzie died in January 1873, the ownership of the Homestead passed to her unmarried daughters, Helen and Elizabeth.

Isabel Grace married John King in December 1872. They had four children, the most famous being William Lyon Mackenzie King, the 10th Prime Minister of Canada.

Janet, who married Charles Lindsey in 1852, had eight children, several of whom died as infants.

In the spring of 1861, William Lyon Jr., along with several others from Toronto, enlisted in the Union army to fight in the American Civil War. He died in the United States sometime before 1885. (6)

According to city assessment roles, George lived with the family at Bond St. for a while in the 1860s. At some point, he moved to the U.S. where he died in 1871, aged 30, in a railway accident while working for the Logansport Railway in Indiana. (7)

James stayed in the United States and became the most prominent and successful of all the Mackenzie boys. He worked at a variety of jobs – as a printer, newspaper editor, school teacher, and became a lawyer and was elected as a judge. He married and raised a family and ultimately settled in Lima Ohio. (8)



(1) I had a chance to follow that paper trail while researching the family for Mackenzie House museum. This article is based on the report on that research, which contains footnoted details about the family’s life, homes and properties – Nancy Luno, A Genteel Exterior: The Domestic Life of William Lyon Mackenzie and His Family (Toronto Historical Board: 1990) The Toronto Public Library holds several copies. The majority of the primary sources I consulted are held by the Archives of Ontario, Library & Archives of Canada, City of Toronto Archives and the Toronto Reference Library.
(2) For the full story of the “Types Riot”, see Chris Raible, Muddy York Mud: Scandal and Scurrility in Upper Canada. (Creemore: Curiosity House, 1992).
(3) The site of Montgomery’s Tavern, about a block north of present-day Yonge St. and Eglinton Ave., is marked by a provincial heritage plaque.
(4) Charles Lindsey, The Life and Times of William Lyon Mackenzie and the Rebellion of 1837-38. Toronto: P.R. Randall, 1862. Much of the information about the family’s life before 1837 comes from official records like assessment rolls, newspapers or family memories gathered by Lindsey. Most of Mackenzie’s pre-1837 records did not survive the Rebellion. Correspondence between Mackenzie and James Reid in 1838 reveals that Mackenzie left his papers for safekeeping with a family “up Yonge Street”. In the volatile political atmosphere following the Rebellion, the family hiding the papers were so concerned that they might be charged with treason, that they went out at midnight one February night and burned all the papers. According to a descendant of the Shepherds (a Reform family on north Yonge St.), they have a family tradition that the papers were hidden by them.
(5) George W. Spragge (editor), “The Steamship Traveller and the Rebellion of 1837.” Ontario History, December 1960, L11, 251.
(6) Chris Raible, “Discharged for disability: A Chronicle of the Life of William Lyon Mackenzie, Jr.” The York Pioneer, 2004 (Vol. 99)
(7) Clipping of newspaper obituary in William Lyon Mackenzie Collection, V9, Library & Archives of Canada, MG24 B18.
(8) Chris Raible, “James Mackenzie, Rebel: Son of the Firebrand.” The Beaver, October/November 1991.

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