But was he honorable? - Glimpses of the Past with Karen Webster
If a person were to take the time to peruse the listing of landowners in local history books, they might find the repetition of one name in particular. That name was Hon. George Jervis Goodhue. Goodhue, along with men like Henry D. Blyth, of England, William Garratt of Kingston, Donald McDonald, William Seymore and many others sought to increase their wealth by purchasing land from the Crown, speculating that it would increase in value by holding it for a few years, then selling it at an inflated rate.
Let’s take a look at Mr. Goodhue. He was born in 1799 in Putney, Vermont, the son of a prominent physician. We might presume that Goodhue, when he came to Canada in 1820, was in possession of some cash. He established himself as a merchant in Westminster Township before there were any stores in the settlement that has become the city of London. In addition to his store, Goodhue also operated a distillery and an ashery where pearl ash, a key ingredient of soap and glass, was manufactured. He expanded his businesses with an additional store in Ancaster in 1827.
In 1826, London became the district town and Goodhue was there to help shape its destiny. Amongst the first buildings in London was that of the courthouse. In close proximity to this site, Goodhue established a store there in 1830 where he “set up his business to supply all the needs of the early settlers and to buy anything that they had to sell”.
For 10 years, he was in partnership with Lawrence Laurason. First, they were general merchants and then acted as agents for the Bank of Upper Canada. In addition, Goodhue held some minor offices in Westminster and London Townships before being made postmaster of London in 1830.
Goodhue managed to profit from the Rebellion of 1837 and in 1841 he acquired some of the properties in McKillop and Tuckersmith Townships which had been confiscated from Anthony Van Egmond.
The year 1840 saw London being incorporated as a village, and who was on the council and elected as the first village president (mayor)? It was none other than George Jervis Goodhue. Never one to stand still, in 1841, he was appointed as one of the district magistrates after the union of Upper and Lower Canada in the previous year. The next step on his ladder of successes was to be elected as a member of the Legislative Assembly of the Canadas. It was from this position that he added the title “Honorable” to his name.
Outside of his political concerns, Goodhue continued to amass his wealth through land speculation. In the 1830s, he had acquired 30 acres of land north of London and opened this land as the area’s first subdivision. One biographer stated that “the care of his estate became the preoccupation of his life”. Goodhue also expanded his holdings by being a mortgage broker. While some mortgages were held at an interest rate of six per cent, in the depressed times after 1857, he charged 24 per cent. When the mortgagees were unable to maintain their payments, Goodhue initiated foreclosure and ruthlessly had them evicted from their properties. One case is recorded that when a young family was tossed from their home, the wife gave birth to their child in the ditch, which resulted in the death of both mother and child. It is said that the distraught husband forced his way into Goodhue’s office to put a “good old-fashioned black Irish curse” on him.
When George Goodhue passed away from tuberculosis in January of 1870, his estate was valued at $650,000 (which is over $15 million in 2023). Curiously, he had sought to control this money after his death in two ways: his children were only to receive interest on specific amounts, with the fortune to eventually pass to his grandchildren; as well, the wealth was not to be distributed until after the death of his wife. His outraged offspring petitioned the provincial legislature to break the will, which it did decide to do. There was such an outcry fearing this decision could set a precedent for future disputes that it was overturned. By the time that Goodhue’s widow passed away in 1880, a good portion of the estate had gone to lawyers. Unlike their father in matters of money, the heirs squandered their inheritances on lavish European vacations and huge mansions.
An article by Frederick H. Armstrong puts forth the opinion that Goodhue was neither better nor worse than any of the other Upper Canada pioneer merchants who rose to wealth as their regions opened up. He added that Goodhue was London’s “least beloved citizen”.
The memory of his great wealth and tales of the harshness of his business dealing have not yet died. Certainly, many properties in Ashfield and Wawanosh townships started out in the hands of this businessman.
Though he was neither “good” nor “honorable”, George Jervis Goodhue’s name remains etched in many of the lists of property owners in Huron as well as in Elgin, Grey, Kent, Lambton, Middlesex, Oxford, Perth and Simcoe Counties.