Joseph Willcocks

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Joseph Willcocks (1773 – September 4, 1814) was a publisher, a political figure and ultimately, a traitor in Upper Canada.

Early life[edit]

He was born in Palmerstown, Ireland in 1773. He came to York (Toronto) at the age of 27, staying initially with his second cousin once removed, William Willcocks. However, after acquiring a position as clerk to Peter Russell, an older distant cousin, he moved in with Russell and his half-sister, Elizabeth who was 19 years Willcocks' senior. This, however, did nothing to cool his apparent ardour. To quote him, "no Fair one has yet made any impression on me nor Do I think there shall in this country for I fear in General they are destitute of V(irtue). and Money" and to quote Riddell in his "Joseph Willcocks: Sheriff, Member of Parliament and Traitor", "if she was destitute of the Beauty which "does not make the pot Boil", she undoubtedly had V[irtue]. and expected to have money". This gives a good view into what propelled Willcocks. Through William Baldwin, Peter Russell ended his sister's dalliance with Willcocks and ejected him from his home. This would be a pivotal moment in Willcocks' life. From Russell's home, he almost immediately moved in with Chief Justice Henry Allcock, who argued with Russell on Willcocks's behalf, to no avail. In Allcock, Willcocks found a worthy patron. Although he would write "mediocrity . . . is the summit of my ambition", changes were afoot in the political dynamic of Upper and Lower Canada, changes that would result in the ill-fated Rebellions some 30 years later.


In 1804, he became sheriff for the Home District, largely through his association with Chief Justice Henry Allcock. He was active in an 1806 by-election for Robert Thorpe, a friend and neighbour. Willcocks and Thorpe were concerned about changes in government policies regarding land grants, which were controlled by the Executive Council, an appointed body. As a result of these criticisms, Lieutenant Governor Francis Gore removed Thorpe from office and withdrew Willcocks' appointment as sheriff in 1807, citing "general and notorious bad conduct".[1]

Although Willcocks counted himself among Thorpe's contingent, he wasn't as close to the centre as he perceived himself to be. Thorpe described Willcocks as lacking "a sufficiency of brains to bait a mouse trap."

Nonetheless, Willcocks moved to Niagara where he began to publish The Upper Canada Guardian; or Freeman's Journal, where he voiced his opinions on land laws and the arbitrary use of power. In 1807, he was elected in a by-election for West York, 1st Lincoln & Haldimand after the death of Solomon Hill. During the 4th Parliament, he was jailed for contempt of the house. However, he was re-elected in 1808 to 1st Lincoln and Haldimand and in 1812 to 1st Lincoln. In June 1812, he stopped publishing his journal, either apparently due to problems with his printing press or because he had sold it to Richard Hatt.

Willcocks was the face of the opposition within the house against those who they believed to be part of the aligned themselves with the colonial administration. During the last session of the 5th Parliament, Willcocks and his group successfully resisted efforts by administrator Isaac Brock to pass a number of measures preparing for the expected war with the United States. It has been suggested that Brock maintained an alternate avenue of rapprochement with Willcocks by way of a shared Masonic membership in Niagara Lodge[2] (which Willcocks' fellow Canadian Volunteer Abraham Markle was also a member of).[3]

However, in 1812, Brock enlisted Willcocks to assist in ensuring the loyalty and participation of the Six Nations peoples to Upper Canada and the Crown, a task he completed successfully despite illness on his part. For Willcocks, the death of Brock at Queenston Heights on October 13, 1812 marked the beginning of the end. Although fighting alongside the Six Nations warriors who were part of Sheaffe's ultimately successful retaking of the Redan Battery,[4] he must have realised that the political dynamic in the province would have been inevitably changed with the death of Brock. Whereas Brock was not above playing upon human nature (as displayed by his handling of William Hull in Detroit), subsequent provincial administrators were not so diplomatic. He also helped recruit men for the militia.

He was greatly disturbed when, after the invasion of the Niagara peninsula in 1813, military rule and harsh measures against people expressing disloyal opinions were introduced in the province, which Willcocks saw as an abandonment of democratic principles. In July 1813, he committed treason by offering his services to the Americans while a sitting member of the Legislative Assembly of Upper Canada. He was given the rank of major in the American Army and raised a company of Canadian Volunteers consisting of expatriate Canadians (mostly recent immigrants from the States) fighting on the American side; he was subsequently promoted to the rank of lieutenant colonel. He was replaced by Robert Nelles in the Legislative Assembly.

Despite offering assistance and intelligence to the U.S. forces, Willcocks was never again fully trusted. His associates, Abraham Markle and Benajah Mallory fought for control of the volunteers. Probably the most notable contribution of Willcocks to the War of 1812 was the pressing for the burning of Newark (present-day Niagara-on-the-Lake) on December 10, 1813, leaving just three buildings standing. This act infuriated and inflamed public opinion on the Canadian side of the border against the invasion, an apathetic opinion of which had previously been a source of continual concern for the government. Barely a week later, Canadian and British forces launched an assault across the Niagara River, taking Fort Niagara and burning almost everything along the United States side of the river between Lake Ontario and Lake Erie.

Bloody Assize[edit]

In the spring of 1814 fifteen Upper Canadians, including Willcocks, were charged with high treason as part of the Ancaster Bloody Assize; eight were captured and executed in July 1814. On September 4, 1814 while leading a skirmish during the Siege of Fort Erie, Willcocks was fatally shot in the chest.[5] His body (as well as that of a Lieutenant Roosevelt) was buried initially in "the circle or open square of that village (Buffalo, New York)" and reburied in Forest Lawn Cemetery in the 1830s.[6] Willcocks' grave is unmarked.

Further reading[edit]

  • Pierre Berton (1980), The Invasion of Canada, 1812—1813, Toronto: McClelland and Stewart.
  • Pierre Berton (1981), Flames across the Border, 1813—1814, Toronto: McClelland and Stewart.


  1. ^ Becoming Prominent: Regional Leadership in Upper Canada, 1791-1841, by J.K. Johnson (via Google Books); published by McGill-Queen's Press, July 1, 1988
  2. ^ Donald E. Graves, Lawless banditti: Joseph Willcocks, his Canadian Volunteers and the Mutual Destruction on the Niagara during the Winter of 1813-Part I, pg. 5, December 2007, Fortress Niagara: Journal of the Old Fort Niagara Association
  3. ^ "Abraham Markle Biography".
  4. ^ Donald E. Graves, Joseph Willcocks and the Canadian Volunteers: An Account of Political Disaffection in Upper Canada during the War of 1812
  5. ^ Donald E. Graves, Where Right and Glory Lead, p.223 Toronto: Robin Brass Studio. ISBN 1-896941-03-6
  6. ^ Donald E. Graves, Lawless Banditti: Joseph Willcocks, His Canadian Volunteers and the Mutual Destruction on the Niagara during the Winter of 1813-Part II(Conclusion), pg. 9, Fortress Niagara: Journal of the Old Fort Niagara Association

External links[edit]