Why the third William Lindsay gave up a promising career as a lawyer

(The Three William Lindsays – Part 3)

Circumstances beyond his control* compelled the third William Lindsay to abandon a brilliant career as a lawyer. In 1841, at the age of 17, he entered the public service as an Extra Clerk in the Legislative Assembly of Canada while also studying law.

I wonder what those circumstances may have been?

The third William Lindsay (1824-1872), my three times great-uncle, exhibited great potential in his law studies as well as becoming an accomplished scholar. He spoke French as fluently as English – a must as the Clerk – but could also speak Latin and Greek as well.

William studied law with such an impressive ability that even before his admission to the Bar many of his teachers predicted a very successful career ahead of him.

But why did he never practise law in the end ?

Perhaps the established family tradition influenced his decision. Like his father and grandfather before him, he became the third William Lindsay to progress to the senior positon of Clerk for the Legislative Assembly. It’s certainly the most plausible explanation. But who knows, maybe there were lucrative perks that came with the “clerkship” that enticed him.* It seems we will never know for sure.

All that to say he certainly had big shoes to fill! There must have been high expectations placed on him not only as the son of the most recent Clerk of the Legislative Assembly but also as the grandson of William Robert Lindsay who held the same office for twenty years in the early 1800’s during the time Lower Canada possessed a separate government and legislature. A multitude of historical changes in the structure of today’s Canada have all been recorded by the “Lindsay” hand.

William was born in Quebec City. He had six brothers and five sisters. One of his brothers, Robert A. Lindsay (1826-1891), was my two times great grandfather who followed their father’s other profession and enjoyed a life long banking career with the Bank of Montreal.

In November 1845, at the age of 21 and just after completing his law studies and passing his Bar exams, William married Marie Henriette Bourret in Quebec City. Eventually, they had 13 children, although four of them died in infancy.

William’s career as a clerk progressed quickly. He was promoted from Extra Clerk to Assistant Law Clerk and Translator to the Legislative Assembly of the then Province of Canada. The progression continued until he ultimately became the Clerk of the Legislative Assembly.

In 1867, The House of Commons came into existence, when the British Parliament passed the British North America Act, uniting the Province of Canada (which was divided into Quebec and Ontario), Nova Scotia and New Brunswick into a single federation called the Dominion of Canada.

William was appointed the first Clerk to this newly established House of Commons1.

William Burns Lindsay 1824-1872

The multiple steps taken toward Canadian independence in the past, during the clerkship of William’s father and grandfather, had finally come to fruition.

William’s main duty as the Clerk of the House began with the reading of petitions and bills, and later progressed to recording the House’s proceedings. Those notes on the proceedings were kept in journals which tracked the decisions and other important transactions of the House.

In September 1872 at age 48, just five years after becoming Clerk to the House of Commons, William’s career ended abruptly. He died in Ottawa during the smallpox pandemic2. He left a family of several children and a widow who then died two months later. His mother-in-law also succumbed to the disease at the same time. The youngest of their orphaned children was only five years old at the time.

Nine years later, according to the 1881 Census, William’s eldest daughter Maria Louisa (then aged 30) was still looking after her three teenage siblings and living in Quebec City. Her older brothers Crawford (and his family) and Lionel (a priest) also lived nearby and perhaps offered support of some kind.

William was the third and last of the Three William Lindsays. His eldest son “Crawford William” went by the name Crawford and did not become a clerk, however, he did inherit his father’s talent with languages and became a translator.

Limestone Sculpture of William Burns Lindsay by Christopher Fairbrother 1979

Notes:

1.As the family genealogist, I research my ancestors and write their stories. Recently, I found three generations of ancestors with the same name and the same role in an evolving Canada.

Their birth and death dates were vital as the first step to sorting them out. I noticed, however, that previous genealogists also struggled to sort them, as two of the three were sometimes labelled “Senior” and “Junior” (and sometimes in reverse order) and then “The Elder” and “The Younger” were assigned to another two. To keep things simple in my story, I will label them first, second and third – in the order of their births.

2.* Handwritten notes – Stanley Bagg Lindsay – dated March 1939

3. My cousin Ian Lindsay recently shared the following in an email 2021-05:

Somewhere I saw the report of the parliamentary committee that looked into the work of the Clerk’s office. By that time, while it was never going to be a sinecure, it was an opportunity to make friends, at the very least with stationers. (An old friend explained the best job was Minister of Supply and Services, where one could feather all your friends’ nests, and bide your time.) In any case, the Committee asked about the qualifications for the job were, and WBLII explained that the clerk had to be fluently bilingual and versed in all the relevant technical terms of both languages. Here, I point out that his son was fluently bilingual and versed in technical terms. The Committee next asked the same question of the Assistant Clerk, who explained that, when needed, he just asked one of the French guys for help. I think a grave injustice was done.

1https://wiki2.org/en/House_of_Commons_of_Canada?wprov=srpw1_0 – referenced 2021-05-23

2https://www.jstor.org/stable/41977998?seq=1

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