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Charles Edward Poulett Thomson, Baron Sydenham (1799-1841)

This article was written by Charles William Sutton and was published in 1898

Charles Edward Poulett Thomson, Baron Sydenham, governor-general of Canada, was third son of John Poulett Thomson, a London merchant, by his wife Charlotte, daughter of John Jacob, a physician of Salisbury. George Julius Poulett Scrope was his elder brother. He was born at Waverley Abbey, Wimbledon, Surrey, on 13 September 1799, and educated at private schools. In 1815 he was sent to St. Petersburg to begin business life in a branch of his father's firm. Two years later he left Russia on account of ill-health, and spent the two succeeding years in Italy and other parts of the continent. From 1819 to 1821 he was occupied in the London counting-house, and from 1821 to 1823 he was again in Russia, after which he settled ultimately in London.

Taking a keen interest in politics, particularly in financial and commercial questions, he was returned to parliament for Dover on 19 June 1826, Jeremy Bentham assisting personally in the canvass. On 28 May 1828 he introduced a bill for a repeal of the usury laws, and was subsequently a frequent and effective speaker on free-trade and other proposals for financial reform. On the formation of Earl Grey's ministry in 1830 he was appointed vice-president of the board of trade and treasurer of the navy, and then withdrew from the commercial firm with which he was connected. He accompanied Lord Durham to Paris in November 1831 to negotiate a new commercial treaty with France, but the project fell through. In 1832 he carried out large improvements in the customs duties. At the general election that year, being elected simultaneously for Dover and Manchester, he chose the latter seat, which had been secured without solicitation on his part. He was re-elected for Manchester several times in succeeding years, his opponent in 1837 being Gladstone.

In the new government he again occupied his former position at the board of trade, and in 1834 succeeded Lord Auckland as president. He continued his alterations and remissions in the customs, assisted materially in framing the Bank Charter and Factories Regulation Acts of 1833, and greatly improved commercial relations by treaty with many foreign countries. He failed in an attempt to persuade America and France to admit the principle of international copyright. In 1832 he organised a special statistical department at the board of trade, and in 1837 instituted the school of design at Somerset House, in accordance with the recommendation of a select committee of the House of Commons made in 1835.

Thomson found in 1836 that his official labours, combined with the long night sittings of the House of Commons, seriously affected his health. In consequence in August 1839 he accepted the post of governor-general of Canada. His administration began at a critical period in Canadian history, and his first duty was to carry out the policy suggested in the report of his predecessor, Lord Durham, by effecting a union of the provinces and establishing a new constitution for their future government. This delicate and difficult task, in which the diverse interests of the Upper and Lower Provinces had to be reconciled, was accomplished by Thomson with great skill and courage. The new constitution, after being carried through the colonial parliaments and ratified by the House of Commons, came into force on 10 February 1841. It led ultimately to the great confederation of 1867. In addition to this measure he carried another for local government, and he set on foot improvements in the matters of emigration, education, and public works.

In recognition of his services he was on 19 August 1840 raised to the peerage as Baron Sydenham of Sydenham in Kent and Toronto in Canada, and was appointed knight grand cross of the order of the Bath. When preparing to return home he met with a fatal accident on 4 September 1841 while riding near Kingston, and died, unmarried, at his residence, Alwington House, Kingston, on the 19th of the same month. He was buried at Kingston.

Charles Greville, in his ‘Memoirs,’ devotes a curious passage to Thomson's complacency. In spite of his vanity he had many admirable qualities: tact, judgment, and prudence, firmness and decision, indefatigable and well-ordered application, and, above all, a disinterested devotion to the service of his country. Some rather ill-natured observations on Thomson are given in Sir John Bowring's ‘Autobiographical Recollections’.

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