Sandham, James: My GGG Grandpa and Son were Rebels

My GGG Grandpa and Son were Rebels

by Jim Sandham

My great-great-great grandfather, Rev. George Barclay, was a Scottish Baptist minister and teacher who immigrated to Canada in 1816 with his wife, Janet Tullis and six children. Although he purchased a farm in Pickering Twp soon after his arrival, most of the rest of his working life was spent as a travelling minister to Baptist congregations in the areas of Markham, Whitby, and Uxbridge. From 1819, since he no longer had time to farm, the farm was run full time by his wife and eldest son, George Jr.

At the time, Upper Canada was governed by the Family Compact, an unelected group of the governor’s friends and their hangers-on, mainly from Britain, who were an independent, irresponsible body exercising great and arbitrary power. Of the many of the settlers in the Pickering area who were critical of the Family Compact, Rev. George Barclay was particularly outspoken and strongly influenced his neighbour, Peter Matthews, as well as two of his elder sons.

Rev. George Barclay

The overall leader of the Rebel/Reform cause was William Lyon Mackenzie, the fiery editor of the Colonial Advocate and leader of the Reform Party in the provincial legislature. He eventually became embittered by the manipulations and intimidation of the government, and became an advocate of open rebellion. In the following year, he succeeded in instigating a rebellion in which a group of armed insurgents marched on Toronto, meeting initially at Montgomery’s Tavern, on Yonge Street just north of Eglinton Avenue. Among the insurgents was a party of 50 from Pickering, including one of George Barclay’s sons, George Jr.and led by Peter Matthews, a close friend and neighbour of the Barclays.

To begin the battle, Mackenzie ordered Matthews’ party to set up a diversionary attack on a bridge over the Don River. In doing so, they set the bridge and several houses in the area on fire and killed one man before being driven off by loyalist forces. Although most of the rebels were eventually captured and imprisoned, including George Barclay Jr., Mackenzie managed to flee to the United States, reputedly on a horse owned by George Barclay Jr.

Of those arrested, Peter Matthews and Samuel Lount were the only ones hanged in public. Both were acknowledged to be men of exemplary character in their own communities, and the evidence against them was scanty. Peter Matthews was a former Captain with a good record in the War of 1812, was a successful farmer with a family of eight children, while Samuel Lount was a member of a sect of strictly pacifist Quakers located in the present town of Holland Landing, as well as a blacksmith, and farmer.

Despite appeals for clemency signed by eight thousand people, the executions took place in April of 1838 in Toronto’s courthouse yard; the government wished to set them up as examples to deter other would-be rebels. George Barclay Jr. was sentenced to serve a prison term of six years, but eventually, like Mackenzie and the rest, was granted a pardon by Queen Victoria. While in prison, George Jr. carved three beautiful wooden boxes using only his pocket knife. Several other prisoners carved similar boxes. One of George’s is currently in the possession of the Collections and Conservation Centre of the City of Toronto. It is engraved as described below.

Prisoner Box

The horror of the rebellion, plus another in Lower Canada (now Quebec) led to an investigation by Lord Durham whose report recommended the establishment of responsible government for the colonies, one of the rebel’s original demands.

At the time of the rebellion, Rev. George Barclay had been the first postmaster of Brougham, but he was removed in the general purge of postal officials whose loyalty was deemed suspect. He spent his later years quietly at his home on his farm in Pickering and was buried in the cemetery of the church at Claremont (Pickering). In 1848, his son, George Jr., following his release from jail, sold his farm and moved to a new farm in Lobo Twp, near London, ON.


Fuller, Robert M. Barclays of Pickering, Self-published, Approximately 1980.

The 1837 Rebellions. (William Lyon Mackenzie, Peter Matthews, Samuel Lount, and others)

Ronald J. Stagg. University of Toronto. Dictionary of Canadian Biography Online. 2000. (George Barclay)

Wilson, W.R. 2007. Historical Narratives of Early Canada. (The Family Compact)

(On the box created by George Barclay, Jr., while in prison for high treason:)


Executed at Toronto U.C. April 13th 1838

Their minds were tranquil and serene

No terror in their looks were seen

Their steps upon the scaffold strong

A moment’s pause – their lives are gone.

May vengeance draw his sword in wrath

And justice smile to see it done

And smite the traitors for the death

Of Matthews, Lount and Anderson.

Let Canada mourn for Liberty weep

By the ravage of tyranny torn

And may the true sense of freedom in peace never sleep

Till their banners in triumph are borne.

For ever truth to Freedom’s call

For ever see she bids us sally

We in her ranks would rather fall

Than round a despot rally.

May the king oftener strike the blow

And lay those haughty tyrants low,

Than forge the chains that bind the Free

And hang the sons of Liberty.”