John Galt

John Galt
Born(1779-05-02)2 May 1779
Irvine, Ayrshire, Scotland
Died11 April 1839(1839-04-11) (aged 59)
Greenock, Scotland
OccupationWriter, colonial businessman
Genrepoetry, drama, short stories, travel writing
Notable worksAnnals of the Parish
The Chronicle of Dalmailing
SpouseElizabeth Tilloch

John Galt (/ɡɔːlt/; 2 May 1779 – 11 April 1839) was a Scottish novelist, entrepreneur, and political and social commentator. Galt has been called the first political novelist in the English language,[1] due to being the first novelist to deal with issues of the Industrial Revolution.

Galt was the first superintendent of the Canada Company (1826–1829). The company was formed to populate a part of what is now Southern Ontario (then known as Upper Canada) in the first half of the 19th century; it was later called "the most important single attempt at settlement in Canadian history".[2]

In 1829, Galt was recalled to Great Britain[3] for mismanagement of the Canada Company (particularly incompetent bookkeeping), and was later jailed for failing to pay his son's tuition.[4] Galt's Autobiography, published in London in 1833, includes a discussion of his life and work in Upper Canada.[5]

He was the father of Sir Alexander Tilloch Galt of Montreal, Quebec.


Born in Irvine, in Ayrshire, Galt was the son of a naval captain involved in the West Indies trade. He was a first cousin of Captain Alexander Allan. His father moved to Greenock in 1780. The family visited regularly but did not permanently rejoin him until 1789. John was educated at Irvine Grammar School alongside Henry Eckford, who was a lifetime friend, and William Spence.[6]

Galt spent a few months with the Greenock Custom House, at age 17. He then became an apprentice and junior clerk under his uncle, Mr. Ewing, also writing essays and stories for local journals in his spare time. He moved to London in 1804 to join his father and seek his fortune. In 1809 he began studying law at Lincoln's Inn.[3][7]

During a subsequent trip to Europe, where he was commissioned by a merchant firm to establish trade agreements, Galt met and befriended Lord Byron in Gibraltar. He traveled with Byron and his companion, John Hobhouse, 1st Baron Broughton, to Malta. He met them again in Greece. Parting company, Galt continued alone to Constantinople, Adrianople and then Sofia. He returned to Greenock via Ireland. He then embarked to London to pursue business plans, but these did not come to fruition and he took to writing. Galt wrote an account of his travels, which met with moderate success. Decades later, he would also publish the first full biography of Lord Byron. He also published the first biography of the painter Benjamin West, The Life and Studies of Benjamin West (1816, expanded 1820).[7]

In 1813, Galt attempted to establish a Gibraltarian trading company, in order to circumvent Napoleon's embargo on British trade; however, Wellington's victory in Spain made this no longer necessary. Galt then returned to London and married Elizabeth Tilloch, daughter of Alexander Tilloch.[8] They had three boys. In 1815, he became Secretary of the Royal Caledonian Asylum in London. He also privately consulted in several business ventures.[3]

Galt started to submit articles to Blackwood's Magazine in late 1819, and in March 1829 he sent Blackwood the publishers the plan for "The Ayrshire legatees".

Concentrating on his writing for the next several years, Galt lived at times in London, Glasgow, Edinburgh and elsewhere, writing fiction and a number of school texts under the pseudonym Reverend T. Clark. Around 1821 he moved his family from Greenock to Eskgrove near Musselburgh. In addition to moving his residence frequently during this period, Galt also switched publishers several times, moving from Blackwood's Magazine to Oliver and Boyd and then back again.[3] In 1821 Annals of the parish was published as were two instalments of The steam boat and he started work on the novel Sir André Wylie. Annals of the parish established Galt's reputation overnight. Sir Andrew Wylie was published in 1822.[9]

Canada Company office, 1834

In 1824, Galt was appointed secretary of the Canada Company, a charter company established to aid in the colonization of the Huron Tract in Upper Canada along the eastern shore of Lake Huron. After the company was incorporated by royal charter on 19 August 1826, Galt traveled across the Atlantic on the man-of-war HMS Romney, arriving at New York City and then traveling by road. Sadly, soon after arriving, word was sent that his mother had suffered a stroke. He returned to her (in Musselburgh) in 1826 and she died a few months later. He returned to Canada in 1826. While in Canada, Galt lived in York in Upper Canada (now Ontario), but located the headquarters of the Canada Company at Guelph, a town he also founded in 1827.[3] Later that year, he co-founded the town of Goderich[3] with Tiger Dunlop.[10] The community of Galt, Ontario, was named after him.

His son Alexander became one of the fathers of Confederation and Canada's first minister of finance.[3]

During his tenure with the Canada Company, Galt ran afoul of several colonial authorities, including Sir Peregrine Maitland, who was Lieutenant-Governor of Upper Canada at the time.[3] He was heavily criticised by his employers for his lack of basic accounting skills and failure to carry out their established policies. This resulted in his dismissal and recall to Great Britain in 1829.[3]

Soon after his return to Great Britain, he spent several months in King's Bench Prison for failure to pay debts.[3] One of Galt's last novels, The Member, has political corruption as its central theme.[3]

In 1831 he moved to Barn Cottage in Old Brompton.[6]

Despite failing health (following a trip over a tree root whilst in Canada), Galt was involved in another colonial business venture, the British American Land Company, which was formed to develop lands in the Eastern Townships of Lower Canada (now Quebec). Galt served as secretary but was forced to resign in December 1832 because of his health.[5][11] By this stage his spinal injury was not only crippling him but also affecting his speech and handwriting.

The old Greenock cemetery entrance from Inverkip Street, with a plaque, commemorating John Galt, and in the immediate background John Galt House
The Galt family tomb, inscribed to John Galt, "Author of The Annals of the Parish &c &c."

In 1834 he moved to Edinburgh following the publishing of his two-volume Autobiography in 1833. Galt here met the travel writer Harriet Pigott. Pigott persuaded Galt to edit her Records of Real Life in the Palace and the Cottage. She received some criticism for this as it was suspected that she was just taking advantage of Galt. However, her unfinished biography of him which is in the Bodleian Library implies that it was more of mutual respect than her critics allowed. Records of Real Life in the Palace and the Cottage had an introduction by Galt, and this three-volume work was published in 1839.[12]

He retired to his old home in Greenock in August 1834 following the departure of three of his sons to Canada. Finding the accommodation unsuitable he lived temporarily in Gourock before returning to a more comfortable house in December 1834. Galt died on 11 April 1839.[13] He was buried in the family tomb of his parents in the New Burying Ground in Greenock (now called the Inverkip Street Cemetery).

Huron Tract

The area, known as the Huron Tract on the eastern shore of Lake Huron, was 1,100,000 acres (4,500 km2) in size and had been acquired from the Ojibwe (Chippewa) by the British government. The company surveyed and subdivided this massive area, built roads, mills, and schools and advertised it at affordable prices to buyers in Europe. The company then assisted in the migration of new settlers, bringing them to the area by means of a boat, which the company also owned. Initially settling in York (Toronto, Ontario) he selected what later became Guelph, Ontario as the company's headquarters, and began to develop a town there.[14] Galt is also considered to be the founder of Goderich, Ontario, with his colleague William "Tiger" Dunlop.


John Galt memorial fountain at Greenock Esplanade

In Greenock, John Galt is commemorated by the John Galt memorial fountain on the Esplanade, and by a plaque at the old cemetery where he is buried. Sheltered housing (for seniors) built next to the cemetery in 1988, on the site of the old Greenock Royal Infirmary, is named John Galt House in his honour.[15]

He is also commemorated in Makars' Court, outside The Writers' Museum, Lawnmarket, Edinburgh, and in 2006, the community of Guelph proclaimed the first Monday in August, "John Galt Day".[16][17]

The city of Galt, Ontario was named after John Galt, but was absorbed into Cambridge, Ontario in 1973. His original home in Guelph, known as the "Priory" (built 1827-1828), stood on the banks of the Speed River near the current River Run Centre for performing arts. The building later became the first Canadian Pacific Railway station in the city; the conversion was completed in 1888.[18][19] The building was no longer required by the Canadian Pacific Railway which built a new station in 1910. A photograph from 1914 depicts it as boarded up. In spite of attempts by various individuals in Guelph to save the structure, it was torn down in 1926.[20]

A historical plaque commemorates Galt's role with the Canada Company in populating the Huron Tract, calling it "the most important single attempt at settlement in Canadian history".[21]


Galt's novels are best known for their depiction of Scottish rural life, tinged with ironic humour. Galt wrote the following works:[13]


  1. ^ "BBC Writing Scotland, Reformers and Radicals: A Man's a Man". Retrieved 27 September 2010.
  2. ^ "Wellington County". Historic Plaques. Wayne Cook. 2011. Retrieved 21 March 2017. Plaque #4
  3. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k Hall, Roger; Whistler, Nick (1988). "Galt, John". In Halpenny, Francess G (ed.). Dictionary of Canadian Biography. Vol. VII (1836–1850) (online ed.). University of Toronto Press.
  4. ^ "John Galt". Guelph Archives. City of Guelph. 2011. Archived from the original on 23 March 2017. Retrieved 22 March 2017. From Library and Archives Canada
  5. ^ a b Bélanger, Claude (2005). "John Galt". Quebec History. Marianopolis College. Retrieved 22 March 2017.
  6. ^ a b Annals of the Parish: The Life of John Galt
  7. ^ a b "John Galt". NNDB. Retrieved 29 September 2008.
  8. ^ Carlyle, Edward Irving (1898). "Tilloch, Alexander" . In Lee, Sidney (ed.). Dictionary of National Biography. Vol. 56. London: Smith, Elder & Co. pp. 391–392.
  9. ^ "John Galt". Writing Scotland. BBC. Retrieved 9 November 2017.
  10. ^ "Dr. William "Tiger" Dunlop, "the Unforgettable and the Unforgotten"". Guelph Archives. City of Guelph. 2011. Archived from the original on 23 March 2017. Retrieved 22 March 2017.
  11. ^ Baskerville, Peter A. (2015). "British American Land Company". Canadian Encyclopedia. Historica Canada. Retrieved 29 September 2008.
  12. ^ Perkins, Pam. "Pigott, Harriet (1775–1846)". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (online ed.). Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/22253. (Subscription or UK public library membership required.)
  13. ^ a b "John Galt". E-notes. Retrieved 29 September 2008.
  14. ^ "The Canada Company". Quebec Gazette. 9 August 1827.
  15. ^ Carruthers, Gerard (2012). "Remembering John Galt". In Hewitt, Regina (ed.). John Galt: Observations and Conjectures on Literature, History, and Society. Lewisburg: Bucknell University Press. p. 33. ISBN 978-1-61148-434-2.
  16. ^ Visschedyk, Nicole (1 August 2008). "John Galt Day Reflects History". Guelph Mercury. Archived from the original on 3 December 2008. Retrieved 29 September 2008.
  17. ^ "John Galt Day Celebration". Downtown Guelph. 4 August 2008. Archived from the original on 4 August 2008. Retrieved 29 September 2008.
  18. ^ Shelley, Cameron (2 July 2016). "Historic Priory residence ended up as firewood". Waterloo Region Record. Kitchener. Retrieved 22 March 2017.
  19. ^ Shelley, Cameron (6 March 2013). "Guelph in postcards". Guelph. Cameron Shelley. Retrieved 22 March 2017.
  20. ^ Shelley, Cameron (6 June 2017). "The Priory". Guelph Historical Society. Archived from the original on 1 November 2019. Retrieved 30 March 2020.
  21. ^ "Wellington County". Historic Plaques. Wayne Cook. 2011. Retrieved 21 March 2017. Plaque #4
  22. ^ "Review of The Life and Administration of Cardinal Wolsey by John Galt". The Quarterly Review. 8: 163–172. September 1812.
  23. ^ "The Tragedies of Maddelen, Agamemnon, Lady Macbeth, Antonia and Clytemnestra". Retrieved 6 October 2016.
  24. ^ Vowles, Andrew (26 March 2015). "Guelph founder's play to be part of anniversary commemoration". Guelph Mercury Tribune. Retrieved 30 December 2016.
  25. ^ Gardner, Charles Kitchell (1822). "Review of Andrew Wylie, of that Ilk". Old Edinburgh Magazine.

Further reading

  • Carruthers, Gerard & Kidd, Colin (eds.) (2017), The International Companion to John Galt, Scottish Literature International, University of Glasgow, ISBN 978-1-908980-27-4
  • Gibault, Henri (1979), John Galt, romancier écossais, l'Université des langues et lettres de Grenoble, ISBN 978-2902709069
  • Lee, Robert C. (2004). The Canada Company and the Huron Tract, 1826–1853. Toronto: Natural Heritage Books. ISBN 1-896219-94-2.
  • Scott, Paul Henderson (1985), John Galt, Scottish Academic Press, Edinburgh, ISBN 0-7073-0364-8
  • Whatley, Christopher A. (ed.) (1979), John Galt 1779 – 1979, The Ramsay Head Press, Edinburgh, ISBN 0-902859-52-8

External links

Bates, William (1883). "John Galt" . The Maclise Portrait-Gallery of "Illustrious Literary Characters" . Illustrated by Daniel Maclise (1 ed.). London: Chatto and Windus. pp. 37–41 – via Wikisource.

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