William Pugsley

Though a strong supporter of the war effort, Pugsley was a persistent critic of the government’s war policy.

William Pugsley, lawyer, businessman, and politician; b. 27 Sept. 1850 in Sussex, N.B., son of William Pugsley and Frances Jane Hayward; m. first 6 Jan. 1876 Frances (Fannie) Jane Parks (d. 1914) in Saint John, and they had three sons and two daughters; m. secondly 1915 Gertrude Macdonald (d. 1963); they had no children; d. 3 March 1925 in Toronto.

William Pugsley was born in the village of Sussex on the Kennebecasis River in Kings County, N.B. He was of loyalist stock. A paternal ancestor had come from England to be one of the earliest settlers on the Croton River in the future state of New York. Pugsley’s great-grandfather John Pugsley had fought on the side of the crown in the Revolutionary War and then left the United States to take up residence in the Hammond River valley in Kings County. His paternal grandfather, Daniel, settled in what became Cardwell Parish in the same county and his father, also William, was a farmer near Sussex.

Pugsley received his early education in the local school. At age 15 he left his home to enrol at the University of New Brunswick in Fredericton. He studied mathematics, classics, and English and was awarded many scholarships. In his junior year he was the gold medallist of his class. After three years of university he graduated in 1868 with an honours ba. In 1872 he was admitted to the bar and entered into partnership in Saint John with his brother Gilbert R. Pugsley and John Herbert Crawford. Pugsley was reporter for the New Brunswick Supreme Court for several years and also served as examiner in civil law for the university. The university awarded him a bcl in 1879 and would confer honorary degrees of dcl in 1884 and lld in 1918. Pugsley was created a qc on 4 Feb. 1891. He built a large and prosperous practice in Saint John and was recognized as a leader of the bar. In 1904 he appeared for the province before the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council, the highest court of the empire, in an unsuccessful case contesting the dominion government’s decision, following the 1901 census, to reduce representation in the House of Commons for all the old provinces except Quebec.

In business, Pugsley for some time was the owner-manager of the Saint John Daily Telegraph and the Saint John Evening Times. He was a principal of the Sussex Land and Stock Company, formed in 1884 to buy, lease, farm, and sell land in the North-West Territories, and was later a strong promoter of the Saskatoon and Western Land Company. A director of Black Consolidated Mines, he also had an interest in railways, including the Edmonton District Railway. For several years he was vice-president of the Qu’Appelle, Long Lake and Saskatchewan Railroad and Steamboat Company and in 1906 he became president. That same year he and his partners sold their rights to all the unclaimed crown land held by the company to David Russell and James Naismith Greenshields of Montreal. They, in turn, soon sold the capital stock they owned in the company to William Mackenzie and Donald Mann, the promoters and builders of the Canadian Northern Railway. Pugsley also acquired and improved a number of commercial properties in Saint John and was a ceaseless advocate of harbour development there.

Pugsley was first elected to the provincial House of Assembly in an 1885 by-election following the death of a Kings County representative, Edwin Arnold Vail. Re-elected in 1886 and 1890, he served as speaker of the assembly from 1887 to 1889, when Andrew George Blair, the premier, appointed him solicitor general. In 1892 Pugsley resigned his seat to devote all his time to his law practice. He returned to provincial politics in the 1899 election, standing successfully again in Kings, and the following year, when Lemuel John Tweedie became premier, he was made attorney general. He was a commanding figure in the rough-and-tumble of New Brunswick politics. Known for his “genial, mild manner,” he was, an observer said, “the most imperturbable politician that ever came out of New Brunswick, or any other Province of Canada.” To his friends and followers he was Sweet William; to his opponents he was Slippery Bill, a masterful tactician who frustrated them at every turn. Like Blair and Tweedie, Pugsley was of the generation of late-19th-century New Brunswick politicians who, earlier in their careers, had hesitated to align themselves firmly with either of the national parties. Pugsley was said to have backed Sir John A. Macdonald’s party in the election of 1891, speaking for John Costigan, a Conservative candidate, and denouncing the Liberals’ platform of unrestricted reciprocity. But by the turn of the century Pugsley and the others had declared their allegiance to the Liberal party.

It was a strategic move for the New Brunswickers. The Liberals, in power since 1896, seemed invincible in national politics, Blair was a powerful member of Sir Wilfrid Laurier’s cabinet, and the Laurier government held the keys to provincial prosperity. Shortly before the federal general election of 1904 Pugsley broke ranks with his former mentor, Blair, who strongly opposed Laurier’s transcontinental railway policy. Pugsley believed that the new railway would open opportunities to advance Saint John’s development. He told Laurier that the “building of the new Transcontinental line is so entirely in the interest of the country that I feel bound to give it my hearty support.” There was a price for this support: the railway terminated at Moncton and Pugsley was lobbying hard to get a connection from there to Saint John so that it could become the freight terminus for the line. “St. John,” he emphasized, “is very sensitive on this point.” A year later Pugsley drafted the provincial legislation that enabled the New Brunswick government to buy out and take over the unsuccessful Central Railway. The opposition Tories were enraged. They dubbed the Central “Pugsley’s sinkhole” and described it as “two streaks of rust connected by a few rotten ties.” But for Pugsley the railway could be a building block in a link between Saint John and the Grand Trunk system, whose winter port had long been the city’s hated rival, Portland, Maine. Again, in 1905, Pugsley strongly protested to Laurier against the federal government’s intention to withdraw support for continuing steamship service between Saint John and the West Indies. It would be “a severe blow to the Party here,” he said. Laurier backed down, leaving the service in place “for the present.”

In the provincial legislature the attorney general introduced several mildly progressive social reforms. A 1903 act provided compensation for injured workmen, though it was considered inadequate by labour leaders. The next year Pugsley proposed a bill to provide for inspection of factories, exclude labour there for boys and girls under 14, abolish the sweating system, and grant factory workers time off on legal holidays and Saturday afternoons. The measure was, however, withdrawn by the government in favour of a commission of inquiry. In 1906 he had a bill passed admitting women to practise law in New Brunswick on the same terms as men. Then, in 1907, Tweedie was named lieutenant governor of the province and Pugsley succeeded him as premier.

His tenure was brief. Soon after he took office, the Liberal mp for Saint John City and County, Alfred Augustus Stockton, died and the seat was opened for a by-election. Urged to run, Pugsley resigned his provincial seat and the premiership at the end of May. It was not his first try at national politics. In the 1896 general election he and Daniel J. McLaughlin had stood as independent candidates for Saint John to protest a decision a year earlier by George Eulas Foster, the federal minister of finance, to subsidize Canadian mail steamers that made Portland, not Saint John, their final port of call. They lost. In 1904 Pugsley was involved in the “La Presse affair” with David Russell, J. N. Greenshields, Hugh Graham* of the Montreal Daily Star, and others. It was a scheme to buy up Liberal newspapers before the general election that year and turn them against Laurier’s government. The apparent aim of Russell and his associates was to undo Laurier’s Grand Trunk Pacific Railway policy. If they could defeat Laurier, they thought, they could get a new Conservative government to appoint Blair, who had resigned from Laurier’s cabinet in 1903 because he was opposed to the transcontinental, as minister of railways and canals. At the same time, hedging his bets in the event that Laurier did win, Russell began to promote Pugsley for a Liberal nomination and eventual appointment to Railways and Canals in a Laurier government. Russell may not have known that Pugsley strongly supported the Grand Trunk policy. It is also doubtful whether Pugsley knew all the twists and turns of Russell’s complicated but naive scheme. When he found out, he hurried to Ottawa to reveal the plot to Laurier. That, at least, is what he later claimed had happened. In the end, Laurier forced Blair out of the election campaign and squashed the scheme; Pugsley failed even to get nominated.

Then, early in 1907 Laurier dismissed Henry Robert Emmerson, New Brunswick’s member in cabinet. Both George Robertson, one of the provincial members for Saint John City, and Alfred O. Skinner, president of the New Brunswick Liberal Association, urged Laurier to appoint Pugsley to replace him. Pugsley, Robertson assured Laurier, “will be able to unite every section of the liberal party in this province and lead them to victory at whatever time an election may be held.” On 29 August Pugsley was made minister of public works in the Laurier government. The prime minister then learned that the mayor of Saint John, Edward Sears, was going to run against Pugsley in the necessary by-election and firmly squelched his ambitions. “I would urge upon you,” he wrote, “the advisability of not giving the enemy the spectacle of division in our ranks.” On 18 Sept. 1907 Pugsley was returned to the House of Commons by acclamation.

It was a heady time to be a cabinet minister in Ottawa. The nation was prosperous and building rapidly, with industrial expansion in the east and agricultural development on the prairies. The expenditure on public works more than doubled from $4.7 million in 1900–1 to $11.8 million in 1910–11. Most of the money was spent on harbour and river facilities, dredging, roads and bridges, and public buildings. Two new transcontinental railways were being built to promote growth on the prairies. Between 1901 and 1911 the number of acres under crops there grew from 3.6 million to 17.7 million and wheat production from 55.5 million to 132.1 million bushels. The explosive growth of the wheat and other grain crops created a huge demand for new ships and improved harbours and wharfs on the Great Lakes. Tonnage of cargo from the Lakehead passing through the Welland Canal, mostly grain for export, more than quadrupled. To handle the traffic, the list of harbour development projects undertaken by Pugsley’s department on the inland seas grew ever larger during his term of office. The boom times also gave Pugsley a convenient rationale to promote harbour improvements in Saint John. The Canadian annual review reported that in the 1908 general election campaign he bragged to his constituents that he had secured $400,000 in Public Works expenditure for wharfs and port development in the city. In 1911, the year of the next general election, work underway there was boosted with another half million dollars for more improvements and the development of terminal facilities for the Grand Trunk Pacific. The grateful business interests of Saint John again returned Pugsley to Ottawa. But nationally, the Liberal party’s “reciprocity” campaign was soundly defeated.

In opposition Pugsley and his New Brunswick colleague Frank Broadstreet Carvell became the twin persecutors of Robert Laird Borden*’s government. While “Fighting Frank” Carvell’s weapons were anger, vitriol, and the heavy blows of a broadsword, Pugsley’s were the deft, surgical probings of a master courtroom lawyer, always calm, courteous, and reasonable but tactically brilliant and deadly. During the 1913 debate over Borden’s Naval Aid Bill, Pugsley masterminded a 72-hour continuous attack against the proposal. The following year Pugsley was the only mp to question any provision of the emergency War Measures Bill. He warned that the suspension of habeas corpus was very dangerous and struck “at the dearest liberties of a British subject.” Though a strong supporter of the war effort, Pugsley was a persistent critic of the government’s war policy. Samuel Hughes, the minister of militia and defence, Hughes’s crony Lieutenant-Colonel John Wesley Allison, and Hughes’s creation the Shell Committee were easy, frequent, and favourite targets. The Debates of 1915 are peppered with skirmishes between Pugsley and Hughes. In 1916 Pugsley began his prosecution of Hughes in the debate on the address. Then, on 14 March, he rose in late afternoon and spoke to dinner recess. When debate resumed in the evening, he continued for almost two more hours of devastating criticism of Hughes’s, Allison’s, and the committee’s misdeeds and alleged corruption in the allocation of contracts for boots, binoculars, horses, rifle ammunition, shells, and on and on. Nor was that enough. Just days later he launched another spirited attack on Hughes. Hughes, aware that he was going to be a target that spring, had fled to England. Borden urgently telegraphed him to come home quickly. Hughes stubbornly refused but Pugsley’s criticism forced a series of investigations and royal commissions that led to the replacement of the Shell Committee with the Imperial Munitions Board, and, late in 1916, Hughes’s dismissal by Borden.

In May 1917 Sir Robert Borden announced that his government would bring in a bill to conscript young Canadians for overseas service. Pugsley rallied behind Laurier’s vain attempt to delay and, if possible, defeat the Military Service Bill and the related effort by Borden to form a Union government of both Conservative and Liberal supporters of conscription. In October Pugsley knew that Carvell favoured conscription and was breaking with Laurier. He stayed and reassured his chief that “when happier times arrive, after the war is over, we may all come together again under your leadership.” But Pugsley’s continuing support of Laurier was costing him political capital at home. F. W. Pearson, acting warden of the Saint John County Council, warned that “the time has arrived when we should express to the Dominion Government our concurrence in any vigorous action that may be taken to secure more men for the defence of the Empire.” At the same time Borden was confronted with the dilemma of whom to appoint to his Union government from New Brunswick. John Douglas Hazen, an original member of Borden’s cabinet, was the sitting minister. But naming a Liberal with conscriptionist sympathies such as Pugsley or Carvell would be a major coup. The Saint John Conservatives insisted they would have nothing of Pugsley. Carvell, who had the support of both parties in his Carleton County constituency, got the nod over the pained protests of several prominent New Brunswick Tories. After a plan to send Hazen to Washington as Canada’s first diplomatic representative to the United States failed, the former minister of marine and fisheries accepted appointment as chief justice of New Brunswick. Then, on 31 October, the newly appointed lieutenant governor of New Brunswick, Gilbert White Ganong, suddenly died. Borden approached Pugsley. On 2 November Pugsley informed Laurier that “under the peculiar circumstances now existing I have concluded to avail myself of an opportunity which now offers to retire from politics.” Four days later Borden announced Pugsley’s appointment as lieutenant governor.

Three years earlier, on 11 May 1914, Fannie Pugsley, William’s wife of 38 years and the mother of his two surviving children, had died in Saint John. She had been in failing health since the previous autumn and her death was not unexpected. A year later, in 1915, Pugsley, at age 65, remarried. His second wife was Gertrude Macdonald, a woman from Saint John who lived in Ottawa and had been his private secretary when he was minister of public works. In 1917 they returned to New Brunswick to take up residence in the capital and perform the duties and social obligations of a provincial lieutenant governor. In 1921 Pugsley was asked to run once again as the Liberal candidate for Saint John in the federal general election. He refused. He served out his viceregal term and resigned at the end of February 1923. The following month William Lyon Mackenzie King, the prime minister, appointed him to a royal commission investigating reparation claims following World War I. On 2 Nov. 1923 Pugsley was seriously ill and entered St Luke’s Hospital in Ottawa. An operation followed and then a remarkably quick recovery of his health.

In late February 1925 Pugsley and his wife set out by train for western Canada where he was to continue his work for the reparations commission. They got as far as Toronto, where he was stricken with pneumonia while staying at the King Edward Hotel. His son John Archer was summoned from New Brunswick but, when William seemed to be recovering at the end of February, he returned home. Then, suddenly, at 11:00 in the evening of 3 March 1925, with Gertrude at his side, Pugsley died. His funeral was on 7 March at St John’s Anglican (Stone) Church in Saint John and he was buried there in Fernhill Cemetery.

William Pugsley was just four months shy of 40 years of public service when he died. Throughout his career he was an ardent champion of Saint John, the city he loved. He was no less an advocate of his home province and, like many of his generation, devoted in national politics to currying favours for it. Once aligned with the Liberal party he became a powerful lieutenant to his leader, an able minister of the crown, and a much-feared critic of Sir Robert Borden’s government. Only when, as he saw it, the stakes for Canada and for its young men at the front were higher than the interests of the Liberal party did Pugsley abandon his leader and accept Borden’s viceregal appointment. Mackenzie King, who gave Pugsley his last assignment, might have sympathized with Pugsley’s choice to leave active politics: he too, in 1917, had wavered over conscription before casting his future with Laurier’s Liberals.

—Text by Robert Craig Brown, “PUGSLEY, WILLIAM,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 15, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed January 27, 2016. For this article's bibliography and other related information, visit Dictionary of Canadian Biography online.