Ottawa Lost: A Forgotten PM

The political heart of Ottawa spans a ten-square block area of the old city stretching from Wellington to Somerset Streets. Here on Somerset lived Prime Minister John Thompson, a workaholic who wrote Canada’s first Criminal Code, created Labour Day in 1893 and was an early supporter of votes for women.

“The days are not long enough for all the work I have to do,” wrote Thompson. “About all the exercise I can get is the walk from my house up to the Hill and back.”

Thompson was a brilliant young lawyer whose career was meteoric. At 15 he was a Halifax law clerk, at 26 a city alderman. By 37 he had become attorney general of Nova Scotia and a high court judge. “The best thing I ever invented is Thompson,” said John A. Macdonald, who recruited him as federal justice minister in 1885.

For three years Thompson lived in Ottawa boarding houses, lonely and miserable while his wife and children remained in Halifax. In order to forget his solitude, he would work late into the night at his office on the Hill.

When re-united with his family Thompson resumed a joyous home life. He and his wife Annie had nine children. He was devoted to them. For years they led a rambling existence, moving from one rental house to another. On becoming prime minister in 1892 Thompson moved to a grand home at 276 Somerset Street. It was a splendid, over-the-top Queen Anne Revival affair.

Here Thompson read Treasure Island to his children and left love notes for his wife. He called her “baby dear.” She nicknamed him “grunty.” Biographer Peter Waite recounted: “He always remembered birthdays and gifts for the children. He was a wonderful family man.”

Thompson had vices too. He smoked and ate too much. His favourite lunch was a fistful of coconut caramels. At 5’ 7” his weight ballooned past 200 pounds. In September 1894 he was diagnosed with heart trouble and advised by doctors to lose weight and stop drinking rye.

“You have to give your best and your worst,” Thompson said. Tragically, the prime minister who gave his best did not have long to live.

Seven weeks after seeing his doctor, Thompson left the capital on an Italian holiday. In Rome he proposed to climb the 404 steps to the top of St. Peter’s Dome. Left panting by the exertion, Thompson took to his bed for two days. Shortly afterward he was summoned to London to receive an honour from Queen Victoria.

On Dec. 12, 1894, at a luncheon with the Queen, Thompson dropped dead of a heart attack. He was 49. Back in Ottawa a newspaper reporter ran to the house on Somerset Street to break the news to Thompson’s widow. “If it were not for children,” she wrote, “I should long to creep away in some corner and die.”

Thompson died so poor Parliament paid the cost of the funeral. His estate totaled $9,727. Today he is forgotten. While most of the grand houses at Somerset and Metcalfe Streets survive, Thompson’s home was demolished, replaced with a dreary 1960s apartment building. No monument commemorates his life in Ottawa.

By Andrew Elliott

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