Francis Collins: a piece of Irish history

I’ve walked countless times down Jarvis Street on the east side of St. James Park and only just recently noticed this historical plaque that commemorates Francis Collins.

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It turns out that Francis Collins was an important figure in the city’s early history and but for his untimely death he likely would have become a well-known character like William Lyon Mackenzie or George Brown.

Francis Collins came from Ireland to Muddy York in 1818 when the population was only about a thousand people (it’s hard to imagine our city so small). He obtained work as a printer with the Upper Canada Gazette and for 5 years he reported on the speeches and proceedings of the Legislature of Upper Canada.

It was here that he learned first-hand of the corrupt and undemocratic leanings of the Family Compact. It became apparent to Collins that it was next to impossible for newcomers, like many of his fellow countrymen who lacked family connections to better their circumstances, to gain a successful foothold in the city while the Family Compact controlled all levels of society. So, he started to agitate and rail against this injustice in 1825 through a weekly newspaper he started called the “The Canadian Freeman”. Like William Lyon Mackenzie and his paper the “Colonial Advocate”, Collins “spoke out boldly in defence of the rights of the people and the freedom of the press”.

Francis Collins chargedHe then became the target of the Family Compact and was fined and jailed for 1 year on supped up libel charges for words he wrote against John Beverley Robinson. Despite appeals to the Governor John Colborne by Reformer supporters like Robert Baldwin, he was not pardoned and spent a miserable time in the Court Street Jail (so think of him for a moment the next time you sit or walk past Courthouse Square Park).

In the absence of any Catholic priests, and after being released from prison, Collins spent hours ministering to Catholic Irish during that cholera epidemic of 1834, and then he himself contracted cholera. He died on April 29th, his daughter Mary on Aug 30th and his wife Ann on September 4th. It is believed that he is buried in the unmarked graveyard behind St. Paul’s Basilica. His three remaining children were taken in by Maurice Scollard, a prominent Catholic of St. Paul’s parish. Francis Collins was 33 years old. It’s hard not to think that had he lived he would have made a significant contribution to the Responsible Government movement.

For more important Irish history sites within the old town, read this CBC  article Revealing downtown Toronto’s Irish roots, one hidden house at a time.


Sources referenced: The Rev. Brother Alfred [Dooner], F.S.C., LL.D.: “Francis Collins, First Catholic Journalist in Upper Canada,” Canadian Catholic Historical Association (CCHA) Report pp. 51-66


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