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John White Fonds (F 4448)

John White was a lawyer and the first Attorney-General of Upper Canada. The John White fonds (F 4448), consisting of a personal notebook kept by White between 1792 and 1797, recently has been microfilmed and is available on interlibrary loan.

Biographical sketch

White was born around 1761 in the parish of St. Sepulchre, Middlesex, England. He was admitted as a student at the Inner Temple, London, on 17 October 1777, and was called to the bar in 1785. He practiced law unsuccessfully in Jamaica, and then returned to Britain. He was living in Wales with his family when, thanks to the influence of his brother-in-law Samuel Shepherd, he was offered the post of Attorney General of Upper Canada. The appointment took effect on December 31, 1791, and White sailed for Canada in 1792.

As was common with early office-holders, White also carried on a private law practice to supplement his income. His duties as Attorney General included the adaptation of British law to the conditions in the new colony, and the prosecution of criminal cases. A July 12, 1794 entry in his diary reflects his frustration: "Nothing but irregularity, prejudice and confusion in the Court."

In addition, White was the first elected representative for Leeds and Frontenac in the House of Assembly, and he was personally concerned in the legislation which established the Court of King's Bench and the district courts in 1794. Once the courts had been established, White was troubled by the number of non-licensed practitioners of law appearing as advocates, and a measure was passed enabling the Lieutenant Governor to issue licences. White had a large say in the choice of those who received them. In 1797, though not a member of the Second Parliament, he promoted the bill which founded the Law Society of Upper Canada, thus establishing both legal education and the self-regulation of the profession in the province. As the Law Society's first Treasurer, White was also automatically its first President.

White was paid £300 per year as Attorney General, supplemented by fees for particular duties, the most important of which was drawing up land deeds. A number of other officers shared these fees, and there was much bitterness and inefficiency because of it. White, already in debt when he arrived in Upper Canada, continued to spend freely. A reconciliation with his estranged wife in 1797 failed, and she returned to Britain in 1799.

Around 1794, White made the acquaintance of the clerk of the Executive Council, John Small and his wife. Five years later, having apparently had a brief affair with Mrs. Small in the meantime, White made a scurrilous comment about her virtue to his friend, D.W. Smith. When this remark reached the Smalls, Small challenged White to a duel. White was shot and died 36 hours later, on January 4, 1800.

White died heavily in debt, leaving two sons and a daughter by his wife, and two daughters by his mistress in York, Mrs. Susanna Page. His estate was not fully disentangled until a private bill was passed in 1837.


The microfilm consists of one personal notebook kept by John White, the first Attorney General of Upper Canada.

The principal content of the notebook is a diary kept from 1792 until 1794. The early entries describe White's trip from Montreal to Kingston upon taking up his office. Thereafter, brief daily entries record his health, social engagements and matters relating to his working life, both as parliamentarian and as prosecutor. Among the associates frequently mentioned are Governor Simcoe and Chief Justice Osgoode. A transcription of this diary, edited by William Colgate, is published in Ontario History, vol. XLVII (1955), 147-70.

The diary entries conclude on 5 April 1794. A few pages following are occupied with memoranda of payments to various persons, all dated in 1797.

White also used this notebook to record his expenses, starting with his arrival at Montreal in 1792, and continuing, on a somewhat sporadic basis, until 1795. The accounts begin at the rear of the volume and are upside-down in relation to the diary entries.

F 4448 is available on microfilm reel MS 8350.

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