William Ralph Meredith

William Ralph Meredith

Chief Justice The Hon. Sir William Ralph Meredith (31 March 1840 – 21 August 1923) was leader of the Ontario Conservatives from 1878 to 1894, Chief Justice of Ontario from 1912 until his death and Chancellor of the University of Toronto

Early life

Born on 31st March, 1840 in Westminster Township, Upper Canada (now the Province of Ontario), he was the eldest son of John Walsingham Cooke Meredith (1809-1881) J.P., of London, an Irish barrister who emigrated to Upper Canada in 1834 with Sarah (1818-1900), daughter of Anthony Pegler (1792-1871) of King's Stanley, Gloucestershire, whom he married the following year. William and his well known brothers were collectively known as 'The Eight London Merediths' who included Sir Vincent Meredith and Charles Meredith, and they were first cousins with The Rt. Hon. Richard Edmund Meredith (1855-1926) P.C., Q.C., Master of the Rolls of Ireland and Frederick Walsingham Meredith (1859-1924), President of the Law Society of Ireland. Meredith's father was a first cousin of Sir William Collis Meredith of Quebec, Edmund Allen Meredith, and Sir James Creed Meredith (1842-1912) of Dublin (the father of Judge James Creed Meredith also of Dublin).

Early career

Following his education in London, William articled with Thomas Scatcherd of London before winning a two year scholarship to the University of Toronto to study law. Called to the bar in 1861 he returned to London, entering into partnership with Scatcherd and not before long was considered to be 'the acknowledged leader of the London Bar'.

In 1871 he was elected a Bencher of the Law Society of Upper Canada, and the following year he was awarded his LL.B from the University of Toronto. In 1875 he became a Queen's Counsel (Q.C.) and after the death of Thomas Scatcherd succeeded him as London's City Solicitor, a position his brother, Thomas Graves Meredith (1853-1945) K.C., would also later hold. From 1879 to 1888 he served as the first president of the Middlesex Law Association. In 1888 he left London to take over from William Alexander Foster's (1840-1888) firm in Toronto. That same year saw him become an honorary member of the Law Faculty of the University of Toronto, from where he was granted an honorary LL.D in 1889.

Political career

Meredith had entered into politics in 1872 as a Conservative, when he succeeded Sir John Carling (whose daughter, Jessie, married William's brother, Thomas Graves Meredith) as London's representative to the Legislative Assembly of Ontario. He was considered a radical by many Tories, but this didn't prevent him being named Deputy Leader of the Party in 1878 and after the retirement of John Hillyard Cameron the following year, without even the formality of a ballot, he was chosen as the Party's Leader.

He was actively against women's rights, but this was counter-balanced by his progressive political philosophy towards the (albeit male) Indians and the relief of male suffrage in his legislation in favour of worker's rights, still remembered today as the father of Ontario's Workers' compensation system. Despite this and other succeses under Meredith's leadership the Conservatives never reached power. Meredith saw his position as a part-time commitment (he had a full-time legal practice) and the Prime Minister, Sir John A. Macdonald's, conservative hard-line caused Meredith many embarrassments, but to a greater extent his lack of real political success was a direct result of the political skill of the opposition's leader, Sir Oliver Mowat (1820-1903).

Meredith felt that Mowat's liberals were granting 'humiliating concessions' to the Catholic minority, which led to his final political demise. As a matter of conscience and increasingly frustrated by MacDonald's refusal to listen to him, he launched an attack on what he saw as unfair advantages enjoyed the separate schools. He denounced the Catholic's rights to a guaranteed seat on all secondary school boards and the use of unapproved texts in separate schools. In comparison to the Toronto Daily Mail his attacks were measured, but it was enough to draw the wrath of the catholic church who immediately put their support firmly behind the Liberals.

Later career

His dispute with the Catholic Church led to another electoral defeat, and the government in Ottawa decided it might be more prudent to put Meredith in a position which enabled him to put his real talents to work and a more promising career. In 1894 he retired from politics, accepting the position of Chief Justice of the Court of Common Pleas and the Ontario High Court of Justice, and was knighted in that capacity two years later. Succeeded by his brother, Chief Justice The Hon. Richard Martin Meredith (1847-1934) Q.C., he was appointed Chief Justice of the Ontario Court of Appeal in 1913, which he held until his death.

A judge's responsibility was to apply precedents, not create them, and Meredith stuck rigidly to this doctrine, impressively avoiding narrow or restrictive interpretations of the law. In his obituary Toronto City lawyer William Johnston praised him for being 'one of the best versed judges in municipal law.' Copied below is an extract from the Canadian Dictionary of National Biography that gives a good account of Meredith's character,

Within the courtroom Meredith was considered dignified and courteous, but he could also be “severe.” At times he appeared irritable and imperious. Barristers who were unprepared and or not properly informed about the law often received harsh reprimands. “His genial courtesy,” former justice Wallace Nesbitt confirmed, “always overbore a slight tendency to explosive indignation at anything which he conceived to be a technical rather than a justice-serving presentation of a case.” Meredith revelled in challenging colleagues to meet his exacting standards of legal argument and authority. Respected and affectionately known among his fellow judges as “the Chief,” he was a kindly man with “very few intimates” who turned privately to floriculture for recreation.

Occasionly he found himself presiding over cases in which two brothers in particular (Richard, mentioned earlier, and Edmund Meredith (1845-1921) K.C., London's top criminal barrister) stood before him. They were all excellent lawyers, and hotly harangued one another in the courtroom, but privately remained extremely close to one another, never letting a case be the cause of a rift between them.

Outside of court Meredith still exercised great political influence, and his 'legislative and forensic skills were frequently enlisted by various governments'. In 1900 Sir William Meredith was elected as Chancellor of the University of Toronto, a position he held until his death, and he also served as Chairman of Toronto's Civic Improvement Committee.

Family Life

In 1862 William Meredith married Mary (1842-1930), daughter of Marcus Holmes, Mayor of London, Director of the London and Lake Huron Railway Company and President of the Horticultural Society. William and Mary lived at Binscarth Road, in the Rosedale area of Toronto, and were the parents of three daughters and one son. Their son, Major John Redmond Walsingham Meredith (1878-1916), predeceased his parents in England during World War One, leaving two daughters. Following a swim off the coast of Maine whilst on holiday, Sir William Meredith became ill and died a few weeks later when staying with relatives in Montreal. He and his wife are interred at the St. James Cemetery in Toronto.

External links

* [http://www.biographi.ca/009004-119.01-e.php?&id_nbr=7948 Biography at the "Dictionary of Canadian Biography Online"]

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