Disclaimer: Elements of the following story may in fact actually be apocryphal. I shall relate the tale as it is commonly told, and tack on a postscript at the end addressing the matter.
I found myself a bit pressed for time this week, so today’s post will be short and sweet, and if it makes you laugh…well, that’s more or less the point. It never fails to get a chuckle out of me, mainly because I consider the story to be so very Prince Edward Island. Off we go!
The next time you find yourself walking down Queen Street in Charlottetown, keep an eye out for a weathered plaque affixed to the exterior of a well-kept brick establishment housing Terre Rouge Bistro Marche in one half, and Liquid Gold Olive Oils & Vinegars in the other. Here’s a close-up of the text for your reading pleasure.
And here’s an exterior shot of the building, so you know what to look for.
This corner (not the building itself) was supposedly home to the famed Crossed Keys Tavern, the illustrious meeting place of the first ever sitting of the Island’s House of Assembly way back when in 1773.
Our story begins once again with Walter Patterson, a figure with whom we recently dealt (see Enacted, Repealed: The Institution of Slavery on Prince Edward Island). He put in at Charlottetown in August 1770 to assume the role and responsibilities of Governor, was officially sworn in as such a month later, and then began his hapless reign at the head of Island politics. At the time of his swearing-in, he appointed an executive council to help him get the colony’s government operational; however, it would be another three years before he was more or less forced to create a House of Assembly in accordance with proper British government.
In February 1773, it was agreed by council to hold an election for an assembly of 18 members who would, in theory, serve to represent the people of what was then St. John’s Island. The conditions for prospective candidates were two-fold: such an individual had to be Protestant, and a resident of the colony at the time of the election. That you must also be male clearly went without saying.
The election was slated to be held on July 4, 1773. That day, only 18 persons could be found who were deemed “respectable” enough to sit in the House of Assembly – conveniently, precisely the number required. Not surprisingly, all were elected on the first ballot – what other option was there? It has been observed by some that these 18 men were in all likelihood hand-picked by Patterson himself to assist in driving home some of the measures concocted by he and his council. Based on his underhanded behaviour in later years, this would certainly be in keeping.
Three days later, on July 7, the Island’s first House of Assembly met at the Crossed Keys Tavern operated by Alexander Richardson, which served as an important multi-purpose public institution. The powers had yet to get around to building an actual seat of government but, priorities being what they were, there’d been foresight enough to erect an alehouse – proper thing and all that.
The session was a quick affair, and once all of the ordinances that Patterson and his executive council had spent the past three years trying to enforce (to little avail) had been enacted, the assembly was quickly dissolved – yet another indication that it had been recruited by Patterson to serve a very specific purpose. Among the thirteen pieces of legislation passed were measures for the efficient recovery of small debts, licensing for the retail of “Rum or other distilled Spirituous Liquors” and, of course, an act dealing with recovering Quit Rents from landlords. These were fairly mundane, and what you would expect of good government. But, because Patterson was involved, there had to be a bit of trickery somewhere. That turned out to be a retroactive measure buried in the middle, which conveniently enacted all legislation put in place by governor and council prior to the formation of the assembly. All very clever, but I digress.
Somewhere amid all of this, Sergeant-at-Arms Edward Ryan, an Irishman who also doubled as the doorkeeper, for reasons not quite clear, couldn’t resist offering his opinion of the proceedings. At one point, he allegedly stated that it was a “damned queer [strange] parliament.” Whether he was referring to the fact that this was all taking place within the confines of a tavern, or commenting on the nature of what was supposed to have been a democratically elected – but in reality hand-picked – assembly, we don’t know. Perhaps it was a bit of both. Or maybe, just maybe, there was a bit of alcohol at play and he was unwittingly passing drunken judgement.
For his indiscreet albeit poignant observation, Ryan was summarily relieved of his duties the next day and docked five shillings pay, his apology clearly insufficient recompense. Although when stacked against the later actions of Patterson and his inner sanctum, Ryan’s comes across as but a minor transgression in the grand scheme of things.
It would be over a year before another (dubious) assembly was elected, sitting in October 1774. Edward Ryan was not called upon to reprise his role, but no doubt he would have had a few choice words.
PEI History Guy
P.S. – On to the matter of the disclaimer. That Edward Ryan made insubordinate remarks and was chastised is without doubt – we have the documentation to back that up. That an assembly was supposedly elected by democratic means, but in actuality was hand-picked by Patterson himself is also likely to have been true – it was he who would write to his superiors that the only people who came forward as candidates, and who were worthy enough to sit in the House of Assembly, were the 18 members elected. Where the story veers from reality, according to some, is the Crossed Keys Tavern as the setting. Despite a bronze plaque to the contrary, in the late 1970s Lorne Callbeck took a hard look at the evidence in his My Island, My People, and found a couple of discrepancies. According to his research, the journal from that first sitting of the assembly references a James Richardson (not Alexander Richardson as per convention), thanking him for the use of his house. But a much more compelling argument can be put forward by the fact that, in 1773, records indicate that the supposed location of the Crossed Keys Tavern was a vacant lot, only acquired by Alexander Richardson in 1781, eight years after the fact. I wasn’t able to follow up on any of this, so if anyone familiar with the subject matter would like to weigh in, feel free to comment below.