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Henry James Morgan (1842-1913)

Henry J. Morgan was the first and most influential of the authors who, mainly through collections of short biographies (or collective biographies), documented the rising middle class in Canada in the late 19th century. His collections, such as Canadian Men and Women of the Time, Bibliotheca Canadensis, and The Canadian Parliamentary Companion, were intended to encourage a distinctive Canadian sense of identity and nationalism. They also inspired later generations of historians, literary specialists and other scholars by providing a rare point of entry into the lives of Canadians in the late 19th and early 20th century. Through his work as a historian and archivist, he also made Canadians aware of their history up to the time of Confederation and helped to preserve many of the documents forming the basis of Canada’s national archives.

Born in Québec City in 1842, Morgan’s accomplishments were phenomenal before his 25th birthday. Forced to work prematurely by the early death of his father, he became a page in the Legislative Assembly of the Province of Canada at the age of 11, and later served as a sessional clerk of the assembly and as a private secretary to several government officials. Making use of a rapidly expanding network of contacts, he began to prepare biographical compilations of persons both living and dead. In 1862, he published Sketches of Celebrated Canadians, a biographical collection of historical figures, and the first volume of The Canadian Parliamentary Companion, which he compiled annually, with a few exceptions, until 1876. This work, the predecessor of the present Canadian Parliamentary Guide, included biographical profiles of legislative politicians in the Province of Canada until 1867 and of the legislative members of the federal and provincial governments after Confederation. In 1867, he released Bibliotheca Canadensis, which some scholars regard as his greatest accomplishment. It contained short biographical sketches of every published Canadian author between the fall of New France and 1867, together with an annotated list of all his or her publications.

After Confederation, Morgan was active both in the federal public service and in the preparation of further studies. Appointed as a clerk to the Department of Secretary of State in 1867, he was promoted to first-class clerk in 1873 and given custody of Canada’s state records. In 1875, he became Chief Clerk of the department with the formal title of Keeper of the Records, placing him in an influential archival position which he retained until 1883. During these years, he also published The Canadian Legal Directory in 1878, which included descriptions of the court procedures, lists of lawyers across Canada and biographical sketches of the judges. Between 1879 and 1887, he began, with the aid of various assistants, The Dominion Annual Register and Review (1879-87), which was the first annual record of the important political, social and general topics of the year, with a synopsis of literary output and other data.

In 1895, he retired from the public service and, from then until his death in 1913, devoted himself almost single-mindedly to the preparation of his most widely used compendium, The Canadian Men and Women of the Time. The first edition, containing biographies of 2,773 notable Canadians, appeared in 1898 and was regarded as the immediate precursor of the Canadian Who’s Who when the latter began publishing in 1910. In 1912, Morgan produced a second edition, now including 7,900 sketches of persons alive at that time.

Morgan’s work has facilitated the work of numerous scholars and journalists undertaking research into late 19th and early 20th century life in Canada. His chronicles of thousands of middle class Canadians represent one of the few sources providing personal information on such people. Because his work was informed by the input of his personal contacts, its information goes well beyond evidence available in other historical sources.


Title of the Image: Henry James Morgan (1842-1913)
Source of the Image: In the public domain

Image titled: Henry James Morgan (1842-1913)
Copyright:  In the public domain

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