Thomas Baker McQuesten
(Tom, Tim, Tomity, Tomty)
Jun. 30, 1882 - Jan. 13, 1948
You do not know what a help
and strength you have been to your mother. I am so nervous and anxious minded
that if you had been anything else but what you are I would certainly have
broken down. If you had been a lazy good for nothing, selfish and
unsympathetic, it seems to me I would have died, for people do die of broken
Thomas Baker McQuesten was just six
years old when his father, Isaac Baldwin McQuesten, died suddenly and
unexpectedly in 1888. For many years, Isaac had suffered with alcoholism,
depression and insomnia for which he took medications and treatment at Guelph (W2511).
He died after taking a sleeping potion, or several, liberally mixed with
alcohol. He also died bankrupt; he had lost the fortune that his father, Dr.
Calvin McQuesten, had earned in the foundry industry in Hamilton. The sudden
death and the bankruptcy was widely rumoured to be a suicide. His father had
retired in 1865 with $500,000, and when Isaac died in 1888, he left debts of
$900,000. He also left his wife, Mary Baker McQuesten, impoverished with six
children between the ages of fourteen and two: Mary, Calvin, Hilda, Ruby, Tom,
Edna, (Muriel had died before the age of two) (see photo at "Family"). Isaac
had managed to leave the house (Whitehern) in trust for Mary but it was badly
in need of repair.
Tom's mother Mary assessed each child
for their ability to restore the family and she determined that Ruby and
Thomas, who was three years younger than Ruby, had the greatest potential for
education and earning power; however, in the Victorian Age, Tom, being a man,
held the greatest promise for achieving a professional education and career.
Thomas, therefore might be capable of restoring the family to solvency and
social status. Mary then determined that when the children were old enough,
Ruby would become a teacher and then send her salary home to put Tom through
university - there was no other way to be seen.
Tom was physically and mentally
robust, intelligent, athletic, handsome and genial. He embodied the best hope
for the family's return to financial stability; therefore, Mary concentrated
all of the family resources on him. Mary's letters to him demonstrate her great
affection for him and her dedication to his success. She molded his attitudes,
morals, and provided his life's plan. Ruby also envisioned a political life
for Tom as a member of parliament and a moral politician to replace the
"sin-blind" leaders of the day. Tom was clearly Mary's favourite and he is
always mentioned with pride and affection by all family members.
Tom was educated at Hamilton Public
Schools and graduated from Hamilton Collegiate with honours in English, History
and Classics. Mary insisted on a Classical education for her children. He
entered the University of Toronto in 1900 and distinguished himself by winning
the Alexander Mackenzie Scholarship for Political Science in 1903 which brought
a very small cash prize. He was president of his fraternity (Zeta Psi) and
editor of Varsity.
Tom very nearly won the Rhodes
Scholarship in 1904, the first year it was offered, but it became a political
contest, and he lost out to another candidate. The scholarship would have
provided $1500 per year, and it was a sad blow and disappointment to his mother
when he did not win. The money would have made a great deal of difference to
the family, especially to Ruby, and it was a long time before his mother was
able to forget it (W5199,
Tom's sister, Ruby, a teacher,
continued to send money to Tom to pay for his tuition, and his father's former
law partner, James Chisholm, helped him a little as well. Tom had a variety of
summer jobs which often involved physical labour and he grew lean and tough.
This included work on a cattle boat by which he made his way to England and Scotland to visit the original family home there in 1901. He also worked in the lumber
camps on the Ottawa River for the summers of 1903 and 1904, but the danger in
this work was kept a secret from his mother (W8164).
It was a long hard struggle, and in
April of 1907, when Tom was twenty-five years of age, he was still requiring
money from his family for fees and living expenses (W5812). After
graduation from Osgoode in 1907, Tom practiced law at Elk Lake near Cobalt
during the silver mining boom. He loved the hardy life in the North where he
could hike and canoe, but the opportunities for a successful future were bleak.
Thomas's family made many sacrifices
for his education and he was twenty-seven years of age, in 1909, before he had
a stable income with James Chisholm, a member of Tom's father's law firm in
Hamilton. Tom's initial salary was $1000 per year, with some prospects of
sharing profits as well, and his mother soon urged him to press for this
increase, as well as for a finer-looking office (W8239). She also stated
that "it is certainly going to mean a great difference to us";
however, it was also in 1907 that Ruby's health expenses began to mount, she had
to leave teaching, was sent to a sanatorium in Calgary, then to another in
Gravenhurst, and then to a cottage on the Hamilton Mountain so that her family
could be near. Ruby died in 1911 and her role in Tom's success was forgotten.
During this time Edna also required medical treatment for mental illness from
time to time.
By 1911, Tom was able to give some
conditional assurance to his mother and to Calvin that "there will be no
lack of money but we just have to arrange it" (W6732). Therefore, it
was twenty-one years, from 1888 to 1909, before Mary and her family were able
to feel some relief from the financial pressures. Tom became the titular head
of the family, but Mary continued in control; she convinced him to stay in Hamilton, and urged him into politics and public works.
McQuesten and Mackenzie King
Tom never married, but he was engaged
to a Miss Isabel Elliott in Toronto in 1907, which his mother learned through
rumours. Although Mary did not approve, she had to deal very carefully with
her son, and the relationship continued secretly for some time. Miss Elliott
attempted to win Mary's approval by commissioning a miniature of Mary to be
painted by an artist friend; however, Mary continued to find fault with it, and
made it an issue between Tom and Miss Elliott. Mary was not one to be seduced
so easily and Miss Elliott was no match for her matriarchal wiles (W5868, W6012).
Precisely why Mary objected to Miss
Elliott is never explained in the letters, but it likely has its source in the
fact that Thomas had been groomed by his mother and his whole family to replace
his father as the successful lawyer and family provider, which would restore
the family to its former status. Now when Tom had just graduated and was on the
brink of becoming their saviour, he was considering abandoning them.
Tom certainly felt his obligation to
his mother and sisters to take financial responsibility for their support,
which he did after he went into law practice, but he would not have earned
enough money for many years to support a wife as well. Mary had already established,
in her objection to David Ross's marriage to Ruby, that it was a disgrace for a
man to consider marriage until his duty to his own family had been fulfilled.
The family, especially Ruby, had made many sacrifices to pay for Tom's
education, and he was only now, at the age of twenty-six, beginning to show
some promise of providing some financial relief for the family. Although there
is no direct evidence that Mary actively broke up the relationship, it did not
come to fruition and Tom continued to fulfill his duties to his family.
However, Thomas was handsome and popular and had other relationships with
women, but they were very discreet and he never married (Best 205n1).
Both Tom and Calvin preferred to spend
their time away from home. Although Tom was reluctant to come back home to
live, he finally determined that the best place for him was Hamilton where he
could practice law and enter politics. He stated to Calvin "It would be
almost hopeless for a Liberal to get elected in Toronto. I think I would stand
a far better chance in Hamilton, but then, I could not afford to be a stranger
At the same time the matriarchal pressure was mounting to get him involved in
law and politics at home and Mary stated that she "hoped that here I may
get him interested in some other good works as well" as, indeed, she did (W6318).
Thomas's career is recounted fully and
admirably in John Best's biography: Thomas Baker McQuesten: Public Works,
Politics and Imagination (1991), and in Roland Barnsley's biography: Thomas
B. McQuesten (1987). I will note a few important events here especially as
they relate to his mother's influence. Tom was elected vice-president of the
Hamilton Liberal Club in 1912, where John Chisholm was president. Tom was then
elected to Alderman for the City of Hamilton in1913 which he held until 1920.
His family encouraged him and campaigned vigorously in his political career.
In the war of 1914-18 Tom favoured
conscription and was determined to join the armed forces, as some of his
friends had done. He had already served in the Militia during university. His
mother was adamant that he not go and, after much argument, he did not enlist.
In 1914 Tom was already thirty-two years of age and was the main provider of
his family. Mary did not support the war and felt the money and the lives could
have been used to better advantage at home and in the missionary field. She could
not risk losing Tom, and deplored the loss of the lives of young Canadians and
"their mothers left to mourn them" (W6828). She also viewed
the war as a male folly and was quite disgusted with "the way men do
Tom proceeded, with his mother's urging
and full approval, to fulfill himself in public works. He was an astute
politician and a good judge of character and quickly learned how to manage
people, but he preferred to work behind the scenes, taking little credit for
himself. He formed partnerships with other lawyers, politicians, engineers,
architects, artists and horticulturalists to effect his plans to beautify the
city and the province. In this he was reflecting the family's dedication to
social reform through city planning, beautification and education. This
Victorian cultural impulse was known as the "Social Gospel" and
"City Beautiful" movements.
Significantly for this study, which was
originally done as a Ph.D. thesis under the auspices of McMaster University, Thomas McQuesten was instrumental in bringing McMaster University to Hamilton from Toronto. Other cities in Ontario were competing for the university throughout
the 1920's, but the factor that "tipped the scales" in Hamilton's
favour was the offer by the Hamilton Board of Parks Management, of which Tom
was a member, to provide the attractive Westdale site and "magnificent
landscaped grounds" (Barnsley 29). The site was turned over to McMaster in
1928. The Sunken Garden and its Lily Pool was a quiet haven of inspiration for
scholars, and attracted many visitors until the garden was destroyed for the
construction of the McMaster Medical Center. Tom had neglected to add an "in
perpetuity clause." Tom viewed McMaster University as one of the finest
contributions that he and his team were able to accomplish (Best 58; W7010).
We've never landed such a
fish as this. . . . Our whole development has been along mechanics lines. And
the result has been, the owners don't live here. . . . and Hamilton has become
too much a factory town. This is the first break toward a broader culture and
higher educational development. It was sorely needed. Did I ever think what a
great word 'university' is? - It has never been let down, never become stale or
commonplace, always dignified and lofty (Best 58).
Mary's letters in 1928 and 1930 reveal
her pride in McMaster's growth, both as a university and as a park, "Very
large contributions coming in for McMaster; nearly the $500,000, and again:
"C. Whidden [was] amazed at the flowers, cannot take any more
students." In these pursuits Tom had his mother's encouragement and Tom
took her on many trips to inspect various parks, greenhouses, and McMaster
University and its gardens (W7010, W7080, W7085, W7095, W7124, W7128, W7136).
Tom served on the Hamilton Board of
Parks Management from 1922 to 1948. Within the first decade, by 1932, Hamilton had the largest acreage of developed park land and playgrounds in any Canadian
city. This included: Gage Park, Cootes Paradise, Scott Park, King's Forest Park, Chedoke Golf Course, The Royal Botanical Gardens ("Rock Gardens")
and The High Level Bridge (posthumously renamed The T.B. McQuesten High Level
Bridge). Tom fulfilled his familial and his public duties admirably. His friend
and associate on the Parks Board, C.V. Langs, summed up Tom's self-sacrificing
dedication: "T.B. McQuesten is a bachelor . . . whose bride is the city
parks system" (Best 68).
Tom's sister Hilda acted as his hostess
for social and political functions, and they were an attractive and charming
couple at various functions. There is no doubt that Hilda's charm, grace and
intelligence added to Tom's success, and that Mary was extremely proud of them.
They often received invitations to political social functions.
Tom fell under the influence of Noulan
Couchon, who had trained in the Beaux Arts tradition; he was an early town
planner, and an advocate of "The Garden City Movement" which was
sweeping England and Europe and which viewed parks as "the lungs of the
city" (The Spectator, Hamilton, Dec 7, 1991). As well as the
influence of his mother and sisters, there was a strong feminine content in
Tom's work. He hired Laurie Dunnington as part of the married team of
Dunnington-Grubbe, who were garden designers, and he employed Frances Loring
and Florence Wyle as the sculptors for his projects.
In 1934 Tom was elected to the
Provincial Government and was appointed to the Cabinet with two portfolios:
Minister of Public Works and Minister of Highways for Ontario. After his mother's
death in1934, Tom continued to expand his (and his mother's) public
conservation and beautification vision. In this position he was responsible for
the construction of the Queen Elizabeth Highway and other highways, the Rainbow Bridge, the Blue Water Bridge at Sarnia, and the Ivy Lea Bridge at Gananoque. He had a
strong sense of history and his ministry reconstructed Fort Henry, Fort Erie and Fort George and the Martello towers at Kingston. Tom was also chairman of
the Niagara Parks Commission and oversaw the construction of the Niagara Parkway, the Floral Clock, the Oakes Garden Theatre, Queen Victoria Park, Queenston Heights Park and Restaurant, as well as the School for Apprentice Gardeners which
provided training and graduates for the maintenance of the parks.
Tom dedicated himself to his family and
his country rather than to marriage and children, and he devoted his life to
public works in education, beautification, and community improvement. Tom was
also self-effacing and gracious in giving credit to his mother for her
encouragement and imagination, and he referred to her as his "best
chum" (Barnsley 18). Mary's obituary in the Hamilton Herald Dec 7, 1934
states Tom's acknowledged indebtedness to his mother as the inspiration for his
Mr. McQuesten has told of
the large part his mother has played in molding his tastes, his standards and
his plan of life. Not the least of her contributions to him was to give him a
love for beauty that was large enough to spread out and influence the appearance
of a great city... Large areas of Hamilton are, in the last analysis, a
reflection of her love for beauty.
Tom was awarded the Hamilton Citizen of
the Year Award which Calvin accepted on his behalf while Tom was ill in
hospital with cancer. He died on January 13, 1948, and is buried in the family
plot in Hamilton Cemetery. Unlike many politicians, Tom did not profit from his
political career beyond his salary; he was scrupulously honest, and when he
died he left a modest estate of $51,000 including his share of Whitehern (Best
191). However, he and his mother and Ruby and family left to the world the many
beauty spots which are a testament to their lives. As well as the T.B. McQuesten High Level Bridge, a park on the Hamilton Mountain now perpetuates the McQuesten
name. However, one of four empty niches on the bridge would benefit from a
sculpture of Tom to commemorate his contribution.
Thomas Baker McQuesten was honoured by
the Hamilton Public Library in 1986 when he was inducted into their Gallery
of Distinction. He was awarded "Citizen of the Year" and his brother
Calvin accepted the honour in his name.
POLITICAL POSITIONS AND APPOINTMENTS (Minnes, p. 1-5)
City Alderman for Ward 2, Hamilton (1913-1920)
- Chairman of special
gas committee, fought for municipal ownership of Hamilton gas distribution
- President of Hamilton Liberal Association (1921-1923)
- Management Committee
of the Liberal Party in Ottawa (1925)
- Vice-President of the
Ontario Liberal Association (1930 or 1931)
- President of the Ontario Liberal
Association (1932 or 1933-43)
of Provincial Parliament, Ontario (1934-1943)
- Commissioner on
Hydro-Electric Power Commission (1934-1937)
- Minister of Municipal
- Minister of Public
Works (1934-1937, 1942-1943)
- Minister of Highways (1934-1943)
of Works Committee, Hamilton Board of Parks Management (1922-1947)
- Chairman of Niagara Parks Commission
- Chairman of Niagara Bridge Commission
Thomas and his mother, Mary,