John Counter, Benefactor and Community Builder
John Counter’s dreams for his adopted home, Kingston, included an enduring legacy: a large and imposing city hall, and another impressive building: Sydenham Street Methodist Church.
John Counter played a significant role in the early life of 19th century Kingston. Most important for Sydenham Street Methodist Church was his donation, in 1851, of the land on which the church was built. Some stories claim that the land had been used by a travelling circus. At the time, Counter was mayor of the city, prominent in business and politics.
Born in England on April 18 in 1799, John Counter came to Kingston, Upper Canada, in 1820, with his parents. He worked at various occupations including participating in the family business as a confectioner and baker, dabbling in real estate, and becoming involved in many business ventures in the town.
Counter is best remembered for his role as a municipal politician.
It was at a public meeting on 30 December 1835 that John Counter moved a resolution urging the incorporation of Kingston as a town. Counter continued to promote the idea, judging that it would bring increased business and improve property values, and signed the petition which brought incorporation in 1838. Counter was the first mayor of the City of Kingston in 1846. Elected again in 1850, 1852, 1853, and 1855, he resigned in June 1855 because his shares in the local gas company were considered a conflict of interest. In 1851, Counter was nominated by the Reformers to run against John A. Macdonald but he refused to campaign and was defeated twice by Macdonald in the 1850s.
Counter served as mayor of the town from 1841 to 1843 when Kingston was the first capital of the United Provinces of Canada. During his terms in office, the town’s leaders considered proposals for a new municipal building to showcase their position as the capital. As mayor, Counter travelled to London to borrow the money for the splendid building and lobbied for agreement that Kingston would be the location of the provincial legislature, if not the capital of Canada. Neither of these grand plans were acceptable. The Governor-General of the day Sir Charles Bagot made the fateful decision to move the capital to Quebec City. British government officials refused to consider Kingston: too rowdy, too many taverns, too many drunks. One rumour had it that Mme. Lafontaine refused to stay in Kingston: it did not suit her poodle. The dog preferred Montreal – and her husband Louis-Hippolyte Lafontaine was a key member of the governing Executive Council of Canada. Nevertheless, Counter and other leading citizens continued their efforts to build a very imposing and beautiful city hall. The cornerstone was laid on June 5, 1843 and soon Kingston became the home of one of the oldest, most impressive city halls in Canada. Before long, city officials struggled to find tenants and users of the large edifice with a great deal of vacant space. Various groups used the building: Post Office, Bank of British North America, a saloon, the Orange Order, and several church congregations. An attempt to provide housing in the basement for welfare recipients lasted for several years with mixed success. A significant asset was of course the large and crowded market wing stretching toward King Street. The original market wing burnt down in 1865 and was soon replaced with the section that stands today.
John Counter was a force in municipal politics and business, but his attention was not limited to these fields. His energy and generosity also extended in other directions. As a proud supporter of the Wesleyan Methodists he donated money in support of the Victoria Street chapel in 1847. Most notably he donated the land that would soon become the site of Sydenham Street Methodist Church.
On April 17th, 1851 a day before his 52nd birthday, Counter laid the cornerstone of the church. Today, thanks to many decades of dedicated work by members of the congregation, beginning with Counter’s donation, the building with its slender spire is a significant part of the Kingston skyline and a bustling hub for the Kingston community. More than 1000 people enter the doors each week – mostly not for worship, but for making music, learning, rehearsing, working, self-help and community-building. Pictured is a view of the church in the 1860’s.
Despite his outstanding accomplishments on behalf of Kingston in politics, business and religious life, Counter endured an ignominious end to his career and personal life. He had borrowed heavily to support his numerous interests and was unable to meet a large mortgage payment. He declared bankruptcy in October 1855.
As Counter’s business enterprises began to fail, his personal life was beset with tragedy. Within ten years he lost his brother, two grandchildren, his two sons, and his wife. The country house he built in 1847 was taken over by a bank in 1856, the same year that his extensive holdings were disposed of by chancery sale.
John Counter died in 1862 at the home of his son-in-law, in virtual obscurity. Only a brief notice appeared in the local newspaper on the death of a man who had devoted his life to the welfare of his adopted home, Kingston.
The bustling farmers market appears in this 19th century photo of the market-square side of City Hall. Today an outdoor rink on this site beckons to skaters throughout the winter. The building’s wonderful architecture remains a marvel.
Today Counter’s name appears on a major city arterial road as well as a meeting room in the City Hall for which he devoted so much of his time and talent. And Sydenham Street United Church stands firmly on the grounds Counter donated in 1851.
Angus, Margaret. Dictionary of Canadian Biography, Volume IX.
Osborne, Brian S. and Donald Swainson. 2011. Kingston, building on the past for the future.
Thanks to Kaitlyn Macdonald, Queen’s University student intern 2019 and John Fielding, Spring 2020. ED