Alexander Wood was born in 1772 in Fetteresso, near Stonehaven in Scotland. He would die, unmarried, on September 11, 1844 at Woodcot, Scotland – after a life of success and scandal as one of Toronto’s early pioneers as a businessman, militia officer, Justice Of The Peace and office holder.
In 1791, John Graves Simcoe became the first Lieutenant Governor of Upper Canada. Simcoe offered free land to citizens loyal to the Crown. Alexander Wood responded. At the age of 21, with a good education, some capital and the backing of his brother he emigrated, arriving in Upper Canada in 1793 where he settled in Kingston and invested in the Kingston Brewery.
In 1797, Wood moved to York (now known as Toronto) and established himself as a merchant in partnership with William Allan. He opened his own shop on the corner of King and Frederick Streets on April 13, 1801. The store, one of only three in town, occupied the lower floor of Wood’s residence. Later, the first sidewalk in York would be laid in front of his store.
With the exception of tea and tobacco, almost all of Wood’s merchandise came from Britain. He sold a wide range of dry goods and farming supplies, from cloths such as flannel and calico, to milk pans and plows. Flour, sugar and pork, was sold alongside whiskey and rum. And Wood did a booming business in a fashion staple of that era, powdered wigs and ribbons for men. York was one of the last bastions in the world where powdered hair remained fashionable.
Wood became one of the leading merchants in York before the War of 1812 and was one of the few merchants accepted among York’s elite. Among his closest friends were William Dummer Powell, George Crookshank, their families, and Reverend (later Bishop) John Strachan.
In 1798, Wood was gazetted as a lieutenant in the York militia. In 1800, Wood was appointed magistrate. In 1805, he became a Commissioner for the Court of Requests, a kind of senior planning officer.
It was in 1810 that Wood’s world fell apart. Wood interviewed several young men individually telling them that a Miss Bailey had accused them of rape. According to Wood she had scratched the assailant’s genitals. To prove his innocence each of the accused had to submit to Wood’s intimate physical examination. With a population of less than 700 the favourite pastime was gossip and the young men talked.
John Beverley Robinson called Wood the “Inspector General of Private Accounts”
Wood was occasionally insulted by this name in the streets. It affected his business as ‘no one goes near his shop”.
Judge Powell asked his friend about the story and was horrified when Wood admitted its truth. Powell said that Wood’s abuse of his position as magistrate made him liable to fine and imprisonment. The public prosecutor smothered the evidence on the understanding that Wood leave upper Canada. On 17 October, 1810 he departed for Scotland.
Wood’s exile would end less than two years later, when he returned to York on August 25, 1812. He resumed all of his previous occupations, including that of magistrate.
Though he had lost the friendship of the Powells, he remained friends with the Crookshanks and Strachans.
In 1813, Wood was one of the organizers of a ball that was held for the “the ladies and strangers” of York to celebrate the capture of Fort Niagara. Wood retired from his fairly successful merchant business by 1815. In 1817, Wood inherited his family estates and moved to Scotland. He returned to York in 1821 and his shop was formally closed that year. He remained in York for 21 years acting as an agent for absentee landowners, and was also a director or executive member of several organizations including the Bank of upper Canada and the Toronto Library. He had a long and successful career in public service serving on the executive of nearly every charitable and philanthropic society in York, usually as treasurer.
In 1826, Wood purchased 50 acres of land on the northeast corner of Yonge and Carlton Street, north as far as Maitland Street. The area, undeveloped until the 1850s, was sneeringly referred to as “Molly Wood’s Bush”, Molly being a colloquialism for “homosexual” at the time. When the area was settled two streets, Alexander St and Wood St and a shorter adjunct, Alexander Place, were named after him.
His appointment on Strachan’s recommendation to the commission to investigate war claims in 1823 was blocked by Chief Justice Powell on moral grounds. Wood sued Powell for damages and the whole 1810 scandal was retold. Wood won damages of 120 pounds, which Powell refused to pay. Powell published a pamphlet about the case in 1831. After Powell’s death, Wood visited his widow and forgave the debt.
In 1838, George Herchmer Markland, a friend of Wood’s and a member of the ruling elite of the province met with morals charges and was forced to resign public office. This was at a time when sodomy was punishable by death. Correspondence between Wood and Markland suggests that they knew of each other’s sexual proclivities. This is one of the few bits of evidence to suggest that some sort of network might have existed in the early years of York.
In 1842, Wood visited Scotland and he died there in 1844. He was 72. At his death the publication British Colonist called him one of Toronto’s “most respected inhabitant’s”. The city, formerly known as Toronto (called Toronto or “meeting place of the waters” by the Mississauga Indians) changed its name back from York to Toronto in 1834.