Not Guilty of Treason ~ Joseph Milburn

By Chris Raible

Joseph Milburn (a.k.a. Milbourne or Milbourn), the eldest of five brothers, was born in 1802 in Lastingham – an ancient village in northern Yorkshire.  

Historically, in the 17th century the area was a Quaker stronghold and the scene of passionate religious controversy.  However, in 1819, the economy rather than theology prompted Joseph, with his father James and two brothers, to migrate to Upper Canada. Various Canadian references, including census records, label Milburn as a Quaker, but there is no known record of his being part of the Yonge Street (or any other) Canadian Quaker Meeting. 

In the commercial town of York, Milburn prospered. He was welcomed into the St. George’s Lodge of Freemasons.  He married, in 1824, Desdemona Post, a daughter of watchmaker Jordan Post.  From his father-in-law, Milburn bought several King Street properties (flipping them a few years later by selling them to Robert Baldwin)  Near the end of the decade, Joseph and Desdemona moved to Thornhill to farm and to operate a tavern on Yonge Street.  In the course of the next two decades they had nine children.

As the owner of a popular tavern, Milburn soon gained a reputation as “a reform-minded Quaker” (as a neighbour described him).   He signed on as the local agent for William Lyon Mackenzie’s popular newspaper, the Colonial Advocate.  The Thornhill tavern became a political gathering place. In the provincial Assembly session of 1831-2, Mackenzie was repeatedly expelled from his seat and then immediately re-elected to it – voting records testify that Milburn consistently voted for him.  

In September 1837, at a large political gathering in Markham that was addressed by both Mackenzie and David Gibson, Milburn was elected one of seven delegates to a proposed Reform Association “political convention.” He was also named to a much larger “committee of vigilance and public safety.”   Its stated purpose: “to encourage political associations, to maintain our political rights and [to] spread useful knowledge.”   Milburn, nevertheless, was also vigorously opposed to “the training of armed men” to promote the reform cause.    When the Rebellion erupted in early December, he was one of many men who assembled at Montgomery’s Tavern, but soon left and returned home.   However, in a reminiscence penned sixty years later, Charles Durand described Milburn as “a very fine, manly fellow, a thorough Englishman” who “rode a fine grey horse… [and who] no doubt in the fight on Yonge Street.”  

Back in Thornhill, finding that the local “Magistracy was completely inert,” Milburn became “the chief instrument of organizing … a Mutual Protection Company for property and persons.” With neighbours he acted to prevent roving gangs, whether rebels or loyalists, from raiding and burning unprotected farm buildings.  On one occasion, while socializing at a Markham tavern (not his own), Milburn encountered a group of rebel rowdies bent on torching the home of a local Tory. He befriended them and managed to convince them to abandon their plans.  Nevertheless, as a known rebel sympathizer, he was soon arrested.

After ten or twelve days in Toronto’s jail, his wife being in labour for the birth of their fourth child, Millburn was permitted “to return home upon his own bail,” on condition that he report back in four days, which he did. Soon thereafter, however, sworn depositions accused him of having encouraged rebel sympathizers bent on burning loyalist property. He was retained in custody and, in time, charged with High Treason.

Milburn was not, however, without friends, including a number of prominent persons (some of them brother Masons) who were anything but sympathetic to the Rebellion. An organized effort was launched to obtain his release. In early March, taking advantage of the provisions of recently enacted Provincial legislation, Milburn freely confessed to his guilt to the charges against him and petitioned for pardon.  A month later, a neighbour, a “cripple and unable to walk,” made disposition swearing that Milburn had come to his aid, acting “with zeal for [his] safety” when threatened by a band of rebels. The neighbour also insisted that Milburn “had always been considered as a good humane and honourable man,” and had advised men against “going to those training practices by the Rebel party previous to the outbreak.”  

In May several hundred rebel prisoners were, in fact, pardoned on condition of their “swearing to keep the peace” and “providing securities for three years.” Milburn, despite his having met these same conditions, was not numbered among them.

Therefore, in June five prominent loyalist neighbours, all ranking militia officers, personally approached Lieutenant Governor Arthur on Milburn’s behalf and soon afterward submitted sworn testimony. One officer told of an occasion when Milburn had diverted a band of Rebels determined to “wreak vengeance” on a Dr. McCague who was “notorious for his Loyalty and zeal for the Government.” The second officer testified that he had been captured by the rebels and held “a prisoner at Montgomery’s … [while there] he neither saw nor heard of Milburn’s being in arms or among the Rebels.” Any contrary “representations made to the government must be erroneous.” The third officer swore Milburn “was not in arms and if he was… he [the officer] was almost certain he must have known it.” The fourth officer declared Milburn had often expressed his hope that “unconstitutional attempts against the government might be put down.” And the fifth officer described his being in disguise and moving among the rebels at Montgomery’s. While there he had seen “nothing of Milburn.” He also noted that “with the high excitement of the times” and “Milburn being a reformer,” it was no surprise that reports “highly prejudicial to him” had been circulated by “persons who believed what they heard rather than from any knowledge of the facts.” All five officers prayed that Arthur would be “graciously pleased to mitigate the sentence of the Law.”  

A month later, Milburn again petitioned, stating that though imprisoned in December and indicted, he had not yet been arraigned, despite his March written confession of guilt. He acknowledged that he had been “unfortunately led to take a part in the recent treasonable insurrection by the artifices used by desperate and unprincipled persons by whose persuasions he was unhappily seduced from his allegiance,” and that he was “deeply sensible of the heinous offence which he as committed against the laws of his country and desirous of making the only reparation in his power,” and again was “penitently confessing his guilt of the offence charged against him.” He humbly prayed that he might be “pardoned upon such terms and conditions as to your Excellency may seem fit.”  

At about the same time, nineteen prominent “residents of Yonge Street,” also petitioned the Lieutenant Governor, deeply regretting Milburn’s treatment. They “had known Milburn for many years,” and he had for a time been “a regular attendant at the English Church … had he so continued we doubt not but he would have kept without the vortex of that baneful influence which has drawn so many into irretrievable ruin.” “In the exercise of christian charity” they urged “such mitigation of punishment as may be compatible with just exercise of Royal Clemency.” If a pardon were extended, they believed Milburn would seek to “make amends for his past inequity.” 

In addition, four York residents petitioned Arthur hoping that since Milburn had “always heretofore maintained a character for uprightness and integrity… [they trusted] that the pardon prayed for … may be granted upon terms as little onerous as possible consistent with a due regard to the public interest.”   One signatory, a Masonic brother, Thomas Carfrae, was an important Government official: Collector of Customs for York Harbour. 

Back in March, two rebel prisoners, Jesse and Charles Doan, had begun crafting small boxes from scraps of firewood. In the months following, many of their fellow prisoners began box making also.

On June 26th Milburn crafted such a box.  He made it as a gift to Thomas Carfrae, identifying him as “Collector of the Port of Toronto.”

Milburn also inscribed quatrain:

Come winter with thine angry howl  
And raging bend the naked tree,
Thy gloom will sooth my cheerless soul 
When nature all is sad like me. 

These winter lines by Robert Burns inspired a summer message, possibly written by Milburn himself: 

Now summer in her robes of green, 
Looks smiling fair and gay,
Yet not a charm for those are seen 
Whose rights are torn away.

Still in jail on July 23rd, Milburn again petitioned for a pardon, reiterating, in greater detail, the confessions and claims of his earlier petitions. He declared, “the Crime which I suffer for was committed in a Stage of great excitement without reflection or thought. I have suffered severely for it …when a Bill was found against me, of my own accord gave myself up … I had no wish to flee from Justice, I knew that in my heart I was not Guilty of Treason, my Reform was Constitutional not Rebellion.”  

On the third day of August, Milburn crafted a second box,   similar to his first, as a present to Mrs. James Richardson, wife of the nearby Methodist minister who regularly visited the jailed rebels. Milburn described himself simply as “a state Prisoner in Toronto Gaol, U.C.” While still hopeful, he did not hide his political convictions – he added lines from an unknown source:

May happy days and joyful years   
Be lengthen’d out to thee,
And live to see the banner wave,
Thats rais’d to Liberty. 

Less than a week later, the Lieutenant Governor ordered that Milburn “be set at liberty under sentence of Banishment.” 

Unlike rebels who escaped or others who were banished, Milburn did not flee to Michigan, Ohio, Illinois, Florida, or (many of them) to Rochester, New York. Milburn crossed over to Niagara Falls, New York and from there continued to seek a pardon. To Arthur, he yet once again pleaded “to be permitted to return … and renew his Allegiance to his sovereign, promising to perform all the duties of a good and faithful subject of the Crown.” Accompanying his plea was a letter signed by sixteen Toronto men, including Thomas Carfrae – at least five of them government magistrates. The filed official copy of this October petition carries an undated notation: “Granted on giving the usual security for good behaviour.”   

Milburn returned home to Thornhill. But, unable to obtain a licence to re-open his tavern, he advertised in the Toronto Examiner, that his “House and Premises on Yonge St., situated with 11 miles of the city, known as Milbourne’s Tavern are for sale” as he was “compelled to leave the Province  The paper’s editor regretted publishing the ad because “Mr. Milbourne, after having received the pardon of the Crown is driven by Tory persecution.”   However, he remained in the area. A few years later, he was elected, and for two years served, as a Vaughan Township representative to the Home District Council.  

There are persistent but erroneous references to Milburn’s having been sentenced “to banishment in Van Diemen’s Land” (Tasmania) and later, “on the occasion of Queen Victoria’s coronation”  being pardoned. No known official record, in Canada or in Tasmania, records Joseph Milburn as one of the many Canadian rebels who were sentenced to be transported  Queen Victoria’s Coronation was in June 28,1838.  Notwithstanding the text on the 1994 historic plaque marking the location of Milburn’s Thornhill Tavern, the date of his pardon was November 1838, not 1843.

However, by 1851 he had moved to Oakville where he became Clerk of Customs,  Five years later he established a tannery on Walker Street,   which he operated with three of his sons. In 1877 he bought a fine house and, in the 1880s, the tannery was sold. The date of Milburn’s death is not known. 

Postscript –   1838 Mary Ambler box, Thornhill Heritage Foundation;  In 1838, a carefully crafted small wooden box was inscribed as a gift, “To Miss Mary Ambler, 1838.”

Mary Ambler (1821-1904)  lived in Thornhill and, in the early 1840s, married Robert West.  The couple moved into a new house; today it is a designated heritage building. In 2003, a descendant of Robert and Mary west bequeathed the house and its contents (including this little box) to the Thornhill Historical Society. 

Accompanying the box is a note attributing Joseph Milburn as its maker. Its gothic style inscription is similar to many prisoners’ boxes. However, 

  • No known public or family document confirms this attribution.
  • No inscription on the box itself indicates either its maker or the location where it was made.
  • No connection between Joseph Milburn and Mary Ambler (other than their both living in Thornhill) is known. In 1838, Milburn was 36, married with then 4 children; Mary was 18.
  • The box is unlike either of Milburn’s two known boxes.

Moreover, this box is strikingly different. It is round in shape. It has a fitted lid, rather a sliding lid. Sliding lids are a distinguishing feature of all other known (to date 147) Rebellion prisoners’ boxes. 

The author would also like to thank some of those who aided in the research for this paper:

  • Michelle Brock –Thornhill Community Centre Library,
  • John C. Carter – Rebellion historian,
  • Elise Cole – Oakville Public Library,
  • Laurie Cruthers Coulter – Milbourne family genealogist,
  • Michela Lockhart – Canadian Yearly Meeting (Quaker) Archives,
  • Brian Ryan – Thornhill Heritage Foundation,
  • Mark Scheibmayr – Markham Museum,
  • Courtney Scott – City of Vaughan Archivist, and especially Linda Corupe – Canadian genealogist. 

Sources consulted in the process of researching this article:

  • Isabel Champion, editor, Markham 1793-1900. (Markham: Markham Historical Society. 1979). 
  • Jacalyn Duffin, Langstaff: A Nineteenth-Century Medical Life (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1993).
  • Charles Durand, Reminiscences of Charles Durand (Toronto: Hunter Rose, 1897). 
  • Firth, Elizabeth, The Town of York, 1825-1834 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press for the Champlain Society, 1966).
  • D.M. Fitzgerald, Thornhill 1793-1863: The History of an Ontario Village (Thornhill: self published, 1964)/
  • Edwin C. Guillet, Pioneer Inns and Taverns, Volume 1 (Toronto: Edwin C. Guillet, 1954).
  • Hazel C. Matthews, Oakville and the Sixteen: The History of an Ontario Port (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1953).
  • Laurie and Lisa Milburn  on line: (accessed 9 April 2019).
  • Hazel C. Matthews, Oakville and the Sixteen (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1953).
  • Michael Mullett, Sources for the history of English Nonconformity 1660-1830 (London: British Records Association, 1991). 
  • Cassandra Pybus & Hamish Maxwell-Stewart, American Citizens, British Slaves (East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 2002). 
  • Colin Read and Ronald J. Stagg, The Rebellion of 1837 in Upper Canada: A Collection of Documents (Ottawa: Carleton University Press, 1988). 
  • Chris Raible, with John Carter and Darryl Withrow, From Hands Now Striving to Be Free: Boxes Crafted by 1837 Rebellion Prisoners (Toronto: York Pioneer and Historical Society, 2009).
  • G. Elmore Reaman, A History of Vaughan Township (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1971). 
  • John Ross Robertson, A History of Freemasonry in Canada, Volume One (Toronto: George A. Morang, 1900).
  • Articles in  London Champion and Weekly Herald, Jan. 15, 1838; Lowville, New York Northern Journal, August 23, 1838; Richmond Hill Liberal, May 12m 1966; Toronto Examiner, February 5, 1840; and Toronto Globe, February 1, 1908.
  • Upper Canada Sundries: 104660, 108590, 110610-11, 110612-14, 110616-17, 110620, 110622-24, 110626-29, and 114832-34.

Author, Chris Raible, can be contacted at

     Joseph Milburn, undated  
Box YP126 by Joseph Milburn

Box YP40 by Joseph Milburn

1838 Mary Ambler box, Thornhill Heritage Foundation
1838 Mary Ambler box, top & bottom

One Reply to “Not Guilty of Treason ~ Joseph Milburn”

  1. Lisa Cava says:

    thank you! Lisa (Milburn) Cava – Joseph Milburn’s great-great-granddaughter.

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