John Wilson Bengough

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John Wilson Bengough
John Wilson Bengough (1920).jpg
John Wilson Bengough in 1920
Born (1851-04-07)7 April 1851
Toronto, Province of Canada
Died 2 October 1923(1923-10-02) (aged 72)
Toronto, Ontario, Canada
  • Cartoonist
  • Editor
  • Poet
  • Politician
  • Publisher
  • Writer

John Wilson Bengough (/ˈbɛn.ɡɔːf/, 7 April 1851 – 2 October 1923) was one of Canada's first cartoonists, as well as an editor, publisher, writer, poet, entertainer and politician. Bengough is best known for his biting political cartoons which ran in Grip, a humour magazine he published and edited, and which was modeled after the British humour magazine Punch.

Life and career[edit]

Early life (1851–73)[edit]

The second of six children,[1] John Wilson Bengough was born into a deeply Protestant family[2] on 7 April 1851 in Toronto in the Province of Canada. His parents were John Bengough, a Scottish immigrant cabinetmaker,[3] and Margaret Wilson, an Irish immigrant.[4] The family soon moved to nearby port town Whitby, where job opportunities beckoned surrounding the construction of Trafalgar Castle, the residence of Nelson Gilbert Reynolds, Sheriff of Ontario County. The elder Bengough later opened a shop in Whitby.[3]

Bengough attended Whitby Grammar School, where he was an average student;[1] he won a prize one year for general proficiency, for which he received a book titled Boyhood of Great Artists.[5] He was an avid sketcher,[6] a talent which caught the notice of his teacher, who presented his student with a set of paints one Christmas. This act Bengough credited with setting him on the career path of an artist.[1] Whitby residents later reminisced of the young Bengough drawing chalk portraits of his neighbours on fences.[7] He described himself as a "voracious reader", particularly of the Whitby Gazette, a didactic weekly that stressed Christian values.[2]

Black-and-white caroon of a ring of men, each pointing to the next in the ring.  At the bottom is written "Tammany Ring".
"Who stole the people's money?" — "'Twas him."
Thomas Nast's cartoons of the corruption in Tammany Hall contributed to the fall of Boss Tweed, and inspired Bengough to bring political cartooning to Canada.

After graduation, Bengough tried his hand at a number of jobs, including photographer's assistant,[8] and he articled to a lawyer for some time[4] before getting a typesetting job at the Whitby Gazette.[8] The Gaztte‍ '​s editor was George Ham, an extroverted journalist who later was public relations chief for the Canadian Pacific Railway.[5] Bengough contributed short local-interest articles. In mid-1870 Ham issued a four-page daily to capitalize on interest in the Franco-Prussian War, and commissioned Bengough to provide a serialized novel for it. The popular reception of The Murderer's Scalp (or The Shrieking Ghost of the Bloddy Den) encouraged Bengough to devote himself to a journalism career.[8]

The papers and magazines that came into the Gazette offices, in particular Harper's Weekly, introduced Bengough to the growing field of cartooning. Bengough reminisced, "I divided my time between mechanical duties for sordid wages and poetry for the good of humanity, and meanwhile I kept an eye on Thomas Nast the cartoonist."[8] The politically and socially aware cartoonist of Nast he considered a "beau ideal" whose "moral crusade against abject wrong"—in particular his relentless Boss Tweed cartoons—inspired the young Bengough to "emulate Nast in the field of Canadian politics".[9] Bengough so admired Nash that he sent a cartoon to Harper's in the cartoonist's style of Nast confronting the Tammany Hall political machine.[10] At the time, editorial catooning had no presence in Canadian newspapers, and was not to have one until Hugh Graham brought the practice to his Montreal Star in 1976.[11][a]

At twenty Bengough moved to Toronto and became a reporter on politician George Brown's newspaper The Globe.[12] The Liberal paper was the most influential in the country; Bengough's family had had a history of supporting the Liberal Party since before Confederation, and these connections likely played a role in his getting the position at the paper.[13] The lack of cartooning opportunities disappointed at him, and he enrolled briefly in the Ontario School of Art, which he found pedantic and stifling.[12]

Grip (1873–94)[edit]

Bengough told of how he took up publishing: he had made a caricature of James Beaty, Sr., editor of the conservative Toronto Leader, and Beaty's nephew Sam found it so amusing that he made a lithographic copy for himself at the printer Rolph Bros. Impressed with his first exposure to lithography, and frustrated with the lack of opportunities to have his cartoons published, Bengough asked himself, "Why not start a weekly comic paper with lithographed cartoons?" His brother Thomas remembered a somewhat different story in which Bengough first began distributing copies of his cartoons on the street.[13]

A raven character in the Charles Dickens novel Barnaby Rudge inspired the name of the magazine Grip. Its pages carried political and social commentary and cartoons, and its debut issue of 24 May 1873 declared: "Grip will be entirely independent and impartial, always and on all subjects." Bengough set the editorial policy and was the lead cartoonist.[14]

A black-and-white cartoon of a late-middle-aged man standing atop a woman labeled "Canada".  His arms are spread and he smiles.  On one hand is written "I need another $10,000", and in the other hand is a piece of paper on which is written, "Prorogation and suppression of the investigation".
"Whither are we drifting?" (16 August 1873)
John A. Macdonald proclaims "These hands are clean!"—scrawled on his hand is the message "I need another $10,000" that he had written to Hugh Allan.

Grip‍ '​s early issues attracted little notice. Events arising from the Canadian federal election of 1872 shortly gave Bengough sufficient popular material to lampoon: accusations of bribery and other improprieties involving prime minister John A. Macdonald and business magnate Hugh Allan inflated into the Pacific Scandal, the most closely followed scandal in the young nation's history. Macdonald's features lent themselves easily to caricature and gave Bengough the chance to proselytize.[15] A 23 August 1873 cartoon entitled "The Beauties of a Royal Commission: When shall we three meet again?" drew praise from newspapers across Canada, as well as from Liberal MP Lucius Seth Huntington in a speech to the House of Commons.[16]

Despite their Liberal leanings, in 1878 Bengough and Grip took the side of the proposed Conservative National Policy of high tariffs on trade with the US, against the governing Liberal stance of free trade. The issue contributed to the loss of Alexander Mackenzie's Liberals to Macdonald's Conservatives in the election of 1878,[17] despite Grip's prediction that Mackenzie would win again.[18] The magazine ssupported no party officially in its early years, but made its support for the Liberals explicit in the elections of 1887 and of 1891, after Wilfrid Laurier became party leader. In the mid-1880s, the Grip Printing and Publishing Company took on printing duties for the Ontario Liberal government. This support, however, resulted in no federal election wins.[19]

Grip had considerable influence on the public perception of politicians. That it was slanted in favour of Liberals and against Conservatives drove Conservative supporters to launch rival publications. The first of was Jester, begun in 1878, which featured cartoons by Henri Julien that painted Macdonald in a benevolent light. Jester failed to find an audience to match Bengough's and folded the following year.[20]

Beginning in the early 1870s, Bengough frequently toured the country giving comic chalk talk performances.[11] At Bengough's request in 1882, early Canadian feminist writer Sarah Ann Curzon write the closet drama The Sweet Girl Graduate for the book The Grip Sack. The drama tells of a woman who disguises herself as a man to attend university at a time when women were barred in Canada from post-secondary education.[21]

Thomas Phillips Thompson became associate editor of Grip. He shared with Bengough a radical political outlook and a taste for satire, though was less open to new ideas than Bengough, who was quick to attach himself to new causes. Thompson was anti-imperialist, and-capitalist, and anti-militarist.[22] In 1892, the managers of Grip passed the editorship from Bengough to Thompson, and under the new editorship readership fell until in mid-1893 the magazine ceased publication.[23] the tone had become increasingly strident: anti-French, anti-Catholic, pro-socialist. This and an increased use of racial caricature seem to have alienated readers.[24] Bengough revived it in 1894[23] and softened its tone, but the content seemed rushed[25] and it lasted only a year more.[23]

Later life (1895–1923)[edit]

After Grip ceased publication, he worked for the next quarter-century as a newspaper cartoonist for the Toronto Globe, Toronto Daily Star, Saturday Night and the Montreal Star.

Following a chalk talk performance in Moncton, New Brunswick, in 1922 Bengough suffered an attack of angina pectoris, attributed to overwork during a previous tour of Western Canada. He died of it in October 1923[11] at his drawing board at his home while working on a cartoon in support of an anti-smoking campaign.[4]


Bengough's cartooning was for the most part in the realm of political cartoons, and tended towards being preachy and didactic. He believed "that the legitimate forces of humor and caricature can and ought to serve the state in its highest interests, and that the comic journal which has no other aim than to amuse its readers for the moment, falls short of its highest mission".[4]

His sketchy cartoons, while often drawn well, were crowded in composition, and sometimes were borrowed from other sources. He could draw in contrasting styles, as evidenced by cartoons he did under the pseudonym of L. Côté.[4] His cartoons are best remembered for fixing his renditions of Macdonald in the public imagination.[4]


A black-and-white cartoon of a man teaching two parrots to say, "The was nothing wrong in the Pacific Scandal.  The indignation of the people was all a mistake!"
John A. Macdonald was a favourite target of Bengough's, notably during the Pacific Scandal.

There was a premier named John A.
Who, wishing in office to stay,
To one Allen did barter a great railway charter—
And dated his ruin from that day.

—John Wilson Bengough, "Recollections of a Cartoonist", Bengough Papers, Volume VIII[26]

Bengough's reputation was as a supporter of the Liberal Party of Canada and its pro-democratic platform.[27] His family had been supporters since before Confederation, and his father had supported Oliver Mowat, and both his brother Thomas and sister Mary worked in Mowat's provincial government. Members of his family were to play roles in the LIberal Party into the twentieth century; Bengough and his brother Thomas had ties close enough with Wilfrid Laurier to ask with favours, and both were also close to William Lyon Mackenzie King.[13] Bengough had ambitions to run for Parliament, but Liberal leader Wilfrid Laurier convinced him against it.[4]

Grip‍ '​s political stance was one of disinterest, but a large portion of Bengough's income came from Liberal publications, and Macdonald and his Conservatives were favourite targets of Bengoughs cartoon attacks, notably during the Pacific Scandal.[4] His association with the Liberals was so strong that Charles Tupper quipped in Parliament that Grip should change its name to Grit—a popular nickname for Liberal Party members. His best-remembered targets were those aimed at Macdonald and the Conservatives, but his criticisms aimed at Liberals as well—Edward Blake had his subscription cancelled when he was the victim of a particular cartoon.[28] Macdonald's Conservative Daily Mail, launched in 1872, provided a rivalry with the Liberal Globe that provided fuel for Bengough's satire, as did infighting in the Liberal Party over The Globe, which allowed Bengough to distance himself to a degree from criticism of Liberal partisanship.[13]

Bengough was a proponent of such issues as women's suffrage, proportional representation, prohibition of alcohol and of tobacco, and the single tax.[11] H showed a marked ethnic nationalism in that he promoted English as the nation's sole official language, and the separation of church and state, a view that was directed particularly at the Catholic, French-speaking Québécois, declaring he looked forward to:[4]

when the monstrosity of a double official language and dual schools will be done away with throughout the whole country. Our real national life will date from that day.

—John Wilson Bengough, 7 April 1851, [4]

While he sympathized with the plight of Canada's native peoples, he condemned the 1885 Red River Rebellion and called for the execution of Métis rebel leader Louis Riel, and celebrated Major-General Frederick Dobson Middleton's victory at the Battle of Batoche in Saskatchewan with a poem.[4]

Bengough proclaimed a Protestant work ethic widely expressed by Canadian artists and intellectuals of the late 19th century.[29] In his writing he frequently made statements about the role of Man in God's world,[30] and insisted that politics should conform to the will of God.[31] His didactic cartoons he intended to impart moral instruction.[32]

Personal life[edit]

Bengough married twice; neither marriage produced children. He married Helena "Nellie" Siddall in Toronto on 30 June 1880;[4] she died in 1902. He married a friend from his school days, the widow[5] Annie Robertson Matteson, in Chicago on 18 June 1908.[4] Neither appears to have written about Bengough.[5]


The small town of Bengough, Saskatchewan, incorporated 15 March 1912, was named after the cartoonist.[33]

Bengough's caricatures left an impression on the public consciousness in Canada for generations to follow, and frequently appeared in Canadian history textbooks.[34]

The Art Gallery of Ontario presented an exhibition of Bengough's drawings in 1969.

Bengough was inducted into the Canadian Cartoonist Hall of Fame in 2005.

Published works[edit]

  • 1875 — The Grip Cartoons. Rogers and Larminie[35]
  • 1876 — The Decline and Fall of Keewatin. Grip Publishing Co.[35]
  • 1882 — Bengough's Popular Readings: Original and Select. Bengough, Moore and Bengough[35]
  • 1882 — The Grip-Sack: A Receptacle of Light Literature, Fun and Fancy. The Grip Printing and Publishing Co.[36]
  • 1882 — Grip's Comic Almanac for 1882. Bengough, Moore and Bengough[37]
  • 1886 — A Caricature History of Canadian Politics (two volumes). The Grip Publishing and Printing Co.[35]
  • 1895 — Motley: Verse Grave and Gay. William Briggs[35]
  • 1896 — The Up-to-date Primer. Funk and Wagnalls[35]
  • 1897 — The Prohibition Aesop. Royal Templar Book and Publishing House[35][38]
  • 1898 — The Gin Mill Primer. William Briggs[35]
  • 1902 — In Many Keys. William Briggs[35]
  • 1908 — The Whole Hog Book. American Free Trade League[35]
  • 1908 — On True Political Economy
  • 1922 — Chalk Talks. The Musson Book Co.[35]

No copies remain of comic opera Hecuba; or Hamlet's Father's Deceased Wife's Sister, a comic opera with score by G. Barton Brown. Publisher F.F. Siddall registered it for copyright in 1885. The opera may have been an earlier version of Puffe and Co., or Hamlet, Prince of Dry Goods, an undated and possibly unpublished script for which exists, for which Clarence Lucas had written a score that Bengough appears to have rejected.[39]


  1. ^ The Montreal Star became the first Canadian newspaper to employ a full-time editorial cartoonist when it contracted Henri Julien in 1888.[40]


  1. ^ a b c Kutcher 1975, p. 4.
  2. ^ a b Kutcher 1975, p. 5.
  3. ^ a b Kutcher 1975, p. 3.
  4. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m Cook 2005.
  5. ^ a b c d Cumming 1997, p. 32.
  6. ^ Kutcher 1975, p. 6.
  7. ^ Cumming 1997, p. 34.
  8. ^ a b c d Kutcher 1975, p. 7.
  9. ^ Kutcher 1975, pp. 7–8.
  10. ^ Cumming 1997, pp. 34–35.
  11. ^ a b c d Charlesworth 1927.
  12. ^ a b Kutcher 1975, p. 8.
  13. ^ a b c d Cumming 1997, p. 35.
  14. ^ Kutcher 1975, pp. 8–9.
  15. ^ Kutcher 1975, pp. 12–13.
  16. ^ Kutcher 1975, p. 14.
  17. ^ Cumming 1997, p. 67.
  18. ^ Cumming 1997, p. 69.
  19. ^ Cumming 1997, pp. 79–80.
  20. ^ Cumming 1997, p. 41.
  21. ^ Bird 2004, p. 47.
  22. ^ Cumming 1997, pp. 26, 28.
  23. ^ a b c Cumming 1997, p. 28.
  24. ^ Cumming 1997, pp. 177–178.
  25. ^ Cumming 1997, p. 178.
  26. ^ Kutcher 1975, p. 11.
  27. ^ Kutcher 1975, p. 10.
  28. ^ Kutcher 1975, pp. 10–12.
  29. ^ Kutcher 1975, pp. 128–129.
  30. ^ Kutcher 1975, p. 130.
  31. ^ Kutcher 1975, p. 18.
  32. ^ Kutcher 1975, p. 19.
  33. ^ McLennan 2008, p. 27.
  34. ^ Cumming 1997, pp. 40–41.
  35. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k Kutcher 1975, p. 267.
  36. ^ John Wilson Bengough in libraries (WorldCat catalog)
  37. ^ John Wilson Bengough in libraries (WorldCat catalog)
  38. ^ John Wilson Bengough in libraries (WorldCat catalog)
  39. ^ Hadfield 2004.
  40. ^ Spencer 2013, p. 57.

Works cited[edit]

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]