John Galt (novelist)

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John Galt
John Galt 7.jpg
Born (1779-05-02)2 May 1779
Irvine, Ayrshire, Scotland
Died 11 April 1839(1839-04-11) (aged 59)
Greenock, Scotland
Occupation Writer, colonial businessman
Nationality Scottish
Period 1812–1839
Genre poetry, drama, short stories, travel writing
Notable works Annals of the Parish
The Chronicle of Dalmailing
Spouse Elizabeth Tilloch


John Galt (/ɡɔːlt/; 2 May 1779 – 11 April 1839) was a Scottish novelist, entrepreneur, and political and social commentator. Because he was the first novelist to deal with issues of the Industrial Revolution, he has been called the first political novelist in the English language.[1]

He was the founder of the city of Guelph in Canada, and father of Sir Alexander Tilloch Galt of Montreal.


Born in Irvine, in Ayrshire, Galt was the son of a naval captain involved in the West Indies trade. He was a first cousin of Captain Alexander Allan. His father moved to Greenock in 1780. The family visited regularly but did not permanently rejoin him until 1789. John was educated at Irvine Grammar School alongside Henry Eckford, who was a lifetime friend, and William Spence.[2]

Galt became an apprentice and junior clerk under his uncle, Mr Ewing, also writing essays and stories for local journals in his spare time. He moved to London in 1804 to join his father and seek his fortune. In 1809 began studying law at Lincoln's Inn.[3][4]

While subsequently traveling in Europe, Galt met and befriended Lord Byron in Gibraltar. He traveled with Byron and his companion, John Hobhouse, 1st Baron Broughton to Malta. He met them again in Greece. Parting company, Galt continued alone to Constantinople, Adrianople and then Sophia. He returned to Greenock via Ireland. He then embarked to London to pursue business plans, but these did not come to fruition and he took to writing. Galt wrote an account of his travels, which met with moderate success. Decades later, he would also publish the first full biography of Lord Byron. He also published the first biography of the painter Benjamin West, The Life and Studies of Benjamin West (1816, expanded 1820).[4]

In 1813, Galt attempted to establish a Gibraltarian trading company, in order to circumvent Napoleon's embargo on British trade; however, Wellington's victory in Spain made this no longer necessary. Galt then returned to London and married Elizabeth Tilloch, daughter of Alexander Tilloch.[5] In 1815, he became Secretary of the Royal Caledonian Asylum in London. He also privately consulted in several business ventures.[3]

Concentrating on his writing for the next several years, Galt lived at times in London, Glasgow, Edinburgh and elsewhere, writing fiction and a number of school texts under the pseudonym Reverend T. Clark. Around 1821 he moved his family from Greenock to Eskgrove near Musselburgh. In addition to moving his residence frequently during this period, Galt also switched publishers several times, moving from Blackwood's Magazine to Oliver and Boyd and then back again.[3]

In 1824, Galt was appointed Secretary to the Canada Company, a charter company established to aid in the colonization of the Huron Tract in Upper Canada. He traveled across the Atlantic on a Romney man-of-war arriving at New York City and then traveling by road. Sadly, soon after arriving, word was sent that his mother had suffered a stroke. He returned to her (in Musselburgh) in 1826 and she died a few months later. He returned to Canada in 1826. While in Canada, Galt lived in York in Upper Canada (now Ontario), where he founded the city of Guelph in 1827,[3] then co-founded the town of Goderich[3] with Tiger Dunlop that same year. The community of Galt in Ontario was named after him. His three sons played prominent roles in Canadian politics; one of them, Alexander, was one of the 'Fathers of the Confederation', and Canada's first Minister of Finance.[3]

During his tenure with the Canada Company, Galt ran afoul of several colonial authorities, including Sir Peregrine Maitland, who was Lieutenant-Governor of Upper Canada at the time.[3] He was heavily criticised by his employers for his lack of basic accounting skills and failure to carry out their established policies. This resulted in his dismissal and recall to Great Britain in 1829.[3]

Soon after his return to England he was imprisoned for several months for failure to pay the debts left by the now failed Canada Company.[3] One of Galt's last novels, The Member, has political corruption as its central theme.[3]

In 1831 he moved to Barn Cottage in Old Brompton.[2]

Despite failing health (following a trip over a tree rot whilst in Canada), Galt was involved in another colonial business venture, the British American Land Company, which was formed to develop lands in the Eastern Townships of Lower Canada (now Quebec). Galt served as secretary but was forced to resign in December 1832 because of his health.[6][7] By this stage his spinal injury was not only crippling him but also affecting his speech and handwriting.

The old Greenock cemetery entrance from Inverkip Street, with plaque commemorating John Galt, and in the immediate background John Galt House.
The Galt family tomb, inscribed to John Galt, "Author of The Annals of the Parish &c &c."

In 1834 he moved to Edinburgh following the publishing of his two-volume Autobiography in 1833. Galt here met the travel writer Harriet Pigott. Pigott persuaded Galt to edit her Records of Real Life in the Palace and the Cottage. She received some criticism for this as it was suspected that she was just taking advantage of Galt. However her unfinished biography of him which is in the Bodleian library implies that it was more of a mutual respects than her critics allowed. Records of Real Life in the Palace and the Cottage had an introduction by Galt and this three volume work was published in 1839.[8]

He retired to his old home in Greenock in August 1834 following the departure of three of his sons to Canada. Finding the accommodation unsuitable he lived temporarily in Gourock before returning to a more comfortable house in December 1834. Galt died on 11 April 1839.[9] He was buried with his parents in the New Burying Ground in Greenock (now called the Old Burying Ground).


In Greenock, John Galt is commemorated by the John Galt memorial fountain on the Esplanade, and by a plaque at the old cemetery where he is buried. Sheltered housing (for seniors) built next to the cemetery in 1988, on the site of the old Royal Hospital, is named John Galt House in his honour.[10]

He is also commemorated in Makars' Court, outside The Writers' Museum, Lawnmarket, Edinburgh and In 2006, the community of Guelph proclaimed the first Monday in August, "John Galt Day."[11][12]

The city of Galt, Ontario was named after John Galt, but was absorbed into Cambridge, Ontario in 1973.

His original home in Guelph was known as the "The Priory", which stood on the banks of the Speed River near the current River Run performing arts centre.


Galt's novels are best known for their depiction of Scottish rural life, tinged with ironic humour. Galt wrote the following works:[9]

  • Cursory Reflections on Political and Commercial Topics (1812)
  • The Life and Administration of Cardinal Wolsey (1812)
  • The Tragedies of Maddelen, Agamemnon, Lady Macbeth, Antonia and Clytemnestra (1812)[13]
  • Voyages and Travels (1812)
  • Letters from the Levant (1813)
  • The mermaid (1814)
  • The Life and Studies of Benjamin West (1816)
  • The Majolo (2 volumes) (1816)
  • The Appeal (1818)
  • The Star of Destiny (a three act play, 1818)[14]
  • The History of Gog and Magog: The Champions of London (children's book, 1819)
  • The Wandering Jew (1820)
  • The Earthquake (3 volumes) (1820)
  • Glenfell (1820)
  • The Life, Studies and Works of Benjamin West (1820)
  • Annals of the Parish (1821)
  • The Ayrshire Legatees (1821)
  • Sir Andrew Wylie[disambiguation needed] (3 volumes) (1822)
  • The Provost (1822)
  • The Steam-Boat (1822)
  • The Entail (3 volumes) (1823)
  • The Gathering of the West (1823)
  • Ringan Gilhaize (The Covenanters) (3 volumes) (1823)
  • The Spaewife (3 volumes) (1823)
  • The Bachelor's Wife (1824)
  • Rothelan (3 volumes) (1824)
  • The Omen (1825)
  • The Last of the Lairds (1826)
  • Lawrie Todd or The Settlers in the Woods (1830)
  • The Life of Lord Byron (1830)
  • Southennan (3 volumes) (1830)
  • Bogle Corbet or The Emigrants (3 volumes) (1831)
  • The Lives of the Players (1831)
  • The Member: An Autobiography (1832) – novel
  • The Radical (1832) – novel, sequel to The Member
  • Stanley Buxton (3 volumes) (1832)
  • Autobiography (2 volumes) (1833)
  • Eben Erskine or The Traveller (3 volumes) (1833)
  • The Ouranoulagos or The Celestial Volume (1833)
  • Poems (1833)
  • The Stolen Child (1833)
  • Stories of the Study (3 volumes) (1833)
  • Literary Life and Miscellanies (3 volumes) (1834)
  • A Contribution to the Greenock Calamity Fund (1834)
  • Efforts by an Invalid (1835)
  • The Demon of Destiny and Other Poems (1839)


  1. ^ "BBC Writing Scotland, Reformers and Radicals: A Man's a Man". Retrieved 2010-09-27. 
  2. ^ a b Annals of the Parish: The Life of John Galt
  3. ^ a b c d e f g h i j "Dictionary of Canadian Biography entry for John Galt". Retrieved 2008-09-29. 
  4. ^ a b "Article detailing John Galt's literary works". Retrieved 2008-09-29. 
  5. ^  "Tilloch, Alexander". Dictionary of National Biography. London: Smith, Elder & Co. 1885–1900. 
  6. ^ "Canadian encyclopedia article on British American Land Company". Retrieved 2008-09-29. 
  7. ^ "Quebec historical article on John Galt". Retrieved 2008-09-29. 
  8. ^ Pam Perkins, ‘Pigott, Harriet (1775–1846)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004 accessed 5 April 2015
  9. ^ a b "E-notes literary criticism of John Galt". Retrieved 2008-09-29. 
  10. ^ Hewitt, Regina (2012). John Galt : observations and conjectures on literature, history, and society. Lewisburg: Bucknell University Press. p. 33. ISBN 978-1-61148-434-2. 
  11. ^ "Guelph Mercury article about John Galt Day". Retrieved 2008-09-29. 
  12. ^ "Guelph Downtown feature about John Galt day". Retrieved 2008-09-29. 
  13. ^ "The Tragedies of Maddelen, Agamemnon, Lady Macbeth, Antonia and Clytemnestra". Retrieved 6 October 2016. 
  14. ^ Retrieved 30 December 2016.  Missing or empty |title= (help)


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