Skip to content

Happy Birthday Thomas Baker McQuesten

June 29, 2022

By Dr. David Galbraith, Head of Science, Royal Botanical Gardens

portrait of thomas mcquesten as a young adult
Hon. Thomas Baker McQuesten as transportation minister, 1940. Whitehern Historic House & Garden, via Wikimedia Commons

The story of Royal Botanical Gardens begins with an ambitious Hamilton lawyer and politician, Thomas Baker McQuesten. Born on June 30th, 1882 into a Hamilton family that already had pretty deep local roots, Thomas attended University of Toronto for English, history, and classics. In addition to being a gifted student he was also an athlete and editor of The Varsity newspaper. After graduation he went to Osgoode Hall to obtain his law degree and was admitted to the bar in 1907. Within a few years Thomas became involved in politics, and in 1913 was elected as a City of Hamilton Alderman. He immediately became involved in promoting parks and other projects as a means to improve Hamilton. In the 1920s, on the Hamilton Board of Park Management, McQuesten and his colleagues developed Gage Park, a large part in the east end of the city.

Through his work with parks development, McQuesten became associated with an early trend in city planning, the City Beautiful Movement. The idea of the movement was that beauty in cities, as demonstrated by building design, public art, and even landscape design, made for a better place to live, a more harmonious society, and even economic success.

map of the north western entrance to burlington heights
“Northwestern Entrance to the City of Hamilton” competition. Design submitted by Wilson, Bunnell, & Borgstrom, consulting city engineers and landscape architects; Harkness Louden, & Hertzberg, engineers; and Earle Sheppard, architect - First Award

In 1924 McQuesten had his “big idea.” While on a tour of the United Kingdom he visited Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew and Royal Botanical Garden Edinburgh. It’s thought that during these visits he had the idea of creating a grand botanical garden for Hamilton. Within a span of about three years after this trip Tom and his colleagues were laying out proposals and even securing land through the Board of Park Management. In 1930 King George V approved the use of the name Royal for the botanical gardens in Hamilton – still just a proposal by the Board of Park Management. The idea was audacious. In addition to varied gardens the new institution would also include large natural areas and parklands.

Tom was elected to the Legislative Assembly of Ontario for the newly created riding of Hamilton Wentworth in 1934 and was immediately made Minister of Public Works and Highways. During his time in the Provincial government, he oversaw several major projects, including creation of the Queen Elizabeth Way, or QEW, the Burlington Skyway Bridge, the Niagara Parks Botanical Garden and School of Horticulture, and road projects that would lead to the 401 and other 400 series highways. Despite all of these projects, the one McQuesten worked on longest was the creation of Royal Botanical Gardens. When RBG was incorporated as an agency separate from the City of Hamilton in 1941, McQuesten was the first Chairman of the Board of Directors. He left electoral politics in 1943. Our founder passed away in 1948, having seen his idea of a quarter-century earlier realized as Royal Botanical Gardens.

illustrated map of Hamilton and Burlington in the 1930s. 426 aces along the south shore of Cootes Paradise Marsh is highlighted in blue/green to indicate Royal Botanical Gardens property
1930s map of Hamilton highlighting Royal Botanical Gardens. 426 acres along S. shore of Cootes Paradise.
Thomas NcQuesten sitting on a chair out in the garden of his family home
A photo of Thomas Baker McQuesten in his garden at home at Whitehern in downtown Hamilton. His family home is now a City of Hamilton museum, Whitehern Historic House & Garden National Historic Site.
McQuesten bridge over Cootes Paradise and Hamilton Harbour
Several landmarks around Hamilton are named for Thomas Baker McQuesten, including McQuesten Park, and the McQuesten Neighbourhood. During a rededication ceremony in 1988 the High-Level Bridge over the Desjardins Canal at the Burlington Heights was formally renamed the T. B. McQuesten Memorial Bridge.

The McQuesten Project

Flora Hominis Sculpture Brandon Vickerd

Flora Hominis by Hamilton based artist Brandon Vickerd was commissioned by RBG in 2017 commemorate the legacy of Thomas McQuesten and RBG’s long-standing commitment to the stewardship of our land.

Cast in bronze, Flora Hominis consists of a life-sized figure weighing approximately 350 lbs. that appears to be Thomas McQuesten from a distance; on closer inspection, the sculpture will reveal itself to be composed of a collection of local flora and native plants. The artwork is intended to connect the representation of McQuesten to the rich and vibrant ecosystem of Royal Botanical Garden that he was pivotal in creating.

More about the sculpture and process.

Additional Reading

  • Anderson, Mary J. (ed.). 2004. The Life Writings of Mary Baker McQuesten. Wilfred Laurier University Press. Waterloo, Ontario
  • Anderson, Mary J. 2011. Tragedy & Triumph: Ruby & Thomas Baker McQuesten. Tierceron Press, Dundas, Ontario
  • Best, John. 1991. Thomas Baker McQuesten: Public Works, Politics, and Imagination. Corinth Press, Hamilton, Ontario
  • Laking, Leslie. 2006. Love, Sweat and Soil: A History of Royal Botanical Gardens From 1930 to 1981. Royal Botanical Gardens Auxiliary. Burlington, Ontario

More from the RBG Blog

Check out RBG’s blog for announcements, articles, and more from Canada’s largest botanical garden.

Want to be sure you hear first? Sign up for our weekly e-newsletter to hear about upcoming events, weekend activities, articles, and more!