George Coles served as the premier of Prince Edward Island three times between 1851 and 1868. Although initially in favour of union, he changed his views when he felt that the Québec Resolutions were insufficient for the Island's needs.
George Coles was born on Prince Edward Island, the son of James Coles and Sarah Tally. He received little formal schooling, travelling to England at age 19, where he learned about the brewing industry. While there, he married Mercy Haine on August 14, 1833. That same year Coles and his wife returned to Prince Edward Island, where he worked as a merchant, brewer, steam mill operator, farm operator, landlord and politician. Coles was always a colourful figure. He is said to have duelled with Edward Palmer, and to have challenged James Colledge Pope to a duel as well. He was convicted of assault in the 1850s. As a member of the provincial government in 1846, he spent 31 days in the custody of the sergeant-at-arms for refusing to retract a statement made in the assembly.
In 1842, Coles ran for and was elected to the Prince Edward Island House of Assembly. At first Coles voted as a Conservative, but he frequently found himself in conflict with the party leadership. He broke ties with the Tories in 1847 to join the reformers. Coles was a prominent figure in the push for responsible government in the 1840s. He became the first Island premier under the new system of government in 1851. He held the post, with one brief break, until 1859, when his government lost power and he became the leader of the opposition. Like many Island politicians of the era, Coles grappled with the absentee landlord question that plagued Island politics for nearly a century. He was not an ally of the landowners, nor did he support radical groups like the Tenant League, a mass movement which counselled the non-payment of rent.
In 1864, Coles was a delegate to the Charlottetown Conference. He also attended the Québec Conference (his daughter, Mercy, kept a diary of the proceedings there). He at first favoured Confederation, on the condition that the terms of union include a solution to the land question. However, when the offer to purchase foreign-owned land holdings was not made part of the discussions at Québec City, Coles reversed his position. He returned to Prince Edward Island to lead the Liberal party in opposition to Confederation.
Coles became premier of Prince Edward Island for a third time in 1867, but it was evident that he was in declining health. In 1868 he resigned as premier, and was not a major figure in subsequent sessions of the legislature. He died in Charlottetown.
Callbeck, Lorne. The cradle of Confederation. Fredericton: Brunswick Press, 1964.
Robertson, Ian Ross. "Coles, George". Canadian encyclopedia: year 2000 edition. Ed. James H. Marsh. 3rd print ed. Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1999. P. 506.
Robertson, Ian Ross. "Coles, George", Dictionary of Canadian biography. Ed. Francess G. Halpenny. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1972. Vol. 10, p. 182-188.