The History of These Graves
by Michael J. Rudman
This article first appeared in The York Pioneer, 1999 (vol. 94), and is reproduced on the Fort York website courtesy of the York Pioneer and Historical Society.
Victoria Square Memorial Park, at the corner of Portland and Wellington West (just east of Bathurst), contains within its boundaries the oldest surviving European burying ground in historic Toronto. The burying ground, opened under Lieutenant-Governor Simcoe in 1793 or 1794, is a rectangle of land (approximately 300 feet by 125 feet) oriented to true compass east, set diagonally across the modern park. A cluster of mostly illegible grave markers at the foot of the cenotaph in the centre of the park is the only above ground indication of the site. When the park was created in 1886, all the legible grave markers, both wood and stone, were moved to a specially created memorial terrace on the western side of the lot, and additional earth was added around the now unmarked grave mounds to level the surface of the ground, but the graves themselves were not disturbed. We actually know the position of each grave thanks to a plan of the site which was made before the removal of the markers. Over the years the memorial terrace deteriorated due both to vandalism, and the effects of weather. The wooden markers rotted away completely, while many of the stone ones were left as broken fragments. In 1935 the terrace was dismantled and the stones and fragments stored at Fort York where they remained until the early 1950s when they were placed in their present position at the base of the cenotaph.
I wonder how many of those who use this park today realize they are continuing an age-old tradition as they stroll along its shady walks, or enjoy their lunches at the picnic tables? Do they sometimes pause and think of those who lie buried beneath their feet? I like to think they do. It was a custom in the early days of Christianity, and indeed in pre-Christian times, to eat a meal at the burial place of a loved one on the anniversary of their death. Even as late as the 19th century, graveyards were favourite places for Sunday outings and picnics. The difference of course, at least in rural settlements, was that the dead were still thought of as part of the community. They would be remembered as individuals, not just names on stones. In fact, as Wordsworth illustrates in the dialogue between Leonard and the Priest from his poem "The Brothers," sometimes even markers were unnecessary.
||The stone-cutters, ‘tis true, might beg their bread
If every English churchyard were like ours.
We have no need of names and epitaphs,
We talk about the dead by our firesides.
|Leonard:||Your dalesmen, then, do in each others thoughts
Possess a kind of second life. No doubt
You, sir, could help me to the history
Of half these graves?
Most of the markers that survive in the Victoria Square Park have been worn smooth by the elements. For years there has been no one to speak their mute testimony. And what of all the markers that do not survive? Over the past several years I have spent a good deal of time at the Burying Ground researching its story, reviving the memory of its dead. Let me, then, help you to the history of at least a few of these graves.
Katherine, the seventh child and sixth daughter of Lieutenant Governor and Mrs. Simcoe, is the first recorded burial in the Old Garrison Burying Ground. She was born on January 16th, 1793 at Niagara/Newark, now Niagara-on-the-Lake. From a letter that Mrs. Simcoe wrote in February of that year we learn that Katherine was not born at Navy Hall, the residence of the Simcoes.
I was, the greatest part of the winter, in daily expectation of being confined. I have taken the canvas house we brought from England for my own apartment; it makes two very comfortable and remarkable warm private rooms; it is boarded outside to prevent snow lying on it. The comfort I derive from these apartments was extremely great when I lay in, because being in a manner separate from the rest of the house it was very quiet.
The canvas house was to be Katherine’s home for most of her short life. On July 29th, Katherine, her sister Sophia and brother Francis, with their parents left Niagara/Newark, (the canvas house dismantled and packed), and moved across the lake. We even know that a favourite cat, white with grey spots, came with them. Beyond a creek, just east of the Queen’s Rangers’ camp, was the knoll on which the canvas house was re-erected. For the length of their stay this canvas house on the knoll was the Simcoe’s home, and the heart of the new settlement–though the actual town site, which would one day grow into the City of Toronto, was about two miles down the bay to the east.
The two canvas rooms, according to accounts rendered in March and April of 1792, were made in frames, each 38 feet 4 inches long by 12 feet wide, and 7 feet 2 inches high at the sides, with six glazed windows and a partition to each room. They were papered on the inside, and painted in oil colour on the outside. The floor was in sections, and when unscrewed, formed the travelling case for the whole structure. Specially constructed for Captain James Cook twenty years before, the house was bought by Simcoe at an auction in London. It is interesting to note that Simcoe’s father and Captain Cook had been friends and fellow officers in the Royal Navy. In the winter the house was boarded up on the outside and banked with earth. Heat was provided by an iron stove. Apparently the rooms had removable ceilings of some sort beneath the canvas roof. From Mrs. Simcoe’s diary:
4th (March, 1794) Though I wore 3 fur tippets I was so cold I could hardly hold my cards this evening. This is the first time we have felt the want of a ceiling which we have not had made in our drawing room because the room was rather low.
5th Very cold. I divided the room by hanging across it a large carpet which made it warmer.
This is the first mention of the houses being inadequate for the cold of a Canadian winter. Little Katherine, just over a year old, must have been affected by the cold like everyone else. Then suddenly on the 21st of the month the weather changed. Mrs. Simcoe comments in her diary, "The weather extremely warm;" and on Sunday the 23rd, "A very hot day." On the 29th she notes, "Rain and damp weather." The move from extreme cold to unusual heat in such a short space of time, followed by the onset of the damp and rain, may well be contributing factors in Katherine’s unidentified final illness. On the morning of April 18th while playing in her mother’s room the child appeared listless. Mrs. Simcoe was not seriously concerned as Katherine had been feverish for the last day or two cutting teeth, but in the afternoon the child started having convulsions. Their regular doctor was not available and Mrs. Simcoe had little trust in the ability of the one sent. She stayed up with Katherine whose convulsions continued intermittently for the whole of the night. Just before seven the next morning the child died. From a letter Mrs. Simcoe wrote home to England about a month after Katherine’s death:
She was the sweetest tempered pretty child imaginable, just beginning to talk and walk, the suddenness of the event you may be sure shocked me inexpressibly.
Little Katherine was buried on Monday the 21st of April, Easter Monday, in a burying ground that had been cleared in the brush just north of the canvas house where she died. The following year a small marble tombstone, sent from England, was placed on her grave. It read: "Katherine Simcoe, January 16, 1793 - April 19, 1794. Happy in the Lord." The stone disappeared from the Burying Ground sometime before 1850.
Most famous for being the father of Chief Justice Sir John Beverly Robinson, Christopher himself led a not uneventful life in the thirty-five years allotted to him. Born and brought up in Virginia, he was educated at William and Mary College in Williamsburg. From his son’s description we know that he was very tall, and had fair hair and a light complexion. He left the college to aid the loyalist cause, joining the Queen’s Rangers, Simcoe’s regiment, in 1781. After the surrender at Yorktown, Virginia, Robinson was settled with most of his regiment in New Brunswick. Retiring on half-pay, he and his wife and family moved to Quebec in 1788 where he may have begun articling to become a lawyer.
In 1792 they moved to Upper Canada, living in Kingston until 1798. He was called to the bar at this time and went into practice. Shortly after Robinson’s arrival in Kingston, Simcoe appointed him Surveyor-General of woods and forests, and in 1796 he had been elected member of the House of Assembly for Ontario and Addington. In October 1798 the Robinsons moved to York (Toronto) which had recently been made the seat of Government. He had arranged for a log cabin to be built for himself and his family a little east from where the river Don enters the bay.
Sadly, only three weeks later, on November 2nd 1798, he suddenly died after returning to York from a long trip on horseback. The exact cause of death was uncertain, though his son, John Beverly, claimed it was an acute attack of gout brought on by cold and exposure. One of young John’s earliest memories was following his father’s coffin along the Indian path to the Burying Ground. This path corresponds more or less with today’s Front Street, though in Robinson’s day, before modern landfill, it hugged the shoreline. Christopher Robinson’s memorial plaque may be seen in Saint James Cathedral beneath one of the windows to the left of the main altar.
Died. On Thursday last Benj. Hallowell, esq; in the 75th year of his age. - The funeral will be on Tuesday next, and will proceed from the house of the Chief Justice to the Garrison burying-ground, at one o’clock precisely. The attendance of his friends is requested.
Thus was Captain Hallowell’s death announced in the Saturday March 30th 1799 issue of the Upper Canada Gazette and Oracle. As we read, he was buried from the Chief Justice’s house. John Elmsley, the Chief Justice of the time, was Hallowell’s son-in-law. Elmsley House, the suburban villa of the Chief Justice built in 1797 or 1798, stood near the southwest corner of King and Simcoe Streets–the present site of Toronto’s symphony hall. A pencil drawing of about 1800 exists which shows us the house and its grounds as it must have looked around this time. Hallowell’s funeral, in a period when church funerals were the exception rather than the norm, would probably have taken place in one of the reception rooms at Elmsley House. The coffin, set on two chairs, would have had the lid laid at an angle over the top, so that those who wished could lift the shroud and view the face of their departed friend. Wine and cake would have been served, and sprigs of rosemary distributed to all present. The hymn, Swan’s "China", so popular at funerals of the time, would have, in all likelihood, been sung. Then the men making their way down Graves (Simcoe) Street would have taken the shore path to the Burying Ground for the committal. Women rarely attended actual burials in this period.
The Hallowell family had originally come from England and settled in Boston where Benjamin Hallowell became a Commissioner of Customs at the port. At the outbreak of the War of Independence he and his family, as loyalists, were proscribed and banished, his estate in Roxbury and his property in Maine, seized. Accompanied by the British army, in March 1776, the Hallowells and over 900 other loyalists left Boston for Halifax. Later that year the family moved back to England. In 1796 Captain Hallowell returned to Boston with his daughter Mary, now Mrs. John Elmsley, whose husband had recently been appointed Chief Justice of Upper Canada. Shortly after this he decided to settle in York with his daughter and son-in-law. At the time of his death he was in possession of a significant amount of land in and around the town. He owned lots 23 and 24 on King Street, just west of Elmsley House, and a substantial park lot which ran from the 2nd concession road (Bloor) to the 1st (Queen) on the west side of modern Dufferin Street. This land had been granted to him by the British Government to compensate for all he had lost in his devotion to the loyalist cause.
Captain Neal McNeale
Sometime early in May 1829 a portion of shoreline at the eastern end of Humber Bay was washed away bringing to light some human remains. These remains were identified as those of Captain McNeale. The raised shoreline between the Old French Fort (at the foot of modern Dufferin Street) and the Humber River was notoriously unstable, and during the mid-19th century numerous skeletons were exposed to view as the sandy cliffs gave way. Military ornaments and fragments of firearms were also frequent finds in the area. For the most part, these appear to have been relics of the American attack on York, April 27th, 1813. The enemy had intended to land at the ruins of the French Fort, but had been blown westward. The actual landing may have taken place at Wolfe’s Cove just within the curve of Humber Bay. A company of soldiers attempted to repulse the attack, but as Ely Playter recorded in his diary, ".... . heard the Granideer Co. of the 8th Regt. was near all killed their Captn. also." It was Captain Neal McNeale who fell fighting at the head of his company that morning. From a letter Mrs. W. D. Powell wrote to her husband on May 12th, 1813, we learn that after the Americans had withdrawn, "Dr. Strachan and the gentlemen of the town proceeded to the melancholy spots where the remains of our brave defenders were deposited a few inches below the earth; - the good Dr. gave them a Christian burial, and all assisted to secure their graves from further disturbance." From the plural "spots" we see that the enemy had buried the British dead in a series of shallow pits more or less where they fell along the shoreline.
When Captain McNeale’s remains were identified in 1829, Major Winniett, the commanding officer at Fort York, authorized the necessary measures be taken for their removal and reinterment in the Garrison Burying Ground. This took place with great ceremony on the 9th of May: accompanied by a firing squad and band, the Captain’s remains were followed to their place of reinterment by the officers of the Garrison and a procession of people from the town and vicinity. According to the Colonial Advocate (May 14, 1829), "The Military and Brass Band played the Solemn dead march in Artaxerxes." So we even know that he was finally laid to rest to the strains of the beautiful Larghetto from the overture to Thomas Arne’s opera.
Twas in the springtime of the year
just as the ships were sailing
That Battersby, eyes set for home,
had laid aside campaigning.
Two horses that had served him well,
so brave in field and battle,
Were led by him to the Burying Ground,
for he’d one last thing to settle.
To strangers he was loath to leave
his faithful horses’ keeping,
He would not see them beaten, lame,
teamed to a farm cart’s creaking.
So with heavy heart, to the Burying Ground
he his faithful horses led,
And stroking their manes, and calling their names,
he shot the horses dead.
Some say that, in the spring, they hear,
close by the graveyard railing,
The sound of ghostly horses’ hooves,
and ghostly, plaintive neighing.
Lieutenant Colonel Francis Battersby of the Glengarry Light Infantry Fencibles assisted Major Maule in repulsing the Americans at Burlington Heights on July 13th 1813. After the war, according to local legend, he did indeed shoot his horses. Despite many offers of purchase, he preferred this fate for them to the uncertainty of their treatment in the hands of other owners. They were taken to the vicinity of the Garrison Burying Ground, shot, and their carcasses buried on the spot. The only reported haunting connected with the Burying Ground is the sound of their phantom hoof beats.
John Saumarez Colborne
Before leaving for Quebec City in 1803, Chief Justice John Elmsley sold Elmsley House. The Government purchased it, and, after the War of 1812, it became Government House. On the 4th of November, 1828, Sir John Colborne, the new Lieutenant-Governor of Upper Canada, moved in with his family, including his 2 1/2 year old son John. Little John was to live less than a year at Elmsley House, as it was still sometimes called. On the 30th of July, 1829 he died from what the Colonial Advocate (August 6th) termed "cholera infantum." Sir John and Lady Colborne had a handsome tombstone erected over their son’s grave. It was of darkish stone with many tiny shell inclusions, shaped at the top in graceful curves ending in small finials at either corner. This stone can still be seen, set in cement at the base of the modern cenotaph, though sadly the inscription is no longer legible. It originally read, as transcribed in about 1886:
Born May 4 1826
Died July 30 1829
His grave, not far from the eastern edge of the modern park, was once surrounded by a small picket fence, as were a number of graves in the Burying Ground.
Barbara Mary Hudson
Barbara Mary’s tombstone also survives. It is much simpler than little John Colborne’s, but it is made of the same darkish stone with shell inclusions as his. Only the word "Memory" is faintly visible when the light strikes it at a certain angle. According to the Garrison Burial Register at Saint James Cathedral she was 14 months old when she was buried on July 18th, 1831. Her father, the Rev. Mr. Joseph Hudson, was to preside at her committal, but his name is scratched out in the register and Archdeacon John Strachan’s substituted. Rev. Hudson was chaplain to the Forces at York during this period, and sometime preacher at Saint James’. Relations between him and Archdeacon Strachan were, more often than not, strained. Rev. Hudson favoured the building of a new church for the use of the Garrison. It was to be erected on the same lot as the Garrison Burying Ground but on the Bathurst side facing the street. Sir John Colborne was in favour of the plan but Archdeacon Strachan was bitterly opposed. The matter was dropped until many years later when the Garrison Church of Saint John was built just back from the corner of Portland and Stewart Streets, north of the Burying Ground. The church no longer exists, but the 1870 church school building does. Much altered, it is a private residence and studio/theatre. Strachan was also very critical of Rev. Hudson’s behaviour during the cholera epidemic that raged through York in 1832. Not so the congregation of Saint James’ Church. They presented Hudson with a silver cup commemorating his courage and compassion in dealing with those dying of the disease. A number of the victims were interred at the Garrison Burying Ground.
Immediately preceding Barbara Mary’s entry in the Garrison Burial Register is the only blank in the whole register. This minor mystery leads us to our next, and final history.
Lieutenant Zachariah Mudge
One evening in early June 1831 Lieutenant Zachariah Mudge, Sir John Colborne’s private secretary, made his way home from Government House to his rooms. Lieut. Mudge’s residence was situated midway between Colonel Nathaniel Coffin’s house and Mr. Edward Wright’s tavern "The Greenland Fisheries," about 15 or 16 feet distant from each. This would place it somewhat in from the northwest corner of modern John and Front Streets—now, unfortunately a parking lot. Lieutenant Mudge made ready for bed. Undressing, he placed his clothes on a chair, his boots to one side, he wound up his watch, carefully placing it in its usual place at the head of the bed. The room in perfect order, he retired.
In the middle of the night, as June the 9th passed to June the 10th, Mr. Wright was up attending a sick child–he lived with his family above a wing of the Greenland Fisheries Tavern on John Street. The child’s room, at the back of the building, was opposite Lieutenant Mudge’s. At about midnight, Wright heard a report which he mistook for thunder until he looked out the window at the clear starlit night. Early the next morning the Rev. Mr. Matthews, first classics master at what was later to be Upper Canada College, and close friend of the Lieutenant, arrived at Mudge’s lodgings on an appointment for a morning’s bathing in the lake. The Lieutenant was dead, his whole head and face shattered beyond recognition—the rifle ball was eventually found in the bolster at the head of the bed. As a suicide, strictly speaking, one was denied Christian burial, though this was usually circumvented with a ruling of temporary insanity. In Lieutenant Mudge’s case it seems Archdeacon Strachan decided on the letter of the law and forbade a clergyman to be present at the burial. It is just possible that the blank in the Garrison Burial Register was Rev. Hudson’s way of honouring the Lieutenant without crossing Strachan. The blank appears between the April 27th entry for Anne Milton and the July 18th one for Barbara Mary Hudson. Nowhere else in the tightly written burial record is there a blank entry, and Rev. Hudson, as chaplain to the Forces, was in charge of the register.
Lieutenant Mudge’s death created quite a sensation in the town of York. To this day it has never been satisfactorily explained. What do we know of the man? He was 31 years old, of middle height and very fair complexion. The obituary in the Colonial Advocate (June 16, 1831) states, “... his countenance though not what would be termed handsome was mild, agreeable, and indicative of a contemplative mind.” Yet he knew how to enjoy himself - from Mary O’Brien’s Journal (September 3, 1829): "Fanny and Richard seemed very merry at the top of the table with the secretary." I think we can fairly say that he was a compassionate person. At the inquest it was discovered that for a long period he had allowed a former servant who had fallen into a lingering illness the same wages as when he was well and in his service.
According to the Canadian Freeman (June 16, 1831), “. . . no man, we believe, that ever entered this colony, was more universally beloved, by all parties, than Mr. Mudge.” He was very much respected for the manner in which he discharged his duties as private secretary to the Lieutenant-Governor. Always prompt and fair-handed, he "studiously avoided all interference in party politics." The Lieutenant’s income, about 600 pounds a year, was evidently far beyond his expenditures, so financial embarrassment would not have been a contributing factor in his death. On the day of his death, a certain Captain Blois, recently returned from England, delivered a letter to him. Mr. Augustus Jones told the jury at the inquest that "he understood the deceased had, not long before, received tidings of the death of a dearly beloved friend in Europe, who had put a period to his own existence." He spent his last evening dining in company at Government House, where, at about eight o’clock it was observed that his mood changed abruptly. This gave rise to rumours that he had been insulted at table. So many clues, but no answers.
On Saturday the 11th of June, 1831, Lieutenant Zachariah Mudge was privately laid to rest in Garrison Burying Ground. Sometime later a large marble tombstone, still to be seen at the base of the cenotaph, was placed over his grave.
These and so many others now rest beneath the pleasant walks of Victoria Square Park in Toronto. If you ever chance to visit the park I hope you will take a moment to remember them, for it is in our remembering that they, like Wordsworth’s dalesmen, will “possess a kind of second life.”
[In the five years since this article was written there have been a number of changes at the Old Garrison Burying Ground and surrounding area: the grave markers have been removed from the foot of the cenotaph and taken away for conservation and eventual reinstallation in another location in the park; the church schoolhouse north of the site has been demolished to make way for a condominium; and plans are fairly far advanced for the relandscaping of the park. Research continues to turn up new information on the history and significance of the site.]
Michael J. Rudman is a composer and writer living in Toronto.
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