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Mrs. Simcoe’s Chapel, Drawings & Diary

In 1988 I went to England to carry out research at the National Maritime Archives in Greenwich and the National Hydrographic Archives in Taunton. One day I travelled to Exeter to visit a lady I call my “half-sister”. During four years of World War II, my parents, then living in near Montreal, looked after two children, a brother and sister, who were evacuated from London. After the War they returned to their family, and more than 40 years later I was meeting with Margaret for the first time and, I was extremely excited. (I also visited Margaret’s brother, John, who lives in King’s Langley and reads TI Life. He saw Richard Withington’s Winter Islander story and wrote a comment about his memories while living with my parents back so long ago)

As soon as we met and she asked me what I wanted to do, I said, “I want to find Wolford Castle, which was the family seat of John Graves Simcoe and his wife Elizabeth Posthuma Simcoe.”

“I have never heard of that place” she said. But as we parked her car and headed for a tea room opposite the famous Exeter Cathedral, we passed a stone wall and on it was a  plaque, commemorating John Graves Simcoe.  “He died in a house on this site, and is buried at Wolford Chapel, Dunkesewell near Honiton”.

The building behind the wall had long since disappeared, but Margaret, with a few well placed phone calls,  learned that the real ancestral home was indeed in Wolford Chapel, about 20 miles outside of Exeter near the small town of Honiton, Devon. The next morning we went exploring and just when we thought it was a useless exercise, we saw a small road sign indicating Wolford Chapel was to the left.

Suddenly I spotted a flagpole and on it flying ever so proudly, was a our Canadian Flag. And there, tucked in on a tiny little road, was the chapel. There was nothing to indicate it was private, but a sign stating that the Ontario Heritage Trust (on behalf of the people of Ontario) accepted title to the Chapel in 1982.

Now what is the significance of all of this? Simply that Elizabeth Simoce, the wife of John Graves Simcoe who the First Lieutenant-Governor of Upper Canada, helped to capture the early history of the Thousand Islands by writing a diary.  And it is that history that fascinates me.

Elizabeth Simcoe accompanied her husband during their rule of Upper Canada and Mrs. Simcoe’s Diary provides four entries of trips past Brockville and Gananoque in 1792, 1793, and 1795. The Diary was first published in 1911, and reprinted several times.  It provides the most comprehensive impression of life in colonial Ontario.  J. Ross Robertson’s version holds hundreds of footnotes to further identify the people and places that are included.  

Mrs. Simcoe, as she was known, took her watercolour paints and drawing pencils with her on her excursions.  She left 100s of drawings, paintings and several engravings.  Many remain in the family’s private collection, but several were drawn in and reprinted for the Diary.

The Thousand Islands region was captured in three drawings.  Two appear in several publications, but the third, C13917, was housed in the Library & Archives of Canada and not readily available.  In 1989 when I requested to have the drawing photographed for my book, The First Summer People, Thousand Islands 1650- 1910, it was taken out of storage and photographed for the first time.    Today all three are available for reproduction purposes.

Thanks to Elizabeth Simcoe drawings, and those biographical researchers who transcribed her diary, we have first-hand descriptions of the Thousand Islands.

For more on Wolford Chapel and Elizabeth Posthuma Simcoe see:

  • and
  • Bassett, John M. The Canadians: Elizabeth Simcoe First Lady of Upper Canada. Fitzhenry & Whiteside Ltd.: Don Mills, 1974.
  • Frayer, Mary Beacock. Elizabeth Posthuma Simcoe 1796-1850: A Biography. Duncan Press: Toronto, 1989.
  • Innis, Mary Quayle. Mrs. Simcoe's Diary. St. Martin's Press: New York, 1965.
  • Lunn, Janet, Christopher Moore. The Story of Canada. Lester Publishing & Key Porter Books Limited: Toronto, 1992.
  • Robertson, J. Ross. The Diary of Elizabeth Simcoe. The Ontario Publishing Company Limited: Toronto, 1934.


The Excerpts from Mrs. Simcoe’s Diary

While stationed in Canada the Simcoe family travelled through the islands between Montreal and the western settlements several times. Mrs. Simcoe first described the islands in June 1792. They travelled in bateaux, (work boats that could be rowed or sailed in the St. Lawrence River).  More than once Mrs. Simcoe exclaimed that she needed a great deal of courage to entrust her life and the lives of their children to the crewmen and the danger of the water journey.

Accommodations were so unsuitable, as this description shows:

“Saturday, June 30th 1793 - After passing Grenadier Island we came to the Thousand Isles. The different sizes & shapes of these innumerable isles has a very pretty appearance. Some of them are many miles in extent, many of them only large enough to contain 4 or 5 trees Pine or Oak growing on a grey Rock which looks very pretty variegated by the different mosses with which the crevices are filled. “

“We passed the river Gananowui [Gananoque] and ½ a mile beyond it came to Carey’s house which was so dirty a House that we again pitched the Tent, which notwithstanding it rained incessantly the whole Evening & the greater part of the Night kept us quite dry & I slept vastly well. I was surprised to find how wet the bed clothes were in the Tent when I rose, & Yet I caught no cold tho these nights were the first in which I slept in a Tent. In spite of the rain Coll. Simcoe went to the Mill on Gananowui River near its mouth where a harbour might be made for shipping. This River has communication a great way back with the river Rideau & by some Lakes to the Ottawa River. These & other advantages make this one of the most Eligible Situations in this part of the Province for the Establishment of a Town, but Sir J. Johnson obtained a Grant of land hereabouts which prevents the probability of any such improvements being made by Government. “

“Sunday, July 1st – We rose very early this Morning in order to take a view of the Mill at Gananowui before we proceeded on our way to Kingston. The scenery about the Mill was so pretty that I was well repaid for the trouble of going. Then we returned to our Large Boat & proceeded. After passing Grande Isle & Isle Cauchois we drew near Kingston which we were aware of before we saw the Houses as we discerned the white wavers of Lake Ontario beyond looking like a Sea for the wind blue extremely fresh.”

“Kingston is 6 leagues from Gananowui, a small Town of about fifty wooden houses & Merchants’ Store Houses. Only one House is built of stone, it belongs to a Merchant. There is a small Garrison here & a harbour for Ships. They fired a salute on our arrival & we went to the House appointed for the Commanding Officer at some distance from the Barracks. It is mall, but very airy, & so much cooler than the great House at Montreal that I was very well satisfied with the change. The Queen’s Rangers are encamped ¼ mile beyond our House & the bell Tents have a pretty appearance, the Situation of this place is entirely flat, & incapable of being rendered defensible, therefore were its situation more  central it would still be unfit for the Seat of Government.”

Two years later Mrs. Simcoe once more travelled through the islands, this time on her way east to Lower Canada’s  Montreal and Quebec. On this visit she stayed at “Fairfields’ house, described as being “close to the mill at Gananowui” on the following day she continued her voyage, arriving in the dark Capt. Cowan’s opposite Oswegatchie. “Here I had a large room with six windows in it”.

Mrs. Simcoe retuned to Upper Canada in the winter of 1793, and the only road was along the north side of the St. Lawrence River. She met her husband in Cornwall, and after spending a few days in that town they travelled to Kingston. There had been a storm a few days before and the trails were covered with several feet of newly fallen snow. Although cautioned not to proceed on their journey, the Simcoes persisted. The description of the journey shows that the lieutenant-governor and his wife were strong-minded and tenacious. The road conditions forced their driver to turn out onto the ice for much of the journey through the Thousand Islands. This too proved to be dangerous:


“When we arrived at Cary’s we heard that Mr. Forsyth had lost both his horses three days ago at the mouth of the Gananoqui, by keeping too far from the shore; they saved the cariole by cutting the traces, but neither he nor his companions were dexterous enough to save the horses. The people of the States are particularly expert in saving horses form drowning, they ravel with roped, which they fasten around the horses; necks if they fall into the water; pulling it stops their breath, and then they float and can be pulled out; then they take off the rope as quickly as possible, and the horse travels on as well as before… When the Governor Simcoe was driven… to Detroit he carried these “choke ropes:, and had occasion to use them. A “choke rope”, or check band, is a small strap of rope or leather by which the riddle is fastened around the neck of a horse.”


In 1796 the Simcoe’s made their last journey through the islands on their way to Montreal and Quebec for their departure to England. Mrs. Simcoe’s final description relates a pleasant experience and a fitting way to remember the Thousand Islands. They stopped on an island a few miles past Gananoque. Mrs. Simcoe named the island “Isle au trippe,” from gathering “trippe de roche” on the rocks.

“It is a kind of liverwort plant good for diseases of liver, which the Canadian going to the Grande Portage boil and eat on very hungry days, but it is bitter and to wholesome.”

They also stopped at another spot: “I called it Bass Island’ [this turned out to be the mainland], for the number of black bass I saw swimming in shallow water near the shore. We supped at ten, the stars shining unusually bright. We placed the beds on the trunks in one of the bateau, which was covered with sail cloth over the awning. We slept extremely well and so cool that we determined to keep that bateau so fitted up for the rest of the voyage rather than go into houses, now the governor is so unwell, and suffers from the heat, besides the fresh breeze on the after kept away the mosquitoes.”

Wind came up on their last day and caused them some difficulty. The last passage for the Thousand Islands in Mrs. Simcoe’s diary described the islands lying off Brockville.

“Passed Toniata Isles and the river of that name, then the Isles au Baril, on one of which we landed. The wind and sea so high we had difficulty in turning the Point, form the whence we had a pretty view of the Islands.”

  By Susan W. Smith,

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