Histories & Mysteries: Abolisher of Slavery. Founder of Toronto. Laid to Rest in Devon.

Ben Fox
Ben Fox

Travelling a few miles North East of Exeter, just outside Dunkeswell in East Devon, you’ll come across a small, charming chapel.

What is most unusual about it, however, is that it flies the Canadian flag despite being situated in the middle of the English countryside.

Why, I hear you ask? Well, Wolford Chapel is the burial site of Lord Simcoe, 1st Lieutenant Governor of Upper Canada and it is the property of the Canadian province of Ontario.

So, who is Lord Simcoe? Gosh, so many questions!  John Graves Simcoe was born in Cotterstock in 1752, the son of Captain John Simcoe, commander of the British warship HMS Pembroke and was part of the British military expedition to Québec in 1759 that led to the conquest of New France.

Captain Simcoe died when his son was seven. John’s mother, Katherine, moved the family down to Exeter where her son spent his formative years before pursuing a career in the military. In 1770, he attained a commission as ensign in the 35th Regiment of Foot.

Simcoe arrived in America two days after the Battle of Bunker Hill and sought unsuccessfully to raise a corps of free Black troops. During the subsequent siege of Boston, he purchased a captaincy in the 40th Regiment of Foot. With this regiment, he participated in campaigns in Long Island, New York City, New Jersey and Brandywine, Pennsylvania, where he was wounded.

Simcoe developed an appreciation for light infantry, particularly in the American theatre, based on the concept of individual fitness, quick movement and battlefield discipline. In October 1777, he took command of the Queen’s Rangers with the provincial rank of major. The Rangers were active in campaigns in Pennyslvania, Richmond and Yorktown. Simcoe achieved great personal success and a reputation as a tactical theorist. Prior to the British surrender at Yorktown, he was invalided home in 1781 with a rank of lieutenant-colonel. Simcoe returned to Devon to convalesce following his experiences in North America. He stayed at the Devon home of his godfather, Admiral Samuel Graves, near Hembury Fort in East Devon.

In 1782, Simcoe married Elizabeth Posthuma Gwillim. She was a wealthy heiress, who acquired a 5,000-acre (2,000 ha) estate at Honiton in Devon and built Wolford Lodge, where the chapel was then built.

In 1790 he entered Parliament as the Member for St Mawes in Cornwall. In one of his first acts, he proposed raising a militia force like the Queen’s Rangers. He also proposed to lead an invasion of Spain.

Instead, the Prime Minister, William Pitt, made him lieutenant governor of the new loyalist province of Upper Canada. He resigned from Parliament in 1792 on taking up his new post.

Simcoe arrived in Newark (now Niagara-on-the-Lake) and, given the possibility of renewed hostilities between Britain and the United States, he decided that the settlement, situated on the Upper Canadian–US border, was a strategically poor choice for a provincial capital.

He temporarily moved the capital to York on the north shore of Lake Ontario, making it the permanent seat of government. This would eventually evolve into the city of Toronto, the provincial capital of Ontario and the most populous city in modern-day Canada.

He succeeded in his first legislative session to pass bills establishing British civil law, trial by jury, the use of British Winchester standards of measure, and a provision for jails and courthouses.

One of his most enduring achievements, however, was the part he played ending one of the most despicable trades in human history.

On 14th March, 1793, Chloe Cooley, an enslaved Black woman in Queenston, was bound, thrown in a boat and sold across the river to a new owner in the United States. Her screams and violent resistance were brought to the attention of Lieutenant Governor Simcoe by Peter Martin, a free former slave and soldier in Butler’s Rangers, and William Grisley, a neighbour who witnessed the event.

Moved by the event, Simcoe immediately moved to abolish slavery in the new province. He was met with opposition in the House of Assembly, some of whose members owned slaves. A compromise was reached and on 9th July, 1793, an Act was passed that prevented the further introduction of slaves into Upper Canada and allowed for the gradual abolition of slavery, although no slaves already residing in the province were freed outright. It was the first piece of legislation in the British Empire to limit slavery and set the stage for the great freedom movement of enslaved African Americans known as the Underground Railroad.

In 1796, neuralgia and gout spurred a leave of absence to England. Simcoe resigned his post in 1798, and did not return to Canada.

He did, however, remain active in the military. In 1797, he commanded British forces in Saint-Domingue (present day Haiti).

Back in England, Simcoe accepted command of the Western District in Exeter but did not receive another active field command during the tenure of British prime minister William Pitt. In 1806, after Pitt’s death, Simcoe was appointed commander-in-chief of India. However, he died in Exeter prior to assuming the post and was buried on the family estate near Honiton.

Simcoe’s Canadian legacy is ever present in modern-day Ontario. The town of Simcoe bears his name as does Simcoe County. The August civic holiday is known in Toronto as Simcoe Day. Schools and streets throughout Ontario are named after him, including John and Simcoe streets in Toronto. A statue was erected in his honour in 1903 at Queen’s Park.

Thousands of miles away, in a nondescript part of Devon, rests one of the most important figures to have lived. A small piece of Canadian History in the heart of rural Devon.

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