LONDON, ONTARIO – I suspect I’m not the only person who walks by a house or apartment where I used to live and wishes there was some way to slip back inside for a few hours and see what kind of memories and associations come burbling up to the surface. But I don’t have the gall to knock on the door and ask a suspicious stranger if they’d mind terribly if I just barged into their personal space and mooched around for a while. But on an admittedly less personal level, I do get a somewhat similar sort of charge whenever I pay a visit to Eldon House.
No, I never used to live inside this splendidly maintained Regency-era mansion, constructed in 1834 and still outfitted today with many of the period furnishings and decorations that its original tenants used. But I have lived in London all my life and the fact that this town’s oldest surviving private home has been around for almost as long as the city itself, nourishes my sense of civic history and belonging in almost as powerful a way. And because Eldon House has been operated as a domestic museum for the past 58 years (the Harris family gave it to the city after an occupancy of 126 years) you don’t have to do that bit with the knocking and cajoling.
I frankly think it should be a requirement for every Forest City resident to take at least one guided tour of the place. I’ve had at least three over the years, always with a different guide, and have found these guides – always women – prodigiously well-informed and equipped to answer questions or delve into any aspect of Eldon House life. And if you take your tour in mild weather, you can cap off your outing by landing in the wicker furniture out on the lawn and taking tea and scones with Devon cream.
If you want the full immersive experience of London’s most storied house, you should augment your visit by reading The Eldon House Diaries, edited by Robin S. and Terry G. Harris, which chronicles the lives of the Harris family from 1848–82. I have treasured this great thumping doorstop of a red-covered tome since its first publication by the Champlain Society in 1994 and can’t think of any other book that has so deepened and informed my sense of what daily life must have been like during our city’s pioneer period.
Undoubtedly the Harris family was comparatively wealthy (at least until John, the great pater familias died at the age of 68) but even in the rudest flush of health, they were hardly cut off from life’s harsher realities. Young members of the family were all too frequently carried off in their prime by illness and the hazards of childbirth. Yes, there are scads of teas and balls recounted in the Diaries’ pages, as well as christening parties and wedding showers, but chillier winds regularly blow through.
Close friends of the Harris family occasionally fell victim to bankruptcy and even murder and suicide. Rumours of war and rebellion intermittently trouble these pages as well as a stark recounting of the 1881 Victoria steamboat disaster when more than 200 local men, women and children were drowned after an overloaded excursion vessel capsized and broke apart in the Thames River just east of Springbank Park. “Coffins could not be got in London sufficient for the dead . . . Funeral processions have not been out of sight from early morning until dark,” writes Amelia Ryerse Harris.
While there are five Harris family diarists represented in the book – again, all women – it is Amelia who supplies more than 300 pages of the richest stuff. Born near Long Point to Loyalist parents who came north after the American Revolution, Amelia is reported to have said to a friend, ‘There is the man I shall marry,’ as she set eyes on John Harris for the very first time, proudly standing on the prow of his ship as it pulled into harbour near her family’s home. At 32, Harris, a master in the Royal Navy was almost twice as old as his 17 year old bride whom he married a mere six weeks after that first dockside sighting. Even at 17 Amelia knew precisely what she wanted and how to wield the charm that would secure it.
John Harris was appointed treasurer of the London District in 1821 and shortly after the district headquarters was moved (sensibly enough) to London from Vittoria, the Harris family (with eight children at the time) moved into Eldon House in 1834 (three years before Victoria ascended to the throne). The home which was specially built to their specifications stands atop a riverside promontory with a view of the Forks of the Thames to the south, St. Paul’s Cathedral at the other end of Carling Street to the east and Blackfriars Bridge and mill race to the north. There may have been grander, splashier homes in early London but none was so ideally situated nor quite so congenially livable. Eldon House was the undisputed centre of London society, frequently visited by other founding London families who live on today as street names – Bechers, Cronyns, Goodhues, Askins, Carlings, Merediths, Col. Talbot et al – and occasionally hosting visits by such national luminaries as John A. Macdonald, Egerton Ryerson, Casimir Gzowski and Edward Blake.
The quintessential London matriarch, Amelia Harris knew which side her bread was buttered on and could be breathtakingly shrewd and practical when necessary. During the wild uncertainty of the Duncombe Rebellion of 1837 when it seemed that everything Eldon House stood for might be swept away by anti-Tory zealots and reformers, Amelia was found one afternoon down in the cellar with her children, teaching them how to make shell casings for the militia’s bullets.
With the death of John Harris in 1850, the widow Amelia suddenly faced an economic future more precarious than most would suppose. She continued to manage the family home with its customary flair and didn’t dare cut back on entertaining. Of her ten surviving children at the time of John’s death, seven were daughters and five were still unwed. The two married daughters had both nabbed well-born British officers stationed with the garrison in London and Amelia was determined that their younger sisters would do as well.
Robin Harris writes in his introduction to the Diaries, “For the 32 years of her widowhood (Amelia) applied all her strength, energy and imagination to holding the family together. Clearly she perceived that it was her responsibility to ensure that the Harris household did not disintegrate. Indeed, Amelia’s efforts at pursuing this self-appointed mission constitutes the dominant theme of the several diaries.”
Historically and sociologically invaluable, Amelia’s diary also happens to be extremely well written. She can be dryly humorous and gossipy while navigating her children past the shoals of courtship, occasionally whipping off an aphorism worthy of Jane Austen: “I have always advised my sons to look at the mother before they made love to the daughters . . . It is strange what stupid sons a clever father will have . . . or is the other theory correct that it requires a clever mother to make clever children?”
Fascinating details and droll witticisms are all fine and well and the book would still be important if that is all that it contained. But what really elevates The Eldon House Diaries to the highest rank is the fact that on occasion – and again, it’s always in Amelia’s section – the stories she tells become absolutely engrossing. For instance, in the fall of 1857 we follow, day by day, the ruination and disgrace of one of John Harris’ old associates in the District Treasurer’s office, William Warren Street, who fled the collapse of the Gore Bank – a collapse which he certainly helped to bring on.
SEP. 25 : Mr. Street’s defalcations is the only subject spoken of. Every day brings things to light that are more and more iniquitous.
SEP. 26 : Mr. Street has made his escape. Three warrants were out against him. If he had remained he would have gone to the penitentiary. He escaped through our garden. Mr. Maclen was waiting for him with a carriage near Blackfriars Bridge and drove him to Sarnia – his frauds are great and numerous.”
Or consider this gripping and unbelievably grim sequence of events from the week before Christmas of that same dark year. (And note again, how the worst criminals manage to evade all justice by the simple expedient of cheesing it – of hightailing it out of London.)
DEC. 15 : Dull and cloudy, wind easterly . . . Hughes Wilson was shot with a revolver and badly wounded in the head last night. It took place in a brawl in a brothel. His recovery it is said is doubtful. Poor miserable boy – how wretched his poor father must feel.
DEC. 16 : The day beautiful. Went to the Wilsons with [son] John. Hughes very dangerously wounded. Was in convulsion all night. On our return we passed the house where he was shot. We traced the blood for some distance as we came over the railroad bridge. The three other men who were wounded came into the town by that bridge.
DEC. 17 : This is the first day of the city election. Mr. Carling is far ahead. Another most shocking event took place last night. Miss Maggie McFarlane drowned herself. The poor girl has been a long time engaged to Mr. Garret, an engineer on the Port Stanley Rail Road, and yesterday she received a letter from him breaking off the engagement, stating that he was too poor to marry, having only 120 pounds a year. She, poor girl, could not bear up against the disappointment. She left a note for her aunt, Mrs. Hamilton, telling her what she intended doing. At five o’clock they called her to dinner, she said she would come directly. After waiting some time they heard her go out of the front door and thought no more of it for some time, when the family became uneasy about her and Mr. Hamilton went to Mr. Askin’s and some other houses to see if she was there. In the meantime the note she had left was found and people were searching for her all night. Early this morning George Goodhue and young Givens who had been sitting up with Hughes Wilson were walking on the Bank opposite the Wilsons’ house when they saw a woman in the river by the side of a log. They got a boat and brought the body of poor Maggie McFarlane to the shore. An inquest was held today and Mr. Garret’s letters were read. They are said to have been open and manly and have caused no reflection upon Mr. Garret. Mrs. Hamilton of course is in great distress. Amelia called. Mrs. Becher drove me to the Wilsons. Hughes no better, had convulsions all last night. Doctor Anderson says he cannot live. Mr. Becher called for a very few minutes.
DEC. 18 : Ill natured people circulated a report that Maggie McFarlane was in the family way which caused her to destroy herself. Mr. Hamilton insisted upon a medical examination to prove her innocence. She was buried today, poor girl. Mr. Garret arrived in time to attend her funeral. He was almost mad and wept bitterly at the grave. He wished to see her but Mr. Hamilton and his friends would not permit it as she was much swollen and changed. I think they were wrong. Edward was one of the pallbearers. The inquest brought a verdict of temporary insanity which everybody approved of as it is the general belief that she was deranged when she committed the rash act. Fanny Becher came in to spend the day but was sent for before dinner. Hughes Wilson died at 5 o’clock this afternoon without ever having recovered consciousness.
DEC. 19 : The first news this morning was that poor Maggie McFarlane’s grave had been violated. The sexton going to the cemetery early saw that her grave had been disturbed and on going up to it he found the coffin open and the body dragged half out of it.. The first idea was that the act had been done by Mr. Garret in a fit of frenzy, but it was found that Mr. Garret had gone with his brothers to Hamilton yesterday, immediately after the funeral, and no doubt remained but that it was body snatchers who had intended to take the body away by the midnight train. But between 11 & 12 o’clock there was a cry of fire near the cemetery and an immense number of people running about in that vicinity which had disturbed the body snatchers and they had made their escape without the body. This last act sent a chill in every heart. Mr. Hamilton offers a reward of 25 pounds for the discovery of the parties who violated the grave. People think he ought to have offered at the least 100 pounds. Teresa and I went over to the Wilsons. Poor Mr. Wilson looks wretched and Lucy also has grief in her face . . . An inquest was held upon Hughes today. Mr. Wilson at first objected but the Coroner (Dr. George Moore) insisted upon it. Mr. Wilson then named the jury-men. John was one. On examining Hughes’ head the ball had gone through the skull and lodged in the brain.
DEC. 20 : John, Edward and George went to Hughes Wilson’s funeral. It being Sunday all the idle people about the town attended.
DEC. 21 : John was all day upon a coroner’s inquest inquiring into the murder of Hughes Wilson. A verdict of wilful murder was found against Hardy, a butcher, who has made his escape to the States.
DEC. 22 : Mr. Carling has been returned member for London by a majority of 560.
As Amelia Harris aged, this dear bright spirit became more pious and haunted by the past as on the occasion in 1862 when she had the bodies of two dead children from the earliest years of her marriage brought to London for reburial: “Edward opened the coffin of my children and I looked once more upon the remains of those who were once so dearly beloved, so loving and so beautiful. I took a tooth from each of them to wear in a locket. After having been forty years in the grave, we are together in this world and shall soon meet in another.”
The very next day Amelia recorded a serenely eerie dream in which her husband returned to visit her and talk about his death: “I said John, my beloved John, are you happy? He said oh yes & that he had died slowly and resignedly. At this same time he seemed lying on a bed, I was bending over him, with my arms around his neck, and his arms around mine. I felt his frame so thin in my arms, and there was his high forehead, and his hair long and thin hanging over his head as in life. The room seemed to be filling with people and I was taken from him. As I awoke, feeling the pressure of his arms around my neck, I felt almost happy that I had seen him so vividly even in a dream.”
More than 136 years since she laid down her pen for the last time, and 184 years since she and her family took up residence in Eldon House, Amelia Harris’ diaries and the home that she left behind can still work the same kind of revivifying magic on her 21st century townsfolk.
The Eldon House Diaries: Five Women's Views of the 19th Century, edited by Robin S. and Terry G. Harris, The Champlain Society in co-operation with the University of Toronto Press, 1994.
THE AQUINAS LECTURE
G.K. CHESTERTON AND THE GIFT OF GRATITUDE
Monday, January 28
St. Peter's Seminary
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