Elizabeth Simcoe was born 250 years ago today (or thereabouts!). She spent most of her life in Devon, but for five years lived in British colonial Canada, where her husband, James Simcoe, had been appointed the first Lieutenant Governor of Upper Canada, then a frontier land. While there, she kept a detailed diary, with many sketches, which is now considered an historically valuable record of the time.
The date and place of the birth of Elizabeth Posthuma Gwillim are both matters of some dispute. Her father had died many months earlier, and her mother then also died giving birth to Elizabeth. A biographical note published in 1911 (part of the introduction to her diary - see below) says she was born in 1766 at Whitchurch, Herefordshire. But other sources available online agree she was born in 1762. And, although many of those sources state this happened in Aldwincle on 22 September, others suggest this was the date of her baptism. Mary Beacock Fryer, in her 1989 biography (Elizabeth Postuma Simcoe, 1762-1850, partly available online at Googlebooks), draws on recent research, and doubts not that she was born in Aldwincle; however, she declines to give any exact date, other than to say her mother was buried on 23 September.
Elizabeth was brought up by her mother’s younger sister, Margaret, who later married Admiral Samuel Graves. While living with them near Honiton, Devon, Elizabeth met the admiral’s godson, John Graves Simcoe, a soldier, in the spring of 1782, and they were married the same year. The newly-weds lived in Exeter, where they had three children, before moving to a large estate at Wolford near Honiton bought with Elizabeth’s inheritance. They had 11 children altogether, although only eight survived into adulthood.
In 1791, Simcoe was appointed Lieutenant Governor of Upper Canada, a new province established that year by the British Empire to govern the central third of the lands in British North America (in present-day southern Ontario), partly to accommodate loyalist refugees from the US after the American Revolution. The couple left several of their children in England, and crossed the Atlantic to Quebec. The following spring they undertook the arduous journey into the interior, to Newark, where they were based initially. Later, they moved to York, Toronto, a new town established by Simcoe, and to Quebec. In 1796, the family returned to the UK.
In 1806, Simcoe was named commander-in-chief in India, but, unexpectedly, he died before taking up the post. Subsequently, Elizabeth remained at Wolford, becoming an enthusiastic evangelical within the Church of England, focusing on her large estates, and enjoying society in places like Bath and Cheltenham. She died in 1850. Further biographical information is available from the Dictionary of Canadian Biography or Wikipedia.
One of Elizabeth’s daughters, Eliza, preserved her mother’s diaries and drawings and letters, and they were then passed down through the family. It is thanks to the diaries in particular that Elizabeth is remembered today, more in Canada than in the UK, for they concern her travels in the Canadian interior, and are full of delightful sketches. They were first published by William Biggs in Toronto in 1911 as The Diary of Mrs John Graves Simcoe (edited by John Ross Robertson). This version is available online at Internet Archive.
Mary Lu MacDonald’s biographical entry about Elizabeth for the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (log in required) says her diaries are attractive because of their ‘infectious enthusiasm’: ‘Where other women in the colony complained of hardship, Elizabeth saw only adventure. Despite her involvement in her husband’s activities she rarely mentioned politics. The people who appear in her diaries tended to be social contacts of her own class: the governor’s military colleagues, visiting dignitaries, and women who maintained rounds of visits as if still in England. Her enjoyment of her role as the governor’s wife no doubt added to her delight in all that she saw and did. In addition to the diaries Elizabeth, a talented artist, made many sketches, later turned into watercolours, which are frequently reproduced today as the most accurate records of a time and place. On their return to England, a set of thirty-two watercolours was presented to George III.’
According to Robertson, Elizabeth began keeping a diary on 17 September 1791, a few days before the family’s departure from Weymouth to Quebec, and the last entries are on 16 October 1796 when they arrived back in London. As a general rule, he says, she wrote day by day, and mailed her diary entries once a week to Mrs Hunt who was looking after four of her daughters at Wolford. According to Fryer, there are at least three versions of the diary: the short notes on which she based the other two; the versions she mailed to Mrs Hunt; and a third version, embellished with detail on flora and fauna, mailed to a friend. And, she says, the edition of the diaries published by Robertson was a combination of the latter two versions.
The following extracts are taken from Robertson’s 1911 version of Elizabeth Simcoe’s diary.
11 July 1792
‘The Indians came to dance before the Governor, highly painted and in their war costume, with little clothing. They were near enough to the house for me to hear their singing, which sounded like a repetition in different dismal tones of he, he, he, and at intervals a savage whoop. They had a skin stretched on sticks imitating a drum, which they beat with sticks. Having drank more than usual, they continued singing the greatest part of the night. They never quarrel with white people unless insulted by them, but are very quarrelsome amongst themselves. Therefore, when the women see them drunk they take away their knives, and hide them until they become sober.
This evening I walked through a pretty part of the wood and gathered capillaire and a very pretty, small flower, five white petals of an exceeding firm texture, the purple short chives which support the anther of the flower proceeding from a purple rim that surrounds a very prominent green seed-vessel, on long foot stalks; from the top of the stalk the leaves spear shaped, sawed, polished, of the darkest green, and almost as firm as holly; numerous. It grows in very shady places, an evergreen. I was driven home by the bite of a mosquito through a leather glove. My arm inflamed so much that after supper I fainted with the pain while playing at chess with Capt. Littlehales.’
14 July 1792
‘Mr Scadding caught a beautiful green grass snake, which was harmless. After keeping it a day or two he let it go. The way of clearing land in this country is cutting down all the small wood, pile it and set it on fire. The heavier timber is cut through the bark five feet above the ground. This kills the tree, which in time the wind blows down. The stumps decay in the ground in the course of years, but appear very ugly for a long time, though the very large, leafless white trees have a singular and sometimes a picturesque effect among the living trees. The settler first builds a log hut covered with bark, and after two or three years raises a neat house by the side of it. This progress of industry is pleasant to observe.’
19 July 1792
‘The Governor went to-day to see Carleton Island, nearly opposite the shore from Kingston, where there were extensive fortifications, now dismantled. The island was afterwards discovered to be within American territory. Returned at six with wild raspberries, which were exceedingly fine. Carleton Island abounds with them and strawberries and plums, while the air is esteemed so healthy that the people go there to get rid of the ague, a complaint which is very prevalent in this province. The flowering raspberry grows wild here, and bears a very insipid, flat fruit. Mr Fisher, of the Engineers, is here on his way to Quebec from Niagara. He showed us some beautiful sketches he has taken of the Falls of Niagara.’
21 July 1792
‘There are no rides about Kingston, or any pleasant walks that we have met with. Sailing is, therefore, our only amusement. To-day we were prevented by rain from going to the mills on the Cataraqui. It is in the interest of the people here to have this place considered as the seat of Government. Therefore they all dissuade the Governor from going to Niagara, and represent the want of provisions, houses, etc., at that place, as well as the certainty of having the ague. However, he has determined to sail for Niagara to-morrow.’
26 July 1792
‘At nine this morning we anchored at Navy Hall, opposite the garrison of Niagara, which commands the mouth of the river. Navy Hall is a house built by the Naval Commanders on this lake for their reception when here. It is now undergoing a thorough repair for our occupation, but is still so unfinished that the Governor has ordered three marquees to be pitched for us on the hill above the house, which is very dry ground and rises beautifully, in parts covered with oak bushes.
A fine turf leads on to woods, through which runs a very good road leading to the Falls. The side of our hill is terminated by a very steep bank covered with wood, a hundred feet in height in some places, at the bottom of which runs the Niagara River. Our marquees command a beautiful view of the river and the garrison on the opposite side, which, from its being situated on the point, has a fine effect, and the poorness of the building is not remarked at this distance, from whence a fine picture might be made.
The Queen’s Rangers are encamped within half a mile behind us. In clear weather the north shore of Lake Ontario may be discerned. The trees which abound here are oak, chestnut, ash, maple, hickory, black walnut.’