Bob’s Blog: Immigrant ancestor took a chance on Hamilton
My day job in Hamilton had me examining the Harper’s government new immigration policies this week. No time for debate here but let’s just say it is going to be tougher for some to get to and stay in Canada than it was for, say, my ancestors who came in 1834.
I continue to unpack in glorious Port Rowan (see June 13 blog) and came across this flight of fancy unfinished piece yesterday. Today I’ll finish it.
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“In all our pasts are an immigrant beginning.”
(Words from author Denise Chong, as seen at Pier 21, Canada's National Museum of Immigration, in Halifax, NS)
My office is in downtown Hamilton. For me this is a mixed blessing.
You see, working downtown frequently brings me into contact with family down on King Street. So what, exactly, is the problem?
To be frank, bumping into George Lees, as I often do on my lunchtime strolls, always comes as a bit of surprise. See, George passed away in 1879.
A baker, he arrived in Hamilton in 1834. At the age of 33 George had decided that Edinburgh, Scotland, a city in transition that had been ravaged by a cholera epidemic two years before, was not a city of opportunity. It would be nice to say Hamilton was chosen as a destination point because it was such a place but George was actually heading for Syracuse when he decided to stop in and visit a cousin in Dumfries, now Cambridge. Returning to Hamilton, by foot, George had some time to kill before his ship sailed for New York.
A small booklet authored by local historian Colonel George McCullough picks up the story of the arrival of my ancestor.
"However the good ship was not due to sail until evening, and so George thought he would while while away time by making acquaintance with the rising town. Being a baker by trade, he naturally looked in on Mr. Spencer, the local man in that line, and exchanged news and views with him.
It appears that Spencer was very keen for a holiday in the woods, and persuaded Lees to look after his business whilst he was away hunting … A bargain was struck, Spencer shouldered his musket and Lees took charge of the bakery … When the hunter returned to his task he was well-pleased evidently with his temporary manager, for he at once offered the young Scotsman a partnership in the business.”
It seems that life was simpler then – at least if you were recently arrived from Scotland looking for work. George’s cousin, mentioned above, had arrived two years before. Colonel McCulloch draws on an account from John Glasgow, later Major Glasgow, who was 11 at the time and travelling on the cholera-ridden ship with his family from Berwickshire, Scotland.
After a sea voyage of seven weeks and three days followed by three more weeks in steamers and a Durham boat from Quebec to Hamilton, the weary travellers “were gladdened by the glint of the tin cupola of the old Court House as the steamer approached the canal through … Burlington Beach. Somewhere in the neighbourhood of that gleaming object the strangers in a strange land would find a habitation and a home, prosperity perchance.”
However, the strangers’ sight-seeing tour of the hamlet of 1367 individuals came as a shock when it was found that no houses were available. Referred to the immigrant sheds to the northeast, the new arrivals “unanimously decided they were unfit for human habitation,” reported Glasgow.
Luckily for them George Hamilton, founder of the town, “most considerately offered a lot on his lands on which to run up a log shanty to provide shelter for the distressed immigrants.” The shanty was erected in the woods somewhere near the current intersection of John and Hunter Streets.
Back to George’s story: Within a year and a half he returned to Edinburgh to bring his wife Jane and five children to Canada to reside on King Street between Catharine and Mary.
For sure, it wasn’t easy. Of five Scottish-born Lees children, one died of cholera as did three of five Canadian-born.
But undoubtedly, my family had a smoother passage to the New World than did those Irish “strangers” confined to the immigrant sheds or to many other families dealing with Hamilton’s housing crisis 180 years later.
George still joins me as I run my errands at King and James. He helps me catch a whiff of “incomparable” muffin pies wafting from his bakery on Main West, points out the house (with a clear view of the mountain) where his son – my great, great grandfather William – was born in 1836, and boasts of the success of his children, grandchildren and great grandchildren who did indeed find prosperity in Hamilton.
Bob Wood is a housing and poverty advocate and former two-term Burlington City Councillor who is building a bed-and-breakfast with his wife on Lake Erie.