Hidden away, deep in the rural Devon countryside, is an important piece of early Canadian history. A place where the Maple Leaf flies proudly alongside the diminutive Wolford Chapel which was built by the Simcoe family. It’s the final resting place of John Graves Simcoe who was a key figure in the evolution of Canadian history and the first Lieutenant Governor of Upper Canada.
The Early Years of John Graves Simcoe (1752-1806)
John Graves Simcoe was born in 1752 in Northamptonshire, England, the only surviving child of John and Katherine Simcoe. His father, a captain in the Royal Navy, died when John was just seven years in Quebec.
Upon his death his mother moved to her family home near Exeter and it was here that he attended school before going on to Eton and then Oxford and eventually joining the military.
He spent his military career fighting in the American War of Independence against the Continental Army until falling ill just prior to the siege of Yorktown in 1781. Simcoe returned to his godfather’s home in Devon to recuperate and it was here that he met his future wife in 1782. Elizabeth Posthuma Gwillim (1766-1850) was a wealthy heiress who just happened to be his godfather’s ward.
John Graves Simcoe – The First Lieutenant Governor of Upper Canada
In 1791 he received a commission to become the first lieutenant-governor of Upper Canada but, to his dismay, he remained a subordinate to Guy Carleton, 1st Baron Dorchester, who was made governor-in-chief of both Upper and Lower Canada at the same time for he duration of his post.
Simcoe remained in Canada until 1796 when, due to ill health, he took a leave of absence. He remained Lieutenant Governor until resigning from the post two years later but never returned to Canada.
During his tenure as Governor he achieved a number of legislative triumphs including the introduction of trial by jury andBritish civil law. By far the most astonishing achievement from today’s viewpoint is that Simcoe passed an Act Against Slavery in 1793 which preceded the British Slavery Abolition Act (1833) by a staggering 40 years. Even more shocking is that it wasn’t until over seventy years later, in 1865, that the United States had finally prohibited slavery in all its states with the introduction of the Thirteenth Amendment.
His wife Elizabeth, who accompanied her husband to Upper Canadas, was an artist and also a prolific writer, whose surviving diary and numerous watercolours of York (now Toronto), the city founded by Simcoe, provide an invaluable insight into life in early Colonial Upper Canada (now the province of Ontario). York was specifically created as a naval base for Lake Ontario as a defence against any problems from its neighbour, the United States, located on the opposite shore.
In Toronto the Civic Holiday in August has been renamed Simcoe Day. There’s also a town and a county that bear his name, as well as numerous streets and schools that can be found across the length and breadth of the province of Ontario.
Wolford Chapel and John Graves Simcoe
The Simcoes purchased an Estate of some 5,000 acres near Dunkeswell and constructed Wolford Lodge with the money that Elizabeth brought to the marriage. The Estate was to remain within the family until 1923.
It was on this land that Simcoe constructed the small simple ecclesiastical building that can be seen today and has been little altered since its completion in c.1802. Just four years later, in 1806, it was to become his final resting place. Other family members are also buried at the chapel, including his wife Elizabeth and six of their eleven children.
The interior contains a quantity of 17th century carved wood including the reading desk, pews and linen fold panelling, obviously acquired from some earlier building. The carved oak reredos is Gothic in style and includes painted panels of the Commandments and the Lord’s Prayer.
Wolford – The Canadian Chapel in Devon
In 1923 Sir Geoffrey Harmsworth, a British publisher, purchased the greater part of the Wolford Estate. By 1966 he had decided to gift Wolford Chapel to the people of Ontario and this was done during the 160th Anniversary year of Simcoe’s death via the John Grave Simcoe Foundation.
In 1982 the title of the chapel was transferred to the Ontario Heritage Trust, an agency of the Ontario Ministry of Tourism and Culture and so Wolford Chapel has become a little slice of Canada in deepest darkest Devon proudly flying the Canadian Flag.
EXETER CATHEDRAL – The magnificent cathedral is located in the centre of the city and has the longest stretch of unbroken Gothic vaulting in the world. There’s a monument in the cathedral to John Grave Simcoe, by the leading neoclassic sculptor John Flaxman.
HONITON- An ancient market town that’s well known for its delicate lacemaking which was introduced by immigrant Flemish workers in the 17th century. Today the town is a must for all antique collectors and has an extraordinary number of tea and coffee shops to choose from when you take that much needed break.
OTTERY ST MARY – The birthplace of Samuel Taylor Coleridge (Rime of the Ancient Mariner) and inspiration to Ottery St. Catchpole in J. K.Rowling’s Harry Potter series. The Weasley’s family home The Burrow being located in the fictional village. The magnificent church of St. Mary is a scaled down version of Exeter Cathedral and houses a 15th century astronomical clock.