Liquor in an Early Ontario Catholic Community

I have often mentioned the importance of the British element, mostly Protestant, in early (white) settlement of the United States and Canada, in terms that is of language, law, culture, and public institutions.

There were always exceptions to this rule, of which many could be cited. Spanish and French influence in the southwest and parts of the southeast, e.g., Louisiana and Florida, led to sizeable Catholic populations, as did the French implantation in Quebec and some other parts of Canada. Maryland’s Catholic English community played a part in settling northern Kentucky and provided numerous families who founded noted whiskey distilleries, the Medleys, say.

The role of black Americans is now being explored as well, witness the New York Times story earlier this week on a black family whose patriarch, Nathan Green, was a mentor and valued aid to whiskey chieftain Jack Daniel.

An example of this historical mosaic can be felt closer to home, in a context we have been exploring recently, the early settlement of Ontario.

Peterborough is a small city in south-central Ontario, north of Kingston in the backcountry to the area settled by Loyalists along the shore of Lake Ontario.

Its lands were allocated somewhat later, therefore, and Loyalists and later American incomers had less influence there than along the lake.

The Hon. Peter Robinson, after whom the city is named (at least in part) – Peter’s borough – was a Canadian notable, New Brunswick-born of an American grandee family who came to Canada after the Revolution.

Robinson held office in Upper Canada’s Legislature and in 1825 implemented an ambitious plan to bring 2000 Irish settlers to what was then called Scott’s Plains (now Peterborough). These were poor farmer-tenants, Catholic, lured by the promise to own their own land. He went to Ireland to meet prospective emigrants and was impressed by their determination and, often, literacy. This is an early example of traditional religious divides being modified in New World conditions.

Robinson was a far-seeing, can-do example of noblesse oblige. He represented the enlightened side of the Family Compact who ran the province then. We miss his like today.

The details of the emigration, the travails incurred and successes finally realized, are well described in a six-part series by Patrick Leahy in the Peterborough Examiner in 2015.

19th century Peterborough was evoked in a series of articles in the 1920s by Francis Hincks Dobbin (1850-1932), a journalist and historian in the area. Dobbin was of American origin but came to the area as a child.

F.H. Dobbin’s accounts were collected by his son in 1943 and published in Our Old Home Town (J.M. Dent & Sons (Canada) Limited).

Given his long life span, they provide a fascinating look at early pioneer society and its later evolution. Clearly Dobbin had absorbed lore from older residents when active in journalism and his accounts ring true in light of much other information I have gleaned.

Dobbin was writing when Prohibition in Ontario was still in force as he refers to the fact that liquor was not commercially sold. He doesn’t state in so many words he was a teetotaller, but seems in any case to have approved of tight control on booze. He notes how the public attitude changed from the 1850s, and is of the clan who consider alcohol to have been a decided danger to the community.

Nonetheless his commentary is enlivened by a dry humour, as this story from the book shows.

How Dobbin would be amazed at the Ontario of today! The easy availability of beer, liquor and wine would shock him, given too it is sold in attractive outlets owned by the very government which had put an end to the liquor traffic in his day. (He would also be surprised that the close-fitting cap with “lugs” over the ears has come back as a fashion item, you can see them in the chic parts of town from Toronto to Tel Aviv).

Something of the presence of liquor in early Peterborough County can be gleaned from this extract from Dobbin’s book.

The reference to Cavan may have meant Cavan in Ulster, Ireland, a mostly Catholic community near the Irish border. There is also a Cavan outside Peterborough, but one way or another Hammon’s Irish roots are evident.

While Dobbin pays respects to the zeitgeist of the 1920s, some of his comments reflect an understanding that liquor played a measured role in society. He states that a decorum was observed when liquor was used on social occasions. A pour of “two fingers” was correct. Three was “ample”. To take more raised eyebrows. At the same time, he recounts the abuses. One problem in town was the “Irish Fighting Factions” would go at it: clearly the Irish Catholics vs. the Orange Irish. Even then, he states the enmity was not really serious, it was more to show who was the stronger group, as in a prizefight one might say.

Although Peterborough was not a Loyalist centre, Dobbin’s description of the “bee” system for barn-raising, house-building, and so on, is similar to that for pioneer communities closer to the lake: the pail of whiskey was indispensable.

The Roman Catholic Diocese of Peterborough today encompasses Peterborough County and a wider area as described in its website. It was formed in the 1880s but is an outgrowth of the Diocese of Kingston, established in 1819 from earlier Catholic presence. Despite all the social changes since Peter Robinson’s Peterborough, Catholic presence in Peterborough is still notable: the small city, c. 82,000, counts seven Catholic churches.

Finally, contemporary Peterborough, ON may have little resonance for our British readers, but one feature may interest them. Selwyn, a community within 10 miles from the city, houses the private Lakefield College School. Prince Andrew, Duke of York spent six months at the school in 1977 in an exchange program and has maintained ties to the school ever since.

Note re images: the extracts shown above were drawn from the book by F.H. Dobbin cited in the text. All intellectual property in the source belongs solely to its lawful owner or authorized users, as applicable. Extracts are used for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.