Liquor in an Early Ontario Catholic Community

Peterborough is a small city in south-central Ontario, north of the Lake Ontario rim, in the backcountry in the early 1800s. Its lands were allocated somewhat later than those along the lakeshore, where settlement by American Loyalists was the rule.

Peter Robinson, an early Canadian legislator, helped settle Peterborough by organizing the immigration of 2000 Catholic farmers mainly from County Cork. The details of their departure, the travails incurred and successes finally realized, were well described in a six-part series by Patrick Leahy in the Peterborough Examiner in 2015.

The atmosphere of Peterborough as it emerged in the 19th century was well-evoked in a series of articles in the 1920s by Francis Hincks Dobbin (1850-1932), a journalist and local historian. His son collected his accounts in 1943 in Our Old Home Town (J.M. Dent & Sons (Canada) Limited).

Given the father’s long life span, these provide a fascinating look at early Canadian pioneer society – one part of it – and its evolution. Clearly Dobbin had absorbed lore from older residents, reports that ring true based on other research I have done.

Dobbin was writing when liquor Prohibition in Ontario was still in force, as he mentions that liquor was not legally sold. He doesn’t state he was a teetotaller but seems in any case to have approved of tight controls on booze. He notes that the public attitude to alcohol changed from about 1850, compared that is to an early more liberal attitude.

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.