Origins of Woodstock Ontario


History of Woodstock

In 1792, Sir John Graves Simcoe became Lieutenant Governor of Upper Canada and for the next five years, laid plans for the development of the interior of Upper Canada. After touring this region in 1793, he envisioned a series of town sites linked by a military road and a system of rivers and canals, providing inland access during an era when commerce and settlements depended on major waterways. London, Chatham, Dorchester and Oxford were designated town sites with London as the defensible capital. Simcoe passed through the area now known as Woodstock, and noted it a suitable “Town Plot”. The military road stretching from Burlington Bay through Woodstock to London, provided an overland supply route for the safe movement of troops and settlers. Simcoe named this road Dundas Street after Henry Dundas, Viscount Melville, Secretary of State for War and the Colonies. To speed development in the sparsely populated interior of the province, Simcoe granted whole townships to land companies who were obligated to bring in settlers. The Township of Burford was granted in 1792, Oxford-on-the-Thames in 1793 and Blenheim in 1793. These three townships formed the County of Oxford in 1800.
Although designated a potential town site in 1798, Woodstock was not settled until 1800. Zacharias Burtch informed the Executive Council on June 3, 1800 that he and Levi Luddington, having arrived in March from New York, wished lands on Dundas Street. On July 11, Zacharias was granted Lot 18, Concession 1 of East Oxford, and Levi was granted Lot 17. Zacharias and his sons cleared 12.5 hectares (30 acres) and built the first log house along Dundas Street, on the present site of the Woodstock YMCA. The Burtches were joined by other American settlers who purchased land south of Dundas Street. Lot 20 was owned by Levi Babbitt, who had four hectares (10 acres) cleared by 1812. In 1817, William Teeple “squatted” on Lot 21 and slashed four hectares (10 acres) and Henry Chase cleared a few hectares “about the Rising Sun”, now the location of the Old Town Hall. In 1819, Levi Hoyt Perry purchased William Teeple’s betterment. North of Dundas Street, Nathaniel Hill, S. Francis Babbitt and the Barowclough, Lamport and Dibble families were settled. These American settlers dominated the political and commercial structure of the developing village causing provincial leaders to question the loyalty of this emerging community.

In 1826, the new boundaries of the County of Oxford were adjusted to include the townships of Nissouri, Zorra, Blandford, Blenheim, Oxford, Dereham, Norwich, Burford and Oakland. In the 1830s, a different group of immigrants were encouraged to settle in Oxford to ensure this community’s loyalty to the British crown. British naval and army officers placed on half-pay looked to the colonies for a new career at the conclusion of military service. To facilitate the settling of these men a system of credits, graduated according to rank and length of service, was set up to enable military men to purchase lands from the Crown. The first to arrive was Alexander Whalley Light, a retired colonel who came to Oxford County in 1831. He settled on Dundas Street between Beachville and Woodstock. He was joined by Philip Graham in 1832, a retired captain of the Royal Navy, who selected lands beside Light. Also in 1832, Captain Andrew Drew, on half-pay from the Royal Navy, arrived in Woodstock to make preparations for his superior, Rear-Admiral Henry Vansittart, also on half-pay. Grants of land to the half-pay officers could only be made if the land was unoccupied. However, when they arrived in Woodstock, their chosen grants already had tenants; squatters. Half-pay officers went to considerable lengths to clear their chosen parcels of land, including buying out or scaring off the existing squatters. This treatment caused lasting grievances between the first American settlers, and the later British immigrants.

When Simcoe passed through Oxford County on his survey of Upper Canada, he designated an area as a likely town site in the gore of land between the Townships of East and West Oxford, and a few lots in North Oxford. However, after examination by two surveyors in 1830, a superior site for the town was designated to the east on Lots 21 and 22 on the 1st concession of Blandford Township. Hereafter the town site was named Blandford. However, since settlement had already started in the earlier town plot, two villages, developed within a mile of each other. Drew purchased property in the area known as Blandford in 1832 and aspired to make this area the center of the growing community. He built a substantial Anglican church and a general store, as well as homes for Admiral Vansittart and himself. Admiral Vansittart was not amused when he arrived with his family and the Church of England clergyman for St. Paul’s Church, Reverend William Bettridge, in 1834. Drew had used funds raised by Vansittart in England to build a church on his own property, not on the land stipulated by Henry Vansittart. Drew also did not complete the building of Vansittart’s home and purchased property in his name only. The falling out of these two partners resulted in litigation lasting into the 1840s. But the half-pay officers kept coming: Darius E. Riddle, brother-in-law of Admiral Vansittart; Col. R.A. Hunter, instrumental in having the first grammar school erected in 1848; Major Edward Buller; Major Hugh Barwick, who became Oxford County Treasurer; Colonel Delatre; and Peter Boyle de Blaquiere.

In 1834, a third group of “loyal” immigrants was encouraged to settle in the developing community of Woodstock. Lord Eremonth owned a large estate near Brighton in Sussex, England. Through a friendship with Admiral Vansittart, he encouraged families from his estate to move to the colonies and one group came to Woodstock. Lord Eremonth placed Petworth, a minister on his estate, in charge of the resettlement, which became known as the Petworth Migration. Twenty-one families totaling 113 people of English, Scottish and Irish background, settled in the northwest section of Woodstock on five-and-a-half-acre lots from Ingersoll Avenue to Devonshire Avenue. These people were tradesmen; carpenters, shoemakers, blacksmiths, weavers, laborers, farmers and shopkeepers. This growing community originally known as the Town Plot acquired the name Brighton, and these new settlers quickly set up businesses along Dundas Street. In 1836 there were 200 people living in the area of Woodstock; by 1844, Woodstock had a population of 940 with over 160 homes. In 1839 the District of Brock became a separate political unit. The local half-pay officers requested that the developing community of Woodstock serve as the town seat, and in 1839, the Brock District Courthouse was built due to the persuasion of Andrew Drew, Peter Carroll and Philip Graham. The site for the courthouse was chosen in the area of the original Town Plot, solidifying Brighton Village as the commercial center of the evolving town.

On January 1, 1851, Woodstock became a town with the first meeting of the new town council in the Royal Pavilion Hotel on January 6 and 7. Hugh Richardson was elected reeve, James Kintrea clerk and Thomas Scott treasurer, with William Wilson, Alexander Green, Valentine Hall and Andrew Smith as councilors. Hugh Richardson later served as Lieutenant Colonel of the Oxford Rifles from 1865-1875 and in 1885, was the judge that sentenced Louis Riel to death in Manitoba for the Red River Rebellion. The 1851 census records 2112 people living in 240 frame and 47 brick houses in the newly established town of Woodstock.

The joining of Blandford and Town Plot into the Town of Woodstock was a concerted effort by Levi Hoyt Perry. Town Plot, the fastest growing of the two villages, ran along Dundas Street from Bexley Street east to Beale Street. Five-acre lots of land had already been set aside for a County Square and Agricultural Fair, and Brighton village was well established. Blandford village extended from Huron Street to Clark Street, also along Dundas, and the two villages were separated by a swamp created by natural springs. In 1841, Perry drafted a petition proposing the joining of East and West Woodstock into one town, which was approved by Proclamation dated September 27, 1850.

Municipalities that reached 15,000 population automatically achieved the city status. However, towns could petition the provincial legislature for city status once they neared 9000 population. In 1902, Woodstock’s population was 8833 and they agreed to petition the provincial legislature to become Woodstock: The Industrial city on July 1, 1901. “Moved by Alfred Picknell, seconded by A.T. Rice, and resolved that a petition be presented to the Honorable (member ) of the Legislative Assembly of the Province of Ontario in Parliament assembled for the purpose of having the “Town of Woodstock” incorporated as the “City of Woodstock” and for power to have commissions elected to jointly manage the water, light and heat plants now owned and for other purposes and that the necessary bill and petition be prepared and presented and that the clerk be instructed to insert the necessary notice in the Ontario Gazette and a public newspaper and pay the necessary fees to the clerk of the legislative assembly and that the committee on legislation have charge of the matter”.

The incorporation of Woodstock as a city was not without conflict. Councilors worried that growth would be uncontrollable after achieving city status, losing its appeal as a nice place to live and raise a family. Council argued long and hard over the establishment of commissions to manage municipal lighting, water and heating plants that did not report to the Town. Council feared the loss of control over utilities. In 1901, Woodstock’s motto was Onward and Upward.

All historical photos courtesy of the Woodstock Museum Collection.

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