by S. Bernard Shaw
View of Rockingham Village, c. 1905,
National Archives/J.S.J. Watson Collection 1997-213-117
In 1858, John Samuel James Watson departed
from Rockingham Castle, in the English Midlands County of
Northamptonshire, under a cloud of disgrace. The 36-year old
man had married a scullery maid, Mary Martin, 14 years his
junior. This alliance, so far below his station,
was just not acceptable to the Watson family who had lived
at the castle, built for William the Conqueror, since Edward
Watson leased the property in 1553.
The Watson clan took a practical approach
to solving the problem. Legend has it that they invested £10,000
to finance Johns banishment to Canada. He used some
of the money to recruit a group of neighbours with the skills
necessary to carve a village out of the wilderness. They made
their way across the Atlantic, up the St. Lawrence and Ottawa
Rivers to Farrells Landing near Renfrew. They continued
along the primitive Ottawa and Opeongo Colonization Road for
about 80 km and the Peterson Branch Road for another 5 km.
They then turned off for 3 km to their destination, a wooded
valley containing a patch of arable soil, rare in the Canadian
Shield. A turbulent creek that they named Rockingham ran through
the valley, located halfway between todays Brudenell
and Combermere. An 1837 survey map of Brudenell Township (part
of the John Watson Collection in the National Archives) indicates
occupation near Charlott[e] and Har[d]wood Lakes at this early
John Watson likely had advance knowledge
of this desirable valley as he rejected free 100-acre lots
on the Opeongo Road to purchase the site of his village. He
may have obtained advice from Tom Coghlin, a logger who floated
his harvest down the creek to the Madawaska River. No doubt
the site was selected, in part, because the creek fell 25
feet over a waterfall, providing the waterpower that drove
most frontier villages. The plentiful red and white pine,
cedar, oak and maple supplied material for a busy sawmill,
built alongside a gristmill. Comfortable log homes and spacious
barns were soon in place; several are standing today, a testimony
to the size of the first-growth trees and the skill of their
builders. The backwoods community, fondly named Rockingham,
soon boasted a blacksmiths shop, hotel, tannery, school,
and a general store operated by John Watson who opened the
post office there in 1864. In 1875, an Anglican Church was
erected on land donated by John Watson and named St. Leonards
in memory of the stone church in his English home village.
It is probable that Joseph Kinder, a graduate
of the new profession of veterinary medicine who had a background
as a surveyor, accompanied John Watson from Northamptonshire.
Ottawa Valley historian Harry J. Walker noted in The Ottawa
Journal, July 11, 1970, that Dr. Kinder had an expert knowledge
of the new forms of vaccination developed by Pasteur and Koch.
Without attempting serious surgery, he became the physician
for the settlement and families as far away as Maynooth and
Cormac. Kinder married Elizabeth Marshall and they had eight
children, some of whose descendants are living in the area
today. Several in-laws of John Watson, the Martins, settled
in Rockingham. It is not clear who else came with the Watsons,
as the organized and thriving community attracted other settlers,
such as carpenter Richard Acton who emigrated from England
to Montreal in 1857 and moved on with his family to Rockingham.
John Hudder became very unpopular when a fire he set to clear
his lot got away from him and devastated a wide area of prime
timber. Mail courier August Sumac lived at Rosenthal, and
would ride his horse into Rockingham to meet the stagecoach
from Eganville or Combermere. He would then continue on foot
to Palmer Rapids.
Carl Polter [or Potter] from Hamburg,
Germany, was an expert builder of log houses and was the Rockingham
blacksmith. His shop, originally on the Rockingham outskirts
because of the fire hazard, was dismantled by a commercial
organization and erected in 1977 at the Crossroads Community
Exhibit of the Ontario Agricultural Museum. It survived the
trip to Milton, west of Toronto, and is now labelled The
Potter-Kinder Blacksmiths Shop, depicting a typical
establishment of 1910.
Referred to by his neighbours as famous
and aristocratic and the congenial and benevolent
founder, John Watson was present at the formation of
Renfrew County and voted for Pembroke as the County Capital.
He also served as Warden of Renfrew County during 1883 and
1884 and was Reeve of Brudenell Township in 1889. Rev. Ernest
Lloyd Lake in Reminiscences of the Ottawa Valley writes of
him as ahospitable and generous businessman a hospitable and
generous businessman who acted as lawyer, banker and clergyman
when community need arose. He is pictured as an impressive
figure seated in a buggy behind a spirited horse with glittering
harness. John dressed in his accustomed white shirt, black
tie, black suit and looked like a gentleman of the Queens
court as his snow-white hair was dramatically contrasted by
his black silk hat.
By 1888, the population was about 60 and
by 1899, 110. Plays directed by an early schoolmaster, Mr.
Reid, attracted audiences and participants from neighbouring
villages, as did dances, box socials, concerts, cricket matches
and ball games. As the once-abundant red and white pine were
logged out, however, the population dwindled. Farmers, disappointed
that deforestation had not revealed the anticipated fruitful
soil, moved to more promising land. Lumberman J.R. Booths
Ottawa, Arnprior and Parry Sound Railway was opened through
Killaloe in 1894, offering an easier way of journeying up
the Valley and diverted many travellers from the Opeongo
Road and Rockingham.
John died in 1913 and his wife Mary in
1916; both are buried at Rockingham, although her death is
not recorded on Johns headstone. According to research
by the Upper Ottawa Valley Genealogical Society, buried near
him are his1859 companions, Dr. Joseph Kinder, the veterinarian
who also acted as family physician, and a member of the Martin
family, a relative of Mary.
Flower Power found the idyllic
retreat during the 1970s and the village seemed destined to
find its future as an arts and crafts colony. A glass blower,
weaver, artist and quilt maker sold their wares and attracted
visitors, but they gradually left or became involved in other
activities. The general store closed years ago, but has found
new life as New River Products where Richard Mielke makes
speciality wooden products. Only seven houses are occupied
today with a population of 21. Carrying on the crafts tradition,
just outside the village, Kevin Hall makes his unique guitars,
Ed Roman blows his internationally-famous glassware and Judith
Crossland designs her JudyBlue denim sports gear and clothes.
post-and-beam St. Leonards Anglican Church, clad with
vertical pine siding and cedar roof shingles, held its last
regular service in 1924 although it was not closed until 1941.
The tiny congregation did not justify the payment of a minister
and the cost of upkeep. On May 14, 1967, the Bishop of Ottawa
performed the Act of Secularization on the church, ending
its 92-year reign. The beautifully-proportioned building continued
to keep watch over the village, gradually succumbing to decay
until the Madawaska Association for Development Ecology came
to its rescue in 1975. MADE repaired the back wall, reshingled
the roof and arranged for return of the curved pews from Quadeville
Pentecostal Church. Unfortunately, another period of neglect
followed until its condition forced the Anglican Diocese of
Ottawa to apply for a demolition permit in 1995. This spurred
a group of individuals to form The Friends of Rockingham Church,
Inc. who assumed ownership of the building in 1998.
The Friends raised $45,000 in cash and
materials from governments and private individuals. Contracts
were let, notably to Indian Creek Timber Structures, Inc.,
to repair the structure in 1999. It was soon restored to its
original elegance. The altar rail and pulpit never left the
church. The original pump organ was donated by the Langlois
family and reinstalled after being rescued in the 1940s and
cared for by Ellis Kinder, grandson of Dr. Kinder, and repaired
by Mario Langlois. The original St. Leonards bell, cast
by H. Shane & Co. in Renfrew, was sold to the Anglican
Church in Killaloe in 1945 and there it remains; a replacement
was found for the restored building in Rockingham. However,
all was not smooth sailing.
Indian Creek Timber uncovered extensive
rot in the basic structure. With the exercise of some ingenuity,
the company was able to effect repairs during 2000 without
disturbing the interior panelling. They also installed new
cedar shingles donated by York Valley Fine Woodworking. Other
materials were donated by Murray Bros. Lumber and A. E. Quade
Ltd. Crowning the Friends achievement, the rusting steel
shingles of the steeple were replaced with bright and shiny
copper. In good order today, the church presides over a sleepy
village with simplicity and grace evoking the lives and aspirations
of the pioneer settlers. The village probably looks much like
its English namesake of 150 years ago.
The Watson family is still in residence
at old Rockingham Castle, although the family name recently
changed to Saunders-Watson when Commander Michael Saunders
inherited it and added Watson to his name. The Castle Archivist,
however, was unable to trace any reference to John J.R. Watson.
Several members of the Canadian branch
of the Watson family have visited Rockingham Castle, but have
not been able to find evidence of John and Marys presence.
It appears that they were well and truly expunged from the
records. The Canadians pursuit of documentary proof
continues, however, encouraged by an apparent willingness
of the Saunders-Watsons to reinstate John in the family tree
if adequate evidence can be uncovered.
was drawn from numerous sources including Harry J. Walkers
Ottawa Valley Days in the Ottawa Journal, July 11,
1970; members the Watson family, and Rockingham resident Peggy
Bridgland. The Rockingham Church is in continuing need of
maintenance. Donations can be sent to Box 271, Killaloe, ON,
is left with a feeling of unfinished business: Is there evidence
of John Watsons banishment? How did he find Rockingham?
Who came with him? Why did he say he bought only 200 acres?
He would like to hear from any reader who can shed light on
the fascinating story.
This is an original story,
first published in The Country Connection Magazine,
Issue 43, Summer/Autumn 2003. Copyright S. Bernard Shaw.
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Your article about John Samuel James Watson and the Rockingham church is incorrect...if you check the 1861 and 1871 Canadian census (a reliable source) he himself has his born place as India and not Rockingham England...also, according to the 1851 English census, he was married to a Jane Milliner...he also resigned as a curate in the parish of Kirkburton in August 19th 1858 before arriving in Canada with Mary Martin...and according to the 1861 census...had 2 children aged 2 and 1...