The Other Townsends in Aldershot
by Scott Forsyth
Many of the local historians should be familiar with the family of Thomas Brooke Townsend for whom Townsend Avenue is named. They had been in the area since the late 1860's. T.B. was a well known civil engineer with the Great Western Railway. His first assignment was rebuilding the train bridge at the Desjardins canal after the train disaster in 1857. He also designed the private rail car for the Prince of Wales during his visit to Canada in 1860. Thomas later worked for the Dominion Government helping to design the new Welland Canal locks, gates and bridges. T.B. also ran as the Conservative Federal Representative for North Wentworth in 1887 but was defeated. Thomas also had a true love for farming.
Thomas purchased what was then the late John Applegarth's farm (Lot 8, Con. 1) overlooking Hidden Valley on the east side and north of the RR tracks in the late 1860's. In 1889 he purchased the Oakland`s Jersey farm and shortly after that the Oakland`s Park & Pleasure Grounds above the shore of Burlington Bay including the big hotel which was used as a home. These two properties took up all of Lot 8 and most of Lot 7 in the Broken Front. In other words from Daryl Drive in the west and almost to La Salle Park Road in the east and south from Plains Road to the shores of Burlington Bay. His daughter Emma lived on the Oakland's property till her death in 1951.
But not far away on Waterdown road, south of the tracks, lived another large family with the same last name but no blood relation existed. In fact this family was far better known than that of Thomas Brookes. It was the family of John and Sarah Townsend also known as the Townsend Dramatic Company.
John Townsend was a well known Shakespearian actor and former MP in Greenwich, England who came to Canada with his family in 1862. First settling on a small farm outside of Kingston he later moved to Ottawa where he lived for four years. He eventually made Hamilton his home but for a very short time the family lived in Aldershot.
Fortunately they lived there when the Federal Census for 1871 took place. This Census is one that has the most information on property ownership and acreage. The information there states that John Townsend rented & occupied 40 acres of improved land on Lot 7, Concession 1, with no mention of any crops cultivated. At the time, this south-east quarter of lot 7, Con. 1 (40-50 acres) was owned by Cornelius Feeley aka Charles Feeley.
Other land owners, on the SE quarter
of Lot 7 Con. 1, were the Great Western Railway and the Aldershot Brickworks. I believe that because of the close proximity of these two families, there is a typographical error on the 1875 County Map. It shows the property that was owned by T.B. Townsend as being owned by a J.B. Townsend. Thomas never had a son with a name starting with J and the only land in Canada that John Townsend ever owned was outside of Kingston.
1875 County map from McGill University
In November 1879 these same 40 acres were purchased from C. Feeley by Henry P. Blessinger. The picture of the Blessinger home which was located approximately 200 feet north of the Fire station on the west side, shows a large house that could have easily accommodated John`s family. The close proximity to the railway station was perfect for this well-traveled family to use for travelling throughout southern Ontario and the Northern states. This house was torn down around 1948 when Howards Cement purchased the land and expanded east. The newer edition of this house on the right side of the picture still exists today as a home on Waterdown road beside the Fire hall.
(Blessinger House picture provided by Elsie Ghent)
When I found this information in the Census, the first thing that caught my attention was the fact that most of the occupants including the seven children from the age of 15 to 27 years old had their occupations listed as ``Theatrical Artists``. You would not find this entry if looking at the Census on line as the name is spelt incorrectly as "Townshend". Further research has led me to know quite a bit about this infamous Tragedian.
John Townsend was born in Deptford England, April 2nd, 1819. Located four miles down the Thames River, the old town of Deptford is known for Trinity House which was founded by Henry VIII. He was the son of a prosperous auctioneer and land agent. Perhaps it was the sound of his father's boisterous voice calling for bids that attracted him to the theatre. He indulged in several amateur plays by the age of 16 and made his formal debut as a public performer shortly after. His success led him to be the lessee of the Theatre Royal in Richmond, Surrey at the young age of 23 in 1842. Townsend was not content with just doing management duties. He would take his stock company on tour of the provinces he himself in characters from Shakespeare.
John's father died in 1852 and he gave up his theatrical duties to carry on with the family business. He was fairly successful and popular with the people of Greenwich who convinced him to run as a Member of Parliament. He was elected in 1857.
Many have said that business and politic do not mix. Spending more of his time in politics, his business suffered and costly law suits followed forcing him into bankruptcy and had to resign his seat. Falling back on his theatrical success John was able to repay all of his business creditors. His continued success led him to leasing the Theatre Royal in Leicester producing plays that would run without interruption for 8 months.
By 1862 John's health was failing due to the stress and strain of the actor-manager's studious days and laborious nights. The members of his family, who had a great love for the country life, urged him to move to Canada to regain his health and was told that life on a farm would be beneficial to him.
Arriving in Quebec in May 1862 John and his family quickly made plans to purchase a 50 acre farm with a comfortable house and out-buildings at Harrowsmith, 16 miles outside of Kingston Ont. John was determined to become a farmer. The fresh air did him good but the physical work was too much for him so he decided to launch once more into theatrical life. He intensively trained his talented family into a company of players, sold his farm and made his way into Kingston securing the city hall as a playhouse to perform weekly plays for a whole year in May of 1864.
Success in the small town of Kingston led Townsend to become the lessee and manager of "Her Majesty's Theatre" in Ottawa in June, 1865 and for the next two years they gave the citizens of Ottawa three plays weekly until September 1867. He then decided to leave Ottawa and take his family on the road touring southern Ontario during the fall season eventually taking up residence in the Hamilton area. For the next ten years they gave performances throughout southern Ontario, New York, Vermont, Pennsylvania, Ohio and Indiana.
I have yet to learn just how long the Townsend Family stayed in Aldershot or exactly when they arrived. They arrived in the Hamilton area in 1868 and the city directory for Hamilton shows that the family was back there living on Victoria Avenue in 1875. During the 1870's John's touring days lessened. In November 1877 he joined his family in Hendallville, Indiana where they planned to continue into Illinois and Minnesota. Ill health forced him to return to Canada leaving his troupe to continue without him.
Since that time he was never well enough to travel or perform in public except on rare occasions in Hamilton. In 1882 John Townsend is advertising to give acting instructions for recitations and the dramatic art. One pupil of his who became famous was Ida Lewis who changed her name to Julia Arthur, one of the foremost stars of the American Stage and later venturing into cinema with her first silent picture in 1908. Besides this teaching arrangement he also gave small performances in the area. One of his last appearances was at the town hall in Waterdown on January 26th, 1888. Several benefits were also given in support for John Townsend by the people of Hamilton during this time.
On February 10th, 1889 Johns wife Sarah passed away in her 78th year. She had been placed in the Hamilton Asylum 2 or 3 years prior. Her obituary stated that "she was a refined, cultured and intelligent lady and a faithful and courageous helper to her husband through all the vicissitudes of his chequered life, calm and cheerful in the storm as well as the sunshine".
John passed away 3 years later on December 22nd, 1892 at the age of 74. His immediate cause of death was cancer of the liver, complicated with kidney disease. A very lengthy obituary appeared in the Hamilton Spectator. John Townsend is credited for his contribution of bringing the love of the theatre to the people of Hamilton and southern Ontario.
News clip and picture of John Townsend from Hamilton Spectator