By Chris Raible
“RELIC OF ’37 RISING FOUND IN CITY HOME”
“UNIQUE MEMENTO OF TROUBLED DAYS”
“AN INCIDENT OF 1837-38”
Three reports published in three separate newspapers and saved for many years by three different families tell stories that are startlingly similar. They each tell of a small box crafted in 1838 in Toronto’s jail by a prisoner charged with “High Treason,” during the 1837 Upper Canada Rebellion.
But the stories are not about the same box, nor are they about the same prisoner boxmaker.
Readers of Wayback Times may recall articles in previous issues – #124 (May/June, 2016) and #127 (November/December, 2016) about little boxes made by Rebellion prisoners awaiting trial after being arrested and jailed. These boxes were elegantly carved from scrap firewood and inscribed with messages of faith, of affection, of tribute, and of defiance. They then were sent as personal mementoes from their makers to loved ones or admired friends. The boxes were each treasured as precious – and valuable – reminders of a deeply troubled time and those who suffered in consequence. Today, these boxes continue to be cherished by their makers’ descendants, preserved and displayed by public museums, or prized by private collectors of Canadiana.
For a dozen or more years, Darryl Withrow, John Carter and I have been compiling an inventory, a data bank, of these Rebellion prisoners’ boxes and their makers. Our initial knowledge of 19 boxes in 2005 rapidly expanded. In 2009 we published details and analysis of 94 boxes in From Hands Now Striving to Be Free (Toronto: York Pioneer and Historical Society). We have now (October 2018) identified 143 different boxes and we fully believe that there are more to be “discovered.”
Among these identified boxes, however, are more than 20 “lost” boxes – boxes described or referred to in histories, biographies, archival records, family letters, or published articles – whose present whereabouts are unknown.
Three of these “lost” boxes are described in three newspaper articles, each published as much as a century ago. Each of these news reports tells the story of a box and its maker:
“A little trinket box carved out of maple … has come to light in the home of Toronto descendants of Elizabeth Corbett,” reports this old newspaper article. Her name is inscribed on its lid: “from Lawrence Thornton in Toronto, August 6, 1838.”
The article quotes the poem inscribed on the sides of the box:
When Freedom’s sons fell by fate
In tory tyrants hands ungrate,
They chained them down in gloomy cells,
In dungeons dark for months to dwell
Where they no ray of light could see;
Their fault was love of Liberty.
On one end of the little box is the motto ‘equal rights and liberty’ and on the other a reference to the chains. On the bottom is a list of names:
Chain of sufferers: S. Lount, Dr. Theller, S. Brophy,
Mr. Dodge, T.J. Sutherland, R. Walker, P. Matthews,
G. F. Mordon, A. Rowland, S.H. W. Stogdill, Jay Cody,
T. Watts, J. Anderson, Wm. Alves, J. Read.”
The report continues with brief biographies of each of these rebel prisoners. (The reporter was apparently unaware that several of them were also makers of boxes: Anderson, Alves, Cody, Dodge, Stogdill and Walker.)
It goes on to describe the conditions which the prisoners endured, an account based on the published memoirs of two rebel prisoners: Reminiscences of Charles Durand (Toronto: Hunter Rose, 1897) and Edward A. Theller, Canada in 1837-8 (Philadelphia: Henry F. Aviners, 1841). (Both books can be read on line.) Also described in detail is the Toronto jail itself, its architecture and its prominent King Street location.
The thousand-word newspaper report concludes with an acknowledgement that Lawrence Thornton, the box’s maker, was not a familiar name. “But perhaps some reader can tell. And there may be others of these boxes still treasured by Toronto families.”
“An unusual and interesting souvenier of the troubled days of the rebellion of 1837 has been found in the shape of a small wooden box made and inscribed by Henry Weaver while confined to prison” is the lead for a story related in an undated clipping from an unidentified newspaper. The box, originally a gift to Mrs. Lydia Barnum, “is now a treasured heirloom in the family of N.V. Barnum of 52 Stanley street, Mimico, grandson of the lady to who it was presented.”
The article goes on to describe inscriptions “partly obliterated” on the sides of the box, and on the ends: “Alas! for my liberty!” and “Toronto 1838.” Henry Weaver, it reports, “had come to Canada as a Loyalist, settling in Pickering township.”
Some years later, this same box was featured in another newspaper, the Oshawa Courier of July 19, 1945. The report was headlined: “A Precious Relic of 1838 Rebellion – Heirloom Jealously Kept. Small Wooden Box Made by Rebel in Durance Vile.”
This story describes the box as “2¼ inches in length, 1¼ inches wide, and 1¼ inches in depth. It was whittled out of a single piece of wood, presumably with a jackknife, and has a sliding cover, all made from the same piece of wood.” This later reporter also had difficulty reading inscriptions “still visible” but “becoming more difficult to decipher with the lapse of time.” Nonetheless, its lines were “readily decipherable.” On one side:
In prison bonds I thus prepare,
Amid great trials, gloom and care
Though chains, dark cells surround,
In God I trust shall heal this wound.”
And on the other side:
“Freedom’s sons were caused to dwell
With chains and bolts in dreary cell;
And witnessed from the massy grate
Poor Lount and Matthews meet their fate;
These hours of sorrow, yet will end,
And Jesus be the prisoner’s friend.
By 1945, the box was thus owned by a man who “has passed his 79th birthday … James F. Barnum who resides at 133 Agnes Street, Oshawa,” whose “maternal great grandmother” was the Lydia Barnum for whom the box was originally made. The report adds a note of interest: “Below [the verses] are the initials J.G.P in Old English script,”
(These initials, the reporter could not have known, are those of a fellow prisoner, John Goldsbury Parker. From our study of many boxes, we now know that Parker was a prolific boxmaker, having had a hand in making and/or inscribing at least 18 different boxes.)
The report of a third “lost” Rebellion prisoners’ box – also known about because of a saved old newspaper clipping – was published in The (Toronto) Evening Telegram, Saturday, February 10, 1912. It relates a detailed story, complete with drawings. It describes not only a prisoner-crafted box, but also reports the purpose for which the box was made and the man for whom it was intended.
Headlined “AN INCIDENT OF 1837-38,” the article tells of the most prominent of Toronto’s clergy, Archdeacon John Strachan, visiting “the jail on the Sabbath and holding service … His visits were appreciated” and he “knew many of the prisoners personally.” Thus on “24th April 1838,” upon “the arrival of the distinguished prelate,” they “presented him with a unique little box made of cedar… a box that had been made by one of the prisoners” (unnamed).
The box is three inches high, three and a half inches long and two and a half wide. It stands on four carved legs, which are inscribed in the measurements above given. On the sliding top of the box is a skillfully drawn elevation of the jail building showing the south front and east side, with the picket fence, which surrounded the jail. On the front of the box is clearly written “To the Venerable and Rev. Dr. J. Strachan from the State Prisoners,”
Every known prisoner’s box is unique, but the box here described is markedly different from all other known boxes.
It was crafted as a grateful gift to John Strachan, the paterfamilias of the Family Compact – the tightly-knit oligarchy of government officials and public appointees who controlled the colony. The Church of England Archdeacon – soon to be Bishop – was the most passionate promoter not only of an established Anglican church in Upper Canada, but also of continued British rule of the province. He was an ardent defender of the clergy reserves and fierce opponent of notions of responsible democratic government. He certainly had no sympathy for the Rebellion for which these prisoners had risked their lives and were now being judged.
Also, this box is unique because it is the only known box whose maker or makers inscribed it From the state prisoners. They used a pseudonym rather than their own names. If this newspaper article, written seventy-five later, is correct, these prisoner box-crafters made no attempt to hide their admiration for the Archbishop; they presented their box proudly. They were eager to express their gratitude for his pastoral care. Did they truly believe that, with this box, they were acting on behalf of all their fellow state prisoners?
Not one of the nearly seventy identified prisoner-box crafters is known to have been an Anglican, an adherent of Strachan’s church. The boxmakers were not irreligious rebels, however. As prisoners, they daily sang hymns and united in prayer. They were Methodists, Baptists, Presbyterians, Quakers – a number were active members of the Children of Peace (still known to us today as the builders of the Sharon Temple).
Their box inscriptions proclaimed “equal rights,” “religious liberty” and similar phrases, references to the controversies over the clergy reserves and other government favours to Strachan’s church.
Many boxes are inscribed with Biblical references and personal testimonies of faith. The inscriptions of faith and hope on this Strachan box is typical of many boxes:
Oft we cling to the massy grate
To catch a glimpse of Heaven’s pure light.
Uncertain as to future fate
We trust in God to do all right.
The box given Strachan in 1838 was in time passed on to his grandson Christopher Robinson, whose widow was its owner in 1912 when the Evening Telegram article was published. The box’s present location is unknown.
Our hunt for more information about these boxes and their present locations continues. If you can help – or if you have information or questions about any Rebellion prisoner’s box – please contact any member of our team:
• Chris Raible firstname.lastname@example.org 705-466-2261
• Darryl Withrow email@example.com
• John Carter firstname.lastname@example.org
Other “Lost” Prisoners’ Boxes:
Boxes referred to in published sources:
– a box crafted by George Lamb and given “to Mrs. Sheppard for kindness to prisoners,” according to a letter by John Irvine McArthur, published in the Toronto Star on April 12, 1938.
– a “small wooden jewel casket, standing on four feet” made by Gerard (or Jared) Irwin – described in Families, 28,2 (May 1989) – it may be the box noted in a York Pioneer and Historical Society 1914 report as made by Jared Irwin, given in 1857 to Mrs. George Lount of Barrie, inherited by daughter Mrs. J.R. Cotter, and given to the York Pioneers in 1913.
– a box inscribed “A present to Miss Sophia Kelly from William Alves,” described on the internet in 2007 by an antique store that no longer exists.
– a box made by Peter Milne, referred to in Isabel Champion, editor, Markham 1793-1900 (Markham Historical Society, 1979).
– a box inscribed, “a Present to Joel Lloyd from his brother S. H. W. Stogdill,” referred to by Rainer Baehre, “Trying the Rebels, Emergency Legislation and the Colonial Executive’s Overall Strategy in the Upper Canadian Rebellion,” in F. Murray Greenwood and Barry Wright, Canadian State Trials Volume II: Rebellion and the Invasion of the Canadas 1837-38.
– a box made by Leonard Watson for Betty Duffield, inscribed with verses and a reference to Lount and Matthews, according to Robina and Kathleen MacFarlane Lizars, Humours of ’37 Grave, Gay and Grim: Rebellion Times in the Canadas (Toronto: William Briggs, 1897), 363
Boxes described by Janet Stewart in
“The Little Boxes of 1837”
York Pioneer (1959), reprinted (1987):
– a box inscribed “To Mrs. Joseph Brammer from her Husband [Joseph Brammer] in Prison,” belonging to the “Brammer Family.”
– a box crafted by Joseph Brammer, belonging to the “Epworth Family.”
– a box probably crafted by Jesse Doan – described as “one of the Doan boxes” – one of its quoted inscriptions, “Nae treasures nor pleasures,” is on no other known box.
Boxes known about from public sources
– a box inscribed “A present to Merib Armitage from Jesse Cleaver,” described in an archival record, with photographs, in the Canadian Quaker Archives, Pickering College.
– a box inscribed “To Miss Mary James … from Joseph Gould” – formerly at Uxbridge Historical Centre but de-accessioned some years ago when the box was retrieved by unidentified Gould family member.
– a box “Made by Ralph Newsome …” – given to the York Pioneer and Historical Society by Miss Anna Frazier in 1914, according to York Pioneer records.
Boxes known about from private or personal sources
– a box presented to “Mrs. Anna Button … from Timothy Munro” – according to family member Jo Ann Tuskin, in 1970 this box was owned by John & Reg Button of Stouffville.
– a box shown in an undated photograph of “Mr Petch of Wardsville Ontario,” a descendant of Samuel Lount – the box is reportedly inscribed: “Their minds were tranquil…” and “May the God above…” – the photo is owned by Dorothy Milne.
– a box inscribed “To the widow of Captain A. Anderson … from Andrew Rowland,” according to a personal note from Dorothy Milne.
Boxes reportedly missing from Mackenzie House
in Toronto during the early 1970s
– a box “Made by George Lamb Confined in Toronto for H. Treason
– a box inscribed “John Sq…s His Box” [“Squires”?].
– a box inscribed “A present to Elizabeth Collins from Joseph Gould.”