Elizabeth Simcoe

Elizabeth Postuma Simcoe, Artist & Diarist

“We dined in the Woods and ate part of a Raccoon, it was very fat and tasted like lamb if eaten with Mint sauce.”

-Diary entry, November 20, 1793 (1)

Portrait: Elizabeth Simcoe (Source: Library and Archives Canada/Credit: Mary Anne Burges/Simcoe Family collection/C-081931)

Elizabeth Postuma Simcoe was born in Northamptonshire, England in September, 1762 to parents Lieutenant-Colonel Thomas Gwillim and Elizabeth Spinkes. Orphaned from birth, with her father dying just before her delivery and her mother dying in childbirth, Elizabeth was raised by her grandparents and her aunts from both sides of the family. (2)

Elizabeth Simcoe came to Canada in 1791 as the wife of John Graves Simcoe, first Lieutenant Governor of Upper Canada. The Simcoes brought with them their two youngest children, leaving an additional four back in England. (3) Through her watercolours, diaries and letters home, Elizabeth Simcoe left a vivid and revealing picture of life in the earliest days of the British settlement of what is now Toronto.

Both Simcoe’s writing style and lifestyle have been compared to her contemporary, Jane Austen.(4) Although she was married to the Lieutenant Governor, she was not overly interested in politics, and instead, left a rich account of her personal adventures and social on goings. (5)  Elizabeth wrote of dinner parties, game playing, teas and picnics and frequently recorded the weather. Being a robust enthusiast of nature, she wrote about countless walks, canoe trips and horse rides.

Although Elizabeth Simcoe enjoyed her life in Upper Canada, she also dealt with great hardship while here. In 1793, Elizabeth’s seventh child, Katherine Simcoe, died only fifteen months after her birth. In a letter home, Elizabeth wrote, “She was the sweetest tempered pretty child imaginable, just beginning to talk and walk and the suddenness of the event you may be sure shocked me inexpressibly.” (6) Katherine Simcoe was the first to be buried at the military burial grounds northeast of Fort York (now within Victoria Memorial Square).

Castle Frank, 1796 by Elizabeth Simcoe (Reference Code: F 47-11-1-0-231 Archives of Ontario, I0006538)

In 1794, as John and Elizabeth Simcoe became more settled in Upper Canada, they expanded their personal property to include a 200 acre plot of land just outside of York. The estate was named Castle Frank after their son Francis. In her diaries Elizabeth often wrote, sketched and painted the property, leaving a rich account of the house and the landscape at this time.

River Don near York and John Scadding’s Cabin, Autumn, 1793 by Elizabeth Simcoe (Reference Code: F 47-11-1-0-107 Archives of Ontario, I0006959)

In 1796, the Simcoes were recalled to England. With a heavy heart, Elizabeth wrote upon leaving, “I was so much out of Spirits I was unable to dine… I could not eat, cried all day.”(7) The Simcoes returned home to England in October and upon arrival, Elizabeth Simcoe presented a set of thirty-two watercolours to King George III. The Simcoes also brought home personal treasures from Canada, including swords, dresses, breeches and leggings. In addition, they managed to transport their canoe and paddles, and their Canadian snow sleigh.

View From York Barracks, 1796 by Elizabeth Simcoe (Reference Code: F 47-11-1-0-236 Archives of Ontario, I0006353)

John Simcoe died in 1806; Elizabeth followed, much later, in 1850. Elizabeth Simcoe left behind her keen observations of the life around her. Her diaries and her letters home to England provide a great deal of insight into the life in the settlement of what is now Toronto. Annually, Toronto remembers the Simcoe family on the August Civic Holiday known as Simcoe Day.

Footnotes

1 John Ross Robertson. The Diary of Mrs. Simcoe. (Toronto: William Briggs, 1911), 210.
2 Mary Lu MacDonald. ‘Simcoe, Elizabeth Postuma 1762-1850,’ Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press 2004,http://www.oxforddnb.com.proxy1.lib.uwo.ca:2048/view/article/47795 [accessed 10 March 2009].
3 MacDonald, ‘Simcoe, Elizabeth Postuma 1762-1850,’ Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. , Oxford University Press 2004,http://www.oxforddnb.com.proxy1.lib.uwo.ca:2048/view/article/47795 [accessed 12 March 2009].
4 Mary Beacock Fryer. Elizabeth Postuma Simcoe 1762-1850, A Biography. (Toronto: Dundurn Press, 1989), 7.
5 Ibid.
6 Mary Quayle Innis. Mrs. Simcoe’s Diary, (Toronto: MacMillan Company of Canada, 1965), 125.
7 Innis, Mrs. Simcoe’s Diary, 189.

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