Monday, July 14, 2014

Death & The Simcoe Boys

UK TOUR DAY NINE (EXETER): Death was no stranger to the Simcoe boys. In fact, it started to claim people close to them before they were even born. Both of their older brothers died as babies. The eldest was buried just a few weeks after he was baptized. The second was born and died the following year. Sadly, that wasn't unusual. This was the mid-1700s, when infant mortality was still a familiar tragedy in England. Luckily, the next two Simcoe kids — the future founder of Toronto, John Graves Simcoe, and his younger brother Percy — survived their first few dangerous months. But then it was their father's turn.

They were just toddlers when war broke out. The Seven Years' War would prove be one of the bloodiest conflicts in human history — the first truly global war. The major powers of Europe clashed across their own continent and in their colonies all over the world. The boys' dad — John Simcoe — was the Captain of a ship in the Royal Navy. So when the war started, he was sent across the Atlantic, to Canada, to fight the French. He served under the legendary General James Wolfe — but a few months before Wolfe launched his famous surprise attack on Qu├ębec City at the Plains of Abraham, Captain Simcoe came down with pneumonia. He died near the mouth of the St. Lawrence River and was buried at sea.

So now, the young Simcoe boys were being raised by a single mother: Katherine Simcoe. Up to that point, they'd been in the countryside, but after the death of their father, their mum moved them to the same city where she'd grown up: to Exeter, one of the most historic cities in all of England, originally founded by the Romans sometime around the year 50. It's nearly two thousand years old.

And on Day Nine, that's where The Toronto Dreams Project's UK Tour took me: to explore the hometown of the man who founded our city — to follow in the footsteps of his family, to leave dreams for them there, and to visit the spot where his story ended. Because it's in Exeter that all three of those surviving Simcoes eventually died.

Young Percy was the first to go. On a June day in the summer of 1764, he and some friends were playing in the River Exe. It flows through Exeter on its way south to the Bristol Channel — and that stretch can be very a dangerous place sometimes. On that particular day, something must have gone horibly wrong: the river got the better of the young boy, who was still just 10 years old. They tried to save him, rushed him to shore and rubbed his body with salt. But that didn't work, of course. Just a few years later, that "cure" for drowning was discredited as a superstition.

The River Exe, near where Percy Simcoe drowned
They say John Graves Simcoe might have been there to see his little brother die. His biographers write that it's "quite likely" he was playing in the river that day, too. And now, suddenly, he was an only child. It was just him and his mum left.

She was the next to die. But first, she seems to have done all she could for her only remaining son. When he graduated from the local Exeter Grammar School, she paid to send him to one of the most prestigious boarding schools in the entire world: Eton College. It's just a few hundred meters from Windsor Castle; nineteen British Prime Ministers have gone there. (I'm planning on heading there in a few days, too.) After that, Simcoe was off to Oxford University, and then to join the army. And since this was back in the days when most people had to buy their way into being an officer, his mum paid for that too.

Soon, Simcoe was making a name for himself by following in his father's footsteps: fighting in a North American war. This time, it was the American Revolution. And as commander of the Queen's Rangers, Simcoe was quickly becoming one of the rising of the Briitsh army.

So that's where he was when his mother died. It was during the first year of the war. Her death was long and painful. A friend wrote to Simcoe when it was all over: "Your poor mother's death was truly a release her last disorders were so exceedingly painful that no friend could wish her continuance." She passed away at her home on the Cathedral Close — a row of buildings standing across the lawn from Exeter Cathedral. Her only child was thousands of kilometers away when it happened. But exactly 30 years later, John Graves Simcoe would die in one of those very same buildings.

By then, of course, he had earned a place in Canadian history by founding Toronto. And he'd seen plenty more death. He killed men during the Revolution. And watched his own men die, too. Then, his little daughter Katherine (named after his mother) died in Toronto when she and our city were only about a year old. He named his next child after his father; he died, too, when they tried an early, rudimentary, and incredibly risky inoculation against smallpox.

In the end, John Graves Simcoe died in much the same way his father did. He had just been awarded one of the most prestigious jobs in the entire British Empire — Commander-in-Chief in India — but before he could leave, he was needed in the fight against Napoleon. On the journey to Portugal, Simcoe fell seriously ill; it seems the fresh lead paint job on his ship aggravated his weak lungs, sparking a severe bout of what he called "asthmatic paroxysms." He was rushed back to England, but on board that very same poisonous ship. He would never recover. They took him to Exeter. To the house of his friend, the Archdeadon, who lived in one of those buildings across from the Cathedral. John Graves Simcoe had travelled thousands upon thousands of kilometers in his life, but it was there — only a few meters from where his mother had died, and a few hundred meters from the spot where his brother had drowned — that the man who founded Toronto finally drew his last breath.

The story of the death of John Graves Simcoe will appear in The Toronto Book of the Dead, coming from Dundurn Press in the fall of 2017.

The Cathedral Close, where Simcoe died
Ontario Heritage plaque on the Cathedral Close
A dream for Simcoe on the Cathedral Close
Exeter Cathedral
Knights died for the Cathedral tourists
Exeter Cathedral
Dreams for Simcoe & his son at their Cathedral memorial
A First Nations figure on Simcoe's Cathedral memorial
Detail of Simcoe from his Cathedral memorial
Exeter Cathedral
Badass pulpit
Exeter does death up right
Marking the old entrance to Exeter Grammar School
A dream for Simcoe at the Blue Boy statue
A dream near the spot where Percy Simcoe drowned

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Read more posts about The Toronto Dreams Project's UK Tour and the connections between the history of Toronto and the United Kingdom here. I'll be posting lots more during the trip! And you can follow me on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook too.



A version of this story will appear in
The Toronto Book of the Dead

Coming September 2017 from Dundurn Press
Available for pre-order now

This post is related to dream
01 Metropolitan York
John Graves Simcoe, 1793

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