Historical personalities, who often lived in distant lands and times far removed from our own, can seem as unreal as characters in novels. But they were real, flesh and blood people, and we can be connected to them and their stories through the most substantial of all legacies, their descendants.
Many famous people of bygone eras have come from Guelph or passed through town, but there are two with connections to the Royal City who never set foot here or (in one case) even heard of a place called Guelph.
Robert “Rabbie” Burns (1759 – 1796) was a Romantic poet and lyricist who is credited with almost singlehandedly rescuing the Scottish-English dialect from oblivion. He is recognized as Scotland’s greatest poet, and is celebrated as one of Scotland’s two greatest literary figures along with the novelist
Sir Walter Scott.
Burns composed hundreds of poems and songs, but is probably best known for that favourite of New Year’s celebrants, Auld Lang Syne.
"Should auld acquaintance be forgot,
and never brought to mind?
Should auld acquaintance be forgot,
and auld lang syne?
"For auld lang syne, my jo,
for auld lang syne,
we'll tak' a cup o' kindness yet,
for auld lang syne."
Every year on Burns’ birthday, Jan. 25 (or the nearest weekend date) people of Scottish blood – or just lovers of his poetry – all over the world, including Guelph, get together on Rabbie Burns night to celebrate the man and his work over Scotch whisky and servings of that culinary delight called haggis, while his poem “Address to a Haggis” is read.
"Ye Pow'rs, wha mak mankind your care,
And dish them out their bill o fare,
Auld Scotland wants nae skinking ware
That jaups in luggies:
But, if ye wish her gratefu prayer,
Gie her a Haggis"
(You powers, who make mankind your care,
And dish them out their bill of fare,
Old Scotland wants no watery stuff,
That splashes in small wooden dishes;
But if you wish her grateful prayer,
Give her [Scotland] a Haggis!)
Five of the twelve children born to Robert Burns and his wife Jean Armour lived to have children of their own, and it was estimated that in 2019, Robert and Jean had over 900 living descendants. One of the poet’s granddaughters and two of his great granddaughters once lived in Guelph.
Burns’ eldest son, also named Robert, was born in 1786. He married Anne Sherwood, with whom he had a daughter, Jane Emma Burns. Jane married a mill worker named Thomas Brown.
They had two daughters, Isabella Ferguson Brown and Jean Armour Burns Brown.
About 1870, the Brown family immigrated to Canada and settled in Guelph. They resided first on Macdonell Street and then move to Farquhar Street. Thomas was employed as a carder at the woollen mills owned by the McRae family, making a somewhat tenuous connection between the family of Scotland’s most noteworthy poet and that of Guelph’s poet, John McCrae.
On May 8, 1870, Isabella died of heart disease at the age of 10. She was buried in Union Cemetery (now Woodlawn Memorial Park Cemetery). The surviving family members returned to Scotland about 10 years later.
There was a time when almost every Canadian schoolchild learned the story of Laura Secord (and it had nothing to do with chocolates). Laura Secord was the woman whose bravery during the War of 1812 earned her fame as The Heroine of Upper Canada. Guelph had not yet been founded.
In June of 1813, an invading American army occupied Queenston, Upper Canada, where Laura Secord (nee Ingersoll) lived with her husband James and children. Laura and James overheard drunken soldiers billeted in their house talking about a plan to attack the British force under Lt. James FitzGibbon at Beaver Dams.
James Secord was recovering from a battle wound, so it was up to Laura to warn FitzGibbon. It took her 18 hours to make the dangerous journey of about 20 miles (32 km) through rough country.
At the Battle of Beaver Dams, Mohawk warriors allied to the British defeated the Americans, who subsequently surrendered to FitzGibbon’s small British garrison.
According to one version of the Secord legend, Laura was a barefoot girl who drove a cow along the forest trail to fool American patrols. Actually, she was a 38-year-old mother, she wore shoes and there was no cow.
Secord received no public recognition for her brave deed until 1860 when it was brought to the attention of the visiting Prince of Wales (later King Edward VII).
Laura Secord died in Chippewa (now part of the city of Niagara Falls) in 1868. Four of her children became residents of Guelph. Her second-oldest daughter, Charlotte, born in 1801, lived in Guelph and never married. She died on Oct. 14, 1880, and is buried in Woodlawn. There is no surviving grave marker.
Harriet Hopkins Secord was born in 1803. She married David William Smith, with whom she had three children. When David died, Harriet lived with her mother, then moved to Guelph to live with her sisters after Laura’s death.
Harriet died in April of 1892 and is buried in Woodlawn.
Laura Ann Secord was born in 1815. She married John Poore of Guelph in 1833. They had two sons, one of whom died in infancy. John died in 1842, and Laura Ann married Dr. William Clarke.
Dr. Clarke was an ambitious businessman and politician for whom marriage into the Secord clan was a way into the powerful family compact that ran what is now Ontario. He served as a magistrate, Member of Parliament and mayor of Guelph, and was a very controversial figure in the city’s history.
Laura Ann had three more children with him. She died in 1852 and is buried in Woodlawn.
Hannah Cartwright Secord was born in 1817. She was married twice; first to Howley Williams, who died in 1844, and then to Edward Carthew. All three are buried in Woodlawn. Hannah, who died on Nov. 21, 1877, had children from both marriages.
Many of the present-day Canadians who can trace their family tree back to the Heroine of Upper Canada are Hannah’s descendants.
To stroll through Woodlawn Memorial Park Cemetery is to brush with history and legend.