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Kingston’s Old French Village: Scandal or Sensationalism?

The post-Mike-Harris municipality of Kingston is an amalgamation of various formerly independent towns and villages — Portsmouth, Barriefield, and Glenburnie among them. It also includes many neighbourhoods named by developers: Bayridge, Strathcona Park, Polson Park, and so on. Among this second group, though mostly forgotten, is Picardville. It was named after Jean Baptiste des Trois Maisons, dit Picard, who in 1810 bought a small piece of land from Molly Brant’s daughter Magdalene Ferguson with the intention to subdivide it into building lots.

When we think of subdivisions, we usually think of places on the edge of town that depart from the street grid with curving streets and cul de sacs. And indeed, that’s what Picardville was. A little less lawn and sprawl than twentieth-century subdivisions, but indeed, askew, and on the edge. It got its triangular shape because when Picard bought the land, it was constrained on the north by the road to York (later Toronto). That road, labelled “Public St.” in the map below, didn’t go straight west: it had to aim far enough north to hit Little Cataraqui Creek at a narrow place. (That’s also why Princess Street goes northwest instead of due west, by the way.)

Plan of the west part of the farm lot originally granted to the late Mrs. Magdalen Ferguson, William H. Kilborn, 1847, detail

A little more orientation might be in order. Loughboro Road is now Division (later it became known also as the Perth Road, but again, think of all those lakes up north and you will understand why it took a while for it to get that far). Plum, Pine, and Patrick Streets are as they are now. Upper James Street is now Chestnut, and it doesn’t get to Division but rather ends at Quebec Street, which doesn’t exist in 1847.

Here’s another map, this one from three years later.

Plan of the City and Liberties of Kingston, Thomas Fraser Gibbs, 1850, detail

Here you can see the subdivided lots, and some adjusted street names: we’ve got Main Street — which may indicate that Picard really did imagine this place as a mini-village — and two streets that have since disappeared, George and Green. The road now named Raglan was Picard Street. The map doesn’t indicate many buildings in the Picardville triangle. And yet the area must have been more populated than it appears here because it was much in the news in Kingston at this time, known not as Picardville but as the “French Village,” or the “old French Village,” a name it picked up as early as 1827. (By 1831, Picard himself seems to have moved on to another enterprise even further out of town: an inn at Kingston Mills.)

In the just-released historical chronology prepared for the North King’s Town Secondary Plan — which is a gold mine of fascinating information about the area’s early history — read it! — historian Jennifer McKendry has gathered newspaper material about the French Village. In 1829, a local editor noted the high quality of milk pans, plates and jars made of “brown or coarse Earthen Ware, manufactured in the ‘French village,’ by a native Canadian.” In September 1835 the British Whig insinuated that a brothel was housed in “a noted lady’s house in the French Village”; in May 1836 Mr. Johnston of the Wesleyan Methodist Church announced a prayer meeting and sermon in the neighbourhood; and in January 1837 the Chronicle and Gazette printed the following item:

NIGHT ROBBERS. We think it our duty to put the inhabitants upon their guard against a set of miscreants who prowl along the streets during the night, entering the yards and premises of the householders and stealing and pilfering every kind of property which may be within their reach.

A few nights since two yards in Store [Princess] Street were entered and a large quantity of clothes which were left out to dry were stolen. A woman was seen at a late hour proceeding towards the French Village on Tuesday night with a large parcel of these clothes in a frozen state; she was immediately taken hold of and lodged in jail, and the property has since been identified. Cord wood appears to be a favorite article with these nightly marauders.

In 1839, a man died “in consequence of a wound, received in a scuffle in the French Village,” and in 1847, the news is even darker. A coroner’s inquest was held into the deaths of Mary Colye and John Randall who were deemed to have died of “excessive drinking” “in the house tenanted by D. Orser, situate in the French Village.” The report observes that “these two cases make six persons on whom the Coroner has held an Inquest within the last three weeks in this locality” and expresses “a hope that the proper Authorities will take such steps as may abate the nuisance.” If “nuisance” seems an inhumane way to refer to deaths from overdose, the rhetoric ratchets up even further a couple of weeks later in a letter in the British Whig from “A CITIZEN”:

The trifling Report made by the Jury, is nothing, when compared with what is daily, and has been for years, taking place in the Village. Young men, of good standing and reputation in the world, have fallen victims to their own foolishness and criminal indulgences, by frequenting the dens of immorality with which the Village abounds. Many of them, too, men of first-rate talents, and holding a high place in the estimation of their friends for morality and worth [illegible] a terrible catalogue of young men, who might have been ornaments to society, who had died an early death by resorting to, I had almost said living in, those infamous haunts of the unfortunate and abandoned.

The anonymous author even proposes that someone should write a novel titled The Mysteries of the French Village as a contribution to what was then a vogue for voyeuristic sensation fiction about the lives of the urban poor. It is an interesting parallel to the way people talk about drug use and drug users today that when “A CITIZEN” calls for “effectual measures for cleansing that portion of the town from such wholesale pollutions as now disgrace it” it isn’t clear whether “pollution” means alcohol or people. Probably the latter: while appearing sympathetic to a degree with “the unfortunate and abandoned,” the writer is mainly concerned with protecting young men “of good standing and reputation.” When he calls for the “abominable haunts [to be] sought out, and the creatures who infest them punished according to their deserts,” and dares authorities “to rout the wretched occupants of the Village from their holds,” he is not seeking social support for those who suffer or explanation about why they do, but rather blaming them for the corruption of others. Basically, the rich need to be protected from the poor.

What can we conclude about the real Picardville from these newspaper materials? Is it possible that this little corner of town was “one wide mass of uncontrolled and beastly profligacy”? Jennifer McKendry notes that “whether [violence etc.] is greater than elsewhere is difficult to assess.” Indeed, my search through reports of coroner’s inquests indicated a great number of untimely deaths in Kingston in these years, many from a combination of alcohol consumption and exposure or drowning. This is not to say that the French Village didn’t experience hardship or drunkenness. City Directories show that Division Street and Jenkins Lane (now Elm Street) were home at the time to many labourers, carters, and washerwomen — it certainly wasn’t a wealthy place. And it wasn’t dry either. In the 1850s John Savage was the proprietor of the Golden Chain at 8 Ellice Street, across from the establishment of Henry Grimston or Grimison (perhaps related to the Eliza Grimason of Sir John A. Macdonald fame); Alderman Bennet Parker ran the “Traveller’s Rest inn, and butcher” (!), on Division, where James Potter also had a tavern. John Bleakley and David Watson had taverns on Picard Street. But for perspective, there were scores of inns and taverns on Ontario Street, King Street, Barrack Street, and other parts of town. Perhaps Picardville had a reputation that biased reactions. Jennifer McKendry suggests that the name French Village “does not necessarily mean the inhabitants are French Canadians.” Records of sale of the lots indicate only two French owners (John Monjean and Jean François Ouellette or Willette), both of whom have sold to Anglos by the 1840s. We can speculate that while a francophone developer may indeed have drawn francophones to the spot at least at first, the name “French Village” was largely inference or out-of-date when used more widely. We might also consider that as the neighbourhood does seem to have been home to departures from conventional morals of the time, the name may have been in part xenophobic.

The “Arch-deacon’s Folly” built for Reverend George Okill Stuart (Harvard 1801), minister of St. George’s (Anglican) Cathedral, may be the only building in the area that survives from 150 years ago. It is a mystery why Stuart would have chosen land in an allegedly depraved neighbourhood where anyone who professed religion at all was probably Methodist or Catholic. Furthermore, it is odd that even at the time of its construction the over-scale stone mansion was boxed in on a tiny triangular lot between Main and Raglan at Division. But as it happens, Stuart never lived in it, and perhaps it is true to the neighbourhood’s down-to-earth nature that the building’s high-ceilinged rooms have instead, over the years, been home to many generations of apartment-dwellers of modest means.

329 Division Street from rear. Started construction 1861, completed after 1877

— Laura Murray, with thanks to Jennifer McKendry


  1. Tom McGlade

    I lived in Eliza Grimasons house at the corner of Main and Ellice fronting on Main. Address was 24 Main st. Directly behind that house on Ellice was 8 Ellice I believe. I will have to drive by to confirm. The stories I remember were that Eliza Grimason was a very good friend of Sir John. And come election day she would get as many Liberals as she could. Ply them with alcohol and lock them in her basement until the polls had closed.My parents rented that house late 1960’s Early 70’s. I remember when we first looked at the house to rent that there was a massive bedroom suite in the master bedroom that was alleged to have been presented to Eliza from John A. The old Woman who had just passed away was a Grimason maybe a grand daughter of Eliza.

    • Laura Murray

      So interesting, Tom (even if the story about the bed may or may not be true, it’s still a great story)! Walking around there yesterday I couldn’t see many houses that looked to date back to the 1840s — except maybe a couple of cottages on Division. 66 Main, I’m told, an imposing stone house, dates to 1864. And most other existing buildings are clearly late 19th or early 20th century. But I’ll ask Jennifer McKendry who has a better eye than I do for architectural history… and knows the old maps inside and out as well… maybe 24 Main is older than I supposed.

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