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Robert Dennistoun

July 11, 2022

Robert Dennistoun, circa 1855

Robert Dennistoun was born in 1815 at his family’s estate, Camis Eskan in Dumbartonshire, Scotland. His father was proprietor of the Glasgow Bank, and owned considerable property in the city. Dennistoun was a younger son, so he would not inherit the family estate, and had to find another way to make his way in the world. Being from a prominent family, he received an excellent classical education from private tutors, and was prepared to enter business by spending three years at a counting house in Glasgow. Their friends included the Wallis family, whose son James later founded the village of Fenelon Falls. Not surprisingly, when he decided to emigrate, he would settle in the community where Wallis was speculating in land. Later on, James’ sister Margaret married Robert’s brother, George.

In October 1834, Dennistoun sailed from Liverpool for Peterborough via New York, where one of his older brothers, George, was in business. He arrived in December and the following March purchased 537 acres, consisting of Lot 26 Concession VII and 26-27 Concession VIII, Fenelon Township, on the west side of Cameron Lake. It was a relatively large holding, reflecting an aspiration to live as a landed gentleman–at that time, owning an estate was still a sign of social standing. Being on the lakeshore, it was also a beautiful place to live. Dennistoun intended to farm the property with hired labour to clear the forest, help build a home and plant crops.

The early communities in the upper Trent valley had an unusually high number of aspiring young gentlemen (and very few young ladies, other than the Dunsford sisters, through whom several of the families would subsequently be related). It was a society that literally had more Lords than labourers, and Robert Dennistoun fit right in as an aspiring young gentleman. It was not, however, easy to find enough labourers to do the hard work of making a farm from the forests.

Already acquainted with James Wallis, he soon became a close friend of John Langton. By 1837 he was assisting Wallis by managing some of his affairs. He was an avid participant in the dinner parties, balls and social gatherings. He and his friends frequently travelled to Peterborough to attend balls, in addition to many other trips for business and pleasure. Dennistoun and Langton both took a particular interest in the daughters of Major Hamilton, a miller and distiller who had served with Sir Ralph Abercrombie’s 78th and 79th Highlanders in Egypt. They entertained the ladies, brought them to tour the upper lakes and attend parties. Dennistoun married 18 year-old Maxwell Hamilton on December 24, 1839, in Peterborough. No store in the area could procure a wedding band, so the couple had to be married with a borrowed ring.

Dennistoun did what he could to help his community develop. He, Wallis and Langton were instrumental in the establishment of St. James Anglican Church in Fenelon Falls. The trio supplied the manpower and materials for the building, while soliciting donations from their friends back home. They raised the minister’s salary from the return on loans to St. John’s Anglican Church in Peterborough, the principal of which totalled £390 on January 1, 1841, and grew to £537 6s 11d by March 1, 1855. Dennistoun would later become a warden of St. John’s.

He also served as a Captain in the 5th Regiment of the Durham militia, under Lieutenant-Colonel A. S. Fraser and Major James Wallis. In December 1837 reports reached Fenelon Falls that William Lyon Mackenzie had fled after his rebellion failed and he was rumored to be heading northward, perhaps via trails in the vicinity. The militia was summoned to block these routes, and Dennistoun marched his twenty men to bivouac in the woods. They stood guard about a week, until they received word that Mackenzie had escaped to the United States.

By 1841 Dennistoun’s farm was doing relatively well. His workers had cultivated about 75 acres, second only to John Langton in the township. He had recently completed a two storey log house to replace his first log home in the backwoods, which was much smaller and less grand. He had acquired three horses, as well as three each of milk cows and calves. His farm was far ahead of the overwhelming majority of his neighbours, both in terms of stock and cultivated land.

However, like most of the local gentry, Dennistoun was not inclined to do much of the work himself and fairly quickly realized that he could not make sufficient profit on the farm to support his comfortable existence. The tenuous system of transportation to Fenelon Falls meant that many luxuries and even necessities such as soap and tallow were unavailable. Although descended from a wealthy family, Dennistoun would reach the limit of how long his inheritance would allow him to continue being a gentleman farmer.

His friends recorded that he was having second thoughts after only two years on Cameron Lake. He wrote to his brother Alexander (Sandy) for advice but decided to remain on the farm for the time being. With the birth of his son, James Frederick, in 1841, Dennistoun wanted to “educate his children and push them on in the world”—to afford them the same privileges he had as a child.  To accomplish this, he needed to relocate to a more developed part of the colony. Three years later he became a student of George Strange Boulton, a Cobourg lawyer. To become a solicitor, he continued his studies in Toronto with D. B. Reid for two years, while his wife visited his relatives in Scotland. In 1849 he was called to the bar, and then moved to Peterborough where he opened a law office. He later became a Peterborough County judge.

In 1856 Dennistoun commissioned Inverlea House, a gorgeous home on the Otonabee River, on a site later incorporated into the City of Peterborough. Dennistoun was appointed Queen’s Council and later County Judge in 1868. His old friend James Wallis fared poorly on the land speculations that underpinned his development of Fenelon Falls, so Dennistoun held some of his mortgages from 1856 onwards, consolidating Wallis’ debts to Montreal businessmen in 1867. In 1872, he purchased the Brown Mill in Peterborough from Wallis.

Dennistoun suffered a stroke in 1886, the same year that his son James Frederick died. Two years later, he and Maxwell, who found the climate at Inverlea unsuitable, sold the estate and moved to Toronto. In 1894, she died while travelling south for the winter, apparently from unsuccessful surgery in Baltimore, and Robert died the following year in Toronto.

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