An Experience of Backwoods Life
Anne and John Langton represent the Canadian backwoods experience. Though they were born into a wealthy British family, and lived at the social and economic pinnacle of backwoods society, their experience has come to speak for the community as a whole. They had more money, land, connections and education than their neighbours, but none of this could isolate them from the struggle, suffering, and human cost of backwoods life. The fact that even the family at the top had so much to overcome, but at the same time had the time and ability to record their experiences, made them an embodiment of everything that Canadian pioneering families had to endure.
A Wealthy Mercantile Family
The Langtons were an unlikely family to become Canadian pioneers. William, John and Anne Langton were born into a wealthy mercantile Lancashire family. Their father, Thomas, ran a business importing flax and hemp for the manufacture of sail cloth, just the type of venture that did conspicuously well in Britain during the Industrial Revolution and Napoleonic Wars. They lived at Lathom, near Ormskirk, a market town known for its wonderful gingerbread. The town was about twelve miles from Liverpool, England’s busiest international port, where Thomas conducted his business.
Church of St Peter and St Paul
Class structure was an ever-present reality in nineteenth century and businessmen like Thomas Langton were eclipsing the landed elites who had dominated the country for centuries. However, land still represented power, as did the Church of England (the Anglican Church to Canadians). The local Church of St Peter and St Paul, is a unique architectural specimen, having a separate tower and spire. It was strongly connected to the Earls of Derby. The first Earl was pivotal in establishing the Tudor dynasty at the Battle of Bosworth, the seventh was beheaded after backing the Royals in the English Civil War. Having grown up in such an inspiring parish, the Langtons shared a lifelong devotion to Church.
The Langtons’ Blythe Hall was not quite the most splendid of the local country estates, but it certainly placed them among the prominent local families. Anyone who set their eyes upon this estate could see the prosperity and power of the Langton family. The family crest was a double headed eagle, with a gold trefoil (also the symbol of the Anglican Church) on its breast. Their motto was “Loyal Au Mort,” meant loyal to the dead. The Langton family were part of a conservative, Anglican elite, trying to maintain their status in the face of all of the radical ideas (like democracy) in the aftermath of the French and American Revolutions.
The Grand Tour
Like many of their peers, Thomas and Ellen Langton would invest heavily to provide the best education to their children that they could. At a time when illiteracy was still a working class norm, they set out on the Grand Tour. While many elite families travelled for a few months, the Langtons spent five years taking in the culture of continental Europe. As they journeyed, their children received private instruction. Anne learned art, often by copying the works of famous masters.
Learning from Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi
The Langtons visited Yverdon, Switzerland, the home of renowned educational pioneer Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi. In an era when rote learning was a norm, Pestalozzi encouraged each student to build upon their own unique abilities. John was enrolled in his institute, while Anne, because of her gender, received private instruction.
A Financial Crisis
As Anne was learning to paint miniatures in Paris, their five-year trip came to an abrupt halt with the news that the family business was foundering. Thomas had left the business in the care of his nephew, and he was proving unequal to the task of navigating the economic uncertainties that followed the Napoleonic Wars. The Langtons returned to England and were forced to sell Blythe Hall. As they struggled to find a new way forward, they often looked back to the Blythe Hall, the life and prosperity that they had lost.
Looking for a New Way Forward
The Langtons found themselves in “embarrassed circumstances,” no longer able to maintain the conspicuous consumption fitting their former social standing. So they retreated to a smaller house in Bootle. William became a banker. John was able to attend Cambridge with the help of an Aunt. Anne tried to contribute to the family by painting miniatures, something a young woman of her status would not ordinarily have done.
Early Days in Upper Canada
Being a younger son, John would not receive a large inheritance, especially in light of the family’s financial issues. So he emigrated to Upper Canada, where the small amount of money he had by the standards of the British elite, translated into him being relatively well off. No one who truly was at the pinnacle of British society went to the backwoods of Canada. In 1833, he settled on Sturgeon Lake—in a very unusual society, composed of aspiring young gentlemen just like him. They all wanted to live like the landed class back in Britain, but none of them had the money to be a real Lord of a manor. It was literally a society where there were more lords than labourers. Neighbours remarked on musical instruments and silver spoons. But, it was all to a degree fanciful in a community where a table might simply be a door supported by two pork barrels, where there was not a decent road, and in truth, everyone was struggling just to get by.
The New Langton Estate
Hiring labourers to help make a farm, John quickly came to have the largest, most productive and best developed plot in the community. He also speculated in land in the vicinity of his new home. John became a community leader and Justice of the Peace, quickly aligning himself with the Conservative, Anglican political elite (the so-called Family Compact, on the eve of the Upper Canada Rebellion). He wrote to his family describing his progress. From across the Atlantic, Thomas intently followed his son’s progress, and gave what help he could. As John built his estate, many of his peers quickly gave up hope and left.
Blythe, Sturgeon Lake
In 1837 Thomas, Ellen and Anne Langton, along with Ellen’s sister Alice Currer set out to join John in Upper Canada. In preparation for their arrival, John spent what was a fortune by backwoods standards, constructing a conspicuously nice residence for the neighbourhood. As Anne she recorded:
At last… after all the delays and disappointments, our long journey is accomplished. John looked very proud when he handed his mother into his little mansion. His arrangements for our accommodation are very snug… And now you will ask what I think of the spot that has been so much talked of, and thought of amongst us. Upon the whole very much what I expected to think of it. The picture my mind had formed of the Lake is really very correct; that of Blythe was so much more particular in all of its details that it could not be quite so exact. What most strikes me is a greater degree of roughness in the farming, buildings, gardens, fences, and especially roads, than I had expected. But when one looks at the wild woods around, and thinks that from such a wilderness the present state of things had been brought [ab]out by a few hands, and how much there is for those few hands to be constantly doing, one’s surprise vanishes, and one rather wonders that so much has been done than that so much remains.
A Gentlewoman in Upper Canada
Anne Langton had become a “Gentlewoman in Upper Canada,” a contradiction in terms, because there was very little about the colony that would be fit for a lady back home. Yet they named their new home Blythe, looking back to their former mansion at Ormskirk, and set about being backwoods gentry. They attended balls and hosted teas, while organizing the first Sturgeon Point Regatta. There were even meetings of the University Club for the privileged few with a degree.
Among the backwoods gentry, there were a lot of aspiring gentlemen, and very few ladies other than the Dunsford sisters, daughters of the Reverend James Hartley Dunsford. Lydia married John Langton, while Caroline married Mossom Boyd. Boyd was a little different than the other backwoods gentleman, being an orphan from a military family. While the other gentry were having tea, he soon developed a reputation for being hard-driving, efficient and industrious. Anne did not marry. She was deaf, older than many others who were marrying, and enjoyed devoting herself to art more than to the social norms expecting her to become wife and mother.
Depicting Backwoods Life
Anne and John continued writing to William back home. Few of their neighbours had the time, interest and education to capture the trials and tribulations of pioneer life in the backwoods. Both had considerable literary skill, John had a particular wit, while Anne had a gift for narrating the tasks that local women had to perform. Anne continued to devote herself to sketching backcountry life. Together, John and Anne created the most vivid historical record of backwoods life in Canada.
Anne wrote that initially the family had thought that John was dilatory, but they soon realized the magnitude of what they had undertaken, and how difficult it was to get anything done. Clearing a farm using only muscular power was a job that typically took at least a generation of labour. Felling trees with an axe, oxen hauled the logs into massive piles for “The Burn” which was “Rather an exciting proceeding, and at times exceedingly picturesque and beautiful.” John would return for supper “in costume, the shades of which are somewhere between the smith and the chimney sweeper.”
Creating an Agricultural Landscape
Not only did migrating families have to clear a farm, they also had to produce the plants and animals to populate it. While at first glance it might have seemed simple enough to transplant British farms to North America, many of the plants and animals failed in their new environs, as new varieties and techniques had to be developed.
An Isolated Existence
The backwoods communities were isolated, being two day’s journey by Canoe from the village of Peterborough. Roads were typically nothing more than a strip through the woods where the trees were cut low enough that the axle of an oxcart could conceivably pass. They were littered with rocks and mudholes. No one would travel without taking an axe because most outings entailed doing road work.
St. James Anglican Church
The social institutions that the Langtons had cherished back home, were only in their infancy in the backwoods. Anne taught school for neighbourhood children. Their peer James Wallis built a saw and grist mill at Fenelon Falls, but as was common in the backwoods, it worked very slowly. Sawing six logs in a day was good progress. John helped found the Anglican church at Fenelon Falls. This log church on the hill was a guiding light to its community and a very different institution than St Peter and St Paul.
Anne was spared the worst of the labours that other neighbourhood women endured—she never had to carry bags of grain dozens of miles on her back to be ground at a mill. But she had to learn to cook over an open fire, to cure hams, and produce bread without yeast (bread was a luxury, the common folk ate potatoes). Like everyone else she learned how to make do without. An in the midst of it all she had a knack for narrating the experience:
There cannot well be a more unpoetical and anti-romantic existence than ours… A ham we had put to smoke down the chimney got somewhat over roasted, so that the meat slipped out of the skin and came tumbling down upon the fire, all broken to pieces of course, but we got a little savoury picking out of it.
An Opulent but Uncomfortable Existence
Though it was a mansion in comparison with neighbouring shanties, Blythe could be quite uncomfortable. While ordinary families lived in a single room, often with their livestock and might be warm, Blythe was practically impossible to keep warm. Having only green lumber to work with, the walls and floors opened up, allowing snow to blow through. The Langtons tried to seal the cracks, and hired a boy (future Fenelon Reeve and member of Manitoba’s legislature William Robert Dick) full time to chop firewood. Despite their best efforts, water would freeze “within two or three inches of the chimney, which feels quite warm to the touch.”
In the early nineteenth century, malaria was endemic in Upper Canada. Settlers did not realize that the inescapable mosquitoes that tormented them every spring were spreading the disease, they called it ague, and thought it was caused by miasma or the rotting vegetation from clearing land and the drowning of land from raising the lakes for navigation and milling. In any case there was little to be done. Ellen, Thomas and Alice died. John and Anne fled for the relative safety of Peterborough.
Forced to Leave Blythe Again
Having watched all of his peers who tried to live as gentleman farmers fail and exit the backwoods, John too was on the verge of bankruptcy. In a reversal of fortune, his brother-in-law, Mossom Boyd, who had started with nothing and laboured alongside the “rascals” driving the rivers, was now in a position to help John hold Blythe until he could find a buyer. John would have preferred to remain as a gentleman farmer, but as an articulate man with strong Conservative connections, he had a way out: Politics.
Another New Beginning
Anne made a lengthy visit to England, then decided to follow John as he pursued is political career. John was elected as member of Parliament for Peterborough County in 1851. As he entered politics, he also took interest in developing higher education in the colony, becoming Vice Chancellor of the University of Toronto. Higher education was then the locus of much interdenominational squabbling, as different churches were setting up their own colleges, and hoping that the university would split up its endowment to support them. John realized that if he spent the money on the University of Toronto, the “godless abomination” of University College, that the other colleges would join, as they did. Architecturally, University College was reminiscent of English public buildings and country homes like Blythe Hall.
John Langton, Auditor General
In 1855 John Langton demonstrated his understanding of an accounting discrepancy that forced the finance minister to admit his incomprehension. John A. Macdonald then asked John to become Inspector General of Accounts. He was part of the delegation to London to plan Canada’s Confederation. He served as Canada’s first Auditor General, retiring in 1878.
Anne Langton, Author and Artist
Anne continued to pursue her art an letters as she accompanied John’s family. She wrote The Story of Our Family, which told the story of the Langton’s many changes of fortune. Her letters were first published as the Langton Records. She painted the cities where they resided as Canada’s capital rotated. She enjoyed painting china, giving porcelain pieces to friends to sell at church bazaars. A few have survived.
Langton Dock at Liverpool
Back in England, William became Chairman of the Bank of Liverpool and served on the city’s dock committee. In 1881 the Langton dock opened, adjacent to the Canada Dock, at the port where his father Thomas had made his fortune importing flax and hemp.
Representing Early Canada
After all the changes of fortune that the Langtons lived through, in the end they succeeded in becoming part of the political and social elite of the new world. Having lost the magnificent Blythe Hall, then the humbler Blythe House and with it the dream of being landed gentry, both John and Anne continued their devotion to public service. In attempting to emulate the landed gentry that dominated Britain for centuries they failed, but John became a respected parliamentarian, and Anne is among the most notable artists of early Canada. In a brief window of their lives, they narrated and sketched life on Sturgeon Lake. Together they produced Canada’s richest images of backwoods pioneer life.