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The story of the country home named for John Graves Simcoe's only son endures despite its tenuous place in local history
By Enzo DiMatteo
Aug 8, 2021
Castle Frank water colour by Elizabeth Simcoe, 1796. Wikimedia commons
Castle Frank historical marker
Prince Edward Viaduct Parkette, 725 Bloor East
The watercolour of Castle Frank painted by Elizabeth Simcoe, wife of lieutenant governor John Graves Simcoe, shows a Greek temple-style portico supported by 5-metre-high columns. The castle is shown perched on a steep hill above the Don overlooking a brook lined with mature pine, elm and beech trees.
There was no marble so the “castle,” which was 10 by 30 metres in size, was constructed of white pine from the nearby forest. There were two large rooms, each with a fireplace, and four large windows.
The castle was built for Francis Simcoe, the couple’s only son who was born in Britain in 1791, a year before John Graves Simcoe would receive his commission to become lieutenant governor for Upper Canada and set sail for the colony. Elizabeth had previously given birth to five daughters.
And the castle, which would become the couple’s summer home, was part of a concession of some 100 hectares granted Simcoe in the Don Valley. But it would never be completed. With John Graves Simcoe suffering from ill health, the family would leave Upper Canada a few short years later.
Francis, the castle’s namesake, was five years old at the time. He would never return to see the house again. His story would be writ far away some years later after he joined the British army. He was killed in 1812 in the month-long siege at the French-held garrison of Badajoz near Spain’s border with Portugal in one of the bloodiest battles of the Napoleonic Wars.
The marker erected at Prince Edward Viaduct Parkette by the Don Valley Conservation Authority in 1954 to remember the country home named after him seems trivial given its rather tenuous – and short-lived – place in local history.
But it’s also instructive when considering places and people from the past that we choose to remember – or more accurately, places and people from the past that are chosen by others for us to remember.
Elizabeth Simcoe described the journey in her diary in October 1793 “to fix upon the spot for building the house.”
“We went six miles by water from the Fort and east along the Bay shore to the Don, and up that river, landed, climbed up an exceedingly steep hill, or rather a series of sugar-loafed hills, and approved the highest spot, from whence we looked down on the tops of large trees and, seeing eagles near, I suppose they build there.”
She noted the “large pines plains around it, which, being without underwood, I can ride and walk on, and we hope the height of the situation will secure us from mosquitoes.”
A path would be cut through the forest to get to the house which was located just south of the site of present-day Rosedale Heights School of the Arts.
Architecturally speaking, the castle is considered significant as “the predecessor of the modern Ontario cottage and a precursor of many of the sensibilities of early Canadian architecture.” According to this analysis by the Architectural Association of Ontario, “While grand in name, Castle Frank was a modest building reflective of York’s early days – a balance between the rugged nature of the remote British outpost, and the dignity and order associated with the newly established office of the Lieutenant Governor.”
But the castle would begin to fall into disrepair soon after the Simcoes left Upper Canada, used only intermittently by Upper Canada’s interim administrator, Peter Russell, before being abandoned entirely after Simcoe’s lands were parcelled off.
American soldiers who laid siege to York during the war of 1812 visited the “castle” only to find a “rotting wood structure.”
By the 1820s, Castle Frank was being used mostly by hunters and fishermen on trips to the Don. In 1829, a group of fishermen accidentally burned the place down. Legend has it that ash left from the fire formed a pit around the site that remained there for decades, as confirmed by the only photograph taken of the pit in 1890.
Sir Albert Edward Kemp, a Conservative member of Parliament, would build a 24-room manse north of the site years later and also name it Castle Frank. Kemp was a former businessman in sheet metal manufacturing. He was also a traditionalist and an influential voice in Toronto’s Tory circles who served as Minister of Militia and Defence and Minister of Overseas Military Forces during the First World War.
The house would be torn down in 1962, but the Castle Frank name would endure with the building of a subway station on the Bloor line and dedication of a road, both of which have now come under scrutiny with the recent decision of city council to rename Dundas over its namesake’s connection to the slave trade.
The city has identified some 60 street names and other dedications that may require renaming. Castle Frank station and Castle Frank Crescent are among them. John Graves Simcoe also has a connection to the slave trade.
While he introduced legislation that would lead to the banning of the importation of slaves to Upper Canada, the Anti-Slavery Act would continue to allow several members of the legislative assembly and their family members to own slaves. At the time, six of the 16 elected members of the Upper Canada Legislative Assembly were slave owners or had family members who owned slaves. It’s something to consider should you happen upon the marker dedicated to the castle built for Simcoe’s son.
Hidden Toronto is a weekly feature exploring the city’s alternative history through contemporary landmarks. Read it online each Sunday.
Enzo was born in Belgium and emigrated with his family to Canada in the heat of Trudeaumania. He is a winner of numerous writing awards and the only (alleged) Commie banned from entering Cuba. It’s complicated. Claims to fame: champion wood-chopper.