‘Voices from Lambton’s Past’: The founder of Canada’s first commune, part 1

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Thanks to Phyllis Humby, author of the story last week about the Maxwell Church, an old place of worship that used to be in Camlachie. I invite anyone else who might have a story or an idea for a story about Lambton to contact me by e-mail.

The town of Maxwell was named by Henry Jones. The story the next two weeks is about that very man and his arrival with his family and a party of Scots to settle a part of Upper Canada now known as Bright’s Grove.

Sarnia October 2007

“James, look here. Ledger books. Feels like they are real leather. Faded now, but must have been a rich red with gold trim when they were new.”

As Midge looked at her find, James asked “Where did they come from?”

“Behind these wall studs. Why don’t we go somewhere more comfortable to look at them?”

As James Souter followed his wife Midge down the hall of the century old house they were renovating, he answered “Good idea. Take them out on the porch while I go get us some wine.”

A few minutes later, both seated on lawn chairs, James looked at his wife and continued, “It’s your find. You get the honour of opening them.”

Midge set her glass down, carefully opened the top ledger and began to read aloud from the first page.

May 1964, Sarnia, Ontario

Whosoever may be reading this, I hope that you are interested in local history.

I remember Sarnia’s incorporation as a city so well. Believe it or not, it was 5 decades ago this very day. Why, I have in front of me right now yesterday’s newspaper highlighting what took place a half century ago.

As a member of the band of the Boys Brigade, marching proudly past the reviewing stand in front of the Duke of Connaught and his daughter, the lovely Princess Patricia, I saw an even more beautiful young lady standing watching the parade.

Isobel Margaret Reading by name, she was the lady I would marry just 4 years later.

Both of us were interested in local history. On the day we wed, we talked for hours about the long and happy life we would enjoy together and about how we would one day tell our own children tales of the past.

But it was not to be. Just 3 months and 2 days after we had wed, Isobel died quite suddenly, along with so many others who lost their lives during the worldwide flu epidemic that year.

I have been so terribly lonely these many years. I did love my Isobel so very much.

All I had left to remember was my memories of her and the interest in history that we both had shared.

Over these many years, I have visited groups of all ages telling and retelling stories of Sarnia-Lambton's past.

But now I will tell stories no more. My doctor advised me today that I have cancer and have only about 6 weeks to live, such a short time before I will once again be reunited with my Isobel.

Before that happens, I would like to leave behind for others some of the stories we both loved to hear.

In my own way, I have decided to write down a numbers of stories as snippets of time and place, reflecting our history as it might have happened.

When you read this, whoever you may be, I will be long gone, hopefully once again in the arms of my Isobel. 

The centennial of Sarnia, a half century from now, may be celebrated before this ledger is even found. Or, perhaps it will be sooner. I will never know.

I hope you enjoy these ‘Snippets of Time’.

Bradley Oliver Orville Kipper

James Souter, a local historian, and his wife Midge, both looked at each other for a few minutes before James spoke.

“Midge, this would be a wonderful way to tell others about our local history. Why don’t we ask the Sarnia Observer if they would like to bring these stories of Mister Kipper to as large a number of people as possible and at the same time help some lucky reader to locate this treasure, whatever it may be, by finding the clues and solving the mystery.”

“Great idea, James” Midge answered. “This is one way to bring local history to people who live here in Sarnia-Lambton.”

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

1830 – Toon o’ Maxwell, Upper Canada

A new settlement was being planned just north of Lake Waywaynosh. It was the first commune in Canada, the first English-speaking settlement along the lake in Lambton County, the new town of Maxwell.

It is now late summer. Henry Jones, founder of this new town, stands quietly at the edge of Lake Huron watching a ship approach from the west.

He knows that it will be about an hour before the ship drops anchor. As he looks back at his town, Jones thinks back over the last few years.

Henry Jones’ story begins in 1827

A retired British Navy purser, I wanted to go to Canada and build a community in which all were equal and all shared equally, a town where everyone, young or old, would have a place and purpose in the community.

After visiting a similar city in Scotland, I journeyed to Upper Canada with Alexander Hamilton, my valet and travelling companion. We found an ideal spot, a heavily forested area along the south shoreline of Lake Huron next to a river our French guide told us was known as la rivière aux Perches, a river flowing from a shallow lake we are told is called Lake Waywaynosh.

The air here seems to be literally alive with wild ducks and passenger pigeons, likely attracted here by the marshy ground all around the lake, no doubt an ideal breeding ground for many fish, animals and birds.

I immediately knew that this was the place for my new colony, the first one in the Americas to be self-sufficient, a community of unity and cooperation, existing for the good of all of its residents.

June 1828 – rivière aux Perche, Upper Canada

With a land grant for 10,000 acres here on the shore of Lake Huron, I have returned here this day, accompanied by fourteen good Scottish families, a group of thirty adults and forty-four children, all willing to be a part of the plans to begin a new way of life here in Canada. With me as well are Alexander Hamilton and my three sons.

 “Mister Jones, sir, this land certainly appears to have been blessed by the hand of God.”

 “Indeed it is, Mister Henderson. We will transform this place of beauty and plenty into a home for all of us. But first, we must offer thanks to our Lord for bringing our little band to these shores.”

About two hours later, just after we had finished erecting temporary shelters, three men, who had set out to look for fresh food, returned, exclaiming “This is indeed a land of plenty. Look here. We have fish from the creek, birds from the air and greens from the land.”

A second man jumped in, excitement in his voice. “Why, the fish were almost jumping out of the water, begging us to take them. And the air was so thick with pigeons.

“Why, there were so many they were bumping into each other and falling out of the air right into our hands.”

Then the third man spoke. ““With the Lord’s help and that of you, Mister Jones, we have indeed been brought to a wonderful place to call home.

“Good sir, on behalf of each and every one of us, man, woman and child alike, I offer to you our most heartfelt thanks for bringing us to this wondrous place. We have water. We have food aplenty. And we have the forests and land hereabout to build our new home and plant crops.”

This brought forth a spurt of voices shouting “Hear! Hear!”, and “Cheers for Mister Jones!” The happy voices continued until I held my hand up and spoke.

“Good friends, as I told you several months ago back in Scotland, as a group we will establish right here in this land so like the Eden we know from our bibles a community based on unity and cooperation. We will name our new town Maxwell.

“I invite each one of you to bow your head and in your own thoughts thank our Good Lord for bringing us this day to this new land of plenty.”

For the next few minutes, the only sounds heard were the gentle lapping of the waves, the sweet notes of nearby birds and the buzzing ring of insects. Then I spoke again.

“Now, good folks, we have shelter for tonight and we have food and water.

“Let us join together to see that all are fed before the sun sets. Then, we must all get a good rest so that we can start in earnest on the morrow to build our ‘Toon o’ Maxwell’.”

HISTORICAL NOTES from the author: 

If you were to walk the trail in the area of present day Bright’s Grove elementary school, you would find an Ontario Historical plaque about The Maxwell settlement that reads as follows.


In 1829 Henry Jones of Devon, England, a retired purser in the Royal Navy, brought a group of more than 50 emigrants from the United Kingdom to this area where he established a settlement on a 1,000 acre tract of land on Lake Huron. An early supporter and dedicated follower of Robert Owen, the well-known British social reformer, Jones names the settlement "Maxwell" and organized the community on the basis of common ownership and collective living. The settlers built a large log house with the community kitchen, and dining room but separate rooms for each family. A school and storehouse were added. Within a few years, however, disappointing harvests and the burning of the log house led the colonists gradually to abandon the enterprise.

The story of Henry Jones will continue next week. 

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  • E. Prokop

    Excellent, interesting historical articles! Keep up the great work. We need this.

  • Marguerite Hall

    Looking forward to the next article on Toon-o-Maxwell. I am a direct descendent of William Baird, one of the original “Jones Colony” members.

    William Baird and son John Baird of Rutherglen Scotland and David R Baird and his sons Captain John David Baird and Lenard Baird were born in East China Twnship, MI.

  • Sharon Dumas

    I am also a decendent of William Baird (my 3rd great grandfather). His daughter, Margaret Lee Baird was my 3rd great grandmother. She and her husband James Young had several children including Alexander T. Young who was my great-grandfather. Their daughter, Evalyn Louise Young was my grandmother. The Youngs were some of the original setterlers in EastChina Tenship, Michigan.