‘Voices from the Past’: Prisoner boxes examined in Part 1 of this ‘looking back’ story

Lambton Shield

The rebellion in Upper Canada ended with the defeat and surrender of the insurgent forces at Montgomery's Tavern on December 7, 1837. Nearly 900 rebels and their supporters were gathered up and more than half of them were placed in the Toronto jail. Only a few were to face the gallows, the first two being the key leaders of the rebellion – Samuel Lount and Peter Matthews. Many of their followers were transported to a penal colony in Australia, but the majority of the prisoners were eventually released from jail after several years and a guarantee of loyalty to the ruling government.
Time was quite long for these men in such crowded and restricted conditions in the Toronto jail as they waited in limbo to be tried. Several months after they were first incarcerated, one, and then others, began to pass the time by carving small wooden boxes. Looking at images of the boxes, it appears that they must have written on them with pen and ink, inscribing words to loved ones, words of faith and political statements, likely making use of pocket knives they must have been allowed to keep. The result was attractive, well-proportioned little trinket boxes crafted from scraps of firewood.
Two of these boxes, now described as convict or prisoner or rebellion boxes, were carved by a man named George Barclay Junior.
Son of a Baptist minister, George Barclay Junior emigrated from Scotland in 1816, settling in the Pickering area, near Toronto. Barclay was arrested December 17, 1937 and after a period of almost a year in the Toronto Jail, he was sentenced to three years in prison and sent on to Kingston Penitentiary. After serving a total of about fifteen months of his sentence, he was released in March of 1839.
One historical source indicates that on his release Barclay became a schoolteacher in Pickering. But another source indicates that he was banished at that time from the province for the rest of his life.
One of these boxes was recently presented to the Lambton Heritage Museum by Ron van Horne. An historical source indicates that Barclay’s daughter moved to Lambton soon after he was captured and imprisoned.
Perhaps, when he was captured and jailed, his wife and daughter may have made their way down here to Lambton County to stay while George Barclay was in jail.
Let's go back in time to an afternoon during October of 1838 and listen in as his wife and daughter receive a visitor.
Convict Boxes
“Mother, I can see the dust of a wagon way down the road. Wonder who it is.”
“Don’t know, Jane. Not expecting anyone. I better get your Uncle John.”
Five minutes later, Mrs. Emily Barclay, her brother John Southwick and her twelve year old daughter Jane stood quietly watching in front of the small cabin, John Southwick with a rifle in the crook of his left arm. The woman and her daughter had moved west to this farm after they were evicted from the rooms they had been living in at the hotel in Pickering. They had no money coming in after George Barclay had been taken prisoner and lost his job as a teacher. There was no place else to go except to head west to stay with John Southwick. She had heard nothing from George Barclay since he had left home that day last December.
“Still don’t recognize him.” John said to his sister.”
“Wonder who it could be. We haven’t had a visitor way out here since when those men came to help bring in the crops last month” Emily replied as they continued to wait.
“Ahoy there,” came a voice from the wagon a few minutes later as it came to a halt about thirty feet away. “Is this the farm of John Southwick? Will I find Mrs. Barclay and her daughter here?”
“Who wants to know” John answered.
“Sir, if you be John Southwick and these ladies be Mrs. Barclay and her daughter, my name is Joshua Dudley. My father works at the Toronto jail. I have a package that he gave me from Mr. Barclay. It is for his daughter Jane.”
“Sir, we are those who you seek. I am Emily Barclay.” She replied in an excited voice. “Please get down from your wagon and come show us what you have. We have not heard anything from George since he was taken prisoner last December. How is he?”
As he stepped down, the man answered “My father says your husband is well although he of course is not happy to be where he is. Here, ma’am, this package is for your daughter.”
“Just for my daughter? Nothing for me after all this time?”
“Sorry, ma’am. This is all that I was given.”
Jane took the package and quickly unwrapped it, removing several layers of old sacking. Inside she found what seemed to be a rectangular piece of wood squared off to about four inches in length, three inches in width and two inches in height. There was writing on the top and on the front and back sides.
“Oh mother, look at this. It is a block of wood that has had words and designs cut into it. But it seems so light to me.”
“Jane, can you read aloud the words so we can all hear what is written on there.”
“Yes, mother. On the top it says:  
A Present to Jane Barclay from her father while confin’d in Prison in
TORONTO charged with Treason June 25, 1838”
“Imagine that, mother. This was carved for me by father.” Flipping the block of wood, she continued “On the front it says:
Tho I be doom’d in Tyrants chains, To loiter to the tomb
My mind will still while life remains Be plac’d on you and home.”
“And over here on the back, it says:
Beauty is a flower that fades, Soon it falls in time’s cold shade,
Virtue is a flower more gay, That never dies nor fades away.”
“Now, that be good reading, Miss Jane.” said Joshua. “But let me take a look. My father said it be a box. I think it must be hollow. That be why it feels so light. The top should slide off. At least that be what my father say.”
When Jane extended her arm out to the stranger, he took hold of the carved block of wood and carefully tried to push the top to the right. As it started to slide, he passed it back to Jane and said “Here, Missy. It has your name on it. You should be the one to open it.”
As she carefully continued to slide the top, Jane let out a squeal and exclaimed in a loud exultant voice “Mother, there is something white inside the box. It looks like paper.” She quickly slid the top the rest of the way off, turning to her uncle, quickly saying “Uncle John, please hold this for me.”
Then she reached in and pulled out a piece of paper, folded many times so that it could fit in the carved box. “Mother, it has your name on it! Here! What does it say inside?”
HISTORICAL NOTES from the author: 
An article about prisoners’ boxes written in the winter-spring edition volume 9 numbers 1&2 of PATHMASTER, a publication of PICKERING TOWNSHIP HISTORICAL SOCIETY states:
“Following the defeat of ‘Patriot’ forces in the 1837 Upper Canadian Rebellion, hundreds of rebels and alleged rebel sympathizers were rounded up and imprisoned in the Toronto jail.More than half of these prisoners came from the Home District.
During their months of incarceration, a number of these prisoners used their pocket knives to carve small wooden boxes. Though they varied in design, many of these boxes were strikingly similar and inscribed—most with the carvers’ names, some with the place of incarceration, many with sentimental or militant verses, several with dedications to Samuel Lount and Peter Matthews, and many with the names of persons to whom they were given or dedicated. These box inscriptions offer evidence of personal affections and of noble ideals of the men who carved them. They reflect their moods of loneliness and mourning, faith and defiance, but little suggestion of regret or repentance.”
The publication also states that:
“George Barclay, an associate of Peter Matthews, was arrested near Montgomery’s Tavern, tried, sentenced to seven years imprisonment, later pardoned. After his release he taught school in Pickering. Two daughters born before 1838 were named Jane and Nancy. In 1848, George moved his family to a farm in Lobo Township, west of London, Ontario.”
This story also describes the boxes as “average in size at four inches long, three inches wide and two inches high with the smallest I have seen being no more than 1.5 inches long and the largest measuring in at 11 inches. Without an exception they all have a lid, which slides with the use of a dovetail joint. Some are plain in their design while others have detailed inlays of differing wood cut into rectangles, stars or ovals.”
For a more complete account of prisoners’ boxes, look for the book From Hands Now Striving to Be Free, written by Chris Raible with John C. Carter and Darryl Withrow, available through the Lambton County Library system.
This story will be concluded next week in the Lambton Shield.

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  • Melissa

    George’s wife was named Jane Wilson not Emily. His daughter was also Jane.

  • Charlotte Giiles

    I am the granddaughter of Hiram Keith Barclay. He is the grandson of Joshua Barclay. My mother is Rachel Alexandra Barclay/Giles. She has the other box that was carved. I remember seeing it when I was small. I knew about the box being carved but not the story behind it. This is all very interesting. I remember going to the grave sites in Poplar Hill when a child. I am wondering if the cemetery has kept up maintenance. Seems to me it was in bad shape the last time I was there.

  • Melissa Weimer

    H Charlotte…

    That is interesting. Do you have a photo of the box? I would REALLY love to see it if you do!

    George was my great-great-grandfather!


  • Karen Strachan

    Hi Charlotte
    I am also a descendant of Joshua Barclay. Does your mother still have the box? I think that must be the only one that is still unaccounted for. George Jr. made three boxes in all. I would also love to see a picture of it. Some of the markers at the Poplar Hill Cemetery are in bad shape. Especially in the old part where our relatives are.

  • Karen Strachan

    Hi Melissa
    It was nice to meet you this past weekend. Did you get a chance to stop by the old Barclay homestead? It was a beautiful home in its day. I’m looking for my picture of Joshua’s grave, I’ll sent it to you when I find it.