I got a surprising note today from a man named Brian. It’s about a place I wrote of in 2014, when I got lost and came upon an amazing house in a strangely beautiful neighborhood.
Here is Brian’s letter:
“Cynthia, I just stumbled on your blog because I live on the same street as Ebor House in the beautiful historic area called Bond Head and I’m doing some research to fight the Clarington Town Council’s plan to redevelop our area.
They are planning street widening, curbs and sidewalks. Classic paving of paradise. They are even considering a splash pad and monkey bars at the little parquets where the fishers do their thing.
Does everything need to be developed? What is wrong with having a few gems left untouched to remind us of the past?”
And here is “Lost Without A Clue”— the first post in a series that became by far the most widely-read story on my blog. You can read this post alone or the entire series:
The visitors toured the grand old house, admiring the furnishings and paintings, old and new.
Ron has invested untold time, love and money into his home.
“This place has nurtured me. Not just me but others too. One friend stayed here in the winter, healing from an accident. It’s nurtured her.”
The children are grown up. Ron says it’s time to leave. Ebor House is too big for one person.
He looks around at rooms sparkling with sunshine, beauty and a strong sense of well-being. He tells me yet another story about the house and the Farncombs. He calls each family member by first name.
I say: “You don’t sound like a man who’s selling this house.”
He says he is.
“I truly believe the house is looking for a buyer, rather than a person looking for this house. It’s a very special place. Last evening four of us had a wonderful supper under the trees and at the end of our meal we were visited by one of the hawks that have decided to call this place home this year. Just magical!”
As for me?
It started when I got lost a few weeks ago and saw this house.
I wanted to know more.
But the single discovery that kept me searching was the August 1901 New York Times story about the drowning of the two Farncomb boys.
My heart sank when I read it.
A parent myself, I wanted – perhaps even needed – to know that things turned out well for the family.
Of course — since this is real life and not a fairy tale — they did and they didn’t.
The Farncomb family survived and, over the decades, many thrived.
John and Jane and the boys were not forgotten.
But life had to go on, at least after a while.
And so it did.
Farncomb descendants became successful in Canadian business, education, law, medicine and other fields such as literature and media.
They still own property in Bond Head, and still have influence. In 2002, one descendant (among other residents) protested against a plan to change the name of a local street. He argued it made no sense. He also pointed out that Farncombs had lived there for 150 years. And that he owned much of the land in the area.
His side won.
My interest in a house became a story about a multi-generation family. Their joys, sorrows, achievements. Their lives.
The trail had many twists and turns, and sometimes, they alarmed me. Combing through the city of London’s archives, I found a court case involving slave-ship owners. Thomas Farncomb, the wealthy ship owner who became London’s Lord Mayor, was involved.
A descendant of enslaved people myself, my hackles immediately went up. Had I spent all this time researching a house built with money earned from the slave trade? After all, it was Frederick Farncomb’s inheritance from his uncle Thomas that was used to build Ebor House.
I was relieved to discover that Thomas had been brought to court by two men whom he had disparaged over their ownership of slave ships. He was opposed to the slave trade.
There were other discoveries along the way. Some are included in this story, and some are not. Balfour Le Gresley (who sold the house to Ron) has been studiously researching his family history; I decided to leave it to him to make his own discoveries and decide what to share with his family.
I double-checked each finding shared in this series, then begged homeowner Ron and Myno Van Dyke, secretary of the local historical society, to read much of what I’d written. I thank them for their help.
I conclude the series knowing I’ve done my best to make it fair, factual — and kind. There is much more to the story of Ebor House and its family than I’ve written here, but this is the story I wanted to share.
This series is dedicated to the descendants of Frederick and Jane Farncomb.
Thanks to: Newcastle Village and District Historical Society; Library and Archives Canada; Archives of the City of London, England; Trinity College, Port Hope; Canadian Anglican Church; St. George’s, Newcastle; the Canadian Encyclopaedia; The New York Times and several other Canadian and American newspapers; other sources. Some photos of Ebor House came from Promise First Realty’s website.
My ancestors had a saying when asked why some of their relatives had married first cousins:
“Cousin and cousin make good soup.”
The Farncomb family must have made a lot of good soup.
Frederick married his cousin Jane.
Son John married his cousin — another Jane.
Younger son Alfred married his cousin Hannah.
But let’s go back to 1867.
Frederick inherited money from his uncle Thomas Farncomb, the wealthy Lord Mayor of London, England. He and Jane bought more land in Bond Head, and hired a Toronto architect to draw up the plans.
The house was built in 18 months between 1868 and 1869.
Three of the Farncomb sons – William, John and Frederick Edward – became Anglican priests.
Two others – Alfred and Thomas – became doctors.
Alfred became a popular and influential general practitioner in the Newcastle area. His wife Hannah appears to have helped him with the record-keeping. She was a skillful host of weddings and other special gatherings at Ebor House. She was also the organist at the family church, St. George’s Anglican, for 40 years.
In 1895, John, who’d been posted to various Anglican churches in Ontario, returned home to St. George’s as the Reverend Canon John Farncomb … a nice step up from being an ordinary priest, He was a well-respected rector.
He’d married cousin Jane in 1880 and they had five children. Two sons, Frederick Charles and John Robson, went to Trinity College, a prestigious private school in nearby Port Hope that previous Farncombs had attended.
In the summer of 1901, the boys were 16 and 18 years old. They were home for the holidays.
There was a nice sandy beach at Bond Head, and it was a popular spot for both adults and young people alike. I imagine the boys could hardly wait to put down their school stuff, shuck off their school uniforms and head to the nearby lake for a swim. They did so often that summer.
But August 11 was different. Frederick and his brother John did not return home that day. Both drowned in Lake Ontario.
It was as if the world had come crashing down on the Farncombs.
The tragedy made the news far and wide – even the New York Times carried the story.
Parents who have experienced it will tell you that the worst thing that can happen is to lose a child.
Jane and John lost not one, but two children in one day.
Two beloved sons gone.
And now, John and Jane were expected to grieve, but carry on.
Perhaps onlookers thought that a priest and his wife would have some special way of coping with tragedy. Perhaps they thought that with three priests and two doctors in the family, there would be plenty of comfort and strength – that everything would be alright.
But everything was not alright.
The boys died in August 1901, and John, Jane and their remaining children left St. George’s Church before the year was over. John served at another parish for several years.
How did they cope?
One imagines they tried hard to get over the loss.
That they relied on each other, their families and their faith.
But – as happens with many parents who lose a child – Jane fell apart, and, in his own way, so did John. She died in 1914, broken. He followed three years later.
In the century that followed the boys’ deaths, momentous events took place in the world.
The first and second world wars, in which many Canadians fought.
The great depression.
A man landing on the moon.
The cold war between the west and Russia.
And these were just a few.
Ebor House lived through them all. Despite the tragedy, it occupied a special place in the Farncomb family – as their ancestral home, and a busy family dwelling to successive generations. It appears to have been full of activity inside and out.
Frederick Farncomb’s granddaughter Helen (daughter of Alfred) married Reginald Le Gresley and they operated the farm.
The huge barn on the property, Newcastle Dairy, produced 1,000 quarts of milk each week.
They hired outside help for the farm and dairy, but the whole Le Gresley family worked there – adults and children alike.
There were also many fun times, especially for the children.
There was a creek nearby for fishing and a beach for swimming.
Neighborhood children to play with. And the knowledge that their parents were within hollering distance from wherever they played.
The records show that Frederick Farncomb died in 1893 and his wife Jane died in 1905.
The house passed to their son Alfred (the doctor) then to Helen, Alfred’s daughter, then to Helen’s son Balfour. He was the last Farncomb to own Ebor House. He held on to the house for some years before selling it to Ron.
Not much was written or said about John and Jane Farncomb in the decades after their deaths, even within the family. Their shared tragedy seems to have haunted their lives to the very end.
As if to make sure their part in the family history was remembered, one or more Farncomb descendants had a memorial stone made for the couple in recent years.
The wording is one of the most moving I’ve ever read.
“Heartbroken on drowning of sons Frederick and John Farncomb.”