A Literary First in Peterborough


Dummer Township, from the County Atlas of 1879.  (Image Source)

Books are not the only literary medium, by any means, but they are by far the main one.  And there have been any number of them written in Peterborough County.  But where did it all begin — what was the first actual book written in these parts?  As far as we know, it began with a convalescing farmer in Dummer Township in the early 1830s (I would remind you here that in talking of the literature of Peterborough, we are talking not just of the city itself, but of its hinterland as well) Read on, for the tale of Peterborough County’s first book!

Irishman George Arundel Hill (1796-1861) arrived in the environs of Peterborough with his family in 1831, after a military career that included service at the Battle of Waterloo.  He settled on 500 acres of land near Clear Lake, in Dummer Township, and got to homesteading in the manner of so many others.  However, a couple of years later, misfortune struck, as Hill suffered a serious injury while doing some axe-work.  To stave off boredom while he was recovering, he turned his hand to writing, and the result is believed to have been the first book written in the area of Peterborough.  Its title: A Guide for Emigrants from the British Shores to the Woods of Canada.

Emigrant guides were definite genre, and not an insignificant one, in mid-19th-century Canadian writing.  Peterborough’s best-known entries in the field — and they are probably the most famous emigrant guides of all — are the writings of the sisters Catherine Parr Traill and Susanna Moodie, whose books were published in the 1850s.  But all across what is now southern and eastern Ontario, homesteaders were putting pen to paper to describe the conditions under which they lived, and to offer suggestions, advice, and instruction on such matters as how to build a house to those who would follow them.


George Arundel Hill.  (Image Source)

Hill’s, it must be said, is from a “readability” standpoint a wonderful example of the emigrant guide genre.  Where some of his literary colleagues went deep into technical matters, and produced works that are somewhat on the dry side (though these works were doubtless extremely useful to contemporary settlers), Hill filled his book, which came in at just over 50 pages, with amusing anecdotes and social observations amidst the many (and also very interesting) “how-to” sections.  He also wrote in a breezy and cheerful style.  The life of a homesteader was not an easy one, but Hill — by his own account at least — met the challenges with a certain degree of self-deprecating equanimity (he ruefully recounts at one point getting lost in the dark while chasing a lost cow, and, after spending a cold and frightening night outdoors, discovering that he had been very close to his house the whole time).  As for the then-town of Peterborough itself, he says that “there may be found very genteel and agreeable society.”

And while Hill’s account of the Peterborough area is a very positive one, his emigrant guide was not one of those produced purely for propagandistic purposes.  Those certainly existed; a number of contemporary emigrant guides were commissioned by, or dedicated to, British politicians and businessmen who had a serious financial or political stake in the settlement of the Canadas.  Such works tend to paint a very rosy picture indeed, but Hill’s, though it generally portrays the emigrant experience in positive terms (the feared Canadian climate is described as “preferable to that of England or Ireland”), does not shy away from criticizing some aspects of it.  His work is scathing, for example, on the subject of having the neighbours over for a “bee” when there was some bit of major labour to be done.  Hill accuses such get-togethers as having “a direct tendency to encourage both idleness and drunkenness among us,” and says “the sooner our bees were smothered the better.”  “Hire workers,” is Hill’s advice, if there is a necessary task that the homesteader cannot do on his own.

There are some unfortunate things in Hill’s book, at least when read from the perspective of 2018.  He says little about the Indigenous peoples of the area, mentioning only in passing the existence of villages at Curve Lake and Hiawatha.  His exact location in Dummer likely had a lot to do with that, as other Peterborough-area writers of emigrant guides, who lived closer to those settlements, have much more to say about their Aboriginal neighbours.  And Hill, a devout Methodist, had little time for Roman Catholics in general and French-Canadians in particular.  He described Quebec City as “over-crowded and uninviting-looking,” and accused the French-Canadian steamship captain who took him up to Montreal of cheating him on the fare.  I would venture a guess that Hill’s direct experience of the Napoleonic Wars likely coloured his feelings on that matter to a certain degree.


The woods of Douro-Dummer in winter. (Image Source)

A Guide for Emigrants was Hill’s only published book, but certainly not his only writing.  He was a frequent letter-writer to the Cobourg Star newspaper, and, as was common in those days, enjoyed sending them his opinions in the form of verse.  Among his poetical works are a poem advocating the rights of veterans of Waterloo, and another long blank verse piece decrying slavery and heaping scorn upon those, particularly those clergymen, who were insufficiently zealous in opposing it.  Hill, who served as a notable local magistrate later on in his life, reportedly considered a second edition of his guide, especially after he had a serious falling-out with the Canada Company (from whom he had obtained his land), but this appears never to have been written.  He did write one further full-length book, a religious tome called The Millstone of the Apocalypse, but failed to find a publisher for it.  It would be a fascinating read; when Hill died in 1861, his Peterborough Examiner obituary noted that he was “principally remarkable for the eccentricity of his opinions upon religious questions.”

The Guide to Emigrants itself has an interesting history.  It was published in 1834 by Richard Moore Tims of Grafton Street, Dublin.  Peterborough’s first book was not published in the area, nor on this continent, and in fact was intended for a audience not yet in Peterborough.  It was likely intended primarily for the news-stand trade in Ireland (and elsewhere in the British Isles), although we have no details of its distribution.  At some point thereafter, the work was believed lost.  A Peterborough local historian of about 1900 recalled having seen the book at some point, but it was not until the historian E.C. Guillet, in the mid-twentieth century, undertook a long search for it that a single copy was discovered in a collection in Richmond Hill.  Photocopies of that original are now in archives in Peterborough, Toronto, and elsewhere.  Furthermore, it has been republished — by me, as part of a series of interesting historical reprints that I have.  If you would like to purchase a copy, they are available from me (peterboriana@gmail.com) or from Tumblehome, the Canadian Canoe Museum store.

As a final note on George Arundel Hill, he was back in the news just this past week, with the unveiling of a historical plaque in his honour.  The plaque, erected by the Douro-Dummer Historical Society can be seen at the intersection of County Road 6 and English Line/County Road 4 in Douro Dummer; Hill and his family had their home along English Line.


We will most definitely revisit George Arundel Hill, both for guiding of emigrants and his poetry; he is a major Peterborough literary figure in both those areas, and both are major literary areas for Peterborough.  Next week, however, our attention turns back to the Cities of Literature, and in particular to the one in which Hill’s book was published: Dublin, Ireland.  In the meantime, thank you for reading!

I am very grateful to the Trent University Archives and to the Marilyn and Charles Baillie Special Collections Centre of the Toronto Public Library for their help in researching Hill’s Guide for Emigrants


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1 Response to A Literary First in Peterborough

  1. Pingback: The Peterborough Mechanics’ Institute: Part 2 | Peterboriana

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