Sunday, March 25, 2018

Kitchissippi pioneers: The Britt family

While researching one topic or another, I often find myself deep in to very old records, trying to piece together a story through whatever bits of information I can find. Every once in awhile, I'll come across the names of the Britt family, who lived in the area when very few did. In fact, this family may well have been one of the first five to reside in Kitchissippi.

However their story is not easily told... their presence in Kitchissippi dated from as early as 1840 until 1867. A lot of years, but a period of time where records are extremely scarce. Making things trickier is the fact that the Britts never owned the land they lived on; they rented from a well-known and wealthy land-owner. 

So here is their story, as best as I can tell it. 

29-year old Patrick Britt and his wife Johanna Brennan, along with their infant daughter Ellen, escaped to Canada from Ireland in 1840. While the worst of the potato famine was still a few years away, widespread crop failures were hitting farmers all over Ireland. Farming was extremely volatile, and many citizens were ill and starving. Immigration to Canada was a desperate solution, but the promise of a new life with boundless potential in a new country appealing to even the most loyal Irish. Canada meanwhile was very interested in increasing their population for a number of reasons, and even provided incentives to new citizens to entice them to come (some Irish settlers were offered a cow, basic implements and three bushels of seed potato to get them started on a new life).  

While the challenges that these immigrants faced in Ireland were severe, what they escaped to in Canada was perhaps equally as challenging, but in a different way. The immigrants were given land in rural, often remote areas, on land not necessarily fertile for farming. And they certainly were ill-prepared for the harsh winter weather. Whatever primitive lodging they were able to construct for themselves was often barely sufficient to allow them to survive through the long, cold winter months. 

It appears Patrick Britt's brother John Britt and his wife Ellen Tierney accompanied them on the trip as well. The group no doubt would have had to go through the Grosse Île quarantine station near Quebec City. I borrowed this great description of Gross Île from the Parks Canada website: 

"After the Napoleonic Wars ended in 1815, a growing number of people left the British Isles, particularly Ireland and Scotland, to make new lives for themselves in North America. Around 1830, an average of 30 000 immigrants arrived annually in Québec, the main port of entry to Canada. Approximately two-thirds of these newcomers were from Ireland. This unprecedented immigration to the St. Lawrence Valley took place at a time when major epidemics were raging on the European continent as well as in Great Britain; the second cholera pandemic (1829-1837) hit England in 1831-1832. The disease was carried to America and Canada by migrants, many of whom were Irish. People from Ireland often embarked for the New World from English ports. Reports that people with the dreaded disease were about to arrive via the St. Lawrence River immediately prompted the colonial authorities to set up a veritable quarantine station on Grosse Île, an island located in the middle of the river, 48 km downstream from Québec. The station had to deal with another cholera outbreak in 1834, before battling an even more deadly typhus epidemic in 1847-1848. Once again, the victims of the latter epidemic were mainly Irish immigrants. At the time, an unprecedented number of people were fleeing the terrible potato famine in Ireland: some 100 000 sailed for Québec in 1847. This period of virulent epidemics came to an end only after another outbreak of cholera in 1854."

Records indicate that Patrick Britt's young wife Johanna passed away in 1840, though it is unclear whether her death was at sea, at Gross Île, or perhaps most likely, it was during the family's first winter in Canada.

The story made me think of the amazing National Film Board short film from 1981 called "First Winter", which I encourage you to spend the 26 minutes to watch. It is a film that will stay with you long after you watch it. You'll almost feel like you've experienced first-hand what a couple like Patrick and Johanna Britt may have gone through back in 1840. Click here to view it for free at the NFB website:

Regardless, in June of 1841, Patrick Britt appears in the register of Notre Dame Basilica in Bytown, marrying Anastasia Brian (a.ka. O'Brian), who was "lately from Ireland". (Interestingly Patrick was already listed as "of this place" even though he had been in Canada only a year by that time).

Notre Dame Basilica register showing the marriage
of Patrick Britt and Anastasia O'Bran in June 1841

The couple would have their first child the following year, on May 17th, 1842 when Anastasia gave birth to their son Thomas. They would continue to have nine more children over the next 21 years: Johanna/Julia (April 1844), John Patrick (Dec 1845), Mary (July 1847), Catherine (Dec 1849), Anastasia (1851-52), James (April 1853), Patrick (1854-1855), Michael (1859-1860), and Edward (Oct 1863). (Boring footnote I should add, in case someone working on Britt family history comes across this page: All of my names/dates I've verified through official records, but there is conflicting information about John Patrick and Patrick's information from various sources on the internet; John Patrick could be the name of the 1854-1855 Patrick instead of the 1845 Patrick). 

The Britt family would find themselves in Kitchissippi at some point in the 1840s or early 1850s, living on what was known as Lot 34 in Concession A of the "Broken Front" of Nepean Township. Concession A consisted of all the land north of what is today Scott Street, and it was called the "Broken Front" because the shoreline of the Ottawa River was not a straight line of course, and so all of the lots fronting the river had varying acreages. 

Lot 34 in Concession A is today the area between Northwestern Avenue on the west and the middle of the Tunney's Pasture complex on the east, but until the 20th century, was simply a mix of bush and swamp that blended with the land to the west and east. It was originally a loyalist grant to Jennet Rose in 1801, but ended up in the hands of Ruggles Wright in 1832, the second-youngest son of Philemon Wright (who founded Hull which soon after led to the establishment of Ottawa). You can read more about Ruggles here: 

Present day map with original Nepean Lot 34 boundaries
Ruggles died in 1863, and the land was transferred to his son Charles Brown Wright, who was a well-known businessman in Hull, one of the pioneers in cement production. Charles lived into his seventies, but his final few years were marked with sadness, as his business suffered during the economic depression of the 1890s, he lost his lot 34 property due to unpaid mortgage in 1895, and just a few months prior to his death in 1900, he lost his long-time home in Hull to the Great Hull-Ottawa fire.

However, it was the Wrights who owned the parcel of land in lot 34, no doubt for investment purposes, for over sixty years. They never did anything with the property (as far as any records show), but they did kindly lease their land to the Britt family at some point in time, which could have been as early as 1840, when the Britts first arrived from Ireland. And it was on that land that Patrick Britt built what was described on the 1851 Canadian Census as a "log shanty", a small, basic home constructed using the trees and materials found in the vicinity, just a single storey high.

Though it is difficult to pinpoint an exact location where the log house existed, it seems likely that it would have been located closer to the water, rather than by the concession line (Scott Street) since at the time no road or even train line was located there. The proximity to Richmond Road would be the only reason I could consider the Britts building at the south end of their lot, but I would think they would have needed to live by the water, and cleared a path to Richmond Road for transportation purposes. This likely could have been the earliest route of Ross or Grange Avenues (which can be seen in the earliest aerial photos from the early 1920s). Though the area remained largely undisturbed well into the 20th century, the cottage community of Champlain Park (aka Riverside Park) opened in 1904, and with it came a large number of residents and visitors who likely altered the area's features. (I feel a little like Andrew King trying to find old local ruins from 100+ years ago!)

Aerial photo of the same area roughly as the map above,
from 1921. That's Carleton Avenue at the very bottom, and
Northwestern Above it. As you can see, there are a lot of
features to the landscape which catch the eye: the straight
lines of cut trees near the top, and perhaps most notably, a little
cleared spot (lightest spot on the photo) with a faded path
leaving it, but any of this would be strictly guessing; the Britts
had been gone for over 50 years by the time this photo was taken. 

Exact location aside, it was in this small rustic home that incredibly Patrick and Anastasia Britt raised their 11 children. The entire 100-acre parcel of land in lot 34 was valued at 85 British Pounds in 1860. That includes both the land, and the house!

Patrick was employed as a "road contractor", and perhaps it was he who helped work on the macadamizing of Richmond Road from Bytown to Bells Corners in the 1840s. (Again, just a guess!)

Patrick died sometime between 1865-1866, leaving behind his wife and their children, who ranged in ages from 2 to 26. Anastasia and the family continued to reside in the home, which even by the mid-1860s was still situated in the middle of isolation.

For reasons that also can only be guessed at (perhaps it was the loneliness in the isolation, or the desire to move closer to other family, or just a wish to own their own land), in 1867 the widow Anastasia Britt purchased from Thomas Murray the north half of the south half of lot 19 in concession 3 of Gloucester Township. This was a long, thin piece of land at the intersection of a well travelled road (now known as High Road) and the Bytown and Prescott/St. Lawrence and Ottawa Railway line. 

The family shows up in the Belden Atlas of 1879 in this location:

Belden Atlas 1879, showing the Britt farm (the black square
indicates the location of the farmhouse)

Present-day map to show the comparative

This rural community was known as "South Gloucester". Other Britts were located in this area, I believe Patrick's brother and sister-in-law and their now large family. It was likely a deciding factor for why the family relocated here. The entire family move out here, and amazingly, even fourteen years later, on the 1881 census, Anastasia then at least 60 years old, was still listed as living with ALL eleven of her children still at home (ranging in ages from 18 to 42).

The 1880s would see much change though, as several of the children married, at least two of them died, and Anastasia herself died in 1890. In fact the death register for the Church in South Gloucester had an entry for Anastasia who died May 21st, 1890, and the next entry was for daughter Mary, who died May 27th. 

Though there is no evidence of the Britts in Kitchissippi still remaining, it is kind of neat that there is still evidence of the Britts in South Gloucester as the stone foundation from their home still stands in an overgrown patch of a farm in that area. By chance I came across the information in an environmental assessment document for some water main replacement work for the Airport. The photo below shows the original stone foundation and a partial wall attributed to the Britt's homestead in this location:

Ruins of the Britt home in Fallowfield, on the west side
of High Road, immediately north of the railway tracks.
(Source: G.A. Archaeology report "Stage 1 Archaeology
Assessment Water Main Back-Up Route to the Ottawa
International Airport", October 2011) 

Certainly the Britt family has many, many descendants from Patrick and Anastasia Britt, as several of their children had many children as well (youngest son Edward, who I believe was the last of his siblings to pass away in 1933, had ten children of his own, according to a family tree on Ancestry). I'm not certain if any have returned to Kitchissippi, and if they have, I'd be surprised if they even know of the connection! Without spending hours more digging into the descendants of the Britts, I could not find any obvious notes of significance on the eleven children of the Britts. 

There is no trace left of the Britts in Kitchissippi, and really, if it wasn't for a handful of old civic documents, there likely would be no memory of them whatsoever. While the details are a bit hazy, and I've taken a bit of leeway in connecting a few dots in their lives, I think their story is at least representative of an incredible story of will, determination and survival, experienced right here in Kitchissippi during the earliest days of our neighbourhood, and well worth documenting, at least as much as I possibly could! 

(If any descendants of the Britts come across this article, I encourage you to post and share any stories or details of the family and/or their descendants. I also must thank "Taylor" who posted to a few tidbits that helped open the story a little more, as well as two or three individuals who posted cited documents on that helped as well).

1 comment:

  1. Glad you put together your interesting story of the Britts! Thanks! Gary