The Eldon House is a historic property in London, Ontario that has been owned and operated by the city since 1960. The interior of the house has been largely preserved from i’s 19th Century heyday, making it partly a museum and partly a time capsule. The property is open to public tours, hosts historical and artistic exhibitions, and offers a selection of events throughout the year. The Eldon House also commits itself to outreach and community initiatives, and often participates in other London cultural and heritage celebration events.
The Harris Family
The story of the Eldon House begins in the Royal Navy, and the second and final war between the United States and Great Britain. John Harris, colonist and farmer in Upper Canada in the late 18th Century, grew up and joined the merchant marine. This brief career led him to enlisting in the Royal Navy in 1803, where he trained in sailing and navigation. He rose through the ranks until he landed a position as Master (a sort of chief navigator for military vessels at the time) of the HMS Prince Regent, a frigate under the command of Commander Richard O’Connor in 1814. The Prince Regent was completed and launched in time to participate in the Battle of Fort Oswego. Fort Ontario, and the nearby village of Oswego, New York, were vital nodes in the American supply lines coming out of New York City. In order to reduce support to the main American base on Lake Ontario at Sackett’s Harbor, New York, it was decided that a raid should be launched on Oswego. An errant wind and a sudden storm prevented the British forces from getting the drop on Oswego, and when the raid was finally able to hit the shore the Americans had managed to reinforce and shift shore guns around to face the British navy. The British also disembarked too far out and ruined their ammunition; the raid was conducted with fixed bayonets. Despite the advantages these gave the Americans, casualties were about even and the British managed to carry off a pile of supplies and several small schooners, in addition to setting fire to Fort Ontario.
The war ended not long after and the turmoil in Europe shortly after that. Captain Harris spent the time after the end of the war sailing the ships surveying the Great Lakes for the Royal Navy. In 1815 he was surveying the north shore of Lake Erie when he met Amelia Ryerse, whose family were prominent Loyalists and whose father, Lieutenant Colonel Samuel Ryerse, had passed away in 1812. The north shore of Lake Erie, surveyed or not, would never recover from the American raids during the war; even today the region is characterized by rambling rural stretches punctuated by small towns, with no sizeable settlements. The meeting of John Harris and Amelia Ryerse would lead to the opposite: a strong, growing family that would become a fixture in the growth of the City of London.
Harris would become integral to the local administration and was appointed Treasurer of the London District in 1821. In 1834 Harris completed work on his new family home, Eldon House. At the time, it was considered gauche to name a house or building after yourself. Instead, Captain Harris named his family estate after John Scott, the first Earl of Eldon, whom Captain Harris particularly admired. At the time of the construction of Eldon House the family had eight children; John and Amelia Harris would have twelve in total, of which ten survived. Seven of these were daughters, many of whom married men like their father, officers in the British military; they were also mainstays of the London social scene, a social scene which in fact often had its gatherings at Eldon House. Captain Harris would be an important player in the London political scene and went on to see active duty in another integral moment of 19th Century North America, the Caroline affair. After William Lyon Mackenzie led the Upper Canada Rebellion in 1837 and was defeated thoroughly, he and his remaining supporters fled down the Niagara River and landed on Navy Island, where they declared the Republic of Canada. Mackenzie made a lot of big promises and managed to keep some 200 irregular troops supplied by enlisting the services of an American steamer, the Caroline. On December 29th, British naval forces, including Captain John Harris, captured the Caroline, lit it on fire, and sent it straight over Niagara Falls. One American sailor was unfortunately killed in the process; rumour flew that dozens of American sailors had been trapped on board while it burned and went over the Falls. Given that Royal Canadian forces crossed the international boundary to deal with Mackenzie’s rebels and burned an American ship in the course of it, an international incident ensued that included the retaliatory burning of a British vessel, the Sir Robert Peel, by the infamous Canadian-turned-American William “Pirate Bill” Johnston, a privateer and a dissolute character who earned his pirate nickname in the course of that raid. The following skirmishes, dubbed the Patriot War by historians, would eventually be ended by treaty in 1842.
Captain John Harris passed away in 1850 and bequeathed the estate to his three sons, John Fitzjohn Harris, Edward William Harris, and George Becher Harris. These three became lawyers and founded a law firm, Harris Brothers. The eldest, John Fitzjohn, was only a member of the firm for a brief time; he went to England to seek a cure for his perennially poor health and died there in 1861 at the age of 31. The middle son, Edward William, married Sophia Ryerson, of the prominent Ryerson family, in 1860 and worked at managing the Canadian investments of his wife’s English brothers. The youngest, George Becher, worked in real estate and married Elizabeth Lucy Ronalds in 1867. The couple raised four children at their own house, Raleigh House, named after the township that Elizabeth came from and built a few blocks north of Eldon House. After his elder brother ran into some financial insolvency in the mid-1880s, George Harris bought Eldon House and moved his family in with his brother. A well-to-do British relative of Elizabeth’s died in the 1890s and left her a large amount of money, which put any remaining financial instabilities to rest.
The marriage of George and Elizabeth was the only one of them to produce children. The youngest of their children, Edward Montgomery Harris, served well in the British military through the First World War and retired in the 1930s, although he and his wife Annie had no children. The middle child, George Henry Ronalds Harris, who graduated from Royal Military College in Kingston and made his living on resource-scouting expeditions for a number of British mineral mining concerns. This was well-paid work that could be quite dangerous; he was at one point taken prisoner for four months by the Abyssinians, and one of his expedition companies was massacred in Africa (Ronalds escaped this fate by virtue of being at home in Eldon House at the time). The collection in the front and back halls of Eldon House is entirely the work of Ronalds, who shipped back a number of African tribal artifacts and big game trophies gathered during his years in Africa and elsewhere. Ronalds married Lorna Gibbons, the daughter of a local lawyer, in 1908 and they had three children.
The eldest child, Amelia Harris (or Milly, as she came to be known), was noted for being well-travelled, beginning in 1882 when she went away to school in England. From England she visited both northern and southern Europe, and when her parents inherited their fortune and embarked on a world tour in 1897, she accompanied them. She lived with her elder brother and his family in Eldon House, devoting herself to golf, hockey, community service, and aiding in the raising of the family. When her brother died in 1942 she inherited Eldon House and worked to preserve the elegant nature of the house and the integrity of the collections it contained. When Milly died in 1959 and the title passed to the children of Ronalds and Lorna, they decided that none of them had any interest in residing at Eldon House. Recognizing the historical importance of the house and the grounds, the children gifted the estate to the City of London, to be preserved as a monument to the way Canadians lived through the 19th Century. The house itself was developed into a museum and was opened to the public in 1961. The estate lands down to the Thames River were landscaped and became Harris Park.
A Museum of Domestic Canadian History
Today the Eldon House is a testament to the way things were, carefully maintained to preserve its historical accuracy where possible. “Historical accuracy” is a flexible concept, and the Eldon House can really be thought of as a collection of layers of history, a place where 1834 meets 1890, 1920, and 1960; one example of this is the refrigerator in the kitchen, which stands where the original wood-burning stove once provided cooking and heat. The kitchen itself isn’t original to the house either, of course; it was part of an 1877 extension that Edward Harris undertook, and was remodelled again in the 1920s. Many of the appliances in the kitchen date to this last remodelling, providing a fascinating look at consumer items from the early 20th Century before the Depression and the war. One interesting feature of the kitchen, from the standpoint of the modern visitor, is that there are no counters. While we’re accustomed to using kitchen counters to prepare food, the kitchen was more the domain of the servants than it was of the homeowners. The chef used one of the kitchen’s two tables to do all of the preparation work for meals, and the other table was used by the other staff members when they ate meals. A larder is located off of the kitchen, wherein a number of other 1920s vintage kitchen equipment can be found.
A Collection of Items
One of the best parts of the Eldon House experience is the items collected by the family over the years. The front hall is clad in a faux-leather wallpaper that was purchased in Japan in 1897 when the family visited on their world tour. The umbrella stand in the same hall is the real deal, brought back by Ronalds from his time in Africa. A pair of paintings dating from the mid-19th Century hang there, one depicting the Eldon House as it was in 1841, and the other depicting the Great Military Steeple Chase of 1843, a local event of note that was held at Carling Heights. The back hall contains more of Ronalds’ treasures, including another elephant foot (this one holding walking sticks), a curio cabinet of items collected from all over the world, and a series of trophy heads that include a lioness who had killed a bearer on one of the scouting expeditions. The back hall also has a tall clock dating back to 1760 that bears the swan symbol of the Ryerse family.
The library is another place to find fascinating items from the past. Until the renovation of 1877, the room had been the parlour where the socialites of early London often gathered to see and be seen. Later, it was papered in wallpaper that was also bought on the same Japanese trip where the front hall wallpaper came from. Among the more interesting items in the room are a document naming Samuel Ryerse an official judge in Upper Canada (signed by King George III) and, cheekily perhaps, a painting of the Caroline, the American ship whose burning had caused an international incident and guerilla pirate-war. In truth, there’s something tantalizing to see in every room of the house; the past is everywhere and the portal it creates to the present is in every object on display.
Gardens of the Eldon House
In the warm months, it’s also well worth it to visit the gardens of the Eldon House. Following a reorientation in the 1980s, the city brought in historical and botanical experts from Western University to remake the gardens to the way they were, in parts the gardens from the 1890s and in parts the gardens from the 1920s. The urns and benches found in the gardens have also been part of the collection since the 1890s, when they arrived as part of the inheritance from Lucy Harris’ English relatives.
Tours of the Eldon House are offered year-round; they typically take up to two hours, cost $8, and are available between 9 AM and 4 PM; minimum group size is 12, but tours of up to 60 people can be accommodated. Evening tours are offered but come at a premium of $10. The tour is well worth it, as the explanation of the various items on display in the house is invaluable. Other tour options include the River Adventure Walk, which combines the history of the Harris family with the history of the Thames River, the Blackfriars Bridge, and the occasional floods; and the Harris Neighbourhood Walk, which connects the history of the Harris family and Eldon House with the city of London that existed in the early pioneering days of the settlement of southwestern Ontario.