Preface to Hilborn's Guide to Old Southampton


Take a stroll around Old Southampton and you're bound to spot the plaques saying when a building was built and by whom. But what's the story behind the plaques? With this Guide in hand you can dive deep into the history of a pioneer settlement on Lake Huron.

Begin your journey into the past at the foot of High Street, where a giant Canadian flag snaps in the breeze, and choose one of three directions, each equally enticing (see High Street). Whatever street you end up on, consult a building's address in the Guide and discover the history hidden inside.

The Guide covers 170 historic buildings (115 have plaques), plus noted places like Chantry Island, Pioneer Park and Fairy Lake.


At the risk of slighting worthy contenders, here are my Top 18 Historic Buildings in Southampton.
38 Albert N. Masonic Hall
47 Albert N. St. Andrew's Presbyterian Church
20 Albert S. Southampton Art School
36 Albert S. St. Patrick's Church
49 Albert S. Hampton Villa
140 Albert S. Southampton Market
20 Beach. Life-saving Station
56 Front. Aunt Annie's Cottage
124 Grosvenor S. Railway Station
146 High. Walker House
201 High. Town Hall
247 High. Southampton Lutheran Church
248 High. St. Paul's Anglican Church
254 High. Anglican Church rectory
340 High. Saugeen Memorial Hospital
18 Huron N. Capt. John Spence House
33 Victoria N. Old Public School / Museum
10 Victoria S. Southampton United Church


Throughout the Guide are Spotlights on special features of town history.
Aunt Annie's story
Bowman mansion / Hampton Villa
Capt. Munro and the ghost ship
Chantry Island lighthouse
Docks—Long, short and bogus
Fairy Lake: ice and leather
Founding of Southampton
Front Street, where history started
Furniture factories
General Hunter
Great fire of 1886
Great land sale of 1854
Gussey's Point
Hackett shipyard
Joe Causley
Knowles Block
Legacy of James Howe
Pioneer Park
Pioneer weather observers
Railway station of lost glory
Range lights
River harbour
River mouth attractions
Salt of the earth
Scubby's Point
Three ways from the Flag


The Ojibway have long known the attraction of living at the mouth of the Saugeen River. Since at least 1700 the village of Saugeen has existed on the north bank just upstream from the mouth, making it much older than Southampton, founded in 1848 (see 18 Huron N.). The founder, Capt. John Spence, was preceded by a number of transient Europeans. French fur trader Pierre Piché built a cabin on the north bank in 1818. British surveyor Henry Bayfield saw him in July 1820 and marked "Indian Traders" on his map. (Little-known fact: a Hudson's Bay Company trading post was active here from 1826 to 1832.) Methodist missionary John Benham arrived in 1831 and the Ojibway helped him build a mission house at Saugeen village.

When the Europeans discovered what the Ojibway had always known—the waters abounded in vast schools of whitefish and herring—they turned the river mouth into a harbour for a fleet of fishing schooners. On Chantry Island a lighthouse beacon, first lit in 1859, guided fishermen past the shoals to shelter in bad weather behind the great breakwaters of the Island Dock and the Long Dock.

Steam trains first reached town in 1872. Coaches were packed with summer visitors headed for the beach, cottages and the dance pavilion. Freight cars hauled out goods from the furniture factories and crates of iced fish off the fishing tugs. The fishing tradition was so strong that the baseball team, champions of the 1930s, was named the Southampton Fishermen.

At the very start the town was known by two names, Saugeen (by the Post Office and the Customs House), and Southampton (by the Crown Lands Department), after that old English town, expecting that this new one would also become a great port. Southampton was incorporated as a village by an Act of Parliament on July 24, 1858 and proclaimed a town on Dec. 26, 1904.


Southampton is rich in history and its citizens are passionate about that history. Surprisingly, though the old buildings are essential to the town's charm, almost nothing prevents an enterprising homeowner from tearing down the past.

Sometimes this makes the headlines, like the campaign in 2018 to save 6 Huron, ultimately unsuccessful. At other times the old ones pass unremarked. I mentioned my shock on finding the second-oldest building demolished—Belcher's Tavern at 65 Water. No-one demonstrated or even noticed.

What protects Southampton history from destruction? In the end, it is enlightened owners. The Municipal Heritage Committee runs a program to place wooden plaques on historic properties—there are 115 in town. The owners request, and pay for, the plaques. A plaque, however, doesn't block demolition. The plaque expresses the owner's pride in the building's heritage. Will that pride transfer to a new owner?

The town maintains a Heritage Register, a list of properties (45 in Southampton) judged of cultural heritage value. Again, being listed confers no protection, other than a 90-day waiting period.

Only a building designated under the Ontario Heritage Act is protected from change, and then only to the extent of the designation (for example, it may cover only one façade). The nine provincially-designated heritage properties in Southampton are 20 Albert S., 221 Clarendon, 56 Front, 201 High, 317 High, 18 Huron N., 97 Huron S., 22 and 33 Victoria N.


I'll leave you with the words of John Weichel.

"It is lamentable, however, to see so many of the early cottages and pioneer homes disappearing from the landscape, replaced by buildings of questionable design, and clad in synthetic materials that are an affront to their neighbours." [Forgotten Lives, p. 118]

And again, referring to the Varey house (44 Huron N.), "It is a part of Southampton's unique marine past. It is also an important part of the town's unique historic core—an area that should be protected. New buildings that are not sympathetic to these surroundings whittle away at the town's uniqueness." [Forgotten Times, p. 250]


In February 2019 I thought of publishing a book comparing old photos of Southampton with present-day views taken from the same vantage point. Somehow that morphed into photos of today's historic buildings, with histories, organized by street address.

But which buildings? I started with walking tour lists compiled by the town's premier historian, John B. Weichel: his House Tours List from 1991, "Walking Tours of Historic Southampton" (55 locations, 1993) and Mariners' Walk (1995). I enhanced my list of buildings by comparing with the 45 properties on the Heritage Register and the list of 115 plaqued houses. Cutting duplicates gave the final 170.

How to write the histories? Again, the Guide is based on Weichel's work—the above walking tours and those incomparable sources, his Forgotten Times and Forgotten Lives. Also useful was Ruth Cathcart's Houses of Bruce County, Ontario, 1850-1900 (1999) and Memories of Cottage Life by the 2008 Cottage Committee. (The closest comparable document to this Guide is Saugeen Shores' brochure "Historic Southampton Walking Tours"—its 56 locations and descriptions are copied from Weichel's 1993 work.)

And the photos? I went on my historical safari to shoot 170 buildings in May 2019, after the snow was gone, before the leaves appeared (for greater visibility) and on overcast days (to avoid dark shadows).

It is, however, a shock to search for a historic house and discover it's gone, replaced by some incongruous modern construction. I managed to photograph 156. Sometimes I was able to resurrect a departed one, if it was extant in 2013 when the Google Street View car passed through. The streets of Southampton were last photographed in June 2013, except Highway 21 (Albert St.), re-shot in June 2018. (The 2013 views of Albert St. are still available.)

About the author

A retired information officer for the federal government in Montreal and Quebec City, writer and editor Robin Hilborn has lived in Southampton, Ont. since 1999. He is a director of the Bruce County Historical Society and volunteers at the Bruce County Archives. He started researching Southampton history in support of the 150th anniversary celebrations in 2008 and was first vice-president of the 150th anniversary committee. Robin has written the local histories Southampton Vignettes (2010), Heart of the Great Lakes (2015), The Bruce (2018) and Hilborn's Guide to Old Southampton (2019), as well as articles on county history. He lives in Southampton with his wife Heather Wallace.

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Hilborn's Guide to
Old Southampton

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