Southampton Vignettes: About the book

The author

In 1999 writer Robin Hilborn retired from a life in big cities—notably as a federal information officer in Quebec City and Montreal—and moved to Southampton where he was "charmed by the fine beach, the endless blue vista over the water and the friendly streets where people say hello whether they know you or not".

After a stint volunteering at the reading room of the Bruce County Archives he started researching Southampton history in support of the 150th anniversary in 2008—he was first vice-president of the anniversary committee. That year he wrote a weekly history column in the Shoreline Beacon and in 2009 decided to collect the columns into a book.

Over a year of further research, writing and designing has culminated in Southampton Vignettes.

It's the first book for Hilborn, although he used to publish two magazines, Hilborn Family Journal and Adoption Helper.

Vignettes is subtitled "A brief history of a Lake Huron town". Hilborn said, "I wanted to publish this book as 'a brief history', not the definitive word. I could have added more and more to each chapter, but I had to draw the line somewhere."

He recalled how Beacon editor Liz Dadson had restricted him to 500 words in each weekly column. "I always found more history than would shoehorn into my measly allotment, hence the advantage of a book where 500 words fill but a page."

The book

The first book devoted entirely to Southampton history, Southampton Vignettes covers 200 years of town history in 24 chapters, all the way from fur traders in the 19th century to the 21st century restoration of the lightkeeper's cottage on Chantry Island.

A previous book, Southampton Remembered, published by the Saugeen Shores Chamber of Commerce in 2008, was a series of memoirs. It devoted each chapter to the reminiscences of one person about various topics.

Vignettes touches on all the high points in the life of the town at the mouth of the Saugeen ... advent of the Ojibway and the fur traders, founding in 1848 by Capt. John Spence, land rush of 1854, arrival of the railway in 1872, great fire of 1886, building of the Long and Short docks ... right up to the 2001 restoration by volunteers of the lighthouse keeper's cottage.

What author Robin Hilborn couldn't fit into his weekly newspaper column has made it into Southampton Vignettes. There is much more on furniture factories, Chantry Island lighthouse, Aunt Annie and founder Capt. Spence.

Hilborn has expanded on the topics presented in the newspaper and has added six new subjects. Alexander McNabb gets the most attention, as befits the man behind the great 1854 land rush. Other new faces include weather observers Catherine McNabb and Agnes Tolmie, auctioneer Al McGuire and historian John Weichel.

Marine archaeologist Ken Cassavoy makes an appearance leading the excavation of the General Hunter on Southampton beach. It's a remarkable story, considering the hull of the schooner lay undiscovered for 185 years just inches below the surface at the waterline. A veteran of the War of 1812, the Hunter had fought in the Battle of Lake Erie, then was wrecked at Southampton in a storm in 1816. Cassavoy moved to Southampton specifically to head up the dig.

The chapter "In praise of Southampton's beach" is an homage to Southampton's perhaps best-known attraction. According to the author, "Southamptonites particularly love their beach because it is unspoiled by cars or commercial attractions ... this is no Sauble Beach."

Hilborn said he was happy that finally there was room for many photographs. "I was lucky to get the occasional small photo into the newspaper, so I've pulled out all the stops to make Vignettes a photographic history too."

The 140 photographs illustrate many aspects of Southampton's history: from the bustling river harbour and train station to the destruction caused by Hurricane Hazel, the bridges which tumbled into the river and the great docks which crumbled into the lake. You can see William Knowles' summer resort, baseball fever at Victoria Park and hundreds of beachgoers gathered about the remains of the General Hunter for the daily lecture.

While exploring the many facets of Southampton history Hilborn stumbled on a few curiosities, such as how a mineral spring came bubbling up on Front Street, and where land agent Alexander McNabb stored $50,000 cash (a clothes basket).

The author uncovered such little-known facts as:
• The wings of the all-wood Mosquito bomber of Second World War fame were made in Southampton by Dominion Plywoods.
• Southampton's giant flag pole at the foot of High Street is 135 feet high because it was raised to mark the town's 135th anniversary in 1993.
• Stripping was a necessity for early land buyers. They had to hand in a lot of cash—often English gold—at the Crown Land office in Southampton. This was usually carried in money belts. On arriving they would go into a room off the office, strip, remove their belt and then return to hand over their money.

One unsolved mystery is how ten years of Southampton history have seemingly disappeared, because someone chose 1858 as the birth year of Southampton, when in fact founder Capt. John Spence arrived in 1848.

Hilborn noted that in writing Vignettes he relied heavily on historian John Weichel's research, including his books Forgotten Lives and Forgotten Times. "I especially wanted to pay tribute to John Weichel, so I devoted a chapter to his work and dedicated the book to him."

He concludes with a list of 17 historical plaques found in Southampton (and a suggestion that they could form the basis of a self-guided historical tour).

Southampton Vignettes is $25, from Robin Hilborn at or from the Bruce County Museum in Southampton.

How to order

To order Southampton Vignettes, print (or copy out) the form below, fill in and mail with your cheque to:

Box 1203, Southampton ON  N0H 2L0

Please send me ___ copies of Southampton Vignettes ($25 each).

Add $8 per order for shipping.

I enclose a $_____ cheque to "Robin Hilborn".


Street address:


• Price in Canada is in Can$.   For U.S. addresses, in US$.
• We accept cheques and post office money orders.   Sorry, no credit cards (so you don't have to reveal your card number).
• No tax ... Family Helper Publishing is tax-exempt.
• Also on sale (plus tax) at the Gift Shop, Bruce County Museum, Southampton ON
• Queries:

For more information




Southampton Vignettes:
    a brief history of a
    Lake Huron town,

    2nd ed.
ISBN 978-0-9809468-8-8
134 pp., 140 illustrations,
    bibliography, index
$25, from Robin Hilborn,
    Box 1203, Southampton
    ON  N0H 2L0