Simcoe County history
Elmes Yelverton Steele was not Simcoe County’s most famous Steele – that honour belongs to his son, Samuel Benfield Steele.
But Elmes was recognized for his contribution to the county.
He was one of 10 children of his father, a doctor (after whom he was named), and his mother, Mary. Elmes joined the Royal Navy in 1798 and had a distinguished record during the Napoleonic wars. He rose from an officer cadet to captain, with mentions in dispatches, including reports about a raid on the Spanish coast, the capture of the Santa Brigida and its load of treasure, and his work escorting a convoy to Quebec in 1805, while a lieutenant on HMS Mercury.
He was a gunnery officer on the infamous Leopard when it fired on the U.S. Navy’s Chesapeake in 1807 (an act that fanned embers that eventually burst into the flames of the War of 1812). That shot was under Steele’s direction; his biographer, Robert Stewart, wrote Steele “had the odd distinction of firing the shot that led to war.”
He was a lieutenant on the Royal Navy’s Arethusa when he led a successful raid on a French coastal fort, destroying its guns and capturing a small ship.
When Waterloo ended Napoleon’s career in Europe, Steele retired from the navy and went on half-pay, settling in France. In 1830, Steele was in England voting as a freeman in Gloucester, with his family remaining in France, when revolution broke out in Paris. His family fled France and returned to England.
In 1832, Steele left England with his son, John, and accepted land in Medonte Township as reward for his service to the Crown in the navy. Steele took a 1,000-acre plot that centred between highways 400 and 12 and was called Fair Valley. His family joined him a year later.
With the 1837 Rebellion, Steele sided with the government, gathering volunteers in Medonte and marching to Barrie to be armed before heading south on Penetanguishene Road, also known as Yonge Street and Highway 11 to Newmarket. By this time, the rebels had been defeated.
While Steele remained associated with the militia, from 1838 on, he concentrated on political matters.
He’d been acting as a magistrate since 1833. In 1839, he and other local leaders petitioned for a water route connecting Lake Huron with Lake Ontario – using the Severn River, Lake Couchiching, Lake Simcoe, Talbot River, Kawartha Lakes and south to the Bay of Quinte. They argued this would speed communication between the interior of Upper Canada and Lower Canada, create jobs, increase trade and (important if another war broke out) secure transport away from American forces.
In 1839, a Reformers’ meeting at John Finch’s tavern, at the northeast corner of Yonge and what would become Finch Avenue in Toronto, approved Lord Durham’s recommendation of responsible government. Steele was chair of the meeting and was in attendance when a Tory gang with William Jarvis, the sheriff of the Home District (which included the land that would become Simcoe County) arrived. The clash that followed ended with the death of one of the Reformers and almost tipped the province into another bout of rebellion. Steele became known as a strong voice for reform in the province and for responsible government.
In 1841, he ran for election as a Reformer on a platform that included pensions, road improvements and care for former military men. He ran against William Robinson, a strong Tory supporter of the Family Compact.
Steele slammed Tory practices of “prodigality terminating in the bankruptcy of the province ... arbitrary proceedings ... insufferable pride and presumption ...” and railed against the Tory labelling of those opposing their brand of politics “with the stigma of rebel.”
Reformers also argued for the unification of the Canadas as a way of diluting the power of the elite “to their proper level in the social circle (will be) every member of the dominant faction.”
Steele was a strong proponent of shifting focus from Barrie to Orillia. A decent road connecting the county’s other town to Toronto was considered key.
He had moderate success as a politician but didn’t run in the next election. Instead, he remained a justice of the peace and, like many local leaders, was a big supporter of religion as a form of community glue – in his case, the Anglican church. His support grew into the Fairvalley St. George’s Church in Medonte.
The church, 36 by 20 feet, was planned by Rev. George Hallen, one of the early area ministers, who arrived in 1835 and who quickly became friends with the Steele family. The church opened in 1843 and was consecrated by Bishop John Strachan in 1847. The eight acres of the church plot were comprised of a four-acre donation from the Steele family and a four-acre donation from the Hamilton family. The current structure at that location was built from bricks made in Orillia (50,000 in all).
Hallen came from Purbrook, England, so the area around the church became known locally as Purbrook. One of his daughters, Eleanor, became an accomplished artist and, as a young teen, sketched the Steele home.
Steele lived in Orillia later in his life. His profile and record as a political moderate lent Orillia a certain weight in the hierarchy of the county communities.
Still, despite his important work in creating and building a community in Simcoe County, he was never as famous as his son, Maj. Gen. Sir Samuel Benfield Steele.
Even so, Steele the father gained something Steele the son would not get: recognition in a street name in the county town, Barrie. Steel Street was named for Elmes Steele as early as 1837. In the original plan for the community of Kempenfeldt (now Kempenfelt), Steel Street runs east-west from O’Brien Street.
Somewhere between that original plan and the actual application of street signs, the name became Steel instead of Steele. This may have been a hangover of Steele’s battle with the Family Compact Tories. Through his contacts in the Family Compact, Robinson – his old Tory opponent – was made chief commissioner of public works and in that role would have had influence in naming streets. (At one point, the street was apparently to be named Steep Street, even though in Barrie, it’s one of the city’s more level streets.)
Steele died in August 1865 and is buried in the graveyard of St. George’s Church cemetery.
Tom Villemaire is a former editor of papers in Simcoe County, including the Orillia Packet & Times, Midland Free Press, Barrie Examiner, Innisfil Examiner and Enterprise-Bulletin, and is the author of two history books. He now runs historylab.ca, podcasts and can be reached at email@example.com.