Monthly Archives: May 2011

Horsin’ around at Singing Brook Farm

On Saturday May 28, I had the delightful treat of visiting Singing Brook Farm with several members of the London Writers’ Society.

The purpose? To learn how horses are harnessed and then hitched to a wagon, from start to finish. Field trips like this provide first-hand knowledge of subjects that writers can work into their stories: this helps to hedge against the incomplete learning gleaned from Hollywood, which can turn an otherwise fabulous story into well, a lame horse.

Arriving at Singing Brook Farm, the first thing I noticed after coming down the long, tree-lined drive, was everything’s green lushness.

Green was the lawn at the front of the house, green were the grasses behind the barn, and at the back of the property? A crop of green winter wheat that stretched into the misty horizon.

After being graciously welcomed by our hosts, the Van Winden family, they introduced the Society to two of their Belgian show horses, Topsie and Tucker.

Linda Van Winden demonstrated one of the ways they prep the horses for a show: putting the tail into a cute little bun. I had not realized the coarseness of a horse’s tail until I saw this done… and heard Linda mention how tough it can be on the hands.  As you can see below, to arrange this barnyard coiffe requires a little bravery.

The horses certainly liked having their hair done. Topsie’s wavy tail bore witness to having been recently braided. She seemed more at ease when her mane was under the strap on her forehead, not over! Linda seemed to operate intuitively on these matters…me thinks she knows her horses well.

Steve and the Van Winden’s sons led us through the different harnesses and equipment, providing tutelage on each piece’s function and how it worked once hooked up to the wagon. Naturally, their knowledge behind the history of these items was especially interesting:

From a horseshoe fitting, to which side knights of old typically mounted their horses, all members of the family had something interesting to share.

Once hitched to the wagon, Linda took up the lines (not reins!) and invited our group to climb aboard for a late morning jaunt through the countryside.

This particular stretch of Highway 2, near Woodstock, was beautiful. The lilac bushes along the side road lent a sweet fragrance to this memorable ride.

Along the way several of us were invited to drive the team of two horses.

I was hesitant at first, but my curiosity got the better of me and boy, was I glad! Linda was a great teacher, giving me all the tips I needed to safely, and relatively competently, drive the wagon. I even got them up to a trot!

Photo taken by Erin Moxam

One thing I didn’t expect was how much one’s body is engaged when steering such large animals. The pair of horses likely didn’t need a lot of direction from me, as they knew the route, I’m sure. But, to keep a straight path and control their speed, your core and thigh muscles are engaged just as much as your arms, if not more so. Linda told me this was correct, that if your arms are really sore after doing this then you aren’t doing it right.

My arms weren’t sore the next day! HOORAY!

Photo taken by Erin Moxam

For me, I think it was also something about balance too. Sitting up high, with two mighty animals pulling you in a big wagon, you want balance, so that you know you have full control. Or, at least as much control as the horses decide to give you.

Steve and Adam certainly seem to have mastered this quite well, providing a show of just some of what a team of two could do, including a figure eight, high-speed trot and backing up.

A driver’s voice is another key element in directing a horse-drawn wagon. You need to say the magic words in a clear direct tone, and not forgetting that little “kissy” noise! You certainly don’t need to yell: Topsie and Tucker had brilliant hearing and rarely had to be told twice to ‘keep on’.

Speaking of voice, that brings us to the other interesting part of this field trip. When we returned to the barn to see the horses relieved of their tack, brushed down and checked over for any areas that needed care, Linda told us about the day camp they run at the farm.

Linda is an award-winning musical director and among many other artistic roles, is also the director of music at Innerkip United Church. With her many years of vocal teaching and performance experience, she has designed a fun and educational arts camp for children ages 4-14.  Teaching music, drama and crafts with plenty of nature hikes and animals, the day camp at Singing Brook Farm provides a wide variety of artistic skill building in a comfortable and welcoming setting.

What stood out most was the family’s love and dedication to their animals. Every member of the family was involved, and passionately so, in both the care of the horses and the activities going on at the farm.

I’m glad we made it out to Singing Brook, and thank our hosts for a memorable and inspiring day.

Keep on!


Dan Brock Interview: Victoria Day Disaster

Dan Brock, historian and retired teacher, reflects on his research about the 1881 Victoria Day disaster. He discusses the accident’s impact on London and recounts a little known, supernatural tale involving a servant girl’s premonition the night before the tragedy.

Mr. Brock also delves into his philosophy of modern research, with a little help from yours truly 😉

The Victoria Day Disaster with Dan Brock

On May 24, 1881, the steamboat “Victoria” made nautical history by killing about 200 people on the Thames River in London, Canada.

Dan Brock, a London historian and retired teacher, presents the gruesome details of its final voyage. While most victims are thought to have drowned, this Victorian paddle boat managed to first crush, bludgeon, maim and scald the occupants of its overcrowded decks before dragging them to their watery graves.

After 130 years, the Victoria Day disaster is possibly the grimmest tragedy in Canadian holiday history.

The 83rd regiment comes to town

How did Wenman Wynniatt get to London, anyway?
Why, he arrived with the 83rd Regiment of Foot, of course! They came to town on May 30th, 1841.

83rd Regiment of Foot - 1838 uniform

With little entertainment, many Londoners were stoked to learn the British garrison and the touring regiments were going to lay roots nearby, arriving to pour cash into the shops and ale into their bellies.

A lack of military action, after the initial rebellion in 1838, motivated British military gents to figure out ways to pass the time in an attempt to remain civilized in the face of total boredom. Attending balls, plays, concerts & horse races were just a few ways the redcoats & early London well-to-dos unwound when they weren’t fixing their wagons or marching around in circles at the barracks.

As for London ladies, nineteenth-century chicks thought those red jackets looked pretty snug in all the right places… even Sarah Harris, who initially rolled her eyes at the prospect of catching “scarlet fever” thought differently after a summer or two of shiny buttons and shouts of “tally-ho”.

Photos in video courtesy of Archives Canada and

the University of Western Ontario Archives.

Earlier researchers of the Eldon House Ghost Story

A funny thing happened on the way to discovery: we found out that others had been there before! To our credit, most of the research previously done by other historians was found after we had completed the bulk of the research in area library stacks & microfilm archives.

Bill Hitchins and Dan Brock are two notable earlier researchers who collected an incredible amount of data, given it was done when digital research technology was still in its infancy & the internet was not yet public.

Lines on the death of Lieutenant Wynniatt

Along with the numerous articles which circulated in Canadian newspapers about the death of Wenman Wynniatt, this touching poem was written on May 18, 1841 (170 years ago today) appearing in the London Gazette.

Despite our best attempts to learn who wrote this fitting piece, its author’s identity remains a mystery.

The sound of merry music
Still hung upon the air;
But the voice of joy, and gladness-
Where are they now, oh where?

The smile that played upon each face,
Is frozen ere it fled,
For one, the brightest of them all,
Is numbered with the dead.

Aye, look upon him now and weep,
Check not the rising tear,
That one so fair, so young, should lie
Stretched on his lonely bier.

And can it be, that those he loved
Lie hushed in slumbers deep,
While the treach’rous waters dancing by,
Lull him to his long last sleep.

Ah! who shall tell the tale of woe
To those far, far away,
Who ne’er again shall see the form
They clasped but yesterday.

And who will bear to look upon
The Father’s swimming eye,
The Mother’s and the sisters look
Of silent agony.

Set not thy hopes on things on earth,
For all we see must die,
And like that loved and manly form,
Pale, cold and lifeless, lie.

But may our heart’s affections soar
To a better land than this,
And all we’ve lost may we there meet
In everlasting bliss.

(Author unknown)
London Gazette, May 18, 1841

A death deeply deplored

On May 17, 1841 the 83rd Regiment and citizens of London buried Wenman Wynniatt, who many years later would be known as the Eldon House Ghost.

This is an excerpt from the London Gazette newspaper, May 19th, 1841:

Lieutenant Wynniatt’s funeral took place on Monday, the 17th inst. at 3 o’clock. With all military honors; the funeral service being accompanied by a most feeling and appropriate discourse from the Rev. Mr. Cronyn, Chaplain to the garrison. Lieutenant Wynniatt was buried in the churchyard of this town at 4 o’clock P.M. The funeral procession, to the grave in the Episcopalian burying ground, comprised the 83rd Reg’t with the Bands of the 1st Royal and 83rd Regiments, the Officers of both those corps, of the Royal Artillery, and Commissariat Department, &c. and a large assemblage of the gentry and respectable inhabitants of London. A large concourse of spectators assembled to witness the imposing scene. The storekeepers closing their stores as a mark of respect to the deceased.

Lieut. Wynniatt was in the 26th year of his age, and was equally beloved and respected in his Regiment, as well as by all who knew his sterling worth, and many engaging and estimable qualities…His melancholy end will long be deeply deplored.

The treasure trove that is Archives Canada

Somewhat new to inter-library loans and the Archives Canada website, we learned VERY quickly that their resources are quite extensive…and can be a researchers dream!

From photos, illustrations, military records and books that are out of print it’s been an integral part of the fantastic finds we’ve made. However, the wait for some of the microfilms and books were excruciating at times!

Holding W.T. Stead’s volume from 1891 in our hands was a very cool experience.

We couldn’t have done it without…

The past two years we’ve made Eldon House our second home, stopping in whenever we had a question, sometimes staying several hours! We really appreciate their interest in our project and all their advice for alternate resources.

Many thanks!

A Ghost in a Ballroom

Hear the short version of the Eldon House ghost story, as told by MisstoricalFiction:

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