By Archibald Campbell, Hon. Curator of the Perth Museum.
Transcribed by Charles Dobie from an undated typescript in the research files of the Perth Museum.
In 1816 or 1817, Lieutenant (afterwards, Captain) Anthony Leslie came to Perth, the newly founded and surveyed headquarters of the Perth Military Settlement, having retired on half-pay from the Glengarry Fencible (Light Infantry) Regiment. Having secured (or drawn) a 25-acre “Park Lot” on the west side of Wilson Street, he erected a square frame cottage or bungalow thereon. He then busied himself with the clearing of his holding and the development of what has, throughout the ensuing century, always been known as the “Leslie Farm” — with an upper reach of the beautiful River Tay flowing north and south through it. His cottage home, nestling in a natural grove of graceful elms and other trees, and with its old-fashioned rose-garden, is mentioned in contemporary records of 1830, and was still standing towards the end of last century. On the opening of a branch of the Commercial Bank of the Midland District (later on, called the Commercial Bank of Canada) in Perth, Captain Leslie was appointed Agent. An old Upper Canada Almanac of 1839 shows that he was then agent — as he continued to be until the year 1857, when Mr. James Bell succeeded him. In 1852, a stone building (still standing) was erected just south of his residence, and in it his banking operations were carried on throughout the balance of his term. On the gable-end of this structure, the first separate bank building in what had become the judicial, political and social capital of the famous Bathurst District, was hung a bell, which was rung by customers, to call the doughty Captain from his house or garden. In those pioneer days bank customers were few, but, when one turned up, he pulled the rope attached to the bronze bell (which to-day is a treasured relic in the Perth Museum, Inc.), and the Captain would saunter leisurely in from field or garden and transact what business was necessary. Partly, no doubt, owing to its rather inconvenient location, so far from the business centre of the town, this bank is said not to have earned enough to pay the agent’s modest salary of $600.00! The safe consisted of an iron box, set in the floor of the office, and opening upwards. In 1839, the only other banks operating in this province were the Bank of British North America, the Bank of Upper Canada, and the Farmers’ Joint Stock Banking Company, but in 1857 the Bank of Montreal opened a branch in the Mair Building on Foster Street. [For a detailed article on banking in Perth, see the article Banking In The Early Days -Ed.]
Little information has come down to us regarding the character and private life of Perth’s pioneer soldier-banker. In fact, he and his wife do not appear to have actively participated in the social life of this military settlement, with its nucleus of between two and three score half-pay British officers and government officials. Either the fact of his not being so well off as some of the foregoing, or, a natural reserve or exclusiveness, might account for this. At any rate, this scion of an ancient and noble Scottish family, soon after relinquishing the bank position, disposed of his Perth property to Rev. John H. McDonagh, Priest of St. John’s R.C. Parish, and left for Scotland. It was rumoured at the time that he had gone home to assume the family title of Earl of Leven and Melville. According to the 1822 edition of Debrett’s “Scots Peerage”, a David Leslie had succeeded his father in this Earldom on February 22nd., 1820. It seems that a George Leslie, Lord Melville, had been created a Baron by King William III., in 1616, but this family traced their descent from an Anglo-Norman named Male, who, in the reign of King David the First, settled on some lands in the county of Edinburgh, which he called Maleville. The writer intends, when the opportunity occurs, investigating further, in order to ascertain the name of the bearer of this title in 1858, or thereabouts. The only personal belonging of this rather mysterious and childless couple possessed by the Perth Museum is a blue delft plate of a dinner set.
In 1858, Rev. Father McDonagh engaged Perth’s veteran surveyor, Mr. John Morris, to subdivide part of the Leslie property. Two short streets, named Leslie and St. Mary (of which the present Mary Street was the eastern extension), were run westerly from Wilson Street West to the river Tay, while another short street, west of and parallel to Wilson Street, and named after the priestly owner, connected Leslie and St. Mary Streets.
Later on, the major part of this property was acquired by the late Mr. John A. McLaren, whose father had founded the first distillery in this Upper Canada settlement. This was originally located in a stone building on Plum Point, south of Beveridge’s Bay, on the Lower Rideau Lake, but, in 1817, the elder McLaren erected part of what afterwards, for many decades, was known as the McLaren (or, Perth) Distillery, on the “Island”, in the centre of the town. In course of time, he sent his son over to Scotland, to learn the secrets in connection with the manufacture of the genuine Scotch whisky, which has so long been famous all over the world. Eventually, Mr. John A. McLaren succeeded his father in the business, and from 1841 until the prohibition experiment started in Ontario, the Perth Distillery produced a Canadian Scotch whisky which had a continental reputation for purity and strength. For many years, the substantial stone building which formerly stood on the site of Perth’s fine new Federal Government Building (which houses our Post Office and those of the Customs, Inland Revenue, etc.) was the home of its owner, Mr. McLaren. However, after his purchase of the Leslie property, he turned the old bank building into a small but comfortable home for himself. There, surrounded by his books, he lived quietly until his death. He was then one of Perth’s wealthiest and best-known citizens, and largest property owners.
On his death, his nephew and heir, the late John A. Stewart, became the fourth owner of the Leslie property, as well as of the distillery and other valuable assets. And, as a result of this acquisition of wealth, of his exceptional financial and executive ability, and of his desire to confer lasting benefits on the birthplace of which he was always so proud, this young barrister lost no time in risking large sums of money in salvaging and stabilizing two industries which were then in a critical condition. And, fortunately, in one case, these efforts lead to oustanding success, while the other industry has since operated continuously and expanded to a remarkable extent. His next worthwhile service to Perth was when he persuaded Mr. Andrew Jergens to establish the Canadian branch of Andrew Jergens & Co., Ltd., in Perth. and this important industry, now under the capable management of Mr. Robert Carr, a native son of Perth-on-Tay, has also achieved success. A competent staff carried on the distillery operations until the advent of prohibition, when Mr. Stewart, who had become the representative of his native county in the House of Commons and Minister of Railways and Canals, quickly disposed of the stock on hand (including the contents of huge oaken vats, the wood of which had been gradually absorbing fusel oil, the injurious ingredient in whiskey, since 1878 and 1890 respectively), and permanently closed down this old-established industry. Consquently, its famous “V.V.O” brand has become only a memory!
By the untimely death of the Honourable Mr. Stewart, his widow became the fifth owner of the “Leslie Farm”, which she is now offering for sale. Carrying on the tradition established by her distinguished husband, Mrs. J.A. Stewart, O.B.E., has been unfailing in her efforts to do all in her power to improve conditions in and add to the attractions of, her birthplace. Her development of the John A. Stewart Memorial Park (one of the beauty spots of Eastern Ontario), and expenditure of time and money in connection with the establishment of the Perth Museum, Inc., are cases in point. But the Great War Memorial Hospital, the cause of local education, the welfare of her Church, and many other worthy objects and individuals have benefitted by her sympathy and generosity. However, her sympathies and aid are not confined to her beautiful home town, but are national as well, and she has rendered invaluable service to the I.O.D.E. nad other Dominion-wide organizations, movements and institutions.
Contibuted by Archibald M. Campbell.