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Local authors research highlights family heritage in village of Limehouse

by Kelly Waterhouse

ACTON - Jean Sommerville grew up hearing stories about her great great grandfather John Newton, a man who was a writer, educator and entrepreneur.

Yet it was in writing his biography In His Words that she got to know her ancestor and also Limehouse, the place where he achieved  his success.

“This is not just a story about the man, but also about the community,” Sommerville said.

As a retired school teacher from both the Halton and Rockwood area, Sommerville has always had an interest in local history. This is her second book, following The Bands Played On, a history of community music set in the 19th century. She is currently working on a biography of her father.

The impetus to write In His Words came after Sommerville was contacted by a University of Western Ontario professor who found a book of Newton’s poetry published in 1846 and was looking for details about the author.

Newton’s grandsons had donated all of his personal communications to the university in 1946.

“That peaked my interest and I had to start doing more investigating,” she said. “My grandmother had collected a lot of his papers and things that belonged to him.”

Newton’s life story is one of hard work and determination.  Born in Yorkshire, England as one of six children, Newton learned early he was going to have to make his own way in the world after his father abandoned the family.

It was Newton’s positive ideals that inspired Sommerville throughout her research, particularly by this quote: “So the true philosophy of it all is to do the best you can with everything as it turns up.”

Newton began his working career at the age of six, deep in the Yorkshire coal pits, then moved on to textile mills before the age of nine. What followed was a future where his success was his own making, living in Ireland, France and then immigrating to Canada.

“I think his poetry was autobiographical,” Sommerville explains. “He talks about a young man dissatisfied with conditions at home and decides to go across the’s almost as if he is trying to foresee the future.”

Newton’s book of poetry was published in Hamilton in 1846. In it he talks about his journey to the new world and the decision to leave his wife and family behind despite  experiencing the loss of a child his wife was carrying. He was off to find them a better life.

“It amazes me, how great a writer he was, given he was uneducated,” Sommerville said.

It was Newton’s own words of hope, written on New Year’s Day in 1843 that inspires Sommerville today: “In short, there is something in man that leads him ever to look forward and think of his present and past sufferings in his anticipations of a more favourable future.”

Sommerville follows Newton’s career, from his early days as a school master. “He liked that job because he could continue to learn,” she said. That desire to learn is a theme throughout the book.

“I think the fact that he was deprived of an education...he learned to read at church, and that he was self-taught, this allowed him to become a master of other subjects,” Sommerville explained, including the ability to read and write in French.

Unemployed upon arriving in Canada, Newton made his way to Georgetown in search of mill work.

“It was suggested he get a job as a teacher at a new log school just south of Acton, [the Glen Lawson School] and he became the first teacher there in 1842,” Sommerville said.

But Newton’s interest was in the mills. He entered a partnership to start a mill in St.Anne’s in Nelson Township, then moved to Limehouse, where be bought a saw mill and family farm.

“I think it was so brave of him to come here,” Sommerville said. “He didn’t have knowledge of farming and yet he had his ideas about it too. He was a clever man.”

In 1850 Newton built a water-lime mill to provide cement for the new railway construction and followed that with a woolen mill in 1862.

Despite having four sons, Newton maintained control of his enterprises.

“My feeling is that he was in charge of all these operations, although he had four sons who worked with him, but he owned everything until the day he died,” she explained.

“He mentions at different times that he expected his family to respect him ... but I think it was because he was deprived and didn’t have a father himself. I think he was a good father. He was very prosperous and ambitious.”

Newton would become the first postmaster of Limehouse in 1857 and later became a Justice of the Peace. In 1893, a few years after his death, all of Newton’s businesses and his family home were lost in a fire.

After two years of research, with great support by local historian John MacDonald and her Toronto publisher, Sommerville feels she has reclaimed important pieces of the history of Limehouse and her family’s ancestry. “I’m glad that it’s all been put together, because there is so much early history of Limehouse in it.”

In His Words was launched on Dec. 4 at the community hall in Limehouse, a fitting tribute to Newton, who wrote about the need for a social centre in his community but did not live to see it materialize. “It seemed the right place to launch this book,” Sommerville said.

In His Words is available through Trish Sommerville at 519-853-2101 or via email at

December 16, 2011


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