George Clephane: the lost sheep of pioneer Fergus

The following is a re-print of a past column by former Advertiser columnist Stephen Thorning, who passed away on Feb. 23, 2015.
Some text has been updated to reflect changes since the original publication and any images used may not be the same as those that accompanied the original publication.

Though I am not a serious collector of local historical artifacts and papers, from time to time I am offered interesting documents and other items.

This past week I had the good fortune to be able to purchase a letter written in 1849 by George Clephane, the well-known remittance man, who lived in Fergus between 1842 and 1851.

Remittance men were once well-known characters in many Canadian communities, but for younger readers of this column, the term probably needs explanation.

Remittance men were the sons of wealthy or well-placed families, generally from Great Britain, who had disgraced or embarrassed their families through notorious conduct or misbehaviour, and who were then sent out of the country, often oversees, and given a lump sum or a regular allowance (their “remittance”) on the condition that they would never return home and further sully the family name.

Canada had its full share of these remittance men in the 19th century. George Clephane was one. His father was, according to some reports, the Sheriff of Fifeshire in Scotland. At the age of 23, young George arrived in Canada in 1842 at the behest of his family. His vice, reportedly, had been excessive drinking. There may well have been more. He was very young for the family to conclude that he was a hopeless alcoholic.

In any case, George Clephane settled on a small farm a little to the north of Fergus, on the east side of the Owen Sound Road, the 16th concession of Nichol. Clephane built a house or cabin of some kind; it was long gone when Dr. Byerly wrote about him in the 1920s.

The cheap, plentiful whiskey available in the 1840s encouraged his drinking binges, and he consequently made little progress with his farm. In 1851, he was thrown from a horse, and died of the injuries. George is buried beside St. Andrew’s church in Fergus, and many people still visit his tombstone.

A grieving sister, on receiving the news of George’s death, wrote a poem, “The Ninety and Nine,” based on a biblical parable. The words were set to music by the American revivalist Ira Sankey in 1874. The hymn became very popular, and was included in Sankey’s best-selling volume of music entitled Sacred Songs.

Sankey, in partnership with preacher Dwight Moody, attracted millions to revivalist meetings in North America and Great Britain in the 1870s. Moody did much of the preaching, while Sankey provided vocal renderings of his hymns, accompanying himself on a pump organ.

“The Ninety and Nine” became a regular part of their performances. Part way through the service, Sankey would rise from his cabinet organ and ask the crowd, “How many prodigal sons may be restored to their homes today?” then offer a short sermon which concluded with the hymn:

There were ninety and nine that safely lay
In the shelter of the fold;
But one was out on the hills away,
Far from the gates of gold.
Away on the mountains wild and bare,
Away from the tender Shepherd’s care;
Lord, Thou hast here Thy ninety and nine,
Are they not enough for Thee?
But the Shepherd made answer: This of mine
Has wandered far away from me;
And although the road be rough and steep,
I go to the desert to find my sheep.

The story of George Clephane has been related by most historians who have written on Fergus. The letter I recently acquired helps flesh out the story a little, but also poses some new questions about George.

It was written to John Russell, about whom I know nothing. He may have been a relative or, as is hinted at the end, a former employer, possibly a merchant. His name is followed by the initials “P.C.S.” What do they stand for? One person has suggested “Presbyterian Church of Scotland.”

I don’t know.

George begins the letter by thanking Russell for his help in raising an additional remittance.

The circumstances of George’s leaving Scotland may be more complicated than we have realized. The tone of the letter suggests that there was no animosity or ill will between the two. Why was Russell, whoever he was, sending money to Clephane?

The letter should be of interest to those readers connected with St. Andrew’s church in Fergus. It contains details of a trip by the minister, Rev. Hugh Mair, to Scotland. Mair was raising money for a church bell, and a fund to help pay his own salary.

An American, Mair served St. Andrew’s between 1848 and 1854, when he went back to New York state and died soon after. Before Mair came, St. Andrew’s struggled for three years without a minister after Rev. George Smellie led most of the church membership in the formation of a Free Church Presbyterian congregation. This was the origin of Fergus’ Melville Church.

Clephane is ambiguous in describing his farm; it is unclear whether he means he has 60 acres in total or 60 acres cleared.

He claims to have chopped five acres during the previous winter. This would have been a good piece of work for any axeman, given the quality of the edge tools available at the time. His claim of temperatures of 30 below is also doubtful. Did George actually accomplish this work, and at subzero temperatures in deep snow, or was he also a bit of a windbag as well as a boozer?

The letter was mailed in Elora, rather than Fergus. No reason is given in the text. George may have been in Elora on some errand or personal visit. If we take a less charitable interpretation, he may have been avoiding creditors in Fergus, or have been ashamed to show his face there. From Elora, where it was posted on April 23, 1849 (five days after it was written), it arrived in Liverpool on May 25, and John Russell had to pay the one shilling postage when he received it a day or two later in Edinburgh.

Despite the new questions, the letter provides a personal glimpse of a pioneer who did not find success, and whose life is a sad and unfortunate part of our history.

Were it not for his poetic sister and a pair of American evangelists, no one would have any interest in George Clephane 171 years after his premature death.

*This column was originally published in the Elora Sentinel on May 4, 1993.

Thorning Revisited