Will of Rev. William Barrie disputed by sister

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.


The name of Rev. William Barrie is familiar to anyone who has studied the history of religion in Wellington County, and particularly to those with special interests in Eramosa and the Bon Accord settlement in Nichol.

The hamlet of Barrie Hill bears his name in honour of his time there as pastor.

He was born in Fifeshire, Scotland in 1799 (some sources say 1800), the oldest of six children. Though his father died when he was 8, his mother insisted he get a good education, at which he excelled.

He went on to St. Andrew’s College, then to Divinity Hall, after which he was ordained a minister in the Secession Church. He supported himself through his schooling with various teaching jobs.

In his 20s he went to Madeira as a travelling companion with a friend who was ill. There he met some political refugees from Portugal, and he assisted them in migrating to the United States.

Afterwards, he spent years as a temporary minister at various places in Scotland, and for a time in London. He then accepted an appointment from the United Secession Church as a missionary to Canada.

A church in Hamilton wanted him for a permanent position, but he was more interested in an offer from Eramosa, and its “branch” at Bon Accord near Elora, the antecedent of Knox Church in Elora. Rev. Barrie was inducted as the minister at the First Presbyterian Church of Eramosa on Jan. 4, 1843.

He gave up his duties at Bon Accord in 1848, but continued his duties in Eramosa until 1877, when he retired. By then the church had gained the name it holds to this day: Barrie Hill. Walking had become increasingly difficult for him. With his housekeeper of long standing, Esther Argo, he moved to a house on Kirkland Street in Guelph.

During his 34 years in Eramosa he was universally respected and admired. Rev. Barrie had a sharp sense of humour, and particularly enjoyed the company of younger people. Notwithstanding his role as a minister, he enjoyed social occasions immensely, and was always a welcome guest and speaker at community functions.

Late in life, Monmouth College in the United States awarded him an honorary Doctor of Divinity degree. Some of his friends thought an L.L.D. would have been just as appropriate, because he was very well read and a writer and speaker of ability.

Altogether, it seems that he led a blameless and useful life, without a hint of scandal. All that changed after he died. In the summer of 1879, William Barrie grew weaker by the day. He was confined to bed, though his mind seemed to be sharp. He enjoyed visits from friends such as Rev. Dr. Robert Torrance, another minister who had been a friend since the 1840s.

On July 25, 1879, William Barrie dictated a new will, on the urging of Dr. George Herod, his medical advisor and an old friend. In it he gave his house to Esther Argo, his housekeeper, providing she stay with him as long as he lived. Esther also received his furniture and personal belongings, and his extensive and valuable library. The balance of his estate, other than a $200 legacy to a cousin in Scotland, was to be divided between the Presbyterian Home and Foreign Mission Fund, and the endowment fund of Knox College in Toronto.

Rev. Barrie was so weak at the time that he signed the new will with an “X”. The witnesses were Walter Scott and John Davidson, publisher of the Guelph Mercury. His old friend Dr. Torrance and two old members of his Eramosa congregation, James Loghrin and John A. Armstrong, were named the executors.

William Barrie’s condition weakened further over the following two days, and he died quietly on July 28.

At the reading of the will, Rev. Barrie’s 75-year-old sister, Mrs. William Thompson, her two sons and a son-in-law were astonished that they were not even mentioned in passing in the document. They began at once to plot to get their hands on at least a portion of it. The minister had accumulated a sizeable estate, estimated to be worth at least $8,500. The case came before the chancery court in Guelph on May 25, 1880. It looked like a lawyers’ convention: Mrs. Thompson and her family had three lawyers, including Christopher Robinson of Toronto and Donald Guthrie of Guelph. There were two each for the executors and the witnesses, and one representing the Presbyterian Church. Waiting outside the room were the 38 witnesses called by one side or the other.

Mrs. Thompson’s contention was that her brother was suffering greatly when the will was drafted, that he could barely speak, and was in an unsound state of mind. She claimed to be the only surviving member of his immediate family.

Rev. Dr. Torrance was the first witness. He stated that on July 25 he had written the will, at the suggestion of Dr. Herod, and following the instructions of Rev. Barrie. Though very weak, Dr. Torrance said his old friend was alert and understood everything said to him.

On a suggestion that he leave the house to his sister, Rev. Barrie said, “No,” according to Dr. Torrance. He also declined to leave anything to the Bible Society, the Guelph General Hospital, or any of his relatives.

Dr. Torrance suggested various charity and church funds; Rev. Barrie preferred the missionary fund and Knox College. He had indicated in earlier years, said Dr. Torrance, that he would leave most of his estate to them.

Several old friends were in the house at the time. Two, John Davidson and Walter Scott, offered to witness the signing, but Rev. Barrie’s hand shook too much to hold a pen, so he indicated his approval with an “X”.

Esther Argo testified that Rev. Barrie and his sister were not close. She had worked for him 13 years, and during that time Mrs. Thompson had visited him twice, though she lived just 18 miles away, in West Garafraxa, some seven miles from Fergus.

Mrs. Thompson did not come to see her brother during his final illness until the day before he died, Ester testified, though she had written to her twice that he was ill.

Rev. Barrie had promised, Esther said, to leave the house in Guelph to her, and he had mentioned several times that he wanted to leave part of his estate to the church. He had recently received a letter from the cousin in Scotland, and he told her that he would like to leave something to her because she was in poor circumstances.

Rev. Barrie’s niece, Mrs. George Mitchell, testified next. She had come to visit her uncle the day after the will was drafted. She said he was delirious, and she could not understand what he was trying to say.

The court adjourned until the next morning, when Mrs. Thompson was the first witness. She said she began the suit, but appointed her son Walter and son-in-law George Mitchell to act for her.

She stated that all her siblings had died, though she was not certain about one brother, who she thought might be in the United States.

She and her husband came to Canada in 1859, she testified, on the recommendation of her brother William. Her family had been successful at farming. Her husband had died in April 1880.

According to her testimony, Rev. Barrie received two legacies when he was young: one from his grandfather, and another from the father of one of his tutors while at college. She hinted that those funds should remain within the family. Mrs. Thompson also made disparaging comments about Esther Argo’s care of her uncle.

An elderly Presbyterian cleric, Rev. John Duff, had known Rev. Barrie for decades: he had taken over the Elora church from him, and succeeded him at the Eramosa church. His old friend had said several times that he would donate his money to the church, said Rev. Duff, and as recently as six weeks before his death. He was “a man of indomitable will,” and “it would not have been easy to change him from any purpose.”

Dr. Herod’s testimony was key to both sides. The Thompsons claimed that at the reading of the will, Dr. Herod had asserted the deceased had been unfit for business for five years. Dr. Herod denied the statement, as did other witnesses who were present. He outlined his course of care for his patient, and said he was perfectly lucid during the drafting of the will.

George Barron of Elora, another friend dating to the 1840s, said that Rev. Barrie had told him years before that he wanted to leave his house to Esther Argo – “she is a jewel,” Barrie had said – and everything else to the church.

Despite intense cross-examination, all the witnesses supporting the legitimacy of the will told a fairly consistent story, which was supported by the expert medical opinion of Dr. Herod. As the Thompson’s case weakened with each witness who took the stand, their lawyers suggested there may have been a conspiracy to deprive his sister and her family of any proceeds from the estate.

The Barrie case had been one of the longest up to that time, with each of the lawyers questioning the seemingly endless string of witnesses at length. On the third day, vice-chancellor Blake of the Chancery Court was determined to bring the case to a close. That session lasted until 1:45am.

Judge Blake heard further arguments from the legal advisors in Toronto on June 3. For the Thompsons the case was futile against the testimony of so many witnesses of high reputation in the community. They were unable to prove that Dr. Barrie was in an unfit state of mind, and the will stood as written.

The case does raise some questions about William Barrie’s life. The size of the estate was very large. The house was worth perhaps $1,000 or $1,200, out of a total of $8,500. His salary while with the church never exceeded $800 per year, and for most of the time was much less than that. His sister revealed that he had received two inheritances, one from a grandfather who was supposedly poor. And what about the mysterious origins of the other?

Rev. William Barrie was in his mid-40s when he came to Wellington. He never offered more than a vague sketch of his earlier life. It may well have been more interesting than we suppose.

*This column was originally published in the Advertiser on April 8, 2005.


Stephen Thorning - 1949-2015