History of Dorchester

Sir Guy Carlton was Commander-in-Chief of the British forces during the arranged transportation of 35 000 people to Nova Scotia and another 10 000 to Quebec after the American Revolutionary War. He was honoured with the title of Lord Dorchester and became the first Governor in Chief of British America for his efforts. In 1789, he sent a resolution to England defining what a United Empire Loyalist ought to be. His actions set in motion the events that led to the eventual settlement of the town named after him, though never actually set foot in the area.

Dorchester is the traditional territory of the Anishinaabeg, Haudenosaunee, Attawandaron (Neutral), and Wendat peoples. There was a large village site at the end of Cow Path Lane, 2 smaller sites, and another village site on the River at Waubuno among other archaeological discoveries in the area. The area was included in the Upper Canada Land Treaties 2 and 6.

Dorchester Mill with Mill Pond behind and Thames River in front and Berlet's house on the hill

Colonel Alex McKee, agent for the Crown, negotiated with the Attawanderans and the McKee Treaty (Treaty 2), was signed on May 19, 1790, by representatives of the Crown and various First Nations. There were over 50 signatories to this Treaty, including settlers and Indigenous leaders. The treaty payments included rum, lace hats, tobacco, pipes, knives, blankets, cloth,m thread, guns, ammunition, eyeglasses, scissors, fish hooks, and combs.

In 1793, Lord John Graves Simcoe, Lieutenant Governor of Upper Canada, determined that Dorchester was a location that was viable for a settlement to develop and granted William Reynolds, a Loyalist who had fought in the Revolutionary War, 1250 acres in exchange for his promise to bring other settlers to the area. Simcoe actually proposed that London should be the capital of Upper Canada (later known as Ontario) and had a road built between Kingston and London. It is now known as Highway 2 and also Dundas Street when closer to London.

The London Township Purchase (Treaty 6), was signed on September 7, 1796, by representatives of the Crown and certain Anishinaabe peoples. Some of the treaty payments included calico and serge cloths, cooking implements, rifles and flint, and vermillion.

From 1788 until 1849, Upper Canada was divided into districts. Counties and townships were created for election and militia purposes. Dorchester Township and Middlesex County were established in 1800.

After a short-lived rebellion in 1837, from Republican sympathizers, the British government sought to settle the land with people loyal to Britain. There was an influx of English, Scottish, and Irish settlers.The first homes in the Dorchester area were built in 1839 by an American immigrant Bartholomew Swart and another settler James Sage.

Catherine Street looking towards the Community Hall
The old Superior store located beside the present post office. It is now the home of Duncan Harwood Homes.

In 1851, Dorchester Township was divided into North Dorchester and South Dorchester. North Dorchester became part of Middlesex County and South Dorchester became part of Elgin County.

On Dec 31, 1853, The Great Western Railway opened between London and Hamiton giving the town, then known as Frampton, a boost. By 1874 the village included 4 hotels, a blacksmith’s shop, two churches, a general store, and several homes.

South of the river, the town of Edwardsburg, named after Edward Matthews, was developing. He was one of London’s first contractors and built Eldon House and the barracks north of Victoria Park (now the Delta Armouries Hotel). He owned many of the lots in and around the town and after his death, those lots were held in Chancery. In 1872 however, they became available to purchase and the town developed further.

Edwardsburg was already in the process of being absorbed by Frampton by 1857. It was often called Dorchester Station because of the railway station built on the north side of the river that the Great Western Railway named Dorchester. In 1881, 3 trains stopped in Dorchester each day. The village of Dorchester was formalized in 1915 by the formalization of the Police Village of Dorchester. Street lighting and hydro came to the town that same year. The telephone has arrived in 1904.

By 1945, the village had 2795 residents. There were now 3 churches in the village - Anglican, Presbyterian, and United. The town also had 3 grocery and general stores, a livestock and feed business, a grist mill that also sold livestock feed, two garages and repair shops, a farm implement shop, a blacksmith shop, a railway shipping station, a lumber yard, Bank of Toronto (TD), the Rawleigh Supply store, a general insurance office, a hotel, a barbershop, a beauty parlour, a soda bar and pool room, a doctor, an undertaker, a public and continuation school, and a public library. There were also four fraternal organisations: Masonic, Orange, Odd Fellows, and Rebeccas.

The hotel, originally built in the 1800s was located across from the Dorchester Feed Mill and still stands, though it has been converted into apartment buildings. The Rob Roy Hotel was located on Minnie Street. It was converted into a home and is the white house located beside the Feed Mill's storage barn.

Catherine Street looking towards Dorchester Road
Catherine Street beside St. Peter's Anglican Church

In 1996, municipalities were asked to amalgamate through the Savings and Restructuring Act, 1996 (Bill 26). In Middlesex County, a total of 15 historic townships became eight new municipalities. North Dorchester and West Nissouri Townships were amalgamated and became the Municipality of Thames Centre.

Dorchester now has a population of more than 4 000 and continues to welcome new newcomers as subdivisions crop up in the South, East and West sides of town. It is a desirable place to live for many and has been on Maclean's Best Communities in Canada list multiple times. It has all the warmth and charm of a small town, yet still boasts a wide range of amenities, community & service groups, clubs & teams, and events to keep everyone busy and connected!

Schools

The original SS 4 North Dorchester School was a one-room wooden structure built in the mid-1800s. In the late 1800s, a second room was added and in 1913, a brick two-floor structure with 2 classrooms was built.

In the early twentieth century, when the railroad was owned by the Grand Trunk Railroad, students who wished to continue their education beyond grade 8 could catch the train to Woodstock to attend Woodstock Collegiate Institute. After 1921, they could attend the continuation school located above the funeral home now owned by the Bieman’s. In 1924, 2 additional rooms were added to SS No 4 to allow for the Continuation School students to attend there instead of above the funeral home, however by 1952 demands for elementary level education meant that the Continuation School was closed and students were bussed to London.

In 1956, River Heights was built on the south side of the river. In the mid-1960s, SS 4 became Northdale Central Public School. Both River Heights and Northdale Central were grade 1-8 schools until 1986 when River Heights became the junior elementary school and Northdale Central became the senior elementary school. River Heights was chosen as the junior elementary to keep walking distances shorter for the younger students walking to the various amenities in town. In 2000, an addition was done at Northdale Central to move the grade 4 students to that school.

St. David’s School opened as a two-room school in 1964. It underwent a significant addition in the 1970s. It underwent another addition in 2003 to bring the total classroom number up to 13.

Lord Dorchester Secondary School opened on September 5, 1961, with 380 students in attendance. It was originally named Dorchester High School until 1971 when a significant addition was added to the school.

SS 4 after it was expanded to include the continuation school.
London Gun Club on Mill Pond in Dorchester

The Mill Pond

The Mill Pond was originally a creek that, by 1810, was dammed to form the mill pond for the sawmill. Dorchester was known for its white pine and cedar and much of the forest in the area was floated downriver to help build the city of Detroit. The pond was a popular site for recreation such as swimming and boating in the summer and the ice was thick enough for skating and ice carnivals to be held on it with snowmobile races in winter. In 1943, the London Gun Club had a clubhouse on the site and had cleaned out the pond and stocked it with speckled trout. The dam was reconstructed in 2005 to improve water flow to the Thames River.

Between 1934 and 1985 the Dreamland building stood by the Mill Pond and was a popular resort for thousands of people. It was said to have the best dancefloor in the area. The hall was booked every weekend. It was run by the Tiner family until they moved and the Lions Club took it over. The township bought it, and the pond and dam, in 1984, the decision was made to demolish the building because it had become derelict.

Farming & Agriculture

Initially, settlers in the area focused on crop growth and used teams of oxen to clear the land, however over time, horses took over the maintenance of farms and the dairy industry developed. Tobacco became a popular crop in the 1820s and by the mid-1960s there were 24 tobacco farms in the Dorchester area.

The North Dorchester Agricultural Society was formed in 1855 and the First agricultural show, the Donnybrook Fair, was held on October 18, 1855.

Tobacco farming in Dorchester

Sources

History of Middlesex County

Map of Ontario Treaties and Reserves

North Dorchester Township Heritage Project

North Dorchester Heritage Book Committee. (2000). North Dorchester Township: Toil, Tragedy and Triumph 1800 - 2000 Our History (Vol. 1).

  • A beautifully bound hardcover set of three heritage books that contains 1,500 pages with over 400 family stories and 4,400 photos. To purchase a set, visit the Thames Centre website or contact the Dorchester Library to view the copy held there.