ELIZABETH POSTHUMA GWILLIM.
(Abridged by Hilary Stratford from ‘The Extraordinary Lives of Elizabeth Posthuma Gwillim and John Graves Simcoe’ by Ann Gwillim Parker)
Elizabeth Posthuma Gwillim was the daughter of Elizabeth (a widow, her husband having died in 1721). At the time of her birth in September 1762, her mother was living with her grandmother (Jemima) at Aldwinkle, Devon in but she died in childbirth, leaving our heroine an orphan, to be brought up by her grandmother and an aunt (Margaret). However her care was shared with two aunts (Sophia & Henrietta) who lived at The Old Court in Whitchurch. She was afforded every comfort and given a good education. She had a governess and became fluent in French, competent in Spanish and did serious study of botany and geology. She also became a keen horsewoman and enjoyed travelling from Devon to Whitchurch, which may have sparked her later passion for travel and adventure. She had been used to travelling up and down to The Old Court as a child and often sketched things she saw there, such as the church and the tulip tree in the churchyard.
When she was 14 her grandmother, Jemima, died and by this time her aunt Margaret had married a widower, Admiral Graves and moved to his ample home Hembury Fort House, near Honiton in Devon. This is where Elizabeth Posthuma lived for the next 6 years.
It was there in January 1782, aged 19, she met John Graves Simcoe , an army officer, then aged almost 30 – a passionate patriot who was well-educated (at Exeter and Eton and subsequently Merton College, Oxford) and full of ambition. He was a godson of Admiral Graves and came to Hembury Fort House in January 1782, having distinguished himself in the American War of Independence in the previous 5 years. He had been wounded five times and suffered serious ill-health. Having no living relations, he was invited to Admiral Graves’ home to recuperate. In addition to complications from his wounds he was asthmatic and suffered migraines. He needed much loving care and after a few months his relationship with Elizabeth developed into a love affair and they took to riding together across the Blackdown Hills. They eventually married on 30th December 1782 at Buckerall House, about a mile from Hembury Fort House. They now needed somewhere to live and the nearby estate of Wolford in Devon (5000 acres with views over Sidmouth) and including a manor house needing attention, was acquired. The old manor was demolished and an ambitious new 40-room house was planned and building commenced. This became Wolford Lodge. Whilst this was being erected they rented a house in Exeter.
Five children followed, all girls, until in 1790, when Elizabeth was expecting their 6th child, news came that Simcoe (by now a Colonel) was to be offered the post of Lieutenant Governor of Upper Canada (today known as Ontario). Elizabeth was keen to go with him. It was decided that rather than take all the children with them, four of the girls would stay at Wolford Lodge, watched over by Aunt Margaret and other loyal retainers and they would take only the youngest child, Sophia, with them. They waited to travel until after the birth of their new baby in June 1791 – joyously a boy!
On 26th September 1791 the Simcoes and their entourage sailed to Toronto (which John Simcoe decided would be called York – hence Yorktown in Toronto today) where they lived in a canvas house which they had taken with them. Here Elizabeth lived quite happily, sketching and recording birds and flowers and forming a ladies’ group. A 7th child (Katherine) was born in January 1793. In January 1795 John Simcoe was promoted to Major General and saw much active service over the next few years.
In August 1800, Aunt Sophie Gwillim (resident of the Old Court) died, leaving the Old Court and several farms to her beloved niece Elizabeth. Sophie had been a great benefactress to St. Dubricius church and Whitchurch village and is commemorated on a plaque inside the church. Simcoe meanwhile had substantially increased his land holdings.