Robert Leslie: Pioneer public servant

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by Doug Macdonald

The signature of Robert Leslie can be found on thousands of documents from Oxford Township and the village of Kemptville between the late 1830’s and 1890. From the time tinsmith Robert Leslie arrived from Aberdeen, Scotland c. 1832, he played a major role in the community we know as North Grenville. Robert was one of the most prominent of the “fathers of the community”. A man of intelligence, candour and “loyal heart”, he earned a position of great respect. Today, most people associate Leslie with the Anglican Church Parish Hall, named in his memory 110 years ago. But there is much more to his story. Robert Leslie was Deputy Postmaster under Kemptville’s first Postmaster, Squire William H. Bottum. In 1850 he became the village’s second Postmaster, a position he held for 40 years. In 1862 he built a handsome brick commercial building on Clothier East (now the parking lot immediately east of the South Branch Bistro). The Leslie Block served as the town’s Post Office until 1909 and, over the next 81 years, was home to many businesses. The Leslie Block was demolished in 1990. Leslie also held the position of Clerk of the Division Court of Lanark and Renfrew, Clerk of the Township of Oxford, and, after incorporation, the first Clerk of the Village of Kemptville.

The 1851 census records the Leslie family: Robert, Postmaster, 47, Mary Amanda 34, and their children: David 15, Robert Peel 13, William Henry 10, George Albert 5, Felicia 3, as well as David (Robert’s father) 81, living on ¾ of an acre between Oxford and Clothier Streets. (vicinity of current 4 Oxford Street).

Leslie had a keen interest in education. In 1843 he was one of the founding members of the new Grammar School, a Trustee of the Grammar School, and also a Trustee of the Village’s three small stone Common Schools. With the building of the combined Public and High School in 1873, Leslie became a Trustee of the High School.

Robert Leslie was a stalwart supporter of the Sons of Temperance (not one of the most popular endeavours!). Of particular importance to Leslie was the fraternal and benevolent Masonic Mount Zion Lodge #28 of the Grand Lodge of Canada in the Province of Ontario. He was a member of the Lodge from 1845, and a charter member, largely responsible for bringing the Lodge to Kemptville.

Robert’s contribution to St. James Anglican Church is legendary. He served the first nine Rectors – from Henry Patton to Charles Emery. His various roles included Church Secretary for 30 years, Lay Reader, Lay Delegate to Diocesan Synod, Church Warden, Treasurer, and, for more than 50 years from 1836, Sunday School Superintendent. Leslie was there to assist at the laying of the cornerstone for the new St. James on May 28, 1878, and at the official opening of St. James the Archdeacon Patton Memorial Church on July 25, 1880.

Under his leadership as Sunday School Superintendent, the magnificent stained glass rose window was commissioned and installed high on the west wall of the church. It was dedicated on June 2, 1882. The inscription on the window reads “The offering of the teachers and scholars of St. James Church Sunday School AD 1882”. Robert Leslie later wrote “the inscription on that fine window will remain a memorial for hundreds of years to the zeal and devotion of the youthful donors.” Robert died in May, 1891. He is buried along side his wife, Mary Amanda Anderson (1817-1860), in St. James Cemetery.

On April 1, 1907, the parishioners of St. James decided to build a new parish hall to replace the 1868 St. James’ Hall. The new hall was dedicated to the memory of Robert Leslie and named Leslie Hall. The cornerstone of the hall was laid on October 8, 1907, and the official opening of the completed building was held on July 1, 1908. Both events were occasions of great pomp and ceremony (parades, marching bands, speeches, concerts, sumptuous dinners, and dignitaries from near and far). Leslie Hall was constructed, not of strong cut limestone, as was St. James, but of hollow concrete blocks manufactured in Kemptville by the Dominion Concrete Company. Even today, many people are convinced the concrete blocks are actually stone. The long slow deterioration of the hollow concrete blocks was hastened by the hall’s disastrous fire of January 12, 1925. The interior and roof of the hall were restored. The walls had withstood the fire, but the heat from the flames, icy water from the fire hoses, and freezing temperatures caused unseen damage.

By 2017, due to degradation, Leslie Hall was no longer sound. Water had infiltrated the basement walls, climate was the enemy of the exterior, rain had entered the hollow concrete blocks, sun, wind and the freeze/thaw of winter had further eroded the core blocks. The cost to address the structural issues of the exterior alone were prohibitive. On February 26, 2017, at Vestry, a decision was taken to decommission Leslie Hall; this was done at a sombre ceremony on June 4. If these decisions, and the eventual demolition of the hall, is a concern for some members of the community, it is heart wrenching for some members of St. James Anglican Church.

The heritage focus is now on St. James, the vision of its “builder”, John Stannage, designed by famous Canadian Architect, William Tutin Thomas. St. James was Robert Leslie’s Church, he was intimately involved in its planning and completion. Time has been kind to St. James, the cut blue limestone has, over nearly 140 years, oxidized to soft beige and brown. The stone work requires expensive maintenance and repair if Leslie’s prediction that the stained glass rose window remain a memorial for hundreds of years comes true. Now, with the loss of the Hall, the rose window also becomes a memorial to Robert Leslie.

 

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