Playing "Ball" In Canada In 1803

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by William Humber, May 2021

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Editor’s Note: Bill Humber’s presentation at the 2021 Fred Conference touched on how Canada can claim a place in the development of baseball, along with the United States. The following article lays out proof of a “ball” game in Canada as early as 1803.

Two reports from Upper Canada (today’s Ontario) in 1803 demonstrate how the folk game became embedded in the nascent Canada, and even hinting at a purpose in the case of the Hope Township game. The Illustrated Historical Atlas of the Counties of Northumberland and Durham, Ontario released by H. Belden & Co. Toronto in 1878, (reprinted by Mika Silk Screening Limited, Belleville, Ontario 1972) says on page iii, “The first Court of Queen’s Bench that ever assembled in the counties of Northumberland and Durham was held in a barn on the premises of Mr. [Leonard] Soper, in Hope, on which occasion the judge (Major McGregor Rogers), lawyers and other officials, chose sides and played a game of ball, to determine who should pay the expenses of a dinner. Ephraim Gifford, father of the late Garner Gifford, acted as constable.” The account concludes however by noting, “This statement is made on the authority of a pamphlet issued by Mr. Coleman a few years ago. As will be seen, further on, it is contradicted by the accounts of the ‘Town of Newcastle’ and loss of the ‘Speedy,’ with the judge, crown prosecutor, &c., on their way to hold a court at Presque Isle.”

It remains unclear what the contradiction might be. It is not however the game of ball but apparently the identity of the court proceedings on the 1803 premises of Mr. Soper as being a Court of Queen’s Bench when in fact they were a district Court of Quarter Sessions. The Queen’s Bench proceedings were scheduled for 10 October 1807 in Presque Isle Point at which a First Nations man, O-go-tong-nat, was to be tried for the murder of one John Sharp. The judge, the prosecuting authorities, the accused, and even some children aboard were all lost however, when their boat, the Speedy, sunk on Lake Ontario after being hit by hurricane-force winds near its destination. Intriguingly David McGregor Rogers (the Major, 1772-1824) is the only person in common between the two places as he is described as a holder of a one-acre lot on the site of the proposed location of the 1807 trial at Presque Isle Point in the planned town of Colborne (about 25 miles or 40 kilometers east of Mr. Soper’s farm).

The Belden Atlas description of the 1803 Court proceedings derived its account from the History of the Early Settlement of Bowmanville and Vicinity, by J. (John) T. Coleman, Bowmanville, West Durham Steam Printing and Publishing House, 1875. The complete description on pages 6-7 reads,

“The First Court of Queen’s Bench that ever assembled in the Counties of Northumberland and Durham, was held in a barn, on the premises of Mr. Soper, in Hope, on which occasion the Judge, (Major MacGregor [sic] Rogers,) lawyers, and other officials, chose sides, and played a game of ball, to determine who should pay the expense of a dinner. Ephriam [sic] Gifford, father of the late Garner Gifford, acted as constable.” Aside from correcting the spelling for McGregor Rogers and Ephraim Gifford, the Belden Atlas simply parroted the Coleman account.

The Dictionary of Canadian Biography describes Rogers as clerk of the peace for the newly established Newcastle District (1802), registrar of the district Surrogate Court (1802), and clerk of the district Court of Quarter Sessions (1802). This appears to confirm the identity of the court on Mr. Soper’s farm as that of a district Court of Quarter Sessions and not the first Queen’s Bench. Here the matter sat until the 100th anniversary of Canadian Confederation in 1967 and the publication of The History of the Township of Hope, by Harold Reeve, (Cobourg Sentinel-Star, Cobourg, Ontario, 1967). Reeve confirmed the Hope Township’s court identity in his review of the minutes of the Quarter Sessions for Newcastle District as found in the Archives of Ontario [now located at York University in Toronto but unavailable for review during the Pandemic]. Quoting from those minutes, he wrote,

“The General Quarter Sessions of the Peace Holden at Hope, Newcastle, in and for the said District on the twelfth day of July in the forty-third year [1803] of the reign of our Sovereign Lord George the third by the grace of God of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland defender of the faith. Before Robert Baldwin, Timothy Thompson, Elias Jones, Leonard Soaper [sic], Asa Burnham, Benjamin Marsh, and Richard Lovekin --------------. Esquires Justices of our said sovereign Lord the King assigned to keep the peace in the said District and also to hear and determine divers felonies, trespasses and other misdemeanors in the said District committed. & c.” Reeve continued with the session’s opening and the reading of the Commission of the Peace. Then he noted that the Sheriff returned the grand jury of over 20 persons. A trial for the “The King versus James Stevens” followed. Stevens was eventually found guilty and fined two shillings and six pence payable to the Sheriff. The court broke up on Thursday, 14 July, 1803. Reeve then wrote, “According to Belden’s Atlas, a game of ball was played to decide who was to pay for the dinner. The Court was held in the barn at Leonard Soper’s, Lot 22, Concession 1. The nature of the offence was not given and this gives rise to some interesting speculation. What offence would fit a fine of 52c?”

Obviously, this adds nothing new to confirm the ‘game of ball’ account, nor does it reference the earlier Coleman story from which the Belden Atlas took its information. Given the Coleman account is only three years before its repeat in the Atlas the problem of its being written so long after the supposed event is telling.

A useful question is from whom did Coleman get his account? Possible candidates exist. On page 44 of his 1875 booklet he lists persons who helped him in his research for the booklet by furnishing documents. They included Richard and J.P. Lovekin, and Timothy Soper. The Lovekins were descendants of one of the Justices in attendance as cited by Harold Reeve, and so could have provided second hand corroboration. Timothy Soper on the other hand was, in 1803, the 14-year-old son of another justice also cited, Leonard Soper. The proceedings were held on the latter man’s property. It seems a reasonable conclusion that Timothy Soper could either have witnessed the play of ball first hand or learned of it second hand from his father Leonard. When Coleman wrote his account in 1875, Timothy Soper was still alive. He lived until 1878 and is buried in the Bowmanville Cemetery.

A second validation is found in the diary of Ely Playter (1776-1858), a farmer, lumberman, militia officer, member of the Upper Canada House of Assembly, and in 1801-02 a tavern keeper who lived in and around York (Toronto). Concurrent with the time of his writing, he described coming to town and joining, on Wednesday 13 April 1803, “…. A number of Men jumping & Playing Ball…”. We do not know definitively, and will never know, what “ball” they were playing, but Playter’s connection to David McGregor Rogers, who presided over the Hope Township Court Sessions, is captivating.

Rogers married two of Playter’s sisters, Sarah and Elizabeth (not at the same time, but after Sarah’s death). Playter and Rogers thus had a close personal relationship. While the distance between them of 60 miles in an era largely dependent of travel by boat on Lake Ontario, would have meant they likely met only occasionally, we can see the real likelihood of them sharing an interest in the game of ball.