HISTORIC ST. MARYS: The William and Susan Box Family

  • History   Wednesday, October 6, 2021   Mary Smith

By Mary Smith
Robinson Street in the west ward is lovely at this time of year. On the west side, just north of Queen Street, a group of 150-year-old brick houses look across the Thames River valley and seem peacefully remote from the busy traffic going up and down the Queen Street hill. All the houses along this street have interesting stories. Currently, the property research team at the St. Marys Museum is working on a history report for 18 Robinson Street. Built in the early 1870s, it was the home to the family in this week’s photograph – William and Susan Box and their handsome children. From the mid-19th century and well into the 20th century, the Boxes were a prominent presence in St. Marys.
William Box was born in Devon, England, in 1835. When he was still a little boy, his parents, Richard and Tamzin Box, brought their family to Canada. They stayed first in Eastern Ontario and then settled on a farm in London Township. There William met Susan (Susannah) Standfield Brine, daughter of James Brine and Elizabeth Standfield, who were farm neighbours. They were married in 1863 and soon after moved to St. Marys where William’s older brother, Richard, had a young family and was establishing himself in several different ventures including milling. Their parents, Richard Senior and Tamzin, followed them to St. Marys along with the younger members of the family. By 1871, there were three generations of the family living in this town.
When William and Susan first arrived in St. Marys, they lived in the east ward but in 1869, they purchased property on Robinson Street. Assessment records are sparse for these years but sometime in the early 1870s, they built the storey-and-a-half brick house that stands there today, numbered 18 Robinson Street. The census information in 1871 shows that the Boxes had four young children, the oldest seven and the youngest one year old. The family eventually increased to eight children – four girls and four boys. William Box’s occupation was bailiff. He was appointed in the late 1860s to this patronage position as an officer of the district court and held the office until he died in 1915. It was the bailiff’s responsibility to ensure that court orders were discharged.
William’s older brother, Richard Box, was very involved in local politics, serving as mayor of St. Marys in 1875 and 1876. William found other ways to serve his community. For many years, he was secretary of the South Perth Agricultural Society and, as director, helped to make the annual fall fair a permanent event. He was a long-serving member of the Independent Order of Odd Fellows, and acted as marshal for all their public events. He would have been an active member in 1880 when the St. Marys Opera House was constructed, containing the IOOF lodge rooms. For over half a century, he presided as returning officer at every election held in the west ward. He and his family were all devout Methodists. Their commitment to the St. Marys Methodist Church was the bedrock in their lives.
While William Box’s ancestors were respectable farmers and businessmen, his wife Susan’s parents were part of a group that influenced history. Her father, James Brine, as a very young man, had been unjustly arrested, tried, convicted and sent by prison ship to Australia. He was one of the Tolpuddle Martyrs. His wife Elizabeth – Susan’s mother – was the daughter of Thomas Standfield, another member of this group. The Martyrs’ story is familiar to many people but it is worth remembering and retelling. Six farm labourers from Tolpuddle, a village in Dorset, England, were sentenced in 1834 to seven years hard labour in penal colonies in Australia. The charges against them were complex but basically, the men’s crime was demanding fair wages to support themselves and their families. Their courage in confronting establishment landowners became the focus of the growing trade union movement in England. After their transportation, there were demonstrations and petitions demanding that they be pardoned. Eventually they were. Between 1837 and 1839, they made their way back to England. In 1839, James Brine married the daughter of Thomas Standfield, who had also recently returned from this unjust, forced absence from his home and family.
But although the Tolpuddle Martyrs were welcomed home as heroes, there was little opportunity for farm labourers in England. The Brines and Standfields decided to emigrate. In 1844, James and Elizabeth Brine with their three little children arrived in Canada, settling first on a farm near Goderich. By 1850, they had moved to London Township, closer to friends and relatives, including the Standfield family. James Brine farmed on several different properties in London Township and then in Blanshard. In 1873, he finally bought a farm of his own – Lot 18, East Mitchell Road Concession, Blanshard Township. This farm remained in the Brine family for almost a century.
When James and Elizabeth settled on this farm, they were parents and grandparents in late middle age. Their children had grown up and had homes of their own, some nearby in Blanshard Township or, like their daughter, Susan Box, in St. Marys. To all appearances, this hard-working, pioneer family was otherwise unexceptional. It is not clear whether even their own children knew of the drama of their earlier life in Dorset. But after they died (James in 1902 and Elizabeth in 1906) this changed. As the story of the Tolpuddle Martyrs’ settlement in Ontario became widely known, they were honoured here as they were in England and their descendants became intensely proud of their legacy. James Brine’s well-tended grave, with a commemorative plaque, is well worth a visit in the St. Marys Cemetery.
On Christmas Day, 1909, the family of William and Susan Box celebrated what was, according to the St. Marys newspapers, “one of the brightest and happiest family reunions possible to any domestic circle.” The photograph with this column was taken to commemorate the occasion. William, with his full, white beard, and Susan are seated in the front row, flanked by their daughters. On the left is Mary Louise (Mrs. Bristol Evans) and beside her is Grace, who was a teacher, visiting from Winnipeg for this occasion. On the right, beside Susan, is Evangeline (Mrs. Armon Ready.) The four Box sons are in the back row – James, Alonzo, John and William Charles. A fourth daughter was missing from this reunion: Lousina had died, age 33, in 1899. Christmas Day was also Susan Box’s birthday and “most affectionate congratulations were showered on the mother and grandmother.” For William: “Everything seemed to contribute to his pleasure and satisfaction.” William Box died a few years after this reunion in 1915 in his 80th year. Susan died in 1926. Her obituary made note of her family’s connection to the Tolpuddle Martyrs.
The surname Box is no longer a familiar one in St. Marys. However, Susan’s family, the Brines, are still very much a part of this community. For many years, a family reunion celebrated the growth and spread of the descendants of James and Elizabeth Brine throughout North America.
Anyone interested in more information about James Brine’s life in Ontario should read an excellent book written and published by Don Macintyre in 2010: “Tolpuddle Martyr, Pioneer Farmer.” Copies are available at the Public Library and, as reference, at the St. Marys Museum.a