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Gorffwysfa: The Origins of 24 Sussex Drive, The Prime Minister's Official Residence

Posted by HPOC Staff on


The Prime Minister's Official Residence at 24 Sussex Drive is the subject of much debate over its future.  HPOC invited Andrew Narraway, a recent history graduate from Carleton University, to share his research on the little-known origins of this prominent Canadian heritage property.  

By Andrew Narraway, M.A.

The house that sits on the south bank of the Ottawa river at 24 Sussex Drive was not always simply known by its address. For years, the house went by its original name “Gorffwysfa,” meaning place or haven of rest in Welsh, a title bestowed by its original owner; Joseph Merrill Currier. The house was to be many things to Currier in its early days. Primarily, it was a representation of his life as a lumber baron and politician in the Ottawa Valley, a monument to his social influence and prestige, but it was also the fulfillment of a promise made to his young wife Hannah Wright.  Unfortunately, much like the contributions of Currier to the city of Ottawa, the history of the house at 24 Sussex Drive has largely been forgotten in favour of contemporary personalities and problems.

In recent years, 24 Sussex Drive has been the topic of more headlines than any house ever should be. The house that was original christened as a place of rest by Currier is now in critical condition and well on its way to “actual failure” according to some experts.[i] Accounts of the residence’s disrepair have been featured by news outlets across North America including the Globe and Mail, the CBC, the Washington Post, and the New York Times—to only name a few. Two of the most prominent controversies that have been discussed concerning 24 Sussex Drive are the refusal of current Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to live in what could rightfully be considered his childhood home and a report by the National Capital Commission that estimates renovations to the residence would cost $34.5 million (or $38.5 million for an entirely new residence).[ii] It seems that Gorffwysfa is no longer an appropriate name for the house in the forest east of Rideau Falls.

But what is the story of this house beyond the controversies? Where does it fit into Canadian history? And why does it even matter? This article, the first in what is hoped to be a series on the house at 24 Sussex Drive, has these questions at its heart as it explores the early history of the house, its original design, and the life of its creator: J. M. Currier.  

Joseph Merrill Currier: The Lumber Baron and the Politician

Joseph Merrill Currier was born in 1820 in North Troy, Vermont, a small community nestled on almost directly on the Canada-U.S. border between Vermont and Quebec. He was the youngest of seven children but beyond that much of his early life is unknown.[iii] It is not until 1837, at the age of seventeen, that Currier begins to appear in the historical record. During that year, he began work as a labourer at Levi Bigelow’s sawmill in Buckingham, Quebec, located on Rivière du Lièvre—a tributary of the Ottawa River.[iv] It may seem strange that this young man from Vermont started working at a small sawmill in rural Quebec, but Currier’s arrival in the Ottawa Valley was a product of family connections. A notable millwright in the Ottawa Valley at the time was an American expatriate known as Horace Merrill who is believed to have been a close family friend or relative of the Curriers.[v] In fact, Joseph’s middle name Merrill may have been in honour of Horace Merrill. Merrill was the primary millwright in the construction of Bigelow’s Mills during the early 1820s and it was through this personal connection that Currier found himself working in Buckingham thus beginning his career in the lumber industry.[vi]

J.M. Currier, June 1875 and a typical mill - from Library & Archives Canada (LAC)

The lumber industry of the Ottawa Valley was a crucial element in both the life of Currier and the development of the area that became Ottawa. In 1806, Napoleon’s continental blockage in Europe forced the United Kingdom to find a new source for timber. British North America, and specifically the Ottawa Valley with its abundance of white and red pines along with its waterway connection with the St. Lawrence, was the answer to the United Kingdom’s problems.[vii]  This kick-started an economy that came to define the Ottawa Valley for the next century, bringing with it both prosperity and hardships. The timber industry was a “boom-and-bust” economy that created dangerous working conditions and a tenuous existence for its employees. However, despite these issues, Currier took to the trade and quickly rose through the ranks of employees at Bigelow’s Mills becoming the manager by the mid-1840s. During this period, he also found success in his personal life including his marriage to Christine Stenhouse Wilson in January of 1846 and the birth of four children during the following years.[viii] His position as the manager of Bigelow’s Mill allowed him to start rubbing shoulders with the elite of the Ottawa Valley including one of the most important men of the period: Thomas MacKay.

McKay is one of the most influential figures in the Ottawa lumber industry during the first half of the nineteenth century. He was one of the industry’s first pioneers. One example of his entrepreneurship is that he was the first lumber baron to export lumber to New England.[ix]  He is also credited with founding New Edinburgh, the community that arose around Rideau Falls due to his business interests. His expanding business interests required the help of many lower level managers which eventually included Currier. McKay hired Currier to manage his mill at Rideau Falls around 1850, which facilitated Currier and his family’s move to the area.[x]

Thomas MacKay and one of his mills - from LAC

The success of Currier’s career only continued when he arrived in New Edinburgh. By 1853, Currier was no longer just managing the mills at Rideau Falls but renting them from McKay in partnership with Moss Kent Dickinson, the “King of the Rideau” and a lifelong friend of Currier’s.[xi] The rental of MacKay’s mills at Rideau Falls was the beginning of Currier’s full-fledged involvement in the local economy of New Edinburgh. He, along with Dickinson, invested in several industries to diversify their income. This included a foundry, a cork factory, and a textile mill to name a few of their early endeavours.[xii] However, many believe his rise to prominence was guided financially by the investment of a secret backer, either Horace Merrill or Thomas MacKay’s estate, which allowed for this rapid expansion of industry.[xiii] Regardless, Currier was forging a name all his own in the area, both in the local business and the community.

For some, Currier is recognized as being the most prominent citizen in New Edinburgh after the death of MacKay in 1855.[xiv] He was involved in several community organizations during this period including the Ottawa Board of School Trustees, Lumber Manufacturers Union, and most notably as an Alderman for the Ottawa City Council. Currier was sworn as an Alderman for By Ward in Ottawa on May 9th, 1859.[xv] He was a vocal advocate in his early political positions for many issues that were reflective of his character including waterways, taxes, community involvement, and education. Furthermore, he was an avid supporter for the improvement of Ottawa’s infrastructure including the development of roads and the creation of schools to provide proper education to the expanding population in the city.[xvi] He only served one term as an Alderman for the city of Ottawa, but this experience laid the foundation for future, and arguably more important, political endeavors.  

Unfortunately for Currier, the success he was finding in his career during this period in the 1850s was plagued by personal hardships. Three of his four children died within weeks of each other during September of 1855 of what appears to be either typhoid or scarlet fever, both manifesting with similar symptoms.[xvii] Disease was running virtually unchecked in the Ottawa area at the time due to the influx of Irish refugees escaping from the Potato Famine, many of which were carrying illnesses across the Atlantic from Ireland, which was only exacerbated by the unsanitary conditions of early Ottawa.[xviii] The death of his children was only the beginning of personal grief for Currier as his wife died of a “broken heart” three years later in 1858, leaving him a single father to his son James.[xix] Understandably, Currier sought a change of scenery and in late 1858 he went up the Rideau River to start a new business venture with his friend Moss Kent Dickinson.

In that year, there were weir failures at the north end of Long Island in the Rideau River about 35 kilometres south of Rideau Falls which resulted in the construction of a new control dam in the west channel of the river. This new dam provided the perfect site for a milling enterprise.[xx] The location of the dam made it a prime business opportunity for Currier and Dickinson to further expand their lumber enterprise into the American markets. After purchasing the land around the new dam, the men built a sawmill on the river along with residences for them and their families. The small community that arose around these mills is now known as Manotick.

Regrettably for Currier, he would again experience personal tragedy in the place he sought to escape it. On March 11th, 1861, his new wife Ann Crosby was killed in an accident during a tour of the sawmill on the anniversary of its creation.[xxi] Currier soon became disinterested in his and Dickinson’s business venture at Long Island due to the passing of his wife, selling his shares in the company in April of 1863 and returning to Ottawa to again try to start over.

Currier was greeted as part of the social elite in Ottawa when he returned from Manotick. His name appears on prestigious guest lists and community boards around the city in the middle of the nineteenth century.[xxii] He attended a variety of dinners and balls that were exclusive to the Ottawa elite on his return to the city. It was at one of these balls in the middle of the 1860s that he met his future wife Hannah Wright, the heiress to the Wright lumber family. Hannah was reportedly one of the most eligible bachelorettes of Ottawa’s social elite during the period. The pair began courting soon after their meeting ushering in a new era of personal achievement for Currier.

Hannah Wright - photo from LAC

His business relationships also flourished with the foundations of partnerships made with important families such as Hannah’s family, the Wrights, across the Ottawa in East Canada (Quebec). He originally left Ottawa as a man trying to escape personal tragedy, and although his return was also marked by a similar hardship, the people of Ottawa welcomed his return with open arms. This may be most obvious in the proposition by the citizens of Ottawa for him to represent them in government as a member of Provincial Parliament.

At the beginning of June 1863, the citizens of Ottawa put forward candidates to represent the city in the Legislative Assembly of the Province of Canada for the upcoming election. One of the favourite candidates put forward by the citizens of Ottawa was J.M. Currier.[xxiii]  A letter of endorsement published in The Ottawa Citizen was signed by over four hundred people from across the city. On June 20, 1863, Currier was officially nominated. The Ottawa Citizen reported that between two and three thousand people flooded into Ottawa City Hall to take part in the proceedings which followed the official nominations. Currier made a speech at the event in which he informed the audience that with respect to his politics, “if he went to the House he would go there independent in name and in reality.”[xxiv] The Ottawa Citizen published the results of the election on June 27, 1863 under the title “Hurrah for Currier! Currier Elected! Majority for Currier 190.” Currier won the election in what could be considered a landslide victory and on July 3, 1863, he was officially declared as the new Member of Provincial Parliament for Ottawa. At the time, Canada was a British colony known as the Province of Canada, which was divided into East Canada, formerly known as Lower Canada and primarily French-Canadian, and West Canada, previously Upper Canada with a majority English-Canadian population. Therefore, although Currier was elected as a Member of Provincial Parliament, at the time that position was the equivalent to a national position. After his election, Currier moved to the capital of the Province of Canada at the time, Quebec City, to take his seat in provincial parliament.[xxv]

Currier continued to be a man who cared deeply about his community during his tenure in the Legislative Assembly. His time was now split between sitting in the House in Quebec City and working in the local community of Ottawa. He was involved in arts and recreation groups around Ottawa including the Ottawa Skating Club, the Ottawa Curling Team, the Natural History Society, and St. Vincent de Paul Society.[xxvi] He was an advocate for Ottawa in the legislature, even so far as becoming one of the primary supporters of moving the Canadian government to Ottawa from Quebec City. Although Ottawa had already been chosen as the future capital of Canada, the government was still sitting in Quebec City until the parliament buildings were completed. Currier played a major role in moving the government to Ottawa earlier than expected and ushering in a new age for the city.  The Legislative Assembly of the Province of Canada moved to Ottawa in the early months of 1866 and held its final session in what would become the Federal House of Commons.[xxvii] This movement greatly impacted the life of Ottawa as it went from a working-class lumber town filled with shantymen to the new governmental capital.

Gorffwysfa: A Place of Rest

Currier proposed to his romantic partner Hannah Wright upon his return to Ottawa from his brief stint living in Quebec City. He promised to build her a house that was worthy of not only her character but also her reputation. She loved to entertain and was known as one of the most charming and accomplished hostesses in the region.[xxviii] Currier sought to honour his new wife as well as their mutual history in the Ottawa area. This promise of a house became the one we now know at 24 Sussex Drive. 

Construction began on the home that Currier had promised Hannah Wright in 1866. It was built on a lot purchased by Currier close to the place he made his fortune at Rideau Falls. This was done intentionally as Currier wanted the home to reflect his life and be a reminder of his past. It was built next to the Ottawa river nestled in a forest grove; the two elements needed for the lumber trade that built Currier’s fortune as well as the Wright estate.[xxix] Currier’s brother, also having the initials J.M. Currier, was an architect that traveled to Ottawa from Springfield, Massachusetts to design the house. Gorffwysfa is built of grey stones, faced with Gloucester limestone, and roofed with tin. Its Gothic revival design was described at the time as both “chaste and elegant.”[xxx] The design of the house mimicked the newly created Parliament Buildings  that were only a few kilometres upriver from the house.

The inside was furnished primarily with hardwood including floors made of walnut, butternut, and pine, stairs made of oak, and windows made of ash, butternut, and walnut. However, the mantlepieces were made of elegant marble. The house was built with special features that were considered luxuries at the time including soundproofing in the roof, heated air, and indoor plumbing including hot water. There were also numerous outbuildings on the property including a lodge, wood-house, conservatory, and summerhouse.  The house’s grace was only matched by the location in which it was set. An article in The Ottawa Citizen published after the completion of the house remarks upon the house’s connection to the natural beauty of the area: “In front and below flows the Ottawa, beyond are green fields dotted with picturesque houses, and away in the distance, forming a back ground to the picture, are beautiful hills.”[xxxi]

Gorffwysfa was completed in the spring of 1868, the same year that Currier and Wright exchanged their vows. The combination of Hannah’s skills as a hostess, the location of the house, and the elegance of the home itself made it a perfect site for Ottawa’s elite to meet and mingle. The Curriers held a party at the completion of the house for which they invited over five hundred guests including Prime Minister Sir John A. MacDonald and his wife Lady MacDonald.[xxxii]  The celebration must have been one for the ages as family and friends came together to celebrate a new marriage and a new home. The social importance of the Currier family and their home was highlighted in 1869 when Currier was chosen as the chair of the welcoming committee for Prince Arthur’s visit to Ottawa. He was tasked with planning a trip for the young royal which included a sightseeing tour around Chaudière Falls, a meeting with lumbermen, and an evening at Gorffwysfa with a party hosted by Hannah.[xxxiii] This event was so important to the Curriers that they built a ballroom adjacent to their home specifically to throw a ball for the Prince.  The ball was held on February 16, 1870. It was described as thrown on a “very extensive scale” that was “worthy of the hosts and their distinguished guests.”[xxxiv]  It was reported that the Curriers greatly regretted having to make a limited guest list and hoped to have a much larger party than the one that was held. However, the ball was a great success being furnished in bright and happy colours with the host and hostess making it their priority that every guest was comfortable and in good spirits. Everything was seen to be in good taste and liberally provided for the making of a grand evening on the banks of the Ottawa River.  Evidently, Gorffwysfa was the becoming the social centre of the young capital city. 

24 Sussex Drive today - photo from the National Capital Commission

The Curriers involvement with the social elite of Ottawa did not just include hosting balls but also the organization of social clubs. Back in the middle of the 1860s, Joseph Currier was one of five petitioners in the Legislative Assembly of the Province of Canada who argued for the creation of the Rideau Club, a club for Canada’s political elites. Currier took the role of president of this club between 1873 and 1878 during the height of his and Hannah’s involvement in Ottawa’s social life.[xxxv]  This type of involvement in city life opened several doors for Currier’s business endeavors including one at The Ottawa Citizen. Between 1872 and 1877 he was president of the Citizen Printing and Publishing Company which owned The Ottawa Citizen, the newspaper that had regularly supported his political career.[xxxvi]  Another interesting opportunity also arose in August of 1874 when Currier purchased land near what is now downtown Ottawa. He turned this land into Beechwood Cemetery and almost immediately moved his two deceased wives and children to this location.  This cemetery is now the National Cemetery of Canada, the National Military Cemetery of Canada and a National Historic Site.  It is a major landmark in Ottawa playing host to numerous famous gravesites, including Currier himself. Currier again made a lasting impact on the environment of Ottawa.

The episode surrounding the construction of Gorffwysfa is an illustrative story of not only the character of Currier but also the culture of Ottawa during the period. Currier’s marriage to Hannah Wright is an interesting case as it shows the intermarriage of lumber families. Historians have often pointed to the fact that although there were many social elites in Ottawa during the nineteenth century, they often did not intermarry for a variety of reasons; one being the fact that their relationships were based purely on business. Currier’s life shows that this narrative may be more complex than previously thought, his life was almost also coloured by his involvement in the industry including his marriage to Hannah. The building of Gorffwysfa is also a stereotypical action undertaken by Currier as argued by historians of the Ottawa lumber trade. Many of the men who came to prominence through the lumber trade were men like Currier, hard workers that started from the bottom and slowly amassed both wealth and notoriety. Many of these men who experienced a low to middle class upbringing did not know how to spend their wealth when they gained it. Oftentimes, these men built grand houses to show their wealth to the community instead of clothes or jewels. This is evident walking down almost any street in downtown Ottawa as many of these mansions of lumber barons still exist in one form or another. At once, Currier was a stereotypical lumber baron and breaking conventions.

Currier’s life in the late 1860s and 1870s was not entirely consumed with community improvement groups, parties, and business ventures. It also involved the regular life of a Member of Parliament. The creation of a new country in 1867 did not mean that Currier was guaranteed a job in the new parliament. Instead, a mere eleven days after the signing of the British North America Act, The Ottawa Citizen published an article announcing the election of new representatives for federal parliament with Currier being a leading candidate.  On August 30, 1867, it was announced in The Ottawa Citizen that Currier had won the federal seat making him the first federal Member of Parliament for Ottawa.[xxxvii] Currier was again an advocate for Ottawa in parliament, only speaking on a handful of occasions that were related to his own and Ottawa’s well-being. These instances often concerned issues of waterways, lumber, business enterprise, or public improvement.

However, on April 16, 1877 at the age of 57, Currier was forced to resign as the Member of Parliament for Ottawa. Liberal M.P. and future Prime Minister Wilfrid Laurier brought evidence forward to the House of Commons that Currier had violated the Independence of Parliament Act.  It was found that Currier’s businesses, namely T.W. Currier & Co. and Baston & Currier, had made several business transactions with the federal government which was strictly prohibited.[xxxviii] After a hard-fought re-election the following year, Currier was unable to pay his $700 registration fee and the Conservative Party was forced to pay it for him.[xxxix] This was the first sign that the Currier fortune was beginning to diminish. The several reasons for this including a fire at one of Currier’s mills, several lawsuits filed against his business interests, and lastly, the beginnings of the downfall of the lumber trade. Currier eventually was forced to resign from his unpaid position as a M.P. and took a job as the Postmaster for Ottawa. He would spend the rest of his life in this position before passing away on a holiday to Bermuda from “consumption” or what is more commonly known as tuberculosis at the age of 64.[xl]

Currier was survived by his wife Hannah Wright and his son James Everett Currier. According to the Wright family files of which many concern Hannah, she continued to be active in the business and social community of Ottawa after her husband’s death. Furthermore, she remained in the house that Joseph had built for her until her death in 1901. James, by then a public servant working mainly with railways and canals, inherited the house from his step-mother and promptly sold it to William Cameron Edwards, an up and coming lumber baron in the Ottawa region.[xli] The house stayed in the Edwards family until 1943 when it was expropriated by the federal government. However, that is a story for another time and another article.

Conclusion

The house at 24 Sussex Drive is much more than merely the house of Canada’s Prime Ministers. It is a monument to the social and cultural history of Ottawa and early Canada, a symbol of the love between two individuals who walked familiar streets over a century ago, and now it is a headline for people to discuss and debate. Ultimately, the history of 24 Sussex Drive teaches a lesson about the complex layers of meaning that crystalize over time. The house has meant many different things to many different people over the one hundred and fifty years it has sat on the south bank of the Ottawa. As discussions move forward about what to do with the house that sits at 24 Sussex Drive, it is important to consider this history and the layers of meaning attached to the house. Gorffwysfa may no longer be a place of rest, but that does not necessarily mean it no longer serves a purpose.

 

[i] Catherine Tunney, “$83M needed to repair ‘fire hazard’ 24 Sussex and other official residences, commission says,” CBC News, last updated October 16, 2018.  

[ii] Tom Spears, “Cost of fixing 24 Sussex? 34.5 million,” The Ottawa Citizen, last updated November 22, 2018, https://ottawacitizen.com/news/local-news/cost-of-fixing-24-sussex-34-5-million.

[iii] “Son of North Troy” pamphlet, part of what I will hence refer to as the “Currier Compilation Package” which was a package of material provided to me during my time as a researcher for the Rideau Township Historical society by decendants of Currier.

[iv] Ibid.

[v] Dictionary of National Biography, “Horace Merrill,” accessed April 10, 2019, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/merrill_horace_11E.html.

[vi] Pierre-Louis Lapointe, Buckingham: In the Heart of the Lower Lievre District, the City of Buckingham From Its Earliest Beginnings, 1824-1990 (Buckingham: City of Buckingham, 1990), 25.

[vii] Canadian Encyclopedia, “Timber Trade History,” accessed April 10, 2019, http://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/timber-trade-history/; for more information on  the Ottawa timber industry see David Lee, Lumber Kings and Shantymen: Logging and Lumbering in the Ottawa Valley (Toronto: James Lorimer & Company, 2006).

[viii] Currier Compilation Package.

[ix] Lee, Lumber Kings, 93.

[x] John W. Hughson and Courtney C. J. Bond, Hurling Down the Pine: The story of the Wright, Gilmour, and Hughson families, timber and lumber manufacturers in the Hull and Ottawa region and on the Gatineau River, 1800-1920 (Old Chelsea: The History Society of the Gatineau, 1964), 42.

[xi] Hughson, Hurling Down the Pine, 35.

[xii] “New Edinburgh Prior to 1855” a report that is contained within the Currier Compilation Package.

[xiii] Lee, Lumber Kings, 215.

[xiv] Harry and Olive Walker, Carleton Saga (Ottawa: Carleton County Council, 1968), 330.

[xv] Ottawa City Council Meeting, May 9, 1859, City of Ottawa Archives, Ottawa, Ontario.

[xvi] “Morning, October 11, 1859” The Ottawa Citizen, October 11, 1859.

[xvii] “Son of North Troy” in the Currier Compilation Package.

[xviii] John H. Taylor, Ottawa: An Illustrated History (Toronto: James Lorimer & Company, 1986), 31 – 34.

[xix] Ibid.

[xx] William and Georgina Tupper, The Dickinson Men of Manotick (Manotick: The Rideau Township Historical Association, 2015), 54. The entire section of this particular book is an essential guide to the history of Manotick, Ontario and the Long Island Milling Enterprise.

[xxi] “Untitled,” The Ottawa Citizen, March 12, 1861.

[xxii] An example of Currier’s new social status is his attendance at a visit of the governor general to Ottawa, at which he gave a speech for the crowd, “Visit of the Governor General,” The Ottawa Citizen, October 11, 1862.

[xxiii] “To J.M. Currier E8Q,” The Ottawa Citizen, June 12, 1863.

[xxiv] “Ottawa City Election,” The Ottawa Citizen, June 20, 1863.

[xxv] “Ottawa City Election: The Declaration,” The Ottawa Citizen, July 4, 1863.

[xxvi] Numerous articles published in The Ottawa Citizen during his tenure catalogue his involvement in the local community.

[xxvii] “The deputation in Quebec,” The Ottawa Citizen, February 12, 1864; “The removal to Ottawa,” The Ottawa Citizen, August 15, 1865.

[xxviii] Maureen McTeer and Ted Grant, Residences: Homes of Canada’s Leaders (Scarborough: Prentice-Hall Canada, 1982), 11. McTeer’s book offers the best complete history of 24 Sussex Drive, however much of the life of Currier is left out.

[xxix] Ibid.; Hughson, Hurling Down the Pine, 3, offers a description of the Wright family fortune.

[xxx] Ibid.

[xxxi] “Mr. Currier’s New Residence,” The Ottawa Citizen, November 1, 1867.

[xxxii] McTeer, Residences, 11.

[xxxiii] “Reception of Prince Arthur,” The Ottawa Citizen, October 5, 1869.

[xxxiv] McTeer, Residences, 13.

[xxxv] Dictionary of Canadian Biography, “Joseph Merrill Currier,” accessed April 10, 2019, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/currier_joseph_merrill_11E.html.

[xxxvi] Ibid.

[xxxvii] “Currier Elected,” The Ottawa Citizen, August 30, 1867.

[xxxviii] House of Commons Debates, 3rd Parliament, 4th Session, Canadiana Digital Archives, http://heritage.canadiana.ca/.

[xxxix] Dictionary of National Biography, “Currier.”

[xl] “The Late Mr. Currier,” The Ottawa Citizen April 23, 1884.

[xli] Currier Compilation Package; also see Jacqueline Adell, “24 Sussex Drive,” The Canadian Encyclopedia, https://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/24-sussex-drive, last edited March 4, 2015.

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