Clarington Older Adults Association Centre
Rathskamory: The House of All Sorts
Did you know that the famous Canadian painter, Emily Carr, was also a writer? One of her books is entitled “The House of All Sorts”. In it she describes the different people she rented apartments to in her house. I use the same title for this article but I want it to reflect the many different people who have visited the house that is now the Clarington Older Adult Centre over its 170 years of existence.
Anyone who walks up the semi-circular driveway of the Clarington Older Adult Centre can tell that the building wasn’t originally built with that purpose in mind. You can still see it was once a house and a very grand one at that. It was built in 1843 by Dr. George Humphrey Low who gave it the name Rathskamory. That makes it 4 years older than the Bowmanville Museum, known as Waverly Place, and it was built on a much grander scale. Can you imagine what the local people thought at the time? Most of them were living in small wooden houses and some still in log cabins. It must have been like a palace to them.
In 1843 Bowmanville was still growing eastward along King Street from the valley south of Vanstone Mill. The small settlement was still surrounded by primeval forest. Colonel Frederick Cubitt the second mayor of Bowmanville in 1860-61 (he actually served three terms in that office) recounted that as a young man, in 1840; he shot and killed a bear where Lowe Street and Beech Avenue meet today.
Who was Dr. Low? Unfortunately we don’t know too much as his death was in 1865, and surviving Bowmanville newspapers only begin in 1868. However, we do know that he was a wealthy, well educated Anglo-Irish doctor who came to Canada in 1833. He was the first resident doctor in the southern part of Ontario County living between Whitby and Oshawa before moving to Bowmanville. Diana Grandfield in her book, “Bowmanville: An Architectural and Social History 1794-1999” sums up nicely what we know about him, “Until anaesthetics were in common use, surgeons were judged not only by their skill, but by their speed. Apparently, Dr. Low was exceptional and in demand well beyond the confines of Bowmanville.” He lived here in grand style with servants and entertained lavishly. He led a distinguished life and was active in religious, political and military affairs. One incident we find concerning Dr. Low takes place during the Rebellion of 1837. Early one morning John Burk of Bowmanville was awakened to find his house surrounded by soldiers lead by Dr. Low. Rumour had it that the notorious rebel Ben Lett was being hidden in the house and Dr. Low, in charge of a local militia brigade, was instructed to find him. Mr. Burk knew nothing of the matter but the soldiers searched his house from top to bottom. They found nothing and the Burks treated them all to a hearty breakfast and bid them good-bye. Years later it was found that Burk’s young son, David, had pretended to be Ben Lett to frighten a newly arrived Irishman working on his father’s farm.
Rathskamory wasn’t the only estate in Bowmanville. In the 1840’s this part of Bowmanville was where the wealthy were building their large houses with beautiful expanses of manicured lawns. Some other nearby estates include Marnwood, The Evergreens and Dundurn. The grand houses still stand but during the 1870’s the grounds were divided into lots and sold off. Rathskamory has the distinction of being the only estate in Bowmanville with gatehouses. The front gate house is gone; it stood where 30 Lowe Street now stands. The back gate house still stands and is part of a home on the south west corner of Beech Avenue and Concession Street.
Later owners of the estate include Dr. James Wellington McLaughlin. He was the brother of Robert who founded the McLaughlin Carriage Company. Dr. McLaughlin had a large and successful medical practice in Enniskillen and Bowmanville. Many remarked on his uncanny resemblance to British Prime Minister W.E. Gladstone. Dr. McLaughlin sold the lots and reduced the estate to 4 acres. Many of the beautiful houses on Beech Avenue and Centre Street date from this time. When Dr. McLaughlin died the house passed to his son Arthur. Arthur was killed in 1916 at the Battle of the Somme and his sister, Mary became owner. She had married Edmund S. Senkler and they retained the house until Mary’s death in 1937.
During World War II the Boys’ Training School just east of Bowmanville was converted into a German Prisoner of War Camp. Some boys were sent home and others were taken to Rathskamory and The Evergreens where they operated as a temporary school until 1945.
In the fall of 1946 the Bowmanville Lions Club moved into the house and converted it into a community centre. The Lions Club is an international organization that provides a wide variety of community and charity programs. In Bowmanville they formed in 1935 and met at various locations on King Street before buying the Senklar property for $3,500. Andy Thompson remembered, “This was considered a tremendous venture at that time, and I well remember the many discussions, pro and con, on the question by our members.” Under them it became a hive of activity with many different social and community events being held. Banquets, dances, concerts, parties and meetings all happened frequently. The large addition to the south, added in 1953 at a cost of $40,000, was to accommodate the increased usage of the property. The upstairs had a beautiful auditorium and banquet hall while the basement was a Scout hall.
It was still an actively used building when in 1989 a committee of older adults and local service club representatives began working with the Municipality to establish an activity centre for older adults. In 1992 Municipal Council established an advisory committee which became the Clarington Older Adult Centre Committee. They began offering programs at the Lions Centre in 1994. They were just one of many groups offering programs and services from the premises. In 1998 the Clarington Older Adult Association purchased the property from the Lions Club and the many renovations that bring it to its current status began.
This house is a blessed structure. From its beginnings in 1843 it has always been a place where people meet and have a good time. Whether it is a garden party from the Victorian age or a painting class today. It is truly a house for all sorts of people. It has always been a focal point in the community and will continue to be so for many years to come.