*October 3, 2014 update: Check out the bottom of this post for some cartographic evidence of Picardville!
A while ago I wrote about the nineteenth-century village Stuartsville, one of Kingston’s working-class satellite villages now incorporated into the city proper. Today I present to you another one with a rather colourful past: Picardville, also known as the French Village. While Stuartsville was known for its filth and poverty and loud opposition to annexation with Kingston, Picardville was just known for its filth and poverty. It was a notorious area, kept afloat by a steady business in alcohol, crime, and prostitution.
But it’s really the unlikely beginnings of Picardville which make it interesting. There’s less information about it readily available than I would have hoped; however we can begin to make a rough sketch of this former village to the north of downtown Kingston, and use our imaginations to fill in the details.
The name Picardville may come from the French surname Picard, or perhaps from the background of the early settlers in the village, if they happened to be from Picardy (a region in northern France, as you probably know), although the second option is less likely. However, it does lead me to my next point, which I find exciting in a kind of historical-fiction-novel way: the founders of Picardville were not French-Canadians from Quebec, as you might typically think, but royalist émigrés escaping the French Revolution. “Founders” is probably too strong a word for a place like Picardville, but we’ll get to that soon.
In 1798, forty-one ex-army officers and aristocrats under the leadership of Joseph-Geneviève de Puisaye, Comte de Puisaye, sailed from Portsmouth, England to Quebec City with permission to settle in Upper Canada. Puisaye was born to a noble family in Mortagne-au-Perche, Normandy, and interestingly (according to highly-reliable Wikipedia) this community also produced several other early emigrants to Canada.
Puisaye was a late convert to the counter-revolutionary cause and remained relatively liberal in his views. Nevertheless, in 1795 he attempted to begin a royalist insurrection by attacking the Baie de Quiberon, Brittany, with help from the British Royal Navy. After two attempts the plan failed, and Puisaye eventually resigned from the army where he had been lieutenant-general.
Meanwhile, he convinced the British government to help French royalists to settle in the Canadas, just like the American loyalists. This idea had been floating around since 1793, and it was expected that a mass migration would eventually occur. One French officer wrote idealistically:
[We want] to go and enjoy in Canada a less impure air than that of Europe . . . [and] to add to the number of Great Britain’s faithful subjects.
Moreover, French priests who had previously settled in Canada were accepted there by the British. John Graves Simcoe, Lieutenant-Governor of Upper Canada, wrote to the émigré Abbé Philippe Desjardins regarding a land query:
It is gratifying to know that the chief inhabitants of Upper Canada are those banished from the United States for manifesting that same attachment to their king which characterises all loyal Frenchmen who fear exile. It will be a consolation to those coming to settle Upper Canada to find people sympathetic to them.
It was in this spirit of optimism that the Comte de Puisaye, with his trial group of mostly Breton soldiers and noblemen (including some women), arrived in Quebec, joined twenty-one French-Canadians, and headed to Upper Canada. On October 29, 1798, the group arrived in Kingston, not knowing where to go next. Hon. Richard Cartwright was instructed to meet and welcome the group, but culture shock had no doubt already hit them.
You’ve got to feel a little bit bad for the Frenchmen: they were used to the life of the nobility and had probably never done a day of hard physical labour in their lives. When they came to Canada, they expected to be set up in feudal-style estates with others doing the work for them. Now they were being asked to clear the virgin forests of North America. Additionally, they weren’t interested in getting to know the other pioneers who might have helped them with this mega-task. William Windham, the British secretary at war who originally sent them on their way, said
[C]onsidering themselves of a purer description than the indiscriminate class of emigrants and being in some measure known to each other, they wish not to be mixed with those whose principles they are less sure of and whose future conduct might bring reproach upon the Colony.
Perhaps this is why, when the Comte de Puisaye left Kingston that winter to see their final destination near present-day Richmond Hill, the rest chose to stay apart from the Kingstonians in an area north of town, which was to become Picardville. As more émigrés moved on to the new colony, a few decided to remain here, thus cementing the identity of “the French Village.” But the experiment quickly soured, and they did not remain long. As soon as the next year, some of the colony got fed up and returned to England, while others moved to bigger North American cities, and one shot himself. Even Puisaye eventually left for England in 1802, and when the French monarchy was restored in 1814, the majority of the settlers just packed up and went home. (Incidentally, Puisaye had screwed things up so badly with his countrymen that he wasn’t welcome back in France. He died in Hammersmith in 1827, where he had lived apparently happily on a little farm).
This signalled the formal end of the French Village in Kingston. However, the name remained as the village began to descend into the poverty that nineteenth-century Kingstonians knew it for. Major Léopold Lamontagne, in a 1953 Historic Kingston article, gives the boundaries of the French Village/Picardville as such, although he does not mention the certain quality of life there:
I imagine that Picardville’s transition from a village of French émigrés to a den of vice occurred for the same reasons that Stuartsville became a slum. Land outside the city was cheaper and taxes were lower, thus attracting poorer residents and those who may have desired a low profile. Housing before 1840 was mostly wooden, which could and did deteriorate and catch on fire, leading to a slum-like neighbourhood for those who couldn’t afford to maintain their homes.
Of course, Picardville wasn’t just poor, it was bad. Not that the rest of Kingston was necessarily pristine: in 1840 it was said that “the streets of Kingston are night and day swarming with drunkards and prostitutes,” and in 1842 we had a population of 5,000 being served by eleven taverns… just on Wellington St. Many more were packed into other corners of town, with Picardville likely somewhere near the top of the list.
The village scene didn’t attract only the unruly, either. A small item in the September 22, 1835 edition of the British Whig huffed that well-known men, single or otherwise, had been found at “a noted ladies’ house” in Picardville, attracted by the “handsome circulars” they had put out. The newspaper threatened to publish their names, though I don’t think they ever did. What I find most interesting is that this particular establishment had enough money and confidence to literally distribute flyers: business must have been brisk.
Unfortunately, this is all I can currently dig up about Picardville after the French left, and a walk around the neighbourhood shows few signs of its past. Most of the houses are of late-nineteenth to mid-twentieth century vintage, and the last marker of its story – the name Picard Street – was changed to Raglan Road in the 1890s. I have been wondering what Lamontagne meant when in his article he wrote that the area is “still worth visiting today.” Although he was writing sixty-one years ago, the neighbourhood has not changed much since then, and the only item of interest nowadays is the increasing gentrification after decades of working-class life. I suppose what goes around comes around.
Update: On October 3, 2014, while researching for another post, I found Picardville named on two lot maps of that portion of Kingston, one from 1847 and the other from 1855. Both identify the late Magdalen Ferguson as the original owner of the lot. (Well, one says “Magualin Ferguson,” I don’t know if that’s some sort of mistake.) Magdalen seems like a slightly unusual name for the time and place; I wonder if it could connect to any French heritage? Anyway, the word “Picardville” is extremely tiny on both maps because the digital images themselves aren’t that big, but it is there, identifying the triangle created by Division Street, Raglan Road, and York Street. Both maps were drawn by William H. Kilborn, provincial surveyor. They’re interesting as visual evidence of Picardville, especially as it’s not clear whether they just refer to the triangle created by those three streets, or whether they refer to the whole neighbourhood. I’ve outlined the word “Picardville” in red.
Lamontagne, Léopold. “Kingston’s French Heritage.” Historic Kingston 2 (1953).
Malcolmson, Patricia. “The Poor in Kingston, 1815-1850.” In To Preserve and Defend: Essays on Kingston in the Nineteenth Century. Edited by Gerald Tulchinsky. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1976.
Moogk, Peter N. “PUISAYE, JOSEPH-GENEVIÈVE DE, Comte de PUISAYE.” In Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 6, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–.
Osborne, Brian S. and Donald Swainson. Kingston: Building on the Past. Westport, ON: Butternut Press, Inc. 1988.
Stamp, Robert M. “The European Settlers Arrive.” In Early Days in Richmond Hill: A History of the Community to 1930. Richmond Hill Public Library Board, 1991. Electronic edition.