Conservation History -
"Every man is an omnibus in
which his ancestors ride."
Oliver Wendell Holmes
A man doesn’t plant
a tree for himself.
He plants it for posterity.
Scottish Poet (1830-1867)
The unrecorded past is
none other than our old friend,
the tree in the primeval forest
which fell without
"It has been said that we
are passing through the present
into the future so quickly
that we tend to forget the past… The work of conservation will never
conservationists are men of whom the prophet Joel wrote ‘Your old men
shall dream dreams, your young men shall see visions."
Dr. G. Ross Lord as quoted in
Conservation by the People (1974)
"Society should not seek
to destroy the past, but to
improve upon it."
First heritage statute
passed in Rome 457A.D (Majorian)
For the real history of man on this
is not the record
of the deeds he has performed
with his hands,
the journeys he has made
with his feet,
the material things he has fashioned with his mind,
but the record of his thoughts, feelings, inspirations,
It is the story of his spirit which is
Hamilton Wright Mabie
Essays on Nature and Culture, 1896
eye sees only what the mind is prepared to comprehend."
is the landscape's most
beautiful and expressive feature.
It is Earth's
eye; looking into which the beholder measures
the depth of his own nature.
Henry David Thoreau
went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to
front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not
learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die,
discover that I had not lived.”
Henry David Thoreau
What I Lived For, pg. 101
The Legend of V.B. Blake
Verschoyle Benson BLAKE
need something more than archives
to tell us how our forefathers lived...
to read this in books and pictures is a good thing, but it is
infinitely better to preserve some of the things themselves.
To let these be lost through our indifference is to deprive
future generations of a heritage to which they are entitled."
Blake as quoted in
Conservation by the People:
The History of the Conservation Movement in Ontario to 1970,
by A.H. Richardson (1974)
Blake (1899-1971) was a highly respected historian and
an early pioneer in the conservation movement.
V.B. Blake (“Vers” to friends) was
extraordinarily knowledgeable and extremely well spoken.
His illustrious pedigree can be traced back to one of the Knights of the
The above portrait of
V.B. Blake was commissioned by the Ministry of
Citizenship, Culture (MCC) after his passing in 1971. The portrait hung at its Bloor St., Toronto office for decades
in remembrance of one of the most distinguished local historians of
Blake's historical research can be found
published in numerous
conservation reports throughout the Province of Ontario. His interest
also included Canada's
built heritage. V.B. Blake was a founding member of the Architectural
Conservancy of Ontario (1933).
Blake's life can be summed up:
“To this day Verschoyle Blake is considered by his
as the dean of all local historians."
Carl Thorpe, Retired Manager,
Culture Heritage and
Libraries Branch (2003)
BLAKE'S ARRIVAL IN THE
poor unproductive farmland on the Oak
Ridges Moraine when Blake arrived
in 1926 for by then, the cumulative effects of early settlement and the
lumber industry had left a devastated landscape devoid of natural
vegetation. Blowouts from sand dunes were frequent.
On land once
“sandy desert of the north”,
Blake began treeplanting experiments at the
place he named "Ardfree" which
became a practical demonstration of the merits of
good conservation practices. Blake's
ongoing tree planting experiments (plantations)
quietly waited for the big one to come
- unknowingly, Blake had planted the first seeds.
project of Blake was
establishment of Ganaraska Forest to the east, west and north. By then,
Blake had acquired extensive knowledge of the Ganaraska area
and of treeplanting. He was also the only area resident on the original Ganaraska survey team.
strong connections, his ongoing tree planting experiments (plantations)
and his conservation in miniature project as a demonstration model, probably helped influence
the choice of Ganaraska as the first test area in the province.
PROMINENT FAMILY PEDIGREE
Verschoyle Benson Blake (VBB) was born in Toronto on May 26, 1899
one of Ontario’s oldest and most prominent families.
VBB was the last male in his
branch of the prominent family tree - his ancestry can be traced back to one
of the knights of King Arthur's Round Table (Ap-Lake).
VBB was descended from a lineage of strong intellectuals - the Blakes of Galway (in Ireland). The Blake Family were devoutly evangelical Anglicans and one of the most powerful families in the area. They were
also very active in city government.
The illustrious pedigree of Verschoyle B. Blake
shows he was related to several distinguished and prominent intellectuals including:
THE RIGHT HON.
leader of the federal Liberal Party
the first Liberal Party Premier of Ontario after Confederation
Chancellor of the University of Toronto
(1876 to 1900).
He was responsible for establishing the Liberal dynasty that ruled in
Ontario from 1871 to 1905. Edward Blake was also a Federal Cabinet Minister
and a Constitutional Lawyer instrumental in the establishment of the Supreme
Court of Canada.
The Rt. Hon. Edward Blake
Edward Blake was not only a distinguished lawyer but a brilliant orator whose
speeches which sometimes lasted six hours.
Blake was the co-founder of Blake, Cassels & Graydon,
or Blakes for short - one of Canada’s largest law firms.
Also: National Historic Person of Canada.
In 1858, Edward Blake married Margaret Cronyn (1837- ), second
daughter of the Right Reverend Benjamin Cronyn, Bishop of Huron. Their sons, Edward Hume, Edward
Francis (Ned - VBB's Father) and Samuel Verschoyle, all entered the family law firm. Their
daughter, Sophia Hume, married Professor George MacKinnon Wrong who was in
charge of the History Dept. at the University of Toronto.
V.B. Blake next to the plaque of his
Photo courtesy of Elisabeth Bacque
WILLIAM HUME BLAKE
(1809 - 1870) Solicitor-General for Canada West (1848) and the Chancellor of
Upper Canada (1849). A
leading lawyer of his time and a pioneer in legal education at King's College in
Toronto where he initiated significant reforms in the Upper Canadian judicial
system. Father of Edward Blake
REV. BENJAMIN CRONYN
(1802-1871) elected first Bishop for the Diocese of Huron (Anglican Church
of Canada) - area comprised of 12,000 square miles in southwestern Ontario
(1804-1857) First Mayor of Peterborough. In 1853 - settled in Port Hope
Judge THOMAS M. BENSON (1833 – 1915)
A portrait of Judge Benson hangs in Victoria Hall in Cobourg
Blake Coat of Arms - Galway County Ireland Courtesy of Elisabeth Bacque
("Virtue alone enobles")
AP-LAKE, one of the knights of King Arthur's Round Table.
The Blake pedigree is recorded in the Office of Arms, Dublin Castle in
great detail. Historically, the
original Welsh spelling of Blake was Aplake, meaning "the son
of the lake”. Through the centuries, the spelling of A'Plake changed
to Blaake, and then Blake. Describing the Blake
family’s origin, in 1820:
family is of British extraction, and, though the name seems
derived from the Saxon, Blac, a colour; yet, Debrett, in his
Baronetage, says, "they are traditionally descended from Ap-lake,
one of the knights of King Arthur's round table,'' and adds,
''that in the reign of Henry II, one of this family
accompanied Strongbow, and after many exploits built himself
a castle, at Menlo, near Galway.'' --- Richard Caddell
surnamed Blake, (from whom, according to Lynch's MS. the
Blakes of Galway are descended,) was sheriff of Connaught, Vicecomes Conacioe, 32 and 33 Edw. I, he was also
sheriff in 1306. and in 7 Edw. Il. the king's writ issued,
for arrearages of his account. --- Rot. Mem. --- The
arms of this family were first borne by him and descended to
his posterity. The family of Ardfry,
descended from Sir Richard Blake, who was speaker or
chairman, of the assembly of the confederate catholics of
Ireland, at Kilkenny, in 1647, was raised to the dignity of
the peerage, in the year 1800, in the person of Joseph Henry
Blake, Esq.” James Hardiman (1820)
Continuing their strong involvement in government affairs,
the Blake family came to Upper Canada from Ireland in the early nineteenth
century, where William Blake (1809-1870) and his son Edward (1833-1912) became
distinguished in law and the administrative affairs of Canada.
The name Verschoyle has old Celtic roots tracing back to Ireland. Other
relatives of VBB
Samuel Verschoyle Blake (youngest son of Edward Blake);
Wrong (son of Professor George M. Wrong) and Verschoyle
Cronyn (the son of Rev. Benjamin Cronyn).
Family was linked by
Wrong and Benson
From 1945 to 1962, V. B. Blake
worked as historian for the Conservation Branch of the Ontario Department of
Planning and Development. He was also responsible for researching the
history of land ownership and land use in areas protected under the
Conservation Authorities Act.
Blake became Supervisor of the Historical
section of the Conservation Authorities Branch when it began publishing
historical studies for various geographically defined conservation areas
across Ontario - beginning with the Ganaraska Watershed report (1944).
Verschoyle B. Blake was added to the survey team. It was Blake’s keen sense of the worth of history and his philosophy of how
the conservation ethic could be supported through an understanding
of the past that resulted in the inclusion of an
introductory historical chapter in the Ganaraska study. Subsequent
conservation reports by the government would also include accounts
of the historical background of each watershed area studied, since
Blake and Richardson believed that the public would find this
material interesting and then be better able to understand the
Ontario Conservation Authorities:
Their Heritage Resources and
Volume XCIV, No. 1, Spring 2002)
of the historical introduction in the
conservation reports was considered
controversial at the time because history was considered to have little to do
A pivotal meeting occurred in
Toronto - public acceptance and the success of the Ganaraska Forest project
was at stake. Dr. R.C. Wallace, esteemed educator, wrote the
Introduction of the The Ganaraska Watershed report (1944) and
ensured the study and subsequent studies in other areas were "grounded in history".
This meeting was also a turning point for V.B. Blake who was the key
historian on the Ganaraska project.
The Ganaraska Report (1943):
"The Ganaraska Report opened with a
chapter on the history of the area. It presence was controversial
because history was considered by many technical men to have little
if anything to do with conservation. This report established that
human heritage would be considered a resource from which lessons
would be learned and applied, and that it would be included
in the mandate of conservation authorities...
Although the small Ganaraska watershed was ideally suited for the
survey, it was equally rich in historical interest extending back
150 years. The settlement at the mouth of the Ganaraska River, known
first as Smith's Creek, for a short time as Toronto, and later as
Port Hope, had its beginning in the 1790s, at the same time as
Lieutenant-Governor Simcoe was establishing the Town of York, now
When it was decided to print the Ganaraska report (The
Ganaraska Report (1943),
a meeting was called in Toronto of those responsible for the
promotion of the survey to decide the general format and to discuss
abridgements or additions.
Dr. R.C. Wallace, principal and vice-chancellor of Queen's
University was in the chair.
After some discussion on the
historical section as to its length, contents, and whether or not it
was germane to the survey, Dr. Wallace asked for a show of
hands. A few were in favour of reducing it considerably but the
majority voted that the whole section should be deleted; they
considered history had little relation to the technical aspects of
Then, as chairman, Dr. Wallace
took the floor and with diplomacy and tact, said he did not agree;
on the contrary, he said, he considered the section on history
the most interesting in the report. It would, he said, go far to
making the report more acceptable to a wide circle of readers. He
then ruled that the section should be left in and any abridgement be
left to Dr. Marsh and me. With this excellent support from an
eminent educator, it was evident that here was an open sesame to
promote and encourage historical projects in the programmes of the
authorities, if they should be formed..."
Watersheds - Revitalization Strategies 2002 Ch. 5 p.75
Conservation - Chapter 5, 75 (2000)
The Toronto and Region Conservation Authority
was seen as the "the sugar coated pill, which it was hoped, would
stimulate the interest of the reader and entice him to read the report
in full." (A.H. Richardson, Conservation by the People: The
History of the Conservation Movement in Ontario to 1970, (1974), p.
had extensive local knowledge and
helped compile the Ganaraska Watershed report published in 1944.
According to A.H. Richardson, (1974):
work in compiling the report… was done during the fall of 1942 and
the spring of 1943.
In this work, Verschoyle B. Blake…
of great assistance..."
Historical section staff of the Conservation Authorities
Branch - V.B. Blake (far left)
Photo courtesy of Elisabeth Bacque
Ganaraska Watershed (1944) report which Blake helped to compile, represented
a completely new way of looking at conservation in Ontario and Canada.
It was the impetus which led to the passing of the Conservation Authorities
Act and the creation of the first conservation authorities in Ontario.
The success of the Ganaraska study also led to the establishment of
Ganaraska Forest, the
largest forest in southern Ontario and to the formation of the conservation
authorities in Ontario whose collective efforts in watersheds across the
province would provide a
foundation for the creation of the largest greenbelt in the world (Ontario's
As previously noted, Blake became Supervisor of the Historical section of the
Conservation Authorities Branch when it began publishing historical studies
for various geographically defined conservation areas (watersheds) in
Ganaraska Watershed Report, Blake's work can also be found in many other conservation reports in
Southern Ontario including:
Etobicoke Valley Report (1947)
Napanee Valley Conservation Report (1957)
Humber Valley Report (1948)
Ausable Valley Report (1949)
Don Valley Conservation Report (1950)
Moira Valley Conservation Report (1950)
Upper Thames Valley Conservation Report (1952)
Saugeen Valley Conservation Report (1952)
Upper Holland Valley Conservation Report (1953)
Upper Saugeen Valley Conservation Report (1953)
Credit Valley Conservation Report (1956)
R(ouge River,) D(uffin,) H(ighland),
P(etticoat Creek) Valley
Conservation Report (1956)
Otter Valley Conservation Report. (1957)
Otter Creek Conservation Report (1962)
Big Creek Region Conservation Report (1963)
Otonabee Region Conservation Report (1964)
During the 1950's, V.B. Blake also helped organize the
Plaques Program in Ontario.
was also on the Advisory Committees for both Upper Canada Village
and Black Creek Pioneer Village. He was
instrumental in establishing Barnum House in Grafton as a
Upper Canada Village, Cook's Tavern, August 12, 1957 (V. B. Blake far right)
Photo courtesy of Elisabeth Bacque
In 1956, the Archaeological and Historic Sites Board of Ontario
began erecting plaques across the province to stimulate public awareness of,
and pride in Ontario's past.
Blake was present at many
to Joseph M. Scriven (1819-1886) - VBB (far right)
Photo courtesy of Elisabeth Bacque
Plaque dedication (above) to Zion Evangelical Lutheran Church
VBB third from left - Photo courtesy of Elisabeth Bacque
Prior to the St. Lawrence
Seaway being opened in 1959 (and the river being widened), Blake worked
on the relocation of the early cemeteries by the St. Lawrence River.
He was also involved in the recording and measurement of the seaway
In 1962, Blake moved to the
Historical Branch of the Ontario Department of Public Records and
Archives where he remained until his death in 1971.
including Carl Thorpe recalled in a recent telephone interview "There
hasn't been anybody like him since."
and others also expressed:
“To this day, Verschoyle Blake is considered by
as the dean of all local historians."
Manager of Heritage and Libraries Branch,
Ministry of Culture, telephone
interview - December, 2003
"Vers was one of my favourite people -
he got me my first job at Upper Canada Village.
He was extraordinarily knowledgeable
a most rewarding person to talk to."
Architectural Historian 2007
“I worked with Vers Blake in my early days at the
An amazing, kind, gentle, and gentleman-ly man,
if there ever was one."
Bernadine Dodge, retired Head Archivist, Trent University, 2005
I first met Vers in 1959, when I joined the staff of the Historical Branch
the Provincial Government, whose function it was to prepare
historical plaques each summer for erection around the province. We did the
research during fall, winter
("...and still the wonder grew that one small
head could carry all he knew"...).
more a beloved older brother than a friend as the years went by...
Ken McPherson, Retired Archivist
(email dated August 3, 2008)
Verschoyle Blake exemplified human
greatness although he did not seek it.
He never sought acclaim or
recognition for himself.
Blake's work remains a goldmine of information for historians even today.
However, Blake's work
was usually overshadowed by A.H.
Richardson. According to Dr. Dr. John C. Carter:
“I see Blake much as I see John George Hodgins. Both were
tireless advocates for their causes but tended to be overshadowed by their
bosses. Verschoyle Blake by A.H. Richardson and Hodgins by Ryerson.
Both Blake and Hodgins should be recognized for what they did and accomplished
during their long lives as Ontario public servants…” (Dr. John C. Carter - Museum Advisor - Ministry of Citizenship Culture in
email dated November 30, 2005).
A tribute to vanishing rural Ontario, a
book entitled "Rural
Ontario" was published in 1969
by Verschoyle Benson Blake (text) and Ralph
(photographs) about rural architecture in Ontario in the
remained with the Ontario Government until his passing.
V.B. Blake passed away on April 6, 1971 - the end
of the male line of a very prominent family lineage.
He never married.
rests in Port Hope beside his maternal
ancestors (the Bensons), including Thomas Benson, the
first Mayor of Peterborough and Judge Thomas Moore Benson.
Prosopography - a study that identifies and draws relationships between various
characters or people within a specific historical, social, or literary context.
It also includes an investigation of the common characteristics of a
historical group - an independent science of social history embracing genealogy,
onomastics and demography. Prosopography permits the political history of
men and ‘events’ to be combined with the hidden social history of long-term
In September, 2008, Professor Paul Litt,
Public Historian at the Ontario Heritage Foundation and a policy advisor for
the Ontario Ministry of Culture was contacted and asked whether there
might be some meaningful correlation between the four men
(Blake - Wrong - Massey - McKenzie King),
- V.B. Blake was the grandson of Edward Blake – founder of the
Liberal dynasty and a Person of National Historic
Significance of Canada;
- V.B. Blake was related to George M.
Wrong who married Edward Blake’s
daughter, Sophia (Prof. Wrong also a Person of
National Historic Significance of
Wrong and V.B. Blake were both well known
historians and with country estates
north of Port Hope (named Durham House and Ardfree respectively);
G. M. Wrong was V.B. Blake's favorite uncle and mentor
Blake was a frequent guest at Durham House in nearby Canton.
- Gov. Gen. Vincent Massey (Canada's
first Canadian born Governor General - also
a Person of
National Historic Significance of
Canada) was a former student of Prof. Wrong at the University of Toronto and
a Liberal. Massey later purchased part of Prof. Wrong's property in
Canton. Massey and Wrong became neighbors. Massey was well acquainted with Mackenzie King and C.D. Howe,
- In 1933, V.B. Blake and C. Vincent Massey were two
of the founding members of the Architectural
Conservancy of Ontario
MacKenzie King was also former student of Prof. Wrong at the University of
Toronto. (Mackenzie King was the longest serving Prime Minister in
Canadian History, elected three terms).
Mackenzie King also appointed Massey as High Commissioner to London
and Governor General
At the time of the Ganaraska project, the governments of the
day were all Liberal.
Professor Litt’s reply in September, 2008 was especially insightful:
“ What you
are saying about the possible connections between Blake and
Massey et. al. is very interesting. My instinct is that it all
makes sense that he was part of such a crowd—the pedigree, the
cultural interests, etc. all match. It reminds me of that
wonderful word “prosopography” which suggests that
researchers should pay attention to who their subject hung
around with because the cultural prejudices of peer groups are
the intellectual micro-climates in which they live day to day.
The Masseys and the Wrongs were related through marriage… King
certainly knew Massey… "
Paul Litt, History Professor
at Carleton University
Capt. John C. Boylen was a highly regarded friend of
Blake. He was in the 127th Battalion, Queen's York Rangers
during the World War I.
Boylen was past secretary of the Ontario Historical Society,
President of the York Pioneers and Historical Society and former Mayor. He was
also the author of "York
Township: a Historical Summary", 1954 and
"Castle Frank", 1956.
John Chancellor Boylen (L) and V.B. Blake (R)
Photo courtesy of Elisabeth Bacque
Two respected friends of V.B. Blake were Professors Gilbert Bagnani and Stewart Bagnani
(1903-1996), Professors of Ancient History at Trent University until 1975.
(Prof. Gilbert Bagnani was also well known at the University of Toronto,
before he moved to Trent toward the end of his career).
The Bagnanis and Blake shared common interests and
they had country homes near Port Hope named
Blake helped the Bagnanis renovate the interior of their home Vogrie. Blake also designed the library which was added to Vogrie in the
Vogrie near Port Hope, Ontario
A letter from Stewart Bagnani to her husband Gilbert,
the name "Ardfree" is shown as the address of the sender (name of Blake's residence
Port Hope). It was evident Stewart stayed at Ardfree while Vogrie was
being renovated. (Bagnani fonds, Trent University Archives 97-003)
Professor Gilbert Bagnani presented his friend Verschoyle Blake with a
very special book which was later donated
after Blake’s passing
to the Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library, University of Toronto:
“A work with an interesting background came to us from Elizabeth
Bacque who presented us with Claudio Tolomeo's Geografia (Venice, 1598) Not
only is this a very nice addition to our early imprints, but it has the
added feature of having been presented to her uncle, Verschoyle Blake, by
Gilbert Bagnani. These two scholars lived near each other in the countryside
north of Port Hope and shared common interests. Blake designed the
renovations to Vogrie, the Bagnani's home, including the large living room
which contained their book and art collections. As the Fisher Library,
several years ago, was the grateful recipient of many of Professor Bagnani's
books, we are especially pleased to be able to add this volume to our
holdings." (Luba Frastacky,
Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library, University of Toronto (The Halcyon, June
Researcher: M. Martin