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Podcast Episode 46 – The Moorhouse Doll

Backus-Page House Museum acquired this artifact from David and Paula Neice in 2017. The Moorhouse doll was brought to Upper Canada by Jane Hopkins Moorhouse in 1824, having been given to her about 1799. It was then passed from mother to eldest daughter as a confirmation gift. It arrived in Wallacetown in 1831 with Anne Moorhouse Pearce. The doll has spent most of its history in the Dunwich area with a brief stay in Windsor, and then Shakespeare before returning to a permanent home in our museum. This doll represents a fine example of late 18th century doll making. Now we will hear Muriel Aileen Moorhouse’s story of the doll!  

“I cannot remember the days, the time, morning or afternoon, except it was early spring 1945. My husband, Bernard, had been posted from the R.C.A.F. station in Belleville to a town named Hagersville, where an immense training flying station was situated, four miles out of town. I followed him from Belleville, found accommodations, two rooms upstairs, a kitchen and bedroom. This was now our fourth campsite during the war years. Once again, I set up housekeeping. 

One day that spring a knock came at the door. I went down the stairs to answer it, opened the door, and there stood Ed Docker of Wallacetown. I had not seen Ed for many years. There he stood, his same wonderful friendly face, and as I recall it was always a kindly smile and a real twinkle in his navy-blue eyes.  

I invited him in and as the two of us stood in the hallway he handed me a box. It was a box in which women’s slippers had been purchased- long and narrow- not wrapped, no string tied around it- but on the lid someone had written in pencil- Moorhouse 1824. The silence was broken when Ed announced, ‘Fanny said, you were to have this’. 

In the following conversation I found out that his wife Anne Francis (Fanny) Backus (1874-1939) had passed away. This came as quite a shock to me for Fanny was a very special cousin in my life. Fanny was a living, walking book of knowledge of the family history. Her home was full of treasures, always making it a ‘magic’ place for my family to visit. I was taken to this home many times as a child and into my teens. I always enjoyed Fanny and Ed. 

Fanny, before her death, had made certain that I, Muriel Aileen Moorhouse was to have this box and its contents. So here was Ed, having driven all alone from Wallacetown to Hagersville (how he found out where I was living, I do not know), delivering this precious parcel to me and fulfilling his promise to Fanny. It was a promise I knew nothing about, nor was I aware of the contents of the box. 

Standing together, I opened the lid and there she lay- a doll- looking up at us. Such eyes! I was speechless! I could not comprehend what this was all about! I could not believe such a wonderful treasure had come my way; a bit of family history, a history that had taken hours of my life and of my brother Hugh’s to record. Some of this history actually lay in the box and that box was now in my own two hands! 

D-Day arrived, and my husband requested discharge from the R.C.A.F. July saw us moving to Colchester North, a township of Essex County, where his family resided. As we drove, we wondered what the world had to offer us and our new possession- The Doll. 

We found a new larger box for The Doll so her precious petticoats and silk skirts could be opened up and not folded or crushed as they had been in the original long narrow box. There she remained until we moved into our very own first official home in 1952. I purchased a special display case, carefully took her out of her box and stood her up on a proper stand, removed her poke bonnet, so all world could glimpse her lovely black cap of material and lace with some purple ribbon and a bit of her real hair. This cap, I now read, was never removed and the hair was stuck on with gum, with ends poking out from beneath her caps. The poke bonnet is a pure delight. It is shaped with wire and made entirely out of black corded ribbon with a bit of lining, and it fits her head perfectly. 

There seems there may have been legs, but they are missing. The gloves on the hands were made of kid leather and stitched. She wears three petticoats of soft white material. The first is embroidered with French knots. The second, split down the middle is a ruffle, the third, very fine stitches in the hem. 

The Doll was greatly admired in her new setting, and quietly rested among a collection of books and other Canadiana. Gracious years passed for us in this home- at The Glen- in Colchester North, approximately five miles from the town of Essex. 

Forty-six years after The Doll was gifted into my care it was time to make changes in our lives, so we sold our country home and some thirty-three acres and moved to a lovely apartment in Windsor, Ontario. Alas, apartments don’t allow for the accumulation of the years! David C. Neice, our oldest son and his wife Paula, very kindly agreed to care and watch over The Doll for me. So off she went to Kars, south of Ottawa, and then to Waterloo, and, finally on June 23, 2002, she headed to a very lovely home and new setting outside Shakespeare, near Stratford.” 

“…While our daughter-in-law attended a ribbon cutting event in St Thomas for the Trans Canada Trail organization, our daughter-in-law visited with friend and local artist Jenny Phillips. During their happy conversation, the subject of The Doll came up, especially since the Bi-Centennial Celebration of the Talbot Settlement of 2003 was looming and The Doll had come into the area in the early years of the settlement. That conversation resulted in a plan to preserve the memory of The Doll through the artistic medium.  

Our son David and his wife Paula transported The Doll to Dutton one day where Jenny used eight rolls of film in order to help her research. Then she rendered a true painting to print to be made available for purchase, from her gallery frame shop, The Village Crier in Dutton and the Backus-Page House Museum gift shop. I am very proud and most grateful to David and Paula, who have cared for The Doll all these years, and who have made it possible for her to be shared and enjoyed by many, many more viewers so as to hopefully create interest in coming generations. 

My knowledge of dolls was very limited. I knew that I had cherished up to the 1920’s and 30’s, baby dolls to be dressed and put in a buggy. I never thought of any of my ancestors having dolls, not even my mother. This is an adult doll, her clothes suggest this, and she is a doll to be admired and perhaps placed under a glass globe (called a vitrine) for show. For many years my mind could only grasp that she might have belonged to young Maria (1821-1824), who was three years old when she drowned in Kettle Creek, shortly after her family’s arrival in Port Stanley, from Ireland. Alas, it has taken me until now, in my eighty-eight year (editor’s note-date of this essay 2003), to finally get down to the business and to try to put some true history on The Doll. 

My husband and I visited the ancestral home at Kilrush, Wexford Co., Ireland, in August 1972. This was no small Irish cottage! It is truly an ancestral home, and a lovely stone wall supports the entrance gates leading up to the house and farmland that was first leased by the Moorhouse family in 1750. The ancestral house was believed to have been built by William Moorhouse and was sold by his second son Thomas and wife Jane (in 1802) prior to coming to Upper Canada in 1824. Jane gave birth to eleven children, all in this home, and brought all eleven out to Canada. 

Jane was the daughter of John Hopkins of Strathnakelly, County Wicklow. In Ireland, John was referred to as a ‘gentleman’. It is recorded in the Moorhouse history that Jane, wife of Thomas, always had servants and never did manual work before coming to Canada. The size of the ancestral house would confirm this observation as well as her status in the Hopkins family. Her first son, John, was named after her father John Hopkins. 

If John Hopkins was considered a ‘gentleman’, or at least above the poverty level, this would mean Jane was exposed to some of the finer things in life, perhaps even a special doll, which she would have dressed in the mode of the day. It is reported that many young women owned these dolls and that they were placed on exhibit under vitrines. Also, in reading extensively about dolls, it is recorded that about fifty or so wooden doll factories existed in London, England (1790-1810). These were located in the centre of this big city and did a roaring business. 

Jane would have been sixteen in 1799- and she married at eighteen, in 1802. I am presuming this doll would have belonged to Jane. Maria, who drowned at the Talbot Settlement at three years of age, would have been too young to have had a display doll or to be allowed to play with it. Jane’s first daughter, Anne, born in 1809 after the arrival of three sons- would have been fifteen by the time they arrived in Upper Canada. It is possible that it was her doll or given to her by Jane, or perhaps she may also have been too young to fully appreciate it. 

Either way, one imagines that the doll was carefully packed in a trunk to sail on her way to Canada. I imagine they sailed from Wexford, the very harbour in Ireland that we arrived at in 1972. 

The family of Thomas Moorhouse’s brother, Henry, had settled in the Brockville area, a bit earlier. Perhaps this was the district in which Thomas had intended to settle. But for some reason they bypassed it for the Talbot Settlement, landing at Port Stanley. How they survived the crossing and the transportation from Montreal I do not know- doll and all! They settled for fifteen months at Plum Creek, Lot 16, Concession 12 Dunwich, on Colonel Talbot’s settlement. A close friend, Richard Dobbyn, also emigrated from Wexford Ireland in 1811. He had settled in Bear Creek, Zone Township, sometime before Thomas arrived and he persuaded Thomas to join him there on Lot 25, Concession 2, of what is now Euphemia Township Lambton County. Here they built a log home.  

Anne- their first daughter- was ready to marry William Pearce (1805-1890) on January 4th, 1831, and she moved to Dunwich Township, Wallacetown. It is interesting to note that Anne was confirmed on August 21st, 1827, at the first confirmation service held at Colonel Patterson’s home. Furthermore, Anne Backus taught Anne Moorhouse to spin and weave. 

So, could the doll have passed to Anne Moorhouse from Jane as a confirmation gift, or perhaps at her wedding, or even more simply because Anne was the firstborn daughter?  

Anne and William Pearce had seven children. The first child was a daughter, Francis (1831-1872). Francis married Isaac Simpson and had one child, William, who died the following year in 1872. Alas, Francis also died in 1872. 

Anne and William’s third child arrived, a daughter, Jane (1835-1914). Jane was married in approximately 1857 to Robert Backus. She had four children- three boys and one girl. The fourth child, and only daughter, was named Anne Francis or Fanny (1874-1939). Jane would have given birth to Fanny when she was 39. Fanny married Edward Docker and they had no children. Everyone knew her as Aunt Fanny. It was Fanny Docker who said to her husband Ed; “Please give this to Muriel”, and in accordance with her wishes, in the spring of 1945, The Doll was graciously placed in my hands.  

If we assume that over the years The Doll was passed on from Jane Hopkins through to each firstborn or surviving daughter (and/ or son) this would make this treasure at least 200 years old, possibly spanning the years 1800 to 2012. Assuming the above line of succession, the path she may have taken would look something like this…” 

Supposition of Successions and Transfer Locations 

  1. Jane (nee Hopkins) Moorhouse (1783-1869)- married Thomas in 1802- quite possibly her doll or came from her family. Location: Departed Kilrush, Wexford Co., Ireland and landed in the Talbot Settlement in 1824 and then moved to Zone Township 
  1. Anne (nee Moorhouse) Pearce (1809-1875) 
  1. Anne Francis (nee Pearce) Simpson (1831-1872) 
  1. Jane (nee Pearce) Backus (1835- 1914) 
  1. Anne Francis ‘Fanny’ (nee Backus) Docker (1874-1939) 
  1. Muriel (nee Moorhouse) Neice 
  1. David C. Neice (1946- ) and Paula Neice (1949- ) eldest son and daughter-in-law of Muriel Neice.  

Tyrconnell Heritage Society would like to acknowledge The Questor’s and David and Paula Neice for the funding to purchase the Moorhouse Doll display. Thanks so much for listening to this week’s episode.