Midhurst: What's in a name?

By Greg Barker | Local News

December 1, 2020

A sign entering Midhurst is seen in a file photo. Photo courtesy of BarrieToday.

How did Midhurst come to be named?

Midhurst was first known as Oliver’s Mills. In 1825, what is today Barrie and Springwater was almost entirely an uncleared expanse of wilderness. In that year, the government of Upper Canada issued to three men – George Oliver, John Mair and Thomas Mair – a location ticket, granting them a mill site in Concession 4 of Vespra Township (today part of Springwater). This grant was conditional upon the men entering into a bond, guaranteeing the Crown that they would build and operate a gristmill there (for grinding grain into flour), otherwise they’d be required to pay a financial penalty. In this way the government, in anticipation of settlement, created – to use modern jargon – an incentive for the private sector to provide a vital and much needed public service.

Sometime during 1825-29, Oliver and the Mairs did in fact construct a gristmill on Willow Creek, and a sawmill too. These were the first mills north of Holland Landing near Newmarket. In December 1829, presumably after the three men had materially fulfilled their undertakings to the Crown, a land patent was registered, making them the first registered owners of Lot 12, Conc. 4, Vespra. This lot was a 200-acre tract, comprising the mill site and a good part of what is today Midhurst.

In 1832 the Mair brothers sold their interest to Oliver, who continued to operate the mills. He added a whisky distillery too in about 1836 or ’37. The bustling location became commonly known as Oliver’s Mills after the mills and their owner. It was also though occasionally called Vespra Mills after the township.

In 1842, the property was purchased by Henry Boys (who was to later become the County treasurer). Boys, who owned this land until 1852, upgraded the mills and continued to run the mills and the distillery. At that time, according to an article later published in The Northern Advance, a Barrie newspaper, the grist mill was providing “the grinding for all the settlers between Barrie and Lake Huron” (Georgian Bay) and the distillery “supplied all the hotels north of Bradford.” During the time Boys owned this booming enterprise, he wanted to change the name of the site to Muggleton. David Williams, writing in 1906, concludes – probably correctly – that this proposed name was inspired by The Pickwick Papers, Charles Dickens’s first novel published in 1836-37. In the novel, Muggleton is a town that is described, with irony (in the context of the entire passage), as “. . . an ancient and loyal borough, mingling a zealous advocacy of Christian principles with a devoted attachment to commercial rights . . .” The name Muggleton, however, did not find favour with the public, who continued to call the place Oliver’s Mills. Future residents were thereby spared the infamy of being known as Muggletonians!

In 1862, a post office was established at Oliver’s Mills. It opened under the name of Midhurst, after a town in Sussex (now West Sussex) in the far south of England. Midhurst, Sussex, was known for, among other things, the historic Cowdray Park country estate. Fairly quickly the postal name, Midhurst, replaced Oliver’s Mills as the common name of the community.

Why was the post office named Midhurst? A plaque in front of 48 Doran Road, erected in 1978, states that Oliver’s Mills was renamed at the suggestion of George Sneath (1820-1907), a native of Midhurst, England, who was a prominent local resident and the first postmaster. A few other modern writings make similar claims. These claims, however, are almost certainly wrong. It’s seemingly impossible to find any documented link between Sneath (or his wife, or any other local settler) and the town of Midhurst, Sussex. Materials from around the time of Sneath’s life – a church baptismal register, a published biographical sketch, the official registration of his death, newspaper reports, and similar items – provide compelling evidence that Sneath was born (and initially lived) in Croydon, Surrey, in the London area, then subsequently resided for an undetermined period in Nottingham, before coming to Canada at the age of 22. Further, Sneath, an educated man, wrote a few articles in the 1890s recounting his memories of Simcoe County’s pioneer days. In one about Vespra, he mentions Midhurst but says nothing about the

origin of its name. This is a somewhat odd omission if he were in fact the person who suggested the name – especially so given that in another article, he recounted at length an unconfirmed “legend” (his word) about the origin of Sunnidale Township’s name.

Another explanation for the name is provided by David Williams in The Origin of the Names of Post Offices of Simcoe County, published in 1906. He writes that the name Midhurst was “given by the postal authorities, probably the inspector of the division, at that time the late Mr. Sweatman.” Williams is likely correct. It wasn’t unusual for the postal authorities to assign to a new post office a name that was different from that of the community it was in. This was typically done, in an era well before postal codes, to avoid confusion between places with similar names. It appears, therefore, that the name of Midhurst’s post office, and by extension the community’s name, was the result of a more-or-less random selection by a postal official.

Interestingly though, it turns out that Midhurst is an appropriate name for our community. The name is derived from the Old English (Anglo-Saxon) words midd and hyrst. Midd means amid, among or in the middle. Hyrst usually refers to a wooded hill, knoll or promontory. Accordingly, Midhurst literally means “amid the wooded hills.” Low hills are a prominent feature of the local landscape, and today these hills are once again well treed – thanks to reforestation efforts that commenced in the 1920s. So what could be a more fitting and descriptive name?