Belleville: A Popular History.


312 pages
Contains Photos, Maps, Bibliography, Index
ISBN 978-1-55002-863-8
DDC 971.3'585






Reviewed by John R. Abbott

John Abbott is a professor of history at Laurentian University’s Algoma University College. He is the co-author of The Border at Sault Ste Marie and The History of Fort St. Joseph.


Belleville, Ontario, is a small but storied city of 50,000 situated at the southern extremity of Hastings County where the Moira River enters the Bay of Quinte. The government selected this location for a town in 1811, but put the project on hold for the duration of the War of 1812. In the late winter of 1816, however, it authorized Samuel Street to survey 428 acres, and purchased the reserve from the Mississaugas in the late summer of that same year.


Gerry Boyce allocated one chapter to the pre-settlement period, and 11 to the 200 subsequent years. The chapter on settlement (1793–1840) focuses on problems generated by the interplay between the character of such dominant settlers as Captain John Meyers and “the illustrious Mrs. Simpson” and circumstances generated by war, a rampaging river, and settlement patterns that didn’t always accord with subsequent surveys. Law and order (1790–1840) constitute the theme for chapter 3: government, the press, and the legal system. The 1840s and 1850s offer up a grab bag collection of topics concerning writers, mystics, education, abolitionists, and railway fever. Chapters 5, 6, and 7 feature matters that happened to be associated with the Victorian period: Canadian Confederation and the early Dominion experience. Readers can choose amongst descriptions of the Prince of Wales’s aborted visit in 1860, a notable hanging, minstrel shows, cemeteries and hospitals, and early interest in the town’s history. The same approach confronts and confounds the reader who searches for meaning in the 20th century.


As entertaining as these individual stories may be, taken together they are to an integrated urban biography what a jumble of building materials is to a completed edifice. There is no centre that holds, no pulse, no life, and no ongoing, consistent examination of the relationship between character and circumstance in the creation of Belleville’s unique personality. For Gerry Boyce as for Henry Ford, history is just one damn thing after another. Calling the result “popular” gives narrative history itself a bad name.


Boyce, Gerry., “Belleville: A Popular History.,” Canadian Book Review Annual Online, accessed February 25, 2024,