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Visiting Bellevue House, Kingston, Ontario: a National Historic Site of Canada recalling Sir John A. MacDonald

Updated on July 24, 2012
Flag of Canada
Flag of Canada | Source
Provincial flag of Ontario
Provincial flag of Ontario | Source
 Bellevue House National Historic Site of Canada in Kingston, Ontario, Canada.
Bellevue House National Historic Site of Canada in Kingston, Ontario, Canada. | Source
John A. Macdonald, probably circa 1850
John A. Macdonald, probably circa 1850 | Source
Isabella Clark Macdonald, by William Sawyer
Isabella Clark Macdonald, by William Sawyer | Source
Map location of Kingston, Ontario
Map location of Kingston, Ontario | Source

An Italianate villa, dating from c.1840

This is where Sir John A. Macdonald (1815-1891) lived, albeit briefly. One great fact about Sir John Macdonald was that he often had money troubles. This, also, is very probably the main reason why he, a local lawyer, and his ailing first wife Isabella Clark Macdonald, were constrained to move from the property after having lived there for a short period. However, the Government of Canada implemented a decision in 1995 that Bellevue House was still the most suitable property in Kingston to be designated a National Historic Site of Canada on account of its links with Sir John A. Macdonald.

Sir John is of course remembered as the longserving Prime Minister of Canada, who led the country into Confederation. By extension, he almost incarnates the very sense of the supra-provincial dimension of Federal (previously known as Dominion) public affairs. (Indeed, given Sir John Macdonald's great importance in the history of Canada, I am supplying an image of a Maple Leaf flag as well as my usual practice in these articles of showing the relevant Provincial flag of a Canadian province.)

However, an interesting fact about Sir John Macdonald's personal timeline is that when he lived at Bellevue House from August 1848 to September 1849 (1), in the days before Confederation, he was not in agreement with the idea that the North American colonies should unite as one Dominion. One gets a sense of a mid-19th century Canada West (2) merchant class — which Sir John in some ways represented — which was reasonably content to let political matters rest as they were. Only during the American Civil War, when events and their repercussions took on new significance, did that merchant class sense that measures for the defence of Great Britain's North American colonies required a greater level of coordination and solidarity than was perceived to be available from their Colonial leaders in England. This in no way negates Sir John A. Macdonald's later achievements, and his standing as a beloved Canadian leader. But it does call into question any notion of the 'historic inevitability' of Confederation, at least, from standpoints perceived in the late 1840s.

One of the features of Bellevue House is its pronounced lack of symmetry. On visiting the interior of the house, I found a number of its features rather striking, such as the relative smallness of the interior; also, one of the flights of stairs in the House had steps which were so steep that it is hard to imagine people using them with any level of ease. (A social commentary maybe: the ease and comfort of servant classes did not matter so much to their betters, in the mid-19th century?)

The Italianate style, which Bellevue House shows, was popular in the early reign of Queen Victoria. Thus we see here a tower-like upper storey and pillared balconies. The House itself dates from about 1840, built by Charles Hales.

Parks Canada / Parcs Canada is the body responsible for the upkeep and public presentation of this National Historic Site of Canada / Lieu historique national du Canada . A museum area and gift shop also exists separately from the House itself. I found the guides to the property well versed in relevant information acquired about the House.

Bellevue House is located at 35 Centre Street, Kingston.

July 24, 2012


(1) Several months after the Macdonalds moved from Bellevue House in September 1849, their son Hugh John Macdonald (1850-1929) — who later served as Premier of Manitoba — was born in Kingston; his mother Isabella Clark Macdonald died in 1857.

(1) Canada West is the name by which Ontario was known in the decades prior to Confederation; previously, its name was Upper Canada.

Also worth seeing

In Kingston itself, other visitor attractions include: the City Hall, Fort Henry; the Frontenac County Courthouse; Portsmouth Village; the Flora MacDonald Confederation Basin; and many others.


How to get there: Kingston/Norman Rogers Airport, at Kingston , Ontario is served by Air Canada, offering scheduled flights to Toronto Pearson Airport, with wide flight connections, and by charter airline Brock Air Services. Car rental is available from Kingston/Norman Rogers Airport. You are advised to check with the airline or your travel agent for up to date information. Some facilities may be withdrawn, without notice. Please refer to appropriate consular sources for any special border crossing arrangements which may apply to citizens of certain nationalities.

MJFenn is an independent travel writer based in Ontario, Canada.

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