In 1972, the Hamilton Conservation Authority purchased 120 acres of land in the Dundas Valley from Mr. Charles Hill. This property was for many years part of an estate known as “The Hermitage”. The stone house and outbuildings, which now only exist in ruins, were built by Mr. George Gordon Browne Leith, when he bought the property in 1855. He and his wife lived there for many years; later followed by their daughter Mrs. Alma Dick-Lauder.
An earlier house was built by the Revered George Sheed, the first resident Presbyterian minister in Ancaster. Reverend Sheed bought the property in 1830 and built a frame home on the low ground to the east of the present ruin, near the stream. In Leith’s time this building was in the middle of the orchard, and was used for storing apples until some time after 1900. Mr. Sheed died in 1832, and was buried in St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church’s cemetery in Ancaster.
In 1833, the land was sold to an Englishman, Otto Ives. He came to Canada from Greece with a Greek wife. There is a legend that the Ives’ coachman, William Black, fell in love with Mrs. Ives’ niece, who had accompanied her to Canada. He asked Ives for permission to marry, but was emphatically refused. The next morning, Black did not appear with the carriage and was later found hanging from the stable rafters. A suicide could not be buried in a churchyard, so he was buried at the crossroads where Lover’s Lane joins Sulphur Springs Road. On moonlit night, some say that he can be heard crying for his lost love.
George Leith, who bought “The Hermitage” in 1855, was the second son of a Scottish baronet, Major-General Sir George Alexander Leith. As the second son, Leith could not inherit the title or the property in Scotland. He was given a pension and sent to Canada. The money was sufficient to enable him to get settled, but he would not have been financially independent for the rest of his life.
George Leith’s home was one of many built by well-to-do British immigrants in Ancaster, but surpassed them all. The building stone was quarried locally and the red bricks came from Dundas. The limestone sills came from the Credit Valley.
The attendant buildings were numerous, and their foundations can still be seen. The separate building to the north was a two-room laundry with a cistern in the floor. The long building directly behind the main house extended back about 85 feet. It contained a carriage house, a workroom and wood storage. The L-shaped wing next to it was the children’s nursery. To the west of the main house was a stable. The kitchen was in the west wing on the same side. In 1861 there were 13 people living in the house, five of whom were servants. On the ground floor of the main house was a drawing room, library, dining room and an enormous entrance hall. By today’s standards, the furnishings were opulent and many were brought from Scotland. There were paintings by Raeburn, Archer and Hogarth and many valuable first editions in the library. One of the most precious possessions was a set of china given to Mr. Leith’s father by the King of Burma, when he was governor at Penang.
At this time, the land had to supply most food requirements for the large household. By 1861, the farm was well developed. Of a total of 250 acres, 150 were cleared and cultivated. Leith built a house, a barn and granary down the lane for his tenant farmer. This house is now privately owned. The gatehouse was also built at the time. Known as The Lodge, it was, for many years, the home of Mrs. Penelope Hutchinson, a granddaughter of George Leith.
In 1865, Leith sold 10 acres on the west side of Sulphur Springs to his daughter and her husband – Mr. & Mrs. Matthew Wright. Here they built a large eighteen room home. On the north side of Sulphur Springs Road, there is a mineral spring, once thought to have curative properties, which had long been used by local settlers and Indigenous people. The Wrights sold the property in 1870, and in 1880 the house was turned into a hotel. It was used as a summer spa with the mineral water as the main attraction. The water was pumped uphill to the hotel by a steam engine, where it was used for bathing and drinking. The hotel suffered two severe fires and was permanently closed in 1910. The present house “Deerspring”, was built on the ruins and is now owned privately.
After the death of Mr. Leith (1887) and Mrs. Leith, (1900), their daughter, Mrs. Alma Dick-Lauder, lived in “The Hermitage.” She was a local writer who did some historical articles for the Hamilton Spectator. In 1897, these, along with other articles, were collected into book form, and entitled “Wentworth Landmarks.”
The Hermitage burned almost completely in October of 1934, but many of the valuables on the first floor were saved. Mrs. Lauder camped on the Hermitage grounds and then built a small house inside the ruins, and here she lived with her many animals until her death in 1942. Since then, the park-like setting has been modified by reforestation.
Hermitage Gatehouse Museum displays: