The Ghosts of Gorffwysfa
Updated: Sep 25, 2020
The Resting Place
They say that people return to haunt the places where they lived through the important moments of their lives, so I fully expect that a hundred years from now people will report sightings of the ghost of a well-coiffed young man standing at a podium in front of the Rideau Cottage on the grounds of Rideau Hall. However, Justin Trudeau is not the subject of this post, nor is it Rideau Cottage. No, it is that other official residence, 24 Sussex, the Official Residence of every Canadian Prime Minister since 1951, except one. (No, it wasn’t Justin! He lived there when his Dad was PM. Can you guess who?)
Long before Prime Ministers settled into 24 Sussex Drive, there were others who lived out their lives within its walls. Joseph Merrill Currier was the man who commissioned the build in 1866. Now that his home stands empty, awaiting its fate, I imagine the spectral echoes of their mortal existence is played out in the stillness of its halls.
It stood completed in 1868, designed by Joseph's brother, James, a gothic-style mansion (pictured) given an equally gothic name: Gorffwysfa, which is welsh for "The Resting Place"; a deliciously unsettling name, perfect for unsettling stories of unsettled spirits.
Now, trying to pronounce anything in Welsh is a challenge, but for those who want to give it a go, it's pronounced Gor-FOICE-vaw and, yes, please roll the 'r'. Weirdly, though, Joseph Currier was not Welsh and there is no clue left as to why or how he chose this name for his home.
Joseph was born in North Troy, Vermont in 1820 and came to Canada in 1837, where he got his start in the timber industry, eventually becoming a wealthy lumber baron (Batson, Wright & Currier), a businessman (Watson's Mill), and a politician (Ottawa Alderman, MPP and MP). He died April 22, 1884.
Joseph shared his life with three wives, two of whom met with very tragic deaths.
He met his first wife, Christiana (aka Christina) S. Wilson, when he was working in Levi Bigelow's Mill in Buckingham and married her in 1846. The couple then moved to Bytown in 1849, when Joseph began to work for Thomas McKay and together, Joseph and Christiana would have four children named William, James, Joseph and Margaret.
Sadly, their familial bliss would be shattered forever when in September of 1855, scarlet fever swept through Ottawa. It invaded the Currier home with a deadly fury and took the children to their graves, all except for young James. The blow would be so devastating that, in less than three years, Christiana would join her babies, dying of a broken heart in July, 1858.
In August 1860, Joseph met a beautiful young lady while staying at the Crosbyside Hotel in Lake George, New York. Anna Elizabeth Crosby was the daughter of the innkeepers. Annie, as she was known to everyone, healed his broken heart and they married soon after, on January 25, 1861.
The year before Joseph met Annie, he had partnered with Moss Kent Dickinson to build a mill at Long Island on the Rideau River (Watson's Mill in Manotick, today) so, when they arrived in Ottawa, soon after their honeymoon, Joseph was anxious for Annie to see his new enterprise.
The couple arrived to tour the Mill on March 11, 1861. Annie was a woman of means, so she arrived beautifully dressed in a fashionable white crinoline hoop-dress.
There are five turbines in the basement that power the milling stones and machinery of the Mill and back then, of course, the attention to safety was not what it is today. At some point, Annie's crinoline skirt got caught in the machinery and her life ended in an instant when she was slammed violently into a stone pillar. Joseph Currier witnessed the awful moment when his happy life would come to another abrupt halt, just weeks after they married.
Many have said that a beautiful flaxen-haired woman can be seen at the window in the upper floor of Watson's Mill on moonlit nights. They say it is the place Annie's ghost returns to cry for the loss of her earthly life, but one must wonder if this would truly be the place where a young woman would spend eternity, if indeed she must return. Read on.
Third time lucky ...
Joseph Currier grieved and then moved on with his life. He soothed his battered soul by immersing himself in business and politics, but if nothing else becomes obvious, we can see that he always had the ability to recover from life's worst blows. In five years, he was making plans for a new life, building Gorffwysfa as a wedding gift for his 3rd wife, Hannah Wright.
When he met her, Hannah Wright was a member of local royalty, so to speak, an heiress of the First Family of the Ottawa Valley, daughter of Ruggles Wright the son who outlasted all the others to inherit the vast estate of Philemon Wright.
Hannah was said to be a deeply religious woman, well-known for her charitable works, and a woman who loved to entertain. As she was one of the most charming and accomplished hostesses in the region, Gorffwysfa became THE address where the glitterati of Ottawa gathered for balls and levees, hosting Princes, Governor-Generals and Prime Ministers at the Curriers' lavish parties. Five Hundred people, including Sir John A., no less, were present at Gorffwysfa's housewarming.
As well, the Curriers were known for their philanthropy. One public gift, in particular, would bring them into close proximity to the spirit-world: a generous donation of land for the creation of Beechwood cemetery, in 1874. Joseph and Hannah promptly had his three children and the first two Mrs. Curriers brought there to be re-interred.
For quite awhile, the Curriers had a ward living with them in Gorffwysfa: their niece, Bertha Wright. Like her beloved aunt Hannah, Bertha had a lifelong, fervent devotion to her faith, which undoubtedly came from the influence of Hannah. So close were they that Bertha took on her Aunt's name. She was known as Hannah to all who were acquainted with her.
Bertha practiced her faith by devoting her life to helping wayward women. She founded the Home for Friendless Women, which eventually became Ottawa's YWCA. For her role in setting up a similar institution in Hull, she started a riot, earning the title of the Heroine of Hull. (To see the video, Taking Time - The Heroine of Hull, click here: https://vimeo.com/151595168).
Bertha became National President of Canada's YWCA, and also wrote a book about her illustrious great-grandfather Philemon, entitled White Chief of the Ottawa.
The Others ...
When Hannah passed, and left behind this mortal coil in 1901, the house was sold to William Cameron Edwards, a next generation Ottawa Valley Lumber Baron, politician, and collector of significant works of art that would one day grace the walls of our National Gallery. William Edwards lived in Gorffwysfa uneventfully until 1923, when it was left to his nephew, Gordon Campbell Edwards.
Curiously, Gordon's brother Cameron Macpherson Edwards had a mansion of his own built in 1925 on Lake Mousseau in the Gatineau Hills, a mansion that would later become the summer home of Canadian Prime Ministers on the lake now called Harrington Lake. Cameron M. Edwards would have his own personal tragedy in time, when in May 1940, the car his son, Lt. John Cameron Edwards, was driving would plunge off the Chaudière Bridge, drowning him.
It's well known in the Valley that the Chaudière does not release her deathly embrace easily. She only gives up her dead after a fortnight, when by the light of the moon, they are laid to rest, silently, solemnly, on the shoreline below the bluff of The Resting Place, Gorffwysfa.
The whisperings in the halls of 24 Sussex
Much like Noël Coward's classic play, Blithe Spirit, where a successful businessman and his wife have the misfortune to share their happy home with the ghost of the man's deceased former wife, I think that Gorffwysfa is certainly a candidate to host a recreation of Coward’s plot, given all of this history.
Having spent his happiest years at Gorffwysfa it would not be unimaginable that Joseph Currier's memory would linger in his home, now abandoned. I imagine his spirit spending quiet evenings sitting by the fireside in the living room, smoking a pipe while sharing tea with his beloved Hannah, and Bertha reads from her Bible to the three children, while Christiana is spreading strawberry jam over fresh-baked scones in the kitchen.
Upstairs, Annie is admiring a frilly dress in an ornate gilt mirror, pinching her cheeks before going down to join the others. While in the drawing room, the Edwards men are sharing brandy and cigars.
(In case you never guessed ... it was Kim Campbell)