Moderwell Street

Moderwell Street is named in honour of Robert Moderwell, the first sheriff of Perth County.

Robert Moderwell Stratford-Perth Archives

Robert Moderwell was the first sheriff of Perth County, and served in that role from 1853 to 1872. He was succeeded by John Hossie (see Hossie Terrace), who had worked with him in the sheriff’s office for a number of years.

Moderwell was born in Ireland in December 1805. He probably emigrated with his parents, in that his mother is buried in Stratford. His wife, Ann (Hossie), was born in Scotland in 1821. He died 1886, she in 1902. Both are buried in Stratford.

Robert and Ann were probably living in Goderich, when their first child, Margaret (1840-1917), was born. A second daughter (1841-1924) was born in Sarnia. From then through 1864, the Moderwells had at least 11 more children, the last five after the family was living in Stratford, where he had become the Perth County sheriff.

From 1826, when “Tiger” Dunlop (see Dunlop Place) was the first European to set foot in what would be Stratford to the beginning of Perth County in 1853, the settlement of “Little Thames” (see Little Thames Place) had seen great change from wilderness to thriving village.

First courthouse, 1853, William Street Beacon Herald

Dunlop arrived at what would become Stratford only a year after formation of the Canada Company, his employer. By 1832, the Shakespeare Hotel (see Sargint Street) was built and the Huron Road passable. By 1834, the town site was surveyed for 35,000 people, and in the next year there is a post office. By 1840, the first church (see St. Andrew Street) was built and by 1843 the first log school (see St. Andrew Street). By 1846, 200 people were living in the settlement. By 1850, Perth is established as a provisional county, and by 1853, when Sheriff Moderwell took up his position as county sheriff, Col. William F. McCullough (in 1852) had donated land on William Street to the east of Hamilton Street for a new courthouse, registry office and jail. That multi-purpose building was completed in 1853. (see William Street)

Moderwell house at 170 John St. Photo: Stratford-Perth Archives, from Mary Jane Lennon's A Stratford Album.

Vince Gratton dates this photo to about 1895, with this explanation: "The very elderly couple on the porch would be Robert and his wife ann Hossie. Robert died 1886 and after that Kay and two adult sons were living there into the Edwardian years." Vince also points out that pictures like this, showing family with prized possessions in front of the family home were popular at the time. The postcard pictures were sent far and wide to family and friends, often in Europe, to illustrate how well the family was doing.

The house is a Gothic Revival in style, with twin gables built in the 1850s. The contractor was probably Thomas Lunn. By now the balcony has been glassed in, but the structure of the house remains unchanged. Source: Stratford Designated Properties and Vince Gratton

In his first year as sheriff, Robert Moderwell presided as returning officer at the courthouse for the election of five council members, and for the election of inspectors of “houses of public entertainment,” namely hotels and taverns. Alexander Barrington Orr topped the polls with 77 votes, but William Frederick McCulloch, with just 65 votes, was chosen to be the village's first reeve (1854-1855). A. B. Orr was reeve in 1856-1858, after which, Stratford was declared a town. While the Town of Stratford still had a reeve, and a deputy reeve, it also had a mayor, of which John Corry Wilson Daly was the first, in 1859.

During Robert Moderwell's early time as sheriff, Stratford had some hard financial times. It over-borrowed, and that caused problems for years. The sheriff had to serve a writ on the town for non-payment of debt after the town had borrowed 6,000 pounds in 1852 from the Municipal Loan Fund of Parliament to build a school and a market house and sidewalks. In 1857, it borrowed a further $100,000 to bail out the Buffalo and Lake Huron Railway. Some money was repaid, and interest rates were lowered so that disaster was averted, but a debt of more than $50,000 remained until 1893, long after Stratford had become a city (1885) and Robert Moderwell had died (1886).

As well, in the 1850s there was the scandal of the northern gravel road. While road building was necessary, and the building of this one was a sound idea, it was a project that would lose $100,000, discredit Reeve A. B Orr and bring recriminations down on many prominent citizens.

As sheriff, Moderwell had to become involved. Several times, between 1861 and 1866, the town tried to sell the northern gravel road to the county, and the latter was on the verge of buying it for $5,000 when Sheriff Moderwell stepped in and seized the road for the benefit of creditors. When it went on the auction block, the county got it anyway, for $4,850.

The Beacon in its issue of July 6, 1866, reported that “the sheriff did the town a good deed last Tuesday in ridding it of the northern gravel road.” There were no winners except the people now served by the road.

But life was not all business for the sheriff and his community. Sports were popular, among them cricket, of which there games played regularly in the 1850s most notably between Stratford and St. Marys. Robert Moderwell was president of the Stratford club, whose membership fees were $3 annually. The game was so popular, it became part of the athletic program at schools and there were exchange games between Stratford Grammar School and the Victoria Club of Mitchell. Moderwell was also president of the Stratford Agricultural Society (1864-1869), as noted by Dean Robinson in his book Reflections: A History of the Stratford Agricultural Society 1841-1991.

Moderwell retired as sheriff in 1872. Before his death, in 1886, a biographer writing about his successor, John Hossie (see Hossie Terrace) had this to say of Moderwell: “The predecessor of Mr. Hossie in the office of sheriff, was Robert Moderwell, the first sheriff of Perth, taking the office when this county was set off from the district. He is yet living in Stratford. He was for years very prominent in the local agricultural society, and still takes a lively interest in such organizations and interests.” Source: Adelaide Leitch, Floodtides of Fortune; Stanford Dingman, Streets of Stratford, a series of articles for the Stratford Beacon Herald; Compiled by Gord Conroy

Robert Moderwell's son Andrew had a managerial position with the Bell Telephone Co. in Stratford (see Albert Street). Many members of the large Moderwell family continued to live in Stratford. This photo of Moderwell sisters was taken in about 1910.

Daughters of Robert and Ann (Hossie) Moderwell in about 1910. Photo Mary Newel

Early postal communication to Sheriff Robert Moderwell, 1859

1859 Postal letter to Robert Moderwell from London, U. C. ( Upper Canada, later Ontario). Courtesy: Vince Gratton Collection

On the right, another postal letter to Robert Moderwell showing the wax seal, the 1859 date, Stratford, and C. W. (Canada West, later Ontario). Thanks to Vince Gratton for the letters and information from the Gratton collection.