In 1858, John Samuel James Watson departed from Rockingham Castle, in the English Midlands County of Northamptonshire, under a cloud of disgrace. The 36-year old man had married a scullery maid, Mary Martin, 14 years his junior. This alliance, so far “below his station,” was just not acceptable to the Watson family who had lived at the castle, built for William the Conqueror, since Edward Watson leased the property in 1553.
The Watson clan took a practical approach to solving the problem. Legend has it that they invested £10,000 to finance John’s banishment to Canada. He used some of the money to recruit a group of neighbours with the skills necessary to carve a village out of the wilderness. They made their way across the Atlantic, up the St. Lawrence and Ottawa Rivers to Farrell’s Landing near Renfrew. They continued along the primitive Ottawa and Opeongo Colonization Road for about 80 km and the Peterson Branch Road for another 5 km. They then turned off for 3 km to their destination, a wooded valley containing a patch of arable soil, rare in the Canadian Shield. A turbulent creek that they named Rockingham ran through the valley, located halfway between today’s Brudenell and Combermere.
The backwoods community, fondly named Rockingham, soon boasted a blacksmith’s shop, hotel, tannery, school, and a general store operated by John Watson who opened the post office there in 1864. In 1875, an Anglican Church was erected on land donated by John Watson and named St. Leonard’s in memory of the stone church in his English home village.
By 1888, the population was about 60 and by 1899, 110. Plays directed by an early schoolmaster, Mr. Reid, attracted audiences and participants from neighbouring villages, as did dances, box socials, concerts, cricket matches and ball games. As the once-abundant red and white pine were logged out, however, the population dwindled. Farmers, disappointed that deforestation had not revealed the anticipated fruitful soil, moved to more promising land. Lumberman J.R. Booth’s Ottawa, Arnprior and Parry Sound Railway was opened through Killaloe in 1894, offering an easier way of journeying “up the Valley” and diverted many travellers from the Opeongo Road and Rockingham.
John died in 1913 and his wife Mary in 1916; both are buried at Rockingham, although her death is not recorded on John’s headstone.
The church held its last regular service in 1924, although it was not closed until 1941. Designated for demolition in 1995, a group of individuals formed The Friends of Rockingham Church and assumed ownership of the building in 1998.
Just off John Watson Rd in Rockingham. Drive slowly, and just listen for the roar.
See also: Brudenell