The Dowker Family

Sandy Knoepfel wrote in the summer of 2006 two articles about the Dowker family in News & Views.

The Dowker Family (Part I), June 2006

The name Dowker has been an enigma for me since I first heard it several years ago. The first mayor of Baie d'Urfé was a Dowker, and the island across the bay is Dowker, but no one seemed to know much about either, although legends are plentiful about the latter. Well, curiosity got the better of me, and a few fortunate phone calls later I was sitting in the dining room of Colonel George Dowker's great-grandson Fred and his wife Leonora Dowker. As luck would have it, Fred is the family's historian, and a very organized one at that. They very generously allowed me access to old photographs, memorabilia, and letters to put this story together about a family with very strong ties to our community. As well, they shared their personal memories of Dowker Island and the family that shares its name.

Colonel George Dowker was born in 1825 in Salton, Yorkshire, England to George Fowler Dowker and Anne Lamb. In 1847 he left for North America, taking up residence first in New York, and within a few years Montreal. He married Susan Wright Leslie, the daughter of a Montreal doctor. They had 6 sons and 1 daughter: George Lamb, Arthur Hamilton, Leslie Rose, Harry Bainbridge, Spencer Wilcox, Gertrude Vivian and Vivian de Vere, all of whom resided in the vicinity of Ste-Anne-de-Bellevue as adults.

Tadja Hall, at 20182 Lakeshore (facing Macdonald College) was built by Colonel George Dowker in the early 1860's. He named their family home Throstle Lodge after receiving a bird by that name from his cousin in England. Col. Dowker died there in 1910; it was eventually sold to David Stewart who donated it to McGill as a Faculty Club for Macdonald College, at which time it was renamed Tadja Hall, after Mr. Stewart's cat.

Throstle Lodge circa 1900 (currently Tadja Hall)

This was the first of several houses along the Lakeshore built by the Dowker Family, all of them still standing. At 20758 Lakeshore is Cedar Croft, built in 1904 by Vivian de Vere Dowker (1864-1923), the youngest of the siblings. He was one of Baie d'Urfé's Fathers of Incorporation, and served as the Town's first mayor from 1911 to 1917.Extensive modifications were made to Cedar Croft in 1911 by Mr. E. Maxwell. Vivian de Vere married Anna Veasey; they had 1 son and 3 daughters.

Thomson House sits at 20826 Lakeshore Road, opposite the entrance to the cemetery. It was built by Leslie Rose Dowker.

Cottonwoods, at 21048 Lakeshore Road, was built in 1914 and named after the trees that existed on the property at the time. It was given to George Newton Dowker and Gwen Bagnall as a wedding present by his father Arthur Hamilton. Mrs. Bagnall-Dowker was an 'Instructor in Dairying' from England; George Newton was an alderman in Baie d'Urfé from 1917 to 1923. Their son Fred Dowker recalls living in this house until the age of 8, when the family moved to Ontario. Cottonwoods later became the Dean of Macdonald College's official residence.

Leslie Rose also built Beausejour circa 1890, at 21090 Lakeshore Road. He lived here until he moved to Dowker Island, where he built Idlewyld. Beausejour was later lived in by Beatrice Timberlake and her family (Beatrice was one of Vivian de Vere's daughters). The most talked-about member of the Dowker family is Leslie Rose (1854-1945), who was a well-known figure in these parts. Many in the Dowker family have vivid memories of this kind and generous man.

In 1887 Leslie purchased the island 3/4 of a mile off the coast of Baie d'Urfé, then known as Lynch Island but known ever since as Dowker Island. It is owned by Ile Perrot, although very little is known of the distant history of the island; it was possibly owned by Intendant Perrot in the 17 th century. Eileen Cameron wrote an article for a Montreal newspaper (date and publication unknown) stating that the island was owned around 1860 by a Mr. Lynch. In 1875 it was purchased by Benjamin Ethier, then Joseph Perrier in 1882, and then Leslie Rose Dowker in 1887. A house that existed on the island burnt down around 1900, and Leslie built Idlewyld soon after on the eastern tip, taking advantage of a beautiful view of the lake.

Fred Dowker explained that Uncle Leslie started out as a manufacturer's representative: "He was very strong at purchasing animal hides, and eventually made his fortune in the leather business, making bags and belts for the military during WWI. His office was on St. François-Xavier Street in Montreal".

Leslie was a bachelor his entire life, but was by no means alone on his island. He had a live-in housekeeper, as well as caretakers living in a small cottage nearby. His large family paid frequent visits, in addition to his many friends from the Royal Montreal Yacht Club. There was a guest house used primarily by his favorite brother, Spencer.

Mrs. Dowker explained that one could swim beautifully off the eastern end of the island, even though the beach did not have sand; there was a lot of flat rock, tiered down. She recalls lots of wild garlic growing on the island, and says it is a blue heron colony. For atime it was rented to a Polish orphanage during the summer until squatters burnt down the house.

Leslie had a right of way in Baie d'Urfé, and brewed his own whisky in the barn. This and more on the Dowker Family, in the July issue of the News & Views.

Sandy Knoepfel


The Dowker Family (Part II), July 2006

The Dowker's are one of the founding families of the Ste-Anne-de-Bellevue and Baie d'Urfé area. Several of the homes along Lakeshore Road were built by Colonel George Dowker, who settled here in the 1860's, and his sons. Vivian de Vere Dowker served as Baie d'Urfé's first Mayor in 1911, while George Newton and Leslie Rose Dowker both served as aldermen on our Town Council. As mentioned in Part I of this article, Leslie was a well-known figure in town, in part because of his island home.

Leslie built Idlewyld in 1900 with rock from Dowker Island and nearby Ile Perrot. He had a plaque made for the house while on holiday in France; his initials, LRD, are inscribed at the top of the sign, as seen in the photo below.

LRD idlewyld, 1900

Fred and Leonora Dowker surmise that the name Idlewyld is probably a nod towards the family's Welsh roots. The house had all the furnishings and comforts of a city home. The front entrance led to a wide staircase, a huge reception hall, and a library; there were 4-6 bedrooms (accounts vary), a den, and a living room. On the north side of the house stood a dock and boat house, while horse trails meandered throughout the island which boasts three miles of shoreline. A pump house was built of stone to pump water from the lake to the house by generator, which also provided electricity.

Idlewyld - Dowker Island

Leslie purchased a strip of land in Baie d'Urfé at the bottom of present day Allan's Hill. Here, he maintained a well-equipped 'cabin' with a working stove, food and a bed for when the weather was too dicey to cross to his island. He would spend the night or waitfor the sun to go down during the winter months, allowing the ice to harden. A recollection of Leslie was included in the Tri-centennial book, "...he loved his island and would trek back and forth in all weathers. Mrs. Poole remembers him well, pulling his lightweight boat behind him in case the thinning ice gave way as he came across to his right-of-way beside 20094 Lakeshore Road. Sometimes he slept in a hut there...her husband suggested he should stay on the mainland one night when the ice was thin, and the answer he got was, "Oh, no! It's getting colder. In a few hours the ice will be strong enough to go back!".

The right-of-way still exists although it is now wildly overgrown, which I discovered as I attempted to trudge through it in sandals (halfway through I gave up, determined to have a go at it another day with high rainboots!). Leslie kept a motor launch to cross in summer, and would cross in the winter pulling a small boat or holding a long pole, ready for a break in the ice. Tragedy struck in the 1920's when a team of horses and driver fell through the ice with a piano they were bringing across; it seems that Leslie supported the widow and children for a number of years afterward.

Leslie brewed liquor up in the barn; one source claims he drank up to 40 oz of whisky a day, and smoked pipes 'like a chimney', although no one remembers him at all disorderly. At the age of 85 he started to go blind and asked the doctor if it was caused by his heavy use of spirits and tobacco. He promptly stopped and had a big party to give away his store of alcohol, pipes and tobacco. Leslie went on to live another 7 years.

The tri-centennial book reports that Leslie Dowker had a cannon on his island: "...there were big parties on the island, and an annual event was the firing of the cannon to salute the steam-paddle wheeler "Empress" on her Victoria weekend debut of the season. Rumour has it that on one occasion his over-exhilarated guests filled the cannon with gravel - much to the consternation of the passengers on the "Empress"".

Fred Dowker, the family's historian, gathered recorded memories, pictures, and letters from many family members. Betty McAuslan (her mother was Mary Dowker, niece of Leslie) recalled: "We were allowed to camp on the high rock on the east-end of the island, where we learned to smoke, much to Leslie's disapproval...the bedroom furniture was birds-eye maple and the headboards were 6 feet high. The floors and walls were tongue and groove. There were 6 bedrooms...One day circa 1930 he (Leslie) arrived at his nephew's house in Ste-Anne-de-Bellevue in a rowboat with his grandfather clock in the stern of the boat. He would be about 77 years old...There was a natural spring (on his right-of-way in Baie d'Urfé) and family and guests were asked to bring across a pail of water when they came visiting."

Several recollections include his fondness for peppermints, earning him the moniker "Peppermint Man" by some of the children; even his dogs came running for peppermints. Clare Snasdell-Taylor (Betty McAuslan's sister) wrote, "Leslie always had peppermints under his pillow in his bedroom, and we used to sneak up the back stairs of the house to get them...One of Leslie's stories was about tobogganing down Guy street (in Montreal)as a youngster. He always yelled to his pals to duck when going under the railway bridge - of course it was 20 feet above them, but everyone ducked..."

Leslie Dowker never married, although he was quite popular with the ladies. Gertrude Bagnall Dowker related in a letter to Fred, her brother: "He never married. He was engaged to an English girl, but as her father was dead, her brother was in charge - when he (Leslie) asked her brother if he could marry his sister and take her to Canada, the answer was 'No! - to take my sister to the wilds of Canada and the Indians, etc...' he never really got over it." An old friend of the family, Aileen Davidson "...used to tell how Uncle Leslie was the 'Beau Brummel of Montreal' when she was a girl...Uncle Leslie courted her...I remember the dear old soul saying that the most embarrassing moment in her life was when she had a date with Uncle Leslie. She was so excited, she ran downstairs when he was announced and he started to laugh - to her chagrin, she discovered she only had her petticoat on and no dress!"

Leslie passed away in 1945, at the age of 91. In early 1977, Idlewyld was burnt down by vandals. The island was inherited by the children of his brother Arthur. Fred & Lee Dowker explained that Mr. Tardiff and Partners of Pointe-Claire purchased the island from the family and registered a company called "Dowker Island Inc.". They sold almost 10 lots to people that had never seen the island in hopes of developing it as a resort or community. They did not garner enough interest, and purchased the lots back. Ever since, it has been quiet, other than the occasional camper or sailor.

A claim to fame for the island was a television show filmed there in 1957 and 1958. "Pierre Radisson" was a show about the daring adventures of a famous coureur de bois from the mid-1600's that had frequent run-ins with the Iroquois.

The Dowker family was very involved with the early days of St. George's church on Maple Avenue in Ste. Anne-de-Bellevue. The Dowker parents were ardent supporters of the church and their only daughter Gertrude married one of the clergy from the church, Fred Graham, who later became an Archdeacon. Arthur was one of the first two church wardens; Leslie Rose was involved in helping to clear the mortgage in 1900 and signing the deed. It is possible that some of the stone used in building the church came from Dowker Island.

I would like to thank Fred and Leonora Dowker for their wonderful generosity in helping to put this story together. Much of a town's history is dependant on people passing stories, memories and records from one generation to the next. Due to Fred's diligence and determination in archiving his family's past, Baie d'Urfé has reclaimed a piece of its history. Thank you!

Sandy Knoepfel


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