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
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
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.
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
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!