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Remembering Belleville’s first female tavern owner

By Jessica Clement [1] 

BELLEVILLE – Lois Foster is passionate as she tells the story of her four-times great-grandmother’s rise to success to become the first woman to obtain a tavern licence in the area.

Foster works for Community Archives of Belleville and Hastings County [2] and was speaking about her ancestor in honour of the 24th annual Women’s History Month. She said she has been researching her ancestors in the area for years, with a special interest in Margaret Simpson.

Simpson came to Canada from Scotland with her husband and four children in 1791 with the promise of free land. The family settled near Napanee –where her then husband passed away shortly after their arrival – and stayed until she was remarried to a man named James Simpson.

“He had been over here for years by then in the army,” Foster said.  “He eventually retired, his health was terrible. They couldn’t farm.”

Margaret Simpson had two more children with her new husband, and in order to make ends meet they moved to Belleville, which at the time was still Meyers Creek. The family settled in what was described in archival documents as a log shanty with no floor, and built a small tavern in the summer of 1797, according to Foster, which quickly became the heart of the village.

“Anything that went on happened in the tavern,” Foster said.

According to records, it was a site for political and township meetings, parades, storage of military equipment, and even held the debate in 1816 which gave Meyers Creek its new name: Belleville.

James Simpson died in July of 1802, leaving his wife with their six children and the tavern. In order to keep the business, Simpson had to apply for a tavern licence. She became the first woman to receive one in Midland County – which encompassed the current counties of Hastings, Lennox, Addington and Frontenac.

Midland County

Map of Midland County (1826) provided by Ontario Ministry of Government and Consumer Services

“She was possibly one of the first women to get a tavern licence in all of Upper Canada,” Foster said.

According to Foster, Margaret Simpson kept the tavern and prospered, using the money to build a large Loyalist-style inn in 1820. The building was erected on the corner of Front and Dundas streets.

Wallbridge Inn

Photo provided by Lois Foster of Community Archives BHC

“She was a businesswoman, a successful businesswoman, which was uncommon. She could also read and write,” Foster said. “It was the hub of the village so she was a very important person.”

When asked why Margaret Simpson should be recognized this month, Foster said, “When you know how important she was to the history of Belleville, and being a woman, to have a business that early and run it successfully – especially a tavern – it’s incredible.”

Simpson retired in 1825, selling the tavern to her son George, Foster’s three-times great-grandfather.