Now part of Cobourg - By Percy L. Climo - April 1987
Warning: Outdated language is used to describe Indigenous peoples.
Amherst was one of the earliest settlements in the Cobourg area. It stood roughly on the space encompassed by a circle of a one-quarter mile radius, with its centre at Elgin and Burnham Streets. It was at this historic village that several important events occurred.

In 1791, surveyors under the direction of Augustus Jones blocked out 11 townships bordering on the north shore of Lake Ontario, eastward from the Humber River near Toronto to the Trent River. Jones mapped out the side lines for the 11 townships and proceeded westerly to lay out and measure the base line for each township. The Hamilton Township line happened to pass near Elgin Street. The party returned from the east, cutting a line through the dense forest of maple and oak. That 1791 survey was the base for the area to the north of it and on which all land registrations are recorded.

Plans were conceived for a new district in this area in the time of Lieutenant Governor Simcoe, who was a very far seeing and scheming individual. Northumberland County was as yet solid forest. Presqu'ile Point was selected as the site for the District town. One year after Simcoe left Canada, in 1797, the town of Newcastle in Northumberland County was laid out by a government surveyor in the Presqu'ile area. In the year 1802 the District of Newcastle was selected and the townsite of Newcastle was being promoted. Lots were sold to private individuals and the District court house, a three storey frame building, was erected there.

In 1804 a white trapper was murdered at Lake Scugog. An Indian was charged with the murder and came up for trial at York; however, the defence successfully argued that the trial should be held in the District of Newcastle, where the murder had been committed. The court, including the judge, legal people, the prisoner, guards, witnesses, and others took passage on the government schooner Speedy, and proceeded to Presqu'ile. Before their arrival, a severe storm came on. The Speedy was last seen just before dark on October 8, 1804, about four miles off Presqu'ile Point. The boat and its 20 passengers were never seen again, and the court was never held at Presqu'ile. More

Following this tragedy, the justice of the peace had second thoughts as to the desirability of the Town of Newcastle, at Presqu'ile as a location for the District town and court house. The magistrates never held their Quarter Session meetings at the Presqu'ile Court House, and decided to relocate in a more central location, in Haldimand or Hamilton Townships.

In 1805 Asa Burnham, one of the magistrates, purchased Lot No. 19 in the first concession of Hamilton Township from Daniel McKyes. Burnham offered to donate four acres of his land for the new Court House. The offer was accepted, a building committee was appointed, and the erection of the structure proceeded. Lot No. 19 is on the north side of Elgin Street, opposite the Fitness Centre.

Apparently the court house building committee changed the location. Burnham had also acquired township lot No. 20 from his cousin Aaron Greeley. This land was north of Elgin and east of Burnham Streets, and there the court house was constructed on the crest of the hill. The new building was first used by the magistrates for their Quarter Session meeting on January 13, 1807.

The property occupied by the court house and gaol (as jail was spelled then) two acres in all, was transferred to the District of Newcastle on May 4, 1912. Thus, through the generosity and influence of Asa Burnham the court house and gaol, the centre of the Newcastle District, came to this location and gave Amherst the furtherance for advancement.

As of 1807 the other courts of the district used the new facilities. In 1815 Hamilton Township opened Burnham Street from Danforth Road down to the Court House. At an early date, a Burnham kept a store near the court house. Lewis Stiles acquired this corner property in 1817 and operated a hotel there for a number of years. Zaccheus Burnham owned the township lots on the west side of Burnham Street. In the early 1820s he began to sell building lots on the diagonally opposite corner. As more and more lots were sold along Burnham Street, the little village of Amherst came into being.

Around 1830, the wooden building serving as the District court house and gaol was deteriorating and became untenable. The District magistrates decided to proceed with the erection of a new court house before obtaining the Act of Parliament necessary for the legality of its construction. The new location was the west side of Burnham Street, where the present Golden Plough Lodge is situated. A violent controversy was stirred up, in which claims were made that the magistrates had acted beyond their powers. Petitions followed for the new facilities to be built in Port Hope, in Cobourg, and also for it to remain in Amherst. The dispute was settled in 1831 by an Act of Parliament permitting its construction to proceed at Amherst. The new structure was officially opened on October 3, 1831. Alexander Fraser, a stone mason and storekeeper at Amherst, was the contractor.

Amherst was a prosperous town. It boasted several houses, two or three hotels, and a dam built across the nearby creek north of Elgin, where a pail and tub manufacturing company under W. Hartwell operated in the 1830s. In later years, a school house was located near the corners.

Amherst also experienced its fire losses; one in particular cleaned out a hotel and two houses in the 1840s.

On July 1, 1837, Amherst village lost its identity when it became part of the Town of Cobourg and subject to the new town by-laws. The name Amherst gradually disappeared and the region was thereafter referred to as The Court House.

Of all the court cases and trials that took place here two stand out in importance and interest. In 1839, during the rebellion and uprising against the Family Compact rule, a plot was discovered which prevented a murder, a robbery and a bank heist that had been planned for Cobourg. The persons concerned were brought to trial and sentenced in the Amherst court house. In 1859 Dr. King of Brighton was tried here and found guilty of poisoning his wife. The public hanging that followed was witness by a reputed ten thousand excited spectators, many of whom had travelled long distances to view the spectacle.

See also Autobiography of Captain Charles Rubidge (pdf format) who spent a few years in Cobourg starting in 1819.  Cobourg paragraphs start on page 4.