The James Calcutt Story and other mysteries - From CDCI West History Department

"In all his dealing, he was scrupulously honest, from the largest to the smallest transactions, and he endeavored as a leading citizen to give a tone of fairness to every important event in our municipal history."

Cobourg Sentinel, May 29 1869


March 23, 1792, James Calcutt the Fifth was born near Mountmelick, Queen's County Ireland. His father, James Calcutt IV, died on August 2, 1842, and his mother Catherine Pim, passed away June 24, 1818 at the age of fifty.

Calcutt began brewing at the age of fourteen in his home country and continued his profession for over sixty years until he died in Cobourg. While in Ireland, residing in the town of Mountmelick, Calcutt's brewery industry was earning him a ride on a high road to wealth; however, circumstances forced him to emigrate immediately. The reason for Calcutt's emigration was that Ireland had been taken over by a band of "whiteboys". During a traditional 'Orangeman' ceremony around their time honored 'Pole', Calcutt did not attend. Consequently, a Parish Priest denounced Calcutt from the altar of the RC Chapel. The leader of the "whiteboys" was James Demsey, referred to as 'Phil Cassidy' by the newspapers, who undertook the task of driving Calcutt from his native land. Calcutt fled from Ireland and chose to bring his fate to Canada.


On August 1, 1832 the Cobourg Daily Star recognized Calcutt's arrival off the boat, William IV, as he came to carry on his business in "Little York". Calcutt became a very well respected and beloved individual in Cobourg, as he was one of the town's architects and directors of Cobourg's destiny. Coming prepared with a considerable cash capital, Calcutt bought a beautiful piece of property fronting Lake Ontario that later was referred to as the "Calcutt Property". [Bordered by Hibernia, Orr and Durham streets and the lake]. Here, he built a mansion which was one of the first brick buildings erected in Cobourg, a brewery, distillery, malt houses and kilns, office, workshops, and a steam flour mill. From his distillery, Calcutt produced numerous products including "Calcutt's Malt" and "Calcutt's Ale". As a man of such respect, Calcutt later found himself occupying a seat at the Board of Police and afterwards in the first Town Council. In addition, upon arriving in Cobourg, Calcutt was the first man to establish the system of paying cash for the coarse of grains and paying his men in cash every Saturday.


The man who had drove Calcutt from Ireland, James Demsey, decided not to leave well enough alone. Instead, Demsey got aboard the William IV and headed off for Cobourg, in hope of finishing off his duties to be rid of Calcutt. On November 14, 1832, the Cobourg Daily Star ran a story about the death of the Irishman Demsey. It was reported that Demsey was on his way to Cobourg to buy land near the lakeshore and start up his assassinations again. However, fate would prevent him from doing so. As the boat came to shore, it had to avoid a dangerous wharf (harbour did not exist at the time) and while backing up, the boat crashed and two passengers went flying over board. The morning after the drowning, a body was discovered by Mrs. Calcutt on some of the Calcutt's land, down along the shoreline, about half a mile from the wharf. The body was identified as being "Phil Cassidy", better known as James Demsey. How much of a coincidence was Demsey's death? It almost sounds like one of those urban legend stories, "A man's assassin follows overseas, is thrown from a boat, dies, and washes up on his nemesis' property." Ironic isn't it. (For another version of this story, see footnote #1).


Located at 128 Durham Street, one of Cobourg's first brick buildings was the original home of James Calcutt, a two and a half story mansion modeling a neo-classical design. (Photo - below right - courtesy of owner Mark Good). Calcutt had built the establishment in 1832 when he bought the three acre Lakehurstlot bordered by Hibernia, Orr, and Durham Streets. In December of the same year, Calcutt announced the opening of Cobourg's first brewery that would be delivering beer, ale, fresh yeast, and whiskey. A modern day historian, Rob Mikel, says that the grouping of the buildings was similar to those in Great Britain. The only existing building on the lot was a long limestone structure (footnote 2 which Calcutt reportedly incorporated into his brewery. Mikel has also assumed that the mansion was used for church services during the 1850's while St. Peter's was being enlarged. In the late 1850's many businessmen, Calcutt included, ran into financial difficulty. Calcutt had no other option but to sell the buildings and Lakehurst. He and his wife moved out to Port Hope in 1859. The factory remained until 1862 where the Mackechnies renamed and opened it as the "Victoria Brewery".

According to architectural records, the purchasing of the building goes as follows:

1832 Ebenezer Perry James Calcutt lot 19
1833 Ebenezer Perry James Calcutt lot 17 & 18
1853 Angus Bethune Commercial Bank
1863 Charles Mackechnie David Greenhil
1872 Merchant Bank Alex Warden
1877 Alex Warden J.D. Armour

Today, the mansion is Cobourg's oldest surviving brick residence - photo above.


There are two interesting stories surrounding this building located on Seminary Street. The second one is more believable. The first story says that the site of what is now known as the Breakers Motel is the same site that Calcutt called home when he first came to Cobourg. Calcutt built the main house on the property and called it Cold Blow which he used as a hideaway. The house was to have also had secret tunnels that were installed to ensure safety. When Demsey washed upon shore after his death half a mile from the wharf, it was argued which piece of property he had washed up around. The story ends by saying that Mrs. Calcutt had been so terrified after finding Demsey's body that she refused to live in Cold Blow anymore.

breakersThe second story follows history a bit better and is more logical. The Breakers Motel was never built by the Calcutt family according to historian Rob Mikel. Supporting proof for this also comes from the 1840's census role. The house was not built by James Calcutt Jr., Calcutt's son, but rather by a Judge George Boswell in 1840. The property did indeed find itself in the hands of the Calcutt's some ten years later when Calcutt Jr. purchased it from Boswell. It is believed that from the location on Seminary Street, James Jr., and his brother Kingsley ran a small branch brewery during the time when his father was selling Lakehurst.


James Calcutt must have been a man of fear or a very sneaky businessman. In every building or home associated with Calcutt, there are rumors of tunnels running in every direction. Orville Calhoun, owner of the Lakehurst building from 1954 to 1980, revealed to the newspapers that in the oldest part of the basement is an original crawlspace from when the house was first constructed. Strangely enough, blocking off the crawlspace is a slab of pure concrete. Questions arose about what was on the other side of the concrete. Where did the tunnels lead? Why were they there to begin with? Calcutt could have used them for smuggling liquor from his brewery or as a quick detour from one building to the next.

Were the tunnels already present and if so, would the military have had used them during the war of 1812 if the building was indeed a barracks? Alternatively, did Calcutt somehow incorporate them with his own tunnels? Whatever way you look at it, there is no explanation to the tunnels. The occupants of Lakehurst during the time that the Legion Village was being made said that you could hear the rumbling and vibrating coming from the hollow ground. Little ghost stories say that if you are to put your ear to the crawlspace it is possible to hear Lake Ontario. Such little whispers makes you wonder what is on the other side of the concrete slab and why it was put there in the beginning.


Was there a mill existing on the site of Calcutt's original distillery? According to the newspaper, there was. As well, there was an article in the Cobourg World paper on May 8, 1896 about the Calcutt's Steamers - the mill that had been built in 1832 was a steam mill. In the January 6, 1899 edition of the Cobourg World, it reported a fire that had occurred at the Bickle and Healey's Brewery, destroying one building. In other reports, it was stated that the "Calcutt Property" had changed hands after the Mackechnie's opened up the Victoria Brewery in 1862. In addition, Lakehurst had to undergo renovations after it was partially damaged in a fire in 1899.


"In this town, on Tuesday last, 18th, James Calcutt…one of the first settlers and most respected citizens of Cobourg, aged 77 years."

Death Notice, Cobourg Sentinel/Star, May 22, 1869.


Footnote 1

Another version from Eileen Argyris Northumberland News:

At least one story connected to Mr. Calcutt almost defies belief. In 1832, when he was living at Lakehurst, 128 Durham St., Cobourg, Mr. Calcutt was the subject of a remarkable coincidence. The body of James Demsey, member of a terrorist organization known as the "White Feet" in Queen's County, Ireland, washed up on Mr. Calcutt's lakefront property. It was to escape the White Feet and Mr. Demsey that Mr. Calcutt had come to Canada. A media report for 1832 noted: "By a singular Providence, [Demsey's] steps were directed to the very place selected as the home of him whom he had formerly injured, upon whose land his miserable and ghastly carcass, horribly mutilated by the avenging waters, was made literally to bite the dust" Mr. Demsey had been swept off the gangplank by a storm surge while disembarking a ship in Cobourg harbour. Return to Text.

Footnote 2

The limestone building on the corner of Orr and Durham is a primitive structure, which supports the suspicions that it was here during the war of 1812. The Crown owned the lot until 1819. Calcutt bought it in 1832 when he settled in Cobourg. This is the property known as "The Barracks". Return to text.