Maxwell, Ontario

Associated name: Toon o’ Maxwell
Location: about 16 km northeast of Sarnia at Bright’s Grove, Lambton County.  43.026711 N, -82.264267 W.

Maxwell ON was founded by Henry Jones (1776-1852) on the shores of Lake Huron, just east of present-day Sarnia, in 1829. Jones, a former purser in the Royal Navy, was a dedicated follower of Robert Owen and determined to found a community based on the twin principles of common ownership and collective living. Retired from the Navy in 1815 after the end of the Napoleonic Wars, he became interested in the idea of cooperative communities as a solution to acute unemployment among hand-loom weavers who were being replaced by machinery. He was involved in utopian schemes at Motherwell and at Orbiston in Scotland.

The great social reformer, Robert Owen (1771-1858), was the manager and later on, owner of the New Lanark cotton mills in Scotland. There he established a model industrial community, with development based on education, for both workers and children. Owen’s ideal “Village of Unity and Cooperation” was conceived as a large rectangular place enclosed by dwellings on all four sides. Included were factories and civic elements planned in internal wings. The optimum size of such a community was thought to be about 2000 people. In 1825, he purchased a former Rappite colony in Indiana, renamed it New Harmony, and set out to prove the truth of his ideas. On the fourth of July, 1826, the fiftieth anniversary of the American Declaration of Independence, he issued his own “Declaration of Mental Independence” from private property systems and declared the arrival of a new moral world. Internal dissension and the lure of free homesteading broke up the New Harmony community in a brief two years.

The Canadian Owenite settlement was founded by Jones on a tract of land at what is now Bright’s Grove. He named the settlement “Toon o’ Maxwell,” reportedly after Owen’s home in Scotland. A large two-storey log house with community kitchen and dining room was built, with side wings containing separate quarters for each family, grouped around three sides of a green square. Separate buildings for a school and a store were added later. Accounts seem to suggest that the main building was constructed in 1826 by local French settlers under contract, and that in 1827 Jones returned to Scotland and collected about him a group of disaffected home-weavers from the Rutherglen and Paisley districts.

About twenty settlers arrived from Greenock in 1829 and in August 1830 his wife and five of his children joined them. One of Jones’ sons, Henry John, already in Canada, later kept a diary for much of his life which gives us the subsequent history of the settlement. His daughter, Bessie, left the only sketch known of the colony’s main buildings.

From a pencil sketch by Bessie Jones, the main buildings of the Maxwell colony. The buildings other than the barn burned down in 1834.  Source of drawing: Sarnia Public Library.

Jones’ original intention had been to secure the whole of Sarnia township for his communal scheme, his idea presumably being Owen’s ideal of a population of 2000. Protracted negotiations with the Colonial office did not bear fruit, and finally in July 1834 he was granted the 800 acres (324 hectares) his previous naval rank allowed to incoming settlers. Early in the year he returned to England to sort out various financial problems and while he was away, on May 17, 1834, the Maxwell commune burned to the ground and only the barn was saved.

The community, never very secure, gradually broke up. As early as the first winter, some settlers had left over a dispute focused on tobacco rations, and by 1834 few were left to save the settlement. A new house was built at Maxwell, but in 1835 Jones had to return again to England on business matters. He was invested in Motherwell, and remained away for eight years. During this time he continuously wrote to his family urging them to form a family community with the few settlers who remained at Maxwell. He evidently kept up a continuous stream of letters proposing various cooperative schemes, and describing reform movements he was busy with in England, since his son, Henry, records tiredly, “father is further gone in Socialism than ever.” Jones returned to Canada in 1843, and died at Maxwell in 1852, his ideals still unfulfilled.

Note: The description above was written by Jeanne M. Wolfe, ca. 1985; slightly edited by Beth Moore Milroy, 23.05.16 and 26.05.19. It was one of four vignettes within the following article, originally published as: Wolfe, Jeanne M. 1985. Early Canadian utopias. The Fifth Column 5, 3-4: 26-31. Reproduced here with permission.

References in initial 1985 publication:

  • Cole, Margaret. 1953. Robert Owen of New Lanark. New York: Augustus M. Kelley.
  • Sarnia Public Library. Henry Jones papers; Julia and J.H. Jones diaries. Sarnia: The Library.
  • Morrison, Reverend John. 1914. The Toon o’ Maxwell – an Owen settlement in Lambton County, Ontario. Ontario Historical Society Papers and Records, no. 12: 5-12.
  • Muncy, Ralph. More about Toon o’ Maxwell. Mimeo notes, County Library, Lambton County, Wyoming ON.
  • Tod, Ian and Michael Wheeler. 1978. Utopia: An illustrated history. New York: Harmony Books.

Additional reference: