Roads, Streets, Laneways, De-naming and Naming

Relationships between Allens, Machars and Romanes Families

Frontenec Heritage Foundation Newsletter 2020 Volume 46 (1) 10-14

Donald Forsdyke

The Falmouth Enterprise reported on August 22nd 2019 that a group of Woods Hole, Mass., citizens were considering the de-naming of Agassiz Road. It had been named after Louis Agassiz, the great nineteenth century biologist – one of those who had inspired the establishment of the town’s famous Marine Biological Laboratory. Sadly, Agassiz had contested the teachings of Charles Darwin and “like others in his time, attempted to use science to support racist viewpoints.” His name still marks various streets and buildings at Harvard and elsewhere. Yet, in 2002 “a school committee in Cambridge voted to change the name of Agassiz School to Maria L. Baldwin School, after its first African-American principal.”

    Whatever the merits or demerits of Agassiz, movements to change street names and tear down statues and monuments are a feature of our times. Even Kingston’s own Sir John A. Macdonald has come under attack. The basic idea is that individuals – be they scientists, soldiers, politicians, musicians, artists, or others – who are deemed to have contributed in their fashion to the wellbeing of their societies, should be publicly acknowledged in some durable manner. Rightly or wrongly, this judgement can later be reversed for those whose reputations cannot withstand the “test of time.”

   The converse of all this would be groups of concerned citizens aiming to memorialize those who did not achieve contemporary recognition, but who now are seen to have deserved crowns as splendid as those accorded Agassiz and his ilk. Ideally, there would be some direct connection to a group’s community, thus emphasizing to citizens and their children that excellence can be local and not a far-off phenomenon.

   However, for the naming of roads and streets, there might be a problem in old cities where there is no space for more. Thus, in Kingston the lower end of a historically named street – “Barrack St.” – became “Tragically Hip Way.” Another problem came to light when City Council wanted to remove “student ghetto” from local vocabulary. In 2014, street signs close to campus were replaced, with “University District” added. The task might have been lighter if existing street names had themselves reflected the university setting. For example, the Harvard campus has Humboldt Street and Linnaean Street, the Stanford campus has Pasteur Drive, and the Yale campus has Audubon Street. Yet apart from University Avenue and College Street, there is little to indicate the academic nature of the campus location.

   However, these adopted names (Humboldt, Pasteur, etc.) had no direct connection to the corresponding community, as was not the case with Agassiz. Does Kingston’s history reveal any persons of Agassiz’s stature, but without his shortcomings? Even if we could find such persons, where would be the space to add their names? Well, a group of concerned Kingstonians overcame these problems. Rather than roads and streets, they identified laneways that were in need of naming to achieve accurate specification in case of emergencies. Furthermore, they found two names that should positively reflect Sydenham Ward’s heritage designation. Accordingly, in 2010 a petition with 96 signatures was submitted and formally accepted by City Hall. The names and their suggested location are shown in the accompanying map. Underlying this are close relationships between members of three Kingston families – the Romanes, Allens and Machars – that will be sketched out here.

   George John Romanes, the son of a Queen’s College Senator, George Romanes, was born in that college in 1848. It then existed as a group of grey stone buildings on William Street (red square, see below), which backed onto a laneway. The Principal at that time (1846-1853) was John Machar. This history was documented by Ottawa Historian Mabel Ringereide in a series of articles in the Smith Falls Record News (1984), and by local historian Margaret Angus in Historical Kingston (1986). Senator Romanes resigned in 1850 and returned to the U.K. where the family settled into a house overlooking Regents Park in London. They were visited by Machar in 1860 during a long stay in Heidelberg, Germany. George John grew up to become a close research associate of Charles Darwin during the last eight years of the latter’s life (1874-1882). He made major contributions to neuroscience and in an address to the Linnaean Society in 1886 (when aged 38) he provided a fresh interpretation of Darwinian ideas on the origin of species. Doubtless to the consternation of the senior Darwinians (see below), The Times of London hailed him as “the biological investigator upon whom the mantle of Darwin has most conspicuously descended.” In the 1890s, he founded the Romanes lectures at Oxford.

   Grant Allen, also born in 1848 and the son of a Queen’s College professor, stayed longer in Kingston before moving to the U.K. where he became a major literary figure – an authorship that included works on evolution. Indeed, at Romanes’ instigation Darwin contributed to a fund to purchase a microscope for him. His warm remembrance of Kingston is evident from his writings. Making a living by one’s pen was not easy in Victorian times and The Busiest Man in England is the fitting title of a biography by Peter Morton. His crime novels inspire Wolfe Island’s annual “Scene of the Crime Festival” (for more see Historical Kingston, 2004; (Click Here)).

   The Romanes family retained Canadian business interests and supported the fledgling Queen’s University with funds, books for the library, and scientific apparatus for the Physics Department. There is evidence that they once entertained Sir John A. Macdonald in their London home. George John’s elder brother, James, often visited Kingston and was a friend of Principal Machar’s daughter, Agnes Maule – author, social reformer and naturalist – whose story has been told by Brian Osborne in a Kingston Historical Society publication (Click Here). Her brother married a sister of Grant Allen and established a law practice in Gananoque. With the help of Karen Wand, I have learned that in 1857 ex-Senator George Romanes purchased a shoreline property in Gananoque that was to become known as Ferncliff. On his death in 1873, James Romanes and his mother leased the land to Agnes for fifty years, where she established her summer home. In 1904 the estates of James Romanes and Sir Alexander Campbell (who had owned an adjoining parcel) sold Agnes their property. Campbell had been professionally associated with Sir John A. Macdonald, and his wife, who was not well, lived in the late 1870s with the Romanes family in London (see Ged Martin, Ontario History 2013). In 2018, a memorial plaque was erected at the entrance of Agnes’s eponymously named Gananoque public park. A local historian, Jennifer McKendry, helped with the project.

   Agnes Maule Machar is probably the “Kingston lady” referred to in the writings of Alfred Wallace upon whom the mantle of Darwin was widely perceived to have descended. She was present when he lectured at Queen’s University in 1887 on the theory of evolution. In the 1870s, James had sent Agnes copies of two letters to Darwin from George, expressing an inclination, albeit short-lived, to believe what the brothers had witnessed at a spiritualist séance. After the lecture, Agnes told Wallace about the letters. At that time, Wallace and George Romanes were publicly disputing the nature of the origin of species, and Wallace took notes from the letters which he later used to undermine George’s credibility. Meanwhile, another senior Darwinian, the much-esteemed Thomas Huxley, delivered the ultimate Victorian reprimand. Romanes was not even fit to polish Darwin’s shoes! It was partly through the success of such attacks by the evolution establishment that Romanes’ works were not taken seriously and their ability to resolve important evolutionary paradoxes have only gained attention in recent decades. He died in 1894 at the age of 46.

   Sadly, Kingston City authorities tabled the laneway-naming petition without giving it formal approval. They considered citizens would have difficulty pronouncing “Romanes” (with its stress on the last syllable). Furthermore, Grant Allen Lane might be confused with other routes with “Grant” in their name. Although not in the original petition, the map includes a third nearby laneway that, for good measure, might be referred to as “Charles Darwin Lane,” or better still, “Agnes Machar Lane.”

I thank Karen Wand, Brian Osborne and Patricia Forsdyke for their helpful reviews of this article. The above URLs are archived: (Click Here)


Note: In the Old Sydenham District Study done in 2009 by Bray Heritage and other consultants, many lanes are listed as heritage attributes in the district, and while considered to be important characteristics of the district, most remain unnamed. The Lily Inglis Lane (between Earl and West Streets) is an exception. The proposed names on this map would recognize people who were important to the cultural and scientific history of Kingston.

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Further evidence that Agnes M. Machar was the "Kingston lady", derives from and article she wrote (pseudonym "Fidelis") for the Canadian journal The Week (July 6th 1894; pages 751-754), where she displayed detailed knowledge of the Romanes family's fortunes (probably derived from long correspondence with George John Romanes' elder brother, James). This was an account of the life of George John Romanes, entitled: "The Late George J. Romanes. One of Canada's Distinguished Sons." Thank you Karen Wand for this update. For example, Agnes knew that on returning to the UK in 1850 the family first settled in Richmond, London. Then there was residence in Germany with explorations to neighbouring countries. Finally, they returned to their long-standing residence, near Regents Park, where the teenage George "used to delight in spending his holidays, and here he began the habits of careful observation of animal life which formed so large a part of his study in after years." And the Miss Ethel Duncan, whom he is said to have met and married in England, was "a native of Nova Scotia."


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This page was posted here 15 Jan 2020, and last edited 04 Sep 2023 by D. R. Forsdyke