A Saskatchewan Stone House
Saskatchewan was a destination of choice for a lot of very interesting people in the early years of the province. I don’t mean this to imply that interesting people no longer move to Saskatchewan in the 21st century. In fact I mean that Saskatchewan’s history is full of surprises. I live in Alberta so naturally I know this province much better than Saskatchewan. Despite my own travels and knowledge of Alberta, I’ve yet to come across any rural Alberta stately mansions that were once owned by people whose rank in society was measured by how close they were to a king or queen. I’ve always known such people lived in Victoria, BC (known as being “more British than the British”) and Vancouver, BC (where only royalty can afford a home) but not the prairies. As a photographer who is now learning about the many majestic stone houses of Saskatchewan, I’ve discovered that a number of these stone houses were owned by people with connections to the many levels of Britain’s high society, or gentry and even royalty. Today’s blog post is about one such family; the Serjeants of Gestingthorpe.
There is very little that is known about the Serjeant family who owned the stone castle-like house called Gestingthorpe. The Serjeants were reticent to mix with anyone with the possible limited exception of those who came from a similar background. According to the local history book; Grit and Growth: The Story of Grenfell, “Mr. Sergeant [sic] belonged to a family of seven who could trace their ancestry back to the time of Charles I when one of the family was maried to Cromwell’s sister”. The book goes on to say that “the name died out with the death of F.V.C. Sergent [sic] in 1956”. That must refer to Feral Serjeant who died in Victoria, BC in 1956.
Even the location is also secretive because, despite my knowing the coordinates, I could not find the structure until the owner gave me directions. Before we dig into the history of Gestingthorpe, let’s see some images of the castle house.
Time has not been kind to Gestingthorpe. The above two images show the difference that 16 years can make. In 2005 the tower was more or less intact. In 2021 the tower was in ruins with only the basic shape of it still visible. One account suggests that this was caused by lightning but other parts of the house are crumbling too. What will remain of the tower in five to ten more years? It is sad but this is not all on the current landowners. A proper restoration of a building, especially a large and unique structure, is a very expensive undertaking. It could even run into the millions of dollars and involve a lot of uncertainty as engineers and workmen discover unseen problems. A partial restoration such as the roof, which goes a long way to protecting the structure from the elements would cost much less but to what end? A farmer could put one hundred thousand dollars toward renovating a roof and windows to maintain a structure that he has no use for, or it can go toward acquiring more land or a tractor. Even a farmer who is a history buff would struggle with conflicting uses of his limited resources. I think it is commendable that the current landowner is happy to give permission to photographers to visit the stone house. Government funding is necessary to protect historic sites but what constitutes a historic site? Could the secrecy that the Serjeants craved also have contributed to their stone house’s demise? With so little being known about the eccentric owners of this structure the government would place it far down on a list of priorities for historical resource designation. “Water under the bridge” as they say, because it’s too last to salvage now.
There is a hill near the house that leads down to the small body of water. When stones fall off the tower they might start forming a small pile of rocks but soon gravity takes control and the rocks roll down the hill and possibly right into the water. Someday this will be just a large pile of rocks and people will wonder what was here?
According to one source, that wooden lean-to extension to the house was where the housekeeper slept. It had no heat or insulation so in cold weather the kitchen door was left open to allow some heat in. Werner Zerbin in conversation with Colin Traub of Grenfell Saskatchewan.
You may be able to see in the photo below how the lower part of the house, which is the kitchen, was made of stone for only half the width of the structure. The second half is made of wood. As stated above, this was likely the maid’s quarters. In the image below, one chimney was in the kitchen for the cooking stove, and the other was more central for heating the main part of the house.
The image above left is the stairway to the second floor. The railing, at above right is upstairs. It’s of a surprisingly simple design.
The image above to the right shows where you could enter the tower and the final staircase to the top of the tower. I didn’t go beyond this point because the owner said we can explore any part of the house except the tower and I can see for myself that it’s not safe. Perhaps there was something in the tower that we were not meant to see? Isn’t that what the towers of castles were for? The image above to the right is a main floor room overlooking the lake and next to the tower. You can actually see the tower ruins through the hole in the wall.
Who Were The Sergeants?
Bernard Gilpin Serjeant, 2nd Son of the late Rev. James S. Serjeant, and Bernard’s wife Ada, moved to Canada from England, likely in 1857. He set about to learn the business of farming. He did not want or need to learn to farm like a homesteader because, of course, he was a gentleman and gentlemen don’t do that kind of work. However he did seek to be a gentleman farmer so to learn these skills he sought out Richard Lake (who later became lieutenant-governor of Saskatchewan) at the nearby estate called Winmarleigh Grange. Bernard Serjeant is said to have paid $500 to learn to be a farmer at Winmarleigh. The local history book, “Grit and Growth: The Story of Grenfell”, uses the phrase “was one of those who came to Winmarleigh Grange to learn farming for a $500 fee” which implies that Bernard Serjeant was not the only one to take advantage of this opportunity to learn “how a gentleman farms”. After that introduction to the country life, Bernard and Ada Serjeant bought land and hired a stone mason to build Gestingthorpe, which is the castle house that you see in these images.
In another part of the document by Colin Traub and Werner Zerbin, Bernard Serjeant is referred to as “a remittance man”. “These were Englishmen who for one reason or another received an allowance from home. This money let them live in the style they were accustomed to. It was said that he was a second cousin to Queen Victoria.”
It is interesting that the Serjeants are remembered for how little they did. It’s my impression that this would not be a derogatory description to Bernard Serjeant but rather a point of honour. A gentleman doesn’t work because a gentleman doesn’t need to work.
Werner Zerbin has some interesting comments about the tower at Gestingthorpe:
The Departure of the Serjeants
I should point out that the fate of Gestingthorpe differs slightly depending on the source. In the above account by Werner Zerbin, a couple of bachelor brothers bought it and resold it in the same year to Werner Zerbin’s father. In the account by “Legacy of Stone: Saskatchewan’s Stone Buildings (2008)”, Gestingthorpe was willed to Bernard Serjeant’s two brothers; Edward who moved in shortly after Bernard’s passing, and Farel who first finished his career as an English Professor at McGill University before retiring in Gestingthorpe and then moving to Victoria, BC. The two accounts are similar in that both refer to two bachelor brothers owning Gestingthorpe and the Serjeant brothers were indeed bachelors. Werner Zerbin says that the brothers were only there for a year before selling it but that’s impossible because Bernard died in 1921 and both accounts of Gestingthorpe agree that it was sold to a third party in 1945. In the succession of Gestingthorpe, I find that “Legacy of Stone” is the most accurate. It should also be noted that the local history book, Grit and Growth: The Story of Grenfell, has a different spelling for Serjeant (it uses Sergeant), and refers to Bernard’s wife as “Charlotte Ann” rather than Ada Charlotte Anne, as she is known throughout the other two sources. While on the topic of Ada Serjeant, I have not personnally seen her grave stone but all sources agree on a strange epitaph on the marker. It says, “But pray ye that your flight not be in winter“. Does it refer to the fact that winter travel was especially difficult and dangerous in the early century in southern Saskatchewan as it remains today? Or could it be related to another person’s fate, such as that of Mr. Merrifield who became disoriented and lost in the winter of 1893 and is buried in the same cemetery? We’ll never know. Bernard Serjeant’s epitaph is also intersting. It reads, “Mark the perfect man, and behold the upright, for the end of that man is peace“. Curious, and not what I would choose for myself but each to their own.
- Ada Charlotte Anne (Walker) Serjeant died at Gestingthorpe on February 19, 1914.
- Bernard Gilpin Serjeant (second son of Rev. James Serjeant) died at Gestingthorpe September 4, 1921.
- John Owen Montagu Serjeant (Fourth son of Rev. James Serjeant) died at Gestingthorpe March 23, 1912.
- Edward Blackstock Wycliffe Serjeant (fifth son of Rev. James Serjeant) died August 3, 1947.
- Feral Serjeant died in Victoria, British Columbia, 1956. Feral was likely the third son of Rev. James Serjeant. He is not buried in the same cemetery as the rest because he moved to British Columbia.
Before I end this story I want to share what Cannington Manor is. This where Saskatchewan aristocrates once went to learn how to live without working. Well this is surprisingly not too far from the truth. I’ll quote directly from the website for Cannington Manor so you can decide for yourself:
“By the late 1800s, the Government of Canada saw that the West was moving away from a fur trade economy and towards an agrarian one. Established in 1882, the village of Cannington Manor was an attempt by eastern settlers to recreate the aristocratic English lifestyle, all supported by agriculture.”
“During its heyday, the villagers of Cannington Manor took part in fox hunts, dramatics societies, poetry clubs, tennis, cricket and croquet. After struggling for several years due to isolation and low grain prices, the village was abandoned in 1900“. Cannington Manor Provincial Historic Park. Saskatchewan never fails to amaze me!
Gestingthorpe’s windows are dark now
- Cannington Manor Provincial Historic Park Cannington Manor Provincial Historic Park | Tourism Saskatchewan
- Paper Moon Photography, “10 Question” Conversations with Werner Zerbin about Gestingthorp by Colin Traub. Colin Traub | www.papermoonphotography.com
- Legacy of Stone: Saskatchewan’s Stone Buildings (2008) by Margaret Hryniuk, Frank Korvemaker, and Larry Easton: http://www.mhs.mb.ca/docs/people/korvemaker_f.shtml
- Grit and Growth: The Story of Grenfell; 1980. Local history of Grenfell, Saskatchewan written by A.I. Yule and published by the Grenfell Historical Committee.
- The Saskatchewan Cemeteries Project. Saskatchewan Cemeteries Project – Ceylon St. Andrew’s Anglican Cemetery – Grenfell, Saskatchewan (rootsweb.com)
- Imperial Vancouver Island, Who Was Who, 1850-1950. J.F. Bosher 2010. Pages 412-413. Used for information about Winmarleigh Grange and its owner Richard Lake.
Sold out due to the response of readers of this blog. See below for the book Legacy of Worship which shows many old churches in Sasskatchewan as there are still copies of that book.
Frank Korvenmaker has a number of copies of the book Legacy of Worship for sale. They retail at $40 (plus tax) in bookstores, if available. He is selling them at $25 (no tax), plus shipping, usually in the $15-$20 range. For any person or group wanting to buy books in bulk, he is selling them for $10 per book on orders of 10 copies or more. Pick-up of bulk orders may be arranged between the the buyer and Frank in Regina for those who may be passing through. Email Frank Korvenmaker at firstname.lastname@example.org for details and to discuss shipping.