Astronomy and Genealogy

The early years of
Andrew Elvins
and his contemporaries
in Cobourg and Port Hope.

by Jim Low

Cobourg, Ontario



What does astronomy have in common with genealogy? The search for our origins.


Astronomy and genealogy have been lifelong interests of mine and began my genealogical research as a teenager in 1956, the same year I obtained my first telescope and joined the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada (RASC).


I was an active observer during the 1960s, but later became an "armchair astronomer" when I delved into the exciting history of the RASC and people involved. Our society had, and still has, exciting members who contribute to our knowledge of astronomy and I wanted to learn more about them. At the same time I spent more time actively searching for original records of my ancestors and learned the methods of tracing historical records of people. Eventually, I applied that knowledge to tracing people involved with the past of the RASC.


Many articles have been written on the history of the RASC, including biographies of early members. The most detailed and authoritative is Peter Broughton's book "Looking Up"1 published in 1994. In the mid 1960s I did some research on the early history of astronomy and the RASC that lead to learning about the early members of our society, one being Andrew Elvins, considered the father of the RASC. I presented a paper on the history of our society on the 75th anniversary at the RASC General Assembly in 1965.2


I decided to use my genealogical research skills to trace and verify the history of Andrew Elvins. I was particularly interested in him, since Clarence Augustus Chant's 1918 biography of Elvins3 indicated that Andrew Elvins lived in Cobourg, Ontario for a number of years, the town where I live.


This paper does not cover the details of Andrew Elvins' life that has been covered in a number of other publications. Rather, this reviews some genealogical information, including information on his associates, and clarifies or corrects some information appearing in other publications. There are a number of excellent sources of information on Elvins, and I recommend these two for the most details:

Andrew Elvins (18231918), Journal of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada, by C. A. Chant, 1919, Vol 13:

Looking Up. A History of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada by R. Peter Broughton, 1994:


Summarizing what we know about Andrew Elvins: He was born in England in 1823, became a tailor by trade, and first developed an interest in geology then later astronomy. He came to Canada in 1844, living in Cobourg and neighbouring Port Hope before moving to Toronto in the 1860s. He was a founder of the Toronto Astronomy Club in 1868 and was involved when the informal club was incorporated as the Astronomical and Physical Society of Toronto in 1890. He remained active when this society became the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada in 1903. He died in Toronto at the age of 95 in 1918.


Access to many historical records, such as birth, baptism, marriage, death, and census records are available online and through paid subscription sites, such as and and I made extensive use of such sites in my research. I also consulted directories and other resources at the Library and Archives in Cobourg, and reviewed old Toronto City Directories at the Toronto Reference Library.


One must be cautious about details appearing in biographies and even official records. Ideally, one should obtain independent confirmation but that is not always possible. In genealogy, I do not demand the legal standard "beyond a reasonable doubt" of criminal law, but accept "the preponderance of evidence" that defines civil law. I give Chant's article high weight, since he personally new Andrew Elvins, and likely much of the information was obtained firsthand from Elvins. However, even that can be biased and information obtained orally may not have been documented at the time and facts confused later. So, I started with Chant's article, and tried to verify with records that could be independently found.


Starting with the birth of Andrew Elvins, Chant records he was born 1823 May 4 at Polgooth, near St. Austell, Cornwall, England. Polgooth was a small tin mining village in the parishes of St. Mewan and St. Ewe a short distance from the market town of St. Austell. His birth occurred before the civil registrations of births that started in 1837 in England. Record keeping before that was left to individual parishes -- usually baptisms being recorded. Not all existing parish records of England have yet been digitized, and was unable to confirm Andrew's birth from online records. It may be that his baptism exists in microfilm copies of parish records that I have not searched.


The earliest record I could find on Andrew was in the 1841 census return of the parish of St. Ewe, in the registration district of St. Austell, in Cornwall, England. The address is shown as Little Polgooth. In the household were Richard age 45, Mary age 55, Andrew age 15, and Richard age 14. Both Richards were tin miners, while Andrew was a tailor apprentice. Ages for adults over 15 in the 1841 census were rounded down to the nearest five years. I questioned the age shown for Mary. If she were the mother of Andrew, it would have made her considerably older than her husband and around 40 or more when Andrew was born. The 1841 census did not record relationships within households. I found, from the Parish Record Collections, the baptism of Mary Johns, daughter of Richard and Miriam Johns,5 at St. Ewe, Cornwall 1786 February 19 -- indicating she was 55 in 1841 -- thus it appears the census record is correct and my doubt was wrong. This fact may explain why there were only two children in the family, as the mother was near the end of her reproductive life when she married Richard Elvins. At such an age, I wondered if this was her second marriage, but I have not found any reference to an earlier marriage.


Chant indicated that the parents of Andrew were Richard Elvins and Mary Johns. That agrees with the census, except the maiden name is not given. Census returns almost never showed the maiden name of women, but marriage records did. Searching for the marriage of Andrew's parents, I found what appears to be the marriage4 at St. Ewe, Cornwall, 1822 December 14. However, it records Mary's maiden name as Richard. So there is a discrepancy here that needs to be clarified by further research. It could be that the groom's first name or her father's first name was inadvertently recorded as the brides maiden name.


Andrew's father was a tin miner/dresser and grocer3,6,7 and Andrew started working in the tin mine, but eventually became an apprentice to James Drew3 a tailor in the neighbouring village. Checking the 1841 census, I find James Drew, a tailor, age 45 and his family at St. Mewan8 just a short distance from where Andrew lived. Although Drew had a 15 year old apprentice living in the household, it was not Andrew. Since Andrew was 18 in 1841, he may have been near the end of his apprenticeship about that time. Chant indicates Elvins was 19 when he finished his apprenticeship. The 1841 census indicates Elvins was with his parents, so it appears he commuted the short distance from home during the later part of his apprenticeship.


Elvins came to Canada in 1844 with Henry Ebbott who was minister of the Liskeard circuit3 that is about 40 km east of the Elvins home. In the 1841 census, only one possibility could be found, that of Henry Ebbot, age 20, tailor, living with parents in Tresmeer, Cornwall.9 He does not appear in later English census. He is listed as a Bible Christian minister in Colbourne, Ontario10 in 1853 and is a minister at the Episcopal Church in Exeter, Huron County, Ontario11 in 1863. Ebbott moved to the USA, and was a minister in Troy, Wisconsin12 in 1870. It is unknown if Elvins maintained contact with Ebbott after their arrival. Their initial contact was apparently of a religious nature, since Elvins was a religious man.


Chant indicates that Elvins first came to Cobourg, then was in neighbouring Port Hope for two years before moving to Toronto in 1860. From various records, it appears that Elvins was in Port Hope early during his stay in Canada, then was in Cobourg for a number of years before moving to Toronto after 1861. Many of the census returns for this area are missing for 1851, but the 1851 Ontario Directory shows him living on Walton Street in Port Hope in that year.13 The same directory,14 for 1858, shows him then living on St. James St. in Cobourg. However, there is no "St. James St." in Cobourg and after consulting with the Cobourg Archivist, was advised there never was a St. James Street, and was probably James Street.15 That happens to be the same street I live on.


Elvins married Alice Rundell, probably about 1850, but the date and location could not be found. It is possible his father visited from England around the time of the marriage. Richard Elvins, age 57, miner, appears on the passenger list of the brig Tyne, departing Penzance, Cornwall and arriving New York 1850 August 20. The age matches the year of birth for Richard (1793), and the port of departure would have been one of the closest to home. Visitors to Canada would often travel via New York. I was unable to find earlier information on Alice, except later census indicated she was born in England about 1829. There are a number of Rundell families (including variations in spellings, as census takers rarely asked for spellings) in the 1851 and 1861 census in the area. There was one Rundell family living in Cobourg in the 1861 and later census, the head of household being Henry Rundell, shoemaker, born in England about 1816, who may have been a much older brother of Alice. The only child of Andrew and Alice was Harriett Elvins who was born at Port Hope 1851 January 21.16,17 While we cannot say exactly where Andrew Elvins was living during the first few years he was in Canada, evidence certainly indicates he was in Port Hope in the early 1850s and was in Cobourg by the mid 1850s.


Elvins eventually bought property in Cobourg. The assessment rolls of 1856 and 1859 show him living on John Street in Cobourg.18 John St. intersects James St (where the 1858 Directory indicates he lived) just two blocks from where I live. There are no buildings near that intersection old enough to date from that period. However, it is noteworthy that this area is only one block from the old Victoria College, where some of his scientific friends were on staff.


Chant indicates that Elvins and several others formed a Mechanics' Institute, but it appears such an institute existed in Cobourg as early as the 1830s that later developed into the Cobourg Public Library.19


In 1861, Elvins appears in the census of District three of Cobourg.20 He is listed as born in England, religion Disciples (Methodist scratched out), age 35. His wife Alice age 31 and one child Harriet age 11 are listed and described as living in a one story frame house. There is one family in house.


So, we can conclude that Elvins was in Port Hope in the early 1850s, then in Cobourg, then moved to Toronto from Cobourg some time after the 1861 census, and that Chant's account is in error. I suspect in his conversations with Elvins, Chant misunderstood exactly when Elvins was in Cobourg and Port Hope. Since many of his scientific friends were associated with Victoria College in Cobourg, it would seem more likely he would move from Port Hope to Cobourg to be closer to his friends and activities of the college.


According to Chant, after coming to Canada Elvins was employed for two years by David Ross, a Scotsman. Checking census returns between 1861 and 1901, there are many with that name, but found only one that might match, a merchant and tailor born about 1820 in Scotland who lived in Cobourg from at least 1861.


Elvins was originally interested in geology and details of his activities is given in Chant's paper. From the friends he acquired, it became obvious that Elvins must have developed an informal association with Victoria College in Cobourg. The college was founded in the 1830s with the help of Egerton Ryerson (later involved with development of the public school system in Ontario), and the name Victoria College given when it became degree-granting institution in 1841. Ryerson was the first Principal. The college became part of the University of Toronto in 1890 and moved to Toronto in 1892. The building still exists and is currently a retirement residence. A picture appears at the end of this article, following the references.


Chant refers to a number of associates of Elvins. One is a collector of geological objects, Professor Whitlock of Victoria College. The 1861 census of Cobourg indicates this would be George Whitlock, Professor of Chemistry,20 born in the United States, age 53. It would appear this is the same George C. Whitlock,21 teacher, born New York State, who appears in the 1850 census of Lima, New York, as the names of wife and children match between the two census returns. From the age and place of birth of the youngest child, it indicates Professor Whitlock had been in Canada less than eight years in 1861. His family appears in later US census in the USA and his wife is listed as a widow in the 1880 census.22 If a published family tree23 is to be believed (I always take such published trees with a grain of salt when I can't verify them), he died in Iowa in 1864. Thus, Elvins associated with Professor Whitlock during the late 1850s.


Chant refers to Dr. Nelles and Dr. Ormiston. Samuel Sobieski Nelles was a member of the first undergraduate class of Victoria College from 1842 to 1844 and was a Methodist minister and educator. He was about the same age as Elvins, born in 1823 at Mount Pleasant, Upper Canada. He was ordained a minister of the Wesleyan Methodist Church in 1850, having earlier served probation in Port Hope and Toronto. He was appointed professor of classics and acting principal of Victoria College in 1850 and became principal in 1851. In 1854 he succeeded Ryerson as president. Nelles died in Cobourg in 1887. 24,25 The Rev. Dr. William Ormiston was also one of the first graduates of Victoria College.25 He was born in Scotland in 1821 and came to Canada with his parents in 1834. He was a teacher in Whitby by the late 1840s. By 1856 he was minister in Hamilton, then moved to the USA and died at Azusa, California in 1899.26,27 It appears Elvins met Ormiston during the mid 1840s, shortly after Elvins arrived. A possible relevance here would be noting that Ormiston was a teacher in Whitby in the mid 1840s and there was a Rundell farming family there in the 1851 agricultural census. It is speculation, but wonder if Elvins met his wife Alice Rundell through Ormiston?


Chant mentions that Elvins became friends of the poet Alexander MacLachlan (many records spell it McLachlan) around the same time Elvins was in Cobourg and Port Hope and that they remained friends until MacLachlan died in 1896. MacLachlan was born in Scotland in 1817 and came to Upper Canada in 1840. He has been referred to as the Burns of Canada.28,29 MacLachlan was also a tailor, so it is possible Elvins met him through the trade. I could find no reference to MacLachlan living near Cobourg. His death registration in Orangeville, Ontario 1896 March 20 lists his occupation as Poet.30 I found a number of Alexander Mac/McLachlan's in various census of Ontario, all listed as farmers, but could not positively identify the records that may have been that of the poet.


According to Chant, Elvins lived in Port Hope in 1858 and 1859. As we have seen, this conflicts with records indicating he was living in Cobourg at that time.14,18 Supposedly he and others formed a scientific society and met in the public school where the headmaster was W.S. Spotton. I found the death of William Spotton in 1895 in Toronto, age 90, who was born in Ireland.31 Following up on this information, I find a W. Spotton in the 1851 agricultural returns of Port Hope.32 William Spotton, age 66, born Ireland, school teacher, appears in the 1871 census in St. James Ward, Toronto East.33 His son, Henry Byron Spotton was born in Port Hope in 184434 and another son John Charles Spotton was also born there in 1852.35 I cannot find the family in the 1861 census. We can conclude that William Spotton was in Port Hope at least from 1844 until 1852 or later. He was in Toronto by 1871. Elvins could have known him in Port Hope during any of this period and the two families may have moved to Toronto within a few years of each other.


Even when Elvins moved to Toronto after 1861, he maintained a property in Cobourg for some years. Either it was an investment or he was considering returning. The mortgage holder was John Beatty who was Professor of Natural Science and Chemistry, 1845-56 at Victoria College.3 The property was located on Queen Street, situated on the South third of Town Lot number 4 in Block E. The house is no longer there. It was sold in 1873 to Adam Dickson.36 Dickson, born in Lower Canada about 1830, appears in the four Cobourg census returns from 1871 to 1901 (spelling Dixon in 1871). There is no reason to believe Elvins maintained contact with him.


There were two John Beatty's -- father and son -- associated with Victoria College, and the Beatty and Ryerson families are related. The Walking Tour of Cobourg identified the Beatty house at 130 University Avenue West, from 1834.37 The house is located a comfortable 10 minute walk from the former Victoria College at 100 University Avenue East (formerly number 78) which used to be called Seminary Street. After looking at the house, I questioned if it was the original structure. Following up on my hunch questioning the origin of the Beatty home, I visited the Cobourg archives. Checking the property in the archive binders of historical properties, I discover the current structure dates from the 1850s. The same document shows John Beatty owned the property from 1839 to 1850 before the current house was built.38 The archives also has a map and plan of Cobourg by Sandford Fleming in 1847. It shows the entire block where this house is located as being owned by Rev. Beatty and also shows the Beatty family owning considerable property several blocks to the north.39 Looking through the binders of historical properties, I discover the Beatty family owned a number of properties on John Street, not far from Victoria College, in the 1840s and 50s, apparently before it was built up. Another source40 shows another home immediately to the west of Victoria College as being that of John Beatty.


The first John Beatty was a minister, born in Ireland in 1782 and arrived in Cobourg in 1833 after a period in New York and other places in Ontario. He was one of the founders of Victoria College and the first Steward and Domestic Governor.41,42 He retired in 1842, two years before Elvins arrived, and died in Cobourg in 1864.43 His second wife, Rebecca, died in Cobourg in 1887 at the age of 105, and her physician was her stepson John Beatty, MD.44


The later John Beatty was Mayor of Cobourg from 18581860 and again 18661867.45 He was a physician, born 1810 in New York City and died 1898 in Cobourg. The person making the death registration return was Charles Egerton Ryerson, son of Egerton Ryerson.46


Elvins had one sibling, a brother Richard born in 1825 who also migrated to Canada, apparently a few years after Andrew. He and his large family settled in Thurlow, near Belleville where he was a grocer, and he died there in 1902.6,47,48


It's not mentioned by Chant, but Sandford Fleming made the first detailed plan and map of Cobourg in 1847.39 One wonders if Elvins may have met Fleming at that time.


Elvins had no formal higher education or degrees. However, he was self-taught and well-educated. He associated with highly educated people, learned from them and, in turn contributed his knowledge to others. His primary interests in early life were religion and geology. It wasn't until he moved to Toronto when he developed his passion for astronomy. Even before he turned his interests to astronomy he was contributing to the knowledge of humanity through his amateur passions that developed into professional abilities. What brought him to Toronto after 1861? Some of his Cobourg/Port Hope friends moved to Toronto so there was a partial drift of his contacts to that city over the years. His association with contemporaries after he moved to Toronto is a topic for a later paper.

Genealogy of Andrew Elivins, starting with his parents on the left.





1. Looking Up, Broughton, R. Peter, 1994, Dundurn Press. Now available online:


2. R.A.S.C. Papers: The Early History of Amateur Astronomy in Canada and of the R.A.S.C., Low, Jim, Journal of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada, Vol. 59, p.265, 1965.


3. Andrew Elvins (1823-1918), Chant, C.A., Journal of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada, Vol. 13, p.98, 1918.


4. Parish Record Collection 1538-2005 marriage, 14 Dec 1822, Richard Elvins, Mary Richard, St. Ewe, Cornwall, England


5. Parish Record Collection 1538-2005 baptism, 19 Feb 1786, Mary Johns, St. Ewe, Cornwall, England


6. 1841 Census of England, St. Ewe, Cornwall


7. 1851 Census of England, St. Ewe, Cornwall


8. 1841 Census of England, St. Mewan, Cornwall


9. 1841 Census of England, Tresmeer, Cornwall


10. Canadian Genealogy Index, 1600s-1900s, Colbourne, Northumberland, Ontario


11. Huron County Directory and Gazetteer, 1863-64


12. 1870 United Sates Federal Census, Troy, Walworth, Wisconsin


13. Ontario Directory, 1851


14. Ontario Directory, 1857


15. Ciara Ward, Archivist, Cobourg and District Historical Society


16. Marriage registration, Harriett Elvins and William McBean, 1870 Oct. 11, Toronto, Ontario


17.1901 Census of Canada, Toronto West, Ontario


18. Assessment Rolls of Cobourg, Ontario, 1856 and 1859


19. Cobourg Public Library History:


20. 1861 Census of Canada, Cobourg, Canada West


21. 1850 United States Census, Lima, Livingston, New York


22. 1880 United States Census, New York City, New York


23. Whitlock Family Tree as published at (subscription site)


24. Dictionary of Canadian Biography Online, Nelles, Samule Sobieski:


25. Faithful intellect: Samuel S. Nelles and Victoria University, Semple, Neil, McGill-Queen's University Press, 2005. Also online at:


26. Whitby Online Historic Photographs Collection, Reverend William Ormiston c. 1865, at:


27.Annual Report of the Normal, Model, and Common Schools In Upper Canada for the Year 1851:,+model,+and+common+schools%22+1851&source=bl&ots=-dcSc0SfUv&sig=TtsS0e9RbjWWoZeG18Txt005ULc&hl=en&ei=VrCHTLnaForCnAfFw9CHCw&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=1&ved=0CBIQ6AEwAA#v=onepage&q=%22normal%2C%20model%2C%20and%20common%20schools%22%201851&f=false


28. Canadian Essays - Critical and Historical, O-Hagan, Thomas:'Hagan&source=bl&ots=ZQOiFUz0mu&sig=50ysqgDZZJ8gutm7vwL25wy9Yt0&hl=en&ei=i8WHTMDpH8vtnQfl6fSUDA&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=1&ved=0CBgQ6AEwAA#v=onepage&q&f=false


29. William Wye Smith: Recollections of a Nineteenth Century Scottish Canadian, McLean, Scott A., and Michael E. Vance, Dundurn Press, Toronto and others, 2008. Also at:


30. Death registration, Alexander McLachlan, Orangeville, Dufferin, Ontario, 1896


31. Death registration, William Spotton, Toronto, York, Ontario, 1895


32. 1851 Census of Canada, Agricultural schedule, Port Hope, Canada West


33. 1871 Census of Canada, St. James Ward, Toronto East


34. Death registration, Henry B. Spotton, Galt, Waterloo, Ontario, 1933


35. Death registration, John Charles Spotton, Toronto, Ontario, 1920


36. Libby Seekings, reference to Cobourg and District Historical Society Archives record of sale


37. Cobourg History: Cobourg Walking Tour:


38. Descriptions and pictures of historical structures in Cobourg. Loose-leaf binders at the Cobourg and District Historical Society Archives


39. Plan of Cobourg 1847 by Sandford Fleming, Cobourg and District Historical Society Archives


40. Cobourg and District Images, Cobourg Public Library:


41. Census of Canada 1861, Cobourg, Canada West


42. Our Ontario, Home of Rev. John Beatty:


43. John Beatty and the Irish Settlers:


44. Death registration, Rebecca Beatty, Cobourg, Ontario, 1887


45. Cobourg 17981948, Guillet, Edwin C., 1948, Goodfellow Printing Co. Ltd., Oshawa


46. Death registration, John Beatty, Cobourg, Ontario, 1898 (note: name of person making return incorrectly spelled C. Edgerton Ryerson -- should be Egerton. Various census gives his first name as Charles)


47. Census of Canada, Thurlow, Hastings East, Ontario for 1881,1891,1901


48. Death registration, Richard Elvins, of Thurlow, Belleville, Hastings, Ontario, 1902

The former Victoria College in Cobourg, as it appears in 2010.
It is currently a retirement residence.

Historic plaque outside the former Victoria College.

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