140 Sussex Drive, Ottawa, Ontario

Built 1855, for John MacKinnon (1816-1866) and his wife, Anne McKay (d.1906). It was constructed by Annie’s father - MacKinnon’s former business partner - the celebrated mason and builder of modern-day Ottawa, The Hon. Thomas McKay (1792-1855), of Rideau Hall. The grey, gabled, Gothic-Revival house is quintessentially Scottish in appearance. It is best known as the home of Sir John A. Macdonald (1815-1891), the first Prime Minister of Canada after Confederation, but since 1930 it has served as the official residence of the British High Commissioner in Canada. It is closed to the public, except for special events such as “Doors Open Ottawa”....

This house is best associated with...

Thomas Coltrin Keefer

Thomas Coltrin Keefer, of Ottawa


Thomas Reynolds

Managing Director of the Ottawa Railway


Sir John A. Macdonald

The Rt. Hon. Sir John A. Macdonald, P.C., K.C.M.G., 1st Prime Minister of Canada


Lady Susan (Bernard) Macdonald

Lady Agnes (Bernard) Macdonald, 1st & last Baroness Macdonald of Earnscliffe


Ella (Beatty) Harriss

Mrs Ella Frances (Beatty) Shoenberger, Harriss


Charles Albert Edward Harriss

Charle A.E. Harriss, Musician, of Montreal, Ottawa & London


In 1826, military engineer Lt.-Colonel John By (1779-1836) was tasked with supervising the construction of the Rideau Canal at Bytown, the village he established to house the workers. To that end, he contracted two of the young country's leading masons, the business partners Thomas McKay and John Redpath (1796-1869) who at that time had just successfully finished the construction of the Lachine Canal near Montreal. On completing the Rideau Canal, McKay purchased 1,100-acres between the Ottawa and Rideau Rivers and then proceeded to lay out a town that he called New Edinburgh. Having served on Bytown’s city council, he became a Member of the Legislative Assembly in 1834 and four years later he would toast his success by building Rideau Hall as his family home.

A "Sensible Family House"

In 1846, McKay went into partnership with his son-in-law, John MacKinnon, who was married to his daughter, Annie. Together, they built saw mills and factories to take advantage of the abundant supply of timber needed for development. In 1852, they built the Bytown & Prescott Railway which was the region’s first railway line, but dissolved their partnership that same year too. Nonetheless, they remained close and in the year before McKay died, he commissioned a new house to be built for John and Annie, completed in 1855. Earnscliffe has never pretended to be anything more than what it is:
A sensible Scots-type family house with three storeys and a basement, built by Scots masons for a Scots emigrant who had done well for himself. 
Built with local grey limestone and perched on a low-lying bluff above the Ottawa River, it still enjoys one the finest views in the city over the Gatineau Hills and towards Quebec. There were, “three good but unpretentious (reception) rooms” and two smaller rooms on the ground floor with four bedrooms above while the basement and attic was for servants.

The Enterprising Mr Reynolds

John MacKinnon died at the home he lived in for a decade in 1866. In the same year, his widow sold the house to her then brother-in-law, the distinguished Thomas Coltrin Keefer (1821-1915) who was then married to Annie’s sister, Elizabeth McKay (d.1870). Keefer was President of the American Society of Civil Engineers; the Canadian Society of Civil Engineers; and, President of the Royal Society of Canada. In 1873, after his wife died, he remarried her sister, Mrs Annie McKinnon, and they moved to Rockcliffe Manor House.
Keefer was a director (and afterwards president) of the St. Lawrence & Ottawa Railway and in 1868 he sold the MacKinnon house to the company's managing director, Thomas Reynolds (d.1879). That year, Reynolds leased the property for two years to the Canadian government for use as a military hospital at $1,200 per annum, most likely in consequence of the Fenian Raids (1866-1871). On returning from an extended trip to see family in England, the Reynolds' took possession of their home in 1872. Just two years later, a fire ravished the property, but this gave them an excuse to carry out extensive renovation work in 1874 which included opening up the drawing room as it is seen today. 
Reynolds had a reputation for getting things done, and done well: As managing director of the Ottawa Railway he was, “famous… for having the seats stuffed at each end to prevent the hard contact of iron (on his travellers) as is the case in ordinary cars”. In 1872, it was reported that, “with his enterprise peculiar to himself, Mr Reynolds… has placed upon the line a new and handsomely fitted up smoking car, and we cannot help hoping that no end of puffing will be done in it”! 
Conveniently for Reynolds, Sussex Drive (then called Ottawa Street) on which his home stood was then also the start of the line for the Ottawa Railway, and in the depot next to the station, Reynolds kept his own private rail car. In 1878, his private carriage was, “completely refurbished and renovated throughout with carpets, chairs, sofas etc. (giving) an appearance of comfort and elegance seldom surpassed (and) painted in a bright colour and on the sides are well executed cuts of the English and Canadian coats of arms.” 
"Glowing with lamp light..."

Reynolds died in 1879 and three years later his son sold the house to its most famous occupant, Sir John A. Macdonald (1815-1891), first Prime Minister of modern Canada as we know it today. Conjecture still remains as to whether it was Reynolds or Sir John who named the house "Earnscliffe" - Cornish (nb., not Scottish) for “Eagle’s Nest”. 
Thomas Reynolds was Sir John’s “old friend” and in the winter of 1870/71 the Macdonalds had actually first taken up residence at Earnscliffe as Reynolds’ tenants while he had taken his family on an extended trip to see relatives in England. On New Year’s Day 1871, Sir John’s second wife, Agnes Bernard (1836-1920), described Earnscliffe in her diary: “My home is on a cliff, fringed with low trees, the windows in the rear overlook the river… all frozen and snow-covered”. Even then, the Jamaican-born Lady Macdonald had set her heart on the warm, Scots house when she wrote,
We looked back (her, her husband & stepson) over the thin, low limbed hemlock evergreens to the pretty, irregular grey stone house which is now my home. The windows with their large panes, glowing with lamp light, looked so cosy.
The Macdonalds had paid $10,040 for Earnscliffe and although Agnes loved the house, it was too small for entertaining. Also, while there was room for their children, she was eager for her brother, Lt.-Colonel Hewitt Bernard (1825-1893) to live with them too. Nonetheless, having “coaxed hard” for Sir John to buy the house in the first place, she felt it would be wiser to wait before asking for the Scotsman for improvements!
"Where he took such Infinite Rest and Pleasure..."

Lady Macdonald waited until 1888 before they could afford the $7,000 needed for the renovations. They added the dining room for 30 guests at the back of the house to take in the magnificent view. The old dining room now became Sir John’s study and two smaller offices were also added, the second for his private secretary, Sir Joseph Pope. Lastly, two convenient “escape routes” were designed so that Sir John could leave the house or disappear upstairs in the event of an unwanted caller presenting themselves at the door!  
Externally, a new carriage house was built in the same style as the main house. They also  put up a verandah on the back from which their handicapped daughter, Mary (1869-1933) - affectionately referred to as “Baboo” - particularly enjoyed taking in the fresh air. Still seen in the house today is the small seat on the landing at the top of the back staircase from where Baboo would watch her father’s distinguished guests going in to dine. 
In 1889, Eliza Grimason, a tavern owner and devoted supporter of Sir John’s came to Ottawa and told of the house in her pronounced Northern Irish brogue,
They do have a lovely place all their own, down by the Rye-do. The house has a lovely slate roof like they have in England, and beautiful grounds and a man to wait on the dure. Lady Macdonald keeps her own cow and hins and they make their own butter… They have two fine cows and six servants.
Sir John died at his home in 1891, his “favourite place and where he took such infinite rest and pleasure”. In his honour, Lady Macdonald was created the 1st Baroness Macdonald of Earnscliffe, but without an heir the title died with her. She left Ottawa and took to wandering around various fashionable towns in Canada and America with her daughter and unmarried brother, Hewitt. When he died in 1893, Agnes left for Europe, never to return to her beloved Earnscliffe, nor Canada.
Barons, Eccentrics, and a "King's" daughter-in-law

From 1891 to 1896, Lady Macdonald leased Earnscliffe to the Commander of the Canadian Militia, Major-General Ivor Caradoc Herbert (1851-1933), 1st Baron Treowen, and his wife, the Hon. Albertina Agnes Mary Denison (1854-1929). Lady Treowen was active in charitable circles as President of the Ottawa Decorative Arts Society, the Woman’s Humane Society, and the Humane Society of Ottawa.
By 1896, Earnscliffe still played heavily on Lady Macdonald’s mind and it upset her that, “her dear old home was suffering from continued leasing” to the point that she considered returning. But, ultimately, she dismissed the idea, being too, “old and gouty and of no use” for life in Canada. She placed Earnscliffe on the market but it was not until 1900 that she found a buyer, who turned out to be an old friend of hers.
Ella Frances Beatty (1845-1924) had grown up at The Poplars in Cobourg. In 1883, she became the second wife of George K. Shoenberger (1809-1892), son of the “Iron King” of Pennsylvania. They lived at the colossal Scarlet Oaks in Cincinnati until he died in 1892. Five years later, Ella remarried Charles Harriss (1862-1929), an eccentric English musician whose “lifelong quest was to establish British musical influence in Canada”. 

In 1900, Ella paid $15,000 for Earnscliffe and from England Lady Macdonald directed that all its contents were to be sold at auction over three days. On moving in, the Harriss’ added the terrace with the balcony above that ran along the south side of the Drawing room, and bow windows were added to the bedroom above the library. On completion, the living space had grown to 5,100 square feet. 
The British High Commission

Charles Harriss died in 1929, having outlived his wife by five years. In 1930, his executors sold the house to the Ministry of Works. It was offered to the Canadian government as the official residence for future Prime Ministers, but Prime Minister Bennett (1870-1947) turned the offer down. Instead, the first British High Commissioner to Canada, Sir William Henry Clark (1876-1952), bought it on behalf of the British government and since then it has served as the official residence of the British High Commissioners in Canada. 
In 1960, the house was designated a National Historic Site of Canada. It is generally closed to the public except for special public events, such as “Doors Open Ottawa”. The Macdonalds churned their own butter and kept livestock at Earnscliffe and the house continues to have its own small cottage industry: Maple syrup is bottled from five trees on the property and crab-apple jelly is made along with chocolate truffles. All the products carry a label with a picture of Earnscliffe.

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Contributed by Mark Meredith on 12/11/2018 and last updated on 31/01/2021.
Earnscliffe: Home of Canada’s first Prime Minister and since 1930 Residence of the High Commissioners for the United Kingdom in Canada (1955). By Norman Reddaway; Earnscliffe, by Lady Veronica Goodenough; The Private Capital: Ambition and Love in the Age of Macdonald and Laurier (1984) by Sandra Gwyn; Agnes: The Biography of Lady Macdonald (1990) by Louise Reynolds; John MacKinnon – Death Notice; MacKay Family; Pictures of McKays and Keefers; A Victorian Mansion fit for a Prime Minister; Reynolds - Local Railway Items form Ottawa Papers; Lease as Military Hospital from Collections Canada; Photo of Thomas Reynolds, Montreal, 1863 - McCord Museum, Montreal; Room for Diplomacy - https://roomfordiplomacy.com/canada-ottawa-residence/


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