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Norfolk County, Ontario, Canada
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Port Dover Harbour Museum is the perfect introduction to the maritime history of Lake Erie.” Ontario-Travel-Secrets.com

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McNeillege Painting in Frame
The Captain and The Emperor
Author: Ian Bell
“I seen him there...twice”

Goosebumps From a Message
On An Old Picture Frame

(Adapted from a 2004 "Cod End" Article)

The more I learn about Captain Alexander McNeilledge, the more I think he deserves his own movie, or an opera - or at least a two act play at the Lighthouse Theatre.

The Captain really was a captain. A salt-water sailor who in about 1830 decided to become a farmer near Port Dover. As a farmer - he was a good sailor. Fortunately his wife Mary Ann was able to look after the homestead as he busied himself around the port. He sometimes captained ships on the Lake, but also created a large body of folk art in various forms, and published the first navigational charts of the North Shore.

For some years now we have had Captain Alexander McNeilledge’s quadrant at the museum. You can see it any day in the main gallery.

As well as using this instrument to determine his positions and to chart Lake Erie, McNeilledge found he could also work backwards with it to figure out the correct time so that the good burghers of Port Dover could set the town clock. Mundane but practical.

Recently, the old Captain rose even higher in my admiration, when I was shown another of his many charming paintings of ships in Long Point Bay. This one, in a pretty reddish wooden frame, was of the Royal Navy’s Gunboat Britomart, in 1866, but it was what was on the back that really caught my eye.

It was a handwritten note from McNeilledge with a story about the frame that the picture was in.

It was made of sandalwood from Fiji, the Captain wrote. It had originally held a looking glass and he had picked it up on his trip to China in 1811. China in 1811 - That’s pretty good - but it gets even better. He goes on to say that that was the year of “the great comet”, that they could see the comet for much of their journey home and that many of the sailors working on his ship took this to be terribly ill omen. A quick check on the history and habits of comets confirmed that indeed, a great comet known at Comet Neat had been visible around the world. It was in all the papers.

It was a long trip home. During the journey the War of 1812 broke out - a possible problem for the Captain - a Scot who happened to be living in Philadelphia at the time. He seems to have kept on going. He recalls the defeat of Napoleon at Waterloo and his subsequent exile to St. Helena.

And then he writes:
“I seen him there twice in 1817 & 1819 He died in 1822”.

Followed by:
“I seen Wellington in Lisbon in March 1813”

Bring on the goosebumps. In McNeilledge’s world - where most folk never got beyond the boundaries of the county in which they were born - what were the possibilities of one man actually seeing the two most famous individuals on the planet - Wellington and Bonaparte?

At that time in Britain, Wellington was a bigger star than the King, and Napoleon was, well...Napoleon. Think of it. Whose name is better known than his - even today?

And our own Alex. McNeilledge saw them both - the same guy who set our clock and shot off his cannon at the very first Port Dover July 1st celebration in 1867.
Thanks for that, Captain.