CAPTAIN BOYNTON: Early Calgary's Tragic Hero
(Sir Griffith Henry Boynton, Baronet)
Calgary, Alberta, 1883
Contributed by Doug Coats, December 21st, 2023
Griffith Henry Boynton was born into a wealthy East Yorkshire family on May 31, 1849, his grandfather being at the time the 9th Baronet of Barmston in East Yorkshire. Griffith was educated at Jesus College, Cambridge.
Boynton arrived at Fish Creek on or about June 5, 1883, squatting near John and Addie Glenn (1873) and James Votier (1879) at NE-32-22-01-W5, a little south of Fish Creek and west of Macleod Trail. He may have been a remittance man, as his financial dealings in Alberta were done in the name of his brother-in-law in England, Alfred Newdigate. Boynton lived "under canvas" while he had a house built — not a log cabin like his neighbors, but a seven-room structure of dressed lumber, likely from James Walker's mill in Calgary. The Calgary Weekly Herald called it "a palatial residence much too good for a bachelor." Unfortunately there are no known photos of the Captain until much later in life.
The title "Captain" is questionable. Local historians have called him a former naval or army officer, but none identify their sources, and there is no online record of his military service. Perhaps fellow Alberta pioneers jokingly referred to him as "Captain" after international celebrity Captain Paul Boyton (often called Boynton), inventor of an inflatable rubber suit in which he could float while paddling feet-first with a kayak paddle. In 1881 Boyton had floated 3600 miles down the Missouri River. At that time Fort Benton, Montana, was Calgary's supply centre and only connection to the outside world. Southern Albertans would have been well aware of this Captain's exploits as described in Montana newspapers and indeed around the world.
Griffith Boynton was an outgoing, exuberant, eccentric chap. His house wasn't quite level. He owned the area's first piano, and there is a story that every morning he would leave it in the living room, only to find that by evening it had rolled to the kitchen. He explained that the slope made the house easy to clean — "I throw a pail of water in the front door and let it run through the house and out the back door."
Two months after his arrival, the Canadian Pacific Railway arrived in Calgary, and the population started to grow rapidly. The Captain bought five lots in the new townsite; two were on Stephen Avenue just west of today's 3rd Street East, where he built the Calgary Theatre Hall, soon known popularly as Boynton Hall — today the site of the elevators in the Municipal Building. Another of his lots is now the City Hall Day Care, and the remaining two are part of the foyer of our Central Library.
Boynton Hall was the town's second-largest building (after the curling rink) and could seat 500. Its stage was surmounted by a system of pulleys and weights for lifting scenery. On opening night, a full house saw two plays performed by the Calgary Dramatic Club, and the Captain performed too: "Boynton in deer stalker cap, a lengthy Newmarket coat, and a hunting crop under his arm… giving us the old hunting song "Drink Puppy Drink" was quite worthy [of] the occasion", reported The Herald.
In March 1884 settlers from Fish Creek and Pine Creek, a few kilometers to the south, met to discuss erecting a building to be used for public meetings, religious services of all denominations, and perhaps a school. Boynton was one of four elected to a committee to pursue the issue. While the settlers had voted to choose a site partway between the two creeks, the committee decided to build an Anglican church at Fish Creek. This didn't sit well with some of the Pine Creek folks, who blamed the committee's "erratic manager". This may have been Boynton, who was Anglican and the closest committee member to Fish Creek. At any rate, the result was St. Paul's Anglican Church, one of the two little churches you see today beside Macleod Trail in Midnapore. It is now the oldest still-standing church structure in Calgary.
The popular Captain was chosen to judge the track and field events on the Queen's birthday. He was elected first president of the new Alberta Lacrosse Club (and today is a member of the Canadian Lacrosse Hall of Fame). Meanwhile Boynton Hall was becoming Calgary's community centre, hosting the first Anglican Church services, the organizational meeting of the Calgary Agricultural Society (forerunner of the Stampede), the District Court, dances, fireman's balls, concerts, dinners, plays, political meetings, and the first meeting of the Town Council after Calgary's incorporation. The hall also hosted several concerts to raise money for the building of the Midnapore church and its Anglican counterpart in Calgary.
In December 1884 Captain Boynton returned to England for six months, where he married Euphemia Violet Guthrie Chalmers, the well-to-do daughter of a Scottish landowner. As a girl she lived in Aldbar Castle,, but after her father's death she and her mother moved to the posh London district of South Kensington. How would she fare on a homestead at Fish Creek? When the couple's train arrived in Calgary in August 1885, a number of friends were at the station to meet them — but no one saw Euphemia, who was four months pregnant and "in confinement".
Nor was Euphemia in a mood to be met. The bottom had already fallen out of their relationship. She had become pregnant immediately after the marriage, and the sea crossing and long train trip across Canada must have been an ordeal. The Captain kept pressing her for marital relations and she repeatedly rejected his advances. On both ship and train she insisted on separate rooms. One day she seized him around the throat, screaming "I loathe you!" In Midnapore his continued advances caused her to come at him with a razor, and he had to grip her hands till she dropped the weapon.
Nor was Euphemia happy with Alberta. An old-timer later recalled her saying "This would be a howling wilderness if there was anything in it to howl." Pioneer Alberta was not for everyone.
Within a month, Euphemia returned to England -- without the Captain. He was close to fulfilling the Homestead Act's three-year residency requirement, and wanted to qualify for his patent. He sent in the application in January 1886 and began writing letters to the Minister of the Interior asking if the process could be hurried so he could go to England to see his wife and new daughter. The government lost his application, and his letters became more frantic.
Meanwhile the Fish Creek church had held its first service on September 27, 1885, and Boynton put on a brave face and continued to hold benefit concerts at the Hall in Calgary. "Capt. Boynton gave the 'Three Jolly Post Boys' and 'Drink, Puppy, Drink' in his usual inimitable style. [His] wild whoop …was caught up by the gallery, and went ringing over the prairie, echoed by the tuneful coyotes of the wilderness," said the Herald.
The Captain left for England in 1886, never to return, still waiting for his patent, which finally arrived more than a year later. An auctioneer sold his farm and house for $950. Boynton Hall was leased to the Salvation Army, which limited the activities it could host, and in 1889 it was destroyed by fire. Boynton was largely forgotten here.
Back in England, "the Captain" became plain Griffith Boynton. He called on Euphemia, who was living with her mother and their new daughter. Euphemia attacked him with a fireplace poker, but there was a subsequent reconciliation and the couple had two more children.
It didn't last. On October 1, 1891, Euphemia filed for divorce, in those days a long and ugly procedure, and far from automatic. Neither party spared the lurid details of their story. Perhaps realizing how Victorian laws favored men, Euphemia withdrew her petition. The case was dismissed and the couple was stuck with each other for life, though they lived apart.
The baronetcy had passed to Boynton's cousin; in 1899 he passed away, and Griffith became Sir Griffith, 12th Baronet of Barmston. He did not inherit the family's land or home, his cousin having specified that they would go to his own daughter, who as a woman was ineligible to receive the title.
Sir Griffith divided his time between London and Yorkshire, participating in the social round of the upper class, attending weddings, races, dances, and the aristocracy's regular after-church walks in Hyde Park.
"Dame Euphemia Violet Guthrie" passed away in September, 1930, and Sir Griffith was free to remarry. His intended was Mrs. Elizabeth Witham, 70, a widow he had known for thirty years. The now 82-year-old Sir Griffith obtained a marriage license and booked the church — and was stood up. When a reporter asked him if Mrs. Witham knew that he had obtained a marriage license, his reply was "You don't ask silly questions at my time of life, you just get the license." They were finally married in 1932 in London.
The couple frequented the Bahamas, mixing with the international nobility. But eventually Sir Griffith returned to England alone. Lady Elizabeth lived as a socialite in Montréal, the United States and the Bahamas, with occasional trips back to England.
Sir Griffith died in 1937 at the age of 88. The baronetcy passed to his son, Griffith Wilfred Boynton; he and his wife had one child, a son who died in infancy, and when Griffith died the title died with him.
Did Sir Griffith ever yearn for his happy life in Calgary and Midnapore? Years later, one of his Alberta friends ran into him in London and wrote "The last I saw of him… was in Picadilly, immaculately garbed in a frock coat and a flower in his buttonhole." Let's let that be our last picture of this Calgary pioneer.
A longer and more detailed version, with references, is available in the SAPD archives.