History play to be staged in Wardsville June 20, 2009

“Blunders and Betrayals’: The Story of Dr. Charles Duncombe”

At the Oct 20th Wardsville meeting, Nancy Johnson (producer) and Marion Johnson (playwright) explained a piece of historical theatre Wardsville hopes to stage in Wardsville on Kin Day, June 20, 2009.

Excerpt from Proposal: 

This project is about bringing regional history to life through innovative new mediums. It presents the dramatic adventure story of the harrowing escape of 1837 rebellion leader Dr. Charles Duncombe to safety across the border into Detroit Michigan. The project preserves historical facts, reaches new audiences and builds appreciation and respect for the immigrants and the hard-won privileges we enjoy today. It is an opportunity to share a mutual legacy with our American neighbours in Michigan.

The project partners with Fanshawe Pioneer Village’s environment theatre programming and will be produced in the summer of 2009 during the Village’s 50th anniversary celebrations as well as Wardsville and two other Ontario locations.


The story of Dr. Charles Duncombe, his loyal friend Charles Tilden and a 12 year old boy named Richard Shenick centers around their daring escape during the Rebellion of 1837.  The story was chronicled in an essay by John C.Higgins and presented to the Middlesex-London Historical Society in 1964.  It’s a people story that resonates still today. It’s about the immigrants of early pioneers in south western Ontario who were seeking a better life. In those days they faced a rigid system of government that excluded them from meaningful power-sharing. Resistence was difficult and punishment severe. People today continue to struggle for human rights and will recognize through this chapter in our history such struggles have always existed.

The story starts with Dr. Charles Duncombe whose frustrated efforts to improve the educational school system leads him to become the leader in 1837 of 300 rebellious farmers near Scotland, Ontario. The farmers were so poorly armed that blacksmiths were making spears for those without guns until a supply of guns and ammunition hidden in the cellar of a barn just south of London could be picked up before the attack! The rebels disperse after William Lyon MacKenzie loses at Montgomery’s Tavern and Dr. Duncombe becomes a fugitive with a price on his head.

After a daring escape plan which takes him through Wardsville he eventually lands in Detroit aided by friend Charles Tilden, Mrs. Hitchcock (Tilden’s sister) and a 12 year old boy named Richard Shenick. At that point the plan falls apart and 12 year old Richard Shenick can not return home or risk capture for aiding a fugitive. Instead Richard is placed with a family with just 6 cents in his pocket to face an unknown future. Over time he becomes a leading citizen and entrepreuneur through his own skill and hard work. He is still celebrated and remembered in Lexington Michigan as an important pioneer in their community.

This story of adventure, courage and suspense works on many levels. The back drop – the political unrest leading to the Rebellion – is an important chapter in local history as it led to the establishment of a British garrison in London located at present-day Victoria Park.


This story has inspired a theatre project. The goal is to take history to the people. It is a living, colourful, action-packed version of history – a convincing re-creation of the world of 1837 inhabited by people who think, feel, talk and act in a manner consistent with their own time in history.  This proposed project undertakes the following goals:

Part One
An “environmental theatre” presentation at Fanshawe Pioneer Village to bring to life this chapter from the pages of history – a heroic, courageous and dangerous escapade that happened right here in our own neighbourhood. This stage includes researching and fostering a partnership with heritage advocates in other communities including Wardsville, St. Thomas and Sanilac County Michigan to celebrate the rich, shared heritage of Ontario and Michigan. This can be achieved through the creation of exhibitions at sites, shared programming and joint publicity.
Part Two
A representative re-creation of the dangerous journey almost 200 years ago from London to Lexington past costumed military sentinels along the route. The “trek” will draw on volunteers from local historical societies, re-enactors and citizens along the route. The goal is to attract wide media attention and engage people in their own history.
Part Three
An educational resource kit based on Rebellion of 1837 studies which are part of Ministry of Education curriculum for grade 7 students. To include a short video and visuals to be incorporated by teachers into Smart Boards. These are increasingly popular and installed in almost all schools in the Thames Valley District School Board. Kit may include a text book in graphic novel format which educators and librarians advise is the most popular with today’s young readers.
Part Four
A “Heritage” style Minute for broadcast on regional and local television.

Stay tuned.  Mary Simpson and Ken Willis attended an early visioning meeting in July 2008 to help the visionary, Nancy Johnson, think through the logistics.  Wardsville is an important stop on the escape route. Can Wardsville help this project come to life?  

From proposal written by Nancy Johnson


One thought on “History play to be staged in Wardsville June 20, 2009

  1. This play will come to Wardsville next year in 2009 on Kin Day weekend. On his daring escape, Dr. Duncombe stayed over night in Wardsville. The troupe wants to perform the play in Wardsville so we’re thinking of getting the whole village involved in a re-enactment. The Director, Nancy Johnson writes September 15:

    “Good news! We worked out the play schedule with Sheila Johnson and it will be possible to book June 20 in Wardsville.

    We will present school matiness on May 7, 14, 19 and 21 and public performances May 22 to 24. This makes it Rebellion of 1837 month at Fanshawe Village and good opportunity for promotion.

    Sparta is next in June, followed by Wardsville and Lexington Michgan July 5 or 11. (I’m hoping the 5th but we’ll see).

    I love the idea of Kin Days and the welcoming attitude of the concept. Seems to be a great fit with the play and look forward to hearing about your plans. ”

    Sounds like another great opporutunity for Wardsville!

    Mary Simpson

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