In some ways, Adolphustown, a tiny village just south of Napanee and a short ferry ride from Prince Edward County, seems like a living museum to some of the first settlers in Ontario. Seeking a new home after the Revolutionary War, pacifists and those loyal to Britain – now known as the United Empire Loyalists – settled in Prince Edward County and the Bay of Quinte area in the late eighteenth century.
A century later, the Loyalists worked together to construct an impressive mini cathedral –a more impressive church – than a small farming village could typically build. To make their project a reality, Reverend Forneri petitioned the Loyalist community locally and across Canada to purchase encaustic tiles engraved with the name of a Loyalist ancestor to be inlaid into the walls of the church. Little did they know that today the tiles would not only serve as beautiful reminders of Adolphustown’s and Upper Canada’s foundations, but put the church on the map as one of a handful of buildings with this architecturally and historically significant industrial art form.
Many of today’s Adolphustown families proudly trace their roots back to these first settlers, and farming this productive land is still the main occupation here today. The town’s landmarks bear testament to the dreams and hard work that were invested in this community by the early pioneers: a lonely monument and Loyalist burial ground in a quiet park, a Quaker burial ground, and a simple and unpainted wooden Methodist Church with 1792 painted above the door. These early community milestones are of simple construction, a reminder of the time when residents were focused more on building community than ostentation.
By 1884, Adolphustown was ready to construct a more impressive Anglican church. With Saint Alban the Martyr Anglican Church, they dreamed big by using a design by renowned Kingston architect Joseph Power to construct an elegant mini cathedral. Typically a church of this size and complexity would be unattainable for a small farming community, but Aldolphustown’s Reverand Forneri was determined to raise the money needed. He went on a cross-country preaching tour. During his travels, he petitioned for donations for the new church. In a distinctive and successful approach to fundraising, the descendants of Loyalists were asked to purchase a tile engraved with the name of an ancestor.
Purchased for $7 for an uncoloured, beige tile or $12 for a blue tile, the tiles were inlaid around the entire interior perimeter of the church. The tiles are an important reminder to today’s congregation and visitors of the history of the area as well as the community’s feat in constructing this architectural gem. So in 2011, church member Diane Berlet authored a book, The Loyalist Tiles of St Alban’s, with one-page histories of each of the 64 Loyalists named on the tiles. She not only found fascinating personal histories (such as the grandfather of the famous Dr. Norman Bethune), but in researching the tiles, found that they are significant from a broader historical and artistic perspective.
Each tile was a special design created by tile frieze specialist Herbert Minton in Stoke-on-Trent, England. Although encaustic tiles are superior to hand-painted tiles in terms of the durability of the glazes and colour, there were almost no manufacturers of encaustic tiles in nineteenth century England at the time of the Gothic revival in architecture (by the nineteenth century) due to the large amount of hand-labour required. Minton attempted to make encaustic tile manufacture economically viable by combining patterns from the Middle Ages (such as those found on the floor of Westminster Abbey) with industrial processes of the mid-1800s. In this process, coloured clays (instead of paint) were embedded in carved indentations in an unfired tile. The clay composition is then covered with a clear glaze and fired at high temperatures. To make these tiles, the firm had to employ skilled artisans with exceptional molding skills and a knowledge of what to add to clay to create a certain colour after firing. (For example, carbon was added to the clay to create the soothing, light blue of some of St Alban’s tiles.) Diane’s book has some great photos of the Minton facility, including one of female artists working in a line at the factory.
This tile manufacturing process was only used for five decades before less expensive, mass production tile-making strategies became popular. Adolphustown shares the distinction of having Minton tiles with other well-known buildings, including the Capitol Building in Washington DC and the Parliament building in Quebec City.
St. Alban’s holds its Sunday service at 11 am for visitors who would like to drop by and is open for tours 10-12 Saturday mornings during the summer months. To order a copy of the book, The Loyalist Tiles of St. Alban’s, or to arrange a tour of the church at other times, contact Diane at email@example.com.