John Graves Simcoe’s boyhood setting could be considered upper middle class. However, it certainly was not idyllic. When his father a captain in the Royal Navy died at sea in May 15, 1759, John Graves was eight years old. Captain Simcoe left his wife Catherine Stamford comfortably off financially, but not wealthy. She had an income, friends and his reputation which placed the family in comfortable society. However, she was without an extended family to fall back on. Seeking the support of friends, she moved her family from Cotterstock, Northamptonshire to Exeter in the county Devon.
Among her Exeter friends was her husband’s close friend and the young Simcoe’s Godfather and namesake, Captain Samuel Graves RN and his wife Margaret Spinkes. The Graves were themselves childless and as time went on would have a great influence on John Graves Simcoe. In later years, they and their property, Hembury Fort House, would be the closest John Graves Simcoe would have to a family and family home.
Unfortunately, Captain Simcoe’s death was not the last that his widow would experience. Catherine’s first two sons had died in infancy. In 1764 John Graves younger brother Percy was drowned as the result of an accident and at the age of 12, Simcoe became Catherine’s only surviving child. We do not know the effect these events had on Simcoe. However, there is strong evidence that Simcoe did maintain a warm relationship with his mother.
When at home, Simcoe’s school and army friends were frequent visitors. In his correspondence with his mother he wrote of his friends as people Catherine would know and would want to hear about. The extent of this was apparent when Simcoe wrote to his mother following the Battle of Bunker’s Hill, in which his regiment had fought and been badly mauled. He described to her the valour that the Regiment had shown and reported on who had been wounded and their condition in order to allay her worries about them.
Simcoe received his primary education at the Free Grammar school in Exeter. At the age of 14 Simcoe was sent on to attend Eton College. It is noteworthy that his acceptance there indicated that his family had the status and friends to be of the upper stratum of the class structure of English society. However, this does not rule out that Simcoe was without a rebellious streak. Perhaps that also had a start with his father.
In 1756, as the Seven Years War broke out, Captain Simcoe was master of the HMS St. George at Portsmouth. It was on the St. George that the Court Martial of Admiral John Byng was conducted with Captain Simcoe acting as a member of the court. Byng led an underequipped and undermanned expedition against the French forces attacking the British garrison at Minorca. After an initial indecisive battle, Minorca fell to the French. Public sentiment in England demanded that someone had to take the blame. Subsequently, Admiral Byng was charged under the Articles of War and court martialled. He was acquitted of the charges of cowardice and disaffection but convicted of failing “to do his utmost” which carried the sentence of death.
Several members of the court, including Captain Simcoe, recommended clemency. The first Lord of the Admiralty and the Prime Minister William Pitt, supported a motion of the House of Commons that also requested clemency. But in the political situation at the time, King George II, turned them down. Byng was executed on the quarter deck of Captain Simcoe’s ship.
This demonstration of unjust arbitrary authority that nonetheless had to be followed, had a parallel in Simcoe’s experience at Eton. The Head Master of Eton was Dr. John Foster. Foster was a renowned scholar but gained a reputation for being a tactless disciplinarian who employed flogging as his preferred means of establishing authority. In November 1768, Foster’s harsh and, in the boys’ minds arbitrary and uncompromising rule, precipitated a challenge to his authority when a clash between a senior boy and a master developed into denying a perceived right of movement held by all the senior boys.
When Foster refused to consider their case, a student protest developed with the seniors deliberately flaunting the rules of the College concerning visiting a tavern, supposedly for a drink. In a group they marched to Marsh’s Inn, a nearby tavern, and did not return until the next day. Foster decreed that that the boys involved must face flogging or be expelled.
Honour ruled out their acceptance of expulsion, so many students, including Simcoe, choose to be flogged. However, their resentment of Foster was such that they quit the college. Among the lifelong friendships Simcoe developed at Eton was William Boscawen. Many years later Boscawen wrote a poem to Simcoe that recounts this event.
With you (Simcoe) rebellion’s chance I tried
Old Foster’s threats his arm defied
And dar’d his empire mock
But oh, how short our glory’s fate
How few escaped The Block.
After leaving Eton, Simcoe briefly attended Merton College at Oxford University where he completed his education matriculating in 1769. He briefly studied law, but as his friend Vicary Gibbs (who was to become Attorney General) pointed out to Simcoe, he was destined “for the field, not the forum”. Within a year Simcoe had left his law studies and hired a military history tutor to prepare him for joining the army in 1770.