Pictorial Tour of
Woollen Mills History
Hours & Admission
Southfield House in the village of Woodchester, Glouceshire,
The birthplace and boyhood home of Henry J. Bird.
The Bird family outside Woodchester.
as seen from the Muskoka River in 1882.
|Situated high above a
bend in the Muskoka River, the octagonal house, Woodchester Villa is approached by a steep
winding drive. Henry J. Bird gave his new home the name Woodchester
Villa, after the fondly-remembered village in England which was the place
of his birth. If the design of the residence seemed unusual to his
fellow-townsmen, Mr. Bird was ready to explain that he wanted to build
"a bird cage to keep my Birds in."
Undoubtedly influenced in its
design by the home building theories of the American
phrenologist and architectural philosopher Orson Squire Fowler
and his book, A Home for All: or, Gravel Wall, and Octagonal
Mode of Building (1849), this three storey octagonal house
is one of the largest of its kind in Ontario and a classic
example of the octagonal form in Ontario.
The octagonal form is evident in
many details such as the chimneys, observation platform,
flagpole, verandah posts, newel posts and interior door
mouldings. Woodchester Villa was the first house in the area to
have electric lighting. It also had a forced air heating and
ventilation shafts to remove stale air as well as indoor plumbing
with a water pressure system fed by rainwater storage tanks on
the second floor. A substantial dumb-waiter runs from the
basement kitchen to the attic with access at each floor.
The sixteen inch thick, poured
concrete walls have squared random-width fieldstone on the
were the original walls above, however, some settling necessitated repair
and they were subsequently stuccoed. The house may be one of the earliest
examples of a poured concrete house found in Ontario.
The three foot wide observation
gallery forms a walk around the central chimney. It has two
seats built against the opposite sides of the chimney and a low
railing around the edge. A two storey verandah encircles the
house. French doors open onto the second floor balcony at the
The property on which Woodchester
Villa was built comprised one hundred acres alongside the Muskoka River on
the north. Not all the land was needed for Mr. Bird's home and thus
lots were sold by him along what became Woodchester Avenue. To the
west, the land on which the Bird home was built fronted on Muskoka
Road. This was part of the important colonization road built through
a great part of the District Municipality of Muskoka, starting at Washago
in 1858 and reaching Bracebridge by 1861. Muskoka Road near
Woodchester was the principal street of the community in its earliest
years, though now not open to motor traffic up the hill from Woodchester's
drive due to its steepness.
The octagonal house stands on a sloping
lot, with the west or main entrance close to the grade at the front and
the basement kitchen entrance level with the grade at the rear. Four
of its sides are 16 feet wide and the other intermediate four walls being
14 feet wide, probably to cut down the size of the inevitable triangular
It was the Bird
family which had occupied this unusual residence after it was built in
1882. Four sons had come to the new Bird house as children, having
been born in the family apartment in the woollen mills just across the
river at the falls. By 1914, all were married, two of the brothers
were working elsewhere in Canada and two were working
with their father in the management of the Bird Woollen Mills.
Three sisters were
born at Woodchester Villa. To the brothers
and sisters, Woodchester Villa was always the old home, loved by them all
and by grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
Woodchester Villas has been
designated under the Ontario Heritage Act and commemorated with
an Ontario Provincial plaque and is now a community historic