The story goes that James Metcalfe, on returning to Toronto in 1858 from Australia, gave a large banquet to which he invited all the people he owed money at the time he’d left about five years earlier. Under each guest’s plate was a cheque for the full amount owed — with interest.
Whether true or not, the anecdote nicely captures the highs and lows of Metcalfe’s varied career. At the time of the dinner — if it happened — he was definitely on one of his highs, busy building an impressive new home on a farm property north of Lawrence. Located on the site of today’s Blessed Sacrament Separate School, the impressive two-and-a-half storey estate was surrounded by landscaped gardens and a menagerie of exotic Australian birds: peacocks, cockatoos and pheasants. Everything was fenced in, including his prized horses and Holstein cattle, with the Crown jewel being his garishly carved white gates on Yonge Street, imported from England.
He probably never envisioned such wealth when he arrived in Canada West as a 19-year-old in 1841. Over the next 10 years he built a solid reputation as a contractor, having a hand in building St. James Cathedral and St. Lawrence Hall. One of his last projects was the quick construction of Trinity College on Queen Street, an alternative university established by Anglican Bishop John Strachan’s in response to the sectarian status given to the new University of Toronto by the provincial government. The original college is long gone. All that remains, perhaps no surprise, is Metcalfe’s monumental gate, sitting at the south end of Trinity Bellwoods Park.
In 1851, he dissolved the business. It was heavily in debt and he decided now was a good time to take advantage of the Australian gold rush. With his wife, Ellen Howson (probably a distant cousin) and their three-year-old son James, he ended up in Melbourne where his silk purse turned out to be not gold, but more construction. In a four-year period he built many of Melbourne’s impressive civic buildings before deciding to return to Canada.
As Metcalfe adapted to the life of a country squire in the Yonge-Lawrence area, he continued his contracting work and branched out into real estate. It was a comfortable life. In 1864 he became a local Justice of the Peace. The next year he was elected president of the Royal Canadian Bank. With the creation of Canada in 1867, he was urged to seek election as the first Member of Parliament for York East. He represented York East as the Reform Party member for the next 11 years, winning two elections by acclamation.
But, one year after Metcalfe was first elected, his house on Yonge Street caught fire. Rather than attempt to rebuild, he abandoned the blackened hulk for a new address in Yorkville.
He never returned to the community, died in 1886 and was buried in Mount Pleasant Cemetery. His son became a Methodist Church minister. His Yonge Street estate was later restored to its former glory by the Ellis brothers, who sold it in 1926 to the Roman Catholic Archdiocese.
The photograph of James Metcalfe is from Archives Canada.
This article, written by Gary Schlee, originally appeared in the Winter 2007 issue of Community Life.