Philip W. Ellis, the visionary brother

When Philip W. Ellis purchased the old Metcalfe property south of the Bedford Park Hotel in 1889, he ended the pattern of Toronto businessmen buying land in the area to serve as country estates or hobby farms.

For James Metcalfe, who died a few years earlier, ‘Knockaloe’ was his luxurious country escape from the grind of working in the construction business in the city. For Alfred St. Germain, owner of the property north of the hotel, his 200 acres represented his reward to dabble at farming after a competitive career running a newspaper.

But for P.W. Ellis, the pastoral area held the potential to support his vision to create a community of 1,500 bungalows with a large local industry as its centerpiece. He was Bedford Park’s first developer.

No one had any reason to doubt his “Bedford Park Company’ proposal would materialize. He was president of the largest wholesale jewelry business in the country, with a firm employing more than 100 people at Yonge and Temperance streets in Toronto. And he looked the part; an imposing, handsome man with a full tailored beard – looking remarkably like King George V (although the future king at this point was only 24, nine years younger than Ellis).

‘PW’ was born in Toronto in 1856, the son of W.H. Ellis of Liverpool who made his money creating The Penny Post, Toronto’s first cheap newspaper. Despite training as a teacher at the Toronto Model School, young Ellis chose instead to apprentice in the jewelry business. He rose through the ranks until forming his own firm, P.W. Ellis & Co. in 1872 with his twin brother Matthew.

Ellis embraced the potential of real estate in the late 1880s and bought the 100-acre farm wrapped around today’s Woburn and Bedford Park avenues. Along with Matthew and younger brother William, he created the Bedford Park Company.

Ellis set about fixing up the old Metcalfe mansion. Gutted by fire two decades earlier, the three-storey home had been abandoned. He poured money into it to bring it back to life.

But by 1895, he was starting to lose interest in the neighbourhood, turning the house and day-to-day property management over to his brother William. His interest waned further three years later when the Town of North Toronto torpedoed the idea of building a factory in the small community even though the residential lots were starting to sell.

Back in Toronto, Ellis’s biggest accomplishments were still in front of him. In 1905 he became a member of the province’s Hydro Electric Commission and the Queen Victoria Niagara Falls Park Commission. His passionate belief in the potential of hydroelectricity resulted in his appointment as the first chairman of the Toronto City Hydro-Electric Commission (now Toronto Hydro) in 1911. He played a major role in its ambitious first project to install 100-watt streetlights every 80 to 100 feet in the city, making Toronto envy of other big cities on the continent.

He turned his attention next to public transit, becoming the first chairman of the Toronto Transportation Commission (now the TTC) in 1921. The new entity had the challenge to puling together nine amalgamated fare systems that existed within the city.

In 1928, his wholesale jewelry firm folded (although the retail business Ellis Brothers continued until absorbed by Ryrie Birks in 1933 to become Birks Ellis Ryrie, and later, just Birks). The following year, still at the helm of the TTC, Ellis died.

This article, written by Gary Schlee, originally appeared in the Summer 2009 issue of Community Life.

Published in: on November 21, 2010 at 1:23 pm  Comments (1)  
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