The Ellis Brothers propose the first subdivision

In 1889, York Township Council was presented with a registered plan that proposed to turn the pastoral farming area north of Yonge and Lawrence into a busy factory/residential development.

Behind the plan were the enthusiastic Ellis brothers, wholesale jewellers from Toronto. They had recently purchased the decaying Metcalfe estate (where Blessed Sacrament Separate School now stands) and the more than 100 acres that went with it.

Most of their property was open pasture, providing lots of space for their Holstein cattle. But Philip William Ellis and his younger brother William Gordon Ellis had bigger plans in mind. Along with another brother, an uncle and other investors, they formed The Bedford Park Company and were proposing to carve their farm into 1,500 small housing lots with 20-foot frontages. These would be strung along two roads – Woburn Avenue and Bedford Avenue – running from Yonge Street west to today’s Bathurst Street.

The company’s name was probably borrowed from the Bedford Park Hotel to the north of the Ellis holdings. The office was located on Adelaide Street in downtown Toronto, just east of Yonge.

Any buyer interested in a lot would have an opportunity to place a bid on a specific piece of property during one of the company auctions. The successful bidder could then purchase the lot for $120, requiring a down payment of 60 cents, with payments of 60 cents every Thursday until it was paid off – presumably in less than four years.

The Ellis brothers hoped to attract buyers looking for cheaper prices on the outskirts of Toronto, people willing to commute into the city to work. It would mean residents would have to make the one-kilometre walk down and up the hill to Glengrove Avenue to catch the horse-drawn streetcar to Toronto. But there was every reason to believe that the service would eventually extend north into the new community.

The Ellises also hoped to attract buyers who wanted to not only live, but work, in the community. That was the thinking behind the proposed factory in the plan. What kind of factory doesn’t seem clear. Perhaps Philip and W.G. wanted township approval before getting into specifics.

It was an ambitious plan, but it collided with the recession that was starting to grip the country (sound familiar?). The intention to start building homes in 1891 didn’t happen. When Bedford Park became part of the Town of North Toronto in 1892, the brothers received approval for the housing plan. But the buyers were slow in coming. By 1897, there were still only 33 families in the area. And the following year, the town vetoed the proposal to build a factory.

Sales started to pick up; houses started to pop up along Woburn. By 1907, the company was still actively advertising the development to potential buyers. In 1912, there were still only 100 families in the whole area, which meant fewer than five per cent of the lots were occupied.

By the 1920s, many of the lots were filled with tiny white bungalows. However, none of those countless bungalows with their original white wood-frame siding exist today.

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

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Confederation & Bedford Park

1867Families in the Bedford Park area grabbing a TTC family pass on Canada Day to head for Queen’s Park’s free entertainment, rides and crafts are repeating the very same excursion taken by area families 140 years ago.

July 1, 1867 may have marked Canada’s transition from colony to nation, but for the farm families north of the Lawrence properties it was a day off from chores. Many of them hopped into their wagons and buggies to make the trip down Yonge Street to join in the planned celebrations. They passed through the villages of Eglinton, Davisville, Deer Park and Yorkville on their way to the city.

The party would have been underway for hours by the time they arrived. Celebrations began the previous midnight with the tolling of the steeple bells at St. James Cathedral. A 21-gun salute took place before dawn, followed the long slow roasting of a whole ox over a bonfire; it would later be carved up and distributed to the poor. The 9:30 morning service at the Mechanics’ Institute behind the cathedral to bless the new Dominion was also likely over.

But there was probably still time to catch part of the military parade down city streets and join the picnics taking place down by the lake. A highlight was taking advantage of special boat trips around Toronto’s islands.

In the evening, many moved on to Queen’s Park to hear the concert band. As the sun set, Chinese lanterns added a fairytale atmosphere to the park. For those farm families prepared to make a late night of it, there was fireworks before they had to make the long trip back up Yonge in the dark.

It’s probable that two of the neighborhood’s most prominent landowners stayed overnight in Toronto in order to take part in a special banquet at the Music Hall above the Mechanics’ Institute. William McDougall and James Metcalfe, both Members of Parliament for the new Canada, likely watched as the featured speakers — John A. Macdonald and George Brown — buried their longtime political rivalry and concentrated on optimistic rhetoric to capture the excitement achieved in creating a new country.

McDougall didn’t spend much time on his farm at today’s Yonge and Ranleigh streets. He was actually representing Lanark County in Ottawa and had just been appointed to be Macdonald’s Minister of Public Works. Across the street from the McDougall farm was Metcalfe’s Knockloe estate (on the site of today’s Blessed Sacrament school). As president of the Royal Canadian Bank, Metcalfe had been encouraged to run for federal office for York East. He now represented all of York County east of the Yonge (on McDougall’s side) as well as Yorkville, Scarborough and Markham.
The MP for the west side of Yonge was William Pearce Howland, a prominent miller on the Humber River and finance minister in the former colony of Canada. He was named a minister in Macdonald’s cabinet, but would soon step down to become Ontario’s Lieutenant-Governor.

Canada was now a country, but the cluster of farms north of the Lawrences wouldn’t become a village for another 25 years.

This article, written by Gary Schlee, originally appeared in the Spring 2008 issue of Community Life.

Published in: on October 26, 2008 at 6:40 pm  Leave a Comment  
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James Metcalfe: peacocks roamed his farm

1858The 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.