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)  
Tags: , ,

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.