By Gregory Clark, April 8, 1933
A big city grows by eating villages.
What gives Toronto that fine big corporation is the fact that in its time It has been cannibal and has engulfed no fewer than fifteen villages.
Not suburbs, mind you. But distinct and separate villages, an hour’s drive away (by buggy) from the city, with their own post-offices, often with their own town halls like Parkdale and Yorkville. And always with their pride.
There is no doubt that Seaton Village in its time had as fine a contempt for Toronto as Hamilton has now, or Newmarket. There may have been people in Seaton Village who thought the day might come when the thriving settlement of Seaton Village might Annex the struggling town of Toronto.
But Seaton Village was swallowed by Toronto. Seaton Village has become the exact population centre of the city of Toronto. Seaton Village is the corner of Bloor and Bathurst.
You do not need a battered old history book or a Baedecker’s Guide to Toronto to find these old villages that have been consumed but not yet digested by the big city. There are streets in Toronto that are village streets. To the very life, there they stand, as they stood almost century ago, and you do not need to half-shut your eyes to feel the illusion. In Yorkville, which is near the corner of Bay and Davenport road; in Dover Court, which is at Bloor and Dovercourt; in Chester, which is the more modern name of a village called Doncaster which stood at the junction of Bloor and Danforth, you will find whole sections of modern streets with quaint small houses of frame and of plaster and some of them of ancient brick, which are for fact village streets. And though they be old they are pretty.
We even found, in our search for the villages Toronto has swallowed, a village pump.
A common pump and a well within the city limits of Toronto. True, it is in Moore Park and down ravine and up a hill. And true, also, that owing to the curious location of this house within the city limits of the proud city of Toronto, they cannot avail themselves of the city’s water supply and must use the old-fashioned well. But there it is, a pump within the city limits, make of it what you like. O Hamilton and O Newmarket.
It is said that two-thirds of the population of Toronto is made up of people born either in the country or in small villages and towns. And they say that every once in a while these people get homesick for the sight of a village. They grow tired of splendor. They yearn for the sights and the sounds of their youth. For the benefit of these, so that they may go on a Sunday for a walk in a village without ever leaving the city limits, we are writing down the location of these country places that even the clang and clatter of cities cannot make to vanish away.
Our Forgotten Villages
Macaulay Town was not an incorporated village. But it was separate and distinct from the village of York, and if it had stood out for its rights it might have bequeathed its name to Toronto. This might have been the noble city of Macaulay Town, twelfth largest city in America. For Macauley Town was out in the suburbs. It was the corner of King and Yonge streets.
When one night stands of actors came to Toronto, if they ever did, they made jokes about Macaulay Town and got a big hand from the Toronto audience sitting there beneath the shadowy candle-lit stage. But you will see no vestige of Macaulay Town at King and Yonge streets to-day. Heigh-ho! The last assessment on the northeast corner WAS $12,500 foot. A thousand dollars an inch, ladies and gents, for Macaulay Town. Which side of our faces shall we laugh on now?
Yorkville was a thriving village, as independent of Toronto as Woodbridge is today. It grew up around the Red Lion Inn, run by Daniel Tiers for the refreshment of farmers coming to Toronto (away down by the lake) with their wagons, after the long hills. Hog’s Holla Hill was bad enough. But the Blue Hill with its terrible clay – but of course the Blue Hill is no more. Toronto looked after that. It filled the valley up with Yonge street. The Blue Hill is gone. Only the memory of it remains in that pretty ravine below Roxborough street as you sail smoothly down Yonge.
Anyway, around the Red Lion grew up the village of Yorkville and you will see authentic village sections on Bellair, Cumberland, Berryman and Scollard streets. The town hall of Yorkville is the barracks of the York Rangers, right on Yonge street. Even on Yonge street itself, at No. 877, you will see a few remnants of the village that refused to come into Toronto’s maw even when Toronto crept up and surrounded it. But a typhoid epidemic broke out in Yorkville, so Yorkville surrendered.
Parkdale is not merely a district. It was a town. It had its town hall and its separate life. So had West Toronto. In their time these towns were as far away from Toronto as Newmarket and Pickering are to-day.
But it is the little villages that are entirely forgotten that we want to remember. Brockton, out at Dundas and Lansdowne; Leslieville, far out east, and Leslie street now remains; Chester, the new-fangled name for Doncaster, standing far, off from the city at Danforth and Broadview. There were no bridges in those days, and to live in Chester was the same as living in Brampton now.
Bracondale has so utterly vanished that it is almost a Forest Hill Village in the style of its residences to-day. But once upon a time Bracondale was a village on the Albion Road, and it had a race track to which sporty Toronto used to drive in buggies, tally-hos and democrats. It was on Davenport road west of Bathurst.
Deer Park, Davisville and Eglinton had their post offices, and it took a day for a letter to get there from the Toronto post-office. Seaton Village at Bathurst and Bloor, Dover Court at Dovercourt and Bloor, and if you want to see some sweet old houses drive along Northumberland street, Shanley and Salem and Delaware. The village of Dover Court was far out the heavy, sandy highway that a century later bears the name of Mr. Jos. Bloor, brewer, of Yorkville. He supplied the Red Lion.
Carlton was a village at St. Clair and the Weston road. And Davenport lay south of it a mile or two, on the road that wandered westward after it had done its original job of bringing Col. Wells, who fought at Waterloo, from Yonge street westward to his lovely estate on the hill, called Davenport. And long after they called the hill Wells, after him.
These are the villages that were born and lived and died, far out from the little city of Toronto. They had their founders, their first families, their good men and their bad men. Two and three generations of men and women called these villages their home before the slow spreading city brought strangers to swamp and destroy their littleness and their peace.
All they have left behind them are names, names of the villages and names of their worthy people. And a few little houses, gabled and plastered, with the look of old violins about them.
For you understand, Toronto was not intended to be a city. It was just to be a fort and a military supply depot.
Governor Simcoe intended London on the Thames to be the big city of the far west of Canada. Toronto was just to be a fork in the military highways; the main one from Montreal to Detroit, and a branch one from Toronto to Penetang.
But gentry like forts. Around forts gather not merely the officers and men of the fort, but the retired officers of the Duke of Wellington and the Napoleonic wars. And being gentry they like land. Not just a house and lot. But a thousand acres of land. They like to write home to England:
“I have acquired by grants from the Crown one thousand acres of land lying on a beautiful country northward of the fort at York. I have already found, amidst the bush, a hill which will some day make a delightful site for a mansion.”
And mansions started to sprout all over the wide and unexplored country that is now Bloor street and Spadina and Lansdowne and St. Clair. You can have no idea how astonished and indignant the old gentlemen of these fine country mansions would have been if they had been informed that within the time of their grandchildren all these handsome acres would be cut into twenty and thirty foot lots and houses packed on them like cells in a bee-hive, with commerce clattering through streets as hard as a ball room floor.
The Denisons were amongst the noblest of the gentry and their great house was called Dover Court. Far out in the country. A great plantation. Around them grew the village of Dover Court. Today the name remains.
Sherrif Jarvis, after smacking down the rebels, got a large piece of country far to the north and cut off from all possible contamination from the south by a great ravine. He called his fine house Rosedale. No village grew there. But his descendants decided, half a century ago, seeing the swelling city to the south, to subdivide the crown grant into exclusive country Villas for the better-class watchmakers and flour and feed dealers who amassed a little something. So they cut crooked streets and winding lanes and they came to call that suburban retreat Rosedale.
Every Old Family Wanted One
The lieutenant-governor had a summer home far out in the country. He called it Castle Frank.
The Baldwins were great property holders in the olden days and they had a house far north of the fort called Spadina, a pretty Indian word they got from the Indians who used to come and sit around the mansion’s door yard, smoking and thinking. The Baldwins were great people and they dreamed of a broad Avenue some day coming straight up from the lake and from the fort, an avenue lined with splendid trees, up which the military could come in their carriages.
The broad avenue came, but the mansion called Spadina is vanished. No military ride up to it in carriages from the fort. Elizabeth and Phoebe and Maria, Russell, Warren, Bedford are all Baldwin names.
Colonel Wells, who was bursar of King’s College, by Jove, had to have a road cut through the woods to his fine house on the ridge, the fine house called Davenport. The people of Yorkville built houses along that road and they called it Davenport road out of respect to the residence to which it led. Then it went on, as roads do, past Davenport, that big house on the hilltop. And after it went on, out into the country, they called it the Albion road, as it led in time to Albion township, where some fine farmers lived. But the village of Carlton grew up on the Albion road, far to the west (the stockyards are the odor of the sanctity of Carlton) and some people began calling the Albion road Carlton street, while those nearer Yorkville continued to call it the Davenport road. Names take time to digest, in cannibalism.
Colonel Walter O’Hara, one of the squires, served under Wellington and he gave the names Sorauren and Roncesvalles to roads around his country estate after battles in the Peninsular War.
To understand the building of the jig-saw puzzle which is the evolution of a city we must remember that, only a century ago, hundreds of cross roads in this part of Ontario had taverns on them. To-day these cross roads that you pass without a glance are merely four fence corners. Not a stone, not an old plank, remains of a once busy cross roads hamlet, consisting of a tavern, stables and a house or two. For in those days, with no railroads, the settlers had to haul their grain and their cattle or hogs down incredible gumbo roads to the markets along the lake shore. They needed many a resting place, many a place of refreshment for man and beast.
For the fifteen villages that have been the jig-saws out of which the puzzlers have constructed the city of Toronto, in the province of Ontario as a whole, a thousand hamlets have either vanished entirely or are almost nameless cross-road communities of twenty or thirty souls.
Those who were gentry already when they came here, a century ago, or those who had the wit and brains to hope to be gentry some day obtained very large land grants, not of hundred acres, but of a thousand or more acres. They employed men. These workers settled nearby. Immediately other humbler settlers in the neighborhood became in some degree dependent on these gentry who built large mansions, cleared large acreages and built roads out to the highways leading to York. They had visions of a civilization like the Old Country, in which great estates, with splendid houses, would grace the land from end to end. Probably not one of the pioneer landed gentry ever hoped that Toronto would be more than a small, thriving country town.
The railroads came and promptly dealt the death blow to thousands of cross road villages. The farmers no longer had to haul their produce two and three day journeys past a score of wayside taverns and resting places. The day the railroads started the great cleft or abyss between city and country was created.
Summerhill, Woodlawn, Oaklands, Rathnally, Deer Park were the names of big houses set amidst broad plantations in the new colony that was to have for its centre and heart the fort down by the lake; and the little town of Toronto to feed it supplies. It would have been a long journey in a stage conch to the big city of London, where Canada’s parliament buildings were to be. But these gentry of York preferred the sweet country life to raging cities. They preferred a thousand acres, with a lovely old house in the midst, and little villages of workers for their broad farms, conveniently hidden in some gully, out of sight of the big house. From the big houses the beautiful daughters could go walking through the country lanes and pay kindly visits to the farm laborers’ villages nearby. Each family wanted a village.
Fifteen of them got villages.
And the grandchildren of the happy villagers are lords and justices, princes of money and of land.
Out in the country, far from the madding crowd, these grandchildren of the villagers are buying spacious farms and building handsome houses, where they can enjoy the sweet country life.
And their lovely daughters can spin down in scarlet roadsters to the villages, their villages, Pickering, Newmarket, Oakville, to buy cigarettes and a new vanity dab.
And the great city, like water spreading, like oil dripping, slowly spreads and crawls outward, outward, grasping, encircling, engulfing.
Editor’s Notes: These sorts of articles are interesting to me, since we can now read an 88 year-old article that describes the previous 100 years. It shows what may have still existed at the time, and can make us reflect on all that existed then which is no more. And he is describing the pre-1998 Toronto too. The whole history of Toronto Amalgamation over the years can be found here. Jim provided the creepy illustration.