Of Music and Medicine – A Short History on a Fragment of Church Street

Banner image is of Church St looking north to Queen in 2015.  Photo by K Taylor.

Unless you’re in the market for a new camera and headed to Henry’s, the small chunk of Church St between Richmond and Queen can seem pretty unremarkable.  Like other parts of Church St, there are a couple of pawn shops to help relieve you of unwanted items – and like numerous other Toronto streets there is a Wild Wing and McDonald’s if fast, and faster, food appeals.  (Though I did once go to a Wild Wing out of desperation to watch a baseball game, so I guess that could be a reason too.)  But there was a time when this little block was home to some pretty remarkable people.

Today’s Wild Wing, at the NE corner of Church and Richmond, was once the medical practice of a couple of brothers named James and William Newcombe. The two were already trained doctors when, following the death of their father, they moved from Devonshire, England to Toronto in 1857.  In tow was their mother, two sisters and two younger brothers, Henry and Octavius.  And boy, did they hit the ground running.

Originally all living under the same roof, at 330 Yonge St., James became a professor of surgery at Victoria College, while Henry became a successful salesman. William, meanwhile, headed off to Washington, D.C. where he was Assistant Surgeon at the Lincoln Hospital during the Civil War.

Octavius, being just a young fellow, was sent to both the Model and Grammar schools where he won prizes in mathematics and English.  From there he took in two winter sessions at Victoria College – likely a benefit of having a brother on the faculty.  With this fine schooling under his belt, he was sent to join William in Washington, serving as the corresponding clerk to the head surgeon.  If the trip was meant to inspire him to a medical career like his older brothers’, it failed.  Like Henry, who was now a partner in the large dry goods business James Brayley and Newcombe, Octavius was born to sell.

While James and William (now back from Washington) lived and held their practice on Church St. in the early 1870s, Octavius entered into the business that would make his a household name – or, at least, all households that could afford a piano.

Octavius Newcombe
A fine mustache for a fine piano man. Circa 1891, from Graeme Mercer Adam’s Toronto, Old and New, 1891.

After partnering with prominent piano manufacturers Mason and Risch, Octavius struck out on his own. He opened the Newcombe Piano Company and brought his brother Henry into the fold.  In 1880, the company took over the Church St site where his older brothers’ practice had been.

Newcombe Piano Co c. 1891
The Octavius Newcombe Piano Co, Church and Richmond, circa 1880s from Graeme Mercer Adam’s Toronto, Old and New, 1891.

Compare this fine building with the site today.  If you can get past the horror that is stucco and slit windows, you might get the funny feeling that the original building is still under there somehow.

Wild Wing Richmond and Church
Photo by K Taylor

Luckily for Octavius, he didn’t have to see this.

As for the pianos themselves, they couldn’t have been more warmly received.  Newcombe pianos won medals and diplomas at the World’s Industrial and Cotton Centennial Exposition in New Orleans (1884-1885), the Colonial and Indian Exposition in London (1886), the Chicago World’s Fair (1893) and took the gold medal at the Paris Exposition in 1900.  Possibly the finest feather in the Newcombe cap was when Sir Arthur Sullivan (of Gilbert and Sullivan fame) chose one of Octavius’s grand pianos to present to Queen Victoria.  It was reported by Sir Henry Ponsonby that “Her Majesty the Queen is very much pleased with the Newcombe Grand Pianoforte.”

In 1876, around the time the elder Newcombes left Church St and before Octavius moved in, a professional couple moved onto the block.  “Professional couple” – doesn’t that sound so modern?  Not what you might expect for 1876?  Well, you wouldn’t be wrong for thinking so and that’s because the wife, Emily Stowe, was the first woman to practice medicine in Canada.

Emily Stowe
Emily Stowe, courtesy of the Library and Archives Canada.

Born into the Jennings family of Norwich, Ontario in 1831, Emily and her five sisters were raised as Quakers by their mother.  (Their father, interestingly, had converted to Methodism.)   And, as the wonderful Quaker tradition dictates, the girls were given an education.  Following her own schooling, Emily spent the next seven years as a school teacher.   But in 1852, wishing to further her own education, she decided to apply to Victoria College and was refused for being female.  Not one to be dissuaded, she applied to and was accepted by the Normal School of Upper Canada – which, in keeping with our interest in the area, was located at Church and Gould Sts.  Graduating with first-class honours in 1854, she was given a position on the Brantford School Board and from there became the first female public school principal.

In 1856 Emily married John Stowe, a carriage maker, and the couple settled in a place called Pleasantville.  (I swear it exists … I think.)  Unfortunately, just after the birth of their third child, John came down with TB.  This illness, coupled with a long-held interest in herbal medicine, spurred Emily to pursue a career in medicine.  Happily, the Toronto School of Medicine, to which she applied, threw open its doors to her.  Just kidding.   The vice-president told her “The doors of the University are not open to women and I trust they never will be.”  And so Emily Stowe-Women’s Rights Activist was born.  …I like to imagine her clenching her jaw and setting her cap.

With Canadian medical training denied her, Emily moved to the U.S. and enrolled at the New York Medical College for Women.  After less than two years there – in which time she rubbed elbows with the great Susan B. Anthony – she earned a homeopathic degree in 1867.  Returning to Toronto, she first set up shop on Richmond before moving to Church, one block north of Queen.

In the mid-1870s, her husband John (now recovered from TB) trained and became a dentist.  With the two Stowe practices burgeoning, the pair moved a block south to what is now Henry’s.

Henry's
Henry’s on Church St.  Photo by K Taylor.

Though a newer building sits on the spot, this is the same site where the Stowes lived and worked when Emily was charged, in 1879, with performing an illegal abortion.  After a long, tough trial in which her moral character was scrutinized and challenged, she was finally acquitted.  Shortly after, in 1880, Stowe was finally granted a Canadian medical license, on the grounds that she’d had 30 years of experience in homeopathic medicine.

Emily’s fight for women’s rights did not lag with this official recognition.  As the founder and president of the Canadian Women’s Suffrage Association, she helped create the Ontario Medical College for Women (which we know today as Women’s College.) She also took on the duties of director for the Association for the Advancement of Women, a North America-wide group whose president was Julia Ward Howe – the author of the “Battle Hymn of the Republic.”

I’d feel remiss if I didn’t tell you that Emily’s son, Frank, followed his father into dentistry.  For a time they all lived and worked together at the Church St. site, but by 1894 they’d packed up and moved to Spadina.  Their home and practice was just across the street from today’s Silver Dollar.

Frank Jennings Stowe 1895
Personally, I don’t think mentioning the “Electric Mallet” was a selling point.  From the 1895 Toronto City Directory.

The family must’ve been wonderfully tight-knit because Emily’s daughter Augusta and her husband, John Gullen, lived right next door.  And you want to know something wonderful?  Both Augusta and John were doctors.  In fact, in 1883, Augusta Stowe-Gullen, became the first woman to graduate from a Canadian medical school.

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