Britain Street

Banner photo is of the Knox Presbyterian Mission on Stonecutter’s Lane and Richmond, circa 1890s.  Courtesy of Toronto Public Library.  

Nestled between Queen and Richmond is a short street with a big name: Britain St.  Running east from George to Sherbourne, it’s really just a block long but believe me, it’s no less interesting for being so brief.

Like all others, Britain St began as wild land before being shaped into a navigable pass in the 1850s.  But unlike most others in this city, it could not be tamed into yet another rigid arm of our beloved grid – from its earliest days to this, it has a most decided bend.

Britain St 1858
Britain St doing its own thing, between Queen and Duchess (now Richmond St E) as noted in this 1858 map.

Henry Scadding, always a go-to for firsthand accounts of early Toronto, explained this bend as “a relic of the deviation occasioned by the ravine” and the “early waggon tracks which ran where they most conveniently could.”   More specifically, however, this sudden south-easterly swing of the street is the echo of a ravine created by Taddle Creek,  one of our “lost rivers.”

… Lost river sounds kinda romantic, doesn’t it?  But really it’s just something we say when we mean we purposely buried it long ago.

Plan of building lots abutting upon Queen Street East in the city of Toronto 1850 TPL
Admittedly, this is not the easiest map to read so you’ll have to take my word for it that that’s George at the left border, and Caroline (now Sherbourne) on the right.  But clear as day (okay, maybe a smoggy day) are the two waterways which traversed the land.  Detail from “Plan of building lots abutting upon Queen Street East in the city of Toronto,” 1850. Courtesy of Toronto Public Library.

Outside of the origins of its odd path, Scadding had little to say about Britain St – at least, little that wasn’t dismissive.  In his Toronto of Old, he wrote that it was “an obscure passage” which was “unfrequented and rather tortuous.”   While I can give him the first – it is, still to this day, fairly obscure – I can’t imagine the torturous bit.  Though, given that he lived in the golden age of crummy streets , he might’ve meant it was poorly paved – if at all.

In any case, from its beginnings in the 1850s straight through to the new century – the last one, not this one – Britain was home to a steady, solid community of working-class Torontonians.  Sure, like many other streets in the city, there was some ebb and flow of residents but there wasn’t nearly the continuous drift that characterized Queen and Simcoe, or the sort of troubled residents on Lombard who regularly appeared in the police courts.  No, the lot on Britain were nothing if not quiet, hard-working and intent on putting down roots.  Of these, one of the earliest to take up residence was the Boddy family.

When James Boddy, a carpenter by trade, first arrived from County Leitrim, Ireland in 1830, he settled first on Duchess (today’s Richmond St E), and then George.  The neighbourhood must’ve suited him just fine because when next he felt the need to move, it was to newly created Britain St – just a stone’s throw from his previous George St address.

Following his death in 1872, his wife, Ellen Sophia, remained on Britain with their children.  By this time the Boddy kids were grown and, while today we’d say they “still lived at home,” they were listed as “boarding” with their mother.  And a lot of help they would’ve been to her too.  Daughter Sophia was a school teacher, while sons Edward and Benjamin worked as a painter and bookbinder, respectively.  So it’s not like they were just hanging out in the basement all day.   When eventually a need was felt for an additional Boddy abode – likely due to the start of a new branch of the family – young Edward, whose painting business on Queen St was proving quite successful, took on the house next door to his mother’s.

… Now this is the point when I’d love to show you what the Britain St homes looked like. But, very unfortunately, I have yet to find photos of the block at the time (check your attics, folks!).   However, what I can show you are a couple of homes on neighbouring George St which would’ve been similar to the one and two-storey wood-framed homes that populated Britain:

George St., w. side, betw. Richmond and Queen Sts. E. 1892 TPL
As noted in the original caption, these three homes were built on the west side of George, near Queen St, in 1820. Photo taken 1892.  Courtesy of Toronto Public Library.

Now, while the Boddy family was fairly typical of Britain St’s residents, in an interesting twist, they weren’t the block’s only, er, bodies …

On the south side of Britain, west of Stonecutter’s Lane, sat an entrance to one of the city’s oldest cemeteries:

1858 Boulton Map Britain Grave yard
Detail from the Boulton map of Toronto, 1858.

From as early as 1800, Torontonians had been using this land to bury their dead.  Yet, despite this, there’d never really been any formal recognition of it as a cemetery – at least, not insofar as a name went.   So in 1824, a trio of Presbyterian Church trustees – made up of Jesse Ketchum (whom you’ll remember from Delineating Richmond), John Ross and Colin Drummond – petitioned the town’s Executive Council for use of the land as the congregation’s cemetery.

Well, as the Presbyterians had already been burying their people there for some time, and it turned out that no one actually owned the land, their request was granted and the site became formally known as the:

Presbyterian Burial Ground 1834
From the 1834 York Commercial Directory.

Though, after a time, it was more commonly known as the:

Old Scotch
From the 1856 Toronto City Directory listing for Britain St.

In addition to being mighty handy if you had a body that needed burying, this cemetery would have also helped solidify the Presbyterian presence in town.  Because up until 1820, when a young licentiate named James Harris arrived from Belfast, there was no Presbyterian church in York (Toronto).  Oh sure, there was a clergyman in Richmond Hill, and another way out in Scarborough, who’d make calls – but if you think those areas are remote now, imagine travelling to and from them by horse and buggy over rutted roads.  So with Harris came the opportunity to better serve the local members and build up a more robust congregation.

It was soon after his arrival here that Harris was first introduced to Jesse Ketchum who, living up to his reputation for generosity, lost no time in inviting the young man to live with his family.  As if that weren’t enough, Ketchum (who at that point was not even Presbyterian, but a Methodist) also offered Harris the land on which to build his church and the funds to pay for its construction.

Jesse Ketchum and His Times Knox Church
The original Presbyterian Church faced onto Hospital St (now Richmond St W) between Bay and Yonge. From Jesse Ketchum and His Times, 1929.

As it turned out, that’s not all James Harris would gain from his association with Ketchum.  According to biographer Ernest Hathaway, Harris was a “young, fresh-looking, personable man of good education and pleasing address”  and so quickly caught the eye of Jesse’s daughter, Fidelia.   (Which, frankly, was probably not all that surprising considering they were living in the same house.)  And not long after the church was built, the two were married and Harris officially became a member of the Ketchum clan.

Because I know you’re curious, here’s a look at James Harris.  Taken many years after he first settled in Toronto, he’s perhaps no longer quite so “fresh-looking,” but you can see he had a certain presence – and by that I mean decent cheekbones:

James Harris

“Hey there, Miss Ketchum.”  The Rev. James Harris, from The First Presbyterian Church in Toronto and Knox Church, 1890.

James Harris would continue his service with the church until 1844, when the argument over the Presbyterian Church’s relationship with the State brought about the Disruption of 1843  (it took a while to filter over to Canada) and split the Church of Scotland.  With this break, Harris elected to retire from the ministry, though he maintained his connection with the congregation as a ruling Elder till his death at 80, in 1874.

But to get back to Britain St and its bodies …

Not long after Harris’s retirement, burials at the cemetery began to slow and by 1850 had ceased almost entirely.  In fact, as time went on, the only digging done there was for the opposite purpose.  Yep, that’s right – slowly, grave by grave, bodies began to be removed to prepare the land for sale.

But, as you might imagine, this wasn’t exactly a simple task.  First of all, the map of the cemetery turned out to be a little less accurate than one would wish.  And secondly, because it had been used for years before officially being taken on by the church, no one was really sure of its boundaries anymore.  And so, by the time that a Presbyterian Sunday School was built on the site in the 1870s, it’d become something of a regular thing to accidentally stumble upon bodies.

Here’s where they put that Sunday School, by the way:

Presbyterian Sunday School Goads 1880
Cemetery-central.  The Presbyterian Sunday School between Britain and Richmond, off of Stonecutter’s Lane. From the Goads Fire Insurance Plan, 1880.

And here we have the same site, now home to the Knox Mission, as it appeared in 1890s:

Knox Mission NW corner Stonecutter Lane 1890s TPL
It looks like a lovely little building.  And I’m sure that, minus the sepia tones and knowledge of bodies in the yard, it was quite welcoming.  The NW corner of Stonecutter’s Lane and Richmond in the 1890s.  You can make out a bit of Britain St on the right.  Courtesy of the Toronto Public Library.

Alas, every passing decade seemed to bring the discovery of more graves.  By 1911, some 263 bodies had been removed to the Necropolis.  Sadly, many of the names of the individuals whose graves were removed are not known, though a plaque for their mass burial states that a number of William Lyon Mackenzie’s family – including three of his children – are amongst them.

By this time, Britain St itself had changed a good deal.  The north side of the street, which throughout the 19th century had only ever been a rear view of the businesses on Queen, now housed small industries of its own.  Among these were Adam Beck’s cigar box factory – the same Adam Beck who founded the Hydro-Electric Power Commission, and whose statue graces University Ave – and the Toronto Machine Tool Works:

Building Inspectors Handbook 1904
Sure, “the greatest labor-saving device ever introduced” sounds pretty good, but I’d be much more interested in seeing something from the “Experimental Machinery” line. From the Building Inspectors Handbook, 1904.

With industry blossoming across the street, it wasn’t long before the south side – once completely residential – began to sprout its own factories, like the Toronto Feather and Down Co.:

Toronto Feather and Down from Style July to December 1912
She looks startled to see you – and, frankly, a little guilty about something. From Style magazine, 1912.

Another was the Jones Underfeed Stoker Company:

Jones Modern Power and Engineering 1917
I’ll admit right now that I’ve no idea what I’m looking at here – but apparently one of these and some “uniformity of coal” would save you a bundle.  From Jones Modern Power and Engineering, 1917.

There was also Bias Corsets Limited:

Canadian Home Journal 1922
“Bias” is not a feature I’d normally look for in underwear.  …She’s either stopped mid-fastening to enjoy her handiwork or to rest her sore fingers.  From Canadian Home Journal, 1922.

While these early companies have since faded into the ether, many of the spaces they once inhabited, happily, still survive – including this one which was built over the site of the cemetery and Sunday School:

Britain St looking SW from Stonecutter's Lane
Built in 1911, this building once housed Fisher Electric Manufacturing and the Jersey-Creme Company.  Looking SW from Stonecutter’s Lane and Britain St.

There are even a few remnants of buildings long since demolished…

The former Dominion Tin Works (which later became the Pease Furnace Co.) still bears the scar of separation from its neighbour:

Dominion Metal Works
On the left, you can make out the demolished building’s roof line, as well as the door which once connected the two.

Though I believe that’s a newer structure nested inside, it gives you a sense of how the “Tinning” unit, below, would have been incorporated into the larger structure.

1880 Goads
From a detail of Goads Fire Insurance Plans, 1880.

But close by, sits a much more mysterious remnant of early Britain St:

Former stairwell on Britain

Visible from a lane on Queen St, I’d often wondered about this tiny hut (or shed, or whatever you want to call it) as I rolled past on the streetcar.  So, on a recent stroll along Britain, I paused for a closer look – and was surprised to find clear signs of life within:

Former stairwell on Britain 2

Peering through a small opening in the door (c’mon, you’d have looked too), I was delighted to spy a set of descending stairs.

While I don’t know who calls this spot home now, I can tell you that the building this stairwell belonged to has been gone for decades. Also, it’s quite possible that the basement below has origins in an even earlier structure – the small brick building that once adjoined the Dominion Tin Works’ tin shop:

22 Britain
That “X” – at the corner of the small brick (purple) building – marks the spot where the little stairwell sits today. Detail from Goads Fire Insurance Plans, 1880.

While it was the mystery of this last little building which first drew me to Britain, I’ve since found myself visiting the street quite often.  It’ll sound odd but I’ve become smitten with this little stretch.  Even though Queen St hums busily – often quite raucously – just a few steps north, this short block is somehow always tranquil and quiet.

Britain's bend at dusk
Looking west from Britain’s bend at dusk.

I don’t usually tend towards the fanciful (okay, maybe a bit), but there’s a feeling that something of Taddle Creek and the old cemetery is still present here.  Crossing the bend where the water once dipped south, you can easily imagine our early residents visiting lost loved ones along the lush ravine.

… And, given that yet more graves were discovered here just a couple of years ago, it’s entirely possible many are still here to be visited.

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17 thoughts on “Britain Street

  1. Katherine,

    Fabulous; you are amazing; love your style.

    Old Scotch Cemetery? Seems unfair, to connoissuers of one of life’s finer delectables. And the liftup (bias-filled) corsette – seems to lift up belly as much anything else; might not make it into the Victoria’s Secret catalogue.

    All the best, with your wonderful work and everything,

    RL

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You’re very kind, Richard – thank you! I’m so happy you liked it.
      Ha! Funny, I had the same thought about that corset. Bias (a hard name to get past) also offered a number of other corset styles – and I’m pleased to report that they were all as torturous looking as this one.
      Hope all is well and wonderful with you.
      Katherine

      Like

  2. Ooooh, so much to reflect upon in this juicy piece! From forgotten cemeteries to secret huts to corset advertisements. This post has it all 🙂

    I know the main subject is the history of the street, here, but I can’t seem to get past the corsets. The woman in the ad looks so innocently delighted that this scientifically-sound garment will help her with her woman-troubles. I suppose the folks 100 years from now will look back incredulously at today’s advertisements, too. They’ll be wondering why all the women in today’s underwear ads are sulking.

    Anyhow, enough unmentionable-talk. I loved your post, as usual!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m so glad you enjoyed it – even more so that you found it juicy!
      Ha! You’re so right about our corset gal vs. today’s models. Why are they all so sulky? To be honest, I find them kind of tedious. Personally, I’d find an ad with someone who looks happy and comfortable in their skivvies a far greater inducement when shopping. But as you said, that’s probably “enough unmentionable-talk.”
      Thank you, as always, for stopping by – I truly appreciate it 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  3. You are fabulous as always. But, the mystery of that inhabited tiny hut-shed-whatever. I love that photo with the light inside … and now I want to know where those descending stairs go. Who is in there? Who lives below? I think we need you to pack a picnic, sit beside the flowers, and wait. Wait as long as you need to, until someone comes up and out the stairs. Your fans must know!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Aw, thank you! And I’m so glad you find the hut-thingy as strange and tantalizing as I do. For your sake and mine, I might have to do as you’ve suggested and go on an ol’ fashioned stakeout. I’ve always wanted to do one 🙂

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  4. Lost river does sound romantic but I agree with you that’s it not, really! There’s even a Lost Rivers Brewery in London, but I’m pretty sure all the “lost rivers” in London, like the Fleet, just dumped effluvia into the Thames, so I really wouldn’t want to drink a beer brewed with them!
    Shame the cemetery’s no longer there, though I suppose its removal allowed for your great quips like “And I’m sure that, minus the sepia tones and knowledge of bodies in the yard, it was quite welcoming,” so it’s not a total loss! I kind of like the idea of coming across a skeleton in my yard, but I would obviously have my house fully equipped with anti-zombie supplies just in case. I have to say, James Harris looks a bit cadaverous himself, probably because of those cheekbones! His hairstyle kind of makes him look like a less-attractive version of Lord Melbourne, or maybe zombie Lord Melbourne (to stick with the theme).
    I agree that the maid’s up to something. I bet she didn’t properly make that bed.
    And how great and creepy is that little hut with the mysterious stairs?! You should definitely do the stakeout as suggested above! I want to know more!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Oh, you’re so right about James Harris being a less-attractive Lord Melbourne. There’s also something about him that reminds me of Jacob Marley’s ghost in the Alistair Sim version of A Christmas Carol. So ditto on the “cadaverous” point too!
      Yeah, I’m with you – I kinda like the idea of finding a lost burial in my yard. Though, in all likelihood, I’d probably never sleep another wink. But I have enjoyed walking along Britain and wondering how many graves are still there and where they might lay. Which is another reason that little hut/subterranean dwelling fascinates me – whoever’s living there is (possibly) a pretty close neighbour to any that have been left behind. If my stakeout pans out, I’ll have to ask if anything ever goes bump in the night 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Love your blog, and I read every post. I selfishly hope you’ll get to Gifford St. at some point (it’s my surname), a short street in Regent Park that looks to have once sat on the grounds of the original Toronto General Hospital. For the life of me, I can’t find out who the Gifford was. Regardless, thanks for the great work! Jim

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for the kind words, Jim! It’s a real treat to hear you enjoy these posts.
      And thank you for the Gifford St recommendation. It sounds like a great focus for a future post. I’ll definitely look into it – and hopefully find you your Gifford! Katherine

      Liked by 1 person

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