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.
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.
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:
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:
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:
Though, after a time, it was more commonly known as the:
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.
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 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:
And here we have the same site, now home to the Knox Mission, as it appeared in 1890s:
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:
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.:
Another was the Jones Underfeed Stoker Company:
There was also Bias Corsets Limited:
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:
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:
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.
But close by, sits a much more mysterious remnant of early Britain St:
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:
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:
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.
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.