An Unrecognized Contribution

By Elizabeth Gillan Muir

An Unrecognized Contribution
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A treasure trove of incredible lives lived.
— RICK MERCER, comedian and author
Muir sets out to restore the faces of women who worked and struggled in nineteenth-century Toronto. A fascinating read.
— WARREN CLEMENTS, author and publisher
Emphasizes the enormously influential ... Read more


A treasure trove of incredible lives lived.
— RICK MERCER, comedian and author
Muir sets out to restore the faces of women who worked and struggled in nineteenth-century Toronto. A fascinating read.
— WARREN CLEMENTS, author and publisher
Emphasizes the enormously influential role women had in laying the groundwork for life in the city today.
— DR. ROSE A. DYSON, author of Mind Abuse: Media Violence and Its Threat to Democracy
Women in nineteenth-century Toronto were integral to the life of the growing city. They contributed to the city’s commerce and were owners of stores, factories, brickyards, market gardens, hotels, and taverns; as musicians, painters, and writers, they were a large part of the city’s cultural life; and as nurses, doctors, religious workers, and activists, they strengthened the city’s safety net for those who were most in need.
Their stories are told in this wide-ranging collection of biographies, the result of Muir’s research on early street directories and city histories, personal diaries, and other historical works. Muir references over four hundred women, many of whom are discussed in detail, and describes the work they undertook during a period of great change for Toronto.

Elizabeth Gillan Muir

Elizabeth Gillan Muir has taught Canadian history at the University of Waterloo and Emmanuel College at the University of Toronto. She has written extensively about women in Upper Canada and the role of women in the Christian Church. Elizabeth holds degrees from Queen’s University, the Harvard Business School, and a Ph.D. from McGill University. She lives in Toronto.


CHAPTER 1: Toronto: A “New World” City
There had been cities flourishing in the “New World” for decades — such as Mexico City, New York City, and Quebec City — by the time Elizabeth Posthuma Gwillim Simcoe (1762–1850) and her husband, John Graves Simcoe (1752–1806), the first lieutenant-governor of Upper Canada, arrived at the north shore of Lake Ontario. This was the future site of Toronto, the proposed capital of the province of Upper Canada, but in 1793, the Simcoes saw nothing but trees. True, there were the ruins of a very small French trading post, Fort Rouillé, which had been built in 1751 and burned down in 1759. But as the saying went, the trees were so dense that a squirrel could jump from tree to tree from Windsor in the west of the province to Cornwall in the east without once touching the ground.
The Simcoes were on a scouting trip, John Graves in a bateau with seven other officers, and Elizabeth in the sloop Onondaga. Other locations had been considered for the provincial capital—Niagara, which was then called Newark, and Kingston—but John Graves liked the natural protected harbour of the future site of Toronto, bounded on both sides by rivers two miles (three kilometres) apart. As Great Britain had just lost the United States’ seaboard colonies in the American Revolutionary War, John Graves envisioned a splendid new British territory in their stead. He immediately had twelve log houses built near the muddy banks of the Don River. Ten were for his military cohort and the rest of his party, and two were for First People who still lived in the area—at least two families of Mississaugas. Elizabeth, the two young children whom she had brought to Canada, and their nanny would live in copious tents that had once belonged to the British explorer Captain James Cook.
John Graves named the future city York, and he also gave the two rivers names from English geographical locations, the Don in the east and the Humber in the west. There is a story that the city was to have been called Dublin. In fact, a map from1796 shows the proposed survey of the “Township of Dublin, renamed the Township of York,” detailing the lots along the waterfront from the Humber River to the east beyond the Don. However, the nineteenth-century historian and Anglican rector Henry Scadding was quite definite that the whole area—lake, river, fort, and so on—was called Toronto from the late seventeenth century.
In any event, the new settlement would soon be known as “Muddy Little York”; it was barely thriving at first. Mary Warren Baldwin Breckenridge/Breakenridge (1791–1871), who emigrated from Ireland with her family in 1798, when she was only seven, later remembered that at the time she found it “composed of about a dozen or so houses, a dreary dismal place, not even possessing the characteristics of a village. There was no church, schoolhouse or any of the ordinary signs of civilization. ”
The famous adventurer and author Anna Jameson (1794–1860) described it in her writings as “a little ill-built town … [with] some government offices, built … in the most tasteless, vulgar style imaginable. ” The fact that she was no longer enamoured of one of the government bureaucrats who worked in one of those “tasteless” offices may have had some bearing on her reaction. Jameson, however, was never reticent about sharing her opinions.
However, another Irish-born early settler, Frances Browne Stewart (1794–1872), also thought poorly of it. In 1822 she wrote in her diary:
The town or village of York looked pretty from the lake as we sailed up in a schooner, but on our landing, we found it not a pleasant place, as it is sunk down in a little amphitheatre cut out of the great bleak forest. The lake in front is full of rushes which have been cut and left to decay in the shallow water, causing it to be very unhealthy. …Fever and ague are common. …A deadness hangs over everything.
John Graves Simcoe’s official secretary and aide-de-camp, Colonel the Honourable Thomas Talbot (1771–1853), who had come to Canada with John Graves, agreed in 1803 that it was fit only for “a frog-pond or a beaver meadow. ”
Very rapidly, though, the settlement took on the aspects of a proper community. Mary Warren Baldwin Breckenridge’s mother “found York had vastly changed” in the seven years she spent in the United States after the Baldwins had settled in York: “There were a church, a gaol, a lighthouse building and many nice houses, and the woods between the garrison and town fast disappearing. ” After she settled in York for a short time, Frances Stewart decided that it was a very clean town and the “surrounding countryside very beautiful,” although some time later for some unknown reason, she would describe it as “vile” and “odious,” but not dark or gloomy in the hot summer months, “when gloomy would have been refreshing. ”
In 1832 William Cattermole, the land agent for the Canada Company trying to attract immigrants, described it as “flourishing” and “beautifully situated,” with the “society … equal to any provincial town in Britain,” but obviously he had an agenda; and C. Pelham Mulvany, writer and great fan of the Upper Canadian government, thought it handsome, “reared as by enchantment in the midst of a wilderness. ”
But many must have considered it a worthwhile place to live. Settlers came by the score:
• United Empire Loyalists from the United States, escaping the penalties for siding with the British during the Revolutionary War and eager to receive their free allotment of land in Canada, even though it might be dense forest that had to be cleared manually by saw and axe; people described as “the first body [of immigrants to Canada] numbering ten thousand … the most cultured class of American society”;
• men and women from England and Scotland, singly or in boatloads as part of organized emigration programs, all of them dreaming of a better,more prosperous life;
• Americans, bringing their skills and talents to a new land for new opportunities, attracted by the fertile lands of Canada;
• people of colour from the south, fleeing from servitude and maltreatment; and
• toward mid-century, thousands of Irish, destitute and ill as a result of epidemics, the potato famine, and indifferent landlords, hoping just to survive.
It was not until 1834, however, that the new settlement, consisting then of 9,254 men and women, was declared a city and renamed Toronto, supposedly after the Mohawk word tkaronto, meaning “where there are trees standing in the water. ” The name Taronto, spelled with an a, also referred to a channel of water through which Lake Simcoe to the north discharged into Lake Couchiching, and was recorded on one of Samuel de Champlain’s maps as early as 1615.
From the beginning, women played a major role in the growth and prosperity of the new centre. From1796 up to the very early 1800s, the records of the early patentees of the town and the township—that is, those people who gave in their name to receive a lot of land—contained names of more than twenty women, such as the well-to-do Elizabeth Russell (1754–1822). She had accompanied her half-brother, Peter, a member of John Graves Simcoe’s executive council who succeeded Simcoe after he went back to England. Women were not as free as men in Victorian Toronto; they were prevented from participating fully or even at all in certain occupations and professions. Yet they soon established a vast number of businesses and gradually became part of much of the professional and business life in the city.


A useful chronicle to anyone who wishes to explore the early underpinnings to the growth and prosperity of the City of Toronto. It provides a uniquely original resource that uncovers the vital contributions made by women in the establishment of many institutions we now value and consider essential to our daily lives.

Elizabeth Muir sets out to restore the faces of women who worked and struggled in nineteenth-century Toronto, some famous and some not. Her research turns up surprises every few pages, introducing us to songwriters, reformers, owners of brickyards and corset factories, and others whose presence is still felt in the names of Toronto streets. A fascinating read.

An Unrecognized Contribution is a treasure trove of incredible lives lived. Elizabeth Gillan Muir introduces us to an endless cast of women whose lives were marked by incredible bravery, innovation, and achievement against all odds. In these pages lie a hundred movies waiting to be made.

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