Pioneers of the GTA – Timothy Eaton

Sunday, February 13, 2022

Timothy Eaton founded Canada’s largest privately-owned department store and introduced many innovations into his retail business. His introduction of the retail catalogue and mail order service in 1884 gave rural Canadians access to a wide variety of merchandise making him one of the pioneers of retail in the country. Timothy Eaton was born in Ireland in 1834 near Ballymena where he apprenticed in a general store. At the age of 19 he came to Canada and worked for two years in a general store in this building in Glen Williams.

Along with his brother Kirk, Timothy opened a store in 1856 which they moved to St. Marys four years later. By 1869 Eaton was on the move again, venturing off to Toronto to open his own store. The archive drawing below shows his original store at 178 Yonge Street.

Edward Young Eaton was born to Timothy and Margaret Eaton in 1863 while they were living in St. Marys. Edward worked for his father’s store after finishing school and worked his way up from the bottom to the position of Vice-President. He died in 1900 of kidney disease just two years after he completed his house at 157 St. George Street. The home was sold by the Eaton Family to the University of Toronto Fraternity “Delta Kappa Epsilon” for a dollar, reportedly to avoid paying the taxes on it. They’ve occupied it ever since.

The Eaton empire continued to grow and Timothy took good care of his employees compared to standards of the day. He closed his stores at 6:00 pm every night so they could be with their families and in the Summer he gave them Saturday afternoon off. He started manufacturing his own products and set up a variety of departments and services in his stores. You could even order entire houses from Eatons. By the time of his passing, Eatons employed over 9,000 people and it would continue to grow as a retail force. Timothy died from pneumonia on January 31, 1907, and was buried in the newly built family mausoleum in Mount Pleasant Cemetery.  Seventeen other members of the Eaton family have also been buried in this mausoleum.

John Craig Eaton inherited the Eaton retail empire when his father died although he was the youngest son. In January of 1909, he bought 11 acres of land in the newest hip area for Toronto’s wealthy. The top of the Davenport hill was home to Spadina House (seen in the background of the photo below) as well as Casa Loma which was then under construction. He comissioned a home with 50 rooms including 14 bathrooms and an indoor pool. He named it Ardwold which was Gaelic for High Green Hill. When he died in 1922 Lady Eaton started to spend less time there and by 1936 decided the building was a waste. So she had it blown up! The photo below is from Wikipedia and is dated 1910.

The site was then developed into an exclusive little enclave of homes for the wealthy. One remnant of the Eaton estate is the gatehouse which still stands at the corner of Spadina and Ardwold Gate.

The Methodist Social Union of Toronto was looking to open a branch in the growing area of St. Clair Avenue West and approached the Eaton Family to see if they could get a donation. Timothy Eaton’s widow, Margaret, and his son John Craig Eaton donated the land for the church and paid for the original church buildings. The Sunday School was finished in 1911 and hosted the worship services until 1915 when the sanctuary was dedicated. It has been a member of the United Church of Canada since 1925 and contains several large stained glass windows dedicated to Timothy and other members of the Eaton Family.

Carved in the stone along the front of the building are the words Timothy Eaton Memorial Church and the earliest section has a 1910 date stone.

After Timothy died, the board of directors was chaired by Sir John Eaton and they decided that the heart of Toronto’s shopping district was going to move north and they wanted to remain the flagship retailer. In a three day period in 1910 they bought 3/4 of the land between Yonge and Church for two blocks north of Carlton. This land would later be sold back for such projects as Maple Leaf Gardens. Instead, they elected to build on the land they acquired on the south west corner of Carton and Yonge. Their plans were put on hold by World War One but in 1925 they announced a seven-story, 600,000 square foot retail building on the site. Five months later they announced a 32 story tower to be added to the structure which would have made it one of the largest buildings in the world at the time. The Great Depression came along and cancelled all but the originally planned building. The planned tower can be seen in the promotional drawing below.

The building that we call College Park is the remains of this grand project. The large assembly of land also resulted in widened sidewalks and streets around the building and the straightening of the intersection of Bay and College. In 1977 the old Eaton properties at Queen and Yonge would be redeveloped into the Eaton Centre, Toronto’s most popular tourist attraction.

Around 1920, Henry Pellatt convinced Lady Eaton to buy 700 acres of land adjacent to his Marylake property. Pellatt was owner of Casa Loma and knew the Eatons from their days at Ardwold. Plans were drawn up for a massive estate home in 1921 but construction didn’t start until 1938, being completed the following year. Lady Eaton, who found Ardwold to be too large moved into this modest 72 room home. During 1944 and 1945 the Royal Canadian Navy used Eaton Hall as a convalescent hospital. When Lady Eaton died in 1970 the property was sold to Seneca College which operates the King Campus on the site. The property is now cut with many trails and I made my way in from Dufferin Street. For more details and many more pictures see our post, Eaton Hall.

Timothy Eaton left his mark on Canada as a pioneer in the area of catalogue retail, of which online shopping is a modern descendant.

Related stories: Glen Williams, Mount Pleasant Cemetery, St. Marys, Marylake, Eaton Hall

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7 thoughts on “Pioneers of the GTA – Timothy Eaton

  1. Joel Eves

    There are two errata here: 1. Reference to Delta Kappa Epsilon location should read “157 St. George St.”, not George St. which is a different place; 2. There is no intersection of Carlton and Bay, it’s College and Bay. Carlton is the name for College Street east of Yonge.

    Reply
  2. Beverly G Bowers

    Thanks for sharing this story of the Eaton Empire, very interesting. I remember as a child looking forward to every catalogue and browsing every page. I miss those days.

    Reply
  3. canadagirl359

    What a fascinating and well-documented history of the Eaton family – thank you so much for posting these pictures as well.
    It’s sad that both Timothy and John Eaton, despite their good business sense, exceptional work ethics and determination, died at a relatively early age, and both from pneumonia.

    Reply
  4. Pingback: Eaton Hall | Hiking the GTA

  5. Pingback: Eversley – Ghost Towns of the GTA | Hiking the GTA

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