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Architect John Stokes helped shape face of early Newmarket

In this week's Remember This, History Hound Richard MacLeod examines the legacy of the 1800s architect who designed many of the area's prominent buildings, including several churches still standing today

We are travelling back to the year 1849, when a young man who would have a profound influence on Newmarket and what was then York County arrived from England and took up residence in what is now Sharon. John Stokes was one of Newmarket’s most respected businessmen and a prolific architect, whose designs of places of worship still grace our downtown today.

Stokes and his young family decided to join his parents, who had come to the Mount Albert area in 1837 to run the Royal Oak Hotel. By 1849, Stokes had completed his education and apprenticeship in civil engineering and, at the age of 25, decided to come to Canada with his wife, Martha, and their daughter, Martha, intent on using his inheritance to stake a future in Canada. He designed and built a home in 1852 on the 3rd Concession of Sharon. This house still stands and, I believe, still houses Stokes descendants.

John and Martha added six more daughters to their home in Sharon in quick session.   

Stokes soon became involved in local government. Only four years after arriving in Sharon, he accepted the position of clerk-treasurer of East Gwillimbury, a part-time position paying 44 pounds annually. He held this position until 1887, when he moved to Toronto.

While Stokes was an astute businessman and trusted municipal official, his true talents would prove to lie in the artistic sector, and he was ultimately responsible for the design of several Newmarket landmarks.   

By the age of seven, he had mastered watercolours, an excellent example, it is said, hung in his Sharon home.  He was a skilled architect and had qualified as a civil engineer at the University of Toronto. The first building he designed in Newmarket was the original registry office at Main Street and Millard Avenue. It was demolished in 1956 and replaced with the current firehall.  The story of the original registry office can be found in my article on Newmarket Today detailing Newmarket’s original Town offices.

A new and larger registry office was built to the north in 1882 and stands today as the Elman W. Campbell Museum.

By the mid-1860s, a successful agricultural fair was being held in Newmarket every September at the Newmarket Fairgrounds and Stokes was engaged to design the main exhibit building, the Palace. The Palace, built in 1866 at a cost of $2,000, was a two-story wooden structure with a mezzanine and north-facing veranda looking down on the exhibit space below. The Palace was demolished in 1927 when the fair fell on hard times. 

In the 1860s, Stokes also designed St. James the Apostle Anglican Church across the road from the Stokes home in Sharon. This church was unusual, they tell me, in that it was wooden, not brick, and its belfry rests on the roof supported part-way down both sides of the peak. Other Stokes churches would feature free-standing bell towers.

There are two Stokes-designed churches on our Main Street, their steeples like two bookends, dominating the horizon. The steeple of the Christian Baptist Church, on the east side of Main, has always been a landmark for me.  It is situated on the highest part of Main Street and while it has an imposing bell tower, unfortunately, it has suffered from the effects of winds and wood rot over the years. 

While the church is a Stokes design, the bell tower was an addition specifically requested by T. B. Wakefield, who left $10,000 for the construction of a new church following his death in 1873. Theopholis Brooks Wakefield, a prominent member of the church, had requested that within three years of his death, the church must have a bell tower with a bell suspended within it, and a tablet placed at the foot of the tower indicating it was erected in memory of Wakefield.  

Stokes met all the specifications and, in July 1874, a cornerstone was laid by the governor-general during a colourful ceremony. The building was initially constructed of red and yellow brick, but when the bricks began to weather badly, the bricks were covered with a sand-and-paint mix to reinforce the masonry and the red brick was covered forever. 

Wakefield’s tower was also wearing badly and while plans were discussed to repair the tower over the years, the cost to do so was a problem and the tower was eventually boarded up pending a decision.

The actual church building seems sound, although work does need to be done on it. The church is characteristic of village churches of the 1870s, with its brick construction and style of bell tower. The buttresses along the exterior originally had minarets. The circular stained glass window originally located behind the altar was removed to the north side wall when the pipe organ was installed.  The church remains a jewel on Main Street to this day.

At the foot of Main, at Water Street, is another Stokes church. St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church was built in 1875. The Presbyterian congregation had split and the decision to build a new church would seem to be the first step toward cooperation and the mending of fences. 

There are stark differences between the opulent Christian Church and St. Andrew’s, but there are several similarities as well. The circular window is repeated in St. Andrew’s, as is a more modest free-standing bell tower.  Never completed, the bell tower has not suffered damage like the one up the street.

St. Andrew’s has a simple, unadorned interior, both because it reflects the conservative Presbyterian beliefs of his clients and the fact that Stokes was given a limited budget. However, Stokes’ work does show a sensitivity to the people’s beliefs who hired him and reflects their needs. 

The base of the bell tower forms the foyer of the church and seems, to me, far too small for greetings to be exchanged at the entrance. This is also the case at the Baptist church, with congestion being an issue at its entrance.

St. Andrew’s has long been considered one of the finest examples of Gothic architecture in the region, its most prominent features including pointed windows and buttressed walls.  

Another Stokes-designed building no longer stands. The second Newmarket High School at Prospect and Pearson streets was built in 1877 and reflected features from both St. Andrew’s and the Baptist Church.  It was a brick building with decorative brickwork over church-like Gothic windows similar to St. Andrew’s. I have been told that the buttressed walls had minarets much like those at the Baptist Church. The school was destroyed in 1892 by fire.  

His architectural contributions to our town are profound and demonstrate his varied technical skills.  However, they represent but a few of his talents from which the entire county and finally Toronto would benefit. In 1874, Stokes was appointed York County Engineer, responsible for the county roads and bridges, including the role of Toll Master of Yonge Street.

In 1887, he resigned his post after 31 years and moved to Toronto where he was to become Assistant City Engineer. In 1891, he died in Toronto and he was brought back by train to Newmarket, where he would be buried. The service was held at St. James Church, the building he designed 22 years previously.  Mrs. Stokes and his parents were also interred in Newmarket.

I am sure that you will agree, John Stokes shaped the very face of Newmarket at a pivotal time in our history.

Sources: The Newmarket Era; The History of Newmarket by Ethel Trewhella; St. Andrews Presbyterian Church by Elizabeth Sharpe; The History of the Christian Baptist Church – Video – Newmarket Historical Society; The History of Newmarket High by George Luesby, Jr.     

******** brings you this weekly feature about our town's history in partnership with Richard MacLeod, the History Hound, a local historian for more than 40 years. He conducts heritage lectures and walking tours of local interest, as well as leads local oral history interviews. You can contact the History Hound at







About the Author: Richard MacLeod

Newmarket resident Richard MacLeod — the History Hound — has been a local historian for more than 40 years
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