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REMEMBER THIS: Cawthra family has equal historical impact in Newmarket, Toronto

In this week's column, History Hound Richard MacLeod explores the history of Joseph Cawthra, his many descendents, and their link to a famed Canadian politician

The Cawthra family was equally famous in both Newmarket and Toronto history.

I am often drawn to the commonality of prominent names in the histories of Newmarket and Toronto. The Toronto Cawthras and Newmarket Cawthras share a common lineage through Joseph Cawthra, their patriarch. Many of his descendants played significant roles in the establishment of Newmarket and Toronto.

The Cawthra family of Toronto was famous for its business, social and cultural contributions to the city. This was also true for the Newmarket line, as they were early pillars of our community here.

The English Cawthras had been long engaged in the woollen industry and held the distinction of having operated the first steam-driven woollen mill in the Old Country. Joseph followed the family trade and became a manufacturer of woollens, but it seems he had a restless disposition and seized upon the opportunity to move to Toronto.

Historians have found many points of similarity between the Cawthras of Toronto and Astors of New York. Both would establish themselves as pillars of their respective cities and both amassed their fortunes in a similar way, exhibiting similar characteristics.

Joseph migrated to Canada from Yorkshire, England in 1803. In 1809, he acquired a large parcel of land along Lake Ontario and the Credit River, near present-day Port Credit. If you visit the area, you will see that the narrow dirt road that used to cut through his property is now named Cawthra Road in Mississauga. There is also a Cawthra Park Secondary School in Mississauga in his tribute.

Sometime later, the family would move to York (Toronto), where son William acquired several properties. Cawthra Avenue in The Junction is not named for William as some think, but rather for the Cawthra Estate with a direct link to our Sir William Mulock, who had a son named Cawthra Mulock, a major Toronto figure himself.

Locally we know the Cawthra name from the Cawthra Mulock Nature Reserve located just west of Yonge at Bathurst streets, and Cawthra Boulevard. How many know there is a memorial on the wall of St. Paul’s Anglican Church in tribute to John Cawthra?

Joseph opened a combined apothecary and general store that sold an array of products, many of them imported from America: Whitechapel needles, forks, scissors, cognac, shoes and hats, in addition to medicinal treatments. The store was a huge success as medical supplies were desperately needed by the British Army during the War of 1812 and Joseph invested the profits into local property. William worked in the store and later inherited the business upon his father's death in 1842.

The Gazette and Oracle contains the announcement of the grand opening of his shop on the northwest corner of King and Sherbourne streets. He then moved to the corner of Frederick and Palace (now Front) streets, and occupied a building with a good deal of historical interest. According to Dr. Scadding in his “Toronto of Old,” it was the birthplace in 1804 of the Hon. Robert Baldwin, the famous reformer, and later the location of the printing operations of William Lyon Mackenzie of 1837 Rebellion fame.

Joseph continued to reside and conduct his business from there until his death. He was characterized as "a public-spirited citizen, a strong Britisher, a firm supporter of St. James’ church, a staunch liberal in politics, and a very successful businessman." It was Joseph who would lay the foundations for the Cawthra fortune through his enterprise, careful management and thrift.

William built on his father’s inheritance and contributed to the political and civic growth of Toronto. His brother, John, was prominent as a soldier in the War of 1812 and was the first MP for Simcoe County.

Our Cawthra family of Newmarket history flows through John, who moved to Newmarket and become one of our pioneer merchants, active in public affairs. He had four children, Joseph, John, Henry, and Mary — who became the mother of Sir William Mulock.

In Newmarket, flour mills had been established, and the settlement seemed to have all the makings of an important commercial centre. John saw the potential and opened his general store in the village.

For a generation after his arrival, the fortunes of the main branch of the Cawthra family belonged to Newmarket, and had the place grown at the pace John had envisioned, his family would have no doubt continued to reside here. He himself enjoyed a full measure of the renowned Cawthra success in his business ventures, and he held a certain distinction in public affairs. He was elected as representative in the Legislative Assembly of the then Province of Canada for the district of South Simcoe, a constituency that embraced parts of the counties of Simcoe and York. He would represent the area for only one term as a Liberal.

When John died in 1852, eldest son Joseph carried on his father’s business for some time and then disposed of it all to accept the position of local manager of the Royal Canadian Bank. His connection with this institution lasted until it was merged with the City Bank, when he retired and moved to Toronto. His wife was the daughter of the late Dr. John J. Bentley, a leading medical practitioner in Newmarket, and they had four children.

Joseph’s eldest daughter married H.L. Drayton, chairman of the Dominion Board of Railway Commissioners in 1892. The second daughter married Robert Campbell Renton, Esq., of Mordington, Berwickshire, Scotland, while the third daughter, Florence, remained unmarried and resided with her brother, John, in the family mansion on Elm Avenue in Toronto. John J., who was now the head of the family, spent his childhood and youth in England, before returning to Toronto.

The second branch of the family consisted of the children of John Cawthra, the second son of John Cawthra of Newmarket. Like his father and grandfather, he followed a mercantile career and for some years conducted a business in Toronto on King Street East. He had two children, son W.H. and daughter Agar Cawthra. W.H. would marry a daughter of W.H. Beatty, president of the Bank of Toronto whose signature was on our currency.

We now move onto the third branch of the family, under Henry, the third son of John Cawthra of Newmarket. He entered the legal profession, becoming an associate with the Blake, Cawthra & Blake law firm. However, he did not remain in practice very long, retiring at an early age and living quietly until his death. He occupied the spacious family residence at the corner of College and Beverley streets in Toronto.

He had four children. His eldest daughter married Lieut.-Col. Henry Brock, son of W. R. Brock, one of Toronto’s merchant princes. The second married Major James Burnham of the Canadian Permanent Force, a member of an old Port Hope family. Son Victor was engaged in the management of a financial business in Toronto, while his fourth child, Beatrice, remained unmarried.

In addition to his three sons, John Cawthra of Newmarket had one daughter, Mary, who establishes the link between the Cawthra family and another prominent Canadian family, the Mulocks. A considerable portion of the original Cawthra properties passed to members of the Mulock family.

Mary married Dr. Thomas Homan Mulock, an Irishman and graduate of Trinity College, Dublin, who was practising medicine in the village of Bond Head. Dr. Mulock died in 1848, at a comparatively early age, leaving behind five children. His widow returned to Newmarket, where she brought up her family.

Mrs. Cawthra Mulock dedicated her whole Newmarket life to conducting charitable works for the benefit of those in need. This work began during the cholera period, when this disease arrived in Toronto and then Newmarket by immigrants. It left many widows and orphans, and these were to be the objects of her constant care. She died in 1882 in Los Angeles, California, where she had gone to spend the winter with her youngest daughter and her brother, Joseph.

Of her five children, the eldest, John, died young from an attack of scarlet fever. William, the second son, is well-known throughout the length and breadth of Canada as Sir William Mulock, former Postmaster-General and Chief Justice of the Exchequer Division of the High Court of Justice of Ontario. He was born in 1843, became a lawyer in Toronto, and soon stepped into a foremost place among the legal practitioners of the city.

His political career is familiar to most people. For many years he represented the area in the House of Commons and, following the Liberal victory in 1896, was called on to assume the portfolio of Postmaster-General. He was to institute reforms that characterized his service as probably the most progressive in the history of the department. For his services in securing penny postage, he was accorded a knighthood from Queen Victoria.

Apart from politics, Sir William was elected to the Senate of the University of Toronto in 1875, and five years later became vice-chancellor, an office he filled for 20 years. During this time, he did a great deal to advance the cause of university federation, bringing such institutions as Knox College, Wycliffe College, St. Michael’s College, Victoria University, the Ontario Agricultural College and Toronto School of Medicine into an alliance with the university.

The other surviving children of Mary were Mrs. Boultbee, widow of William Boultbee, who served the Imperial Government for many years as engineer-in-charge of railway construction in India, and Mrs. Monk, wife of G.W. Monk, formerly the representative of the County of Carleton in the Legislature and vice-president of the Canada Permanent Loan & Savings Company. A third daughter, Sarah, married George W. Lount of Barrie, brother of the late Justice Lount of Toronto.

Both Mrs. Boultbee and Mrs. Monk inherited their mother’s kindly disposition. Mrs. Boultbee took a deep interest in the work of the Infants’ Home, of which she was president, while her sister was on the directorate of the Home, as well as on the board of Western Hospital.

I have focused my article on the Cawthra family through the person of John Cawthra of Newmarket, however, the founder of the family had other sons, two of whom played their part in the early history of Toronto. Jonathan died at an early age. William assumed the bulk of his father’s property, and by virtue of his diligence and saving, accumulated a large fortune. He acquired, about 1855, the property on the northeast corner of King and Bay streets, and there he erected what was at the time the finest residence in Toronto.

William married a sister of the late James Crowther of Toronto, forming a link with another of the moneyed families of the time. He had no children to inherit his rapidly expanding wealth, and on his death in 1879, he bequeathed all his property to his widow.

Mrs. Cawthra, who later married W. A. Murray, a dry goods merchant, retained control of her own resources, which under her careful management continued to grow in value. She outlived her second husband by a few years, herself passing away in 1897.

The death of Mrs. Cawthra-Murray now left the bulk of the Cawthra fortune to be passed along. There were certainly no lack of grandnephews and grandnieces on whom to bestow the money, but she had already centred her affections on one of the grandsons of her former husband’s niece, Mary Cawthra Mulock. He was the second son of Sir William Mulock, named Cawthra after his grandmother, and at the time a child of 13. She bequeathed to him unconditionally the entire bulk of her property, valued then at about $4 million.

Cawthra Mulock did not become one of the idle rich, and he made a name for himself as a successful promoter and an astute financier. He possesses much of his father’s sane conception of the obligations of wealth, and it is said that he showed himself to be generous and open in assisting worthy causes. He became one of the most influential financiers of his day in Canada.

The contributions of the Newmarket Cawthras to our local history have been well documented over the years.

John Cawthra was, for years, the town banker. Prior to 1865, all the banking business of the village had to be carried on in Toronto, but that year the Royal Canadian British Bank opened in the brick building on the northwest corner of Main and Water streets with John as its manager. In the intervening years, there were several amalgamations with other smaller institutions, but he remained in charge throughout.

From the Newmarket Era, we learn of a long list of community endeavours with which John was involved. In 1883, he headed a subscription list with $300 contributed toward the restoration of Eagle from Main to Yonge streets. Records show he would frequently contribute cheques of $25 and $50 to benefit the local needy.

Newmarket’s first brewery is said to have been built by William Simpson on the site of the Cawthra distillery at the end of Ontario Street by the tracks, the future site of the Co-Op feed mill. He would go on to erect the third distillery in Newmarket on the site of the first brewery built by William Simpson.

That iconic brick building at Main and Water streets was once a wooden structure. In the 1840s, a disastrous fire swept the west side of Main and destroyed all the buildings between Timothy and Water streets, including the frame house that had been built by John in about 1820. This was replaced by the current brick structure, using local bricks from the Stickwood brickyard.

John was part of a group who decided that a public cemetery had become a must. He sat on the building committee and help to finance the establishment of the cemetery. He was also part of the group that established Newmarket’s first school on Millard Avenue.

When the Prince of Wales visited Newmarket, it is reported that Joseph Cawthra presented a flag bearing the Royal Ensign.

The Newmarket Era reported that often when a farmer could not meet his financial obligations owing to misfortune or circumstances beyond his control, the Cawthras would help out. Through the history of early Newmarket, the deeds of the Cawthra family exemplified the spirit of doing unto others as they wished to be done by.

Earlier in this article I mentioned John Cawthra was initially a local merchant employing men and women to make women’s and children’s slippers, and hats as an offshoot of the fur trade, along with other small wares, which his brother, William, sold through the Quaker settlement on Yonge and the Scotch settlement near Bradford. Old-timers recalled that travellers on the Newmarket to Penetang road were compelled to come to Newmarket for their groceries, to the store being kept by Cawthra.

He also engaged in the fur trade with the Indigenous peoples. John opened a general store in Holland Landing, which was a convenience to both settler and to the Indigenous.

The local Cawthras were also closely connected to the 1837 rebellion. Joseph took an active interest in the politics of the day exerting strong influence in opposition to the Family Compact. He had taken a leading part in the current ‘troubles’ and among the People’s Party he had a great influence. However, when William Lyon Mackenzie embarked on his armed rebellion, the Cawthra family, along with other locals, quarrelled with him, not willing to support an armed revolt.

Henry Cawthra, son of John, in his family biography, related stories of how John had warned Mr. Bondhead of the unrest in the area and that more attention needed to be paid to the issues. He also details how when Samuel Lount visited his father, he warned him to have nothing to do with any rebellion.

Articles from the Era fill in a bit of the character of Mr. Cawthra. He is said to have displayed the highest principles, a man whose word was a guarantee for his goods. His connection with the public affairs of the hamlet inspired the confidence of the settlers struggling at the time to establish themselves. He assisted in the promotion of business and according to his advertisement of December 1856, he “had recently refitted his store and opened with a superior stock of Dry Goods, Groceries and Liquors”. This latter commodity was a staple article of commerce in nearly all pioneer trade.

You will remember from a previous article that in 1856, Glenville, the little settlement to the west of Newmarket, was known as Cawthra’s Mills, given the Cawthra influence there.

Next time you pass the old Cawthra home on the northwest corner of Main and Water streets, I hope you'll reflect on the historical importance of the Cawthra family both here in Newmarket and Toronto.

Sources: The History of Newmarket by Ethel Trewhella; Stories of Newmarket, An Old Ontario Town by Robert Terence Carter; Cawthra / Mulock Genealogy by George Luesby and Richard MacLeod; A Brief History of a Secretive Toronto Millionaire by Chris Bateman (online); Image: Mr. William Cawthra, Benoni Irwin, 1868; Cawthra house etching, Stanley Francis Turner, 1922, Toronto Public Library; Cawthra, William, house, Bay St., N. E. Corner King St," 1897, Toronto Public Library, "Northeast corner of King and Bay streets," ca. 1926, City of Toronto Archives; Toronto Sketches 8: The Way We Were by Mike Filey; The Fortunes of the Cawthras by W. A. Craick; The Cawthra Family, Past and Present by Henry Cawthra, Ontario Provincial Archives; The Newmarket Era

Newmarket resident Richard MacLeod, the History Hound, has been a local historian for more than 40 years. He writes a weekly feature about our town's history in partnership with Newmarket Today, conducts heritage lectures and walking tours of local interest, and leads local oral history interviews.