This column highlights the life and contributions of an individual who I believe is ‘the mother of Newmarket history,’ Ethel Willson Trewhella.
If you have followed my columns, presentations, or videos over the past 40 years, you know her work is the foundation on which I and other local historians have built our narratives. She, along with the works of Robert Terrence Carter, has shaped remembrances of our early history.
Trewhella lived from 1882 to 1959, and was born in the Township of North Gwillimbury, then in her late teens, she and her family relocated to Newmarket, for which we are truly blessed.
I will attempt to place her life and contributions into some sort of context and explain why she is indeed the mother of not only Newmarket history but that of northern York County, as well. The works mentioned in this column are all available at the Newmarket Public Library.
Trewhella was part of a movement that emerged after the First World War, when Canadians began to see our local history as being of importance. We began to see our own history as being worthy of preservation. In many ways, Trewhella was the pillar on which today’s vivid local histories rest.
Ethel Willson was born in 1882 in the Township of North Gwillimbury, connected to the Children of Peace in Sharon. She would write about her connection to the region in which she lived, a time when a committed amateur historian with the necessary time and resources could strive to bring local history to the attention of the population. Trewhella’s work made our local history accessible to the public and created a permanent record through its publishing.
As I indicated, Trewhella began life in the Sharon area before moving with her family to Newmarket. The 1901 census shows the Willsons lived in a brick home they had built in 1904, and they lived there for more than half a century on the north side of Millard Avenue, just west of Main Street. We also know the Willson family became members of the Newmarket Friends’ Meeting and were active in the Friends community.
It is interesting how a life-changing event can alter one’s goals and life endeavours. Trewhella became a widow at the age of 55 upon the death of her husband, John Trewhella (1866 to 1937), on Sept. 17, 1937.
Trewhella began to submit articles for publication in The Era newspaper before the death of her husband, but his passing seemed to give her the impetus to turn her attention to the preservation of our local history. The article ‘Yonge Street and Historic Friends Meeting House’ appeared in June 1937. Her account of the Yonge Street Quakers, a record of both the Orthodox and Hicksite bodies, was published in booklet form in 1937 by J.M. Walton, of Aurora.
After this article was published and the death of her husband, it appears she took a break from her writing. However, after the war, she produced another article, ‘Tails of Early History of Friends on Yonge Street,’ which appeared in May 1946. Several years later, she produced a series of ‘historical tidbits’ that appeared in The Era. They were an account of their own origins along with several other stories, and these were published in booklet form in 1949.
In May 1949, she published ‘The History of Job Hughes, Friends Minister of Yonge Street 1805-07’ in The Era in four instalments. This was followed by a series on Job Hughes that appeared in the next issue, ‘Yonge Street Friends address to Lt-Gov. of Upper Canada in 1806.’
Her next writing project, produced in 1951 and 1952, was ‘The Story of Sharon,’ published by The Era in 42 instalments. In June 1952, she was made a life member of the York Pioneer and Historical Society in recognition of her writing of the history of Sharon.
Trewhella was part of the establishment of the Sharon Burying Ground Association in 1952 and served as its first secretary. The idea of a ‘history of Newmarket’ was bantered about for years, with several individuals put forth as potential authors. It was suggested there were several citizens who could contribute information to such a history and they should be interviewed by whomever the town might commission to record the history. At a library board meeting, it was suggested the council could be of assistance.
For almost three years, the subject of the history of Newmarket was on and off, with any future kind of action seeming hopeless. Finally, in October 1953, a recommendation was made to council that Trewhella should write a history of the town, given she was a descendant of early district settlers and had access to more information about the town than perhaps any other person in Newmarket. Most important of all was the fact she had the time and enthusiasm for the job.
When Trewhella finally received authorization to prepare a history of the town, it was agreed she would do the work for the sum of $1,500.
She began the tedious and time-consuming process of researching the history of the town immediately. From time to time, The Era would publish an item of interest Trewhella had discovered.
In the preparation of the history, Trewhella made a disturbing discovery. It seems the records of the Newmarket public schools, dating back to 1823 and the establishment of the first schools, were being kept by each secretary-treasurer of the board. Alarmed, she attempted to provide proper protection for them, calling attention to these records and requesting they be placed in the provincial archives. However, it was decided at a meeting on April 6, 1955, these records should remain in town and would hence be stored in the town vaults for safekeeping.
Our centennial year was fast approaching in 1957, and the centennial committee was anxious that Trewhella’s book should be available for sale and thus requested Trewhella forward the manuscript to a publishing firm for an estimate on the cost of publishing.
This began nearly 10 years of squabbling, postponements, and general mismanagement of the process. Trewhella’s expertise was being questioned, and the issue of who was keeping an eye on her progress was constantly being raised. I can remember my grandfather telling me the council suddenly questioned Trewhella’s abilities as an author and generally ‘dilly-dallied.’
The costs of publishing became an issue, with suggestions made that some local business or industry might be interested in underwriting the publication. It is hard to believe, but the issue of copyright arose. Sanity appeared to have prevailed, and it was decided the author would be given the copyright in recognition of her work and preparation efforts. Trewhella did not want loyalty payments; if more copies of the book were sold than were needed to cover the costs, the town would receive the additional money. Sadly, the town forced Trewhella to relinquish copyright to the town in exchange for recognition.
And then nothing happened. Council acknowledged the book was well written, well researched and provided a sound local history, but was it marketable?
Trewhella had been directed by a past council to write the history, and the small monetary reward offered to her was a token sum and no professional would have ever agreed to undertake the task. The payment offered would merely cover her expenses incurred over the several years devoted to research and writing. The town should surely have honoured Trewhella for her great effort rather than causing her any personal embarrassment.
The following spring, Trewhella died on April 29, 1959. Her death notice appeared in The Era, along with a plea for funds for publication of her history of Newmarket. Before her death, details of the problems associated with the publication of the town history were important enough to get front-page coverage in The Era.
Years went by with her manuscript held in a Pickering College vault; the work she completed in 1959 sat unpublished.
Finally, in 1967, the town decided to publish History of the Town of Newmarket, written by Trewhella. The town dedicated the book to her memory.
The book became an immediate hit, bound in that bright green paper cover, containing 371 pages of our local history from the earliest settlement to the mid-1950s. Only 600 copies were ever printed.
We tend to complain about everything. I often hear it was ‘cobbled together’ without any sequence in content and without index. Of interest is the fact an amount of $1,575 from advance sales had been held in trust in the bank from 1957 until it was published in 1967.
Trewhella is, without doubt, the pillar on which all subsequent historical works sit. The contributions to the history of our area, particularly that of Sharon and Newmarket made by Trewhella, stand alone against time. She published numerous articles and booklets, and nearly managed to publish a history book, before she died. She deserves every bit of acclaim for the preservation of our history.
I owe a huge debt of gratitude to Sandra Fuller for her defining article on Trewhella upon which I drew this narrative.
Sources: Ethel Willson Trewhella (1882-1959): Quaker Historian in York County, Ontario by Sandra Mann Fuller, the Newmarket Era and Topic newspapers; oral histories conducted by Richard MacLeod; Canadian census, 1881, York North, Gwillimbury North; Canadian census, 1891, York North, East Gwillimbury; Canadian census, 1901, Ontario West, Newmarket; The Quakers in Canada by Arthur G. Dorland; Canadian Quaker History Journal; Newmarket Public Library local history collection
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 NewmarketToday, conducts heritage lectures and walking tours of local interest, and leads local oral history interviews.