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Ontario's first female apothecary had Main Street store

In this week's Remember This?, the History Hound details the story of the neglected Main Street storefront, the Charles Hargrave Simpson building, and renowned former owner Anne Mary Simpson

One of the casualties in the debate over the future of the Clock Tower building in downtown Newmarket on Main Street was the historic building to the south, known as the Charles Hargrave Simpson building.  

Boarded up and neglected, and with a demolition company's sign now posted on it, this building was once home to the Simpson Apothecary Shop,  where Anne Mary Simpson was the first female apothecary in Ontario and one of the first in North America.

I will tell you the story of this building and why this building needs to be restored and afforded the love that it deserves.

This story starts with a young man from Yorkshire, England who came to Newmarket, wishing  to be an apothecary. He decided to apprentice for a period of seven years with Dr. John Bentley, a local physician.  

A few years after receiving his diploma as an apothecary and dispensing chemist, he purchased the building directly south of the post office (Clock Tower building) and hung out his sign, a large wooden mortar and pestle flanked by two large apothecary jars, one filled with red liquid and the other with a green liquid.

The property extended west to Millard, the current location of Newmarket Public Library. A laneway ran along the north side of the store from Main back. The windows of the shop and the lodging above faced toward Main Street and this laneway.

His wife, Anne Mary Townley, was a Lancaster girl, born in 1844. They lived above the store with their son and five daughters. Simpson fell victim to an epidemic of typhoid fever that spread throughout Newmarket  in 1879 — one in 10 died. He and his 14-year-old son died. You can visit their graves today in the Newmarket Cemetery.

Upon his death, full responsibility for the shop fell to Anne Mary and her girls, aged three to 12. The store was fully stocked with drugs but legally she could not dispense them. She decided to stock the store with toys, provide music lessons on her baby grand piano (she was an accomplished pianist) and, most importantly, she worked toward her certification as an apothecary, serving a seven-year apprenticeship with Dr. William Bentley.  She became the first woman in Ontario to hold a diploma as an apothecary and druggist.

Now able to legally dispense drugs, she immediately stocked her shop with all the latest potions and remedies. She also brought in an assortment of dyes and a variety of spices and herbs.  She continued to stock both pharmaceuticals and toys in her store until she retired in 1914.

While her family struggled at first, their fortunes did improve once she began to sell off part of her real estate holdings. The west end of her property she sold to the Metropolitan Railway Lines as a right of way (see my article on the railway), Station and Barn. Other portions of her holdings were sold to property owners on Park Avenue. Another portion was sold to the Zurbrigg Photo Studio, a well-known local merchant.  

Only the laneway to the north was left of her holdings and it would soon be the site of the post office. This effectively blocked all the windows in her store and lodging above.

Simpson died in 1917 at 81. Upon her death, the entire business, its stock and supplies were sold to W. J. Patterson, located across the road at what is now Robins Drug Store.  I recently had a nice chat with Anne Robins about their collection of old jars from the Simpson business.

The building was sold to T. C. Watson, a jeweller and optician who was continuing the business started by his father, A. R. Watson. He subsequently divided the store in two and changed the façade. He maintained the lodging above as it was in Mrs. Simpson’s time and he lived in it with his family.

Watson maintained the half of the building closest to the post office for his jewelry business and rented the half to the south to Frank Bowser, who operated a grocery store there for years.  

When Watson died, Bertram Budd took over his jewelry store and installed a photography studio there, and when he left, it became a drug store again.

Sadly, the building fell into disrepair in the 1970s and a series of nondescript business operated out of the location. It should be noted that when the Provincial Bank vacated on the east side of Main, Anne Bell moved her drug store across the street, in which she had a small lunch counter.  Some of you may remember her for her salmon sandwiches.

She sold her store to Walter Murray, who sold to Reid Atkinson, who eventually sold to William Robins. As you can see, our history has a pattern and an order somehow. Charlotte Simpson, daughter of Anne Mary, married Arthur Evans and they had two sons, Harold and Fred.  Both worked for the Town, Harold keeping its machinery working, while Fred headed up the Town’s Works Department for years.

As I indicated above, Patterson purchased all the stock from Mrs. Simpson and most of the old jars and tools you can see on display in the current Robins store are from that early drug store. They were passed from Patterson to Harvey Lane and eventually to William Robins. Anne Robins now owns these apothecary jars that once belonged to the Simpsons.

This currently pitiful but once historic building must be restored and loved again. A demolition company's signs appeared on the building this week. Surely an owner dedicated to the restoration of a once proud building will step forward. The building is a heritage site for the very fact that Ontario’s first female druggist maintained, a shop there against all odds, and the memories of the various businesses that have called it home should guarantee that someone will step forward and rescue this historic soul.

Sources: The Newmarket Era 1870 to 1950, Newmarket Historical Society Newsletter March 2012, The History of Newmarket by Ethel Trewhella, The Charles Hargrave Simpson Building by Elman Campbell, The Who’s Who of Newmarket – Files by George Luesby

******* 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 [email protected].

Editor's Note: The original headline on this article has been changed to reflect the fact that further details regarding the plans for the Charles Hargrave Simpson building are to be released imminently by the Town of Newmarket.


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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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