Wednesday, June 21, 2017

James Avon Smith, Toronto Architect

James Avon Smith jr.
When I first came across a photograph of my great-great uncle James Avon Smith (1832-1918), the family resemblance between him and his brother (my great-grandfather) was clear. Their eyes were similar and so were the receding hairlines, while both men had bushy facial hair in keeping with men’s fashions of the day.

Where James’ talent as an architect and artist came from, however, is not so evident. His own father and grandfather were teachers and his brother, John Murray Smith, was a banker. James’ career stood out on its own, and his influence can still be seen in Toronto today.  
One of the most important buildings he designed was Knox College, a High Victorian Gothic style building completed in 1875 on Spadina Crescent.1 Over the years it has been used as a seminary, military hospital and medical research laboratory, and it is now undergoing a major renovation to add a new wing onto the original Presbyterian seminary. As of September 2017, Knox College will house the University of Toronto’s faculty of landscape, architecture and design.2  

Born on April 22, 1832, James Avon Smith was the fifth of the seven surviving children of James Avon Smith senior and Jane Tocher.3 His father was assistant schoolmaster in MacDuff, Banffshire, Scotland. His grandfather, Alexander Tocher, was schoolmaster at Macduff for 67 years. His mother died in 1838, when James was just six, shortly after the birth of my great-grandfather, John Murray Smith.

According to family lore, James Avon Smith senior left Scotland in 1848 with three of the children, including son James, sailing aboard the Marmion. The rest of the family followed a few years later, settling in Toronto where James senior taught classics at Toronto Academy and Knox College. 

James junior apprenticed with architect William Thomas and briefly worked in partnership with John Bailey. He was in solo practice between 1860 and 1870, then formed a partnership with a former student, John Gemmell. They worked together for more than 40 years.

Smith designed nearly 100 churches in the Toronto area. Among the ecclesiastical projects he undertook with John Gemmell were Berkeley Street Wesleyan Methodist Church, Zion Congregational Church and College Street Presbyterian Church. Other projects they designed included the National Club on Bay Street (1874), the Don Brewery on River Street and the Noble Block on Queen Street West (1888).4

Many of the buildings he designed have been torn down to make way for more modern structures, but the city of Toronto has recognized several as heritage properties. Among them is his own family home at 84 Woodlawn Avenue East, which is still known as the James Avon Smith House.5 James purchased the property in 1874 and designed the Gothic Revival style house a few years later. At first he rented it out, but it was his family home from 1886 to 1896. He then moved to 81 Woodlawn, a semi-detached house he also designed. 

Besides being a sought-after architect, James was also an artist. He was an active member of the Ontario Society of Artists and a charter member of the Royal Canadian Academy, serving as treasurer and secretary-treasurer of the latter organization for many years.6

While his professional life is well documented, there are few surviving details of his family life. Ontario records show that in 1861, he married his first wife, Lydia Elliott, and their daughter, Amy Pontifex Smith, was born two years later. Lydia died in 1879 and James married her sister, Fanny Elizabeth Elliot. A year after Fanny died in 1917, James married for a third time, to Rosa Brooks. He died a month later, on May 16, 1918. Daughter Amy P. Smith married Herbert Simmers in 1896. They had no children, and she died in Toronto in 1953. 

James is buried with his father, his brother Alexander, his aunt Elizabeth Tocher and both his first and second wives in an unmarked plot (section H, lot 145) in the Necropolis Cemetery in downtown Toronto.

Photo credits:
James Smith, digital image # 10010417 ca 1890, Ontario Ministry of Government and Consumer Services, Archives of Ontario Visual Database, copyright Queen’s Printer for Ontario. 
Knox College, Toronto Heritage Preservation Services

See also: 

“John Murray Smith and the Giant Bible,” Writing Up the Ancestors, March 9, 2016,

“James Avon Smith of MacDuff, Banffshire,” Writing Up the Ancestors, April 18, 2014,

“My Tocher Family,” Writing Up the Ancestors, Feb. 13, 2015,

“Annie Louise Smith: One of the First Women to Graduate from McGill University,” Writing Up the Ancestors, Feb. 12, 2016,

Notes and Sources 

1. I Spadina Crescent. Wikipedia. Accessed May 18, 2017.

2. This article includes spectacular photos of the building.
Alex Bozikovik, “Merging the Past with the Future” The Globe and Mail, May 5, 2017,

3. "Scotland Births and Baptisms, 1564-1950," database, FamilySearch ( : 8 December 2014), James Smith, 22 Apr 1832; citing , reference ; FHL microfilm 990,994.

4. This is a complete list of the buildings James Avon Smith designed.
“James Avon Smith (1832-1918)”, Biographical Dictionary of Architects in Canada,, accessed May 18, 2017.

5. City of Toronto Council and Committees. City of Toronto bylaw no. 86-1999, to designate the property at 84 Woodlawn Ave. East (the James Avon Smith House) as being of architectural and historical value or interest. Enacted March 4, 1999. Accessed May 18, 2017.

6. “James Avon Smith Toronto Architect” (obituary), American Art News, Vol. 16 No. 34, June 15 1918, p. 7. Rhymes with Fyfe,, accessed May 18, 2017.

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

New Book Tells the History of Mile End

Hundreds of special events are taking place in 2017 to mark the City of Montreal’s 375th birthday, but the one that means the most to me is the publication last month of a history of the Mile End district of Montreal. Some 200 years ago, that was where my three- and four-times great-grandparents lived.

There, at the intersection of the only two roads for miles around, Stanley Bagg and his father Phineas ran an establishment called the Mile End Tavern. Their landlord and future in-law, an English-born butcher named John Clark, probably came up with the name Mile End. The tavern was at the corner of what is now Saint-Laurent Boulevard and Mont-Royal Avenue, and the whole area eventually acquired the same name. 

A Mile End landmark restaurant. jh photo
Mile End has no formal boundaries, but it is essentially just to the northeast of Mount Royal, as far as the railroad tracks. Some of the area’s streets are known far beyond Montreal: Saint-Urbain, for example, was made famous by author Mordecai Richler, and both Saint-Viateur and Fairmount streets have bagels named after them. Other well-known streets include Laurier, Parc, Saint-Joseph and Jeanne-Mance.

It is a vibrant neighbourhood, home to musicians, teachers and software developers, trendy restaurants, second-hand shops and rows of triplex and duplex dwellings, often featuring Montreal’s iconic outdoor staircases.

Histoire du Mile End, the first book to focus on the area’s history, was written by former journalist Yves Desjardins. His journalism background shows: he has researched his subject thoroughly in newspaper accounts, archival sources and academic articles, and pulled it all together in clear, concise language. I can attest to how readable it is because, although the book is in French, I have had no trouble reading it. It helps that the book is generously illustrated with historic photos and maps.

Over the decades, Mile End has been home to waves of immigrants, starting with French Canadian job-seekers who moved to the city from the Laurentians, and including Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe, Italians, Portuguese and Greeks. Many of the area’s residents worked in the nearby Peck Building, labouring in low-paying jobs in the garment industry; today, the Peck Building is home to Ubisoft, a major player in the video game industry.

Just as it takes a village to raise a child, sometimes it takes a community to write a book. Yves had help from friends and neighbours -- many of them members of the local history group Mile End Memories -- who gave him access to their own research and expertise. I provided him with information about my ancestors the Baggs and the Clarks, and the collaboration paid off for both of us: I was able to fill in family information he didn’t have, and he helped me understand the historical context of my ancestors’ lives.

I learned that Saint-Laurent Boulevard, the traditional dividing line between the western part of the city, where the majority of English-speaking Montrealers live, and the eastern part, which is overwhelmingly French-speaking, was the only road leading north out of the city in the early 1800s. The Baggs owned much of the land on the western side of Saint-Laurent, and it remained primarily rural until the 1890s. Much of the land on the east side was owned by the Beaubien family, and early residents worked in local tanneries and quarries. 

Ubisoft employs thousands of people today. jh photo.
 At the end of the 19th century, a group of real estate promoters from Toronto tried to develop a “strictly high class suburb” in Mile End called the Montreal Annex. While they did manage to attract a few professionals and their families, the scheme eventually failed. For decades, most of Mile End’s residents were strictly working class, or worked at skilled trades such as shoe-making and carriage-making.

Meanwhile the area experienced many growing pains as politicians argued over taxes and infrastructure, and promoters battled to provide the public transportation (by electric tram and rail) that was key to the area’s growth.

Today, as the city of Montreal rebuilds its infrastructure and controversy surrounds plans for future residential projects and transportation corridors, it seems that some things haven’t changed much.

Yves Desjardins. Histoire du Mile End, Québec: Éditions du Septentrion, 2017.

See also:
Janice Hamilton, “The Mile End Tavern”, Writing Up the Ancestors, Oct. 21, 2013,

Mile End Memories, This site includes articles in English and in French, photos, an interactive map that indicates the location of many historic buildings, including the Auberge du Mile End (Mile End Tavern), and a link to summer walking tours of the area.

This article is simultaneously posted on

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Martha J. Rixon’s Short and Difficult Life

As a parent, I cannot imagine leaving my children behind and moving away forever, but that is what my great-great grandmother did. Martha Rixon left her two children with their grandparents in Ontario and went to live in Michigan. She must have had a good reason to do such a thing.1  

Martha (1834-1875) grew up in a large family in Sophiasburgh Township, Prince Edward County, Canada West. When she was a teenager, the family moved to Cramahe Township, near Brighton. Her father was a farmer and carpenter who had been born in England, and her mother’s family had come to Canada around 1800 from New York State. Martha had an older brother, two older sisters and five younger sisters. 

Martha J. Rixon, the 18-year-old daughter of Thomas and Elizabeth Rixon of Cramahe, Northumberland, Canada West, was listed in the 1851 census of Canada.2 Martha was also counted in the 1861 census, single and living with Thomas and Elizabeth Rickson.3 Two small children, Samantha, age six, and Willes (Phineas), age two, were also in the household.

Martha was not listed in the 1871 census of Canada, but Samantha and Phineas, listed as S., 16, and P., 12, were still living with their grandparents, Thomas and Elizabeth Rixon.4

After extensive research, it became clear that Arthur Wellington Rixon, the man who, according to a family story, was Martha’s husband and died of typhoid in 1859, probably never existed.5 Martha’s children, Samantha Rixon (1852-1928) and Phineas Rixon (c. 1859-1938) were born out of wedlock. The story about Arthur Wellington Rixon must have been concocted to hide the fact that Samantha and Phineas were illegitimate.

The identity of the children’s father (or fathers) remains a mystery. Both Samantha and Phineas indicated in their marriage records that their mother was Martha and their father’s name was Thomas.6 Phineas identified him as Thomas Rixon. Thomas might have been a first cousin from the Halton area, west of Toronto, however, there is no documentation to prove that he was ever in Cramahe. This Thomas Rixon (1834-1882) was the son of James and Mary Rixon. He married Margaret Hannah Wright in 1868 and they had five children. He became a minister in the Church of England in Arthur, Wellington County, Ontario.Could Thomas’ address in Arthur, Wellington County be a clue linking him to the fictional Arthur Wellington Rixon?

Martha and husband Moses Smith Perkins and three of his children.
Martha's brother, William John Rixon (1826-1918), was a farmer and a Methodist minister. He and his wife and children moved to Michigan in the late 1860s. Martha accompanied them, leaving the children with their grandparents in Cramahe, and she eventually married in Michigan.8

In those days, children conceived out of wedlock were not uncommon, but that did not make it socially acceptable. It is easy to imagine that Martha’s parents were upset with her for getting pregnant, not once, but twice, and that going to the U.S. with her brother must have seemed like a good option. She probably could not afford to raise her children, and perhaps they were happy living with their grandparents with aunts, uncles, cousins and friends nearby. 

Martha married Moses Smith Perkins in Muskegon, Michigan on August 18, 1870 at a “camp meeting,” according to Moses’ great-granddaughter Roberta Heoring.9 Moses was a fruit farmer and Methodist Episcopal minister.10 His first wife, Sarah, had died, leaving him with eight small children to raise. The 1870 U.S. census showed Martha, keeping house, age 36, born in Canada, right below the entry for M.S. Perkins, in Oceana, Muskegon, Michigan.11
Roberta, who has been working on the genealogy of her family since 1991, has Moses’ diary. In it, Moses noted Martha Jane Rixon’s date of birth – December 29, 1834 in Prince Edward County, Ontario – and the date of her death from a fever at age 39, October 1, 1875. She was buried in Michigan.

Roberta says, “The cemetery is now known as Sammis/Harmon/Eilers Cemetery … located on the corner of the Perkins farm…. I have been unable to find any death records for the early members of the family.… Moses remarried shortly after the death of Martha as he had young children. He later moved his children and wife to Junction City, Kansas.”12

So it seems that, after a relatively short and probably difficult life, Martha was buried in a rural cemetery with members of her husband’s extended family. As far as I know, none of her descendants knows anything about her.

Photo courtesy Roberta Heoring.

Sources and comments

1. It took me a long time to figure out who Samantha’s and Phineas’ mother was. I couldn’t figure out whether the Martha in the 1861 census was children’s mother or their aunt, but things became more clear after I hired professional genealogist Gabrielle Blaschuk to help. I have written a more complicated version of this story which explains how I reached these conclusions. If you would like to see that version of Martha’ story, contact me at

2. “1851 Census of Canada East, Canada West, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia,” database, (, accessed Dec. 24 2009), entry for Thomas Rixon, Cramahe, citing Year: 1851, Census&nbspPlace: Cramahe, Northumberland County, Canada West (Ontario), Schedule: B, Roll: C_11739, page 129, Line: 2.

3.1861 Census of Canada,” database, (, accessed May 8, 2017), entry for Thomas Rickson, Cramahe Township, Northumberland, Canada West, and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, citing Library and Archives Canada; Ottawa, Ontario, Canada; Census Returns For 1861; Roll: C-1055-1056.
In 1861 census, Martha was listed as age 21, which was undoubtedly an error. The 1851 census listed Thomas’ and Elizabeth’s nine children: William, 26 ; Catherine, 22; Rhoda, 20; Martha, 18, Ormacinda, 16; Kezia, 15; Phebe, 11; Mary, 9; Sarah, 5.  For Martha to be 21 in 1861, she would have to have been 11 at the time of the earlier census.
Names are another complication: Samantha was usually known by her nickname, Mattie, and her grandmother, Elizabeth Rixon (nee Thompson), was usually called Betsey.

4.1871 Census of Canada,” database, (, accessed May 8, 2017), entry for Thomas Rixon, Cramahe, Ontario, citing Library and Archives Canada, Census of Canada, 1871, Cramahe, Northumberland East, Ontario; Roll: C-9984; Page: 34.

5. Janice Hamilton, “The Ancestor Who Did Not Exist”,, April 11, 2017,

6. “Ontario, Canada Marriages, 1857-1924,” database,, (http://www.ancestry,ca, accessed Nov. 24, 2008), entry for Samantha Rixon, 1879, Shannonville, citing “Registrations of Marriages, 1869-1922, MS932, Archives of Ontario, Toronto, Ontario, Canada.”
“Ontario, Canada, Marriages, 1801-1928, 1933-1934,” database, (, accessed May 10, 2017), entry for Phenas Rixon, 1883, Northumberland, Ontario, citing Select Marriages. Archives of Ontario, Toronto; Registrations of Marriages, 1869-1928; Series: MS932; Reel: 47.

7. Find a Grave, entry for Thomas Rixon,, accessed May 11, 2017.

8. William Rixon, labourer, his wife Mary Cardinell and three children were listed in Oceana, Muskegon, Michigan in the 1870 U.S. census. William later moved to California, and that is where he died.

9. Roberta Heorman, “Re: Martha Rixon/Moses Smith Perkins,” email message to Gabrielle Blaschuk, Jan. 2, 2017, forwarded to the author, May 4, 2017. 

10. Roberta Heorman, “Michigan Biographical Sketches,”, accessed May 11, 2017.

11. Martha’s name is not indexed on Ancestry, but it is visible in the image of the census page.
1870 United States Federal Census, Oceana, Muskegon, Michigan; Roll: M593_692; Page: 349A; Image: 417246; Family History Library Film: 552191, M.S. Perkins; digital image, (, accessed May 9, 2017), citing National Archives and Records Administration, 1870 U.S. census, population schedules. NARA microfilm publication M593.

12. Roberta Heorman, “Re: Martha Rixon wife of Moses Smith Perkins”, email to the author, May 11, 2017.