Join us as we continue our visual tour of the history of the East End’s main drag from the Don to Victoria Park. This is the third installment. A nod of appreciation to the Riverdale Historical Society who has done amazing work to keep local history of Riverdale alive. To find out more about them and to join, go to: https://riverdalehistoricalsociety.com/
By Joanne Doucette. Joanne is a local historian, a past Chair of the Toronto Public Library, founding member of the Leslieville Historical Society, and co-founder of the DisAbled Women’s Network. She is retired and lives in the Coxwell-Gerrard neighbourhood. She is administrator for the Metis Minute Facebook Page and moderates the following Facebook groups: Midway, Toronto Beaches Historical Photos, and the Coxwell-Gerrard Facebook page.
This walk starts at Broadview Avenue and stays there so not really a walk, but a stand-alone piece. Perhaps I should have entitled this part of the walk “Johnstonville” because one family and their businesses dominated this south side of Queen Street from Broadview to Baseball Place for many years.
Meet Oscar Percival Johnston
Oscar Percival Johnston, the owner of Johnston Furniture, was the owner of the shop at the corner of Broadview and Queen in the photo. This local merchant was born on May 3, 1875, in Mt Charles, Toronto Township, Peel County, Ontario, to Sarah Price, age 35, and William Elliot Johnston, age 58. Don’t know where Mount Charles is? Neither did I. It was a small hamlet just west of what is now the Toronto airport.
The Johnstons were part of a unique group of settlers. It seems likely that the Johnstons of Cavan and Tyrone descended from Robert Johnston who was part of the Ulster Plantation, moving from Scotland to Ireland. Robert Johnston was one of the Loyalists who defending Derry (a.k.a. Londonderry) in 1689. This is part of the complex history of Ireland that profoundly influenced Canada and particularly southern Ontario. It is no accident that there is a Derry Road in Peel Region. For more about the Siege of Derry, which wasn’t actually a siege but a series of bloody skirmishes go to:
In the 1790’s sporadic violence erupted into vicious sectarian fighting in Ireland. Torching thatched roofs at night, killing and maiming cattle and outright murder of neighbour by neighbour spawned more atrocities by both Catholic and Protestant. It culminated in the Rising of 1799 Irish nationalists rebelled against English rule.
In 1795, in the Battle of the Diamond, in County Armagh, Protestants killed 20 or 30 Irish rebels known as Defenders. This event gave birth to the Orange Order, a Protestant fraternal order that sought to maintain the tie to the Crown and to defend Protestant lives and property. The Orange Order would dominate life in Toronto throughout the nineteenth century. The Order’s name comes from William of Orange, the Protestant Dutch prince who became William III, King of England and Ireland from 1689 to 1702. The Methodists of Peel County were staunch Orangemen and gained a reputation as the “enforcers” of the Orange Order.
The “Rising of 1798” is now celebrated in Irish song and legend, but it was bloody, violent and heart-breaking, Celt against poor Celt. The British army, including many Highland Scots, came and then the atrocities got much, much worse with tortures known as “pitch-capping” and “half-hanging” and the sad butchery of execution and assassination.
Today the Orange Order may seem strange, even alien, but it was probably the most important social institution, apart from the churches. What was it and how did it become so important? And how did it relate to this block on Queen Street East in Riverside?
The Order’s name comes from William of Orange (1689-1702), a Dutch prince who married the English heir to the throne, Mary. A Protestant, he became William III, King of England and Ireland. The Orange Lodge held, and still holds parades or “walks” on July 12th to commemorate William’s victories in the Battles of the Boyne (1690) and Aughrim (1691) over Catholic armies.
Irish Methodists suffered during the Irish Troubles of the 1790’s since they fell under the Penal Laws as Non-Conformists or Protestants who were not members of the established Church of Ireland (Anglican). Many left for America. John Beatty (1782–1864), wife of William Leslie (father of George Leslie, founder of Leslieville) sailed to New York in 1807. He became a kind of Moses leading his disenfranchised Methodist brethren out of the Troubles. A number of Irish Methodists from Tyrone followed him to the U.S. in 1807 settling mostly in Virginia and New York State. Soon they knew that they did not belong as they were strong Orangemen, deeply committed to the Crown. Feelings ran high against them after the War of 1812 and some had their lands confiscated.
In the fall of 1818 around 50 men, representing 50 families, mostly from Tyrone and Cavan, like the Johnstons, met with the British consul in New York, James Buchanan. Buchanan was also from Tyrone and also a Non-Conformist, being a Baptist. The Consul General encouraged the Methodist families to move to Upper Canada where they would be safer and more at home. The 50 families sent a delegation of four: John Beatty, James Beattie, Joseph Graham and Thomas Reed to York to find good land for a new community in Upper Canada. The news was excellent. The Governor promised them a fertile land where they could live together. The first party of Irish Methodists traveled from New York and arrived at York in April 1819. They settled in what is now Peel Region:
John Beatty came with his two brothers from Ireland to New York city to escape the ill will existing in the old country against the society formed by John Wesley. Beatty wished to settle under the British flag and joined with other Irish immigrants in negotiating for land in Upper Canada. On May 18, 1819, he led a caravan of 27 wagons from New York City to Upper Canada and they settled in Toronto Township. Mary E. Manning, Street: the man, the family, the village (Streetsville: Streetsville Historical Society). pp. 36-38
“A large group of Irish from New York City, sick and tired of the jibes of their United States fellow citizens following the 1812 war, were anxious to find fresh fields and pastures new among British people. We all know the Irish feel free to criticize England but let some brash stranger say a word “agin” the old land and you can watch for shillelahs aflying. So it was that a cavalcade of twenty-six waggons, each containing a family, arrived in 1819. Among these the Beattys, Reids and Grahams were prominent and they were promptly settled in two groups, the Beatty group in Meadowvale and the other group in the Malton-Grahamsville area spilling over into Chinguacousy.” A History Of Peel County To Mark Its Centenary, 1967
In 1822 the Orange Order held its first July 12 parade, led by James Beaty, another immigrant from Ulster, now Northern Ireland. The Family Compact, Toronto’s Anglican elite, by and large distrusted this working class secret society with its loyalist rhetoric and propensity to fight in the streets. The Roman Catholic Bishop, MacDonnell in the 1820’s and 1830’s was even considered a member of the Family Compact. However, by the 1840’s the Orangemen had become so powerful that they virtually excluded Irish Catholics from political life and employment with the City of Toronto. Most, though not all, Protestants supported the Orange Order. When the Upper Canada Rebellion broke out, the Methodists of Peel marched to Toronto to save the City.
“Among the Peel Orangemen who served during the Rebellion of 1837 were Adamsons, Armstrongs, Barnharts, Bells, Chamberses, Cheynes, Coles, Cottons, Croziers, Dixons, Duggans, Grahams, Magraths, Odlums, and Pattersons. Thomas Brown Phillips of Grahamsville seems to have held a captaincy.
William Johnston of Toronto Township East and his sons, James and William Jr., placed their horses at the service of the government for transport of troops. In revenge, the rebels sacked the little shop wherein old Mr. Johnston made flint-lock muskets in addition to doing general blacksmithing and making carriages and farm machinery. Johnston’s grandson, Alderman Frank M. Johnston, is a well-known Toronto Orangeman.” William Perkin Bull, From the Boyne to Brampton
Back to Oscar Percival Johnston, our Methodist furniture merchant. His father, a farmer, passed away on September 20, 1887, at the age of 70, leaving his widow with six children to raise. His mother took over running the farm, but by 1898, Oscar Percival Johnston had moved to the City of Toronto and was working as a clerk and living at 498 Queen St E. The family joined him in Toronto where he soon became successful as a furniture merchant opening a three-storey store in 1901 at the southwest corner of Broadview and Queen.
On the west side of Broadview beside his store, Oscar placed a stone from the farm in Mount Charles.
Oscar and his wife Bertha Simpson had two children Arthur Blake (1911-1973) was born on February 17, 1911, and a daughter, Doris Rose (1914-2009). By this time the family was living at 27 Victor Avenue in Riverdale, close to a number of the other merchants on this stretch of Queen Street. Several years later the family moved to 60 Langley Avenue. The store was a success allowing the family to move to a more prestigious location at 10 Montcrest Blvd., a quiet side street just off Broadview Avenue. This would be the family home for the rest of his life.
His brother, Frank Johnston (1871-1941), became a City of Toronto alderman.
At first the shop was called the Washington Johnston Furniture Store. “Washington Johnston” was a common name in the Johnston clan of Ulster, found not only in Ireland but in wherever the clan settled. George Washington Johnston, 1848-1912, started his working life as a farmer, became a waggon maker, moved to Toronto and became a carriagemaker in Cabbagetown, flourished and became a lumber merchant. He moved to Dowling Avenue in Parkdale when that suburb was a fashionable resort. He was cousin to Oscar Percival Johnston, Edward Blake Johnston and Alderman Frank Johnston and likely financed his cousins’ business ventures on Queen Street. (To see the family tree go to the end of this page.)
Keeping it in the family was very much a part of the tradition of that tight-knit community of Irish Methodists and integrating lumber, furniture making and even undertaking made sound business sense. Oscar Johnston and Washington Johnston Company made and sold furniture but also gramophones and records — and coffins.
According to long-time employees, Laura May Haug, most furniture stores at the time also operated as undertakers. When the two businesses separated and Johnston Furniture incorporated as a limited company, his brother Edward (1874-1934) owned and operated the Washington-Johnston Funeral Home, also on Queen Street. Given their ties to the poultry association, I think it would be fair to say that the Johnstons did not “put all their eggs in one basket”.
Oscar Percival Johnston died on February 3, 1961, in Toronto, Ontario, when he was 85 years old. From being poor fatherless farm boys, the Johnstons became prosperous merchants. Oscar Johnston won fame, if not fortune, for his chickens, as well as his good quality, affordable furniture. But, in 1980, as with so many of our heritage buildings, fire roared through the Johnston Furniture Store.
The Johnston Furniture Company Ltd. rebuilt. Today a variety store is on the site.
For the article that goes with the photo above scroll through the slideshow below.
For more about the Orange Order go to:
My history of Leslieville is available for reading free of charge at:
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