Leslie the Builder: Robert Leslie

by Joanne Doucette

The other Leslie of Leslieville, Robert Leslie (1812-1886) came to Toronto with his brother George in 1826. His father, William Leslie, had been a soldier who died in Scotland around in 1813 in wounds sustained in the famous retreat from Corunna under General John Moore. This was part of the Peninsula Campaign against Napoleon.  Leslie family tradition says from wounds at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815, but the scanty records available dont’ support this. Robert Leslie’s obituary states,

They were preceded from Quebec a few months earlier by their father, John Leslie, who was a retired soldier of the British Army, having served in the 79th Highlanders [Cameron Highlanders] from 1793 to 1814, a full term of 21 years. He participated in all the celebrated engagements of the Peninsular war, including Nive, Nivelle, Pyrenees, Badajos [Badajoz], Ciudad Roderigo, Salamanca, and was shot through the arm and leg at Corunna, noted in history as the place of the celebrated retreat under Sir John Moore when he lost his life.[1]

John Leslie is listed in the records of Royal Hospital Chelsea Pensioners, 79th Cameron Highlanders. The records note that he was “severely wounded right arm” and that he was a laborer from Rogart, Sutherland.[2] Before he fought in Spain, he served in Canada during the War of 1812. John Leslie had served in Canada as well. He is described in the “British Regimental Registers of Service, 79th Foot Soldiers, 1st Battalion, 1809-1816, as having dark complexion, a round face, brown eyes, dark hair, and as being a laborer from Rogart, Sutherlandshire.[3]

Both George Robert Leslie told G. Mercer Adam that their father died in 1813. Shortly after that their mother, Esther Beatty, married her husband’s first cousin, John Leslie. Stepfather, John Leslie, died in 1872 at the age of 86. His wife Esther predeceased him in 1867 at the age of 86. The Leslie Log House was designated a historic property by the City of Mississauga in 1978. On May 24th, 1994 the Leslie log house was moved to the present site from its original location northwest of Derry Road West and Mississauga Road. In May, 2011, the Leslie Log Cabin Museum opened in the pouring rain, in the presence of many Leslie descendants.

Robert Leslie became a carpenter and worked as a builder in Streetsville and Toronto until 1836, when he moved to New York City. He married Mary Ann House in New York City on March 22, 1837.[4] He stayed in New York State. Robert Leslie and Mary Ann House had twelve children: John Robert Leslie (1838–1899), James Edward Leslie (1841–1930), Philomela Margaret Leslie (1843–1917, George Henry Leslie (1846–1926), William Leslie (1847–1878), Frances Anna Leslie (1850–1914), Charles Leslie (1854–?), Alexander Chalmers Leslie (1854–1910), Norman Robert Leslie (1855–1939), Joseph Leslie (1859–?), Josephine (Josie) Montrose Leslie (1860–after 1938), and Emma Leslie (1862–1947).

In 1840 Robert and Mary Ann Leslie returned to Canada, going back to Streetsville, Peel County, where he became well known as a contractor and builder. Charles Dingwall and Robert Leslie had a business together as builders in Streetsville. In 1857 Robert Leslie, Charles Caldwell and Robert Heron Leslie built the majestic Benares House for the Harris family in Clarkson. The house was donated to the Ontario heritage Foundation in 1968 and restored. It is owned and operated by the City of Mississauga.[5]

Benares represents Georgian style architecture with Queen Anne detailing along with vernacular adaptations, such as the veranda and balcony. The main house is a two-storey brick and stone structure, rectangular in shape, with a long single-storey stone portion to the rear that is believed to be part of the original structure built in circa 1835. Captain James B. Harris had the main block built in circa 1857 following a fire that destroyed the original circa 1835 stone building.

The facade of the house presents a symmetrical view in typical Georgian style. Along the complete width of the facade there is an open veranda, which was a common architectural feature to the area, when it was constructed. The posts are cambered and the cornice is trimmed with brackets. Above the front entrance there is a small balcony with turned balusters, spool work and lattice frame work and a gable. Windows, with their original shutters, line the house and four internal double-linked chimneys protrude from the medium hip roof. The property also boasts several interesting outbuildings, many of which are thought to date back to the original Edgar Neave Estate, circa 1835.[6]

The William Barber House, 5155 Mississauga Road, in Mississauga is also attributed to Robert Leslie. The City of Mississauga designated this amazing Italianate house under the Ontario Heritage Act in 1982.

Here is a description of this remarkable house:

The William Barber house is a good representation of Italianate architecture with Classical Revival and vernacular influences, designed to house the owner of the business that dominated the community. The main structure has a square plan and a hip roof. The Italianate style of architecture is seen through the use of paired brackets along its eaves, whereas the dentil detailing demonstrates Classical Revival influences. The facade has five bays. The windows are six over six, double hung sash with radiating voussoirs, in brick, and stone lugsills. Similar patterns are repeated on the north and south elevations, but all those windows have louvered shutters. The front door is set within an umbrage with particularly impressive plasterwork. The extravagant entrance has inset sidelights and a three paned transom, above the six-panelled door. The tent-roofed veranda along the facade, however, possesses original tree-like fretwork. There have been many additions to the original structure.[7]

But by 1865 the skilled and respected builders had overextended themselves and were in deep financial trouble. Their creditors called a meeting at the Telegraph Hotel in Streetsville on March 9, 1865. At the meeting Robert Leslie and Charles Caldwell presented their financial statements and an Assignee was appointed.[8] The well known builders and partners were bankrupt.  Their machinery was sold at public auction on October 10, 1865, at their place of business in Streetsville. The machinery included:

1 Steam Engine, 10 horse-power, Planing, Sash, Mortice [illegible], Boring and other Machines, all in good working order, a large quantity of Bolting and Shafting, and a variety of other articles belonging to the above estate.[9]

The Hammond House, 2625 Hammond Road in Erindale was finished in 1866 but so was Robert Leslie’s building career in the area. He was flat broke. It is also designated under the Ontario Heritage Act. Here is a brief description of the house from Heritage Mississauga:

In 1838 Oliver Hammond married Sarah Ann Carpenter, daughter of Henry Carpenter, UE. Through his marriage Oliver gained title to 100 acres of land, and built a modest home and farm. Oliver became very successful, and was an active member of the community, serving as a Justice-of-the-Peace, notary, and a Churchwarden for St. Peter’s Anglican Church. Oliver built this house, a substantial red brick home, in 1866. Oliver’s son, Thomas Mercer Hammond, inherited the property in 1874, and followed in his father’s footsteps as both a successful farmer and as a churchwarden. The Designated Hammond House remains a historic landmark and private family home today, although it is no longer owned by the Hammond family.[10]

On November 12, 2015, Ontario’s Conservation Review Board’s Report quotes Schedule A of City of Mississauga By-law 224-84:

The Hammond House is listed on the Heritage Inventory and is recommended for designation for its architectural and contextual importance. Built by Thomas Hammond, c.1866, the house is a fine example of the type of farmhouse recommended by the Canadian Journal, The Canada Farmer in the mid-1860s. The building achieves distinction through the use of a variety of stylistic details. Architectural features of importance include the central projecting bay terminating at the roof level in a gable, Italianate brackets, stone quoining and paired round headed windows in the gable ends of the rear addition. Contextually, the house is a recognizable reminder of 19th [century] settlement in Erindale and Mississauga.

After this financial disaster Robert “retired” and left Streetsville.[11]

In Toronto, Robert began again, working as a carpenter or as builder. He was active in the Presbyterian Church. Robert Leslie is listed in the Toronto Directory for 1847.[12]

In 1868 Robert Leslie, builder, was living at 41 Richmond Street East in Toronto.[13] In 1869 he was at 35 Terauley Street (now part of Bay Street) still listed as a builder. Brother James Leslie, furniture polisher, was at 45 Terauley Street.[14] By 1873 Robert was living at 190 Terauley, still listed as a builder.[15] By 1877 Robert and family were now living close to brother George in Leslieville. They were on Darcy Street (now McGee) at the western edge of Leslieville, near the GTR tracks.[16] Listed in the 1877 Directory with Robert were his sons James, wood turner, and John Leslie, machinist.[17]

McGee Street was not a very desirable location. The street was in terrible shape, but Queen Street wasn’t much better:


Within the recollection of the oldest resident the streets of this locality were not known to be in such a disgraceful condition as they are at the present time. The Kingston-road, or Queen-street east, is literally a river of mud. Since annexation to the city nothing has been done to put or keep the road in repair. It was torn up last winter for the construction of the sewer, and it has remained just as the contractors left it until the recent rains, which have broken it all up. The road is full of holes, which cannot be seen in consequence of their being filled with mud. The tramway is, if possible, in a worse condition than the rest of the road. While it keeps the water from running off on the south side, in consequence of the height of the rails above the level of the road, the space between the rails is over ankle deep, with water thickened with clay, and the car horses splash this mixture on the fronts of the stores at the roadside, and any goods that many be exposed for sale. When this was a country road the mud was scraped off after seasons of rain, and patched with broken stone at least twice a year, but since it has been controlled by the city not an ounce of mud has been removed nor a toise of stone placed on its whole length. The other streets leading north and south, except McGee-street, which has recently been block-paved, show similar signs of neglect, so that the whole neighbourhood is in a pretty pickle. Even on McGee-street the sidewalk has not been replaced. On Carlaw-avenue South heaps of sand have been dumped in all manner of positions on the roadway, so that it is almost impossible to traverse it without coming to grief, and there are no lamps to lighten the darkness of this thoroughfare. It is not safe to life and limb to travel these roads.[18]

But Robert Leslie may have got a “sweet deal” from brother George for the property on McGee Street. Land speculators planned subdivisions including one near Eastern and McGee; one south of Kingston Road, between Leslie and Lake; and another north of Kingston Road between Leslie and Curzon. In the mid-1850s many would-be developers and land speculators planned housing subdivisions, including one near Eastern and McGee planned by George Leslie, in areas at the edge of town and even too far from town for immediate urban development. Subdivision plans combined large lots for country estates, market gardens, or later speculation with small urban lots located along the major roads. Leslie’s subdivision did not sell. Sometimes subdivisions were too far from town and failed. Sometimes the location was poorly thought out and unattractive except to very poor people. The subdivision at the GTR and McGee did not have many houses until thirty years later when it filled with labourers. At that time there was no standard size or arrangements of lots, and no municipal planning, and developers only had to register their plans with municipalities like the City of Toronto or County of York.  This allowed rendering plants, like William Harris’s on Pape’s Lane, to co-exist closely with churches and homes.  The lots on McGee were uncomfortably close to George Gooderham’s cow barns with their stench, the train tracks and the marsh with its mosquitoes.[19]

In 1871 The City of Toronto extended South Park Street (now Eastern Avenue) east from Mill Street (Broadview Avenue) to D’Arcy Street (McGee Street) and opened D’Arcy Street from the Kingston Road (Queen Street East) to Front Street East. Within 30 years, Eastern Avenue would become one of the two great industrial streets of Leslieville; the other would be Carlaw Avenue.

Robert Leslie opened a furniture factory and retail business called Leslie & Co. at the corner of Strange Street and Kingston Road (now Queen Street East). When interviewed by Adam, he said he had six sons and four daughters (all alive but one), but actually had another daughter Josephine or Josie that the family had disowned after she engaged in a scandalous love affair.[20]

In 1877, local Presbyterians petitioned the Presbytery of Toronto to establish a congregation in Leslieville. Dr. Spears, Robert Crow and Martin McKee went as a delegation to Knox Presbyterian Church to ask the Presbytery to allow them to form a new church. The Presbytery agreed. Rev. J. M. Cameron, of East Presbyterian Church, conducted the first service. It was held in Gowan’s Hall, the Orange Lodge, on Friday evening, November 16th, 1877. The congregation had 15 members. George Leslie was the first to sign the Leslieville Presbyterian Church register. (It is now Queen Street East Presbyterian Church, but they still have the original records which they were kind enough to allow me to read.)  The first Elders were William Rennie, James McGuire, and William Carlyle. The first members were: George Leslie, Sr., Mahala Leslie, Margaret Blong, Mrs. Neil K. Bain, Robert Crow, James McKerrow, Mrs. James McKerrow, Hugh Spears, M.D., Mrs. Hugh Spears, James Miller, Martin McKee, John Trotter, and John McRae Ross. The original trustees were George Leslie, Sr., Hugh Spears, M.D., and Robert Crow.

The Church was rooted in Scots and Ulster Irish and from its start, emphasized hard work, discipline, saving souls and building a better world. Members decided to build a new church. The congregation met in Gowan’s Hall while construction was underway at the corner of Queen Street and Carlaw Avenue. , The Building Committee was: Robert Leslie, James McKerrow, William Manson, James E. Leslie, James Miller, Alexander Gibbs and John McRae Ross. The new red brick Gothic church opened for services on July 14, 1878. Henry Bauld Gordon (1854-1951) was the architect. This was one of his first buildings, as he had just begun his practice in 1877.[21] Robert Leslie is believed to have been the builder. The church was laid out in the shape of a cross and seated 400. The church grounds and church cost about $7,000. Growth was slow at first because Leslieville was only lightly populated.

The Presbyterian Leslies were deeply shocked when Josephine (Josie) Leslie, Robert and Mary Ann’s, 18 year old daughter, ran off with a married neighbour, ten years older than herself. The Leslie family made every effort to keep Josie and butcher Edmund John Clarke separate, including forcibly confining the teenager. She simply threatened to run off to Buffalo with her lover, get a divorce and get married. The family had Clarke charged with abduction and the trial titillated Toronto’s newspaper readers who gobbled up the private details of the love affair and the family’s angst. While George Taylor Denison, the judge in the case, was quite clear that he would imprison Clarke if he could. Denison was notorious:

Usually faced with an enormous caseload, and with little interest in the causes or prevention of crime, he had no use for legal technicalities or procedural niceties. His was “a court of justice, not a court of law,” he proudly asserted. By his own admission, he relied more on intuition than on evidence. Although he liked to boast that he judged impartially, some groups fared better than others: retired soldiers and members of Toronto’s respectable classes could expect leniency but striking workers, parvenus, Irishmen, and blacks invariably received harsh treatment. Denison nonetheless took a paternal interest in the unfortunate members of the lower classes who filed through his court. He championed legal aid, chastised the legal profession for profiting from people’s misfortunes and prolonging cases, and denounced moral reform groups that tried to impose their standards upon criminal elements “who offended their tender susceptibilities.” His unorthodox methods were notorious – his court even became something of a tourist attraction.[22]

The jury didn’t agree with Denison. In fact they didn’t even get up from their seats in the jury box before saying, “Not guilty.” Josie was old enough to know what she wanted and she wanted Edmund. They were as good as their word, taking off for Buffalo where they lived a long and presumably happy life together, having a number of children. It is fairly likely that the family on McGee Street never spoke to Josie again, as she had “spoiled herself”, ruining her reputation and damaging the family’s status in a very public way.[23]

In 1879 Robert Leslie took lead delegation that presented a petition to City Council. They wanted a sewer on McGee Street.[24] This would have been a combined sanitary and storm sewer, carrying both rainwater and human waste into Ashbridge’s Bay. Their house was squeezed into a narrow plot of land between the railroad and McGee Street and on wet ground, close to Ashbridge’s Bay and the marsh at its west end. The water table was only a few feet from the surface. In 1882, Robert Leslie had “from four to five feet of water in his cellar” and, like other residents demanded that the City put in drains to prevent flooding.[25] He got what he wanted, “The laying of the drains is now about completed on Saulter and McGee streets, and the property-owners on Lewis-street will petition to have one laid on that street.”[26]

In 1883 the Grand Trunk Railway double tracked its line across Toronto.  In 1884 an iron railway bridge was built over the Don south of Queen.[27]  By 1884, the area east of the Don was beginning to be laid out in roads and subdivided for small working class homes:  Eastern Ave, Blong, Saulter, Carlaw, McGee, Lewis, Morse, Strange, Scadding, De Grassi, and Heward.  Further east there were still large farms, gardens (E.g. John Logan, James Pape, John Russel, Thomas Hastings.)[28]

George Leslie, owner of Toronto Nurseries, the largest tree farm in Canada, was generous with their trees and with their land. In 1883 George Leslie gave 50 feet of ground to build a fire hall at the corner of McGee Street and Kingston Road. He also donated “enough shade trees to plant along the front.” Robert would have benefited from George’s generousity as well as his connections and influence as the biggest employer in the neighbourhood and Justice of the Peace. However, the relationship was mutually beneficial as Robert no doubt built George’s house at Jones and Queen (now sadly demolished) as well as the Leslie General Store and Post Office at Curzon and Queen (still standing and now a restaurant.)[29]

In his later years, Robert joined the York Pioneers and participated in the large semi-centennial celebration in 1884. By 1884, Robert Leslie is again listed as a carpenter in the City Directory.[30]

In 1886, Alexander Leslie was in business with his brother James E. as owner of Leslie & Co. with their wood turning mill at 79 Richmond West and their furniture store at 799 Queen E. Robert Leslie is listed as the Manager of Leslie &Co. at Queen and Strange Street.[31] George Leslie was down the road at the north east corner of Jones and Queen.

Robert was, like George Leslie, a “True Grit” or Reform Party supporter and close friends with George Brown, editor of The Globe and a Father of Confederation. Robert was more politically active that George, his brother. Robert was a delegate at many Reform Party conventions.

Robert Leslie died in 1886. The Globe notes that he left “a wife and nine children, five sons and four daughters, all of whom were present during his last hour”, but he had one daughter who wasn’t there: the black sheep, Josie.  Robert Leslie is buried in Toronto’s Necropolis Cemetery where his brother George would be buried a few years later.

After his death Mary Ann House (1817-1907) continued to live in the family home, no doubt built by Robert with his sons, at 36 McGee Street.[32] The Beattys and the Leslies were a closely knit clan. In August, 1888 a Mrs. Beatty of New York came to visit Mary Ann Leslie on McGee Street though the Beattys were strong Methodists just as the Leslies were strong Presbyterians.[33]

Robert and Mary Ann Leslie’s children James E. Leslie 1841-1930, William Leslie (1847-1872), Norman R. Leslie (1855-1939 and Emma (1861-1947) are buried there along with Mary Ann’s mother, Aurora House (1796-1876). Their epitaph says: “until the day break”.[34]

[1] See Robert Leslie’s obituary, Globe, Jan. 4, 1886

[2] Accessed  February 3, 2016 at http://www.ancestry.ca

[3] Accessed  February 3, 2016 at http://www.ancestry.ca

[4] New York Evening Post, March 24, 1837

[5] http://www.heritagemississauga.com, http://www.lpssmatters.com/PDF_Files/LPSS08_Sep.pdf and http://www.museumsofmississauga.com accessed  February 3, 2016.

[6] Source: City of Mississauga By-Law 493-77 quoted in http://www.historicplaces.ca/en/rep-reg/place-lieu.aspx?id=13821, accessed  February 3, 2016

[7] Source: City of Mississauga By-law 368-82 quoted in http://www.historicplaces.ca/en/rep-reg/place-lieu.aspx?id=13821, accessed  February 3, 2016

[8] Globe, March 7, 1865

[9] Globe, Oct. 9, 1865

[10] http://heritagemississauga.com/assets/Erindale%20Heritage%20Tour%20Brochure%20-%20Final%20-%202011.pdf and http://www.mississauga.ca/portal/residents/erindalegallery?paf_gear_id=13200032&imageId=2500059n&index=224&returnUrl=%2Fportal%2Fresidents%2Ferindalegallery%3Fstart%3D221 accessed  February 3, 2016

[11] Globe, Jan. 4, 1886

[12] Brown’s Toronto City and Home District Directory, 1846-1847

[13] Toronto City Directory, 1867-1868

[14] WC Chewett and Co’s Toronto City Directory, 1868-1869

[15] Toronto City Directory, 1872-1873

[16] McGee – Formerly Darcy Street after Darcy Boulton. It was renamed McGee after Darcy McGee (1825-1868). This Father of Confederation was assassinated on April 7, 1868 by an Irish nationalist.  In 1884 when this area was annexed by the City of Toronto, it was re-named since there was already another Darcy Street.  Darcy McGee was the victim of Canada’s first political assassination. Mrs. C. Clarke was the widow of John Clarke, a successful butcher, and mother of Edmund John Clarke who ran off with Josie Leslie. The Clarkes owned orchards east of McGee on the Kingston Road. Next to the Clarke property was that of Edward Blong, another very successful butcher. Harness makers, barbers, carpenters and other trades people had shops and homes along the Kingston Road.

[17] Toronto City Directory, 1877

[18] Globe, Nov. 10 1885

[19] Joanne Doucette, Pigs, Flowers and Bricks: A History of Leslieville, new edition, 2016 available on line at https://leslievillehistory.com//?s=Pigs%2C+Flowers+and+Bricks&search=Go

[20] G. Mercer Adam, History of Toronto and The Township of York, 1885, pp. 461-462.

[21] http://dictionaryofarchitectsincanada.org/architects/view/1592 accessed March 15, 2013

[22] Norman Knowles, “DENISON, GEORGE TAYLOR,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 15, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed February 3, 2016, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/denison_george_taylor_1839_1925_15E.html

[23] Globe, Nov. 26, 1878, Dec. 13, 1878, Dec. 14, 1878, Jan. 10, 1879, Jan. 16, 1879, Jan. 18, 1879, Jan. 22, 1879,  Jan. 23, 1879. http://www.ancestry.ca and http://www.familysearch.org accessed Feb. 16, 2016.

[24] Globe, Dec. 8, 1879

[25] Globe, April 4, 1882

[26] Globe, May 15, 1883

[27] Myrvold, 22.

[28] Goads Atlas Toronto, 1884.

[29] Globe, March 24, 1883

[30] Toronto City Directory, 1884

[31] Toronto City Directory, 1886

[32] Toronto City Directory, 1890

[33] Globe Aug 15 1888

[34] http://www.findagrave.com/cgi-bin/fg.cgi?page=pv&GRid=64006320&PIpi=37574975 accessed  February 3, 2016

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