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Chapter 9
Picture Post Card Village of the 1880s and 1890s
Table of Contents

Title Page
Author's Preface
1 The Road through Richmond Hill
2 First Peoples on the Land
3 The European Settlers Arrive
4 From Miles' Hill to Richmond Hill: The Birth of a Community
5 Tories and Reformers
6 Stagecoach Lines and Railway Tracks
7 The Neighbours at Mid-Century
8 Fire Brigades and Fence Viewers
9 Picture Post Card Village of the 1880s and 1890s
Spires on the Hill
Coming of Age in Richmond Hill
Pranks, Vandalism, and Village Crime
Business on the Hill
Tiles in the Mosaic: Men and Women Who Shaped Late-Ninetenth-Century Richmond Hill
Richmond Hill's Lacrosse Champs
The Old Lamplighter
For Whom the Bell Tolls?
Local Politics at the End of Victoria's Reign
10 Rails through Richmond Hill
11 The Flowering of Richmond Hill
12 The Village Transformed
Table of Illustrations

Spires on the Hill

Picture post card village. Photograph taken from the tower of the Presbyterian Church, circa 1900, looking north up Yonge Street, with the spire of the Methodist Church in the centre.
"Few villages of equal size or importance within the Province," The Liberal proudly announced in August 1881, "have manifested so much activity and energy in church enterprise as our own." The Presbyterians of Richmond Hill, argued the editorial, "can boast a church which would do credit to places of larger pretensions, and on a site unequalled for beauty." Immediately south of the Presbyterians stood St. Mary's Anglican Church, which had just installed an organ, "costing between six and seven hundred dollars, which in appearance and tone would reflect credit upon any city church." Meanwhile, across Yonge Street and to the north, the new Methodist Church was deemed "one of the finest Church edifices in the Province."

The Liberal totalled up some $25,000 invested in local church enterprises during the preceding year, in addition to clerical salaries, in a village of fewer than one thousand inhabitants. This was "an almost unprecedented thing, and speaks volumes for religious vitality of the community." The paper justifiably concluded that church matters "are not regarded as a secondary thing to secular business by the people of our village." 1

Building the Richmond Hill Methodist (later United) Church in 1880-81.
The completed Methodist Church, dedicated in October 1881.
Necessity lay behind much of this recent capital investment in Richmond Hill's spiritual properties - especially for the Methodists.

On December 21, 1879, Methodist minister Reverend J.W. McCallum took as the text for his morning sermon, "Behold how great a matter a little fire kindleth." In speaking of the accidents of life, McCallum asked the rhetorical question: "Who knows, how soon fire may overtake us?" Little did he know how fitting his text was. At the very moment he was preaching, fire was burning in the Sunday School room a few feet behind him. Just after the congregation left the sanctuary, flames burst through the roof, and the Richmond Hill Methodist Church with all its contents burned to the ground.

Abraham Law's quarterly ticket (comparable to a twentieth-century communion card) for the Richmond Hill Methodist Church, 1884.
Fortunately, the Methodists numbered among their congregation many of the village's prosperous business families. Exactly one month after the disastrous fire, tannery owner and ex-reeve Abraham Law sold a half-acre of land (about one-fifth of a hectare) at the corner of Yonge Street and Centre Street East for a new building. Carriage maker William Trench, saddler William Harrison, dry goods merchant Isaac Crosby, and other leaders of the congregation also pitched in.

Soon a new $17,000 building was under construction. Cornerstones were laid on May 24, 1880, a mere five months after the fire, and the building was dedicated in October of the following year. William Harrison described it in an article for The Liberal as a "beautiful new church, which for lofty spire, great seating capacity, excellent organ and splendid acoustics, is exceeded by few churches north of Toronto." 2

Choir at the dedication of a new organ at the Richmond Hill Presbyterian Church in 1915. Pictured left to right are: J.H. Dunlop,H. Rowley,L. McNair,James Stewart,A.L. Phipps,Joseph Atkinson,George Sims,Ira Ramer,W. Robinson,J. Aikenhead,W. Oliver,D. Cooper,Tom Scott,Miss E. Gordon,Miss Douglas,Dr. L. Langstaff,Mrs. E. Newton,Mrs. A.L. Phipps,Mrs. Sterling,Miss Pentland,Miss E. Mcnair,Miss M. Cooper,Miss Hammond,Miss Margaret Moodie,Mrs. R. Cooper,Miss P. Batty,Miss H. Lang,Mrs. Mckenzie,Mrs. J. Innes,Mrs. Amos Wright,Miss Heise. Three top right are Mrs. Scott,Mrs. J. Atkinson,Miss Boyle. Front row: Miss D. Mckenzie,Miss Carol Innes,Miss J. Lomas,Mrs. W. Oliver,Mrs. Simpson,Mrs. Godwin,Miss G. Prett,Mrs. Van Wart,Mrs. Allen, unknown, Miss V. Jennings,Miss L. Innes,Reverend R. Herbison,F. Converse Smith,J.E. Newton,Miss Sisman,E. Caldwell.
Presbyterian Church and manse, with Reverend W. Webb Percival, his wife, and son. Percival ministered to the Richmond Hill congregation from 1887 to 1894.
Such superlatives for the Methodists helped spur on the rival Presbyterians who were building a new structure at the same time. The old wooden Presbyterian church building of 1821 had served the congregation well. But it was now almost sixty years old and suffered in comparison with its neighbour, St. Mary's Anglican Church, and the proposed Methodist edifice. So on January 15, 1880, the Presbyterians voted to build a new church. Within two weeks, a building committee was named and some $4,800 subscribed in pledges. Cornerstones were laid on July 1, and despite problems with the contractor, the new structure was officially opened on May 24, 1881.

Reverend James Grant, his wife, and children Robert,Reay, and George, pictured in front of the Presbyterian manse. Grant ministered to the Richmond Hill congregation from 1894 to 1909.
Sparing "no pains," the ladies of the Richmond Hill Presbyterian Church promise to make an 1892 afternoon tea "equal to any of its predecessors."
The result was a handsome Gothic building of buff-coloured brick with a decorative red-brick design, boasting an imposing tower, complete Sunday School facilities, and a sanctuary seating 410 on the floor and another 70 in the gallery - all for a bargain cost of only $6,366! Situated on the crest of the hill, the square, four-turreted, 34-metre (110-foot) tower was clearly visible for several kilometres in all directions. And more than a century later, despite the many high-rise apartment buildings of the modern town, that Presbyterian Church tower still dominates the skyline of Richmond Hill.

St. Mary's Anglican Church rectory, with Mrs. H.F. Battersby on verandah. The rectory stood on the site of the later Langstaff Building.
Though necessity certainly drove the Methodists, and to some extent motivated the Presbyterians, there was also the challenge of keeping up with the Church of England. St. Mary's Anglican Church had been erected in 1872 on property immediately south of the Presbyterians - land once owned by Abner Miles and donated to the church by his grandson, John Arnold. The church was built in the English decorative style, a scaled-down version of St. James Cathedral in Toronto. With their attractive new building and their new organ "costing between six and seven hundred dollars," under the leadership of the much-loved Reverend Robert Shanklin,Richmond Hill'sAnglicans threatened to outdo the village's other denominations.

Calling for tenders for a spire for St. Mary's Anglican Church, August 1881.
St. Mary's Anglican Church, after completion of spire.
But St. Mary's Anglican needed a spire or tower - that most important attribute of any late-nineteenth-century church - and to keep pace with the new Methodist and Presbyterian buildings, the Anglicans in the early 1880s decided to add one to their structure. The spire proved to be a costly project, however, and the Anglican congregation could not draw on as much wealth as their rivals. The spire was built, but St. Mary's continually struggled with financial problems and did not become a self-supporting parish until after the First World War.

St. Mary Immaculate Roman Catholic Church, original structure built in November 1857; this building erected in 1894.
Richmond Hill'sRoman Catholics lagged behind the Methodists,Presbyterians, and Anglicans in numbers, in wealth, and in grand structures throughout the nineteenth century. The Liberal's 1881 article on village churches, for instance, did not even mention the Catholics. But under the spiritual guidance of a succession of non-resident priests and the temporal leadership of postmaster and village clerk Matthew Teefy, the Catholic parish of St. Mary Immaculate laboured on. The old church on Mill Street was enlarged in 1874, then replaced twenty years later by a $5,000 larger structure on the northeast corner of today's Yonge and Dunlop streets.

Interior of St. Mary Immaculate Roman Catholic Church, 1894
At the June 1894 cornerstone laying for their new building, St. Mary Immaculate parishioners listened to a sermon preached by Reverend John Teefy. Reverend Teefy was a prominent Basilian priest and superior at St. Michael's College, Toronto. But to St. Mary's parishioners, and to all Richmond Hill residents, the forty-five-year-old priest was best known as young John Teefy the postmaster's son, and the first priest ordained from the parish.

Advertising the annual picnic of St. Mary Immaculate Roman Catholic Church.
Richmond Hill's several churches offered more than Sunday worship services; they also provided outlets for a wide variety of community enthusiasms. There were Sunday School classes for children and teenagers, and choirs for the musically inclined. Upstanding village men solidified their church boards and committees. And for many women, the steady round of bake sales, afternoon teas, and church suppers provided the sole opportunity for any kind of organized social activity within the community.

As these churches prospered through the 1880s and 1890s, they easily replaced the mid-century hotel as the distinguishing feature of village life. In fact, with the decline of the coaching trade and the rise of the temperance and prohibition movements, Richmond Hill's hospitality industry was a mere shadow of its former self - with a few notable exceptions such as the Palmer House and, to the north, the Elgin Mills Hotel and Bond Lake Hotel. But where once the Yonge Street traveller stopped at one of the town's many hotels, inns, and taverns for food and drink, now community residents on their journey through life stopped regularly at one of the churches for spiritual replenishment.

This shift from hotel to church domination is illustrated in the saga of the "town bell" and its dramatic relocation in 1883. The town bell was used to warn of fires and to regulate the working day, presumably for those who had no watches or clocks to tell the hours. It was also a favourite target for pranksters, usually late at night or very early in the morning! Through the 1870s the bell was located over the Robin Hood Hotel, on Yonge Street towards the south end of the village, and was tended by the hotel's successive owners as a free public service.

But following the construction of the new Methodist Church, and the installation of a new half-ton bell in its tower in 1881, council made arrangements with the church to use this bell for village purposes. Besides being more "respectable" than the old Robin Hood Hotel, the Methodist Church stood farther north and on higher ground. Regardless of denomination, residents of the North End could now hear the town bell as clearly as their South End cousins. From 1883 to 1897 sexton Francis Wiley of the Methodist Church served as the municipality's paid bell ringer.

By the end of the 1890s, Richmond Hill's most definitive physical structures were its four substantial churches. Travellers journeying north on Yonge Street spotted these landmark edifices long before other village buildings came into view. On the left, on the rise north of Major Mackenzie Drive, the spire of St. Mary's Anglican Church and the tower of Richmond Hill Presbyterian Church soared heavenwards. Farther north, on the right side of Yonge Street, the Richmond Hill Methodist Church and St. Mary Immaculate Roman Catholic Church announced their presence. The elevation, the churches, and the profusion of spires and towers combined to make Richmond Hill a picture-postcard-perfect village of the late nineteenth century.


1. The Liberal,August 12, 1881.

2. William Harrison,"Richmond Hill and Vicinity, Number 33," Richmond Hill Public Library, Local History Collection.


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Copyright Richmond Hill Public Library Board, 1991