So, who was Spencer Smith?

Who Knew 100x100 2015By Mark Gillies

January 12, 2015

BURLINGTON, ON

Spencer Smith PArk from the west

Here is Spencer Smith Park as it looks today, a park enjoyed by thousands of residents annually, all thanks to the vision of Spencer Smith.

One of the most recognized names in Burlington is Spencer Smith. We have named Burlington’s most scenic park in his honour. Spencer Smith Park, located on the shores of Lake Ontario, is used for many events that attract thousands of visitors annually.

We know the park; we really don’t know who Spencer Smith was, and just what it was that made him so significant to Burlington?

Pic 2 Spencer Smith & Edith Bell

Spencer and Edith Smith a happy couple who enjoyed living and working in Burlington.

If you read last week’s column on Edith Hodge, one of Burlington’s earliest settlers, you would have discovered that Spencer Smith was Edith’s son-in-law.  Spencer married Edith and William Bell’s youngest daughter Edith Bell.

The Spencer Smith Story
Just how did Spencer Smith end up in Burlington, where did he come from, and what did he accomplish that made his name a Burlington household word?

Pic 3 Mount Street Bethnal Green

Spencer Smith was born at 7 Mount Street. This illustration shows what housing looked like on Mount Street around the time of Spencer’s birth in 1870.

Spencer George Smith was born on January 18, 1870 at 7 Mount Street in Bethnal Green, East London, England to George Spencer Smith 26, and Mary Ann Mears 24. Spencer was the youngest of three children. He had two older sisters, Mary Ann who was born in 1866 and Sarah born in 1868. Spencer’s father worked as a labourer at a local wharf on the Thames River. Mary Ann was also employed, and most likely worked at or near the wharf and was responsible for folding the sails for ships, or as it was referred to in 1870, she was a furl server. Their residence may have been a tri-plex, as two other families lived at the same address. Edward Dwyer, a bricklayer and his wife Isabella, a tailoress, and their 4 children; plus George Scales, a cooper, and his wife Sarah and their 3 children all lived at 7 Mount Street.

Life in Bethnal Green during the 19th Century
Bethnal Green was a very poor neighbourhood, often referred to as a slum area. It was rundown, disease ridden, rat infested, everyone was exposed to raw sewage, the neighbourhood had a gut wrenching bad smell to it, and it was full of sickness, drug addicts, prostitutes, and uncontrollable crime. Bethnal Green was not the best place to raise your family. Bethnal Green was not unlike many other urban communities in England at that time.  Pic 4 Bethnal Green

The Industrial Revolution had driven many people from their agricultural backgrounds into the towns and cities looking for work. These areas quickly became overcrowded, and living conditions seriously declined. Times were very bad.

For reasons that we do not know something happened to the Smith family. They basically vanished from the census records for 1880 and everything afterwards.

Death records have not been located proving conclusively that Spencer’s parents or sisters died, or moved elsewhere. Some have claimed that Mary became a widow, and that she had no choice but to give up her children, but this is just hearsay. It could be true. The only person we conclusively know about is Spencer Smith.

For whatever reason, perhaps to escape an imminent transfer to the local workhouse, which was a hideous institution located just down the street at 103 Mount Street. It was a derelict building having been in existence for over 120 year. Perhaps Spencer was to be turned over to an orphanage, we just do not know, but life for Spencer definitely changed. Did you know that workhouses were often the last destination for families that could no longer support their children, and parents were forced to turn them over to the authorities? Even orphanages were overcrowded and poorly run. Many parents died from disease, starvation, alcoholism, murder, suicide, or work related injuries. They left their children destitute, and there was no other recourse, but for these little people to end up in any one of these deplorable institutions.

Pic 5 SS Corean

Spencer Smith and 32 other boys were sent to Canada on the SS Corean in May of 1885. This is the actual ship that Spencer made the voyage across the Atlantic Ocean on.

Spencer in 1885 at 15 years of age was forced to leave his home and friends, board a steam ship named the SS Corean, along with 32 other boys all about his same age, and set off for Canada.  The ship arrived in Montreal on May 14, 1885, and the boys made their way to Hamilton. They travelled on the Grand Trunk Railway, stopping all along the way, including Burlington, and finally on to Hamilton. Who knows, maybe Spencer looked out of the train car window when the boys pulled into the Freeman train station, and thought to himself, “This looks like a nice place. Maybe one day I will live here. Where am I anyway?”

Spencer and the other boys were sent by the Shaftesbury Homes organization based out of London, England. This organization and many others were operating in England, taking on the responsibility of relocating disadvantaged youth to Canada, and also Australia. The largest organization was run by Dr. Thomas Barnardo. It has been written that Spencer Smith was a “Barnardo Boy”, but that information is incorrect. This was a common error made by most people when they referred to the “British Home Children” shipped to Canada. The Barnardo organization was much larger than the other British organizations, the name ended up as generic terminology and just about all were referred to as Barnardo children regardless of the organization that sent them over.

It was believed at this time some British children would have a better life if they were removed from their local environment in their overcrowded communities and sent to Canada and Australia to live and work on farms. The concept was developed mainly for orphans, but over time this evolved into destitute children becoming included as well.

Pic 6 GTR Hamilton Station

When Spencer arrived by train destined for Hamilton, he disembarked at this Grand Trunk Railway Station located along the southern shores of Burlington Bay.

When the Grand Trunk Railway train arrived in Hamilton, the Shaftesbury boys were sent to live temporarily at a location called a “Receiving Home”.

In Hamilton it was called, “The National Children’s Home & Orphanage” which opened in 1884. This home was located on Main Street, in the east end of Hamilton on the grounds of present day Gage Park.

Pic 7 National Children's Home & Orphanage

Spencer and the 32 other boys were sent to this “Receiving Home”. It was called the “National Children’s Home & Orphanage”, located on the grounds of present day Gage Park.

When the boys arrived, farmers in the Niagara area who had sent in an application to be a sponsor for these children were notified that the children had made it to Hamilton, and they were now ready to be picked up and taken to their new home. Not all children were sponsored before they arrived, it depended on the circumstances that brought them to the “Receiving Home”. In some situations children had to wait for someone to come along and claim them. “The National Children’s Home & Orphanage” over time evolved into Canada’s Children’s Aid Society. Shaftesbury Homes in London, at a later date, became the cornerstone of the London Children’s Aid Society.

Pic 8 Featherstone Martindale

Featherstone Martindale was the farmer from Caledonia who sponsored Spencer Smith taking him back to his farm to begin work as an indentured farm labourer.

For Spencer Smith, a farmer named Featherstone Martindale from Caledonia was coming to pick up him and probably a couple more boys too. We know that other boys also went to Caledonia to work on the Martindale farm, but we do not know how many. Most likely it was no more than 2 more boys. They met, and all got to know each other a bit better, and eventually Featherstone, the other boys, and Spencer left “The National Children’s Home & Orphanage”.

Pic 9 Hamilton Street Railway

Before the Hamilton Street Railway streetcars became electrified, they were horse drawn. Featherstone Martindale and Spencer Smith and the other boys made their way to the King Street train station on a streetcar just like this one, for the train trip to Caledonia.

The group travelled west along King Street in Hamilton on a horse drawn Hamilton Street Railway streetcar to the King Street train station at Ferguson Avenue, embarked on to the train and made the trip to Caledonia.  That day was Thursday, May 21, 1885.  When they arrived at the Caledonia station, Featherstone, the other boys, and Spencer travelled again for 6 miles, this time in the Martindale’s fancy carriage and on out to the Martindale farm in rural Caledonia.

Pic 12 Lindley Farm 1871

The farms along Maple Avenue provided the country with some of the most fantastic fruit grown anywhere in the world. If you look closely on this map, you can see the Lindley farm where Spencer worked, and also in the lower left corner you can see the William Bell homestead where he worked following his employment with the Lindley family.

Spencer Smith’s new Canadian life was about to get underway.
The usual arrangement was to keep a British child on the farm, as indentured servants until they became 18 years of age. These children were to be paid a small wage, fed, clothed, schooled and provide room and board. According to Spencer, he agreed to stay at the Martindale farm for one year. This could be true, or not. We’re not certain if Spencer stayed with the Martindale’s for up to 3 years, or if he went to another farm. We do know that Spencer in 1889 was working as a farm labourer on the Lindley farm in Burlington when he was 19 years old. The Lindley family operated a very successful orchard farm on Maple Avenue. It was located just north of Water Street, now called Lakeshore Road, and it ran north up to about the south side of Mapleview Mall.

The Lindley’s were smart farmers and during the Great Depression, just to stay in business, negotiated a deal with Dominion Stores and supplied the grocery store chain with produce, an agreement so good that it lasted for over 40 years. For many years, the Lindleys and other local farmers hauled their crops by wagon up to the Freeman Train Station, and loaded up the boxcars with their products for transport to markets across Ontario, Canada, England, and even South Africa. The Freeman Station (now under restoration on Fairview Street and in need of more private funding) was the focal point of Burlington’s emerging agricultural market. It was Burlington’s “Window to the World”.

Pic 13 Bell Homestead

Here’s the Bell Homestead where Spencer Smith worked and met his future wife, Edith Bell. The homestead is still here today, although it looks somewhat different. You could call it, “The Home of the Strawberry Social”.

One day, Spencer Smith left the Lindley family farm and moved up Maple Avenue to the William & Edith Bell farm located at the southwest corner of Plains Road and Maple Avenue, and he began working as a farm labourer for the Bell family.  It was here at the Bell homestead that Spencer Smith met Edith Bell, the youngest daughter of William and Edith Bell. Spencer courted the farmer’s daughter, and before you knew it, they were engaged and then the young couple married on May 9 1900.

At that time, Maple Avenue went north and more westerly emerging at the Union Burial Ground, the historic pioneer cemetery located in front of the Sears, Fortinos & Ikea stores. It has been reported that Spencer Smith went to work on a farm in Penetang. Again, this is hearsay, and not proven. It is possible, but if Spencer did work on a farm in that area, it would have most likely been after his servitude was completed at the Martindale farm, and before he began work on the Lindley farm by 1889, or Spencer may have left the Lindley farm, went to Penetang and returned to begin working with the Bell family. We’re not certain.

Pic 14 Spencer Smith's store

These two young ladies are standing outside Spencer Smith’s green grocery store on Brant Street, just north of Pine Street. The young lass on the right just may be holding a candy stick that was given to her by Spencer Smith. This rare photograph taken around 1914 shows the last part of the name Spencer Smith on the awning’s edge. Many thanks to local genealogist Russell Hunsperger for digging up this picture from his family’s photo archives.

Spencer eventually became a green grocer, and opened a store in Toronto, but this did not last long and the couple returned to Burlington, where Spencer opened another green grocer store. This time it was on Brant Street, just 4 doors north of Pine Street, on the east side.

Pic 15 Alfie

Spencer Smith’s grocery store attracted pleasure boat shoppers just like these passengers on the boat “Alfie” which set out from a dock in Dundas.

The store was very successful, and eventually Spencer and Edith became quite affluent. Spencer Smith was a clever marketing man. Whenever children came into his store, they were treated with candy. There were other grocery store competitors in town, but Spencer usually won the day over the other stores. When the children in the neighbourhood persuaded their parents to go shop at Mr. Smith’s store, the parents usually agreed, not quite realizing why the children were so insistent. The other grocers in town probably couldn’t figure out why Spencer Smith’s store continually had so many customers. Spencer and Edith Smith were very good at business, and skilled as retailing entrepreneurs.
In fact, the store was so popular, that passengers travelling on recreational pleasure boats from Hamilton, Dundas, Grimsby, Bronte, Oakville, and other local towns often docked at the wharf located at the foot of Brant Street, just to shop at Spencer Smith’s store.  Today, we call this shopping at “Destination stores”.

Spencer was a member of the Burlington Horticultural Society for 36 years, from 1919 up until he died in 1955, where he served as the Society’s President from 1931 – 1936. Other well-known local names served as President when the Society was started for a second time in 1919. The first President was Rev. George W. Tebbs, Rector of St. Luke’s Anglican Church who served in 1919-1920. William Arthur Emory, was Spencer’s brother-in-law and he served in 1925-1926. Paul Fisher served in 1921.

The Fisher family owned the orchard farm where Burlington Mall is located. Fred Ghent served in 1922. Richard Jerome “RJ” Alton served in 1949. The first Burlington Horticultural Society actually started in 1889 by the local market gardeners as more of an agricultural group interested in how to better grow market garden products. The second Society focused more on the beautification of Burlington. It was this latter Society that had the Rose selected as Burlington’s official flower, and to this day, area residents compete for the annual Rose Awards in recognition for residents’ beautiful home gardens.

Pic 16 Lakeside Park

The Lakeside Park was starting to look more like a park. Over the years it continued to develop into a beautiful scenic park. The canning plant can be seen in the upper left as well as the dock that was at the foot of Brant Street.

In 1933, Spencer Smith as President embarked on an ambitious project to beautify the land at the foot of Brant Street in Lakeside Park.  During the Great Depression the canning plant employees located next door to the park were on strike, and Spencer utilized the strikers to help clean up the new park. It has been reported that Spencer Smith hired these strikers, but more realistically these were probably just volunteers who were quite bored being on strike. There certainly wasn’t much money available at the time, and Spencer was always looking for free assistance, wherever and whenever he could find it. Spencer himself, devoted countless hours of volunteer labour at the park.

Pic 17 Spencer Park

The new Department of Recreation after 1950 decided to add more fill to the water and expand the size of the park. The breakwater is clearly in place.

Harold McGrath owned a local trucking company, and Spencer even enticed Harold to drop off any excess loads of rock or topsoil at the park, also probably done at no cost. Spencer had a clear vision for this park, and he was bound and determined to make it happen. The spectacular willow trees growing in Spencer Smith Park are not there by accident. Dorothy Angus the town’s librarian and friend to Spencer, lived on Ontario Street and had willow trees growing on her property. Spencer carefully removed willow tree cuttings and transplanted them to the park. Today, we can see the results of this undertaking. The park was an ongoing project for many years, and in 1942, the Town of Burlington finally recognized Spencer Smith’s accomplishments and named the park “Spencer Park”.

In 1950, the town created a Department of Recreation, and this department took over the management of Spencer Park. One of the first projects undertaken by this new department, was to expand the park with more landfill at the eastern end.

When the Town of Burlington, under the leadership of Mayor Lloyd Berryman, was looking for their own unique Centennial project for 1967, a decision was made that Spencer Park would an ideal choice for an upgrade. The plan was to fill in the entire water area out to the breakwater, and over to the Brant Inn on the far western side, once all of the boats sheltered behind the breakwater were evicted. The Burlington Centennial Committee was created and received the go-ahead for the creation of the new park, and when the park was completed in 1967, they made one very serious error in judgment and attempted to recommend a completely different name for Spencer Park, which was abruptly objected to by The Burlington Horticultural Society and many other concerned local residents who were extremely upset that Burlington’s heritage was once again facing erosion, and quite possibly Spencer Smith’s hard work, commitment, and dedication to his park were about to be permanently removed. The Burlington Centennial Committee reluctantly realized their error, and eventually backed down giving way to a new name, mutually agreed to by everyone on both sides, it was to be called Spencer Smith Park, a name that still stands to this day.

Pic 18 Vicki Gudgeon

The great grand niece of Spencer Smith was the former Victoria Emery, and after marriage we knew her as Vicki Gudgeon, a local historian and a past President of the Burlington Historical Society personally knew Spencer Smith very well.

Spencer didn’t stop at his park. Many of the streetscape trees growing in downtown Burlington were planted by The Burlington Horticultural Society. Burlington didn’t become so scenic and beautiful by itself. Credit should go to those dedicated members of The Burlington Horticultural Society. The property next to Central School was a seedling centre, and the Society grew new plants there which were eventually transplanted throughout Burlington. Spencer Smith’s great grand niece, Vicki Emery Gudgeon, who served as President of the Burlington Historical Society in 1975 -1976 recalled in an interview on the life of Spencer Smith for The Hamilton Spectator in 1989, that all of the trees planted by Spencer Smith and the Horticultural Society on Brant Street were removed when street lights were installed. Vicki stated back then, “I don’t think it was a fair exchange,” I think we can all agree that street lights on a treeless road are not as beautiful as a tree lined road. Vicki had the pleasure to really know her great grand uncle and described him as, “a very kind gentle man, and a gentleman.” She went on to say, “he looked a bit like Charlie Chaplin, because he had the same kind of moustache.”

Pic 19 Strawberry Social at Willowbank

The Strawberry Social was an event that Spencer Smith, his wife Edith, the Bell family, and just about everybody else in Burlington looked forward to every year in town. Here’s Spencer serving up some more treats at the historic Willowbank on King Road.

Over the years that Spencer Smith lived in Burlington, things changed, sometimes unexpectantly. Even though Spencer and Edith never had children, they still devoted much of their time to the betterment of Burlington. For example, Spencer and Edith both loved the Strawberry Socials, an event developed by the Bell family, and participated wholeheartedly in making them a rousing annual success in Burlington.

In 1924, after a beautiful 24 year marriage, the blissful happy couple faced a very serious challenge. Edith was not well, and soon became extremely sick. Edith developed pancreatic cancer which eventually spread into her liver, and this lovely, petite, gentle lady died a painful and tragic death on March 21, 1924, in the prime of her life at 54 years of age. The shocked and devastated Spencer buried his beloved Edith in historic Greenwood Cemetery on March 24, 1924. Spencer’s world of new found joy and happiness had ended with pain, and he proceeded to mourn his loss alone, and live a life that seemed to have no purpose.

Spencer continued to operate his grocery store on Brant Street for two more years, he was just putting in time; Then he met a middle aged lady who would become his next wife. She was known as Lillie, but her birth name was Elizabeth Anna Smith. Lillie was born June 7, 1870 in Whitby, Ontario to Thomas Henry Smith and Sarah Smith, a pioneer farm family who lived in the Whitby area for many years. It is not known where and when Spencer met Lillie, but we do know that this was the first marriage for Spencer’s new wife, and it seems a little bit humourous to me that Lillie changed her maiden name from Smith to her new married name Smith. It’s not too often that couples wed each other with the same surname, but it happened here.

Lillie’s new home was to be at 40 Locust Street. I am not certain as to when Spencer purchased this home. We do believe that Spencer and Edith had lived over top of their Brant Street store for a few years.

Pic 20 A&P

This photograph shows the A & P store that replaced Spencer Smith’s store in the same location. The photograph was taken in 1947 before the A & P moved farther north up Brant Street later that same year. The “modern” looking car in the photo is a 1947 Buick. This vehicle establishes the year of the photograph.

It has been reported that Spencer Smith retired from work in 1950 when he would have been 80 years of age. I disagree, but I could be wrong. Although, I do not know exactly when he retired, it was most likely when Spencer was around 65 – 70 years of age in 1935 to 1940.  I say that because Spencer Smith sold his store to the A&P Food Store company. A&P came to Burlington around that time, and Spencer was ready to call it a day. A&P took over his location and stayed there until they relocated farther north to a new store on Brant Street which opened in 1947. There are no records that we can locate of Spencer working elsewhere after that time, but he did continue to volunteer his time.

Pic 21 Spencer Smith Death Notice November 9 1955 P14, C3

Spencer Smith’s Death Notice appeared in the Burlington Gazette newspaper on November 9, 1955 on page 14, column 3. The town was deeply saddened to hear of the passing of one of Burlington’s greatest citizens.

Pic 22 Smith Headstone

Spencer Smith, his first wife Edith, and his second wife Lillie are buried in historic Greenwood Cemetery.

On November 8, 1955 Spencer Smith peacefully passed away at his residence at 40 Locust Street.  He was buried alongside his cherished wife Edith in historic Greenwood Cemetery. The following year in 1956, Lillie, Spencer’s second wife passed away at 85 years of age, and was interred with Spencer and Edith in Greenwood Cemetery.

The full life and times of Spencer Smith was now over, but not forgotten.
Spencer Smith left us with a poem that he composed in 1911. He called it “Reminiscences”. In poetic phrasing Spencer captures some of his memories that changed his life.

Reminiscences

‘Twas six and twenty years ago,
And perhaps a little bit more,
When I, a lad of fifteen years,
Lit on this fair Canadian Shore.

Fate led the way to Hamilton,
And there a man I met,
Who said a likely boy to do the chores
I certainly must get.

I don’t think I looked likely,
For the voyage had been rough,
And leaving home and friends behind,
I felt most mighty tough.

But the farmer thought I’d suit him,
If I’d try and do what’s fair;
So we came to an agreement,
And I hired for a year.

We boarded the train at King Street-
I’ll never forget that day;
It was in the spring of eighty-five,
On the twenty-first of May.

My thoughts were busy all the way,
On the new life I was now to begin;
To me the prospect seemed gloomy,
And my future loomed very dim.

We arrived at Caledonia,
And the farmer’s old bay mare
Soon took us down the river road
To the farm, six miles from there.

The buggy we rode in was classy,
The roads none I’d seen could compare-
We took so much on the wheels as we went
It’s a wonder there’s any there.

My boy courage rose as I entered the house,
And I saw the farmer’s wife.
I’ll never forget her as long as I live;
And bless her all my life.

I had my tea and went to bed,
And slept as sound as a trout.
And the first thing I heard in the morning
Was: “Come, boys, it’s time to get out.”

I put in that day in a hazy way;
For a lonesome boy was I,
And as I drove the cows to the fields
I heaved many a deep, deep sigh.

Each day was filled with surprises,
And, Oh, the mistakes I did make!
Were the things I broke put together
They’d be worth all the wages I’d take.

The farmer was often impatient;
And often discouraged was I,
But one thing that kept up my courage
Was the farmer’s good wife and her pie.

The cows and the horses, the sheep and the pigs,
Were ever a worry and care;
But since I have left them I think of them still,
And in my dreams fancy I’m there.

The lessons I learned on the farm are worth more
To me than mere dollars and cents;
And if I were privileged to start over again,
It’s life on the farm I’d commence.

The farmer’s wife has gone to her rest,
But her influence lives in me still:-
She helped lift the load along life’s rough road,
And save me a start up the hill.

Spencer Smith Signature

 

 

 

Part two of the Spencer Smith story will be published later this week.

My next article will be on Police Chief Lee J Smith, Burlington’s longest serving Chief. He was  a no nonsense, tough as nails, compassionate man who faithfully served our community from 1916 to 1956. He saw it all over those 40 colourful years.

 

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8 comments to So, who was Spencer Smith?

  • Mark Gillies

    Hello Zaffi,

    Burlington has a fantastic historical past, yet many of the greatest local stories have never been told. This in itself, is a real shame.

    Hopefully, I can change that.

    Mark Gillies

    PS) I have also responded to your comments about your grandmother and aunt’s arrival to Canada as “British Home Children” on the Part 2 segment about Spencer Smith. Both ladies would have had many stories to tell, that undoubtedly would have completely shocked and amazed us.

  • Zaffi

    Thank you so much for these wonderful articles about Burlington’s historical and incredible citizens. I have only lived in Burlington since 2009 and it is since to learn more about my new city. i look forward to reading many more.

  • Mark Gillies

    Hello Steve,

    I appreciate your comment.

    Please tell others about Spencer Smith. Not enough people know about this great citizen of Burlington.

    MG

  • Mark Gillies

    Hello Hans,

    Thank you for your kind remarks. Positive feedback motivates me even more to inform others about Burlington’s colourful history.

    MG

  • Mark Gillies

    Hello Ann & Dave,

    Thank you for your kind words about my 2 previous historical articles.

    The Ghent family is another local history story that begs to be told. Their family accomplishments were incredible. When wealthy Thomas Ghent along with the Davis family moved from North Carolina, because of their persecution as United Empire Loyalists, it took the 2 families over a year to walk here. When they reached the south side of Lake Ontario word of their predicament reached Lord Simcoe in York. He rescued the families from the Americans, when a boat was sent across Lake Ontario to pick them up under his orders as Governor of Upper Canada. The 2 families did not know it at the time, but, they would eventually become the founding father’s of where we live today, right in the heart of “The Garden of Canada”. I can’t wait to tell everyone the whole story.

    MG

  • Dave and Anne Marsden

    Thank you, it is as good and as informative as the first. We do hope you are going to give us more on the Ghent family, one of the Ghents is mentioned in this article. Anne and Dave Marsden

  • Steve

    Thank you for a wonderful article. I have always wondered about the name and the man the park I spent so much of my life at.

  • Hans Jacobs

    Well done! Thank you for a great article.