by Tom Childs, Class of 1976
Within a short walking distance of David and Mary Thomson CI there is a secluded road. On this former church laneway sits several nineteenth-century buildings. If you travel far enough down that road you will see St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church, built in 1849 in the Gothic revival architectural style. Although it is not the original church building, which was built in 1819, it stands as a good example of a simple country church of the time. This congregation, established in 1818, is the oldest Presbyterian Church in the City of Toronto, and the oldest congregation in the former City of Scarborough. Beside the Church there is the church kirkyard. Within its one acre boundary lie the mortal remains of some of the earliest European settlers of Scarborough. This is the story of one of those remarkable families.
The early European families who first immigrated to Scarborough were no different than immigrants of any age who have come to Canada. They travelled to the New World seeking a better life for themselves and their families. For the Thomson family, from Dumfriesshire in the Lowlands of Scotland, there was another outside reason to emigrate. During the late eighteenth century the Lowland Clearances had begun to force the poor and disenfranchised people out of the southern part of Scotland. They were driven out by their English landlords. The only redemption was that this emigration of lowland Scots occurred over many years. The people of the Scottish highlands were not as fortunate and when the Highland Clearances started in the early nineteenth century they were driven from the land quickly. Many of these Scots, both from the lowlands and highlands, immigrated to Canada and the United States.
The Thomsons of Dumfriesshire were one of those families to leave. The first, Archibald Thomson immigrated to New York State and lived there for a number of years. When the American Revolutionary War was tearing the continent apart he left the Colonies and brought his family to Upper Canada. Although a proud Scotsman he was still loyal to King George III and thus he was one of many United Empire Loyalists to cross the border into Canada.
During this period of time he encouraged his two younger brothers, Andrew and David, to emigrate from Scotland to Canada. They did, and with their two families in tow they settled many miles from the Town of York, today the City of Toronto. Their original farms lay adjacent to each other. Today, David and Mary Thomson are recognized as being the first European settlers of Scarborough, coming in 1799. They were quickly followed by many other immigrants. Some have asked why they settled so far from the established town of York. There are two main reasons why they did so. The first was they would have the land they were denied in Scotland to farm and, secondly, and perhaps more importantly, they did not want to associate with the predominantly English population of the town. They created in the wilds of Scarborough their own community, similar to their old country of Scotland.
As more emigrants would settle in Scarborough in those early years they tended to keep up this pattern of settlement in similar communities, to their lives in Scotland. This community was based upon their families and the church, the Church of Scotland, also known as the Presbyterian Church.
Thus, David and Mary Thomson recognized the great need to have a church for that early community. From the time they had immigrated to Canada the only opportunity to practice their religion had been irregular and had occurred without ordained clergy. When services were held they were often held in people’s homes and were conducted by itinerant preachers, frequently from the Presbyterian and Methodist faiths. In 1818, David and Mary Thomson donated one acre of the eastern part of their land, on the ridge above their farm, to the Presbyterian Congregation of Scarborough. As the deed to the church states, it was to be used as a ‘church and burying ground’. A year after this, a simple wooden building would be constructed, in which to conduct services. Although this structure is long gone, its location would have been in the middle of the current St. Andrew’s cemetery. Today that original one acre of land given by the David and Mary Thomson encompasses the current cemetery.
David Thomson, like many men of his age, was someone who had many skills. Among his many talents, he was a stonemason who worked on the first Parliament buildings of Upper Canada. Also he was a farmer, and when the War of 1812 was declared, he would enlist with several of his sons. After the war he built a new farmhouse and with his family operated a halfway house for travellers. It was his wife, Mary Thomson, who deserved equal praise and thanks. She would often be left at home in the wilds of Scarborough with their many small children. They, like all of the early settlers, were remarkable individuals. The Thomsons were and continue to be a extraordinary family. The descendants of Archibald Thomson included Lord Roy Thomson of Fleet, and his son Ken Thomson. Also the author Farley Mowat is another direct descendant of Archibald Thomson.
The walk on St. Andrew’s Rd is a trip down memory lane. At Brimley Rd sits the fieldstone home built by a son of David and Mary Thomson. This house, built in 1848 by William D. Thomson, called locally ‘Stonehouse Willie’ would be called ‘Bonese’. If you travel further down the road you will see the Church Sexton’s house, built in 1883. The church sexton was the caretaker and grave digger of the cemetery. This simple two story house is built in the board and batten style, popular at the time. The steeple of the church can be seen as you walk further down the road. The building to the front is the Scarborough Centennial Memorial Library, built in 1896, and used as the first Bendale library. Just before McCowan Rd is Springfield Farm, built in 1840 by a nephew of David and Mary Thomson, James A. Thomson, known locally as ‘Springfield Jimmy’. By this time there were so many families with the same names, that many were given nicknames to differentiate them. It is James A. Thomson who would sell an additional seven acres to the congregation. Today St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church still retains the original and secondary land given by the Thomson family.
Many people do not know this part of our amazing collective past. If you are interested to learn more about the Thomsons and the congregation they helped found there is an excellent opportunity coming up shortly to do so. St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church and Cemetery will be open during the Doors Open Toronto program on Saturday May 23, 2009 from 10am to 4pm. There will be guided cemetery tours at 11am and 2pm.