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He was a Toronto industrialist … until they sent him to the sanatorium

This is my great-grandfather, Robert Kilgour — a handsome dude! It’s a haunting, melancholic portrait, a black-and-white photograph colourized by hand. His beard and countenance resemble Sigmund Freud, who lived during roughly the same era in a different part of the world.

Robert was a second-generation Canadian, born in 1848 in Beauharnois, Quebec, on Montreal’s south shore, the son of 1829, first-generation Scottish immigrants. He brought Clara Govan of Glasgow (eight years his junior) to Quebec, married her in 1886, then moved to Toronto, where they raised three sons together. One of their sons, Arthur, died in a warplane crash in 1917 (he was a pilot). Their eldest son, another Robert*, was my grandfather.

In Toronto, Robert partnered in business with his younger brother Joseph. Together, they capitalized on a late 19th century packaging innovation — the flat-bottom paper bag! — and built a multi-storey factory in the 1870s to mass-produce bags and cardboard at 21 Wellington Street West. They prospered, and expanded their premises to 23 Wellington as well, late in the century.

toronto fire

Adversity struck in 1904, when the Great Toronto fire burned through the city’s downtown, industrial core on the evening of April 19. But the Kilgour brothers had the foresight to install towers on the roof of 21-23 Wellington (see background of this photo), which provided water to protect the building and halt the blaze before it reached Yonge Street. Nearly 100 buildings were destroyed in the calamity, decimating the downtown, but not a single life was lost. The post-fire photos resemble scenes from WWI, ten years later.

Personal adversity also stalked Robert, who suffered from mental illness throughout his adult life. Clara eventually sent him away to the Homewood Sanatorium of Guelph sometime in the first or second decade of the 20th century — perhaps in his late 50s.

Family lore is that Clara declared her husband Robert “dead to her” as he was taken away by car. And in fact, she didn’t see him again, never making the 50-mile trip to visit him in Guelph. He was banished from the family and died an ignominious death in 1918 at the age of 71. How did he die, was there a funeral, or a grave? I’m not sure.

I think of Robert Kilgour when I pass today’s Homewood institution, and try to imagine him there. The private institution was founded in his lifetime (1883) to treat mental illness and substance abuse, and it still plays a significant role in Guelph, with publicly-funded beds as well.

I’ve visited inside the modern-day Homewood — family members and friends have been treated inside its walls. It’s hard to know if the place brought comfort to the last decade of Robert’s life, or if it felt like a prison to him. His eyes appear distant, even ghostly. What’s he thinking about behind that vacant stare?

* My Dad’s family wasn’t very imaginative with male names, repeating Robert, or Arthur, or William for many generations. We’ve put an end to that now, but the less common “Govan” family name still lingers as a middle name. I’m not sure why that is, as Clara (Govan) is the villain of this story. But maybe it’s best not to judge what your ancestors did 100+ years ago, in another era, when mental illness likely carried an even larger stigma than it does today.

Postscript: whither Joseph?

My great-grandfather’s brother and business partner Joseph carried on with the paper business after Robert was exiled to Guelph, and also got involved with corn syrup manufacturing, another new product in the early 20th century. He and his wife Alice Grand were childless, and when he died in 1925, Alice decided to gift their “Sunnybrook Farm” country home on the outskirts of town to the City of Toronto. (At the bottom of the plaque, below Joseph’s name, it says “A Great Lover of Nature.”)

That land is now Sunnybrook Park and the grounds of the Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre, in the Burke Brook ravine between Bayview and Leslie Streets near Eglinton Avenue. Among other things, the hospital now specializes in mood and anxiety disorders, and brain research.

There is no road traversing the ravine across the Sunnybrook property, to link the two busy north-south arteries; that was part of the deal specified by Alice when she finally donated the land to the city in 1928 in memory of her husband. It forever altered the urban geography of Toronto, just before the city’s post-war growth-spurt pushed its boundaries far north of Eglinton.

That’s a nice order of succession: private wealth from 19th century paper bag manufacturing transforms into public greenspace (and trees) in the middle of 21st century Toronto.

2 Comments Post a comment
  1. Bill Kilgour #

    Alison sent me your link. Enjoyed the story on Robert. Sad, but mental illness was an embarrassment back then. I also read your description of the team relay. Having run the jasper-banff relay many times it brought back some great memories. Anyways, stay safe and have a good Christmas, whatever shape it takes this year. Bill Kilgour, Edmonton

    December 21, 2020
  2. Charles Ogilvie #

    I came across this, and your piece about your uncle Arthur Rutherford Kilgour, on Ancestry, and was much interested in both. My own great-grandfather, Charles Edward Wingate, was part of a group of young Glaswegians, dedicated to religious ministry among the poor of Glasgow, that included Robert Cecil Kilgour, Robert Fleming, William B Sloan, Clara Govan and her brother Arthur (and at least one sister), and my gggf’s brothers, among others. The group was led by his older brother William Wingate, who was to become a minister some years later. I believe it was called by a couple of different names, one of which was the McGill Institute.

    My gggf went first to the Dakota territories before taking his wife back to her native Ontario after about 10 years there. They had only occasional contact with the Toronto Kilgour/Govans, I suspect because life had not been kind to my gggf and his little family, and they were no longer on an equal footing socially with their old Glasgow friends. Back in Scotland, Clara Govan’s brother Arthur married my gggf’s cousin Bella Cunningham, so I suppose you and I are vaguely related by marriage. The old Kilgour and Govan families have always fascinated me as much as my more direct ancestors, and I appreciate your interesting portraits. If you would like more information about the Glasgow activities of the young folk I mentioned, I’d be glad to share what I have.

    Oh, BTW, I made my living for several decades as a writer (amongst other things), and one of my companies was called “The Write Stuff.” The other was “Write On!”

    A distant cuz

    July 24, 2022

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