By: John C. Carter.
What do Trinity College, Casa Loma, Osgoode Hall, Hart House, Massey Hall, Convocation Hall, and Queen’s Park all have in common? These and many other architecturally significant buildings, as well as businesses, institutions and humble homes, were all constructed with building materials manufactured at the Don Valley Brick Works. This article looks at the history of the Don Valley Brick Works from its establishment to its end of production.
The Taylor Era
Founded in 1891 as the Don Valley Pressed Brick Company,* brothers John, William and George Taylor created what was to become one of the oldest and continuously operating brickworks in Ontario. From a total of thirty-two brick plants listed in Toronto directories in 1890, the Don Valley Brickworks was, until its closure, the only remaining industry of its kind in production in Metropolitan Toronto.
Its significance was recorded in the first year of operation. In the 1891 Report of the Ontario Bureau of Mines, it was noted that the Taylor brothers had started to construct brick works that had “the best and most modern equipment” of the day. At that juncture, the plant had machinery for the manufacture of dry-press brick, and eight kilns for firing.
Within three years, rapid expansion was experienced, and the industrial complex situated near the Don River produced a wide range of brick products. Plain, moulded and ornamental bricks, enamelled bricks, terra cotta building materials, roofing tiles, vitrified paving bricks, sewer pipes, and fire brick were included in the plant’s inventory. The 1894 Don Valley Pressed Brick Works Catalogue featured images of over 400 different brick types. The Catalogue added that; “Our Bricks are homogeneous, and can be carved more easily than stone…All our goods have a closeness of texture and uniformity of color unequalled by any made in America.” The catalogue conveyed the extensive scale of production at the site. Because of the high quality of goods made there, the Don Valley Pressed Brick Works won industry accolades including a gold medal for its products, at the 1894 Toronto Industrial Fair, and an award at the 1895 Chicago World’s Fair. Period advertisements proclaimed that the operation was the “Largest Individual Plant in America,” and that production totalled 114,000 bricks per day. Branch offices were established in Montreal, Ottawa, Chicago, Detroit, Buffalo and Boston. Its brick products were used not only in Toronto, but elsewhere in the province, in United States, and as far afield as Vancouver. Another promotional slogan used at this time was “Capacity-Unlimited.”
Between 1891 and 1902, Toronto directories listed tradesmen and labourers who worked at the Don Valley Brick Works. In 1891, the First Report of the Bureau of Mines stated that 55 men exclusive of the teamsters, were employed there. In the July 8, 1893 edition of the Toronto Globe, a visiting reporter wrote that 65 hands worked there year round. By 1902, 65 men were listed as specifically working at the brick works. Many of these employees and their families lived in the surrounding villages of Chester and Todmorden. Others lived in nearby Toronto and York Township. These statistics underlined the importance of the brick works both as an employer and as a positive force in and contributor to the local communities and their economies.
In the late 1890s, the Don Valley Pressed Brick Works began to experience operating difficulties. It is believed that the Taylor Brothers had overextended their financial resources, and had dissipated their working capital in other ventures which were unrelated to the brick business. The unfortunate result was that in 1901, the Taylor Brothers were forced to declare bankruptcy. Within a few weeks of the Taylor Brothers’ collapse, a brother in law, William Davies, was permitted to lease the brick works, in order to complete the production of bricks already contracted for. Davies also had and understanding with the trustee in bankruptcy, which allowed him to acquire the brick works in partial liquidation of his loan to the Taylors. The brickyard then became owned by Davies, and was managed by his eldest son, George T. Davies. As sole proprietor of the operation, Davies ran it for eleven years. During this period business rebounded and prospered. By 1906, the company was the only one in Ontario that manufactured enamelled brick, and one of the few to continue to make both wire-cut and dry-press brick. The proximity of the brick works to major markets and rails lines, and to an ample supply of clay, shale and water at the site, helped it again to be profitable.
In 1909, Robert Davies took steps to incorporate the brick works as the Don Valley Brick Company Limited, with a share capital of $500,000. Besides Davies, the applicants for incorporation included John M. Bowman, Harry St. John, John Jarvis and George T. Davies. In the December 10, 1910 issue of the trade magazine Contract Record, an article about the site noted that; “…the products of the Don Valley Brick Works are known for their quality, wherever they have been introduced.”Robert Davies died in 1912, and four years later in 1916, the company’s business was taken over by a new corporation. The new Don Valley Brick Works Limited was formed by some of Davies’ former associates. This private company was incorporated on September 20, 1920, with a share capital of $1,000,000. Provisional directors were John M. Bowman, William Burgess and lawyer Wilfrid F. Huycke. In 1929, this company sold most of its assets to the Toronto Brick Company.**
At this time, production at the Don Valley Brick Works had reached a level of twenty-five million bricks annually. Due to the plant’s location in the Don Valley and because of technological production changes in brick making, four unusually large smokestacks had been constructed. They immediately became familiar and iconic landmarks. These chimneys identified the important position of the Don Valley Brick Works in the industrial complex which had grown up along the banks of the Don River, and served the growing needs of an ever-expanding Toronto metropolis. In 1930, the Ontario Department of Mines reported that; “…the plant is one of the best known in Ontario.” Its products were of such a stellar quality, that the Ontario Department of Education required that only brick from this site would be used in the construction of Normal Schools throughout the province. Another interesting fact was that throughout World War Two, Italian and German prisoners worked at the Don Valley Brick Works. They were housed at a nearby Prisoner of War Camp on the property which is now Todmorden Mills Museum. After the end of the war, some of these men returned from their home countries and continued to work there.
Since its founding, the Don Valley Brick Works has undergone tremendous changes. Most notably were the renovations undertaken in the late 1950s and the early 1960s, when much of the original brick-making equipment was removed and replaced by newer and technologically advanced kilns and brick making machinery. Latterly, the brick enamelling plant, the rectangular, continuous and muffle kilns, and three of the four chimneys were demolished. However, various activities related to the brick-making process such as mining, grinding, burning, forming and storage, remained relatively constant until production ceased.
In 1951, the Toronto Brick Company was wound up, and its business at the Don Valley Brick Works was taken over by a new company with a slightly different name, the Toronto Brick Co. Limited. A majority of the shares in both the old and new companies was owned by the family of A.E. Jephcott, one of the founders of Toronto Brick. In 1956, the shareholders in Toronto Brick sold the business to AGROB AG, a company with headquarters in Munich, Germany. Lieutenant-General Guy G. Simmonds was appointed as its president. On June 30, 1965, AGROB amalgamated the Frontenac Floor and Wall Tile Company with Toronto Brick, and created a new entity, called United Ceramics Company. By 1984, the focus of AGROB changed,*** and the Don Valley Brick Works property and buildings were conveyed to Torvalley Associates Limited for $4.1 million. Later that year, the great open shale pit behind the plant began to be filled in, and the buildings and machinery were leased to Brampton Brick. Under the name Masonary World, Brampton Brick completed final production (January, 1989), and proceeded to sell off the remaining stock of bricks. This interim use continued until 1991. Final closure of the site, marked the end of 100 years of brick production and brick related activity at the Don Valley Brick Works.
Torvalley’s immediate plan was to demolish buildings at the brick works, to make way for a proposed condominium/residential housing development. In opposition to these plans, the “Friends of the Valley,” a group of concerned local ratepayers was formed in 1985. It lobbied the provincial and municipal governments to save and rehabilitate the brick works property for public use, and to prevent the construction of housing in a flood plain. These efforts were ultimately successful as the site was expropriated, and then transferred to the Metropolitan Toronto and Region Conservation Authority (MTRCA) in 1989, to own and manage. Today the rear of the property (former quarry) is managed by the City of Toronto Parks as a public natural heritage area. The buildings fronting on the Bayview Extension, are leased by Evergreen from the Conservation Authority (with an easement from the Ontario Heritage Trust), and are separately operated as the Evergreen Brickworks.
In 1877, William Morris, founder of the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings, wrote about the role society should play in the preservation of built heritage. He noted that; “It has been most truly said that buildings do not belong to us only; that they have belonged to our forefathers and that they will belong to our descendants unless we play them false. They are not in any sense our property, to do as we like with them. We are only trustees for those that come after us.” Now over 140 years later, these words are still most applicable, especially for the protection and preservation of an industrial heritage site like the Don Valley Brick Works. Let’s hope William Morris’ thoughts are taken seriously in future developments there!
*In 1891 it was also known as the Don Valley Brick Works, and existed for its first decade as part of the paper-making and farming interests of the Taylor Brothers partnership.
**The Toronto Brick Company Limited was incorporated with share capital of $600,000 on September 13, 1911. Supplementary letters patent issued on June 17, 1913, increased its share capital to $1,000,000. In 1952, to permit a distribution of the retained earnings, its business was wound up. To acquire some of its assets, the Toronto Brick Co. Limited was incorporated on December 12, 1951, and operated as such until 1965.
***With a focus on other parts of the world, AGROB was keen to dispose of its Canadian interests. A popular myth suggested that the clay and shale deposits at the Don Valley Brick Works had run out, and that this was the reason why the property was sold. This is not accurate, as a group of existing employees and management even put a bid together to acquire and to continue running the brick manufacturing business, which they believed could be a viable operation. However this offer did not go forward, and all assets were sold to Torvalley.
Chris Andreae, Heritage Assessment of Brick Making Machinery, Don Valley Brick Yard (Toronto: Metropolitan Toronto & Region Conservation Authority, 1988).
Jean Basco, “The 1894 Don Valley Pressed Brick Works Catalogue,” APT (1977), v. IX, # 1.
James W.P. Campbell & Will Pryce, Brick, A World History (London: Thames & Hudson, 2003).
John C. Carter, “A New Dawn for the Don Valley Brick Works,” CHOnews (March, 1998).
John C. Carter, “Don Valley Brickworks Regeneration Project,” Heritage Canada (March/April, 1994), v.1, # IV.
John C. Carter, “Industrial Heritage: Protection and Preservation,” CHOnews (May, 2005).
John C. Carter, “Steps Towards Protection & Preservation,” National TRUSTnews (Victoria) (May 2005), v. 33, #4.
Martin Hammond, Bricks and Brickmaking (Aylesbury: Shire Publications, 1990).
Jean Hopkins, “Don Valley Bricks Made at Bayview Ave. & Pottery Road,” North Toronto Post (March, 1998).
Stephen A. Otto, The Don Valley Brick Works: the Company and Its People (East York: East York L.A.C.A.C., 1998).
The author would like to thank Chris Andreae, Tara Bowyer, Ed Freeman, Steve Otto and Nick Saccone for their advice and assistance in the preparation of this article.