Author: Henry Law
Publication Date: 2004
Left: Francis Law as a young pioneer.
Right: 14 Neeve Street Guelph.
The stone house at 14 Neeve Street in Guelph which was built about 1878 has been the home to successive generations of the Law Family. The history of the house is also a history of the family to which it belongs as well as part of Guelph's history.
Francis Law, one of the early pioneers of Guelph, was born in 1830 at Spalding, Lincolnshire, England. In the spring of 1852, at age 22, he decided to emigrate to Upper Canada. During the six-week voyage the vessel was shipwrecked on the Scilly Isles off the coast of Cornwall, but he and his friend from Spalding, William Smith, were rescued and taken to New York. From that city, the pair travelled overland to Buffalo and then on to Hamilton, Canada West, where they followed a trail through the bush to Guelph. When Francis first arrived, there were only two residences on the east side of the Speed River, which is now one of the most densely populated districts in the city. That summer, Francis met John Hewer, with whom he became a partner in the fur trade for a few years. Trapping furs between Luther Marsh and the hamlet of Laurel, Amaranth Township, where Francis lived in a log cabin, proved profitable. (Amaranth Township was part of Wellington County prior to 1881 when it amalgamated with the newly formed Dufferin County).
Winters were colder there than in Guelph and snowstorms were more frequent. While feeding and bedding his horse one night, a severe storm began to rage, and Francis was unable to get back to the cabin because of the blinding snow and strong wind. He spent the night sleeping beside the horse and sharing its blanket to keep warm. Next day, he tied a rope between the cabin and the barn to guide him during any future storms. On one occasion while checking his traps, he suffered badly frozen feet. He returned to Guelph to recuperate and, presumably, to pick up his mail, as in August 1853 his name was included in a newspaper list of letters not picked up at the Guelph Post Office. Francis Law then worked on the Grand Trunk Railway which was being built between Montreal and Chicago. The passenger station in Guelph was officially opened in 1856, near the site of the present coach terminal on Carden Street. Francis also helped quarry the stone for the Guthrie home which eventually became part of the original Homewood Sanitarium.
After this sojourn in Guelph, Francis resumed his fur trapping expeditions for a few more years and managed to save a considerable amount of money, so he decided to travel. At this time the American Civil War was being fought in the southeastern United States, so Francis chose to visit the mid-western states of Indiana and Illinois, to which migrants from the northeastern states were flocking for cheap land. He became an innkeeper at Morris, Illinois, and it was there that he met and married school teacher Emma Smedley in 1866. (Her family had originally emigrated from Yorkshire, England to Pennsylvania.) In June of that year, Francis decided to bring his bride to Guelph, and again entered into partnership with John Hewer, this time as a fishmonger, with residence at 22 Farquhar Street. (After 50 years, this business passed to his son Frederick, the second youngest of his eight children.)
During this time, Francis began to acquire parcels of land between Neeve Street and the Mill Lands, the latter extending from Waterloo Street (now Fountain St.) east to the Speed River. These lands were listed under two separate plans (Nos. 33 and 269) each divided into lots. Francis bought lots in both these plans. As well, on December 31, 1877, all of Lot 4 in plan No. 269 passed from John Smith to Emma Law, wife of Francis, and about 1878 a stone two-storey house was built on the property. The Guelph City Directory for the years 1882 and 1883 listed the following, "On the east side of Neeve Street, the residences of Francis Law and George Marsh." The 1889 Guelph City Directory listed: "Frank Law, Fish Dealer, householder, east side Neeve, near Bell's Factory". It wasn't until about 1908 that the Law house was enumerated as 14 Neeve Street. It has been described as a, "Neo-Classic, vernacular, two-storey, three bay, hip roof, twin with brick end chimneys, ornamental corbelled caps, hammer dressed quoins, tooled sills and lintels, and entrance with sidelights," the latter no longer existing. The house measured 26 x 30 feet, contained seven rooms and cost $800. A contractor named William Slater did the stonework and carpentry, Thomas Robinson the plastering, and Martin Tobin Jr. the painting. On the ground floor there was a large living room, a parlour, and a master bedroom. There were four bedrooms upstairs with an attic above.
The basement originally contained two separate spaces: a root cellar, and a floored kitchen separated by a wall. The root cellar was completely dark with an earthen floor, and fitted with bins to hold potatoes, carrots, turnips, apples, pears, and other produce which would keep over the winter months. Shelves lined the upper walls on which were placed jars of fruit preserves such as plums, cherries, pears, and tomato sauces. When eating apples or pears from the dark cellar, the children were obliged to take only those which were beginning to turn bad and leave the best for later on. The other cellar space, originally used as a kitchen, had a wooden floor, and windows which faced southwest allowing the sunlight to enter. When the family grew larger during the 1920s and 1930s, it became necessary to move the kitchen upstairs so part of the living room was converted for this purpose.
The prosperity of the early 1920s brought many innovations to urban homes and son Fred Law installed electricity and indoor plumbing at the Neeve Street house. This area of Guelph was beginning to grow, and it became necessary to tap into a sewer system. Toilets and sinks were connected to the water mains and the well behind the house was filled with stones and rubble. The pantry was converted into a water closet which contained a toilet bowl and sink with a cold water tap. A larger sink with running water was placed near the back door, and another in the light cellar. There was no hot water tank then and water had to be heated on the stove for bathing and laundry purposes. The kitchen stove had a reservoir containing hot water which was in constant use. Saturday evening was when the family took their baths in a big copper tub enclosed by a screen. Kerosene lamps were replaced by electric light bulbs around this time. When Francis' grandson Fred Law Jr. succeeded to the ownership of the Neeve Street house in the late 1960s he installed a water heater, added more electrical outlets, improved the plumbing system, and modernized the bathroom.
Barn behind 14 Neeve Street house.
At the rear of the Neeve Street lot, a frame stable and barn had been built at the same time as the house in 1878, to accommodate two horses, two grain bins, a hay storage area handy to the mangers, and a separate section to hold a wagon, harnesses, and various implements. Above it was a hayloft, usually well-filled. Over the years, the horse stalls, manger, and grain bins were removed, and it was converted to a family workshop. A keen hunter, Fred Law Sr. always kept hounds which he bred for hunting. When they were sold, the doghouse was used as a pigeon pen by Francis. An ice-house near the main house was later converted into a garage.
Until his death in 1924 at the age of 94, Francis Law contributed to the growth of Guelph and witnessed its transition from a scattered hamlet to a village, a town and finally to a city of several thousand people. Emma Law had died in 1911. She and Francis were the parents of eight children who reached adulthood. They were raised in Guelph and at a farm owned by Emma and Francis at Laurel. Emma Rebecca (the eldest, born in 1867) often complained that her parents were too strict, especially her father. The young adults had to be at home by 10 o'clock every night. Their friends and suitors were previously approved and accepted by the parents. After marriage, the majority of the children moved away from Guelph, settling in other towns, provinces, and also the States.
The youngest boys were Frederick James Law, born 1880, and John James Law, born 1882, and with less than two years difference between their ages, they were very close, although John tended to be carefree while Fred was more serious. Both boys attended Central School and in later years John described an event at school which changed the course of not only his life, but also that of his brother, Fred. He described the principal of the school as a strict disciplinarian who kept order with a thick leather strap about three inches wide and 15 inches long. If a boy happened to be a couple of minutes late or committed some minor offense, he would be taken to the principal's room and strapped on the hand three or four times. One spring day in 1893, when John was 11 years old, he was playing marbles at the bottom of the school hill when the bell rang to start classes. He ran up the cement steps and found the door closed. Afraid of being strapped, he went home and told his mother about the incident. The next morning, she gave him a note to take to school, but it did not help. The strap raised a large blister on his wrist and John, subsequently, refused to return to classes. A couple of afternoons later he met his father unexpectedly on Surrey Street and when asked why he wasn't at school, explained that he would not go back to be strapped again. The father took his son to the principal's house and during the ensuing discussion, the principal told John that if he did not return to classes, he would be sent to a reform school. The parents then decided to remove both John and Fred from the school and take them to Laurel to avoid future incidents. The boys were enrolled in the school at Laurel for the remainder of the spring classes but became homesick for Guelph, 40 miles away. One morning they started out on foot for Guelph via Erin and after getting rides from several farmers reached home by early evening. Rather than come into contact with their father and being punished, they went to the barn and found a couple of horse blankets there to keep them warm. The next morning after their father had left the house, their sister Evelyne cooked them breakfast. The following day they were at their sister Elizabeth Hunter's house on Mill Street, just off the Elora Road (now Woolwich Street). She became very nervous when she saw their father coming so hid the two boys in the woodshed. By this time the glamour of Guelph was diminishing and the boys decided to return to Laurel. At the end of the summer holidays, John was sent to his elder sister Emma Ward at Wilmington, Illinois, to continue his education while Fred remained to help on the farm at Laurel and his father at Guelph. He never returned to school, either at Laurel or in Guelph, as he was fourteen years of age. Fred later took a course at the Guelph Business College in 1913-1914, while John attended the Chicago Veterinary College and set up practice at Nashville, Michigan. Fred married Lottie Ferrier in 1918 and raised a family of ten children. On the death of his mother, Emma Law in 1911,he inherited all of lot No. 4, including No. 14 Neeve Street.
The Speed River between Allan's Dam and Neeve Street was always a magnet for the Law family, sometimes with tragic consequences. It served as a swimming spot, a skating rink, and a fishing area. Until the late 1930s and early 1940s, the river was deep with various types of fish in it. During the Depression boys used to fish in the river, the small fish being thrown back and the big ones given away. In winter, the Law children skated and played hockey where the ice was thickest, from late November until March. Over the years the breakup of the ice and spring flooding along the river claimed the lives of unwary children. Henry Lee Law, another son of Francis and Emma, fell into the river in late March 1892, caught pneumonia and died a few weeks later, aged 17. In the spring of 1927, the children of Fred and Lottie Law were playing by the riverbank when the youngest child, Alva (only three), was caught by the current and carried away. After three days of dragging the river, her body was found near the floodgate. Ruby Law was luckier. She was swimming in the river above Allan's Dam in 1940 when she was pulled down by the current. Her cries for help resulted in her being rescued by young Fred Harvey, a neighbour on Neeve Street. (He was killed in action in Germany during WWII.)
The Great Depression followed the collapse of the New York stock market in October 1929. In Canada wages fell and unemployment rose, and many merchants went out of business. Hundreds of thousands of out-of-work people were put on a public assistance program known as 'relief.' Fred Law and his family survived the Great Depression by bartering fish for farm produce which included vegetables, fruit, meat, and fowl. The family had plenty to eat but very little cash, after paying taxes, to buy other essentials such as shoes and clothes. The farm at Laurel and property in the Thunder Bay area were sold to help pay the taxes. Income taxes were gradually increased but the family managed to survive without going into debt. During this period, Fred allowed a family of two parents and a young son to live in the light cellar for a couple of years. They had a crystal radio, and everyone would listen to Amos and Andy, singer Kate Smith, and other popular programs.
As factories closed and businesses failed across the country, thousands of unemployed men hopped on the freight trains to look for jobs elsewhere. They came from all walks of life but were classified as hobos. Canadian National Railway freight trains passed through Guelph enroute from Montreal to Chicago, and Canadian Pacific trains from Toronto travelling north passed through on a spur line from Guelph junction. The Law property at the top of Neeve Street became a popular place for hobos to gather, being handy to both railway lines. They were unobserved among the chokecherry bushes where they rested and ate between stops. Secret signs gave them directions. Some were allowed to sleep in the stable or barn provided they didn't drink alcohol, smoke, or make a mess. When they departed, the youngsters would collect the bottles and sell them for five cents each. That was their pocket money, a nickel being a small fortune. Drunkenness, however, was discouraged and the youngsters were warned not to go near those particular hobos. The hobos who slept in the stable or hayloft were under the supervision of one or two trusted occupants who stayed around for awhile and then disappeared. Surprisingly, the hobos were usually polite, respectful, and honest. Doors were never locked in the house, even when the whole family was away. One man whom Fred Law knew and trusted was allowed to sleep on a couch in the living room section. He was a handyman, able to do many odd jobs about the place, and lived with the family until Mr. Law died. Sunday dinner at the Law house was the big meal of the week during the 1930s. There was a long dining table, and two strong planks of wood were placed on chairs on both sides. The hobos were invited to sit with the adults while the children ate at a table nearby. The kitchen was usually crowded on Sundays, and Mrs. Law with the eldest daughter, Irene, prepared all the food.
When the Law children were growing up, the boys slept two in a bed, as did the girls. When there were visitors a third child was put at the foot of the others' beds to free up a bedroom for the guests. All the children were expected to help with the chores. The boys fed and harnessed the horses, cleaned the stable, fed the chickens, and helped with other jobs outside the house, as well as cutting wood for the stove. The girls were expected to help with the housework including laundry. During the early 1930s clothes were washed in a big copper tub with a scrubbing board. Later an electric Beatty washing machine was installed. One day Ruby's hair was caught in the wringer while she was bent over the tub, but her mother saved her from being scalped.
During the 1930s and '40s the winter months were much colder than in recent years. Clothes outgrown by the older Law children were handed down to the younger ones after a few alterations on the sewing machine. Going to school was an ordeal then as both Tytler and Central Schools were a fair distance away, so newspapers were placed under shirts and blouses to help keep warm and to provide some protection from the biting wind. By the time the children reached the school, their hands would be numb despite gloves or mitts. In those days in the elementary schools, failed tests and examinations meant another year in the same class. Pupils were required to memorize arithmetic tables, certain poems, plus dates in Canadian history. Compository grammar and literature were taught routinely. Discipline was strictly enforced, and sometimes necessitated a trip to the principal. At recess time, the boys played separately from the girls, and each group used separate doors for entering and leaving. At Tytler School, after recess or lunch period, the boys marched in step to military music played on the gramophone, even going up the stairs. If a boy was out of step, he received a whack on the shoulder from the principal's pointer.
During the summer months when school was closed, the Law boys were forbidden to frequent pool halls and discouraged from loitering on the downtown streets. Fred Law's plan to handle any such problem was simple. He had farm friends who needed help with haying, stooking wheat, and caring for the livestock, so the boys learned to handle a team of horses and to milk cows by hand. During the winter months they were given candies by elderly neighbours to shovel snow from their walks. Some farmer friends allowed them to chop a few spruce trees in the Christmas season which were sold for 25 cents each. As well, the Law family made their own toys. Slats from old wooden rain barrels were straightened manually to make skis and sleds. Pieces of sheet metal were fashioned into toboggans. Ice skates were handed down from bigger to smaller brothers with newspapers stuffed in the toes to make them fit. In summer, the children played with hoops from rain barrels plus the usual games of hide and seek, kick the can, baseball, and others. Racism was non-existent though there were Italian, Polish, Hungarian, Armenian, and other European nationalities in the neighbourhood.
Guelph was a farming town until the beginning of the Second World War. Farmers from miles around would come to sell goods at the Saturday market. The Downtown was alive with people, as that was the day to meet friends and socialize. On Saturday afternoons and evenings Wyndham Street was so crowded with people it was difficult to thread one's way through them, and shops were open until 10 P.M. If the Law children had a few pennies to spend they would go to Anderson's Bakery just off the Square and get a bag full of cookies for a nickel or a dime at closing time. The hotel beverage rooms were also busy on Friday and Saturday evenings. One room catered to men only, another to the ladies, and they closed before midnight on Saturdays. There was very little drunkenness and few brawls. Saturday was a day for friends to meet and socialize. Policemen on foot patrolled the streets to keep order. Children had to be off the streets by 11 P.M. and teenagers were kept under control by friendly constables who knew most of them. All shops were closed on Sunday. Guelph was a small city then with a population of about 22,000.
The Second World War brought the Great Depression to an end and prosperity to many, but it also ended a way of life and a unique culture in which Canadians were previously raised. It changed the family unit when mothers began to get jobs in factories and work outside the home. Francis and Henry Law both served in the Canadian army during the war. Francis served with the Essex Scottish Regiment and was wounded in Germany. Henry trained at Chatham and Ipperwash and was sent to the Maritimes where he was placed in an under-aged group in the Pictou Highlanders just before the War ended in Europe in 1945.
Frederick Law Jr. is the current proud owner of the family home. He and his wife Margaret Holman of Springfield, Ontario, raised their seven children there. It is hoped that the Law home on Neeve Street will remain in the possession of succeeding generations of the family for another century and perhaps longer.
- The Guelph Daily Mercury and Advertiser, 27 November 1878.
- The Guelph Mercury, 1 November 1932.
- Osborne, A.C., "The Migration of Voyageurs from Drummond Island to Penetanguishene in 1828." Ontario Historical Society, Vol. 3, 1901, p. 123-166.
- Guelph City Directory.
1. City of Guelph Inventory of Heritage Records, pg 259 & 260, by Peter Stokes.