Author: Shirley Newell

Publication Date: 2010

Edited: 2022



The Sleeman Centre now occupies the land next to the Wellington County Court House that used to be 54 Woolwich Street - actually it was 62 Woolwich Street in the old directories before the new numbering system was introduced around 1916. The old home that once occupied that lot survives only in my brother's and my memories. The house, which was opposite Thorp Street, was demolished and sold to the City for a parking lot in 1955.1 However, I remember the two-storey yellow brick house vividly. It was the family home of my grandfather George J. Thorp at the turn of the twentieth century. The house stood well back from the tree-lined street and had a driveway to the barn at the back of the property. The high stone wall of the Court House lined one side of the driveway. The house had a verandah that stretched across its whole width. In the centre of the porch eaves was a plaque, 'Court Villa,' - in those days, people gave names to their houses as many still do in England. The house had a centre-hall plan; however, it underwent many changes after my grandparents' six children were grown and had left. It was turned into four rental apartments, upper and lower on each side of the hall.


In 1936, the darkest days of the Depression, my grandparents were back in the old family home, occupying the lower right-hand apartment, the side adjacent to the Court House.2 By then, my grandfather had acquired a batch of small properties, and the rents were his retirement income. That summer was traumatic for my parents as my father, a lawyer had just declared bankruptcy in the small Ontario town of Cobourg. (In those days one was 'de-frocked' until the debts were paid in full, which they were). My brother John and I were dispatched to our grandparents, and my sister Mary stayed with my mother while she cleared out our home in Cobourg.


Historic Guelph Map V49P42

Map indicating Thorp Street, circa 1870.

(Photo courtesy of Guelph Museums).


Grandmother Thorp had a daily routine. Part of it was sitting on the front porch, the right-hand side, in black painted wicker furniture after the day's chores were done. There she taught me to knit and, "Sew a fine seam." I was not allowed to chase around after my brother and his friends, climbing fences and ripping made-over dresses on rusty nails as I had done in Cobourg. It was there on the front porch that I first remember hearing my grandmother's stories. J. W. Lyon, Beverly Robson, the Goldies, and John Higginbotham were all people that she knew. The house sat opposite the Sutherland Cottage Apartments and 59 to 61 Woolwich Street at the corner of Thorp Street. My grandfather grew up in Number 59 and his mother died there. It is the stone building now occupied by the law offices of Hungerford, Guthrie & Berry. It was on the front porch of 54 Woolwich Street that the saga of the Thorp family was incubated.


Historic Guelph Sutherland Cottage Apartments V49P42

Sutherland Cottage apartments, circa 1940.

(Photo courtesy of Guelph Museums).




John Thorp emigrated from Ireland and arrived in New York on the ship, the Margaret Scott, on August 22, 1827. The passenger arrivals at the port of New York from 1820 to 1829 list John Thorp, aged 30, carpenter; and the country he intended to inhabit, the United States.3 In the History of St. George's Parish, 1832-1932, it states:


"The builder [of the first St. George's Church] was John Thorp, a young Irishman, brought from New York by Mr. Buchanan, the British consul there - and a friend of John Galt's, to erect some buildings in the newly opened settlement for the Canada Company."4


In his book, About Guelph: Its Early Days and Later, David Allan writes, "John Thorp came to Guelph in 1828 and was employed as a superintendent for the Canada Company, engaged later in the hotel business. After having kept the 'British' and 'Day's' he erected a building of his own at the corner of Macdonell and Woolwich Streets, calling it first the 'International', then 'Thorp's', and then later the 'City Hotel.'"5


An entry in The Annals of the Town of Guelph written by C. Acton Burrows says:


"During the month of January [1865] the town lost two of its eldest, most prominent, and useful citizens by death... [On the 27th], another most useful and enterprising citizen was removed by the death of Mr. John Thorp, also a builder, who had erected, perhaps, a greater portion of the buildings in the town than any other man. Mr. Thorp came to Guelph in 1828, and at once engaged actively in building houses for the new settlers. St. Andrew's Church, demolished to give a site for the market buildings, the original St. George's Church, the first Roman Catholic church, and several hotels, were all of his workmanship, and exhibited the good taste and practical skill which he possessed to a large degree. He afterwards went into the hotel business occupying at various times different hotels, including the North American, and, after his return from the campaign in the Mackenzie rebellion, the British Hotel. From the first introduction of railroads in the province, he had been exceedingly desirous of getting a line to run from Toronto to Guelph, and this object and the erection of a market house on the Market Square, were zealously advocated by him and he had the gratification of seeing the Toronto railway scheme inaugurated while he was a member of the first Municipal Council. Being of a speculative turn, he purchased among other property, a tract of land, and laid out a village between Guelph and Elora, which he called Thorpville, where he procured the establishment of a post office. In 1855, he retired from business and occupied for some time the handsome residence, erected by him, now occupied by Mr. John Horsman. He soon returned to business; however, occupying the International Hotel, now known as the City Hotel, which he enlarged to four times its original capacity."6


Verne McIlwraith wrote a feature on John Thorp in his column, "As It Happened." Obviously, McIlwraith had access to Burrows, chronicle but he elaborated on some of the information. For instance, he writes, "It was Thorp who finished construction of the Priory, the first house built in Guelph, which served as a residence and office facilities for John Galt and his Canada Company operations. The Priory had been erected in 1827, but hadn't been finished until Thorp took over."7 He also reports:


"Thorp was quartermaster of the Second Battalion of the government forces in the 1837 rebellion. Returning to Guelph in 1843, he bought the British Hotel on Carden Street. It was then the principal hotel in this area and was built by Drs. Orton and Clarke. Thorp set up the first stage line to Hamilton and Owen Sound... In 1855, he gave up the hotel and moved the handsome residence he had built on Galt's Hill (now Grange Street) and formerly known as Mountaintown, Horsman's, and Day's Hill."8


Historic Guelph Prospect Place V49P44


Prospect Place on Stuart and Grange streets, circa, 1860.

(Photo courtesy of Guelph Museums).


The home, known as Prospect Place, is at the Corner of Grange and Stuart Streets.9 John Horseman, owner of the hardware store on Wyndham Street, bought John Thorp's house in 1859 for over 18,000 dollars, while according to the Land Registry Office, T. J. Day bought the house and four acres of land on Grange Street for 6,500 dollars in 1881. There must be quite a story behind those transactions. According to the surveyor's maps, two of which were dated 1855 and one dated 1860, in the Guelph Land Registry Office. John Thorp owned other land in which Thorp Street was created in 1855, plus eight small plots of land. Another 81 plots were located on Brockville Avenue, Hood, and Hooper Streets, and York Road.


When John Thorp died in 1865, he left a will that was somewhat controversial among his eight surviving children. The original will decreed, "After the death of my wife Harriet, the whole principle sum shall be divided amongst my surviving children, share and share alike."10 However it isn't clear - due to difficulty deciphering the handwrighting - what was to be done with the property during the interim when his wife was still alive. Harriet Hewes Thorp lived another 13 years, dying on May 1, 1878. From the shaky handwriting of the signature, it looks as though John Thorp left his will to the last minute - another of those people who thought they were never going to die!


On the same day that the original will was signed and witnessed, a codicil was added, "That two hundred dollars be set aside for my beloved sister Dolly (a spinster) after payment of my debts." This codicil was witnessed by one of the same witnesses to the original will, James Webster, and another gentleman. Then two days later, on January 26, 1865, another codicil was added stating, "I will and bequeath to my daughter Elizabeth Boulter, my piano for whom it was originally purchased and be reserved for her by my executors... this bequest to take priority over all other bequests, anything in the preceding codicil or will to the contrary notwithstanding." The same men who had witnessed the first codicil, also witnessed the second codicil. The two executors appointed by John Thorp were James Andrew Thorp, his third child, and James Allan, his son-in-law who was married to his second daughter Mary. Both refused to be executors to the will with the two codicils. Enclosed with the recorded will are all the legal documents by which they surrender their responsibilities to a supposedly disinterested party. How this situation was resolved is unknown.11

Historic Guelph V49P46

Harriet Webster Thorp circa 1865.

(Photo courtesy of Guelph Museums (1980_22_49)).


From these historical documents, John Thorp is revealed as a hardworking and ambitious tradesman, a visionary, a risk-taker, and a man owning considerable land - overall, an entirely dependable gentleman. James Andrew Thorp, my great-grandfather, was one of those appointed executor of the will. He was born in Guelph in 1833. Little is known of him, but 'Jimmy' Thorp is listed as a student at the Wellington District Grammar School in 1845. My grandmother told me that James, as a young Mary took a trip down the Erie Canal, which carried passengers as well as freight, had met a young woman from Albany, New York, named Harriet Sybil Webster. They fell in love and eloped. They were married in Chippawa, now part of Niagara Falls, Ontario on July 28, 1856. The record of their marriage can be found in the McMaster University Archives.12 James and Harriet's first son, George John Thorp, was born in New York City on July 15, 1857. In the Special Industrial Souvenir edition of the Guelph Daily Mercury in 1908, an article states that James and Harriet Sybil Webster Thorp came to Guelph when George John was four months old, his parents residing in New York after marriage. From the advertisement it seems that James ran a livery stable opposite the Grand Trunk Railway Station from 1866 to 1877. By that time, he and Harriet had two more children: Fanny Elizabeth, born in 1859 and Henry James, born in 1865. James' father John died that same year. The Guelph Directory (1873) lists Thorp's Hotel at the corner of Macdonell and Woolwich Streets, administered by James A. Thorp, so it seems that he carried on one of his father's enterprises. There is no mention, however, as to whether the livery stable was still thriving.


Historic Guelph V49P47

James Thorp and children, 1859-1860.

(Photo courtesy of Guelph Museums (1980_22_13)).


Meanwhile, tragedy struck with the deaths of James' 32-year-old wife and their newborn daughter.13 Their daughter was born on February 19th, and his wife Harriet died on February 24th. Infant deaths were often not reported at that time and there is no public record of the death of their daughter.14 The cause of the deaths is uncertain. My grandmother Thorp said that James in a drunken moment pushed his pregnant wife down the stairs. James Thorp was a gentleman's son, so whatever the cause, it was not reported.15 However, three children, aged 11, eight, and three, were left without a mother. Therefore, Aunt Dolly, John Thorp's maiden sister, the one referred to in Thorp's will, was called in to help raise the children.


Historic Guelph Poster V49P48


In the Guelph Directory (1882-1883), the old Thorp's Hotel had a new name and a new proprietor. By the time of the census in 1891, James A. Thorp is simply recorded as a gentleman. He was then 58 years old. He died in 1915 at the age of 82, living with his married daughter Fannie E. Tanner at 31 Oxford Street. From his picture, James seems to be a strikingly handsome young man. No wonder young Harriet was swept off her feet on the Erie Canal. However, his contribution to Guelph as a community is in sharp contrast to that of his father, John and his son George John.


James' first son, George John, my grandfather, is first recorded in the Directory (1873), aged 16 as clerk at Thorp's Hotel, at 1 and 5 Macdonell Street. He married his cousin Maude E. Tanner on September 14, 1881, in Guelph. Apparently, they moved to New York as their first daughter Fanny E. was born in Brooklyn on October 7, 1882. Some months later, they moved back to Guelph. They had four more children, Rhoda M. in 1884, Harry Webster in 1885, Grace in 1888, and George John Jr. in 1889. Grace died in 1889 when she was only 11 months old. Maude, their mother, suffered a cerebral hemorrhage and died in 1897. George then hired a housekeeper to look after his young family and married her in 1898. This was my grandmother, Annie Dillon Black, who at the time was a young widow with a six-year-old son Herbert. My mother Kathleen Edna Thorp was born as a result of this union. One of the period books that I enjoyed browsing through was the Social Register of Guelph for 1912. My grandmother was a farmer's daughter, who could turn her hand to anything, but with only a Grade 6 education. For her to find herself listed as a socialite in the Social Register back in those class-conscious days must have been quite a, "Feather in her cap."


Historic Guelph V49P49

James Thorp 1910.

(Photo courtesy of Guelph Museums (1980_22_13)).


In the city directories, George Thorp is listed as a seed merchant, first at 109 Wyndham Street in the Masonic Block. Later, the business moved to Macdonell Street and the property went through to the Market Square.16 Hewer's, the established seed merchant on Macdonell Street, was my grandfather's main competition in the business. However, my grandfather relied on salesmanship, service, and popularity to make his business a thriving enterprise. He was also not averse to taking risks. John Keleher in his essay "Guelph's Railroads" writes, "The local newspapers often report on large shipments. In one, George Thorp shipped 300,000 bushels of turnips to the United States from this area, using 400 railroad cars for which he paid almost $50,000. He paid area farmers another $50,000 and the American government $12,000 in duties."17 I remember him telling us that the big worry was whether the turnips would freeze as the weather got colder in the fall. The Directory (1913) shows that the seed business had moved to 140 to 150 Quebec Street. As the motorcar became the preferred mode of short distance travel the demand for feed gradually shrank.


Historic Guelph V49P50

George Thorp, at the 1908 Old Home Week Program.

(Photo courtesy of Guelph Museums (1973_23_26_page_7)).


In the Centennial edition of the Guelph Mercury and Advertiser, the Fat Stock Club is given a full-page article. It was written by Dr. Frederick Grenside, an old-timer who remembered Guelph when he was a boy in the 1860s. The Fat Stock Club were a group of men in the region who promoted the raising of fine horses, cattle, sheep, and swine. The Club, in which George was a member, instituted the bi-annual Fat Stock Shows held before Christmas and Easter in the latter half of the nineteenth century. In 1905, the Guelph show became the Provincial Winter Fair. The Winter Fair buildings were erected in Downtown Guelph and the Fair became renowned across the Dominion. According to Dr. Grenside, a tremendous amount of business was transacted at these fairs. Members of the Fat Stock Club patronized George's store that sold, "Feed, baled hay, straw, potatoes, turnips etc."


George was a mover and shaker in the community as well. The write-up in the 1908 Souvenir lndustrial Number published by the Guelph Old Home Week Committee gives a sketch of his family and a list of all the organizations to which he belonged. He served on City Council for several years and was mayor for the years 1910 to 1911. It so happened that 1911 was the year of the coronation of King George V, and the City sent my grandparents, George and Annie Thorp, as its representatives to this majestic gathering. It was truly an unforgettable event in their lives. They visited the ancestral homeland, Ireland, with their own funds. My grandmother loved to tell us about kissing the Blarney Stone. The coronation took second place.


On May 6, 1914, my grandfather was appointed Collector of Customs and Excise for the City of Guelph. The Guelph Mercury reported, "Ex-Mayor George J. Thorp received notice of his appointment as Collector of Customs for the port of Guelph. Mr. Thorp's 20 years of active public life stood him in good stead in the securing of the new post and his appointment was a very popular one."18 He continued in this post until 1927, according to the Directory of that year.19


In April 1937, alter my grandparents arrived home from Florida, my grandfather had a heart attack and died.20 The funeral was something of a local happening with many elected officials present. R. W. Gladstone, the Liberal Member of Parliament, was of course in attendance. The Gladstone family were neighbours when both families lived on Glasgow Street. Their son Jack was a ring-bearer at my parents wedding. It was a time when politics made no difference. An elaborate program was printed for the funeral, which took place at St. James Anglican Church. As a nine-year-old, I was quite impressed.


Historic Guelph V49P52

The stained-glass windows which face Paisley Street in St. James Anglican Church are a simple memorial to the Thorp family who made their contribution with entrepreneurial spirit and support, not only to Guelph, but to Canada and the world.

(Photo courtesy of the author).


My grandfather's younger brother, Henry James, kept in touch with his sister Fanny, wife of W. T. Tamer. He went to the United States and became a reporter for the New York Journal and Advertiser, a William Randolph Hearst publication. He was wounded in Cuba at the Battle of Santiago, while covering the Spanish-American War in 1897. He recovered and sailed to China to cover the Boxer Rebellion where he was killed in 1900.21 My efforts to corroborate this information have so far proven unsuccessful.


Of the children born to George J. Thorp, Harry Webster Thorp is exceptional. He is listed in the Who's Who of Canada (1948-1964). Uncle Harry went to Grade 10 at the Guelph Collegiate, and then worked in his father's flour and feed store. From 1905 until 1910, he was a paint salesman for Scarfe's in Brantford, Ontario. He was married in June 1914 and enlisted in the Canadian Army, serving overseas as a lieutenant until 1918. In 1918, he returned to Scarfe's as a vice-president. Uncle Harry was much beloved by his nieces and nephews. Over the years, he was generous to my parents at Christmas and helpful during the Depression years with a monthly income that kept the wolf from the door. Aunt Martha, his wife, sent us parcels of clothing that we eagerly pounced on at arrival, hoping to find articles that fit or that we could be altered. As I look over the names listed in Who's Who in Canada, I am proud that my uncle is there among lawyers, professors, and highly educated businessmen - another boy from Guelph who made good. He carried on the family tradition of community service.22




  1. Ross Irwin and Robert Griff, "Street Names of Guelph: What's in a Name," Historic Guelph, Vol. 39, (2000), p. 58.
  2. In the late 1910s and 1920s, my grandparents lived at 215 Glasgow Street. Then, after Uncle Herbert died and my mother married in 1923, my grandparents moved to 69 McTague Street and stayed there until the early 1930s.
  3. Passenger and Immigration Lists Index, First Edition, Volume 3, O-Z, compiled by WPA Project #20837. Sponsored by the Pennsylvania Historical Commission.
  4. St. George's Church, The History of St. George's Parish 1832-1932, (Guelph, Ontario. Gummer Press, 1932), p. 6.
  5. David Allan, About Guelph: Its Early Days and Later, 1939 p. 6.
  6. C. Acton Burrows, The Annals of Guelph, (Guelph, Ontario: Herald Steam Printing House, 1877), p. 1, 32.
  7. Verne McIllwraith, "Pioneer builder Owned Several Guelph Hotels," Guelph Mercury, March 10, 1980, p. 4.
  8. Ibid, p. 4.
  9. The house still stands but is divided into three condominiums. The author's sister, Mary Skeans McNie, bought one of the condos in 1979, and was surprised to find the name of John A. Macdonald on the original deed.
  10. Wellington County Museum and Archives.
  11. During the summer of 1938, my family visited a Boulter family in Wiarton, who were descendants of Elizabeth. We were warmly welcomed, and there was no animosity evident at that time. Whether Elizabeth Boulter and Aunt Dolly Thorp ever received their rightful inheritance remains a mystery.
  12. By coincidence, my husband and I attended this church when we lived in Chippawa from 1953 until 1962.
  13. Guelph Herald, February 25, 1868.
  14. George Emery, "Ontario's Civil Registration of Vital Statistics 1869-1926," Canadian Historical Review. Vol. 64 (December 1983), p. 472ff. Professor Emery reports that, "A select committee of the Legislative Assembly on Births, Marriages, and Deaths in Upper Canada learned in 1865 that [previous] legislation was ineffective. Officials of the provincial statistics board testified... that the law was inadequate even if enforced... numerous births of infants who die at an early age are buried without register or record of any kind."
  15. My grandfather, aged 11, who is said to have witnessed this event, would have found himself in a quandary. Who would believe an 11-year-old, and what 11-year-old would divulge such information if he had an eye for his own preservation.
  16. My brother and I remember this property well in 1977. The Arrow Cab Company run by Mr. Clancy occupied the Macdonell Street entrance, and the B. C. Cafe was on the Carden Street side. The Carden Street side was rented to some kind and venerable Chinese gentlemen whose wives had never been allowed to emigrate. As children, we knew nothing about this discrimination by the Canadian government, we just knew that every Sunday after church our grandparents had dinner there, "On the house."
  17. John Keleher, "Building Guelph's Railroads," Historic Guelph, Vol. 34 (1995), p. 56.
  18. Guelph Mercury and Advertiser, Centennial Edition, July 20, 1927.
  19. I suspect that this was political plum, granted to a staunch Conservative. He was of the breed that voted for a 'yellow dog' as long as it was Conservative. Nevertheless, he had strongly supported many community endeavours that helped to put Guelph on the map.
  20. In the late 1920s, my grandfather bought his first property in Florida. Thereafter, my grandparents spent their winters in Tampa and then St. Petersburg. During the winter of 1935 to 1936, my mother and my siblings lived with my grandparents, and we went to school in Florida. Again, it never occurred to us that there were no black children in the school. One day we saw our grandfather lifting orange peelings with his cane that had been left on the front lawn. He was scowling in dismay. We scurried up to the attic and hid under the beds.
  21. Guelph Mercury and Advertiser, Centennial Edition, July 20, 1927.
  22. From the family tree we can find others. The Right Reverend Gerald Burch, formerly Bishop of Edmonton, who was descended from John Thorp's youngest daughter, Harriet, born in 1847. I have lost track of many other relatives and am sorry to be unable to record anything of their lives.