It sounded like a good idea as we wanted to know what the connection between our great-grandfather John McEwan and Birks jewellers was.
It was a great experience and showed me other venues for finding information about ancestors. While it didn’t turn out exactly as we thought, we finally learned the truth.
My great-grandfather originally was an independent jeweller on King Street, in Toronto but at some point went to work for P. W. Ellis Company. Through the Ancestors in the Attic research and my own this is what has been uncovered.
*more on John McEwan
Phillip William Ellis was born in Toronto in 1856, the son of William Henry Ellis and Susan Cain of Liverpool. Ellis senior made his money creating The Penny Post, Toronto’s first cheap newspaper.
Philip originally trained to be a teacher at the Toronto Model School but changed his mind and decided to apprentice in the jewelry business.
A handsome man with a full tailored beard, he resembled what King George V would look like in several years.
In 1872 he founded his own business the P. W. Ellis Jewellery Company, with his twin brother Mathew C. Ellis.
This was to become the most successful jewellery and silver company in Toronto. There mark was an anchor, an E in a maple leaf and a lion passant.
The case was heard in Toronto and Ellis & Co. won. This is mentioned in the third edition of Rainwaters Encyclopedia of American Silver Manufacturers.
It would seem that Mr. Ellis should have been happy with such a well established enterprise. He was the president of the largest wholesale jewelry business in the country, with a firm employing more than one hundred employees at his store at Yonge and Temperance Street store in Toronto. However Ellis was a visionary and moved toward other interests.
At twenty-four years of age Philip Ellis married Elizabeth Kate Gooderham at Toronto on 3 November 1880. The ceremony must have been quite a gala.
In the 1880’s not so long after establishing the jewellery business he fell into the real estate market by purchasing a 100 acre farm along with his brother Mathew and younger brother William, and he created the Bedford Park Company.
He also invested money in the Metcalfe mansion that had been gutted by fire years before and then abandoned, however by 1895 his interests changed again and he let his brother William take over the property management part of the business.
His interests further diminished when the City of Toronto prevented his idea of building a factory in the same Bedford Park area from coming to fruition even though the residential lots were starting to take off. I would think that a man of his stature was not accustomed to being refused something.
In 1905 he became a member of the province’s Hydro Electric Commission and the Queen Victoria Niagara Falls Park Commission. He became appointed as the first chairman of the Toronto City Hydro-Electric Commission (now Toronto Hydro) in 1911.
Ellis would make Toronto the envy of other large cities when with his first project he was instrumental in the installations of 110-watt streetlights every 80 to 100 feet in the city.
Next he turned to public transit. In 1921 where he became the first chairman of what is now the TTC .
In 1928 the wholesale jewellery business folded but the retail continued as part of Birks Ellis Ryrie until Birks dropped the Ellis and Ryrie names to become just Birks, the jewellery store with the famous “blue box”.
In my youth I worked for Birks Jewellers first in the silverware department then the diamond counter at Toronto’s Fairview store. That famous “blue box” was not given out lightly even back in the sixties.
Ellis died in 1929 while still at the head of the TTC.