The Kingsmill Family, Industrialization, and Victorian Mortality

Hi everyone! Today I thought I would provide a sneak-peak of one of the stories in our “Woodland 150” video, which will be aired on television in July and will be featured as part of our educational history program here at Woodland in the fall.

This section is all about Thomas Frazer Kingsmill, who is an illustrious example of the industrial spirit that played a role in Confederation. In the early 1800s, Canada had relied on England for shipments of manufactured goods such as shoes, ale, ironworks and furniture. The 1850s and 60s saw a massive explosion in the economy, and many Londoners (new and established) decided that they wanted to try their own hands at economic endeavours. The Kingsmills – whose famed department store operated in London for 148 years – were one of these families.

Thomas was born in Tipperary, Ireland on April 6, 1840, and came to North America as an immigrant with his wife Anne in 1860. They settled in London in 1864 and, as many will recall, opened a dry goods shop called Kingsmill’s on Dundas Street. He rented the building from John Walsingham Cooke Meredith for a grand total of $400 per year. Thomas, Anne, and their six children lived at 862 Ridout Street North, a popular part of town for those in (or aspiring to be in) London’s high society.

 

Many said that Thomas was born for a life of service. He possessed superior knowledge about cloth and fabric, and spent years of his life travelling to Europe and back by boat to personally purchase cloth for his London, Ontario customers. He was said to have crossed the Atlantic Ocean 140 for this purpose.

TF Kingsmill (1)

(Photo: Thomas Frazer Kingsmill Sr. Courtesy of Western Archives, Western University)

More than stellar customer service, Kingsmill’s store was one of the first in London to introduce a fair price system. Due to the fact that London was still a fairly new community in the 1860s, many businesses still operated on a barter system, which was prone to haggling and compromising. Thomas ensured that all of his goods were marked with one price only, in plain figures – a system which soon became the norm in London. This was certainly a mark of London’s transition from a pioneer town to a bustling city.

KingsmillAds2.png

(Photo: A Kingsmill’s Department Store Ad from the London Free Press)

Besides being one of London’s most prominent businessmen, Thomas also served as a city alderman from 1873-1874, was active in creating London’s first water commission, and was largely responsible for erecting Blackfriar’s Bridge – the first still arch to span the Thames – near his Ridout Street home.

Thomas passed away in 1915 of bladder disease, and it was then that another dramatic – and scandalous – feature of his life was revealed. Since his wife Anne had already passed away, he left his estate to his children. Before the funds could be distributed, another Mrs. Kingsmill stepped forward claiming to be Thomas’ wife, and she and her three children rightfully entitled to a share of the estate. The details came out through a court case in which the 2nd Mrs. Kingsmill, born Margaret Gill, contested Thomas’ will. She was living in England when she answered a newspaper ad and became Mr. Kingsmill’s employee in 1883, eventually marrying him in Canada in ’84 and returning to live in England. She was not notified that Thomas was already married until after the wedding. Thomas would spend most of the year in London, Ontario with Anne, but would live with Margaret while on his cloth-buying business trips to England. Margaret and Thomas had 3 children – Percy, Irene, and Vernon – who came to Canada in 1910 and took up residence in the first Kingsmill house when Thomas died. As one may expect, this did not go over well. It seems as if Canadians’ new sense of themselves as global citizens had more than a few unexpected benefits…

Despite this scandal and the bout of bad feeling that followed, the Kingsmill family continued to play a prominent role in London society. Thomas and Anne’s son, Henry Ardagh Kingsmill, was a “Confederation Baby” – having been born on July 2, 1867, the day after the first Dominion Day. Having grown up in a unified Canada, Henry studied Medicine at the newly established University of Western Ontario, graduating in 1895. He was a practicing physician in London as well as in England, having inherited his father’s penchant for travel. He enlisted in World War One in 1917, offering his skills as a physician and surgeon and serving in the Canadian Army Medical Corps. He was one of the few Londoners who made it through the war and was able to return home to London. However, he fell victim to the soldier’s influenza epidemic and never recovered. He lived out his last years at home, eventually dying of pneumonia brought on by Spanish Influenza in 1920. He was buried at Woodland Cemetery with a Veteran’s headstone, near the rest of the Kingsmill family.

Henry Kingsmill

(Photo: Henry Ardagh Kingsmill. Courtesy of Western Archives, Western University, Kingsmill Family Fonds)

Henry Kingsmill was one of the majority of Londoners who passed away from a contagious disease. Confederation Era mortality rates were much higher than ours today – death was a constant presence. This was mainly due to poor public health measures, poor sanitation, poor nutrition, and lack of vaccinations against diseases. The field of medicine was also not as advanced as we have come to enjoy. The main causes of death in London in the 1860s were consumption, tuberculosis, cholera, stillbirth, bronchitis, cholera, scarlet fever, lung disease, whooping cough, typhoid, and dysentery. Many women also died in childbirth, and many children during their teething period due to high fevers. Infants under 1 year accounted for more than 40% of all burials. Child mortality rate in Upper Canada was higher than it was in Europe due to the large influx of immigrants and the debilitating effects of urban environments like London’s or Toronto’s. It often took years for medical advancements and discoveries from Europe to be communicated to and implicated in Confederation era Canada. Despite the efforts of well-trained doctors like Henry, Canada was still many years away from widespread public health measures and improved medical knowledge.

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