William Speers (1878–1941)
As THA prepares to move to the Junction as of November 1, 2021, we continue to build on the story of our new neighbourhood and the history of our new building: the William Speers Building, designed by Smith & Wright and built in 1919. Working with Sarah King Head CAHP (writer and historian) and Kamila Hakimova (website design) this is the seventh instalment in a series about the place we will soon call home.
Who is William Speers, the person credited with commissioning 2928–2930 Dundas Street West? What was his contribution to the Junction and greater Toronto community?
Descendants of Irish and Scottish immigrants who settled in Caledon Township and established the hamlet of Speersville, William and his brother George Speers relocated to West Toronto Junction in the late 1890s to apprentice with their maternal uncle George Cumming in the undertaking business, an industry that was undergoing profound change as the twentieth century dawned.
By the time he married schoolteacher Henrietta Burton Woodcock in 1905, Speers had become a trained undertaker, renting space for his business on Dundas Street West across the street from that of his uncle.
The block on the north side of Dundas between Keele and Pacific streets had been the Aikenshaw vineyard and was among the last remnants of agricultural land to be subdivided in the Junction. Even so, by the time Speers bought both parcels of land that would become his undertaking business and three-storey commercial property (in 1906 and 1911, respectively) there were already structures in situ. Within eight years, he had commissioned the rebuilding of that at 2928–30 Dundas, now known as the William Speers Building.
Census records from 1911 and 1921 confirm what Toronto directories indicate: that the Speers family migrated from living above the undertaking business at 2926 Dundas West to the building designed Smith & Wright next door. Here, they lived in a spacious two-storey residence above the ground level commercial shop.
City directories are indispensible sources of information and reveal much about the occupancy of the main floor store (at 2928) as well as the residential tenants (upstairs at 2930). We know for instance that the Speers’ family lived above from 1921 until 1930, when they moved into their grand Arts-and-Crafts house on High Park Avenue. The commercial space below continued to be premier space for a remarkable series of entrepreneurs in the clothing and shoe business until the end of the century, after which it became an art supply store.
Importantly, while they lived upstairs, Speers had easy access to his undertaking business through adjacent doors and a staircase in the alley between the buildings, proving the extent to which he was rarely far from a profession that increasingly required attention both night and day.
Business records show how the undertaking industry was being transformed at this time: from one where the principal activity had been providing (often constructing) and then transporting coffins from home to cemetery to that where the funeral director became an on-site custodian of the recently departed with all that entailed. These changes were not only a direct result of the impact of the First World War (followed by a pandemic) but also due to society’s changing attitudes to death and dying. The 1920s and 30s also brought technological advances in the construction of coffins and embalming techniques. The prominence of Speers’ and his uncle’s business presence for four decades in this section of Dundas West shows how well they adapted to their industry’s evolving needs as well as to the expectations of their clientele.
Among Speers’ innovations was the introduction of the first mechanized ambulance service in Toronto with a 1916 McLaughlin Buick that catered to the needs of both the living and recently deceased.
With business booming in the final years of the 1920s, Speers was not only able to move his family to a detached house but he was also to expand the business by hiring an on-site manager and commissioning Maybee & Fugler to improve the building and extend it west to 2922 Dundas West. The larger structure allowed for the design of a façade that has been described as ‘piece of personalized commercial art in built form’ with a model gravestone at the centre of the parapet and the business name prominently displayed above the front door.
After his death in 1941, Speers’ nephew Murray John Paterson took over management of a business that continued to thrive until the late twentieth century. Speers himself was remembered for philanthropic efforts in the construction of churches and hospitals as well as founding a camp for disabled children on Georgian Bay.
Long-time Junction residents will remember that, after the undertaking business closed, the funeral chapel building became the ‘Rue Morgue’ before it was demolished and rebuilt in 2015 as a law firm. And of course the 1919 building next door will soon be THA’s new home.
Special thanks to Diana Fancer for generously sharing information about William Speers and photos from the WTJHS archives.
Fancher, D. Ed. Leader & Recorder’s History of the Junction. Toronto: WTJHS, 2004.
Goad, C.E. Atlas of the City of Toronto and Vicinity … Toronto: C.E. Goad, 1884–1924: http://goadstoronto.blogspot.com
Junction BIA: https://www.toronto-bia.com/find-a-bia/bias/junction/
Might’s Greater Toronto City Directories, 1890–1969: https://www.torontopubliclibrary.ca/history-genealogy/lh-digital-city-directories.jsp
Miles, J. Ed. West Toronto Junction Revisited. Toronto: WTJHS, 1986; rev. 2019.
Rice, A. B. West Toronto Junction Revisited: Excerpts from the writings of A.B. Rice. Ed. J. Miles. Erin ON: Boston Mills Press for the West Toronto Junction Historical Society, 1986.
Toronto Public Library. Local History Collection, Annette Branch: https://digitalarchive.tpl.ca/search/*/objects?filter=department%3ALocal%20History%20Collection%25255C%2C%20Annette%20branch
West Toronto Junction Historical Society: https://wtjhs.ca