While researching a house in my own neighbourhood of Leslieville I stumbled upon a fascinating story about Alfred R Clarke, a prominent leather manufacturer. Alfred R Clarke, who at the age of 19 with his three brothers, inherited the family’s Peterborough, Ontario leather manufacturing business. Shortly after the death of their father in 1882 the brothers moved the business to Toronto. They set up an office at 28 Front St and a manufacturing plant at 199-209 Eastern Ave. Not long after the move Alfred Clarke took over the business and became its sole owner. He renamed it A R Clarke and Co Ltd.
On May 31st, 1902 so the story goes, A R Clarke while raising the flag to signal completion of his new and substantial manufacturing plant at 633 Eastern Ave in Leslieville heard church bells ring and factory whistles sound. Clarke chuffed, thought these had been sounded to mark the opening of his new manufacturing facility, only to be disappointed later when he discovered that the sounds were in fact celebrating the end of the Boer War.
Clarke’s grandiose illusion aside, the manufacturing business thrived under his business acumen. A R Clarke in turn became a wealthy man and moved his family to 72 Roxborough St E in Rosedale. With his newly acquired riches he also invested in real estate near his Leslieville factory. He owned houses at 30, 36, 38, 40 and 42 on Greenwood Avenue, and in 1914 bought all the property along Hiltz Ave. He also owned a substantial amount of land in the High Park area.
Clarke’s foray into the real estate market was short lived however, as tragically in 1915 he became a victim of The Great War. In May of that year Clarke had set out on a business trip to London aboard the RMS Lusitania. He was on his way to meet with his London agents to secure leather contracts with the British army and others. On May 7th, the ship was torpedoed by a German U boat and sank, resulting in the death of 1,198 of its passengers. Alfred Clarke survived initially. He was scooped out of the water, having floated unconscious with a cracked rib for nearly two and a half hours, but succumbed a month later on June 20th due to pneumonia and pleurisy as a result of his misadventure.
In his will, dated just one day before his death, Alfred Clarke left control of his significant estate to his wife Mary, his daughter Vivien, and his son Griffith Clarke. Under the terms of the will, Griffith, who was only 23 at the time, was appointed managing director of the company. The estate, apart from the family home at 72 Roxborough and its contents, which went exclusively to his wife Mary, was to be held in trust for ten years and then divided among his three heirs.
Eight years after Alfred’s death and just two before the estate was to be divided, disaster struck the family once again. This time, Griffith Clarke had taken his own life. None of the media publications at the time speculated as to the possible reason(s) for his death. The article announcing the suicide indicated that he had been in poor health and this may have had some relevance. His suicide could also have had to do with the intense pressure dealing with business affairs.
Mary, Alfred R Clarkes’ widow, took over the business. She ran it until October of 1931 when she too died. At that point A R Clarke Co Ltd became the charge of W H Lytle, Vivien Clarke’s husband. The business on Eastern Avenue was an integral part of the Leslieville community for many years.
The firm remained in the hands of A R Clarke’s descendents until 2000 when the company went into receivership. The building which had been used as a leather manufacturing for all this time burnt down in spectacular fashion in 2001. It was thought a mishap among the crews dismantling equipment inside had caused the fire.
A dramatic end to a dramatic Leslieville story.