James Austin avoided the hangman, then became rich

James Austin was one of the more fascinating characters of early Toronto and the legacy he left us is still very much a part of our city’s landscape both with the buildings and the institutions he left behind.

James arrived in York (now Toronto) from County Armagh in Ireland in 1829 with his parents at the age of 16 and immediately was taken on as a printing apprentice to that other fascinating 19th-century character William Lyon Mackenzie in his shop that at one time stood on the northwest corner of Front and Frederick.

For the next 10 years James learned a valuable trade but more importantly learned crucial life lessons from a man who one day would change the face of Canadian history.

After Mackenzie’s ill-fated rebellion against the powerful Family Compact in 1837, James thought it best to leave the country for a while (as did Mackenzie) for he was looked upon as a supporter and did not want to share the fate of Mackenzie and two other men, Lount and Matthews, on the gallows during the reign of terror that was to follow.
When the dust cleared James returned to Toronto and met up with entrepreneur Patrick Foy and together in 1843 the two men opened a wholesale grocery business in the elegant Daniel Brooks Building, still standing today on the northeast corner of Jarvis and King Streets.

The grocery business boomed for them and soon the one-time wide-eyed Irish immigrant was becoming a force to be reckoned with.

James Austin was coming into his own just as Toronto was turning the corner from a colonial backwater town to becoming an economic powerhouse of the British Empire. The Great Fire of 1849 which decimated the old wooden Downtown core made way for a grander city mental notes of what he saw.

When he arrived as young lad of 16 in 1829 the population was only about 2,000 and with the coming of the railway mixed with the aftermath of the Great Fire, plus the influx of starving Irish fleeing the famine back home, Toronto’s population was reaching close to 50,000 by 1850.

By 1859 James had sold his shares in the grocery business which had grown to be a financial windfall and with his new found monetary prominence bought shares in Consumers’ Gas Co. and was asked to sit on the board of that bourgeoning public utility.

The company itself was founded in 1848 and was the brain child of another 19th-century industrialist, Charles Berczy (Berczy Park behind the Flatiron is named for his family). It was his company that would eventually become Consumers’ Gas known today as Enbridge Inc. In 1866 as his fortunes grew James Austin decided to build a magnificent home which he named Spadina House. Still standing today and operating as a museum this exquisite Victorian mansion is a superb reminder of how the very rich lived at the height of the Victorian era.

Also in 1866 the last gasp of the former Family Compact bit the dust when their once mighty and venerable Bank of Upper Canada collapsed and a new wave of powerful men, mostly self made, were taking up the slack left in the bank’s dissolve. Arguably the most famous of this new order was William Gooderham, CEO of the Gooderham and Worts Distillery, who founded the Bank of Toronto in 1855.

In 1871 James Austin took his place alongside Gooderham when he founded the Dominion Bank, remaining its president until his death in 1897. (In 1954 these two colossal banking empires merged to create the Toronto-Dominion Bank.)
On Jan. 10, 1871 Austin’s new Dominion Bank opened at 40 King St. E. and that was quickly followed by a second branch on Queen St. W. This second bank was notable because it was the first time a city in Canada had two banks of the same name, making Austin the father of the branch-banking system in our country.

In 1878 Austin built one of this city’s most impressive 19th century buildings on the southwest corner of King and Yonge to be the new headquarters for his Dominion Bank.
James Austin, the determined young lad of 16 who arrived in York in 1829 from Ireland full of ambitions and grace, died on Feb. 27, 1897 at the age of 84.
After his death, a grander Dominion Bank headquarters was built in 1914 on the southwest corner of King and Yonge and still stands as One King West.