One of the most historic sites in the East End, Kew Williams Cottage, will be receiving a historic plaque from Heritage Toronto at 1 p.m. on Saturday, Sept. 12.
Finally, because of organizations like the Beach and East Toronto Historical Society, Friends of Kew Williams Cottage, the Toronto Heritage Board, the Toronto Beach Rotary Club, and several others (we know who they are), the historic plaque has arrived.
This ‘cottage’ is probably one of the most significant houses in the Beach area. Located on the west side of Lee Avenue at no. 30 – although it has had other numbers – it sits in sartorial historical splendour and isolation as a symbol of Kew Beach and the Williams family, one of the earliest pioneer families of the Beach.
The cottage is probably one of the most painted, photographed, and admired by the people of the Beach area. I have written about this cottage, and have given tours of it and the surrounding area, far more times than I can recall.
The story begins more than 160 years ago with Joe Williams. (There are great articles on the Williams family by well-known writer-historians such as Mary Campbell, Barbara Myrvold, Glenn and Jean Cochrane, and others).
Joe Williams was born in London England, near the great Kew Botanical Gardens that he greatly admired. He came to Canada in the late 1840s (before Canada became a nation), as a soldier in the British Army. He was stationed in different parts of the country and finally settled in the eastern part of Toronto, what was then St. Lawrence Ward, just east of present Woodbine Avenue.
Williams purchased a substantial amount of property around the present area bounded by Queen Street East, Waverley Road, and Lee Avenue. The problem was that the land was swampy in places, and Williams did not have that much money, as he was earning half sergeant’s pay.
But Williams persevered. He had dreams and plans to make the area into a Canadian ‘Kew Gardens.’ He started farming, fishing, and a market garden, and in the late 1870s began building his dream, Kew Gardens, a place where you could bring your family and friends for a picnic (but no alcohol). People flocked to beautiful Kew Gardens.
Joe Williams, one of the pioneers of the Beach, started a trend that brought thousands of Torontonians to the East End, where there would be amusement parks like Victoria Park, Munro Park, Scarboro Beach Park, Small’s Pond Park. All of these have gone – all that is left is Kew Gardens.
Williams and his family built several houses in the area. His own was the largest, and it was where the present Kew Beach Lawn Bowling Club sits. But the house we are interested in is the one left standing: Kew Williams Cottage.
Williams admired Kew Gardens in England so much he named his youngest son Kew. Kew Williams married in the spring of 1902. He built a home for his wife – the structure we are honouring on Sept. 12.
Kew and his brothers brought the wood, stones, and limestone from locations near Prince Edward County by ‘stone hookers.’ These were boats meant to haul freight.
In 1907 and succeeding years the city began buying up the Williams estate and other properties, removing all the buildings except Kew Williams’ cottage. The city finally expropriated that site so Kew moved to the lakefront in another cottage, where he lived most of the rest of his life, until moving to Kingswood Avenue.
Kew’s cottage is unique, with its lovely veranda, its turret-like tower, the beautiful windows – this house is like a fairy-tale abode. There has been so much written about its rooms and stair windows that you have to see it to believe it. Around 1910 the city began allowing the chief gardener to live in the cottage.
Robert Hornell, a Scotsman who came to Canada, worked as a coachman for Sir Henry Pellat, and later applied for a job with the city. He was head gardener from about 1911 to 1934. His granddaughter is Eileen Tinney, a member of the Beach and East Toronto Historical Society. She has vivid memories of the cottage and her grandfather.
Another head gardener was James Russell, who was there until 1963. Later Frank Rosenberger stayed in the cottage as head gardener until he retired in 1981.
Next was Len Stanley, who remained at Kew Cottage until he retired in 1995. Stanley was the host of several movies and documentaries that were shot ‘on location’ in Kew Williams Cottage and the beautiful Kew Gardens. Stanley, because of his colourful personality, fit right in, and in is honour they named the road beside the cottage Len Stanley Way.
After he retired, we find the first woman head gardener – the queen of Kew Gardens, Diana Clarke – and she was the last, and one of the best, superintendents to live in the cottage.
Over the years there were several interim head gardeners, but non that lived in the cottage. Current superintendent Stuart Slessor is a remarkable person in the mold of his predecessors.
Over time the cottage has been restored by the Rotary Club. There have been wonderful art shows. I had the honour of taking part in the 100th anniversary of the cottage in 2002 with Kew’s relatives.
So we will now honour and celebrate this quaint historic cottage and the family that gave it its name. In the near future the Kew Williams Cottage will probably become our local history museum, everyone will be able to admire the history of our Beach area.