The true story of Leslieville

There has been some controversy about Leslieville, the stretch of Queen Street East from Pape to Greenwood.

The real history, however, has been muddled – Leslieville was never an incorporated village or town. It was called Leslieville because of one of the original pioneers of the area, who had a large nursery in the vicinity.

George Leslie owned a large tract of land with a supply of trees, which he sold to the British government for use in shipbuilding. He grew flowers, fruit and all types of vegetables.

Leslie farm, Queen Street East. - [ca. 1920]
George Leslie’s house on Queen Street East was the centre of what is now called Leslieville, though no town was ever incorporated.
PHOTO: City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1244, Item 1093

Leslie became involved in politics, and helped build up the area around his property along Queen Street (then called Kingston Road). Credit has to go to Leslie for establishing the prominence of the area, though there were also others involved in the history and development of the area now called Leslieville.

Alexander Muir was a school teacher and lived near Queen and Pape. He wrote The Maple Leaf Forever, which was at one time the anthem of certain parts of English Canada.

John McPherson Ross was employed by Leslie, later taking over the Leslie nurseries. J.M. Ross has never been given credit for developing the area, although he took an interest in all types of activities in the East End.

Ross was a great supporter of sports, helping establish lawn bowling in Leslieville and Balmy Beach, as well as baseball. He was responsible for establishing Arbour Day celebrations at schools in the East End. He was a mayor of the town of East Toronto. He judged agricultural products at the Canadian National Exhibition, and was a gifted landscape and portrait artist.

William Greenwood is another East End resident who I covered briefly in a past article. He owned a tavern at the northwest corner of Queen and Greenwood, called the Puritan Hotel. Greenwood was also a wagon maker, blacksmith – a jack of all trades.

For many years the Puritan was a centre of activity in the area. On Saturday nights wagons would be lined up outside, with scores of young men and women attending a ball or a dance. Ladies would be in voluminous hoop skirts and dancing slippers, the men in calf skin boots, wearing paper collars and fancy ties, hair shining with hair oil.

The people were ready for a party 150 years ago. They would square dance and drink – in moderation, of course – until dawn, to the sounds of violins and other musical instruments.

The Ashbridge family settled just to the east in the 1790s, from Greenwood to Coxwell, and from the Danforth to the lake. The family is underrated – they should be more widely recognized for doing more than most other pioneer families for the area.

Another pioneer family was the Small family, which owned the land from Coxwell to Woodbine, and named the area Berkeley. They donated land to the Anglican Church for a church and cemetery called St. John’s, at Woodbine and Kingston.

There are many other people who contributed to the development of the East End, but the Logan, Pape, Russell, Hiltz and Price families will have to wait for another time.

The Leslie name is all well and good, but George Leslie’s area was only about 28 acres on the south side of Queen, while the Ashbridge and Small estates were over 200 acres. Riverside also nearly became an incorporated town.

But we will use Leslieville, as that is what the people want – that is what makes history interesting.

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Research I’ve done shows that George Leslie advertised his nurseries as being much larger.
Also — and I believe this is why the neighbourhood was named Leslieville — he owned and ran the post office – hence, the Leslie Post Office, and Leslieville.

“The Toronto Nurseries were established in 1849 by George Leslie, Esq., and comprise an area of one hundred and fifty acres, and are, without exception, the most extensive in the Dominion, embracing every description of fruit and ornamental trees, shrubs, hedge plants, deciduous flowering shrubs and grape vines. The grounds are admirably adapted for nursery productions. Mr. Leslie keeps up a regular correspondence with some of the principal nurseries in Great Britain and the United States, and spares no expense in adding to his stock all acquisitions of merit. Importations are annually made from England of ornamental, deciduous and evergreen trees, exclusive of what is raised by himself, so as to afford an extensive and varied assortment. In all its departments every care and attention that a thorough knowledge and experience in the nursery line may suggest, is readily taken advantage of. From this fact, and the already high reputation of the Toronto Nurseries, continued prosperity must be the reward.”

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