The Peterborough Examiner
On George A. Cox’s corner of downtown
Part 4 of a series looking at the history of Brock Street
George A. Cox (1840-1914) was perhaps Peterborough’s most successful businessman of the 19th century. Gradually, the centre of his business empire developed on the corner of George and Brock by the 1880s, as Cox pushed the limits of the downtown northward.
Cox was a rags-to-riches phenomenon. He arrived in Peterborough as a teenaged telegraph boy for the Montreal Telegraph Company, 1858-71. It appears that as a telegraph boy he got to know the most influential people; businessmen sent telegraphs. Peterborough was riding the crest of a lumbering boom, and Cox moved with the waves, partly because he earned the trust of the local merchants, and partly because he was astute.
He was selling insurance to his telegraph customers while they waited for the return messages. Peterborough was soon the best insured town in Canada, and Cox was able to buy the company, Canada Life.
This insurance salesman rose to control Canada Life and Imperial Life (which he founded in 1898), as well as British-America and Western, two major sellers of fire insurance. Around these he built an interlocking financial empire. He was president of the Canadian Bank of Commerce, 1890-1907; in 1890, he owned two per cent of the bank with shares valued at $100,000. Central Canada Loan and Savings Company was his. Through his son-in-law, A.E. Ames, he was a dominant player on the Toronto Stock Exchange. He founded National Trust in 1898, and Dominion Securities in 1901. He came to dominate the insurance business in Canada in a way unmatched before or since.
In business, by 1910 he was reputedly the second wealthiest man in Canada, and his holdings were found in real estate, railways, two insurance companies, and a trust company. He was president of some 40 companies and was extraordinarily adept at defining and executing policies. For a period of two generations he recruited family members, friends and Peterburians to help run his empire, first in Peterborough and then Toronto.
By the 1880s, he owned 10 per cent of Peterborough’s real estate, which he managed through his Toronto Savings and Loan Company and the Toronto Real Estate Investment Company. In 1883, his Peterborough real estate holdings were assessed at $300,000; total assessment was $3 million. He owned so much land, the Peterborough Examiner boosted him as the perfect candidate for mayor since he was unlikely to raise property taxes: Cox won that election by acclamation.
In 1867, he built the first section of the very fine Italianate building still standing on the northeast corner of George and Simcoe Street, across from the main entrance to Peterborough Square.
Cox was extending his business block by 1880, and the new building at George and Brock, known to our generation as the Morrow Building, was likewise a product of Cox’s expansive thinking.
The Cox building, on the southwest corner of Brock and George, developed slowly. The size of his ambition was evident by 1869 as the corner of the building, 437 George, was built to four storeys and with a mansard roof. This was the first Second Empire style building in Peterborough, and the style would be imitated in new buildings, such as the 1881 Cluxton Building at Hunter and George, and in the Morrow Building, which was on the northeast corner of Brock and George. Elsewhere along George, Second Empire features, such as the mansard roof and the dormer windows and the head surrounds on the upper floor windows, sprouted as part of modernizing. Similarly, the downtown stores started adding plate glass display windows on the ground level. Peterborough became Ontario’s Manchester.
The Cox Building was expanded southward to include 429 to 435 George; the total frontage along George Street was 132 feet. By 1888 this large building was home to the Bank of Toronto, the Peterborough Real Estate Investment Company, the Canadian Bank of Commerce, Imperial Life, the Toronto Savings and Loan Company, as well as many business offices including for Cox. Cox’s nephew, W.G. Morrow, was the managing director of the Toronto Savings and Loan. George A. Cox was the principal shareholder and usually president of all these interconnected companies.
In 1908, the Toronto Savings and Loan, founded in 1885, had assets totaling over $3 million. It offered loans at the lowest interest in the market, and its debentures were considered equivalent to cash for dealing with estates and the federal government.
The main tenant at 433 George was the Davis-Thompson Insurance Agency, Peterborough’s largest for most of its history. It was founded in 1858 by George A. Cox and the continuing company was a Cox company, headed by Cox’s son-in-law, Davis. They did a general brokerage business in fire, life, accident, guarantee, boiler and plate glass insurance.
The extension of the building occupied ground previously the site of Lewis McGregor’s hotel which had been lost in an 1869 fire. In 1872, Robert A. Morrow sold the property, previously owned by his father, Oughtry Morrow, to George A. Cox.
The two-storey building still on this site is all that remains of the Cox Building. According to legend, sometime in the 1950s, a metal head surround was blown off the building and killed a pedestrian. Soon after, all the mansard roof trim, and the head surrounds or cornices over all the other windows on the top three floors. Later, the top two storeys were removed, leaving the rather plain building, still with an impressive footprint and with classic windows. Martha Kidd recorded the story in her files in the Trent Valley Archives, and Ed Arnold, in George Street Stories agrees. I am still looking for a first-hand account.
The building on the northwest corner, always two storeys high, was built in 1868 for the Rev. Mark Burnham. By 1888, the occupant of the corner building was J.C. Craig and A. Mooney, who ran an upholstery business. Mooney died tragically in 1895 by gas poisoning while sleeping on the furniture on the second floor. Formerly, the upper floor windows had the half oval top, similar to other buildings in the blocks between Brock and Charlotte. The oval was filled first with wood and then more recently with brick. This interesting block was extended in the 1990s with buildings replicating the 1868 original, and the extension was also continued along the Brock Street façade.
The Coleman family ran their catering and banquet facility in the former upholstery store. The recessed part of the business was an addition built for the Coleman paint store.
The Morrow Building on the northeast corner remains the last example of the Second Empire style on George Street. The land was owned by Robert A. Morrow from 1875 to 1927, but its early significance also rests with George A. Cox’s strategy for extending the downtown northward. The first part was built in 1880, and the lower second part in 1882. The second part was built to be leased as a post office, and was certainly more spacious than earlier ones.
There was rivalry on whether the federal post office should be in the south end, near Charlotte Street, or here in the north end. The federal government in 1885 settled the issue by building a federally-owned and operated post office at the northwest corner of Water and Hunter, where it stood until 1956.
The corner of Brock and George was one of the main nerve centres of George Street for nearly a century.
Elwood H. Jones, Archivist, Trent Valley Archives, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Trent Valley Archives has a membership campaign that features me hosting A Night at the Archives. The current issue of Heritage Gazette of the Trent Valley is available at Trent Valley Archives, 567 Carnegie Avenue. For details see www.trentvalleyarchives.com or phone 705-745-4404 and ask for Heather.