The Toronto Park Lot Project

A Ghost Owns my Laneway
by Wendy Smith

My search several years ago for the mysterious owner of the laneway behind my Victorian home inspired a passion for Toronto history that continues to this day.

Fred Jarvis keeled over in a horse-drawn cab on Queen Street on the evening of April 16, 1887, and was dead in his bed before midnight.

Above: York County Sheriff Frederick William Jarvis (1818-1887) — Harbord Village land speculator. (HV is a downtown Toronto neighbourhood bounded by Spadina Avenue and College, Bloor & Bathurst Streets.)

The mighty sheriff’s heart attack — not entirely a surprise — was the talk of muddy York for days. His funeral procession along Wellesley Street three days later was followed by judges, lawyers and much of Ontario’s elite.

Fred Jarvis — Sheriff of York County for 33 years — died 125 years ago. Nonetheless, he remains today the registered owner of the laneway that runs behind my Harbord Village five-house row — the 9-ft-wide dead-end laneway where I sometimes park my car.

Fred also owns the narrow walkway between my house and my neighbour’s (approximately 2.5 x 34 ft.), and a similar walkway between another pair in the row.

When I first saw his name on the survey of my property — "F.W. Jarvis", owner of "Part 3" (all the rights-of-ways adjacent to our row) — I thought he must be one my neighbours.

That’s how rights-of-ways (a.k.a. encroachments) are normally managed these days. A neighbour needs to pass over your land to get to his own property, so a right-of-way is recorded on both parties’ deeds.

Over time I met my neighbours: no Jarvis among them.

At the Toronto Reference Library I checked old city directories for owners and occupants, searching back a century. No luck.

Years later I went to the land registry office and finally, there he was, on Plan 87: PLAN OF THE PART OF THE CITY OF TORONTO SHEWING THE SUBDIVISION OF PARK LOT NO. 17 NORTH OF COLLEGE STREET AS LAID OUT INTO VILLA LOTS BY F.W. JARVIS. Dated June 8th, 1854.

City of Toronto, June 8th, 1854
I hereby certify that this Plan accurately illustrate the manner in which I have laid out appropiated (sic) as Lots and Streets that certain parcel or tract of land in the City of Toronto which may be known and described as that part of Park Lot No. 17 in the first concession from the Bay (formerly in the Town of York) lying North of College Street.
Signed Fred W. Jarvis

This mystery — my laneway owned by a man surely long dead — swept me on through the Toronto and Ontario historical archives, libraries, map rooms and bookstores… And the story unfolded.

Park Lot No. 17 was granted to Alexander Grant in 1798; Grant sold it to Justice Henry Allcock two years later. Allcock died in 1808, and the property was inherited by his only surviving child, Catherine Hannah Allcock, a spinster.

In 1817 Catherine Allcock sold Park Lot 17 and the east half of Park Lot 18 to George Taylor Denison, eldest son of John Denison, patriarch of one of the most influential families in the development of Toronto.

George's son Robert Brittain Denison was born on April 24, 1821 at the Denison family's Bellevue estate, on the south half of Park Lot No. 17. R.B. inherited the lot on the death of his father in 1853, but lived in the family's homestead at Weston.

Like his father, R.B. parcelled up and sold family land at intervals over the years to support their household running costs. The year after his father's death R.B. sold the north half of Park Lot No. 17 to Fred Jarvis.

The Jarvis clan of Toronto

Fred was a member of the Jarvis clan, United Empire Loyalists and minor members of the ruling elite which became known as the Family Compact. "Mr. Secretary" William Jarvis, Secretary & Registrar of Upper Canada was granted Park Lot No. 6 where Jarvis Street now exists.

Fred’s side of the clan was descended from his grandfather Col. Stephen Jarvis (1756-1840), an uneducated farmer from Connecticut. Stephen, like his cousin Secretary William Jarvis, fought on the British side in the American War of Independence.

No park lot for the country cousins, but as a Loyalist Stephen Jarvis received a 1400-acre land grant in the "wastelands" east of Oakville. His eldest son Frederick Starr Jarvis (1782-1852), granted 400 acres, cleared and managed the family lands; he was the first constable in Erindale, a Justice of the Peace, a local entrepreneur, and father of 12 (including our Fred).

During his twenties Fred managed the family farm, then in 1849 he moved to Toronto to work for his uncle, Sheriff Wm. Botsford Jarvis (of Rosedale), as deputy sheriff. In 1856 the uncle retired in favour of the nephew, and Fred became York County Sheriff.

Above: Plan of the park lots, circa 1800:
annotated detail of an illustration from The Estates of Old Toronto, by Liz Lundell, 1997, p.10.
I have highlighted Park Lot 17 in green. Sheriff Fred Jarvis purchased the top 45 acres and subdivided in 1854. Highlighted in yellow: Park Lot 6, granted to "Secretary" Wm. Jarvis. Jarvis Street runs through the middle of the Jarvis park lot. Harbord Village is between Spadina and Bathurst.

As sheriff — not to be confused with "policeman" — Fred executed the orders of the courts. Debtors behind on taxes, rent or mortgage payments would find the sheriff at the door with a judge’s order to seize their property and sell it at public auction. The sheriff served legal notices, made arrests, jailed drunks and nastier criminals, kept order in the court house, and rounded up jury panels (chasing down reluctant jurists when necessary).

It was incredibly lucrative work. In that era government officials received tiny salaries but collected numerous fees ("emoluments") from the public for their services. Through his decades as sheriff, Fred amassed a fortune.

In 1857 newly minted Sheriff Fred Jarvis purchased land on Jarvis St. at the corner of today’s Wellesley St. and built a yellow brick mansion called Woodlawn, now the site of Jarvis Collegiate Institute.

In 1857 Fred bought another Jarvis Street property, just below Carlton Street; he held this land until 1870, selling it for $8,256 to the trustees of what became the Toronto Collegiate Institute.

Above: Sheriff Jarvis advertises postponement of public auction of lands seized in settlement of a debt. The Globe, August 2, 1864, p.1.

The Park Lot 17 property Fred purchased from R.B. Denison bordered north/south on Bloor and College Streets, and east/west on Major and Borden Streets: more familiar to us today as the central third of Toronto’s historic Harbord Village.

Fred’s plan to sell off "villa lots" was almost completely stalled by a depression between 1854 and 1865. The few early sales were financed with mortgages held by Fred; some of those early buyers couldn’t keep up their payments and later forfeited their land.

Over the years lots were slowly sold to developers of the day, who typically built several semi-detached Bay-and-Gable houses on each lot. To protect rights-of-ways between and behind houses, Fred (and other developers in Rosedale and other historic Toronto neighbourhoods) often just deleted the passageways from the titles, and by default ownership of those bits of land remained in the developers' own names.

These days the city sometimes expropriates the larger ghost-owned laneways for public use; smaller pieces of land can remain in limbo for many hears until someone acquires adjacent properties (often for a condo development) and needs clear titles on the entire parcel before development permits can be issued.

"The most lucrative position in the gift of the Ontario Government"

By Fred’s death in 1887, about a quarter of his Park Lot 17 property had been developed, mostly north of Buller (today's Ulster) Street. The following decade saw homes built through most of Harbord Village and beyond.

Below: Sheriff Jarvis obituary in The Globe, April 18, 1887, p.1.

Fred’s obituaries indicate he was a very popular sheriff in Toronto society, quiet and unassuming, charitable, “a man of strong character,” as The Globe reported — and doubtless very discrete when appropriate.

In 1887 the Toronto World newspaper, after dutifully reporting the details of Fred’s death and family history, launched into a breathless account of "the most lucrative position in the gift of the Ontario Government".

It reported annual revenue of $20,000, half dispersed in sheriff’s office expenses, the other half going to the sheriff. The Legislature’s immediate response was to split the sheriffry into two (Toronto/county) and pass it to two prominent Liberals, whose party was presently in power.

My fascination with early Toronto history didn't end when I uncovered Fred's story.


The more I read, the more questions I had.

Sheriff Jarvis, responsible for arranging the hanging of Samuel Lount and Peter Matthews — participants in the Upper Canada Rebellion led by William Lyon Mackenzie in 1837 — wept at their execution. I found this story stunning and terribly confusing. Wasn't Jarvis a member of the notorious Family Compact? Shouldn't they all have been celebrating the defeat of their enemies? Clearly there was a lot that popular versions of Toronto's history didn't explain.

Who were these Family Compact members? Where did they come from? Who received the original park lot grants, and why? What was their relationship to Lt.-Governor John Graves Simcoe? What exactly was a park lot anyway? Where were these lots and what were their boundaries?

In 2012, after studying Toronto founding history for several years, I discovered the new internet interactive mapping tools. What would the park lots look like overlaid on top of a Google map? I wondered.

And so, the TORONTO PARK LOT PROJECT was born.

The TORONTO PARK LOT PROJECT — an exploration of the earliest days of the TOWN OF YORK, founded in 1793 by John Graves Simcoe, first Lieutenant-Governor of Upper Canada. Copyright © Wendy Smith 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017, 2018.

A version of this article was published in 2015 in The York Pioneer, the Annual Publication of The York Pioneer & Historical Society, Volume 109, pp.21-26.