Renowned retailer Robert Simpson got his start on Newmarket's Main Street

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Robert Simpson, who became a household name right across Canada, got his start right here on Main Street in Newmarket. His story is one of the most requested during my heritage presentations. Let us take a trip back to 1855 and the arrival in Newmarket of a young Simpson. 

Robert Simpson was born Sept. 17, 1834 in Speymouth, Scotland, the son of Peter Simpson and Jane Christie Parmouth. His father was a general store owner.

Simpson was educated at a Scottish grammar school until the age of 16, when he began to apprentice with an Elgin storekeeper.

Simpson, as a young man of 21, arrived in Canada from Inverness Scotland in 1855 and decided to make Newmarket his home, apparently because he had a cousin living here.  

Cousin James Simpson followed Robert to Newmarket shortly after.

Simpson was already experienced in the grocery trade and he decided to take work as a clerk in the general store of D. Sutherland and Sons. When the store was sold to the Whimsters two years later, he apparently felt confident enough to strike off on his own and launch a business. 

Simpson opened Simpson & Trent with a friend, selling groceries, boots, shoes and dry goods. To cope with excessive competition at a time of economic depression, the partners offered the lowest possible prices around and following a North American trend at the time, announced they would do business only in cash.

However, indications are that their purchases of local farm produce were done on a credit basis. 

This partnership was dissolved in March 1862 with Simpson deciding to operate the store on his own. It is clear from the local newspaper that Simpson was having money problems, as he was putting notices in the paper begging his clients to settle their bills.  

After only a few months, Simpson entered another partnership, on May 14, 1862, with Moses W. Bogart, with Bogart’s involvement being underwritten by his father, John.  The new business was called Simpson & Bogart, which gradually developed a strong local wholesale business with small stores in several adjacent communities. 

Simpson would build a reputable business here in Newmarket lasting for almost 10 years when disaster would strike. On Dec. 6, 1862, the first of several fires that he would endure in his career struck, damaging or destroying his premises.

Luckily, the $1,000 loss on this occasion was covered by insurance and business resumed almost immediately. A second fire on Feb. 19, 1864, however, inflicted far greater damage and necessitated a temporary relocation.

This fire triggered the withdrawal of Bogart from the partnership on March 9, although it is said that his departure was largely due to earlier business problems.

Using funds received from the insurance payment, Simpson liquidated the bulk of his debts with longtime supplier Thompson, Claxton and Company of Montreal, and independently re-established himself in Newmarket.

On Oct. 29, 1870, a raging fire destroyed both the store and all the stock. Undeterred, he reopened in time for the Christmas trade. The losses had been severe, however, and Simpson was forced to declare bankruptcy in early 1871. 

It was likely this disaster that prompted him to relocate to Toronto, where opportunities were far more plentiful.

So how did Simpson meet Bogart and the Charles Botsford family, both of whom were to play a large part in his Newmarket life? 

On the site of what was to become the Sport and Cycle Shop, mid-block on the west side between Botsford and Timothy streets was the Botsford house where both Charles Botsford, a former merchant, and daughter Mary Ann lived.

John Botsford’s woodworking shop was practically next door to his home. Mary Ann Botsford became Robert’s wife on March 29, 1859. Miss Botsford was considered the leading soprano in the church choir circuit.

Simpson was to locate his shop at the corner of Timothy and Main streets, at 228 Main, where Soupa is now located.

It helped that Simpson was connected to many of the leading families in Newmarket.  Anna Simpson, a cousin, married James Sutherland, a prominent merchant in town and one of our leading politicians. 

Interestingly, Mrs. Sutherland lived to celebrate her 104th birthday, one of the oldest on record here in town.

Simpson would also play an active part in the everyday life of the community. I found several references to his having been part of several local boards and committees.  He was a supporter of the establishment of the Citizens’ Band and during a serious outbreak of cholera in 1866, a board of health would be organized, and Simpson sat on the committee. 

I assume he would know all the first families of Newmarket, the Botsfords, Bogarts, etc., putting him in good stead for business. 

He continued operations in Newmarket until the summer of 1872, when he sold his stock-in-trade to his cousin James and moved with his family to Toronto.

Some time in the winter of 1872–73, he opened a small dry goods store named R. Simpson, Dry Goods with a staff of three clerks at 184 Yonge St., just north of Queen Street, an area of the city beginning to attract the custom of those who normally shopped on King Street.

Simpson understood that he needed to distinguish himself from the stiff competition as there were 13 other dry goods businesses situated within a few blocks of each other, including, of course, the T. Eaton Company.  

During the 1860s, there was a revolution in the urban retail industry, and it is reported that Simpson was able to claim an annual sales volume in 1866 of $60,000.

In April 1867, he moved into what he considered “the largest and finest shop north of Toronto.” 

Using imaginative advertisements, handbills and flyers distributed throughout the countryside, he not only kept up with his competition but improved his credit standing. 

There was a move by retailers of the time to obtain merchandise directly from their suppliers and manufacturers in Great Britain. This may have been responsible for his visit back to Scotland in the winter of 1868–69, his first since his arrival in Canada. Despite Simpson’s obvious success, his health during his latter years in Newmarket appears to have given him cause for concern and may have been related to a drinking problem.

A fire on Oct. 29, 1870 destroyed his stock, valued at around $40,000, most of it on consignment and much of it not covered by insurance. He was criticized in the press for irresponsibility and for carrying a stock vastly out of proportion to his annual volume of sales. During the bankruptcy proceedings, it was alleged that Simpson showed “a most culpable carelessness in the conduct of his business” and he was criticized for his heavy dependence on the credit system. His accounting methods were also said to be slack.

Simpson’s business in Toronto seems to have been conducted in partnership with his brother-in-law, Charles Botsford, at least until July 1879.

In the winter of 1879-80, Simpson, in partnership with his cousin James Simpson and James Robertson, established a wholesale dry goods business on Colborne Street. At about the same time, Timothy Eaton also established a wholesale business in Toronto, both merchants following the new trend to move from the retail to the wholesale business. 

It is now clear that they both entered the wholesale industry at the wrong time as there were diminishing returns. 

Simpson’s wholesale venture met with only limited success and by 1885, it was operated as both a retail and a wholesale outlet. Robertson withdrew from the partnership in 1886 and the death of James Simpson in November 1889 brought the enterprise to a swift end.

Simpson was then able to devote his full attention to his original retail store, which in 1881 had moved into larger premises, at 174-76 Yonge, adjacent to the Eaton’s store.

In the summer of 1883, Eaton, needing larger premises, moved farther north to 190 Yonge but, indicative of the competition between these two men, he kept his old store locked up and vacant for more than six months to ensure that Simpson could not move in and take advantage of the Eaton connection.

Simpson seems about the only store owner mentioned by Eaton in letters to his brother, suggesting that Eaton regarded him with perhaps more seriousness than some of his smaller competitors.

Though competition was rampant among all dry goods merchants in the 1870s and 1880s and though the two founders differed dramatically in personality (Eaton being a strict Methodist teetotaller, Simpson reportedly a heavy drinker), there seems to have been no indication of the intense rivalry that would later exist between their stores. Interestingly, both Thomas Eaton and his son, John Craig, attended Robert Simpson’s funeral, and the flags of the Eaton’s store flew at half-mast that day.

Simpson’s store, which by 1885 offered a growing variety of merchandise and employed nearly 60 clerks, was by the early 1890s operating as a full-fledged department store, retailing everything from dry goods to groceries, patent medicines to furniture. 

Its success was largely a product of aggressive selling techniques and the adoption of a cash, one-price-only system at a time of increased demand for consumer goods.

On March 3, 1895, less than three months after its opening, the new Simpsons store burned to the ground, falling victim to the third major fire in Toronto in less than two months. Undaunted and defiant, Simpson re-opened for business as soon as possible, rebuilding his store.

Exactly six days after the fire, Simpsons was once again welcoming customers, however in rented premises. The store would move back into a new and improved building at the Queen and Yonge location in just over 10 months.

The architecture firm Burke & Horwood resolved to make this second building the best of its kind. To lessen the risk of fire, the new building was built on a steel frame, the first in Canada. 

The rolled steel girders were fire-proofed with concrete and the columns spaced at greater intervals. This structure still stands today, the original core of a much larger building that now occupies the entire city block.

The staff by this time comprised more than 500 employees serving in 35 departments, with a restaurant, and a well-organized mail order department. In May, the store was formed into a joint-stock company, the Robert Simpson Company Limited, with Robert as president. 

Sadly, Simpson did not live to see his company thrive for long after that 1895 fire as he would die on Dec. 14, 1897. His sudden death with no son to inherit the business, placed a heavy burden on his wife and daughter Margaret. 

The business was sold in March 1898 for $135,000 to a syndicate of three Toronto businessmen, Harris Henry Fudger, Joseph Wesley Flavelle and Alfred Ernest Ames.  In 1978, the Hudson’s Bay Company purchased it and the Simpson name disappeared from the landscape. 

There is an Ontario government plaque marking his birthplace in Inverness, Scotland, a plaque on the building in Toronto and one embedded in the sidewalk in front of his first store on Main Street here in Newmarket.