Mon. Aug 15th, 2022

Toronto’s oldest (still occupied) house played a small role in a treacherous bit of history during the War of 1812


John Cox Cottage (aka Gilpin House)


469 Broadview

Why you should check it out

Most stories about the John Cox cottage – or John Cox house as it is sometimes referred to – begin with the fact that it is still the oldest dwelling in the city that is still occupied.

It is not clear when it was built, but most historical records set the date around 1795. At that time, most of the barracks that were to form Fort York had not yet been built. And the area known today as Riverdale was a wooded area with a Don-roaring past.

“Captain” Cox, the cottage’s namesake, was a former British soldier and United Empire Loyalist, part of the contingent of colonists loyal to the crown who flocked to Upper Canada after the American Revolutionary War.

Cox’s property was one of the first plots to be parceled out by Lieutenant Governor John Graves Simcoe as part of a land grant system to see York develop into a settlement and not just a government post speculating in land speculation.

Cox’s house sat on about 100 acres — one of several areas of the same size that stretched from present-day Danforth to Lake Ontario — and which were mostly inhabited by families who arrived from England to Upper Canada. Most were farmers.

Not much is known about Cox in relation to other historical figures of the time, but unlike the lordship and other privileged men who appeared prominently through Simcoe’s land grant system, Cox was a man of modest means – a shopkeeper.

After his death in 1807, his widow, Mary, sold the cottage to Kuchs (also spelled Kuck), whose patriarch was a chemist. From there, and with the war of 1812 with the Americans just around the corner, the cottage named after Cox continued a small role in a treacherous bit of old Toronto history.

Kuchs was among the families who settled in Riverdale at the time. Among them were the browns who occupied the treaty next to Cox’s.

Kuchs owned an inn. The browns had a daughter named Catherine who wanted to marry a Valentine Efnor. They had a child together, but according to York U researcher and genealogist Guylaine Petrin, they wanted to divorce.

As Petrin told a presentation to the Riverdale Historical Society a few years ago, Catherine would continue to “befriend” local constable Joseph Farnum and have two children with him before the end of the war, which is also coincidental around the time Catherine parents were would die leaving the issue of ownership of their property in legal limbo. As a woman, having Catherine’s legal rights to the estate was an open question at the time. Her claim to the property would become more complicated when Efnor, with whom she was still legally married, returned to the site after the war.

Catherine’s brother Matthias allegedly shot him away, and Efnor was never heard from again. But it turns out that both Matthias and Farnum had a secret – they had left the British Army to secretly fight as part of a militia for the Americans during the war.

When he returned, Matthias allegedly hid in John Cox’s cottage, which at the time was passed on to Mary Kuch, who had become a widow in 1812. There is some evidence to suggest that the two had been lovers before the war. But it would only be a matter of time before Matthias’ betrayal would be discovered.

Matthias would be imprisoned for treason in 1815, only he somehow managed to escape. Kuch would have his innkeeper license revoked as punishment.

Catherine, meanwhile, lived to the age of 99 and reportedly fought several lawsuits to gain possession of her parents’ home.

In the mid-19th century, the original log house was extended into a Regency Cottage. An addition and decorative details added later were designed by the noted Toronto architect Edward Langley, whose wife Lucy Smith owned the property. The original wooden stone and most of the beam wall have been covered by successive renovations. And there is no usual plaque to mark its place in ancient Toronto history. The facade, meanwhile, is obscured by trees and an overgrown garden.

Read all of NOW’s Hidden Toronto stories here

Hidden Toronto is a weekly feature that explores the city’s alternative history through contemporary landmarks.


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