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The Legacy of Magnus Shewan or “The Will in the Way”, part two

In the last episode, we learned about Toronto bookseller Magnus Shewan’s death in 1884 and that his niece Mrs. Fraser was surprised when she tried to claim her inheritance—at least according to the Toronto Daily News.

The Globe published a death notice on February 5, 1884:

DIED/ Suddenly, on Monday morning, Feb 4th, Magnus Shewan, age 75 years, a native of Dunrossness, Shetland, and a resident of Toronto since 1841. Funeral on Wednesday afternoon at two o’clock, from his late residence, 21 Dalhousie-st. Friends and acquaintances will please accept this invitation. Shetland papers please copy.

And they did. On March 1, 1884, a similar notice appeared in the Shetland Times.

Now back to the fate of Mrs. Fraser, who I’m now almost certain was the former Margaret Shewan, daughter of Magnus’ brother Christopher Shewan.

Magnus Shewan’s will was written, as the newspaper stated, 26 years before his demise—in 1858. I’ve transcribed it, and the original is also reproduced below.

This is the last will and testament of Magnus Shewan of the City of Toronto in the Province of Canada Bookseller.

I give devise and bequeath all the property real and personal of which I may die possessed to my cousin Magnus Shewan upon trust to sell and dispose of the same as soon after my decease as possible without sacrificing the same but no forced sale within two years which I allow for winding up of my Estate, and to divide the proceeds thereof in manner following:-

One fifth to my mother Agnes Shewan

One fifth to my brother Christopher Shewan

One fifth to my cousin Magnus Shewan to be retained for his own use and benefit

One tenth to my servant Charles Backus

One tenth to my cousin John Harper in Shetland, Scotland, one half of that for himself and the residue to be given by him to such of my relatives as he may consider most in need of it.

One fifth to Magnus, the son of my cousin Magnus.

I’ll interject a little more, here, about the cast of characters. Mother Agnes died in 1865 (7 years after the will was written but 19 years before our Magnus died) and is buried in the Toronto Necropolis in plot L 124S. The nearly illegible gravestone says she was the wife of the late James Shewan and mother of Magnus and Christopher. The plot was owned by Magnus.

Brother Christopher Shewan died less than six months before Magnus on September 12, 1883, in Guelph, Ontario, and was buried the next day in plot L 125 in the Toronto Necropolis. This plot was also owned by Magnus.

Cousin Magnus, as we saw last time, did outlive our Magnus Shewan, and served as administrator of the estate.

Servant Charles Backus has eluded me, and I haven’t identified John Harper of Shetland.

Young cousin-once-removed Magnus (son of cousin Magnus) also survived to inherit.

Now back to the will.

I give my wearing apparel to my brother Christopher.

I will and direct that my mother’s share shall be first paid and that she shall from time to time immediately after my decease have such sums of money out of her share of my Estate as she shall require.

I will and direct that all my just debts and funeral expenses shall be in the first place paid out of my Estate and Effects and before payment of any of the shares or legacies above given except such sums as my mother may require for her support and maintenance.

In the event of the death of any of the legatees above mentioned before me, I will and direct that his or her share shall be divided amongst the others in the proportion of their respective shares of my Estate, and I more particularly direct that under no circumstances shall the wife or daughter Margaret of my brother have any share or portion of my Estate in consequence of their misconduct towards him.

Ah, so it is true. It doesn’t pay to upset Uncle Magnus.

I hereby appoint my said cousin Magnus the Executor of this my will, and I hereby bind myself not to alter this in any way whereby his position or share may be diminished or affected nor to make any other will or codicil without his knowledge or consent while any portion of my present or any future debt to him remains undischarged.

Signed Sealed Published and declared by the said Magnus Shewan the testator as and for his last will and testament this fourth day of December AD 1858… M. Shewan

So, what did Margaret Fraser and her mother do to Christopher Shewan? Were their misdeeds really serious enough for him to hold a grudge from 1858 to 1884?

Well, I have some theories, but you’ll need to wait till next time.

This is the second in a series of articles about wills and other records of inheritance to support my new book Inheritance in Ontario: Wills and Other Records for Family Historians (Dundurn Press, April 2013).


Will of Magnus Shewan, from estate file 5193 (1884), RG 22-305, Archives of Ontario


Page 2 of the will. Click images to enlarge.



9 comments to The Legacy of Magnus Shewan or “The Will in the Way”, part two

  • Theresa Shearer

    I love reading this. I can’t wait to see what happens!

  • Kate Johnson

    I love your writing style! Can’t wait for the next installment.

  • Pat Jeffs

    The name BACKAS rang a very loud bell in my head. Here’s the family living on n/s Elm Street, St John’s in 1861 C-1106-1107, page 50 (folio 1387)

    Backas, E, 61, f, w, b Ireland
    Backas, E, 33, f, m, b Ireland
    Backas, G H, 28, m, b Ireland, clerk
    Backas, S M, 26, f, s, b Ireland
    Backas, C A, 24, m, s, b Ireland, clerk
    Backas, J. 2, f, s, b Ireland
    Backas, W L, 19, m, s, b Ireland
    Backas, E, 24, f, m, b U Canada
    Backas, G L, 2, m, s, b U Canada
    Two deaths of males in 1860 at ages 61 and 37 were noted.

    In Mitchell’s Directory of 1863, three of the boys are listed:
    1. G H Backas, assistant postmaster at Post Office Bldgs, Toronto Street. res: 60 Elm Street, St John’s
    In Caverhill as George Backus, post office clerk, living at 24 Mutual Street
    2. C A Backas, book seller, stationer, newsagent at Whittemore’s Bldgs, Toronto Street, res: Yorkville. C A Backas, 24, clerk, living with mother E Backas in the 1861 census, had moved to Yorkville by 1863 (no street address)–he is not in Yorkville census. In Brown 1861 as bookseller, not in Caverhill.
    3. William L Backas, stationer, 72 Wood Street, St James. In the census aged 19 with no occ’n.

    In the 1871 census(Yorkville, York East, Ontario; Roll: C-9968; Page: 43; Family No: 166), C A Backas is Charles A, still in Yorkville, and he is a stationer.

    In 1881 he appears to be travelling in Nova Scotia, but young G L Backus is in St Patrick’s Ward with his mom and the rest of the family.

    Hope this helps|

    • Jane

      Thanks, Pat. That minor spelling variance (Backas vs Backus)had them hidden from me! Looks like Magnus Shewan’s “servant” Charles Backus was his shop assistant–and soon to working with a competitor.

  • James Shewan

    By chance I have come across your account of the details of Magnus Shewan’s will. I am one of the Shewans of Dunrossness in Shetland, all related. Magnus is a very common family name and I was aware of the branch of the family in Toronto.I am grateful for your research which has given us so much more information about our far flung family connections

    James Shewan Northumberland England

    • Jane

      Hi James!
      I’m very excited and pleased that you found my article. I’ll be writing a followup piece in the next few weeks about some additional research on Magnus Shewan. Thank you for getting in touch.
      Jane MacNamara

  • Carol Sue

    I have an 1876 book titled Canadian Series of School Books History of the British Empire. Inside is a stamp M. Shewan Books, Stationery 150 King St East Toronto, Ont. Might this be from the Magnus Shewan you have written about?

    • Jane E. MacNamara

      That would, indeed, be our Magnus Shewan. In that era, booksellers also dabbled in publishing, at least to the extent that they would do a special edition of an already published book. They had to be quick, to be the first store in town to sell the book. Contemporary newspapers have lots of ads for these productions. Thanks for telling me about your book, Carol Sue. Did you see my photo of 150 King E. in part one?

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