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The Legacy of Magnus Shewan or “The will in the way”, part three

This is the third and final episode, in which I speculate wildly on the reasons for the animosity between Toronto bookseller Magnus Shewan and his niece Margaret Fraser.  If you’re new to the story, it will all make more sense if you read Part 1 and Part 2 first.

In the last episode, we read the wishes of Magnus Shewan in his will:

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.

The brother in question was Christopher Shewan, a few years younger than Magnus. Christopher died about six months before his brother in September 1883, in Guelph, Ontario, where he appears to have moved somewhere between about 1855 and 1861. Christopher appears in the 1856 Toronto city directory (likely compiled in 1855.)[1] The 1861 census shows the family in Guelph—Christopher aged 49, Jane aged 42, and Margaret aged 22.[2]

For most of the more than 25 years that Christopher lived in Guelph, he was a merchant.

But while he lived in Toronto, presumably from about 1841 like his brother Magnus, Christopher worked mainly as a carpenter and builder, maybe with a little land speculation thrown in. In the 1843 city directory, he’s running a boarding house (listed as Christopher Shawan) on Scotch Street. In the 1850 directory, Scotch has become Scott Street and Christopher, now a carpenter, lives at the head of it.

By 1853, the assessment rolls[3] show that Christopher owned three unfinished houses on the east side of today’s Jarvis Street between King and Queen streets, and he lived on the south side of Queen Street. The 1850s were a time of rapid development in Toronto and the transformation of substantial town lots with enough property to have at least a kitchen garden and stable, into much smaller lots for rows of residential and commercial buildings.

A man with some means, like Christopher, grabbed a piece of the action, if he could.

In 1854, Christopher Shewan got into some hot water about a land transaction that ended up in the Court of Chancery. One of the stirrers of the stew pot was Christopher’s wife Jane. In a time when a married women had few property rights, she could protect her eventual inheritance of her husband’s property by refusing to bar her dower. (Dower rights ensured that a widow got at least one third of her husband’s land.) This refusal could effectively stop a sale or mortgage of a property.

Here’s where the wild speculation comes in. I don’t know why Jane prevented the sale—or how Christopher reacted. But I bet he wasn’t pleased.

The parties involved were Christopher Shewan, William Kendrew, Robert Walker, and Thomas Hutchison, and brothers Samuel and Marcus Rossin. Walker and Hutchison were major dry goods merchants; the Rossins ran several businesses. The property involved is not clearly identified in the paperwork—in fact, Judge Esten makes that point in his bench book[4]—but I’m quite sure it was the small parcel at the head of Scott Street.

Plans of Town Lots 1, 3, and 4 from City of Toronto abstract index vol. 17 (see note 5)

Plans of Town Lots 1, 3, and 4 from City of Toronto abstract index vol. 17. Christopher Shewan owned part of Block 3 on the lower plan (see note 5)

Scott Street stopped at Colborne Street in 1854, so the property was on the north side of Colborne, part of Block 3 within Town Lot 3. It was about 30 feet deep and backed onto much deeper lots on the south side of King Street. Christopher acquired the east half of the lot in December 1841, and the west half in June 1845. The original one-acre Town Lot 3 had been purchased in 1824 by the Honorable James Baby, and Christopher Shewan’s property was known as Baby Place (pronounced Bawbee).[5]

Today, Scott Street veers to the west at Colborne to continue as Victoria Street. Part of Block 3 was expropriated for Victoria Street. The rest is now occupied by the King Edward Hotel.

But back to the story.

Let me see if I can explain what happened in 1854. William Kendrew approached Christopher Shewan about selling the property for £287 and change. Kendrew did not disclose that he was acting as an agent for Robert Walker who owned the adjacent property on King Street.

Christopher consulted with another neighbour, Thomas Hutchison, who told him it was a “large” price. Now Hutchison and Walker were business partners, and if Christopher had been aware the Walker was behind Kendrew’s offer—he certainly wouldn’t have gone to Hutchison for advice. (Turns out that contrary to wanting a better deal for his business partner, Hutchinson actually was more interested buying the land to resell to Walker at a profit. That partnership didn’t last long!)

Approximate locations of the above plans: red outline for Town Lots 1 & 4; Block 3 was on the lower edge of the blue box.

Approximate locations of the above plans: red box is Town Lots 1 and 4; Block 3 was on the lower edge of the blue box.

Christopher Shewan agreed to sell the land to Kendrew. Here’s where the chronology gets a little hazy, and the motives become questionable.

The Rossin brothers got wind of the agreement, and “expostulated” with Christopher for not giving them an opportunity of buying it at the same price.

Kendrew, in a effort to complete the deal, requested the deed but was informed that Jane Shewan had refused to bar her dower. I’ll admit that the legal technicalities are a little beyond me, but Christopher and Kendrew did have some options to keep the deal alive, and Kendrew certainly tried.

Sometime later (apparently not late enough to avoid a lawsuit), Christopher made a deal with the Rossin brothers for £300, and Jane Shewan’s dower was duly barred. William Kendrew filed a suit against Christopher Shewan, Marcus Rossin and Samuel Rossin to enforce the original contract.

Judge Esten was not pleased that Kendrew had been put forward as the plaintiff—or had misrepresented himself as the purchaser. Esten felt that Christopher had been deceived, but didn’t believe that Hutchison and Walker were in cahoots. (Not sure I buy that.)

Although he doesn’t exactly say there was anything underhanded going on with Christopher Shewan and his lawyer, Esten notes that the deal should have been handled differently. In the end, despite deception from almost everyone involved, he was of the opinion that the plaintiff, Kendrew, should get the land at the original price.[6]

Those are the facts. Now for some wild speculating.

Why did Jane Shewan refuse to bar her dower? Did Christopher ask her to so he could accept the better offer? Or did Jane find out about the questionable deal—or the better offer—from the neighbours? Was 16-year-old Margaret Shewan involved in the discovery? Seems to me a bustling dry goods store would be a hard place to keep a secret, particularly when all parties lived but a stone’s throw away.

Was Christopher angry at being hoodwinked by Walker, or embarrassed by his own naiveté? How did his wife react to the news? Did Christopher accept that he’d given his word and the deal should go through, only to be thwarted by Jane’s dower rights?

We’ll likely never know. But I can’t help thinking that the family’s departure from Toronto a year or so later may have been precipitated by these events. If that’s so, would Christopher’s brother Magnus Shewan been upset about losing his brother to faraway Guelph? Upset enough to voice his opinion in his will, written just a few years later in 1858?

Did Magnus really hold a grudge against Jane and Margaret for nearly 30 years?

The only thing we know for sure, was that like too many of us, Magnus was guilty of not updating his will!

This is the third 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).

I had some wonderful help with this article from researchers in Shetland. Thank you to Janice Halcrow for her transcriptions of Shetland newspapers at, and for putting me in touch with Tony Gott who has compiled a marvelous database of names at

The records of the Toronto Necropolis Cemetery were also essential, both the transcription of gravestones by the Toronto Branch of the Ontario Genealogical Society, and the index to its burial registers at


[1] For more information about Toronto city directories, see my post of September 2, 2012.

[2] Both Ancestry and FamilySearch have hidden the Shewans under the name Sherman. The blessed ability to search either index without a surname—and the unusual forename “Christopher” allowed me to find them.

[3] Toronto in the 1850s: A transcription of the 1853 Tax Assessment Rolls and Guide to Family History Research. (Toronto Branch, Ontario Genealogical Society, 2005)

[4] Archives of Ontario, Benchbooks of Justice James C.P. Esten / RG 22-390-10 / May 1853 – July 1854 / Box 62 / p 11 and 12.

[5] City of Toronto abstract index vol. 17, spine title: “T.L. 1 N. Wellington & 3 & 4 E. Old Toronto”, on microfilm GSU 197315 at the Archives of Ontario. Plan at beginning of volume. Block 3 starts on page 201.

[6] Patton, James, editor. The Upper Canada Law Journal and Local Courts Gazette from January to December 1855, Volume 1. Barrie, Ontario: Barrie Herald, 1855. page 66 (April)



4 comments to The Legacy of Magnus Shewan or “The will in the way”, part three

  • BDM

    It seems odd that the daughter was in the will’s exclusion since Margaret was so young when the events of 1854 took place. If Magnus “cared” so much about his brother was he not also risking Christopher’s grudge against himself by shutting out his only child? But we don’t know if Christopher and his family even knew about Magnus’ will provisions. Margaret certainly seemed to think she was the heir. Just a mean-spirited reaction on Magnus’ part that would have included all Christopher’s children if he’d had more? Makes you wonder how much or if the brothers were in touch after the move to Guelph.

  • Brenda Naish

    I really enjoyed this story. I’m looking forward to your book.

  • Bill Dawson

    Just finished reading your articles on Magnus Shewan and found them very interesting. I was part of the introduction to genealogy course you taught at North York library. I would be very interesting in researching family histories using wills and land deeds. I’ll look at the book you published. Do you know of a good book on searching land deeds.


    • Jane E. MacNamara

      Hi Bill. Glad you enjoyed reading about Magnus Shewan. For more information about Ontario land registry records, I recommend Ontario Land Registry Office Records: A Research Guide, by Fawne Stratford-Devai and Ruth Burkholder. It is available in libraries or from I teach a course at the Archives of Ontario on “Hands-on Early Ontario Land Records” for Toronto Branch OGS. The present course is just finishing, but it will likely be scheduled again next year. Keep an eye on my Lecture Calendar page.

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