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

Sometimes it is what is left out of a will—intentionally or not—that provides the intriguing story.

Magnus Shewan was a Toronto bookseller who operated a shop in the arcade of St. Lawrence Market from about 1845, and from about 1862, on King Street. At the time of his death on February 4, 1884, the bookstore was at 150 King Street East at the corner of Jarvis. The building still stands, one of the few surviving examples of the scale and type of architecture that lined both sides of King Street when it was Toronto’s main thoroughfare.

This article from the Toronto Daily News, 8 Feb 1884, introduced me to Magnus Shewan.

This article from the Toronto Daily News, 8 Feb 1884, introduced me to Magnus Shewan.

Mr. Shewan first came to my attention in this article from the Toronto Daily News of February 8, 1884. Please take a minute to read the sensational account of poor Mrs. Frazer who presumed she was in the will—and presumed incorrectly. Maybe a little bossy, too, was poor Mrs. Frazer.

This niece of Magnus Shewan was likely the wife of George Fraser (rather than Frazer), listed in the 1884 city directory as an engraver for Masters and McPhail, moulding and frame makers. The Frasers lived at 24 Widmer Street.

Now to consult the estate file, to see if the newspaper got the story right.

Beginning in 1859, estates in Ontario were handled by county surrogate courts. Family members or friends or other parties would apply to the court to be appointed to administer the estate. If the deceased left a will, it would usually be the person(s) named as executors. The court would decide if the applicant was suitable, and after having them fill out the appropriate paperwork, pay the fees, post a bond and swear to do a good job, a grant of probate or administration would be issued.

Magnus Shewan died in Toronto, so his estate was proven in the York County Surrogate Court. The records (and nearly all Ontario estate records) are at the Archives of Ontario. Most are on microfilm and available on interloan from the Archives of Ontario, or through

The first step is to consult a semi-alphabetical index that shows name, residence, type and date of grant, and a grant number. Semi-alphabetical means all the “S” names are listed together, but not sorted beyond that. However, they are recorded chronologically, and since we know Magnus died in February 1884, we can start looking for “Shewan” shortly after that.

In 1884, Magnus Shewan's bookstore was on the corner of King and Jarvis in this yellow brick building dating from the late 1840s. ©Jane E. MacNamara

In 1884, Magnus Shewan’s bookstore was on the corner of King and Jarvis in this yellow brick building dating from the late 1840s. ©Jane E. MacNamara

For York County, the estate files are arranged on the microfilm numerically by the grant number in the index.

Magnus Shewan’s estate file, grant number 5193, contains the following documents:

  • application to administer the estate from the deceased’s cousin, also named Magnus Shewan
  • certificate from the Surrogate Clerk’s office ensuring that no one else has applied
  • oath of the executor (cousin Magnus) that he will “faithfully administer”
  • the will, written in 1858 and witnessed by Hector Cameron and Adam Crooks, naming cousin Magnus as executor
  • affidavit stating the date of death by cousin Magnus
  • affidavit that the will is genuine by witness Hector Cameron
  • affidavit of the value of property ($3,689 personal effects and $5,200 in real estate)
  • inventory of the estate

What about poor Mrs. Fraser? Is she in the will or out of luck? Stay tuned till next time!

This is the first 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).

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