Historicist: The Modest Millionaire

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Historicist: The Modest Millionaire

Every Saturday at noon, Historicist looks back at the events, places, and characters—good and bad—that have shaped Toronto into the city we know today.

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Portrait of Harris Henry Fudger. This Is Simpson’s by Merrill Denison (Toronto: Simpson’s, 1947).

One stereotype in the business world is that of the cold-hearted, distant proprietor who cares only for his business and couldn’t give a damn about the well-being of his employees or the rest of the world. Another stereotype is that of the millionaire whose philanthropic efforts are designed to bolster his ego more than benefit the recipients. While Harris Henry (H. H.) Fudger sometimes gave the impression of being a cold autocrat, given his calm manner in running Simpson’s department store for over thirty years, his efforts to improve the lives of his workers and Torontonians were undertaken with a high degree of modesty and care.
Born in Toronto on December 19, 1851, Fudger spent most of his formative years in Paris, Ontario. He returned to Toronto around 1870 and began working as a clerk for fancy goods and jewellery wholesaler Robert Wilkes. From his stern disciplinarian boss, Fudger learned to expect hard work and unswerving loyalty from his employees. Wilkes’ presence never quite left Fudger—as future Simpson’s president Charles L. Burton noted in A Sense of Urgency: Memoirs of a Canadian Merchant, “A few years before his retirement when he was over seventy, I recall Mr. Fudger saying that he always felt as if ‘the boss’ was likely at any moment to come in and see if he was ‘on the job.’”


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Advertisement, the Globe, June 11, 1891.

By 1880, Fudger and Henry Smith bought out Wilkes and reorganized the firm as Smith & Fudger (though Wilkes had little time to enjoy the proceeds of the sale as he accidentally drowned while swimming in Sturgeon Lake the same year). Smith left the firm around 1890 and the company dropped his name. Burton, who first worked for Fudger as a fourteen-year-old office boy, described working for the wholesaler in the mid-1890s:

Fudger’s opened at eight a.m. and closed, theoretically, at six p.m., but night work was the normal thing. I never knew the proprietor to instruct anyone to work at night, there was never any doubt as to what work had to be accomplished before closing. It was left to us to the get the work done; and the result was three to four nights per week until ten o’clock or later—that is from the 15th of March to Exhibition time. We received a quarter every night for supper. We usually saved a dime out of that until we became seniors and ate at Harry Morgan’s on Jordan Street, where it took the whole twenty-five cents for the best roast beef dinner in town and a mug of ale with it if desired.

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R. Simpson Building under construction, Richmond Street West, looking northeast, 1908. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1244, Item 7037.


After department store owner Robert Simpson died in late 1897, rumours around the local business community ran that American interests had contacted Simpson’s heirs to purchase the store. Local buyers were sought and a trio that all attended Sherbourne Street Methodist Church emerged. Fudger, Joseph Flavelle, and A. E. Ames stepped forward and assumed control by the spring of 1898. To avoid the appearance of conflict of interest, Fudger removed himself from the day-to-day running of his wholesale firm and threw his energy into the presidency of Simpson’s. In over thirty years at the helm, the store expanded six times as it stretched out towards both Yonge and Bay Streets.
In terms of management style, Fudger developed a reputation for being aloof and distant, bordering on autocratic, yet possessed of an inner kindness. In a series of articles in the Toronto Star that celebrated Simpson’s centennial in 1972, former employees noted that Fudger “peered out at employees through steel-rimmed pince-nez, his calm blue eyes and his small, white goatee giving him a professor-like poise.” His distanced business manners may have reflected the high degree of modesty he demonstrated in many aspects of his life—he abhorred personal publicity, especially when it came to charitable donations to support residences for the homeless or employees in need. Under his watch, Simpson’s became one of the first private employers to offer profit-sharing and pension plans. After Fudger’s death, a store manager recalled that Fudger approached him during the first Sunday the new employee lived in Toronto and asked if he had any friends or relatives in the city. When the employee said no, Fudger invited him to his Rosedale home. While he personally kept a low profile in public matters, he encouraged his management to offer their time to community organizations and promote causes that benefitted the welfare of the public.

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Senator Cox’s home, Sherbourne Avenue, 1910. Seven years later, this was the site of the Sherbourne House Club. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1244, Item 3120.


Fudger’s modesty made him refuse to bestow his name on one of his largest philanthropic efforts. In 1916, he acquired the former home of Simpson’s investor Senator George Cox at 439 Sherbourne Street and converted the mansion into a boarding house for young women from elsewhere looking for a comforting, nurturing place to establish their lives in the city. When it officially opened in January 1917, the Sherbourne House Club offered one hundred and fifty rooms for “self-supporting business women,” most of whom worked for Simpson’s. A variety of activities were offered to residents and outsiders, including classes, clubs, dances, exercise, readings, and other means of broadening one’s horizons. Some decorum was expected of residents—showing up for breakfast in curlers was a no-no. According to the Star, “It was Mr. Fudger’s feeling that the beautiful artistic equipment and surroundings of the property and the comfort and economy afforded…should be an inducement to all the residents to co-operate in every way in study, work and prayer for the betterment of the community of the city of Toronto.”
Fudger was a firm believer that there was more to life than just the day-to-day tallying of business transactions and sales.

In the hurry and bustle of the day’s life and work, many of us do not see the beauty of which the world is full. This is especially true of businessmen. We become absorbed in affairs and “having eyes, see not.” As a caustic critic has put it, “businessmen, your business is your greatest prejudice, for it ties you to your locality, your society, your inclinations. Diligent in business, but lazy in intellect, content with your inadequacy and covering your contentment with a cloak of duty.

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H. H. Fudger and Richard Barry Fudger. Memoir and Letters: Richard Barry Fudger 1880-1918, compiled by H.H. Fudger (Toronto: private printing, 1919).

He was proud that his son Richard (Dick) Barry was able to balance the business responsibilities thrust upon him as a rising force within Simpson’s with his passion for the fine arts, especially painting. The Star once noted that Dick stimulated his artistic friends because “he could bring to a studio the fresh insight of a distinguished amateur who felt that in art was the life even more than in business.” Unfortunately, Dick was cursed with a chronic illness (never clearly defined in any text we read) that led to his death at age thirty-eight in 1918. Fudger collected a book of memories and letters soon after Dick’s death, where the grief at his loss was deeply felt.

It is to be regretted—as is remarked in one of the letters of appreciation to his wife—that Dick in his home life was not under the observation of some great novelist, because it furnished material which, woven by a skillful hand, would have produced a most pleasing and interesting story.

When the Art Gallery of Toronto (forerunner of the AGO) sought donors to fund an expansion in the mid-1920s, Fudger honoured Dick’s love of art by fully funding a wing on the west side of the centre court that still bears the family name. Local newspapers noted that his donation marked the first time a private individual funded an entire wing of an art gallery in Canada. With some reluctance, he allowed the gallery to hang a treasured portrait of Dick painted by one of Dick’s teachers, Sir William Orpen.

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Advertisements, the Telegram, March 18, 1930.

“Great Merchandiser,” “Lover of Art,” and “Guardian of Employe[e]s’ Welfare” were among the headlines found in the Telegram when Fudger, himself, died on March 18, 1930. Over the rest of the week, local papers were filled with reminiscences and editorials praising his modesty and philanthropy. Typical of the tributes was one from former Toronto Board of Trade president John A. Tory, who noted that “many people found him distant. I never found him so…In his quiet way he was one of the great outstanding merchants of this country. What many thought was timidity was a restrained manner with not a suggestion of pride.” Business rivals placed ads expressing their grief, while Simpson’s closed its doors until the funeral.
Among the endowments provided by his will were gifts of $100,000 each to the Sherbourne House Club and Toronto General Hospital (who used the money to fund a library that bore his name for years), $2,000 to the Hospital for Sick Children, and $30,000 to Sherbourne Street United Church (now St. Luke’s United Church). His former congregation, where he had served as treasurer for four decades, paid their respects by erecting a memorial window in its south transept.

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H. H. Fudger home at 40 Maple Avenue. The Mail and Empire, March 19, 1930.

Fudger’s presence lives on in a few venues around the city apart from the wing in the AGO. The Sherbourne House Club was renamed Fudger House in 1951 and carried on for another decade, though the number of residents dropped as, in the words of trustee G. Allan Burton, “It became the fashion to rent apartments with girl friends.” The trustees sold the home to Metropolitan Toronto in 1963 for use as a public seniors residence. The house was deemed a fire hazard, demolished, and replaced with the current Fudger House in 1966. Though Fudger’s country estate in Clarkson, Barrymede, was demolished long ago, his Toronto home at 40 Maple Avenue has survived many reconfigurations into apartments, with the most controversial among its neighbours being an extension built after the home received a historic designation in 2001 (PDF).
Additional material from A Sense of Urgency: Memoirs of a Canadian Merchant by Charles L. Burton (Toronto: Clarke, Irwin & Company, 1952), Memoir and Letters: Richard Barry Fudger 1880-1918, compiled by H. H. Fudger (Toronto: private printing, 1919), and the following newspapers: the March 8, 1898. March 19, 1930 and September 25, 1933 editions of the Globe; the February 19, 1966 edition of the Globe and Mail; the January 30, 1917, January 16, 1926, March 18, 1930, May 6, 1930, January 3, 1972, and January 7, 1972 editions of the Toronto Star; and the March 18, 1930 and March 19, 1930 editions of the Telegram.

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