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HARRIS, THOMAS DENNIE, merchant and office-holder; b. 30 Oct. 1803, of English parents, at Boston, Mass.; m. Lucy (Lucille, Lucinda) Charles of Montreal in 1827, by whom he had 12 children; d. 18 Jan. 1873, at Toronto, Ont.

Thomas Dennie Harris emigrated to Montreal in 1817 and worked in John Frothingham’s hardware store. In 1825 he moved to Kingston, and in 1829 he went to York (Toronto) as manager of a branch hardware store for John Watkins of Kingston. He entered into a partnership with Watkins for operating the store in 1832. It was dissolved in July 1838 and Harris continued as a wholesaler and retailer, later in partnership with William Robert, his first-born, as Harris and Son. Harris was retired by 1859 but the firm continued for about seven more years as Harris, Evans and Company, William Robert Harris joining with John J. Evans who had earlier been an assistant in the store.

Harris had joined volunteer fire companies in Montreal and Kingston. He did the same on arrival at York, and with the reorganization of the Toronto Fire Brigade in March 1838 he was appointed its chief engineer. The post was unpaid but required supervision at every fire and detailed reports. These he presented with characteristic thoroughness until he retired exhausted and amid much regret in 1841. In the next few years he formed and led new fire and hose companies and was president of the Home District Mutual Fire Insurance Company. In the mid-1860s Harris was Toronto agent for the Home and Colonial Life and Fire Insurance Company. Fire had also made a massive intrusion on Harris’ time in the great blaze of April 1849 when he lost his own store. St James’ church, where he was rector’s churchwarden, was levelled, and he managed its reconstruction. He also oversaw the establishment of St James’ cemetery from 1844 and imported its iron chapel in 1861.

A member of the Toronto Board of Trade from the 1830s, and its president in 1864, Harris served as the board’s representative on the Toronto Harbour Commission from 1854 to 1864 and again from 1866 to 1869. In 1863–64 he was the commission’s president. He was harbour master of Toronto from 1870 to 1872, when he resigned through ill health. In the 1830s he had also become treasurer of the Commercial Newsroom, a meeting-place and reading-room mainly for merchants. He was later treasurer of the Toronto Athenaeum from its founding in 1845 (it soon absorbed the Newsroom and in turn merged with the Canadian Institute in 1855).

Harris helped inaugurate or sustain many enterprises. He was president of Canada’s first telegraph company, the Toronto, Hamilton, Niagara, and St Catharines Electro-Magnetic Telegraph Company, from the year of its formation in 1846 until it was swallowed by the Montreal Telegraph Company in 1852. He served long periods on the boards of the British America Assurance Company, the Colonial Life Assurance Company, the Toronto Building Society, and the Canada Permanent Building and Savings Society. He was frequently called in to adjudicate commercial disputes.

Harris’ most distinctive contribution to the city’s commercial life, however, came in 1838 and 1839 when the banks suspended specie payment causing trade to limp for lack of ready cash. Harris issued handsome printed notes for small denominations, “the Harris shinplasters,” which circulated as change and could, in aggregates worth a dollar or more, be exchanged for bank bills at par. Several thousand dollars worth came into use. He was the only person to make such an issue and one of only three merchants at this time who manufactured special metal tokens to do duty as pennies.

Harris was a manager rather than a speculator, supervising rebuilding or harbour maintenance, and keeping trade open with his “shinplasters.” He eschewed notoriety in any guise, including the offer of a magistracy, and every temptation to speechmaking. His church work did not extend to a seat on synod and he was never a candidate for city council. An admirer of another native of Boston, Ben Franklin*, he presented a portrait of him to the Toronto Mechanics’ Institute on its formation, and in his constant busyness, severe practicality, and sense of civic responsibility there are echoes of Franklin’s Poor Richard.

Barrie Dyster

Metropolitan Toronto Board of Trade, Council, minute books. MTCL, Consumers’ Gas Company papers, lists of shareholders, 1855; Toronto, Mechanics’ Institute papers, 1832. PAC, RG 5, A1, 17 Aug. 1836. PAO, Toronto City Council papers, 1838–46. St James’ Cemetery (Toronto). Church Herald (Toronto), 23 Jan. 1873. Globe (Toronto), 25 Jan., 27 Nov. 1860; 20 Jan. 1873. Mail (Toronto), 20 Jan. 1873. Patriot (Toronto), 30 Jan., 4 Sept. 1838. Town of York, 1815–1834 (Firth). Brown’s Toronto general directory, 1856 . . . (Toronto, [1856]). Brown’s Toronto general directory, 1861 . . . (Toronto, [1861]). Caverhill’s Toronto city directory, for 1859–60 . . . , ed. W. C. F. Caverhill (Toronto, n.d.). Landmarks of Toronto (Robertson), I, 300–1; II, 575–76. F. H. Armstrong, “The first great fire of Toronto, 1849,” Ont. Hist., LIII (1961), 201–21; “The rebuilding of Toronto after the great fire of 1849,” Ont. Hist., LIII (1961), 233–49. Ernest Green, “Canada’s first electric telegraph,” Ont. Hist., XXIV (1927), 366–72.

General Bibliography

Cite This Article

Barrie Dyster, “HARRIS, THOMAS DENNIE,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 10, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed July 24, 2014, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/harris_thomas_dennie_10E.html.

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Permalink: http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/harris_thomas_dennie_10E.html
Author of Article: Barrie Dyster
Title of Article: HARRIS, THOMAS DENNIE
Publication Name: Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 10
Publisher: University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication: 1972
Year of revision: 1972
Access Date: July 24, 2014