Timothy Eaton (March 1834 to 31st January 1907) emigrated and found great fortune in Canada during the second half of the 1800s. There has been much written about his life in Canada, less so about his first twenty years in Ireland. This page focuses on those early years in Ireland.
In March 1834, Timothy Eaton was born at Clogher, not far from Ballymena. Clogher is part of the Civil Parish of Kirkinriola, which is in the Barony of Toome Lower. It is in County Antrim. The Irish name for Clogher is An Clochar, which means “stony place”. In case there is any confusion, there is a second place in the North of Ireland called Clogher. But is is much further south, in County Tyrone, some 18 miles south of Omagh.
Timothy was the fourth and posthumous son of John Eaton and Margaret Craig. There were seven children in total (four boys and three girls). Listed in no particular order – Margaret, Nancy, Sarah, Robert, John, James and Timothy.
His father owned a 40 acre farm and apparently was a reasonably prosperous farmer.
After her husband died, Mrs Eaton, who was a Craig to her own name, successfully managed the family farm, with the assistance of her wider family.
The young man’s education took place at the local National School and then subsequently at Ballymena Academy.
On leaving school at 13 years of age, Timothy was apprenticed to Mr William Smith, a merchant with a store in the nearby village of Portglenone. He was to serve there for 5 years, between 1847 and 1852. Smith’s store offered just about everything one could imagine, such as: groceries, clothing, millinery, alcohol, drugs, flour, feeding stuffs and hardware. That store is now owned by D. S. Logan (see photograph below).
John Eaton, Great in Physique & Heart
George Nasmith, in his 1923 biography of Timothy Eaton, recalls John Eaton (Timothy’s father) as “a fine type of northern Irishman, big in physique and great in heart. To his family, he was a good husband and a kind father, and his neighbours found him a warm friend. In 1834, at the early age of forty-six, while caring for a sick neighbour, he suffered exposure, as a result of which he shortly afterwards died.”
Nasmith goes on to say: “He left a family of four boys and five girls. The eldest son, Robert, was only eighteen years old and the second son, John, seven when their father died, while Timothy was a posthumous child.”
“Mrs Eaton was one of the Craigs, a family of good old stock and much of the mental ability of the family must be credited to her.
Upon his death-bed in 1921, an old school-fellow of Timothy Eaton recalled:
Eatons Were Built on Self-Reliance
“After Mrs Eaton took charge of affairs, her eldest boy, Robert, remained on the farm for seven years and then went to Canada, leaving his next oldest brother, John, aged thirteen, to carry on in his place.”
“A characteristic incident about John illustrates the self-reliant spirit of the members of this family. Mrs Eaton had a brother whom she was accustomed to consult about questions of farm management, one of the important problems being to decide just when the right time had arrived in spring for putting in the oats. She had arranged that her brother should come and do the sowing but for some reason or other he failed to come at the appointed time and the thirteen year old John went ahead and sowed the oats himself. This trait of self-reliance and confidence in his own judgment was something which the younger brother Timothy developed to a remarkable degree.”
The Schooling of Timothy Eaton
“After Timothy had sufficiently mastered the subjects taught in the National School, his mother, desirous of giving him a broader education, sent him to the Academy in Ballymena.
Discovering that her boy was not learning much at this school, she paid the teacher a visit, to point out that she would like her son to be taught grammar. The teacher’s reply was:
“Very well, Madam, have him learn it and I shall hear him say it.”
Though Timothy attended the Academy for some time he learned little there and always said that he had “got little good out of it.”
As a school-boy he was evidently quite able to take care of himself for on one occasion, being teased by his school mates about his homespun clothes, he challenged the whole crowd, and with his back to the wall fought the lot until they were thoroughly satisfied.
“He was full of ambition, even to fight,” a school-mate wrote in describing those early school days.
Timothy was evidently a regular boy in other ways. He used to tell of his first — and only — experience in smoking. The tobacco in use at the time was black twist, a poisonous product, which only hardened smokers with powerful constitutions were able to use. Timothy, being quite inexperienced, made the experiment which most boys make, had a bad attack of tobacco poisoning, and never smoked again
as long as he lived.”
Irish Famine & Family Emigration
“In the year 1846, Ireland was overshadowed by one of the darkest disasters in her history. The potato crop was destroyed by the blight, other crops were total or partial failures, and starvation accompanied by disease became prevalent throughout the land. It is doubtful, however, if the Eaton family suffered great privations at that time, though the widespread suffering from famine and disease undoubtedly must have made a lasting impression on the growing boy.
One by one, as they grew up, the members of the Eaton family went to Canada. Robert at the age of twenty-four was the one who blazed the trail and was followed later by the third son, James. The two brothers settled in St. Mary’s in the Province of Ontario, where three of their sisters subsequently followed them. John, who remained at home, took charge of the farm and spent the rest of his life in Ireland.
When Timothy left school, at the age of thirteen, he was apprenticed to Mr William Smith, a substantial dry goods merchant in Portglenone, a market town on the River Bann, one of the finest fishing streams in Ireland. Portglenone, a Protestant village, was separated by the River Bann, from Glenone a Catholic village, and became so notorious for the fights which occurred there on market days, that for a generation the market was abolished altogether. There were no Irish railways at that time and the River being navigable was used for bringing in merchandise by boat from other parts of the world.”
Five Year Apprenticeship with William Smith in Portglenone
“William Smith owned three trading boats on the River Bann, and twelve wagons. His store, though only twenty-four feet in width, was of considerable depth; at the rear it was four stories high and was used as a warehouse for the storage of flour, feed and other bulky materials”
Seemingly Mrs Eaton and William Smith were related (via her maiden Craig family). Both families were from the same Clogher area, and were devout presbyterians.
Eaton’s father named two of his sons, James and John, after his first and second favourite books of the Bible. Although he died a few months before his last son was born, his wife continued the tradition, and named Timothy after her husband’s third favourite book of the Bible. Although when he was 24 years old, and by this time in Canada, Timothy joined his brother and became a methodist.
“Almost every kind of merchandise was kept at Smith’s including dress goods, clothing, groceries, hardware, millinery, liquor, drugs, flour, feed and many other commodities. Undoubtedly the knowledge which he absorbed during his apprenticeship about so many lines of merchandise came in useful when Mr. Eaton began to deal in them in Toronto some twenty years later.
Timothy Eaton was considered, by those who knew him, to be a clever boy and was of a decidedly inventive turn of mind. He built a hoist operated by hand which he used for elevating heavy material like feed to the upper floors of the warehouse.
This economiser of energy, the first of its kind in the district, created a great deal of interest and in the opinion of the local people reflected a good deal of credit on the youth who made it.
The young man had read, in Chambet’s Journal, of gas being made from coal and as a result of his experiments a retort was rigged up which generated sufficient gas to light the warehouse.
Timothy for a time slept under the counter in the shop. It was a convenient spot for the apprentice who had to work from early morning til late at night. He would even sometimes work until one a.m. on Sunday mornings. In those days of famine, pestilence, and national misery, life could not have seemed rosy to the thirteen year old youngster living away from his own family.”
Long Days & an Early Dislike of Alcohol
“Probably little time was wasted at meals for the apprentice had to get back into the store lest he should miss a possible customer. On Ballymena market days he had to get up at four o’clock in the morning to serve out drams of liquor to the farmers driving from Portglenone to that regional market some nine miles distant. And he had to remain up to supply them with similar refreshment on their return late at night. The young boy was probably receiving impressions and forming decided opinions about the uses and abuses of alcohol.
When Timothy Eaton started in business for himself he absolutely refused to handle liquor in any shape or form, not improbably because of his experience in Portglenone as a boy.”
Timothy Eaton Hated Rag Sorting, But a Deal’s a Deal
“Timothy’s master, like other general storekeeper in those days, purchased waste rags and cloth from ragmen who followed that calling in the surrounding country. These lazy loafers, fluent of speech and ready of wit, collected rags from farm houses and gave in exchange some trifle like a row of pins or hooks and eyes and a morsel of gossip. If the gossip happened to be spicy they sometimes got bread and cheese. If the rags were decent, they would throw in a gratuitous blessing when bidding farewell. In driving a bargain they knew to a nicety the value of praising the appearance of the children and the good looks of the housewife. When there was little to do in the store Timothy was set to work sorting these rags in which task he learned to distinguish the differences between cotton and wool. It was a dangerous occupation at that period when typhus fever was rampant and lice, which spread the disease, were liable to befound in such rags.
Timothy instinctively revolted at rag sorting and on one occasion he went home protesting that he was through with business and begged to be allowed to remain on the farm which he loved. It was only when he reflected that his mother would forfeit a bond of £100 if he refused to complete his apprenticeship that Timothy consented to return to the shop, showing that his sense of fair play was evidently well developed even in those early years. He realised that a contract was a contract and he returned to Smithes to complete his own.”
One curious omission in the 1923 biography – at least I cannot find any reference to it – is the death of Timothy’s mother on the 3rd October 1848. She was 52 years old and had survived her husband by over 14 years. The loss of the second parent must have had a devastating impact on 14 year old Timothy. Her passing may well have cemented the notion of emigration, to join several of his siblings already in Canada.
Class Awareness & Punctuality
“Manners in that period were different from what they are now; parents were stricter; discipline was believed in; children and servants were kept in their places and not permitted to get out of hand; and class consciousness was highly developed. The relations between employer and employed were not as they are today. The employer believed in being the master and in holding a firm rein and in this respect Timothy^s employer ran true to form. Frequently on a Sunday, the future merchant prince when walking to his home nine mile distant was passed hy his master driving to church. The employer showed no kindly interest by offering his young assistant a lift and even if he thought that his apprentice needed fresh air and exercise he gave no cheery greeting to help the boy on his long tramp.
The spirit prevalent at the time is well illustrated by the incident of a farmer tenant coming through a hedge just as the local squire drove by. The farmer’s dog barked at the squire upon which the farmer gave him a kick, saying: “Be quiet, damn your soul! How dare you bark at the Squire?” This probably soothed the squire and satisfied him that the farmer realised his own proper position to a nicety.
On one occasion, however, his employer told Timothy to be at a certain place at a specified time and he would give him a lift back to Portglenone over the nine mile road. Timothy was approaching the designated spot a few seconds late when the master, though he saw his apprentice approaching, deliberately drove off, leaving the boy to walk. Whether he succeeded in teaching Timothy the value of absolute punctuality is uncertain. We do not know even what the boy said or thought about it but the fact remains that he remembered the incident and narrated it, without comment.
That experience was tucked away in the recesses of his memory and the injustice of it probably often rankled. Through such ex-periences the apprentice gradually came to learn the ways of men and to appreciate the fine distinction of class, — distinctions for which he himself to the end of his days showed utter contempt.”
Some Further Reflections on Timothy Eaton in Portglenone
The Mid Ulster Mail on the 13th October 1928 reflected on William Smith’s store and Eaton’s training in Portglenone. It said: “Timothy Eaton, when he became apprenticed to Mr. William Smyth, of Portglenone, entered one of the best conducted shops in the whole of Ulster.”
“It was a large spacious establishment, facing the main street, and situated almost in the centre of the southern side of that thoroughfare.”
“In front was a weigh-bridge used not only for the purposes of weighing country produce purchased by Mr, Smyth, but by farmers and others who were in the town on market days.”
“At that particular stage of history, Portglenone was a beautiful well-kept town, where business hummed, and unlike many other centres of the kind it had its own gas supply. This undertaking was largely, if not entirely, run by Mr. Smyth, when Mr. Eaton was the apprentice.”
“The fact that two or three carts were operating on the road between Belfast and Portglenone every day for Mr. Smyth’s own shop, shows the extent of his establishment, and the custom he enjoyed in the town itself and the adjoining country.”
“Mr Eaton was a bright, quick, pleasant boy, and was so ready and cheerful that he at once jumped into all-round popularity. The honesty he afterwards practised was inborn; but it was also encouraged in Portglenone. Mr Smyth, and all the members of his family were distinctly religious, and identified themselves with every enterprise that made for the elevation of their fellow-men. Therefore, it was no wonder that Canada benefited by Mr Eaton, who was trained in this establishment.”
“It secured in him a young man of sterling worth in himself, a young man well trained to business life, and a young man who had all the best qualifications — broad-based on a moral upbringing — for embarking upon great enterprises.”
Timothy emigrated to Ontario, Canada in 1854. He had some 100 pounds in his pocket – which was the figure due to him from his 5 year apprenticeship with William Smith. In Canada, Timothy joined up with his brother James and sister Sarah who were already there. In 1856, the three siblings opened a general store in Kirkton, Ontario. The business did well, but in 1860 he moved to St. Mary’s to set up a store with his brothers, Robert and James.
In 1868, Timothy parted company with his two brothers. The 34 year old moved, with his wife Margaret (nee Beattie) and children, to Toronto. There they established a dry goods business at 178 Yonge Street (known as “Britannia House”). All foods were sold at fixed prices. It was cash only. If goods proved unsatisfactory, customers were guaranteed a refund. Timothy Eaton steadily expanded his business, opening more stores across Toronto.
Eatons’ Store – Firm’s Ulster Connections
I came across this lovely old article in the Larne Times, from Saturday 6th May 1911
In addition, the proprietors are well-known Ulster people, so that in a very real sense the establishment seems to be a piece a Ireland detached.
The store is eight stories high and has on Portage Avenue — the leading artery of the city — and other thoroughfares, a frontage of 775 feet, giving nineteen acres of floor spare for store service. The number of employees varies from 2,800 to 3,500, according to the season of the year.
The firm has its own electric light and power plant; seven boilers aggregating 2,450 horse power, drive the motors that generate sufficient current for the 25,000 lights, twenty-two freight and passenger elevators, and the 150 motors that are used throughout the store for various purposes.
The present store was opened on July 15th, 1905. The establishment enjoys all the modern conveniences which has transformed shopping into a pleasant experience. There, is, for instance, the wnting and rest room, which has become a popular meeting place for friends and a resting place for wearied shoppers.
For the convenience of strangers there is an information bureau where inquiries are answered regarding boats and trains, while there are also a pubic telegraph office, grill and lunch rooms. and parcel check rooms, where parcels are wrapped and checked free of charge. The cash office is connected with 112 cash stations, by the pneumatic cash system, which requires miles of tubing to convey the carriers or boxes. Forty trunk telephone lines furnish connections with the outside, while of course, every department in the building is linked up by the inside lines.
The magnitude of this great firm’s establishment and operations, and its continued progress, should be a source of pride to all Irishmen. The president of the firm is Mr. John E. Eaton.
Larne Times, Saturday 6th May 1911
Timothy died from pneumonia on 31st January 1907. He was in his 73rd year. In 1914, the Timothy Eaton church was erected as a memorial to his life. The grounds of Ballymena Rugby Club, Eaton Park, are named after him. The town of Eatonia, Saskatchewan, in Canada were also named after him.
Timothy Eaton’s Legacy
In June 1969, Timothy’s great-grandson, John Craig Eaton returned to Ireland. It was the one hundred year anniversary from the launch of the Eaton store in Toronto.
He had lunch with the senior heads of government at Stormont, as well as a lunch with the Mayor of Ballymena. He visited Portglenone and the store where it all had started some 122 years earlier. He unveiled the plaque to be seen in the photo below.
It goes without saying that, around this part of the world, we are eternally very proud of Timothy Eaton and his achievements in Canada. The boy made good!
His legacy is one of hard work, dedication, fairness, determination and decency.
The notion of fixed price – cash sales was a big innovation that Eatons introduced. No more endless bartering.
The other key innovation was the mail order service, using catalogs. Indeed many argue that Eaton’s greatest initiative was the catalogue. It was first introduced in 1884. In such a large country, with the rural population dispersed over vast distances, the catalog was a God-send. Suddenly remote communities could find a way to shop for goods. It was the Amazon of it’s time. By the early 1900s, the Eaton’s catalogue was a key part of Canadian culture. Settlers out west referred to it as the Prairie Bible. Others called it the Farmer’s Bible.
He is remembered for gradually reducing the old customary 12 hour work days, and ultimately by 1904, his stores closed at 5pm (with half days off on Saturdays, during the summer). Eaton’s memories of his early working life in Portglenone appeared to have rendered within him, an empathy towards his employees.
He was a big believer in the delegation of authority. During Timothy Eaton’s career in Canada, his number of employees rose from only four in 1869 to more than 7,000 by his death in 1907. Note, by the time of his great grandson’s visit in 1969, Eatons was employing some 50,000 employees.
Here are a couple of interesting videos. The first one, called “Achievement: The Story of a Store” was made in 1929. Between the first and second minute, it shows 1920’s footage of Eaton’s farmhouse and the Portglenone store.