For nearly a hundred years, the Kemp Manufacturing Company of Toronto and its predecessor and successors manufactured household metal products. Its rise, growth, and leadership is an interesting chapter in Toronto history.
In 1867, Thomas McDonald founded his Dominion Tin & Stamping Works, operating out of 153-159 Queen Street East near George Street. McDonald was joined by Quebec-born Albert Edward Kemp in 1885 to form the McDonald, Kemp, and Co.
The new partners moved the business to the southeast corner of River Street and Gerrard Street East in then working-class Cabbagetown, eventually taking the street address 199-207 River Street. The joint venture between Kemp and McDonald did not last long as the men had a falling around 1888. Kemp bought out McDonald and brought in his brother William from Quebec as his new partner. Together, the brothers formed the Kemp Manufacturing Company. McDonald moved to Montreal in 1893 where he ran another iron and tinware business; he passed away four years later.
Growth & Expansion
From a structure at the corner of River and Gerrard, the Kemp Manufacturing Company grew to house a grand complex that spanned an entire city block. In 1894, The Globe toured the factory and described it as having a main building that extended from the Don River to River Street on Gerrard containing workshops, warehouses, and shipping departments. Offices were located at the corner of streets. Storerooms containing pig tin and plates, rod iron, hoop do., iron and steel sheets, zinc, spelter, copper, and more were located on the other side of a laneway separating the building and covered bridges connected departments.
The decades that followed effectively resulted in the annexation of nearly the entire block from Gerrard Street East to Oak Street and River Street to the Don River:
- May 1895: The company asks for a lease of a site on the Don for the new enamelled iron and steelworks, and for exemption for the building to be erected there
- July 1895: Kemp purchases the balance of the whole block of Gerrard to Bell Street and from River street to the Don; this new site will be occupied by a fully equipped factory specially adapted for their new Diamond specialties of enamelled goods
- June 1896: Kemp expresses his intention to make some extensions to its premises as soon as it knows what the policy of the new (federal) Government
- April 1898: The company applies to lay a 12-inch water main at its own cost from the Don for fire protection
- June 1898: The company, now occupying the block bounded by Gerrard, River, and Bell Street, makes an application to the Assessment Commissioners department for the terms in which they may get city property at the east end of Bell Street to the road on the Don Flats and north to the Gerrard Street Bridge. It was awarded to another company the following month.
- October-November 1902: The Kemp Manufacturing Co ask Mayor Howland and Council to purchase a portion of Bell Street and the Don Terrace to extend their works to the south and east and give them a railway connection. The Assessment Commissioner favoured the purchase but fixes the sale price at $5000. A.E. Kemp, now MP, argues that a new building would not disturb the houses remaining on the street.
- April-October 1903: The Kemp Manufacturing Co was permitted to erect a bridge from the east side of their factory to Gerrard Street, and to construct a siding running from the Grand Trunk Belt to their property.
- November 1906: AE Kemp denies intending to build an automobile factory opposite the company overlooking Riverdale Park. The land was bought for the Kemp Mfg Co by Victoria Harbor Lumber Co.
- June 1920: The Sheet Metal Products Co. applies for a title to the land consisting of the remainder of Bell Street and the north side of Oak Street.
An ambitious leader
Edward Kemp was the ambitious head of the Kemp Manufacturing Co. and Sheet Metal Products. In addition to the savvy business moves that expanded the company’s footprint in the River and Gerrard Street area, Kemp added factories in Winnipeg and Montreal in the early 1900s. Kemp and his brother also purchased the MacDonald Manufacturing Co. located at 401 Richmond Street West at Spadina Avenue, adding it as a subsidiary.
At the turn of the century, Edward Kemp took a step back from the company as he pursued a political career. He was first elected to the House of Commons in 1900 as the Conservative Member for East Toronto. In 1916, he was appointed Minister of the Militia. He was knighted after World War I for his political efforts in the conflict. Kemp was also appointed to the Senate in 1921.
While Kemp was keen on growing his prosperity, he also furthered general Toronto and Canadian manufacturing interests. He was President of the Canadian Manufacturers’ Association in 1895 and 1896; President of the Toronto Board of Trade in 1899 and 1900; and Director of the National Trust Company, the Imperial Life Assurance Company, and other high-profile corporations.
Unsurprisingly, Kemp and his wives (he married in 1879 and remarried in 1925) were part of high society in Toronto. He was listed in the Toronto Society Blue Book of the city’s ‘elite’ on multiple occasions. In 1902, he built his massive estate ‘Castle Frank’ after previously living at 106 Winchester Street. He was a member of the National Club, Albany Club, York Club, and other prestigious exclusive organizations.
In 1929, Edward Kemp died suddenly in his summer home near Pigeon Lake of reported “acute indigestion”. It was only hours after his seventy-first birthday. The Globe described his success as “bound up in the growth of Toronto.”
The Kemp Manufacturing Co. and later the Steel Metal Metal Products Co. were renowned for their household goods. A 1922 SMP Catalogue offers an interesting insight into the product line, which was divided into types of products by material, all with quality assurances!
Products ranged from baby baths to chamber pails to ash sifters, and of course, lanterns.
A dedicated workforce
Workers of the Kemp Manufacturing Co. lived on Sumach Street, River Street, and Oak Street, among others. Injuries such as limp lacerations and crushing were reported in the newspapers. Notable is the young age of some of the injured men, which were between seventeen and nineteen years.
As described in Sojourners and Settlers, Macedonians made up the highest proportion of the Kemp Manufacturing and Sheet Metal Products Co.’s workforce. A noted number of Ethnic Macedonians arrived in Toronto around 1910 and worked hard manufacturing jobs. The Globe noted two unfortunate events involving Macedonian employees of the company: in 1909, Peter Dassil, aged 17, was instantly killed after being jammed between the floor of a freight hoist and the ceiling; and in 1910, Christo Tomie, aged 22, drowned in the Don River near Riverdale Park.
In 1896, The Globe described an ‘old fashioned tea meeting’, organized by Mr Thomas A. Scott, ‘a colored man’, held at the African Methodist church. He was employed by the company for twenty years. The event had members of the Kemp Manufacturing Co. and the Wrought Iron Range Co.
The End of an Era
In 1927, Steel Metal Products Co merged with the McClary Manufacturing Co. and the Thomas Davidson Manufacturing Co. to form General Steel Wares Limited. The new company continued to operate the River Street plant for another fifty years. A. E. Kemp did not head the new company.
General Steel Wares closed the River Street plant in 1964 and shifted production to Montreal, Fergus, and London. The building sat vacant until the construction of a 3-tower, 984-suite apartment complex requiring Ontario Municipal Board approval was built on the site. It makes up part of today’s Regent Park neighbourhood.