Aunt Polly Verner lived at 283 Parliament Street for nearly 30 years during the last decades of the nineteenth century. She and her husband, John, ran a grocery store familiar to thousands of Canadians through the writings of her nephew, Vern McAree, in his memorable book, Cabbagetown Store, and in his newspaper columns.. .
Polly grew up on a farm near Dromore, a tiny village nestled among the ancient drumlin hills of County Tyrone near Omagh in Northern Ireland. She was just nine years old when her parents, William and Jane Caldwell Fleming, left Ireland with their eight children on the sailing ship Sesostris, with 428 people on board. . .
Just days before the ship sailed from Londonderry on May 14, 1847, at the height of the calamitous potato famine, front page newspaper stories described the sinking of the Exmouth in a violent storm. All the passengers bound for Quebec were drowned, including seven of Jane Caldwell’s relatives from Fermanagh. On the Sesostris, Polly’s little brother and sister and the nine month old baby died at sea. Her 11 year old sister, Eliza, died of typhus at Grosse Ile. She was buried there in an unmarked mass grave.. .
After a stormy passage and three years in Montreal, the family moved to Toronto in 1850. It was an exciting time for Polly, her brother, Joseph, and the sturdy twins, Isabella and Rebecca (the future mother of the writer, Vern McAree).. .
The horse ferry to Toronto Island was still running and a son of the owner of the Tecumseh Wigwam tavern at the corner of Avenue Road and Bloor (where the Park Plaza hotel now stands), was hanged for holding up a stage coach. A year later Jenny Lind was singing her heart out at the new St. Lawrence Hall and a horse-drawn omnibus could take six people every ten minutes all the way from the new Hall up to the village of Yorkville, near the Bloor street toll-gate. Barely a hundred gas lights lit up the whole place.. .
William Fleming, Polly’s step-father, found work as a licensed carter, hauling wood from the forest around St. James Cemetery. He leased farming land near the Don River, then moved the family to St. David Street in Cabbagetown so the children could attend Park School.. .
At 17 Polly married young John Verner, a promising tailor, who always made sure she had a lovely dress to wear on special occasions. They built their house in stages, including an outdoor privy and a stable. Their grocery store (a barrel of oysters out front at Christmas time) offered credit to working class families, something the bigger stores did not do. Many of their customers worked at the Gas Company at the foot of Parliament Street, only one week’s pay from destitution. Bank accounts were unheard of.. .
To cut off a man’s credit when he was out of work was unthinkable. But nobody trifled with Aunt Polly’s generosity. Young Vern McAree would tremble with terror when this tiny woman faced down a customer twice her size whom she felt was shirking his family responsibilities. Her guiding philosophy was that you shared what you had with those who “ had a call on you.” And this included the saloon keeper just down the street who had fallen on hard times and needed a pair of gloves for his bleeding hands. Aunt Polly provided them without question.. .
Polly and John Verner had no children of their own. But no less than a dozen children who had lost their mothers came to live at that small store with its wooden awning. Vern McAree was one of them. Sometimes the house, built for six, housed 12 to 15 people. Polly encouraged the special qualities of each child. She encouraged Vern McAree to keep reading, even if it were only the comics, in defiance of the local preacher.. .
My grandfather, Robert J. Fleming, Aunt Polly’s younger brother, came to live at the store after the death of his mother, Jane Caldwell, in 1871. He had left school at 12 to earn two dollars a week as a stoker in an office. He was known in the neighbourhood as a teenage “scrapper” who could take on the toughest kids on the block. Under Aunt Polly’s encouraging influence, Robert soon became a partner in a flour and feed, coal and wood business, on Parliament Street. A short time later he won election as the alderman for St. David’s ward. In one of his letters he urged that gas light be immediately provided for 16 families in the ward. They had been living on dangerous, darkened streets where an elderly man had recently been robbed and murdered.. .
In another letter Robert tells a friend that “Polly has been a mother to me and my children” after the death of his first wife, Mary Jane, in childbirth. Crowded though it was, he and his children returned to live at the store.. .
Subsequently, in some of Toronto’s most colourful elections, he was elected to four terms as mayor and became known as “the people’s Bob”. He married Lydia Orford, who lives just up the street at 325 Parliament. . .
On May 15, 1914, Aunt Polly and Uncle John Verner, celebrated their 60th wedding anniversary. Like many others, I cherish the photo taken on that occasion, with its Irish sense of belonging and family. The Mail and Empire noted that “hundreds of their friends came to pay their respects.” In remarkable ways, the story of Aunt Polly, who died in 1918, continues to connect people here in Canada and across the sea in Ireland..
By Catharine Fleming McKenty