James of Middlesex & James of Mono

Robert George Brett has frequently been identified as the grandson of James Brett of Mono Township, but that assumption is simply not supported by the facts. This paper argues that Dr. Robert George Brett, second Lieutenant-Governor of Alberta, was the son of James Brett of Middlesex who may or may not have been related to James Brett of Mono.

Disentangling the various lines of the Brett family appears to be the work of a lifetime. One might even say it’s the work of many lifetimes, as numerous Brett descendants have worked and continue to work diligently on collecting, deciphering, speculating, and theorizing on family relationships of old.

The curious case of James Brett has been my most recent obsession. That’s probably because it’s not one single case but at least three.

The story begins at the end with the death of James Brett of Mono.

The name of R.H. Brett, eldest son of John Brett and Elizabeth Brown, appears on Lot 6, Concession 6 of Mono Township in this 1871 map of Simcoe County. Source: Ontario Historical County Maps Project, https://maps.library.utoronto.ca/hgis/countymaps/simcoe/index.html

James Brett of Mono (1780-1862)

When James Brett died in March of 1862, the Orangeville Sun introduced his obituary as follows:

With deep regret we have to chronicle in this issue the lamented death of James Brett, Esq., of Mono, which sad event took place on the 25th ult. The deceased was a native of Sligo, Ireland, where he was born in the year 1780, so that he was at the time of his death 82 years of age. In 1829, he emigrated to this country, and settled upon his farm in Mono, where by honest industry and untiring perseverance, he created for himself a pleasant home which was alike open to the rich and poor.

It’s a very flattering tribute that notes his “broad and comprehensive views,” his “very active interest in the welfare of the emigrant,” his pious devotion to the Church of England, and the “esteem and good will of all who knew him.” It doesn’t mention his wife Elizabeth Brown by name, but it says he was “kind as a husband and father, generous and obliging as a friend and neighbor.”

Although he was primarily a farmer in Canada – a “yeoman” in old English parlance – the death notice describes him as “James Brett, Esq.” The Wikipedia entry for “Esquire” says the abbreviation “Esq.” was originally appended to a man’s name as a term of respect, given to men of higher social status who at one time ranked next below that of Knight. As the Orangeville Sun saw fit to add “Esq.” to James Brett’s name, it would seem that he was known for something beyond his yeomanship.

The obituary for his daughter, Elizabeth Brett Martin (mother of Clara Brett Martin, the first female lawyer in the British Empire), adds to our knowledge about James Brett, Esq. Published in the Orangeville Sun on 24 Feb 1910, the obit says:

Mrs. Martin was a daughter of Squire James Brett, an Irish civil engineer of the old school, who practised his profession in the early development of York county.

While I’m not entirely sure what a “civil engineer of the old school” is, I am intrigued by the family legend that says three brothers who were land surveyors emigrated to Canada and settled in Mono Township. The three brothers were: James Brett of Mono, whose full given name may have been Richard James or Robert James, abbreviated as RJ in some correspondence; Henry Brett of Rosemont (1792-1877) who married Catherine Cuffe; and George Brett of Mono (1785- ) who married Jane Jackson.

Although I have not discovered any references to Henry or George as being surveyors or engineers, the three brothers appear to have had a brother Patrick who may have been a surveyor in County Sligo. After Henry of Rosemont’s death, “Patrick of Cloonarara” wrote a letter to Henry’s son George in which he said, “I be striving to earn a little with the chain.” This is a reference to his work as a surveyor, as chains were then used as the common instrument of measurement.

There is a brief biographical entry for James’ son, Robert Henry Brett, on the Early Bretts of Co. Sligo, Ireland website (an invaluable resource). That entry says that the family emigrated in the early 1800s when James took a position as surveyor in York County.

In addition to details related to his occupations, James of Mono’s obituary also provides confirmation of his year of emigration: 1829. His sister Margaret and her husband Allen Shaw seem to have emigrated at the same time. Margaret’s obituary published in the Christian Journal (22 June 1866) says:

SHAW – Mrs. Margaret was born in the parish of Achonry, County Sligo, Ireland and married Allen Shaw when she was 25. In 1829, she came to Canada with her husband, settling in the Gore of Toronto.

Although family legend says that the three brothers came to Canada, it does not explicitly say that they emigrated together. Indeed, we know that Henry of Rosemont and his family boarded The Royalist in May 1850 with Jasper Golden, a Sligo native who settled in Essex County and who is known as the prodigious chronicler of that voyage. Thanks to Jasper Golden’s journal, we know that two of George Brett and Jane Jackson’s children – Jasper and Catherine – were also on The Royalist. In her history of the George Brett family, Kate Brett Turnbull noted that George Brett and Jane Jackson, along with seven children, emigrated to Canada, settling first in Peel County and then later moving to Mono Township. Taken together, these facts support the conclusion that both brothers and their families emigrated to Canada in 1850, twenty-one years after their siblings James and Margaret.

When he arrived in Canada in 1829, James Brett had been married for 22 years and had at least seven children. Two of his children are of particular interest to this story: Robert Henry and James.

Robert Henry Brett (1815-1881)

The third child and eldest son of James Brett and Eliza Brown was 14 when his family emigrated to Canada. Although he was raised on the family farm on the 6th Concession (Lot 6) of Mono Township, Robert Henry – known professionally as R.H. or R. Henry – was living in Toronto as early as 1841 when he married Sarah Jane Richardson. An ad that appeared in the Western Herald during the first half of 1842 confirms that he had already established an import and wholesale merchandise business in his twenties.

This advertisement for R.H. Brett, general wholesale merchant, appeared in the Western Herald at least six times in 1842. A list appended below the ad included items for sale, including kegs of plug tobacco, bags of coffee and spices, casks of nails, bales of candle wicks, tierces (archaic term for casks) of assorted ink, and cases of combs and fancy goods.

In 1847, Brown’s Toronto City and Home District Directory listed R.H. Brett as a general wholesale merchant, now located at 34 King Street East. Only a few short years later, R. Henry made the leap to banker and launched The Banking House of R.H. Brett in 1855, which was renamed The Exchange Bank of Toronto in early 1856.

An illustration of the R.H. Brett Banking House, circa 1877, located across from the post office on Toronto Street. Source: Illustrated Toronto: Past and Present, compiled by J. Timperlake (Toronto: Peter A. Gross, 1877), opposite p. 161.

Demolished in 1957, the building in which R.H. Brett kept his banking house was then called York Chambers, one of many architecturally significant structures on the street. An article on the Torontoist website, provides the following description:

Toronto Street was once, ‘the finest street in Toronto,’ architectural historian Eric Arthur asserts in his seminal Toronto No Mean City. ‘It had all the charm of a street in some capital city in Europe. People unknowingly sensed its quality—businessmen were unhurried, motor cars hardly exceeded the pace of the carriages of half a century ago, and the buildings on both sides of the street had about them that dignified venerability that commands immediate respect.’”

An illustration of the building (shown above) and the following description of Brett’s Banking House can be found in Illustrated Toronto: Past and Present (1877):

Source: Illustrated Toronto: Past and Present, compiled by J. Timperlake (Toronto: Peter A. Gross, 1877), 365.

According to Hayseed Capitalists: Private Bankers in Ontario, a doctoral thesis by Stephen Edward Thorning, R.H. Brett and Co. was one of only a half dozen firms that could legitimately be called private bankers in the 1870s.

R.H. Brett laid the foundation of his lengthy banking career in a grocery and dry goods business, and over time began acting as a general agent and commodity broker. In the late l850s, he established a private bank under the style of The Exchange Bank of Toronto. Despite the title, it was a proprietorship. Brett claimed to have $140,000 of capital in the business. His contacts as an importer and merchant allowed him to build up an impressive list of correspondents, which included Duncan, Sherman & Co. of New York and Allan & Gillespie, the Liverpool merchants and exporters. Brett’s office, offering a full range of deposit, discounting, exchange and insurance services, seems to be the only one of its kind in Toronto, and had more in common with the small town banks than with the other members of Toronto’s financial community. Indeed, in the 1860s Brett operated an office in Orangeville, though this seems to have been for insurance only. As Brett’s Banking House, he continued to operate a full-service bank in Toronto into the 1870s. He specifically advertised for the business of immigrants to Canada, a line of business that offered profits on foreign exchange, commissions on drafts, and short-term deposits.

Stephen Edward Thorning, Hayseed Capitalists: Private Bankers in Ontario (Doctoral Thesis: McMaster University, 1994), 123-124.

According to an entry on canadacurrency.com, Brett’s Banking House also took the initiative to print one, two, five and ten dollar notes. Without further research I can’t say how paper currency was regulated in the mid-19th century, but it appears that R.H. met with some opposition from the Canadian government and his notes were never put into circulation. Today they are collector’s items.

It seems that the first iteration of Brett’s Banking House closed in May 1858, after the currency crisis, but this did not dissuade R.H. from pursuing the business. He may have taken a brief hiatus and returned to Mono Township, as he and his wife appeared in the 1861 census living in a two-story frame house beside his parents who were living in a two-story log house. As all of his children were born in Toronto in the 1860s, it is probable that he continued (or resumed) running a private banking firm in the early 1860s. By 1873, he was operating the Banking and Exchange Office of R. Henry Brett at 11 Toronto Street and living at 10 Wellesley Street.

Advertisement in the Toronto City Directory, 1873, opposite p. 81.

When he died on July 25, 1881, R.H. Brett was a well-known banker. His sister Elizabeth Brett Martin’s obituary said as much:

Mrs. Martin’s brothers, James Brett and R.H. Brett, were a well-known banking firm on Toronto street when the commercial life of the city was in a formative stage.

A notice that appeared in The Globe on July 25, 1881 provided the following information:

DECEASED—Mr. R. H. Brett, a well-known private banker of this city, also an old resident, died at his residence on Monday evening. He was much respected and esteemed by all his acquaintances. His funeral takes place this afternoon.

R.H. Brett’s wife, Sarah Jane Richardson, was remarkable in her own right. Known for her charitable work, she acted in executive capacities for several organizations, including the Industrial House of Refuge, the Anti-Slavery Society, the YWCA and its Relief Society.

James Brett the Bookkeeper (1820- )

Robert Henry Brett’s brother James has, until recently, been a bit of a mystery. That he existed was known, but many people, including this writer, have adopted the belief, unsubstantiated, that he was the father of Robert George Brett, esteemed doctor in Banff and second Lieutenant Governor of Alberta.

James Brett is certainly elusive, but he is not the father of Dr. Robert George Brett. I’ve come to this conclusion for a number of reasons, beginning with James Brett’s appearance in various business directories.

In Brown’s Toronto General Directory for 1856, James Brett was listed as a bookkeeper at Brett’s Banking House. The directory also listed home addresses: James lived on the east side of Mutual Street and his brother on the north side of Wellesley Street.

Entries for James Brett and R.H. Brett appeared in Brown’s Toronto General Directory in 1856.

Just above R.H. Brett’s entry in The Canada Directory of 1857, James Brett was listed as a cashier with an address of 68 Queen Street, but no additional details. The term “cashier” is certainly applicable to banking and usually referred to the chief operating officer (general manager) of the bank .

The last directory entry I’ve found appeared in the Toronto City Directory for 1867-68 and listed James Brett as a bookkeeper at 8 King Street East, with his residence at 110 Queen Street East. As Brett’s Banking House was situated at 11 Toronto Street, perhaps this entry suggests a parting of the ways for the two brothers.

I have been entirely unsuccessful at finding this particular James Brett in census data. Unlike his brother, he does not appear in the Mono Township census for 1861, and I’ve had no luck locating him in the 1871 census for Toronto or in a graveyard. But I have found another James Brett who helps to tie up some loose ends.

James Brett of Middlesex (1821-c1895)

In the section above I mentioned the unsubstantiated belief that James Brett, brother of R.H. Brett, must be the father of Robert George Brett, esteemed doctor and second Lieutenant Governor of Alberta. A number of recent discoveries have pointed me towards a different conclusion.

Dr. Robert George Brett, undated.

Robert George Brett is very well documented. He was not only an esteemed physician and surgeon, but also a successful business tycoon who developed the hot springs at Banff, Alberta, into an elegant private hospital and hotel operation. The Dictionary of Canadian Biography (DCB) includes a lengthy entry for Robert George Brett which says his Irish parents emigrated to Canada in 1846 and settled in London, Ontario, later moving to Strathroy in Middlesex County.

At the beginning of this post, I noted that James Brett of Mono, along with his wife Elizabeth Brown and a gaggle of children, emigrated to Canada in 1829. That fact is well documented. According to the DCB, James Brett of Middlesex, so-called to avoid confusion, emigrated to Canada some 17 years later. Searching for confirmation of this fact, I found James of Middlesex and his wife, Catherine Mallon, in the 1861 census for Adelaide Township with a recorded emigration date of 1848. Emigration dates separated by nearly 20 years was the first clue that James Brett of Middlesex and James Brett the bookkeeper are not the same man.

Like James the bookkeeper, James of Middlesex was born about 1821. As he and his wife both indicated to the 1861 census-taker that they emigrated in 1848, it is likely that they married in Ireland. Confirmation of their marriage has not yet been found, but census data shows a fairly consistent residency in southwestern Ontario.

In 1851, James Brett and Catherine Mallon, both born in Ireland, were living in Adelaide Township with 1-year-old Robert George. Their next-door neighbours were Robert and Eleanor Mallon (spelled Mallan), probably Catherine’s brother and his family judging from their ages. In the agricultural component of the 1851 census, a James Britt appears on 100 acres described as the west half of Lot 15 in the 4th Concession of Adelaide Township. By 1861, the family had grown with the addition of William, Letitia, and Emmaretta.

By 1871 the family had moved to Strathroy, then a small town, in Middlesex County. The DCB entry for Robert George Brett says: “They moved into town when Brett was ten years of age so that he could attend the Strathroy Grammar School.” In the 1871 edition of Lovell’s Canadian Dominion Directory, James Brett is listed as a grocer.

In 1874, Robert George, by then a doctor, established a medical practice in Arkona, a neighbouring town in Lambton County. Seemingly not averse to starting fresh, James and Catherine moved to Arkona. This is confirmed by the 1881 census.

By 1891, James and Catherine had followed their daughter Emmaretta and her husband, Dr. Andrew McDiarmid, to Winnipeg, Manitoba. As records show that Catherine, but not James, emigrated to the United States with Dr. and Mrs. McDiarmid in 1896, it is fair to assume that James died between 1891 and 1896. A search for his death registration or burial information has so far been unsuccessful. However, we know that Catherine Mallon died in Chicago on 30 April 1912. Her death registration lists her parents as Robert Mallon and Catherine Stinson.


When some pieces of the family history puzzle don’t fit, there’s no use trying to force them. As frustrating as it may seem, your best course of action is to stop and consider the picture from a fresh perspective. I believe I’ve done that by sorting out two different family lines and, in the process, removing Robert George Brett from the pedigree chart descending from James Brett of Mono. I’d be happier and more confident in my conclusion if I could find a marriage registration for James Brett and Catherine Mallon in the online records now available at IrishGenealogy.ie. If it were available, there’s a good chance it would list their parents’ names.

For now, I’ll leave this here and hope that others are as curious as I am.

[Updated July 3, 2022 to explain the term “cashier” used in reference to James Brett.]

2 thoughts on “James of Middlesex & James of Mono”

  1. Laurie, I am descendant of James Brett and Elizabeth Brown’s daughter Margaret who married Thomas Robert Henry – 1808 -1878. Like you, I have spent hour trying to untangle the families and your research has been helpful. I am not sure if the following adds anything, but it might add more context and a suggested strategy to triangulate family connections.

    Dr. Tom settled in Sandhill near Caledon East to be near family and he married Margaret shortly after arriving. I hypothesize the Henry and Brett families knew each other in Sligo. I further speculate there was a connection with the Martin family. I have searched for the family origins in Ireland. James Brett’s death is reported in a Belfast paper and lists his town of origin as Balnacara, County Sligo. I speculate Dr. Tom may have come from Sandyhill or Montiagh, Sligo, Civil Parish Achonry. The Henry and Brett families appear to have been relatively affluent, well educated and intelligent as the lines of both families produced professionals and scholars.

    As you know Mono is very close to Caledon East/Sandhill and Mono had 500 residents around the time we are reviewing. The census 1861 • Mono, Dufferin County, Ontario, Canada has James (83) with his wife Elizabeth (69) living with their son Robert H Brett Esq, (43) and his wife Sarah (36). Also living with them, the Martin family: William (53) & Catherine (43) and their children Elizabeth (20) and Sarah (9).
    The 1861 census for Mono, Dufferin County, Ontario, Canada shows living next door to the James Brett family, is the William Henry family. William (60) his wife Eliza (48) and their 9 children: James, Anne, Sarah, John, William, Martha, Mary, Jane, Elizabeth (4). A further connection is from 1867 and Andrew Blaire (17) is living with the Brett’s and Martins. Andrew is the son of Frances Henry (1830-1851) (Dr. Tom’s sister) and Andrew Blaire (1811-1897).

    I value the connections with other researchers, so thank you for your work.

    1. Hi Julie.

      Thank you for your comment and the additional information you’ve included. There’s an article about Clara Brett Martin that includes a sidebar at the end subtitled “Literacy in Mono Township.” It says:

      “In 1842, Mono Township had ten one-room schools, more than double the number in similar rural townships. This was likely because Mono took in significant numbers from what is often called the “Sligo migration wave”: educated Ulster Irish who came to Canada after the defeat of Napoleon (1815), but well before the potato famine (from c.1845). Abraham Martin was one of these arrivals, taking up land in the 6th Concession in 1832. He married Elizabeth Brett, daughter of James Brett who owned the neighbouring property. The Bretts had English connections and were quite well-to-do. Commentators describe the Martin/Brett families as “well-bred.”

      “All twelve Martin children were tutored at home – interesting given that Abraham was once Mono’s Superintendent of Schools – and all received some university education. After forty years in Mono the family moved to Toronto where Clara was born.”

      I think the “Sligo migration wave” is consistent with the family relationships you describe and the surnames that populated the Mono Township area: Brett, Henry, Martin, Armstrong, McIlroy, Little, and Irwin. The last four are named by Ada Brett Kerr as appearing in the St. Luke’s graveyard in Rosemont – all from County Sligo. There are probably others. I believe a similar but much smaller “Sligo migration wave” happened in Essex County involving Pettypieces, Goldens and Bretts, but it’s a topic that needs more research.

      I have collected information on some of James Brett and Elizabeth Brown’s other children, including Margaret who married Dr. Henry, and Catherine, Marcella and Elizabeth who all married Martins. Sadly, Jane’s husband and two children met a tragic end by drowning according to the entry in the Dictionary of Canadian Biography: http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/wilkes_robert_10E.html

      I also hope to pursue a connection between the Bretts of Mono and the Essex County Bretts. I am interested in William Douglas Balfour, MPP for Essex from 1882-1896 and owner of the Amherstburg Echo. In particular, I am interested in his motivation behind championing the cause of Clara Brett Martin who was initially denied access to legal education based on her gender. My ancestor, Richard Ruddy Brett, began his newspaper career at the Echo and named my grandfather Douglas Balfour Brett. I find it very curious that Balfour championed Clara’s cause. He may simply have been a progressive thinker, as he did go on to champion Delos Rogest Davis’s similar struggle based on race, but perhaps there was more to the story and perhaps it relates to the Bretts. So far I’ve found exactly nothing in support of my theory.

      I’m glad you’ve found some value in the post. Please keep me posted on the progress you make in your research. I’m happy to communicate by email as well: lbrett7@yahoo.ca.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: