Simcoe County history

By Tom Villemaire, Special to Postmedia Network

The Boys family from Barrie had quite an impact on not just Simcoe County, but also the rest of the province.

William Fuller Alves Boys, son of Dr. Henry Boys and his wife, Maria da Purïfecacao Alves, of Lisbon, Portugal, was born in 1833 in New York City, while his parents were en route to Upper Canada.

At a young age, William and his older brother (always referred to as H.R.A. Boys) became partners in a series of mills in the Midhurst area. H.R.A. bought one of Midhurst’s original mills from George Oliver in 1841, and William was in his late teens when he bought in. Oliver had been operating the mill in partnership with the Mair brothers since 1825. The operation, which included both a grist and saw mill, was situated in the heart of what would become Midhurst, just west of Finlay Mill Road, where the bridge crosses Willow Creek. One of the province’s early hydroelectric dams was built nearby and some of the concrete from it is still visible in and near the creek.

The Boys continued the milling business and added a distillery, which dispensed whisky. And the whisky was cheap — 25 cents a gallon. At this time, it was suggested Midhurst, which was then going by the name Oliver’s Mills, have a name change. H.R.A. suggested — and I’m serious — Mugglestown. I’m partial to it, but for some reason the locals didn’t take to it.

Why were the mills in Midhurst significant? They contributed greatly to bringing business — and civilization — to the centre of the county. In its early days, Bayfield Street in Barrie was called Mill Street, because it led to the Midhurst mills. The same site later gave Barrie its own electric power plant, an important facility for any area.

H.R.A. became treasurer of the County of Simcoe before heading off to San Francisco for health reasons.

William opened a number of a businesses in Barrie’s downtown and, as if millin’ and merchantin’ didn’t keep him busy enough, he added militia work to his schedule. He was a lieutenant in the county’s 5th Battalion and was active in the Fenian raids.

William was educated at Barrie’s famed Grammar School before heading off to Upper Canada College and the University of Toronto, where he earned his degree in law. He later joined the provincial powerhouse firm of McCarthy Boys Pepler, which started in Barrie. From there, he entered local politics, with a strong leaning toward temperance, which seems odd given his earlier distillery days in Midhurst.

At the age of 40, he was mayor of Barrie. His son, William Alves Boys, served as an area member of Parliament for 18 years in total, was also a mayor of Barrie and a national tennis champion.

William was made a junior county judge at the age of 50 and sat on the county bench for 25 years. He also wrote what would become a text book for provincial coroners, Boys on Coroners. He died, at the age of 82, at his Toronto Street home, which still stands today.

But the Boys family contributed much more than this.

The father, Henry, was a veteran of the Peninsular War against Napoleon and had served for three decades with the British Army and Royal Navy. His large family — he had 10 children — forced him to seek out ways to earn money and, as the war ended, he saw an opportunity to move to Canada and lay claim to free land to which he was entitled as a veteran. As he was bound for North America, the British government changed the law and Henry was no longer entitled to the free land.

He first arrived in Whitby, where he was given the tasks of collector of customs and judge of the Court of Requests, which was superseded by the Division Courts. Despite the law being rescinded that would allow him to claim free land, the lieutenant-governor, an old Peninsular friend, “urged him to still accept the allotment. He declined to do so, saying he could not accept what he was not legally entitled to.”

When the 1837 Rebellion against the Family Compact erupted, Henry stood with the government, although he refused to accept benefits from it — like the free land. And so he had two companies of militia for which he was responsible for the medical care during the rebellion.

Two years after the uprising, he was appointed bursar of University of King’s College, which would grow into the University of Toronto.

The previous appointee had deeply mismanaged the nascent university — as much out of ignorance as malice — but some underlings took advantage of that ignorance to profit. Henry, after much difficulty, corrected the problems. His office handled receipts of more than 15,000 pounds sterling annually and the records of 1,800 accounts — no small task at the time. In addition, he was responsible for the minutes of King’s College council, the official correspondence, deeds and other odds and ends.

His attention to detail and honesty were often noted. However, the depth of the mismanagement appeared to know no bounds. Less than five years after he took over, an investigation found there were irregularities in land transfers to the university. The same investigation found Henry’s work above reproach and moving the management in the proper direction, praising Henry for his “unremitting attention which he pays to his duties ... and to the ample Evidence afforded by the manner in which his Books are kept, to his accuracy and knowledge of Business.”

The roots of the university originally leaned toward the Protestant church, more specifically the Church of England. “It is chiefly on religious grounds that this Appeal for the University of Upper Canada is made, which, while it offers its benefits to the population … will … be essentially a Missionary College,” said John Strachan, bishop of York in Upper Canada. It was this pitch that won him a letters patent from none other than the king of the British Empire, George IV.

The religious affiliation was not unusual. As 1842 came around, post-secondary facilities were springing up all over: The Roman Catholics founded Regiopolis College, in Kingston, in 1837; the Methodists won a royal charter for the non-sectarian Victoria University in Cobourg in 1841; and, back in Kingston, the Presbyterians were about to open Queen’s University.

But this whole landscape shifted with the rebellion and the arrival of the Reform Party, which worked to secularize the new university. Strachan described the new version as “a Godless University,” and King’s College was no more.

Speaking of landscapes, a painting by Lucius O’Brien, who was born and raised in Oro Township, between Barrie and Orillia, captured the grounds of the young University of Toronto, as Henry Boys would have remembered it.

At this point, Henry could see the whole thing getting way more political than he wanted to be involved in and, at the age of 75, decided he could do with a lighter workload. So, with the official act creating the University of Toronto passed, he stepped down.

He lived out his days with his family in Barrie, where he continued to practise medicine, caring for the poor of the city and pursuing his studies in entomology. (He donated his bug collection to the university he helped found.) He died at his son’s home in Barrie, at the age of 93, in 1868.

As a family, the Boys brought ingenuity, entrepreneurial drive, honesty, intellect and dedication to public service to the county and the province. Boys Street in Barrie is named after the former mayor, William Boys. Maria and Henry streets were also likely named for Boys family members.

Tom Villemaire is a former editor of papers in Simcoe County, including the Orillia Packet & Times, Midland Free Press, Barrie Examiner, Innisfil Examiner and Enterprise-Bulletin, and is the author of two history books. He now runs, podcasts and can be reached at