LONDON, ONTARIO – Back in the late ‘80s / early ‘90s, some incarnation of our downtown business association got it into their heads that they needed to define the precise boundaries of downtown London. No doubt there was some issue about membership dues or eligibility for tax breaks that made such tortuous calculations seem necessary. But merchants and Londoners generally (there had been dark mutterings in the press) were starting to chafe at the exclusionary, snobbish overtones of the whole exercise until the gentle elder statesman of downtown shopkeepers, Fred Kingsmill, stood up at an association confab and contributed his two cents’ worth: “I always think of downtown London as being anywhere within the sound of St. Paul’s bells.”
No, Fred’s wistful formulation couldn’t be adopted as a solution to their territorial quandary but – as so often happened when Fred chimed in with his ever-gracious perspective – tensions dissolved and attitudes softened and the discussion resumed on a more historically informed and distinctly human plane. I was reminded of his characteristic observation last Saturday morning as I cycled into town for Fred’s funeral and, turning into Fullarton Street at Eldon House, I could hear the bells of St. Paul’s Cathedral two blocks to the east tolling out the knell as the last of the mourners filed in through the big front doors. The church usually reserves a knell of that kind for the deaths of monarchs and statesmen and other momentously solemn events like a declaration of war. They bent that tradition for Fred because of his family’s long association with St. Paul’s and its bells.
In his sermon the Reverend Paul Millward informed us that on Christmas Eve of 1935, Fred’s father was the first to ring the bells as they’re currently arrayed in St. Paul’s tower. And young Fred – born Thomas Frederick Kingsmill; he didn’t go by his middle name until he was an adult – often helped his father out with bell-pulling duties. It’s a tradition for ringers to engrave their initials or names on various posts and beams and Rev. Millward had gone up in the tower last week with some of Fred’s family to see if he’d ever left his mark in that way. Nothing turned up during that first visit and then Rev. Millward thought to head back up there and close the door, in the way that bell ringers do just before they commence their musical work. And sure enough, there it was on the back of that little door: “VE Day 1945 Tommy Kingsmill”. Fred would have been 17 years old.
Thomas Frederick Kingsmill (1928–2019) was the fourth generation of his family to operate Kingsmill’s department store. One of 23 different dry goods stores in London when it first opened on Dundas Street in 1865, Kingsmill’s distinguished itself from the very beginning for its select and wondrous stock of British woolens, linens, draperies, carpets and china. The store came of age with London and because its operation was always a family concern, Kingsmill’s never went in for the sort of corporate overhauls and rethinks which obliterate any trace of originality or tradition in so many other stores. Right up until the end of its almost 150 year run - and despite two major fires in 1911 and 1932 - the hardwood floors remained intact as did the stamped tin ceilings and the Victorian elevator complete with a full time operator. Also still in evidence – though not so extensively used in an era of computerized sales – was the pneumatic tube system which linked the store’s 26 different departments to the sales office and sent all cash and paperwork zipping overhead in little cylinders.
In his marvelous talk of remembrance, the Reverend Keith McKee told about the day when Fred was aghast to see a customer about to leave his store with an unwrapped Waterford vase poking out of their shopping bag. “Did nobody offer to wrap that for you?” asked Fred who then bundled it all up in tissue, and sent the customer on their way with his sincerest apology. Fred then took up this oversight with his staff who assured him that if they had sold a Waterford vase that day, they most certainly would have wrapped it; that Fred had just given the VIP treatment to a shoplifter.
The competition was mystified at how Fred’s great, great grandfather, the Tipperary-born Thomas Frazer Kingsmill (1840–1915) so unerringly won contracts with all the best British suppliers and always knew which new products and lines to feature. Certainly Thomas Frazer made more buying trips to Britain than any of the other London merchants; sailing out of Montreal to Liverpool on CPR liners as many as four times a year. A sub-headline on the report of his death in The London Free Press said he, “CROSSED THE ATLANTIC OCEAN OVER 140 TIMES”.
But the real secret to Thomas Frazer’s uncanny success was that even when he was at home with his wife and kids at their Belleview farm just north of the city (on land which would eventually be sold and developed as part of the campus of the University of Western Ontario), there was a second Mrs. Kingsmill on site in Britain making the rounds of manufacturers’ showrooms and placing orders for the store. It was a brilliant arrangement that gave Kingsmill’s a major advantage over all the other London merchants. Bigamy is a notoriously demanding and expensive crime to pull off for any length of time – even if you have the inclination or the ambition, who’s got the energy? – but Thomas Frazer managed to elude detection for the duration of his life.
I found out about Thomas Frazer’s imbroglio in the early 90s while researching a whole slew of historic London biographies for a book that was going to be published to coincide with the unveiling of the People and The City sculpture (at the corner of Wellington St. and Queens Ave.) by artists Stuart Reid and Doreen Balabanoff. The information didn’t seem to be written down anywhere and it wasn’t talked about generally. But if they knew you were digging around in the archives anyway, librarians and other writers with a historical bent would sort of lean in and say, “So I guess you know about Thomas Frazer and his . . . uh . . . little trans-Atlantic subterfuge?”
I had come to know Fred in a social way by then and subtly tried to get him to talk about it a little. He didn’t take umbrage. He didn’t deny it but he wasn’t going to augment my hearsay knowledge with any solid details either and it was pretty clear that he’d be just as happy if I kept it under my hat. And then when the proposed book on ancient Londoners ran into a budget shortfall and got boiled down to a much tinier booklet, I thought, “Yeh, Fred doesn’t need the grief. I’ll sit on it too.”
And I wouldn’t be blabbing about it today if Fred hadn’t come to terms with it himself in recent years and spoken about it in some detail at meetings of the Baconian Club. After Kingsmill’s closed in 2014 and the building was purchased and transformed into a satellite campus of Fanshawe College, Fred gave a couple of talks to our club about the history of the store and the eccentricities of his mercantile progenitors. I recognized a similar defusing of the scandalous past when I recently visited Australia where the descendants of 19th century Britons who’d been deported to a penal colony half away around the globe, were no longer so circumspect about acknowledging the deeds of their forbears; in fact they were rather proud of them.
Closing up the store definitely removed candour’s primary deterrent for Fred. But there also seems to be a term limit of about a century and a half to any scandal’s capacity to bite. When enough time has passed, infamous relatives can actually begin to take on a certain fascination and cachet. Not only can you talk about the rogues in your family tree with reputational impunity; you might even arouse envy among your contemporaries who secretly wish their forbears hadn't all been such four-square dullards..
My greatest debt of gratitude to Fred is for introducing me to the Baconian Club. He’d been reading my stuff in the paper and enjoying it and contacted me in 1988 in his capacity as that year's president to see if I’d be interested in giving a talk at the midwinter banquet of London’s last remaining men’s club. Now 135 years old, the Baconians started up as a fraternal organization where young lawyers, journalists, teachers and doctors could hone and develop their skills as speakers and debaters. The talk I gave that night – entitled Towards a Forest City Mythology – was a lighthearted romp through London history where I explored incidents from the city’s past which I thought were reflective of some of the world’s great legends and myths. (I still think Slippery the Sea Lion as Sisyphus was pretty inspired.)
Fred had warned me that Baconians could be utterly brutal to guest speakers they didn't like and London lawyer, Sam Lerner, did not disappoint; delivering a gleefully sadistic evisceration of my performance that was almost as long as my talk. Or does my memory exaggerate the duration of that eye-watering ordeal? I was stunned to have provoked such a tirade and can’t say that I ever did warm to Sam. But even in the depths of that merciless chewing out, I recognized the rare value of this company of men who could be counted on to grapple with ideas in an atmosphere where absolutely no holds were barred and I joined the club two years later.
Thankfully, not all Baconians come on like Genghis Khan, and Fred was revered as one of our most obliging and winsome members. In his tribute at the funeral, fellow Baconian Keith McKee recalled how often Fred would begin some observation with the word, “Incidentally”. A phrase I particularly associate with him, uttered as he was about to consider an alternative perspective on some matter, was, “Now, in fairness”. Both phrases bespeak a habitual graciousness and thoughtfulness – a generous broad-mindedness and openness to other points of view – which were hallmarks of the Fred Kingsmill I knew.
No small part of the fun of the Baconian Club is our po-faced regard for the conventions and etiquette of formal meetings. We address each other by our last names. You must be acknowledged by the president before you speak and you must stand up when you do so. This last year, Fred was granted a dispensation on the rule to stand as he’d been taking longer and longer to rise from his chair, and would self-deprecatingly say as he struggled to an upright position, “Leaping to my feet.”
In Fred’s obituary notice his family thanked “everyone who made it possible for Fred to spend his final days at home.” That was a blessing for everybody involved and a truly just reciprocation. Over all the years I knew him, Fred was the mainstay of an unsung organization called the London Consistory Club which provided hospital beds and walkers at no cost to anyone who requested them, with Fred overseeing their delivery to people’s homes in Kingsmill’s trucks.
On the way out of the funeral service, the St. Paul’s bells started up one more time with a recessional of Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God Almighty. And it occurred to me that perhaps our city’s oldest church hadn’t really bent their tradition so very much out of shape when they offered up that knell for Fred. If you don’t think in terms of an empire or a country but instead consider the honour and service that this private citizen unfailingly paid to the city that grew up around his family's store and within the sound of those bells, then there really was something rather royal about Fred Kingsmill.
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THE AQUINAS LECTURE
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