Historical Plaque Properties


James Topps - Engine Driver - GTR
95 Milton Street
Stratford, ON

James Topps was born in Rosecommon, Ireland, according to his obituary, although the reported year of his birth varies between 1835 and 1843 depending on which document is reviewed. Nor has the record of his parent’s names been found.
His obituary states that he emigrated from Ireland to Canada in 1861 and lived in the City of Montreal. The 1871 directory for the city lists a James Topps as an engine driver for the Grand Trunk Railway (GTR).
James appears to have transferred to Stratford in the early to mid-1870s as the city was undergoing a substantial economic boom as a result of the GTR’s decision to massively expand its locomotive repair shops. Records show that James purchased property in the John-Shakespeare streets area and leased out rooms to rail workers seeking accommodation.
At this time James worked as a switchman for the GTR. A switchman was responsible to operate various railway switches along a railroad track and to assist moving cars in a railway yard or terminal. The job has been described as one of the most dangerous on the railway when one misstep often resulted in grievous bodily harm including crushing injuries and amputations owing to their proximity to moving trains in all kinds of weather, year round.
James married an Irish girl who according to her obituary was born in Dublin, Ireland about 1849. Other than discovering from census data that her first name was Mary and that she emigrated to Canada in 1851, she was always referred to as Mrs. Topps or Mrs. James Topps in every document found on which her name appeared, including her obituary.
While no record of James’ and Mary’s marriage was found, it is assumed they wed during the mid to late 1870’s as Mary is recorded in the 1881 census as James’ wife. A daughter, Annie Topps, who was born about 1879, was first recorded in the 1891 census, although it is not known whether she was their natural born daughter or had been adopted as a number of different names appear as her father on the baptism certificates of her children. Twenty-three year old Annie married Daniel Barnhardt in 1902. 
James Topps died of pneumonia on June 3, 1910 and is buried in Avondale Cemetery.
Following James’ death, Mary took lodgings on Douro Street with the Whaling family. Whether it was because of age, health or penury, Mary subsequently went to live at the House of Refuge, which was built in 1896 on the current site of Spruce Lodge. It was erected as a place for those who were less fortunate could stay. They would help do manual labour in the fields of the property if they were capable or receive care if they were not. Mary worked as a housekeeper at the Refuge.
She died on June 6, 1916 and is also buried in Avondale Cemetery.