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Remember This? Devlin's-Morgan's on Sparks Street

R.J. Devlin & Company had deep roots in Ottawa, dating back to 1869 when its founder Robert James Devlin came to the city from London, Ontario to start a furrier business. 
2020-03-23 RJ Devlin
R.J. Devlin & Company, 76 Sparks Street, Topley Studios, Library and Archives Canada, 3422789.

OttawaMatters.com, in partnership with The Historical Society of Ottawa, brings you this weekly feature by Director James Powell, highlighting a moment in the city's history.

March 23, 1973

Ottawa residents of a certain age may recall a department store called Henry Morgan & Company located on the south side of Sparks Street, close to Elgin Street, a spot now occupied by the Royal Bank of Canada. 

Morgan's, as it was known to most, was a branch of an upscale Montreal-based department store chain that had come to the nation's capital in 1951 with the purchase of the venerable retail firm of R.J. Devlin & Company from the Devlin family.

R.J. Devlin & Company had deep roots in Ottawa, dating back to 1869 when its founder Robert James Devlin came to the city from London, Ontario to start a furrier business. 

Devlin was born in 1842 in Londonderry, the son of an Anglican priest. His father died when Devlin was just 12. A guardian then took the young lad to Canada -- took being the operative word. Devlin was a wealthy young man, having inherited $30,000 -- a huge sum in those days. But when he was out one afternoon as a volunteer water-carrier for the London Fire Brigade, his so-called guardian absconded, leaving Devlin penniless. 

Forced to look quickly for work, Devlin found a job in a fur factory. He later worked as a journalist for the London Free Press, writing a humorous column called Korn Kob Jr. At some point, he met the Hon. John Carling, later Sir John Carling, a prominent London businessman who represented the city in both the provincial and federal governments. Carling advised Devlin that he should start a furrier business in Ottawa which at the time was growing rapidly, the government having just moved there from Quebec City. 

He arrived in 1869 and set up a fur and hat store on Rideau Street, close to the canal. He later moved to No. 37 Sparks Street, across from the Russell House Hotel. The store's sign was a large tin hat on which was written the store's motto -- "Hats that R Hats."

Devlin's three-story shop at 37 Sparks Street sold hats on the ground floor, had a fur 'salon' on the second floor, and the Devlin fur workshop on the third floor; Devlin's manufactured all its fur products on-site. The store itself was famous for its mirrors. They were carefully angled in the stairwell to allow a person on the ground floor to see end-to-end through the second-floor fur salon as well as up the stairs to the workshop. This must have been a handy feature for salespeople to monitor the store for shoplifters.

Each Saturday, when Devlin received the week's sales tally from the store's accountant, staff could judge how successful the week had been by Devlin's choice of cigars. If sales and profits were strong, he would send a clerk over to Nye's Cigar Store in the Russell Block to purchase 25 cent cigars -- the very best. If sales were lacklustre, the clerk would buy cheap ones. Staff wanting a raise would know to approach Devlin only when he purchased the expensive cigars.

In 1891, Devlin built a four-storey building on a 66 x 98-foot lot, formerly known as the Kenley property, at 76 Sparks Street between Elgin and Metcalfe Streets. Before the growing company occupied the entire building, also known as the Carleton Chambers, Devlin's rented space to a number of tenants, including Ahearn & Soper, Robert Masson’s Shoe Company, and the Ottawa Citizen newspaper. Reportedly, Devlin had difficulty renting the fourth floor since potential tenants didn’t trust the elevator to go so high, and were reluctant to walk up four floors. During the early twentieth century, the store expanded beyond hats and furs to become a women’s and men’s clothes store.

What particularly distinguished R.J. Devlin & Co. from its competitors was the store's advertising. 

The advertising copy, which was always prepared by Devlin himself, often took jibes at politicians of all stripes, as well as Ottawa and its residents. A friend of Mark Twain, Devlin had a devilish wit. He called the beaver "Canada’s original lumber king whose tail is as devoid of fur as the head of the average senator."

He frequently complained about the state of Ottawa’s roads, especially Sparks Street. 

In one of his ads, he quipped that "fishing was recorded as good on a ravine called Sparks St -- but if any of my patrons will come to the opposite bank and shout, I well send over a boat and ferry them across." Another read "my business is located behind a rut on what is known as Sparks Street -- not the small rut over on Elgin Street but the large one near the middle of the block [i.e. in front of Devlin’s store]." In 1893, he wrote a satirical piece arguing that Ottawa citizens didn’t need a clean, solid, enduring pavement on Sparks Street. Leave well enough alone. If it was good enough for our forebears it’s good enough for us -- as long as "you wear long boots or are handy on stilts." 

Sparks Street was finally paved in 1895.

Devlin didn’t spare himself either. For one sale he advertised: "There is a surplus of furs which I should not have and a chronic deficit in my bank account which the manager says he won’t have -- so -- betwixt the Devil and the Deep Sea, etc." Another read, "For sale -- Grey goat coats $6 -- they are grey and the are goat and they are six dollars, which is all I can truthfully say about them." Another went, "Waterproof coats $5 -- they are not even good coats, unless they possess some hidden virtue of which the undersigned is unaware."

Robert Devlin’s greatest advertising coup occurred in 1889. 

On November 11 of that year, his advertisement predicted that winter would start in Ottawa on November 27 with a major blizzard accompanied by howling winds. To prepared for the coming storm, men and women should purchase fur coats and warm sleigh robes from his store before it was too late. Recall that these were the days long before Environment Canada, when people relied on the Farmers’ Almanac and weather 'seers' for their forecasts.

The city waited with bated breath to see if his prediction would come true. 

The 27th began grey and dull with a stiff wind. The temperature was in the upper thirties, Fahrenheit. Through the morning, the temperature dropped. The occasional snow flurry changed into a heavy and persistent snowfall. By evening, the snow was so deep that the street railway stopped working. The first sleighs of the season appeared on city streets. The snow continued for close to twenty-four hours, with more than a foot on the ground, just like Devlin had predicted.

Devlin was lionized by the success of his prediction. More than 250 people sent him their congratulations. 

When asked by a Journal journalist the secret of his success, Devlin demurred, reportedly saying "Do you think I am going to impart my priceless system -- mine is the only infallible and true method and I mean keeping it too (sic) myself." Devlin was crowned by the public as Ottawa’s "prize weather prophet."

Many years later, Devlin’s advertisements were collected by his sons and given to the Women’s Canadian Historical Society of Ottawa, the forerunner of The Historical Society of Ottawa, and were housed in the Bytown Museum, then operated by the Society. The three leather-bound volumes are currently stored for safe keeping in the City of Ottawa Archives.

With his unorthodox advertising methods, and a strong reputation for quality furs, Devlin’s prospered. 

Governors general and prime ministers patronized his store. In 1901, an association of Canadian women presented the future Queen Mary with a mink and ermine wrap made in the Devlin workshop. Famous Hollywood stars including Lilian Russell, Maureen O’Sullivan, Jimmy Cagney, and Gene Tierney were Devlin customers. The fabled Pavlova and Field Marshals Ferdinand Foch of France and Douglas Haig of Britain patronized the store. When Winston Churchill visited Ottawa in December 1941, Devlin’s made a sealskin hat for the British prime minister over night. It was presented to the great man by the Parliamentary Press Gallery.

In 1949, R. J. Devlin & Company celebrated its 80th anniversary. By this time, the store had passed to Robert Devlin’s sons, W.F.C. ('Ted') Devlin and Brian Devlin; R.J. Devlin himself having died in 1918 at the age of 78. 

Three years later, in April 1951, the brothers sold the landmark store to Montreal’s Henry Morgan & Company. Ted Devlin stayed on as a director of Devlin’s which was now operated as a subsidiary of Henry Morgan & Company. All of Devlin’s staff were retained by Morgan’s as were Devlin’s policies, including the staff pension fund which was instituted by Ted Devlin in one of his last acts as the company’s president.

While Morgan’s initially ran the store under the Devlin name, six months after the purchase, Morgan’s send 10,000 Ottawa residents a questionnaire asking them whether it should retain the historic name or change it to the Henry Morgan Company. Five thousand people responded with a two to one margin in favour of changing the name.

In 1960, Morgan’s of Montreal was purchased by the Hudson’s Bay Company. While billed as a "merger," it was in fact an acquisition under which Morgan shareholders received one Hudson’s Bay share and $14 for every Morgan’s share. The deal was worth $15.4-million. While the takeover was reported in the press, few realized the takeover had occurred as the Bay ran Morgan’s outlets, including the one on Sparks Street in Ottawa, under the Henry Morgan & Company name.

In November 1971, the Hudson’s Bay Company bought Ottawa’s A. J. Freiman’s department stores. With Freiman’s main store on Rideau Street, just a short walk away from the relatively small and elderly Morgan’s outlet on Sparks Street, Morgan’s future looked grim. 

On 23 March 1973, the hammer came down. The Hudson’s Bay Company announced that Morgan’s on Sparks Street would close for good. But, the Hudson’s Bay, still operating under the Freiman’s name in Ottawa, promised that no jobs would be lost with a new giant Freiman’s store to open later that year in a new west end shopping centre. That fall, with Freiman’s now operating under the Hudson’s Bay brand, a huge Bay store opened in the new Bayshore Shopping Centre.




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