Timothy Eaton: Apprentice Co Antrim shopkeeper who built Canadian retail empire

On the 150th anniversary of the opening of his first store in Toronto, GORDON LUCY recounts the life of the devout Christian from humble roots

Timothy Eaton served his time as an apprentice shopkeeper in Portglenone before emigrating to Canada
Timothy Eaton served his time as an apprentice shopkeeper in Portglenone before emigrating to Canada

Timothy Eaton was born in March 1834 in Clogher, near Ballymena, Co Antrim.

He was the fourth son of John Eaton, a Presbyterian tenant farmer, and his wife Margaret Craig.

The family was staunchly Presbyterian and highly esteemed for their practical Christianity and their ready generosity. John Eaton named his sons after his favourite books in the Bible.

The Toronto Methodist church named in Timothy Eaton's honour and built with money donated by his family

Although John Eaton died two months before his son’s birth, Margaret Craig continued the tradition by naming him Timothy.

She also ensured that all her sons were firmly grounded in the Presbyterian catechism and thoroughly familiar with the Scriptures through daily Bible readings.

Timothy served his time as an apprentice shopkeeper in nearby Portglenone. He slept under the store’s counter which was convenient because he had to work from early morning to late at night six days a week.

During his apprenticeship, he learned much about the business of buying and selling and that the honesty taught him by his mother was the best policy for a merchant. In addition, he learned empathy for all who worked long hours for little reward. When his apprenticeship expired, he received only one hundred pounds sterling for five years’ work.

Aged 20, Eaton emigrated to Canada to join other family members already established in southern Ontario.

At the age of 24 Eaton encountered a Methodist minister engaged in open-air preaching. He withdrew to a barn to ‘debate with [himself] and seek the assistance of God in solitary prayer’.

On his return to the meeting, he made a confession of faith and soon joined the Methodist Church. By doing so, he was following in the footsteps of two of his brothers.

He met Margaret Wilson Beattie while attending St Mary’s Methodist Church. Within weeks he had proposed, and they were married on May 28 1862. They had five sons and three daughters.

In 1865 Eaton set up a bakery in the town of Kirkton, Ontario, which failed after only a few months. Undismayed, he opened a dry goods store (ie a store selling textiles and ready-to-wear clothes) in St Mary, Ontario.

In 1869 Eaton acquired an existing dry goods and haberdashery business at 178 Yonge Street, a prestigious location in Toronto’s central business district.

In promoting his new enterprise, Eaton embraced two fairly innovative retail practices: first, all goods had one price (permitting no haggling) and, second, all purchases came with a money-back guarantee (enshrined in the store slogan, ‘Goods Satisfactory or Money Refunded’).

As a devout Methodist, he never sold tobacco, alcohol, or playing cards in his store and he would not allow them in his home.

In 1884 Eaton introduced another striking commercial innovation: his mail-order catalogue. Its arrival became a major event in thousands of small towns and remote rural communities across Canada.

Eaton’s catalogue enabled them to acquire a wide array of products previously not easily attainable in such communities, ranging from clothes and furniture to the latest household gadgets and milking machines.

The mail order catalogue spawned a retail empire which would stretch from coast to coast, reaching its apogee during the Second World War when T Eaton Co Limited would employ a staff of more than 70,000 people.

Although strictly speaking Timothy Eaton did not invent the department store, nor was he the first retailer in the world to implement a money-back guarantee, the chain he founded popularised both concepts and revolutionised retailing in Canada.

Although hostile to trade unions, Eaton was still a benevolent employer. In part a legacy of his memories of the long hours that he had worked in Portglenone as a young man, he was a pioneer of the early closing movement, incrementally reducing the length of the working day.

By January 1904 the store closed daily at 5pm and beginning in 1886 employees enjoyed a half holiday on Saturdays during the summer months. In the 1890s he introduced a rudimentary medical plan for employees.

Despite his fame, the retiring Eaton preferred to remain in the background. He never became a public figure, and he refused to enter politics. He had three principal interests: Methodism, his family, and his store.

On January 31, 1907 Eaton died of pneumonia and was buried in Mount Pleasant Cemetery in Toronto.

At the time of his death he employed over 9,000 people in his Toronto and Winnipeg stores, in factories in Toronto and Oshawa and in offices in London and Paris. Having once told John A MacDonald, the first Canadian prime minister, that his original assets were ‘a wife, five children and seven dollars’, he left an estate worth $5,250,000.

In 1909, Eaton’s wife learned that Toronto Methodists were trying to raise money to build the first great Methodist church in the northern part of the city. She offered to donate all the money they needed to build one of the handsomest churches in the city subject to one proviso: that the church be named after her husband.

The Timothy Eaton Memorial Church, on Toronto’s St Clair Avenue, was completed in 1914.

Eaton is memoralised in other ways too. The town of Eatonia in Saskatchewan is also named after him, as is Eaton Park, the ground of Ballymena Rugby Football Club.