Although I have vague memories of visiting my paternal great-grandfather, Charles Luther Burton, in his old house in Toronto, I was only 2½ years old when he died. Anything I actually know about him has been learned through family stories and his own autobiography, entitled A Sense of Urgency, augmented by a plethora of information researchable in the public domain.
Charles Luther Burton, known to friends and family as Charlie or C.L., was one of Toronto’s ablest and most colourful business leaders. His working career spanned eight decades, from the time he was a boy in the 1880s until his death at age 84 in 1961. He spent a lifetime in wholesale and retail trade in Ontario, at first helping his parents George and Eliza Barclay Burton run their small Green River Store in the Township of Pickering, and then their Toronto store at the corner of Oxford and Augusta streets. He was actively associated with H.H. Fudger Wholesale Fancy Goods and The Fancy Goods Company of Canada from 1891—1912, and with the retail department store The Robert Simpson Company for nearly 40 years, where he presided over its greatest period of expansion. Even though C.L. was a very successful businessman, his personal interests extended far beyond his working life, and he gave even more generously of his energy to community, charitable and welfare work.
Born in 1876 in the Township of Scarborough, C.L. was second of nine children, six boys that included Edgar, Frank, Ernest, Arthur, and William, and three girls, Florence, Alda and Nellie. As was common in those days, three of his siblings did not survive to adulthood: Arthur and William died in infancy; C.L.’s only older sibling, Edgar, died of appendicitis in 1893, at the age of 18. The Burton family were members of the Disciples of Christ Church, and it was at church that C.L. met his future wife, Ella Maud Leary. They married in 1900, both aged 23. For the next 15 years, they expanded their own family, having two daughters, Blanche and Dorothy, and three sons, Edgar, Carl and Allan. His affinity with the Disciples spanned C.L.’s lifetime. He was a church elder, devoting his time and generosity to the practical welfare of the Cecil Street and Hillcrest congregations. He championed the educational needs of the church through endowment funds to educate and train ministers, and he established the Disciples Student Fellowship House at 79 Charles Street West.
Besides church, C.L. was involved in a number of other community service activities. He is known to have spoken glowingly of the comradeship he obtained from his connection with the Toronto Board of Trade, of which he was President in 1922, and the Ontario Motor League, of which he was President in 1927. In 1929, he started the move to form what became known as the Toronto Industrial Commission, an organization which attracted numerous industries to the area. He was its president until 1937 and retained that honorary role.
During his lifetime, C.L. was labelled one of the most public-spirited citizens in Canada. He was closely connected with the Big Brother Movement, where he served as president and honorary president for nineteen years, and he was an active worker in the Young Men’s Christian Association as well as various social welfare organizations. He also served as chairman of a special advisory board to the provincial government, investigating ways to improve the care, treatment and disposition of delinquent children at the Bowmanville Training School for Boys.
At the outbreak of World War II in 1939, memories of the Great War were still fresh on everyone’s minds. It was natural that his devotion to young Canadians should cause him to take an active interest in the welfare of troops in training, and it was due to his generosity and initiative that an organization was formed to provide entertainment, companionship and recreation for soldiers and airmen in the Toronto district. He encouraged the creation of the Simpson’s Girls War Services Club, whose 900 members raised money for various types of war work, including knitting for the services and the children of Britain, and creating ditty bags and welfare parcels sent every three months to each Simpson boy on military service. They also created a Post Box Committee to write letters to servicemen overseas.
In 1940, the National War Services Department announced the formation of an advisory board to control appeals for public funds for voluntary war work. The board was known as the National War Services Advisory Board, and was headed by C.L. Burton of Toronto. The board included a representative from each province as well as representatives of five voluntary war service organizations: the Knights of Columbus, Salvation Army, Canadian Red Cross, Y.M.C.A. and Canadian Legion.
On June 2nd, 1943, The Canada Gazette announced: “The King has been graciously pleased, on the occasion of the celebration of His Majesty's birthday, to give orders for the following appointments to the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire: To be Additional Commanders of the Civil Division of the said Most Excellent Order: Charles L. Burton, Esq., Chairman, National War Services Advisory Board.”
Following the war, C.L. was a generous patron of medical and educational institutions, which lead to a further honour. On January 4th, 1949, The London Gazette announced: “The King has been graciously pleased to sanction the following Appointments to the Venerable Order of the Hospital of St. John of Jerusalem: As Commanders (Brothers); Charles Luther Burton C.B.E.”
C.L. was connected to a successful $10,000,000 fundraising campaign for Laval University for the construction of a vast university centre on the elevated Ste. Foy Plateau on the outskirts of Quebec. On June 19th, 1949, Laval University honoured a number of prominent Canadians with honorary degrees for their roles in the fundraising effort, including Charles Luther Burton, of Toronto, president of Robert Simpson Company, who was made Doctor in Commercial Sciences (Hon. D.C.Sc.).
In 1952—53, he was chairman of a drive to raise $4,150,000 to double the capacity of Women’s College Hospital. On September 2nd, 1953, St. Francis Xavier University honoured 29 prominent international personalities with honorary degrees for their contributions to diplomacy, industry, education and religion, including Charles L. Burton, chairman of the board of Robert Simpson, Ltd., who was made Doctor of Laws (Hon. LL.D.). On May 28th, 1955, the University of Toronto conferred six honorary degrees on prominent international citizens, including Charles Luther Burton, chairman of the board, Robert Simpson Co., who received the degree Doctor of Laws honoris causa (Hon. LL.D.).
In 1956, C.L. gave $350,000 in the company’s stock to the Ontario Heart Association, Women’s College Hospital, St. Michael’s College and University of Toronto. The royalties from his autobiography went to Laval University and the University of Toronto for teaching English to French-Canadian students and French to English-Canadian students.
In retirement, C.L. maintained his lifelong interest in the works of English author Charles Dickens. He presented many first editions of the author’s works to the Dickens Fellowship of Toronto, of which he was honorary president.
For Charles Luther Burton, none of these responsibilities was undertaken as a mere formality. They were an expression of his interest in the community, and still more his concern with human beings and their problems. His most striking feature was his warm, kindly and jovial personality. At the time of his death in 1961, he was remembered with affection not only by family, but by a host of personal friends and by a multitude of people he had helped. He never failed to extend a hand to those around him who were faltering. C.L.’s legacy of volunteerism and giving spirit lives on in his descendants who created the Burton Charitable Foundation, and who support scores of causes in their own communities.