Morris Wolfe - Essays, New & Selected


The gloomy and aloof Masseys have long been objects of amusement. Remember B.K. Sandwell’s lines: “Toronto has no social classes/Only the Masseys and the masses”? Many of us know little about Vincent Massey except that his name is attached to a famous report and that he was our first Canadian-born governor-general. One of the things we do know is that he was snob enough to ask his younger brother Raymond what name he would use when Raymond announced he was going to be an actor.

But as a sympathetic television biography of the family points out, there’s much more than that to the Masseys; indeed, their story tells us a great deal about English Canada over the past century and three-quarters. No one who watches the two one-hour programmes, The Masseys: Chronicles of a Canadian Family, produced by Vincent Tovell, himself the son of a Massey, will find it quite so easy to laugh at them again.

There’s a great deal of Methodism to be found in the particular kind of madness this remarkable family suffers from. And the excess of Methodism leads to an enormous amount of grief. So driven are they by a desire to do what they perceive to be God’s will that several early Masseys literally kill themselves trying to live up to the high standards they’ve set for themselves. For the Masseys, life is not to be enjoyed but endured; their story is powerfully moving — like something out of a Greek tragedy or the Old Testament.

Daniel and Rebecca Massey are inspired by Jehovah early in the nineteenth century to move from Watertown, N.Y. to the Anglican-dominated promised land of southern Ontario. (The Masseys had originally come to the New World — to Salem — in 1630.) Their oldest son, Daniel, becomes a successful farmer. In his eagerness to free his children and others for the better life that John Wesley has taught Methodists to believe in (“Make all you can! save all you can! and then give all you can to the community! In the name of God”), Daniel devotes much of his time and energy to making labour-saving farm implements. He actively supports William Lyon Mackenzie’s movement for free and equal rights.

Daniel’s son Hart (played by Michael King as a boy and David Fox as a man) is inspired by his parents and a local travelling (saddlebag) preacher to want an education: an education will open windows for him, will allow him to “look up over the hill, see beyond the forest.” And so he goes off to a new Methodist school that had been founded by Egerton Ryerson, Victoria College in Cobourg.

In 1849 Daniel Massey buys a machine shop at Newcastle, Ontario, where he can make ploughs among other implements and run an agency for the sale of American machines. The business is a great success and soon Hart joins his father. Hart’s ambition is twofold: first, to get the Masseys out of the agency business and be a wholly Canadian manufacturer; and secondly, to beat his chief Canadian competitor, Harris. Hart works so hard achieving these goals after his father’s death, that he collapses from overwork and is forced to retire to Cleveland. Hart’s eldest son Charles takes over the business and under him the company does so well that it moves to Toronto, a city that Hart is convinced will one day be “the Cleveland of Canada.” The new factory in Toronto contains special facilities — a library and a music hall, for instance — for the education of the workers. Charles pushes himself so hard that he dies at the age of thirty-six.

A grief-and guilt-ridden Hart Massey returns to Canada to run the family business. But he remains a driven man. His vanity is affronted at a major exhibition of machinery in London by the British assumption that anything done by colonials is second-rate. He decides to beat the British at their own game. And so, like Methodist saddlebag preachers, Hart’s sons Walter and Fred Victor are sent to preach the gospel according to Massey machinery throughout the British Empire. When they return to Canada, the sensitive and frail Fred Victor is sent off to the the States to acquire an engineering degree. But he takes ill and dies.

The Masseys, continued > 

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