Petersfield was the farm and country house of Peter Russell, one of the most powerful men in early Upper Canada (Ontario). After John Graves Simcoe returned to the UK in 1796, he was the highest ranking official of both the Executive and Legislative Councils and held the office of Administrator of Upper Canada, from 1775 to 1799. He was born in 1731, in Ireland and, after a liberal education, he obtained an army commission which later he had to sell in order to pay off his gambling debts. Russell met John Graves Simcoe in England in 1790. who recruited him as Receiver General and Auditor for Upper Canada. The salary was modest, but the possibility of receiving large land grants was attractive.
Picture of Peter Russell
The original farm was the 100 acre “Park lot 14” running from Queen Street to Bloor Street between Beverley and Huron Streets. The substantial farmhouse was near Queen Street, at the head of modern-day Peter Street. He also had a house in town Russell Abbey, see below. Peter Russell retired in 1800 and added to his considerable landholdings with shrewd purchases. His farming operations also prospered. By the time he died, in 1808, he had acquired a great deal of property in and around York. Bedford Road was named for the Duke of Bedford, patriarch of the Russell family. Russell Hill Road is another reminder of the large landholdings of this influential administrator.
Russell encouraged many friends and relatives to join him in Upper Canada. His cousin, William Willcocks, settled in York at his invitation, where he became a merchant, magistrate, and postmaster. Willcocks persuaded another Irish family, the Baldwins, to relocate to York. Russell also convinced John Denison, a friend from Yorkshire, to immigrate. Denison built Brookfield and his descendants built several fine houses in this area.
Russell Abbey, Russell’s town house, was located in the block bounded by Sherbourne, King, Princess & Front Streets. A short street between Sherbourne and Princess, south of King, is named Abbey Lane for this town house. The Good Neighbour Gift Shop at 255 King Street E. is now on this site. Peter lived here with his half sister Elizabeth until his death in 1808 and she until 1822.
Russell Abbey, town home of Peter Russell
This house which was once the center of political and social life in early York was destroyed by fire on October 14th 1856. Russell Abbey at the time was in the possession of Robert Baldwin known as The Father of Responsible Government in Canada.
For more about Peter Russell and Petersfield, see “The Estates of Old Toronto” by Liz Lundell.