The Story of John Fensom | Canada’s Grandfather of Vertical Motion

John Fensom Elevator Hamilton.jpg

Originally Posted: October 19, 2017
SOURCE : Facebook Imperial Lofts Page
© D.Hoffman and MTCC1177. All rights reserved.

In 1861, English-born machinist John Fensom (1829-1908) first appeared in Toronto city directories. He and Charles Levey set up shop on Colborne Street and began making lathes. By 1864 the Fensom and Levey partnership had dissolved, and John Fensom was in business for himself. He set up shop on Adelaide Street West in 1867. There he remained for 15 years, first as John Fensom Iron Works, then in a venture called Gurney & Co. Central Iron Works from 1874 to 1878, then as the sole proprietor of Central Iron Works.

Around this time John Fensom began experimenting with steam- and hand-powered elevators. A local store owner, Timothy Eaton, became a loyal customer when Fensom's elevating devices reduced Eaton's store construction and expansion costs.

In 1882, the mansion of the late Sir William Campbell came up for sale on Duke Street at the top of Frederick Street. John Fensom bought it. There he relocated his large family, and began building a new factory. Over the next two decades, Fensom Elevator Works enjoyed tremendous success.


IMAGE: 1886 Fensom Elevator Works advertisement, R.L. Polk Toronto City Directory, courtesy of the Toronto Public Library. Copyright is now in the Public Domain.


That success attracted competitors. The Otis Elevator Company expanded north by acquiring three small Canadian companies. After several years of fierce competition, Fensom Elevator Works and Otis Elevator Co. of Canada merged and became the Otis-Fensom Elevator Company.

Manufacturing moved to a new plant in Hamilton, Ontario. The Duke Street plant, including the Campbell mansion that John Fensom had purchased a quarter century earlier, was sold to Hartford, Connecticut-based Capewell Horse Nail Company, for that company's expansion into Canada. The mansion survives today as the Campbell House Museum, relocated in its entirety to the corner of Queen Street West and University Avenue in 1972. The museum is open to the public and we thank the museum staff for access to their research on the history of the building's occupancy.

John Fensom retired to a mansion on Sherbourne Street near Isabella. He died there in 1908.

Otis-Fensom made elevators in Hamilton from 1905 into the 1940s. When the last of John Fensom's children retired from the Board, the Fensom name disappeared from the nameplate. Over the years almost all of the Otis-Fensom elevators in Toronto have been lost, due to demolition of buildings or elevator replacement. Parts have to be custom-manufactured at great expense. Today, Otis-Fensom elevators operate at only a handful of locations in Toronto, including Oddfellows Hall (2 College Street), the Gladstone Hotel (1214 Queen Street West), Ontario Heritage Trust (10 Adelaide Street East), Masonic Temple (888 Yonge Street), Elgin Winter Garden Theatre (189 Yonge Street, 3 fully restored from 1913 and 1917), and at Imperial Lofts.

© D.Hoffman and MTCC1177. All rights reserved.