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Valuing Our History

by Stephen Thorning - 1949-2015

Connon became full-time photographer after trip to Europe

The following is a re-print of a past column by former Advertiser columnist Stephen Thorning, who passed away on Feb. 23, 2015. Some text has been updated to reflect changes since the original publication and any images used may not be the same as those that accompanied the original publication.


(Note: This is the third part of a series on Thomas and John Connon, Elora’s celebrated photographers. Our impressions of 19th century Elora have been shaped to a considerable degree by the work of the Connons, father and son. Their experiences mirror many of the struggles and successes of other early settlers and entrepreneurs across Wellington County.)

Thomas Connon’s trip to Europe lasted from August to October of 1867. We cannot be certain of his plans when he left on this venture, but when he returned he was determined to establish himself as a full-time photographer.

Late in October, his wife, Jean, purchased the land at the southeast corner of Geddes and Moir Streets. At the time, this was very much the fringe of the commercial core of Elora, which was then concentrated on Mill Street.

Nevertheless, it appeared to be a growth area. Cuthbert and Noble had moved their carriage works to new quarters on the west side of Geddes Street in 1862, and to the north, across Moir Street, was Mrs. Sheppard’s jewelry shop. Shortly before, in 1866, Maw and Fenwick had opened a tailoring shop on the east side of Geddes.

It was easy to predict that Geddes Street would eventually become the commercial centre of the village. The village had constructed a wooden sidewalk along Geddes Street while Connon had been in Europe.

Moir and Geddes seemed an ideal location for a new business in 1867. Connon immediately began construction of a building. The major work was done before winter. He decided to construct the exterior walls of concrete. At the time, this was relatively new building material; Connon had read about it in an old issue of a magazine, the Herald of Health.

The lime for the concrete came from the old kiln to the north of the David Street bridge. This concrete differed from modern concrete, which is made with portland cement rather than lime. Connon’s building was the first use of concrete in a building in the village. The interior framing and carpentry may well have been done by Connon’s father-in-law, John Keith. The new building included living quarters for the Connon family.

Thomas Connon, photographer, was back in business early in 1868, opening his new studio and gallery on Jan. 10. He had purchased new cameras and equipment, either in England or New York. The new facilities were at least equal to those of the competition, located in the peak section of the Dalby House block, and operated by J.S. Lytle and later John Gordon and William Elliot.

The Connons’ third child, Thomas G., was born in this building later in 1868. For the first few years, Connon had no trouble supporting his wife and three children with the photographic business. He may well have borrowed or been given some money by relatives on his overseas trip. He constructed the building without a mortgage, and had sufficient funds for relatively expensive equipment for the new studio. Normally a shy, retiring man, Thomas Connon began to show more confidence in himself in the late 1860s. He began to take an active part in local affairs. In 1870, he became a member of the local school board. The following year, he became embroiled in controversy, over the hiring of David Boyle as principal.

When the principal’s position became open, Connon and Hugh Hamilton had their own favoured candidate. The majority of the board favoured Boyle. When applications had been called, Boyle did not apply, but made a late application on the suggestion of J.M. Fraser. Boyle’s ability and methods were known to all the board members, but he lacked the formal qualifications to be a principal.

This clash between Boyle and Connon may have been one of personalities. Connon liked to see himself in the romantic image of an artist, but there was also a conformist side to his personality that took comfort in rules and routines. Most certainly he regarded David Boyle with a mixture of envy and jealousy; Boyle’s energy and wide-ranging intelligence, his self confidence, and his casual disregard of convention and rules.

When Boyle was hired, Connon muttered, “The least qualified man has been hired.”

He even attempted to have provincial authorities intervene, but nothing came of it. The ill will of the affair was soon forgotten, and in 1872 Connon became chairman of the school board, and after 1875, secretary-treasurer. The episode is particularly remarkable in the light of later events. Boyle eventually became John Connon’s mentor and life long friend, encouraging him to undertake his work in local history.

Financial problems plagued Thomas Connon most of his life, and this state of relative prosperity was unusual. In 1872, he decided to make better use of his building. He borrowed $400 to construct an addition at the front, along Geddes Street, with space for two stores. He intended to rent these out, move his studio upstairs, and convert the original studio into a rental apartment. With the aid of some hired help, Connon built the addition himself, while Jean ran the photographic studio.

It seemed like a good business proposition, but the addition was completed just in time for the downturn in Elora’s economy that persisted until the end of the century. Connon never succeeded in finding long-term or reliable tenants for either of the stores, and the volume of work at the photographic studio declined as well.

Connon kept up with advances in photography through the 1870s, and although business was not as good as it had been, he continued to try to earn a living as a full-time photographer.

To supplement income from portrait shots in the studio, he began doing copy and restoration work, making copies of old photographs, daguerreotypes and paintings. For those with extra money to spend, he would hand tint photographs. Soon, though, expenses began to exceed income, and in 1877 he was forced to remortgage his property for $1,000. He would remain in debt for the rest of his life. Always an experimenter, Connon built some of his own cameras, and in 1881 he developed a version of the roll film holder. Many photographers had come up with a similar idea. Negatives at the time were made on glass plates. It was obvious that if some less fragile and flexible material could be used, a strip could be placed in the camera and a number of shots made before switching the negative. The problem was that no material suitable for negatives had yet been developed.

Both Connon and his son, John, afterwards complained that the idea had been stolen from him, but there were dozens, and perhaps hundreds, of other photographers who could make the same claim.

Connon’s family, meanwhile, was growing up. His daughter, Elizabeth, married James Grant. Grant’s father was a partner in the firm of Bain and Grant, operators of the Elora woolen mill. In 1886, James and Liz Grant moved to Chesley, where he bought a woolen mill.

By 1880, John Connon, the elder son, had finished school and was helping and experimenting around the studio. The younger son, Tom, was still in school. Neither were outstanding students, but they had the kind of natural curiosity that principal Boyle admired and liked to foster.

*This column was originally published in the Elora Sentinel on March 22, 1994.


Vol 51 Issue 43


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