Connon struggled to earn living then left for 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 second 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 struggled through the depression of the late 1850s, but he survived it in better shape than most people in the Elora area.

He owned a house in Salem and his small store in Salem provided sufficient income to support his young family. He even hung on to a couple of lots he had purchased on speculation in Aboyne during the land boom three years previously.

The economy began to show strong signs of recovery in the fall of 1859, and Thomas Connon, like most people, prepared to take advantage of improved conditions. He was 27, and anxious to make a real start in his life. He would open a larger store, in partnership with his brother-in-law.

Three years younger than Connon, James Henderson had married the younger sister of Connon’s wife. James clerked in the large general store of his brother, John Henderson, but his prospects did not look good there. John Henderson was planning to give up the store and go into partnership with James Philip (Connon’s first employer in Elora) in the latter’s mill and distillery.

This was one of Philip’s schemes to get his property out of the hands of the receivers, and it came to nothing.

John Henderson kept his store open, but James was resolved to go into partnership with Connon.

That was never a smooth relationship. Thomas Connon thought Henderson to be “inferior in bodily vigour and mental energy,” and the two had a battle over whether to sell liquor. Connon won, and the store was dry. He also decided that prospects seemed better in Elora than Salem.

Connon and Henderson found a store for rent on the south side of Mill Street, at the Corner of Metcalfe, for $120 per year. That rent included an upstairs apartment of four rooms. Connon rented his Salem house for $60 per year, and he and James Henderson moved in with their wives and the Connon’s three-year-old daughter. They opened for business on Dec. 6 as Connon and Henderson.

At first the partnership ran smoothly. Jean Connon and Isabel Henderson took turns with the household duties in the cramped quarters. The partners were fortunate that John Henderson had kept his store open. Connon and Henderson pooled their orders with his, in order to get better prices.

After a few months, though, the partnership began to unravel. The Hendersons moved out, and the partnership was dissolved in August 1861, after 19 months in business.

It is entirely possible that Connon’s continuing fascination with photography played a part in the separation.

After a break of a couple of years, Thomas Connon renewed his interest in photography in 1860. He purchased two new cameras (or at least the lenses for them) and began advertising as a photographer in the spring of 1861.

He offered to take portraits, and sold stereoscopic views of Elora for $1. He also advertised a photograph of high water in the gorge.

Thus began Thomas Connon’s obsession with the Elora gorge, which would later be inherited by his son.

Following the breakup of Connon and Henderson, Thomas Connon carried on the business. He moved to new premises, one door east. This was the store at the end of the block, recently vacated by W.H. Frazer’s produce store. The advantage for Connon was that it offered better facilities for his photography business. He set up his portrait studio in a porch on the east side of the building.

Photography was still a sideline, and Connon was still learning the skills, which were as much an art as a science at the time. He preferred to take his portraits on bright summer mornings, when the light was brightest in the studio. Most of his time, though, was devoted to the store. Through his work with lenses, he gained a knowledge of optics, and he was soon fitting and selling eyeglasses as well as groceries.

Thomas and Jean Connon seemed to have settled into the routines of village life. The store provided a steady living, and their first son, John, was born in 1862.

A quiet and bookish man, Connon stayed out of politics and away from committees, though he was a member of various temperance groups and the Elora Mechanics Institute, which provided him with much of his reading material. He was also among the first to join the Elora Volunteer Rifle Company when it was organized in the summer of 1861.

Thomas Connon continued to hone his skills through the mid 1860s, and Jean Connon also learned the art, taking photographs herself beginning about 1862.

Making good photographs was a tricky business in the 1860s. The negatives were glass, and the photographer had to prepare the light-sensitive emulsion himself, coat the glass plates, expose them before the emulsion dried, and then develop them carefully, keeping an eye on the temperature and strength of the chemical solutions. Exposures could take a long time, sometimes many seconds if the light was poor. Portrait subjects had to be posed carefully to avoid excessive contrast.

By the mid 1860s, photography had gained much public acceptance, almost to the point of being a fad. Photographic studios opened everywhere to meet the demand. Connon soon faced competition in Elora.

Eventually he would be forced to make a decision: was he a photographer or a grocer?

Travelling photographers had visited the Elora area since the mid 1850s, but a serious rival did not appear until about 1865, when the Murton Brothers opened a studio in Fergus and, in the fall of 1865, one in Elora. It was located in the peak portion of the Dalby House Block.

Andrew Gordon, the harness maker, built that portion of the building, and he fitted the top floor up as a photographic studio, which was lit by windows and skylights. These were far better quarters than Connon had.

Connon was forced to make improvements to his facilities to compete. The rivalry between the two studios heated up in the summer of 1866, when J.S. Lytle took over the Murton studio. It appears that Connon acquired some new equipment about this time. He photographed a number of scenes in Elora during the summer of 1866, many of which have survived.

In the late summer of 1867, Connon visited Scotland, England and France. Few immigrants returned home for a visit, yet such trips were not unusual in the 1860s.

But there is more to this tour than is at first apparent. He sold the store to John Bowes. Before leaving, Connon sold all his property: the house in Salem, the two lots in Aboyne, even his furniture. At a special sale in August he sold all his photography equipment: four cameras, all the dishes and chemicals, even the decorations for the portrait studio.

Did he intend to leave Elora and his family permanently? Was his business on the point of failure? Were the Connons having marital difficulties? We simply don’t know. In any case, Thomas went to Scotland, while Jean Connon and the two children lived in rented rooms on a third floor on Mill Street.

Connon visited his family in Scotland, and made a side trip to the Paris Exhibition. He took a number of pictures overseas, some of which survive, and visited photographic studios wherever he could.

In the late fall of 1867, he was back in Elora. Did his family persuade him to return to his family? Had he gone home in part to borrow more money? Was this whole episode a 19th century version of the mid-life crisis? Again, we simply don’t know.

*This column was originally published in the Elora Sentinel on March 15, 1994.


Stephen Thorning - 1949-2015