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The ever-dramatic Danford Roche (5 photos)

BarrieToday's 'Remember This?' has returned! In this week's column, Mary Harris highlights the life and dramatics of businessman Danford Roche

Mrs. Roche, the former Sarah Bryan, passed away at her home in Newmarket at the age of 87 years. Her obituary in the Northern Advance of Sept. 28, 1911 spoke of her birth in Dublin, Ireland, her marriage in Belleville to John Richmond Roche and of their three sons, Danford, William and Francis.

The notice went on to point out that Mrs. Roche “was a woman of noble character and highly respected by all and a consistent member of the Methodist church.”

What it didn’t mention was any of the bitter trials of her life, nor could it foretell the mixed successes that were to come for some of her descendants.

In all likelihood, the first mention of the Roche name in Barrie may have been in a rather odd newspaper ad towards the end of 1888.

Danford Roche saw himself as a shrewd businessman and nobody’s fool and when he felt slighted by the old boys of Barrie, he took the unusual step of airing his grievances in a very public way.

“Notwithstanding the formation of a syndicate of dry goods dealers to prevent Danford Roche & Co. of Toronto securing premises in Barrie for the purpose of supplying ‘A1’ class of goods at the very lowest price for cash only, the undersigned has succeeded in securing, through the very kind influence of a few Barrie friends, and by paying an advanced rental, the premises now occupied by Mr. N.D, Neill.”

In addition to the Northern Advance ad, Roche further paid for the publication of a thank-you card directed at Mr. Neill to express his appreciation for Neill’s assistance in negotiating a lease on Roche’s new store.

In January 1889, Neill opened up his new and outlandishly named Blood Red Shoe Store just east of the original Queen’s Hotel, which was then located near Mulcaster Street.

At the same time, Danford Roche opened his dry goods shop on Dunlop Street East near Five Points.

Mr. Roche was barely settled into his new venue when he was once again the recipient of a perceived injustice and felt, for the second time, that all of Barrie needed to read about it.

“Fined $4.70” was emblazoned in bold, black type. Roche included a copy of the actual summons issued by the Town of Barrie as well as a detailed description of a bylaw infraction that surrounded the actions of a Roche employee who had been directed to wave a large hand-shaped sign in front of the shop to attract customers. Apparently, it annoyed the passersby, frightened the horses, but attracted plenty of police attention.

Who was this upstart shopkeeper from out of town? Danford Roche was the eldest son of two Irish immigrants who had met one rainy day on the streets of Whitby. Sarah Bryan had been instantly smitten by the tall, well-dressed and obviously educated John Roche. Her family however hated him. He was the very opposite of her working-class Protestant family. John Roche was Catholic, very proper spoken and seemed to prefer classic literature to people.

Sarah married John anyway and had two babes, Danford and William, in quick succession.

John Roche did not stick around long. He tired of small-town life and left for the United States alone. Sarah excused his behaviour by saying that he had to leave to find a more suitable teaching position, but her family was livid. Her mother forbade her from following him, but Sarah went to visit him once. She returned home with no husband, but one more son on the way. Francis Roche never knew his father.

Danford Roche appointed himself head of the household as soon as he was able. He was described as red-haired and hot-tempered, a very driven man. In 1876, at age 24, he started his first store in Newmarket and called it The Leading House. Danford called in his brother, William Roche, to help manage the shop.

In July 1880, the family was informed that John Roche, by then a professor of mathematics at Newton University in Baltimore, Md., had died from sunstroke at his boarding house.

Danford held a long simmering hatred for his absentee father, but nevertheless travelled to the U.S. to collect his remains for burial and bring back 28 boxes of expensive academic books.

These books were eagerly read by youngest son, Francis, and by William’s only child, a daughter named Mazo. A creative but mentally frail girl, Mazo de la Roche, who went by the family’s historic name, grew to be a celebrated writer. In 1927, she won the $10,000 Altlantic Monthly prize for the first of her famed Whiteoaks of Jalna book series.

Danford Roche & Co. expanded to Collingwood, Aurora, Toronto, Ottawa and Barrie over the years.

His 1888 arrival in Barrie was certainly not a quiet one and Roche continued to rock the boat for some time afterwards.

In May of the same year, he announced, in his usual public fashion, that his business partner, a Mr. Campbell, was leaving for Scotland. Roche advertised that the people of Barrie would greatly benefit from the sales that were necessary to generate the cash needed to buy Campbell out.

It all went awry apparently, as Roche and Campbell soon met up again but this time on opposite sides of a courtroom.

In 1890, Campbell accused Danford Roche of hiding funds owed him and in 1893 the matter ended at the Supreme Court of Canada with a win for Roche.

Danford Roche’s final public temper tantrum came in April 1900. This time, an ad in the Barrie Examiner pouted, “Transient traders fine fifty dollars and costs.”

In March, Roche had been found in contravention of a Barrie bylaw that stated that he had not paid any recent taxes on his business property and therefore was a transient trader, yet had no licence to operate as such. His ad stated that he had no choice but to give up his business and sell off his stock.

Oddly enough, the outspoken businessman had been quietly closing down his other shops at the same time as he contemplated retirement.

In fact, in June 1900, the judgment against him was overturned on the grounds that the Town of Barrie had never arranged for an assessment of his property. This small detail didn’t seem to interfere with the theatrics of his final going out of business sales.

Each week, the Barrie Historical Archive provides BarrieToday readers with a glimpse of the city’s past. This unique column features photos and stories from years gone by and is sure to appeal to the historian in each of us.

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Mary Harris

About the Author: Mary Harris

Mary Harris is the Director of History and Research at the Barrie Historical Archive. The Barrie Historical Archive is a free, online archive that centralizes Barrie's historical content.
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