The Bells of Leaside: Remembering the Canada Varnish Carillon

STOP THE MUSIC is the plea of these Leaside residents fed up with the time chimes and musical bongs of a carillon in the Canada Varnish Ltd. plant. THE TORONTO STAR, APRIL 9, 1959.
STOP THE MUSIC is the plea of these Leaside residents fed up with the time chimes and musical bongs of a carillon in the Canada Varnish Ltd. plant. THE TORONTO STAR, APRIL 9, 1959.

From 1924 into the 1970s, Canada Varnish Ltd. was among Leaside’s most established companies. The firm manufactured paints and varnishes at its plant on Canvarco Road off Laird Drive, and its founder/president, Rupert E. Edwards (1894-1967), is still remembered today as the man who sold to the City of Toronto (at a bargain price) his massive estate – now known as Edwards Gardens. 

Mr. Edwards was also an ardent lover of music. Through his company, he regularly sponsored radio broadcasts of organ music, was an organist himself, and became a major benefactor of the University of Toronto’s faculty of music.

Unfortunately, his passion for music had negative consequences for the town of Leaside and some of its residents.

The problem started when Edwards installed a carillon at his Leaside factory in 1958. Carillons are complex musical instruments comprising at least 23 bells, played by manipulating levers and pedals. They are considered by many to be one of the loudest musical instruments in the world. They are also expensive, and this one, according to the Toronto Star, cost $66,000 – equivalent to over $600,000 today. 

Assuming the community would appreciate his investment, Edwards allowed the carillon to be played quite often – so often, in fact, that its chimes rang out every 15 minutes from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m.

BELL RINGER is Rupert Edwards, varnish company president shown seated at his $66,000 carillon installed in his plant. Neighbor have taken him to court, charged with disturbing the peace with his chimes. THE TORONTO STAR, APRIL 9, 1959.
BELL RINGER is Rupert Edwards, varnish company president shown seated at his $66,000 carillon installed in his plant. Neighbor have taken him to court, charged with disturbing the peace with his chimes. THE TORONTO STAR, APRIL 9, 1959.

While many Leasiders enjoyed the bells, they proved unbearable for nearby residents, who in April 1959 filed a complaint against Canada Varnish under Metro Toronto’s anti-noise bylaw. One said his house shook from the noise. Another, who worked nights, said that the constant bell ringing made him so tired from lack of sleep that he feared he might cause a workplace accident. A third blamed it for family arguments. And a frustrated father claimed that his young daughter now walked around the house repeatedly crying “ding, ding, ding.”

In response, Edwards solicited the opinion of famed musical director Leslie Bell, who testified that the carillon “constitutes a musical performance” and was therefore exempt from the city’s anti-noise laws.

Donald Graham, the magistrate hearing the case, disagreed. He fined Canada Varnish five dollars for creating “unnecessary noise.” Graham did not, however, forbid playing the carillon altogether. Rather, he advised company and community to work out a mutually beneficial agreement. Whether that happened or not is unclear.

Indeed, much is unclear about what happened after that. Rupert Edwards died several years later and donated most of his fortune to eventually create the Edwards Charitable Foundation, which remains one of Canada’s most prominent philanthropic institutions. But the carillon itself seems to have slowly faded from the scene.

Its memory, however, lingers. As Leaside Life publisher Lorna Krawchuk wrote in this publication back in December 2015: “Forty-something years ago you could still hear the carillon from Canada Varnish several times a day. Now it [Canada Varnish] is gone, as is its carillon. …”

Gone, but evidently still remembered by at least one Leasider – and perhaps others.

This article was guest contributed by Ted DeWelles, Leaside Heritage Preservation Society.