When he died on Aug. 22, 1951, J. P. Bickell was one of Canada’s wealthiest and most powerful men.
A millionaire before age 30, Bickell rose from an impoverished background to become a successful mining magnate, investment broker, theatre impresario, patron of the arts, aircraft pioneer, auto racer, adventurer, philanthropist and patriot.
Bickell was also one of Huron County’s extraordinary sons.
John Paris Bickell was born on Sept. 26, 1884 in the Molesworth Presbyterian Church manse to Rev. David Bickell and his wife, Annie Paris.
He was the second of four children in a family that saw its share of tragedy. His father died in 1891, his younger brother died in 1892. His older brother died of appendicitis in 1898.
After two years in Alberta, the family moved to Toronto where John supported his mother and sister by working in a candy store, and clerk in meat packing plant where he was fired due to his “extramural moneymaking activities”, according to biographer Jason Wilson in J. P Bickell: The Life, Leafs and the Legacy. Whatever those questionable moneymaking activities were allowed Bickell to support his mother, sister and pay his tuition at St. Andrew’s College where he graduated in 1902.
As an adventurer, Bickell spent some time in the Klondike in search of gold before starting his own investment brokerage house at age 23. His firm, J. P. Bickell & Co. listed on the Chicago Board of Trade and made him a wealthy grain and livestock broker.
Bickell also invested in Northern Ontario mining ventures. One of those was McIntyre Porcupine Mines in Schumacher in 1911. Bickell’s investments firm kept the struggling mining venture going. When the McIntyre mine struck gold in 1912, it became one of Canada’s richest and most profitable mines. By 1914, Bickell made his first million dollars and, until his death, served as the McIntyre Mine’s president and chairman.
Bickell sold his investment firm in 1919 to concentrate on his mining and burgeoning interest in the movie industry. In 1920, as president of a chain of movie theatres which oversaw the construction of Toronto’s famed Pantages Theatre, Bickell brought together the heads of several small movie house chains in his office. Bickell consolidated the rival chains into the Famous Players Theatre Corporation, which became Canada’s largest movie theatre chain.
As an avid sportsman, Bickell promoted athletic endeavours by sponsoring the Bickell Belt awarded to Canada’s featherweight boxing champion in 1919. The following year, Bickell won the Thousand Island Gold Cup on his hydroplane Miss Toronto II. Bickell set the speed record for the fastest five miles yet recorded in the event.
In 1922, Bickell became a primary financial backer of the Mississauga Golf and Country Club in Port Credit. On Aug. 15, 1925, Bickell made a 215-yard hole-in-one. His classical styled mansion ‘Arcadia’ was built next to the Mississauga golf course. Bickell donated $8,000 to purchase property for the Ladies Golf Club of Toronto. In 1931, Bickell served as a director of the Toronto Maple Leafs baseball team.
It was in hockey that Bickell made his greatest contribution to Canadian sports. In 1924, despite having won a Stanley Cup in 1922, the Toronto St. Pats hockey club was struggling financially. As a favour for a friend, Bickell invested $25,000 into the club and re-organized its finances. Owning the majority of shares in the club, Bickell cobbled together a group of investors to keep the team in Toronto.
In 1927, Bickell hired Conn Smythe to manage the new club to be known as the Toronto Maple Leafs. Bickell was the Maple Leafs’ first president.
In 1931, with Smythe’s ardent support, Bickell wrangled financing for a new arena. No mean feat during the Depression. Constructed in just five months, Maple Leaf Gardens on Carlton Street in Toronto opened on Nov. 12, 1931. Conn Smythe later said, “Without exaggeration, Bickell was the cornerstone of the whole project.”
Under Bickell’s directorship, the Maple Leafs won the Stanley Cup seven times.
Bickell was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 2008.
Bickell’s mining, film and sports ventures flourished throughout the 1920s. In 1926, he returned to the investment becoming a senior partner in the Thomson-McKinnon brokerage firm in New York. Astute investments meant that Bickell’s wealth was relatively unscathed during the Depression.
In the 1930s, Bickell became an ardent aviation advocate. On a dare, in 1937, Bickell and a friend flew to Shanghai, China, just in time to witness the Japanese bombing of the city in a prelude to the Second World War.
Despite the misadventure, Bickell remained fascinated by aviation. He sold his yacht, in 1938, and purchased an eight-passenger Grumman Goose, an amphibious plane, for his personal use. Bickell bought a second aircraft and dubbed himself the Sultan of the Sky.
As a fervent patriot, Bickell donated his two aircraft to the RCAF at the outbreak of war in 1939. In July 1940, Lord Beaverbrook, the Canadian-born British Minister of Aircraft Production, tapped Bickell to develop a reliable supply of aircraft from North America. For a dollar a year salary, Bickell headed what eventually became known as RAF Ferry Command which delivered new aircraft across the Atlantic to Great Britain.
Bickell also donated large sums of money to the RCAF Benevolent Fund which provided assistance to families of deceased RCAF service personnel. Bickell wrote that “had it not been for the indomitable courage, skill and sacrifices” endured by the air force, “the destiny of democracy everywhere would long since have been shattered.”
In July 1942, Bickell returned to Canada to become chairman of the Victory Aircraft Ltd, in Malton, Ont., which made Lancaster bombers. At the height of production, a Lancaster a day was rolling off the production line. After the war, Bickell co-founded the A. V. Roe Canada (AVRO) aircraft factory. He remained the company’s chairmanship until his death in 1951.
Despite his capacity for hard work and business acumen, Jason Wilson, Bickell’s biographer, observed that Bickell was “not flawless.” Although a son of the manse, Bickell liked to drink to excess, gamble and carouse with his cronies at the King Edward Hotel in Toronto. Bickell never married but he did support three known mistresses in Toronto. Yet, despite his perceived faults, Bickell was a kind and generous benefactor.
In 1938, Bickell built the McIntyre Community Centre in Timmins. In addition to a hockey arena with a seating capacity of over 1,700 people, the “Mac” housed 6 curling rinks, bowling alleys, basketball courts, and a coffee shop. Camp Bickell near Iroquois Falls was built in 1939 on land donated by Bickell. It still operates as a non-profit children’s summer camp. As a patron of the arts, Bickell became a founding director of the Art Gallery of Ontario, donating over 100 pieces of art from his personal collection.
Yet Bickell’s most enduring legacy is the charitable foundation that bears his name. Bickell willed $13 million of his $14.7-million estate for the creation of the J P Bickell Foundation. Proceeds from the foundation have funded a myriad of worthy causes from mining scholarships, medical research, the Stratford Festival and others.
Chief among these beneficiaries is Toronto’s Hospital for Sick Children which receives a minimum of 50 per cent of the funds interest income. Since 1953, the Bickell Foundation has donated over $160 million to Ontario charities.
Not exactly a household name today, J. P Bickell’s greatest legacy lives on – not by what he made but what he gave away.