Riverside 40 Years, 40 Stories: George “Jim” Thomason & Unilever

As part of the Riverside BIA: 40 Years, 40 Stories series, we are sharing the story of Jim Thomason, an East End native, a father and loving grandfather, and a long-time employee of the Unilever factory at the foot of the Don River.

Our thanks go to Jim’s granddaughter, Sabrina (Riverside BIA’s summer 2021 Marketing Assistant!), for contributing this amazing story and to Jim and other family members for sharing their memories.

My Grandfather, George “Jim” Thomason, was born April 22nd 1931 at East York General (now Michael Garron Hospital) and – until he moved to the West Coast to enjoy his retirement “without snow” – he was a Toronto Eastend native who grew up just northeast of Riverside neighbourhood.

An early photo of Jim Thomason as a toddler, c 1933 (Photo credit to the Thomason family)

Gerrard and Pape bridge c 1930 (Photo Credit Toronto City Archives)

Back then he was a tall, slim man and a self proclaimed “Spiffy Dresser.” After all, he did meet my Grandmother, Sheila Taylor, a Scottish-American immigrant, in a $75.00 suit. Three weeks wages at the time!

As a young man Grandad wanted to be a printer, and got an apprenticeship at Bryant Press (near Spadina Avenue in the West End). However shortly after, with the printing system becoming more automated, the Printers Union went on strike and they paid him $25.00 a week to stand on a picket line for a few hours.

According to Grandad, his father, “was pissed off, ‘excuse my language’ ” he said on the phone, “that he was being paid a wage not to work but to stand around for a few hours.” So to keep the peace, as he said he always did – and not uncommon for the time – Jim took a job he did not want and worked there his entire life.

Born in between World Wars and into the Great Depression, my Grandad grew up being told you got “a job that pays every week and it was considered permanent if they liked you and you liked it.” Jim Thomason worked at Unilever – the Lever Brothers Sunlight Soapworks Factory – on Eastern Avenue from March 1948 until he retired with a gold watch and a pension in 1991.

Lever Brothers Soapworks Factory, Exterior, 1930s (Photo Credit Toronto Library)

Lever Brothers Soapworks Factory, Interior, 1930s (Photo Credit Toronto Library)

When I asked my grandad if he liked it he said “No, but I kept my nose clean and held on to it. It’s not like today, where they say ‘we will see how you fit in after 18 months and maybe renew your contract… none of that. You had a job if you showed up and worked hard!”

In 1948 he was paid 95 cents an hour with a 5 cents an hour living bonus, working out to be around $40.00 a week. At 21 he joined the compulsory Canadian pension plan and over 40 years later he retired on a salary of $37 500 a year plus overtime pay.

Images of Lever Brothers Soap Factory, Exterior 2019 (Photo Credit Toronto Library)

Images of Lever Brothers Soap Factory, Exterior 2019 (Photo Credit Toronto Library)

Ninety in April this year, Grandad’s memories of Riverside, Riverdale and Leslieville in the 1930’s and 40’s, although not named as such then, are as vivid as ever. He can still recall the family names and ethnicities of every neighbour he had on Cavell Ave.

Can you tell me about anyone that sticks out in your memory from your childhood?

 “There was this Italian Immigrant family who lived up the street and they owned a grocery store up on the Danforth.” He spoke as if he were standing outside the store telling me about it. “The Greco Family, the son was Tony and they were a ‘go to church two to three times a week’ kind of family but they had the best produce at their store.”

Tony Greco and his Mother, Southwest corner, Danforth and Logan 1930 (Photo Credit Toronto City Archives)

Do you have memories of Queen Street from your days working at Lever Brothers?

“So much of the city at that point was still under development but down south of Queen Street was a combination of working class homes and industrial factories that all depended on the Don River as a way to move raw materials up from the lake docks and into the factories.”

I can recall this story from my own childhood, Grandad telling me about hauling bags of lye off a barge that would pull up to a loading dock in the Lever Brothers factory. “It was labour but few jobs that paid every week and had room to grow with seniority didn’t start out as labour” he said, as if this were still a common work practice.

My grandparents lived in the east end their whole working lives. They raised two children who went on to have families of their own, myself included, in the Riverside and, Riverdale areas. They continue to tell our family stories of life in young Toronto, starting a family and seeing the neighbourhood grow around them.

My Grandad is a thoughtful and hardworking man who served the east end neighbourhood of Riverside his whole working life. It’s been a joy to share his story.

Jim and Kyle, his son and contributing writer Sabrina Thomason’s father – 1964 (Photo credit: Thomason family)

Sheila and Jim Thomason in the 1970s (Photo credit: Thomason family)


40 years 40 stories graphic

The ‘Riverside BIA 40 Years, 40 Stories’ Series is part of how we’re celebrating the 40th anniversary of this incredible neighbourhood of community-builders.