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Allan Brown’s life and home: a testament to history

Aubrey Martin

Photos by Barry Shainbaum/Good News Toronto

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May 6, 2013

This ninety-three year old’s service in the war and to Toronto and the TTC take on a tangible existence through his collection of antiques and creations. 

Allan Brown’s* life and home are a testament to both history and progress.  Before you even enter his home you are confronted with one of his creations, a sundial built out of salvaged parts that tells you the time of day, the date and the angle of the sun.  Upon entering his home you’ll find Allan’s collection of antiques and creations, which, among other things, features a large assortment of cameras — his favourite pastime.  His cameras have a long history behind them. 

“The oldest camera I have is an 1892 glass plate box camera,” Allan said.

Allan with his collection of cameras and a sculpture of himself as a younger man.

One of his cameras was capable of taking stereoscopic (3D) images.  He proudly showed me a rare 1901 German candle-powered projector called the “Gloria,” even showing me an old advertisement for it in the Eaton’s catalogue.

Over the years he’s also collected and built clocks, collections of hardware, tools and instruments, writing utensils, projectors, and phones.  Many of the clocks handmade by Allan are powered by nothing more than a descending weight.  Some of the clocks were even simply built of card stock.

Each nook and cranny of his home has some artifact or theme that Allan is more than happy to explain in detail.  One room has an extensive display of his family’s genealogy.  On one side of his family he has details of their arrival in North America as early as 1668, with arrivals in 1910 on the other side.  He proudly showed me a family history he had compiled, hundreds of pages in length.

His career is as varied as his home. Starting out as a journeyman electrician in the 1940s for the Toronto Transit Commision, he joined the war effort shortly thereafter and managed to marry his photography hobby with service in the Royal Canadian Air Force, doing photo surveillance.  His work was essential to the allied crossing of the Rhine River in 1945.

“We knew all the assets that the Germans had and took millions of pictures to track movements,” he said.

Some of those pictures were even stereoscopic, a technology well ahead of its time.  On March 30th, 1945, the allies crossed the Rhine River with pontoon bridges specially designed for the task.  Thanks to the reconnaissance Allan helped prepare, they knew which farms would be suitable airstrips and which buildings would be suitable command posts.

Allan witnessed through his photographic lens the darkest aspects of WWII, the holocaust and the liberation of the Belsen concentration camp. 

“There were barracks that were designed to hold 60 people where 600 were forced to live,” he said, showing me pictures of bodies and emaciated survivors.  He also had pictures of the crematorium.  The German prisoners of war were forced to bury the bodies.   

Returning from the war, he became a certified engineering technologist and rose through the ranks of the TTC. Instrumental in building the Yonge Line, Allan retired in 1985 after the construction of the Scarborough LRT.  

The nonagenarian is to be lauded for his admiration of history — not to mention his contribution to it.  Instantly obvious upon a tour of his unique home, Allan’s service in the war and his development of Toronto’s infrastructure are commendable. 

When I asked Allan what draws him to antiques and collectibles, he said that he is “always appreciative of the time and effort that goes into creating things.”  Likewise, we should appreciate the time and effort Allan has taken in contributing to and documenting the history of our city and our world.

* This name has been changed.

Action Items:

  1. Explore the many photographs taken by Canadians during WWII.
  2. Research the history of the Toronto Transit Commission through fiction and non-fiction books.
  3. Spend time with a senior to learn about our history first-hand.

About the Author(s)

Martin C. Winer

Martin C. Winer is a freelance writer in Toronto. He enjoys writing articles about social action. More details can be found on his blog:

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