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Writing women's history one mother at a time... since 2004.

Bruce Halliwell’s story of Sybil


Sybil Croll was born September 4, 1903, the second of three children and only daughter of Andrew and Agnes Croll. Her parents were Scots but by Sybil’s birth had already left Scotland for Wales. Her father was a large, opinionated, brilliant man, a gifted doctor and surgeon and one of the youngest graduates ever from Edinburgh Medical School. Her mother was a calm mediating presence.

In 1906 the family set out for Australia hoping to find a cure for Agnes’ lung problems. The best route was across Canada so they sailed to Nova Scotia and got on the train but then for some reason stopped in Saskatoon Saskatchewan, population 300 and decided to stay. There was a need for doctors there and at first surgeries were carried out in the schoolhouse until her father and a few others banded together to build the Grey Nuns Hospital.

When the Great War started in 1914 Andrew was made Field Commander for the Medical Corps and traveled to Paris to set up and run British medical operations. Agnes decided she’d rather be at the front than alone so she packed up the children and moved to Paris as well. Sybil loved Paris, and thrived at school becoming fully fluent in French.

When the war ended her parents returned to Saskatoon but the children were boarded at schools in Toronto, her brothers at Trinity College and Sybil at Branksome Hall. Again Sybil loved school excelling at languages and the arts. Their family was not poor but neither were they rich. One brother became a doctor like his father; the other continued his schooling at Royal Military College in Kingston and became a pilot. Sybil decided she wanted money and work of her own and her solution was to become an interior designer. Her father wanted her to marry well like her friends and refused to consider it. They had a huge fight but Sybil persisted, and since there were no courses in Canada, found a way to go to the Sorbonne in Paris and College in London and finally finished her degree at Columbia University in New York.

It was 1925 and very few women ran their own businesses in Toronto let alone Canada. Sybil found a building she liked on Gerrard Street, then a rather dodgy neighbourhood, and followed her own advice to future clients: “Don’t pay rent; buy the place”. Friends from school and friends of her brothers, all from the elite families of Toronto, became clients of Sybil Croll Design and she established herself as the expert in all things proper, sophisticated and beautiful. Heads of companies would call with questions of protocol and John David Eaton would phone Sybil every morning to make sure his parties, meetings, homes and cottages were just “right”. She would arrive at parties hours ahead to ensure the right forks were used and then stay as a guest. Eventually she shifted to mostly commercial clients with the Bank of Nova Scotia as her primary account.

Sybil lived and breathed business. She was much pickier with love using her brothers’ friends – E.P. Taylor, Wallace McCutcheon – more as escorts than dates.  In the late 1930’s Sybil met an architect who was from the poorer end of a very well-connected family and they clicked. Charlie Halliwell was as brilliant as her father with the disposition of her mother; he was 31 and Sybil was 36 when they married in 1939, although no one knew Sybil’s true age until after she died. Their wedding was large and perfect, 1000 guests at the Hunt Club.

While her husband built munitions plants during the war Sybil continued working and on the side made babies: a daughter in 1941 and a son in 1943.  When she went into labour with her son both mother and child had pneumonia. The baby was not expected to survive. A young pediatrician, Nelles Silverthorn, asked Charlie if he could try an experimental drug on his infant son. Three days later, after Ian Bruce received sulpha drugs, he went home. Sybil took 10 more days to recover. Nelles Silverthorn went on to found Sick Children’s Hospital.

Sybil hired a governess very like Mary Poppins to look after the children and Miss Hardy was one of the few people Sybil listened to. When Sybil got angry and went after her daughter with a hair brush, Miss Hardy said “If you continue in this Miss Halliwell I will leave”. Sybil put down the brush.  Her son’s precarious health made Sybil nervous and unsure, two states she abhorred.  When her beloved younger brother Ian was shot down in 1944 Sybil’s disposition hardened even more. She devoted herself more completely to her business and her husband’s business.

Charlie thought he might join an architectural firm but Sybil was clear he should have a business of his own. This worked out well for them both. Banks at this time did not give mortgages for homes. In fact the Anglican Church was a major housing money lender in Ontario. Developers learned to come to Charlie with their building ideas and Charlie would travel to New York to talk to his uncle “Vinegar” Joe Stilwell, who usually fronted the money. In Toronto Charlie would design the house, the builder would build and Sybil’s company would decorate. By this time Sybil Croll Designs had 37 employees. Then someone asked to buy her out, Sybil agreed, and she was a company of one again.

Sybil then dove into the real estate business. She had a good eye for properties and was especially interested in the area around Bloor and Avenue Road. One by one she bought buildings, fixed them up, and then either rented them out or sold them for a profit. Years later at her funeral a retired executive of the Bank of Nova Scotia was asked how Sybil managed to pay for this habit. “Oh she’d sign a cheque and we’d cover it. She brought us so many new customers we never asked for repayment.” Regardless whether this was a “soft” loan like that given to bank board members or something Sybil negotiated herself the fact was she managed her real estate business with no debts.

One day in early 1950 Charlie asked Sybil to meet him north of the city in an apple orchard. “Wouldn’t this be a great spot for a house?” Sybil agreed the view from York Ridge was spectacular. “Why just one house? Buy the whole farm, sell lots to our friends, design all their houses.” Charlie did as Sybil directed and built the first houses of what became a very exclusive Toronto neighbourhood. E.P. Taylor asked Charlie to partner with him on what would be Canada’s first planned community in nearby York Mills but Sybil thought partnering in anything a bad idea. One evening when E.P. behaved in a belligerent way in Sybil’s house she had the 6’5” nephew of her Jamaican housekeeper throw him bodily out of the house. The next day E.P. apologized. Sybil never apologized; for anything. Years later when family friend and publishing magnate Conrad Black met Margaret Thatcher he said “I think I’ve met you before.” The Iron Lady reminded him of Sybil Halliwell.

Sybil was accomplished in business and similarly ran her home. The two housekeepers and cook got detailed lists every morning of what to do and not do but her family were harder to control. She would put Bruce in the hospital after an asthma attack and discover her father or Nelles Silverthorn had taken him out for camping trips or jaunts around town in a sports car. Sybil and her father had huge fights about his interference. Sybil’s daughter went to New York when she was 18 and rarely came home. A few years later her son went to Vancouver and they didn’t speak for 20 years. Sybil told her husband “If I catch you writing secret letters to Bruce our marriage is over”. Charlie’s communication with his son became more irregular.

Her mother died in 1956.  Her father died in 1963. When Sybil was 60 she started a venture with her friend Irene Hewitt, one of the few people Sybil listened to, where they would travel to Europe to buy antiques which they shipped back and sold to designers in Toronto.

In 1970 the government of Canada instituted Capital Gains Tax and Sybil was outraged. Before the tax took effect she sold off all her assets to avoid penalty which put her out of both the real estate and antiques business. Sybil was hard wired to get things done so this forced retirement was not easy for her. She and Charlie decided to spend their summers in Spain and winters in Toronto where they could attend events of the season. It took Charlie six years to get a house built in Spain and then he sold it to a sheik and bought a ready-made house. Sybil was outraged.

During this time Charlie developed lung cancer, had surgery and quit smoking. Sybil refused to quit, even when she developed lung cancer. She had smoked three packs a day for years and would not acknowledge this had anything to do with her health. By 1980, even with the best of care, her health started to really deteriorate.

In 1983 the Queen visited Los Angeles and Sybil decided this meant visiting the West Coast was now acceptable. She and Charlie traveled to Los Angeles, then up the coast to San Francisco and finally to Vancouver. Charlie was amazed and exhilarated that neither his stubborn wife nor stubborn son sabotaged his plans to get them together. Bruce was stunned to see his once tall and beautiful mother now 100 pounds and in a wheelchair. They made peace but she was as sharp as ever recalling a long list of abuses she’d hold forever. No one holds resentments like a Scot.

Three months later in August Sybil Halliwell died in her sleep in Spain. She had a tasteful funeral on Labour Day weekend where friends and enemies told many stories of their experiences with her, always looking over their shoulders to make sure she wasn’t still there listening.


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