Manitoba Photographers: Simon Duffin (1843-1900)

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Simon Duffin
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Born in Ireland in 1843, the oldest of six children of Patrick and Mary Duffin, his family immigrated to Canada when Simon was a young child, settling at Odessa, Ontario. He married Martha Lewis there on 5 April 1864 [1] and they had a daughter, Josephine, the next year. He operated a general store and photography caravan until 1872. Leaving for western Canada later that year, or early 1873, Duffin went as far as possible with his equipment in a wagon, then sold the wagon, and brought the rest of the photographic gear overland.

Arriving in Winnipeg in 1873, the Manitoba Free Press announced that “Mr. Duffin, the well known Photographic Artist from Ontario, has opened a Gallery opposite the Queen’s Hotel” [1A] on Garry Street, “on the old ground, between Henderson’s store and McMicken’s new bank.” [2] He offered a wide variety of “views of Winnipeg, Manitoba, and the North-West” [3], including residences and businesses as well as landscape photography. His photographs, along with those of James Penrose, were featured in the 28 November 1874 issue of the Canadian Illustrated News:

The first cut is a prospectus view of the city from the opposite side of Red River. The photograph has not been improved in the process. The second is Winnipeg, Assiniboine River from Fort Garry to the left. Arrival of the first colony of Mennonites. The steamer International and the barge Harty, and the H[udson] B[ay] Co’s warehouse, are well [unclear]. The view of Main Street, looking towards Red River and St Boniface to the left and Fort Garry hardly does justice to the locality comprsed [sic] with- … [3A]

By March 1875, Duffin had moved to new studio space:

The tobacco warehouse of J McD Sinclair, and the photographic gallery of S Duffin were being removed, bodily, to-day, to make room for a large building to be put up by Mr S Mulvey. The photographic gallery will be located next door to R Strang’s store, and the tobacco warehouse hasn’t quite made up its mind exactly where it will conclude its mad career. [4]

A few days later, the paper reported that “S. Duffin, photographer, can now be found in his new quarters, one door south of McVicar & Blackburn’s old store. He is always in good humor, and can give you a fine photo. Picture frames, etc., always on hand, very cheap.” [5] By mid-1877, his photography gallery had “removed to rooms over Fisher’s Store, one door south of Ashdown’s.” [6] By July, a local newspaper reported that:

Mr. Duffin, finding his old Photographic Studio too small for his increasing business, has purchased that desirable property on the corner of Main and Bannatyne Streets where he has, without doubt, fitted up the finest suite of Photo Rooms west of Toronto, and is now prepared to execute all manner of work belonging to his profession in the most modern styles known to the art. [6A]

View of the Duffin photography studio on Winnipeg’s Main Street, late 1870s.

View of the Duffin photography studio on Winnipeg’s Main Street, late 1870s.
Source: University of Alberta Archives, 74-169-15-69.

This building was precursor to the “Duffin Block” that he was to build in 1881 at this corner on Main Street, and which remains to this day. [6B]

In December 1877, Duffin took on William Caswell as a business partner. Caswell had formerly operated photographic studios at Duluth, Minnesota and Grand Forks, Dakota Territory, and his “skills as a photographer has made his name a household word throughout the civilized world. Mr. Caswell will take charge of the operating department.” [7] Despite the initial enthusiasm, however, the partnership dissolved by 1880, and no further indication of Caswell has been found after this date.

Duffin’s wife had died at some time before 1879. He married again, on 15 September 1879, to 29 year old Sarah Jane Calder of Churchville, Ontario.

He was actively involved in community works, allowing his studio to be used to display plans for a new church in Springfield [8] and to advertise piano lessons by Mrs. Searl, wife of his employee George W. Searl. [9] But he ran afoul of the law occasionally, such as in May 1880 when he petitioned the Winnipeg City Council,

... asking permission to leave on exhibition in front of his gallery on Main street a revolving show case, which he had been notified by the police to remove. He urged as the ground of his petition that the said show case was an important immigration agency, as new-comers were thereby led to purchase pictures relating to this Province, to send home to their friends in Ontario and the old countries. Moreover, none of the citizens had complained of the show case as an obstruction to pedestrians. [10]

He also tangled with photographic colleagues. In July 1880, the Manitoba Free Press reported:

Harry Bowles, the photographer, has emigrated to Dakota – not on account of the Land Regulations, but of a little discrepancy between himself and his creditors. The discrepancy still remains. Bowles also foresaw a little difficulty regarding a lens, which he bought a year ago for a sum much below its value, and secreted till the other day. It belonged to Mr. Duffin, from whom it was stolen by a half-breed, who sold it to Bowles. Duffin got track of it, and sent the police to recover it, and shortly afterwards – on Monday afternoon – Bowles secured passage on the steamer Minnesota, getting on board a mile or so up the river. [11]

In addition to his photographic work, Duffin appears to have speculated in agricultural land during the Winnipeg boom years of 1881 and 1882. In early 1882, he offered to sell land parcels west of Winnipeg in the vicinity of Portage la Prairie, perhaps for money to launch his next business venture. Leaving one of his employees (possibly George Searl) in charge of his Winnipeg photography studio, Duffin and his wife travelled south to Dakota Territory where, in the capital city of Bismarck, they boarded the steamboat Butte for a trip up the Missouri River to Fort Benton in Montana Territory. [12] In December 1882, a local newspaper reported that:

Mr. S. Duffin is preparing to open a photograph gallery in Benton, on Main street, near Baker. He is busily at work fitting up, and will be ready for business in a few days. Mr. Duffin has the reputation of being a first-class artist in his line, of which fact his work is the best evidence. [13]

Duffin’s community-mindedness continued at Fort Benton, where he offered the front room of his studio for use as a town library. [14] Few photos from this period in Duffin’s career survive, mostly portraits. [15] In early November 1883, Duffin sold his studio to another local photographer, and he and his wife returned to Winnipeg. [16] They arrived back in the city via Toronto in January 1884, accompanied by Duffin’s daughter Josephine, who was visiting Manitoba for the first time, having been educated at the Whitby Ladies’ College in Ontario. [17] In December 1886, Duffin became a father for the second time, with the birth of his son Earle Calder Duffin. [18] His wife died three weeks later, probably as a result of childbirth complications. [19]

By 1888, Duffin had sold his photographic gallery to the firm of Steele & Wing in favor of selling wholesale photographic supplies. He died at the Winnipeg home of his daughter on 26 July 1900 and was buried in St. John’s Cathedral Cemetery. [19A] His photo supplies business was purchased by his son-in-law Newman Fletcher Calder who operated it until 1908, when it was incorporated as Duffin & Company with Calder as its president, and Duffin’s son as vice-president. The firm operated in Winnipeg, with a branch office in Calgary, until 1926 when it was purchased by Eastman Kodak. [20]

See also:

Historic Sites of Manitoba: Duffin Block / Baker Block / Birt’s Saddlery Building (468-474 Main Street, Winnipeg)

Work locations




Garry Street, Winnipeg


327 Main Street, Winnipeg


2 Bannatyne Avenue West, Winnipeg


Fort Benton, Montana Territory [USA]


474 Main Street, Winnipeg


204 Bannatyne Avenue, Winnipeg


“Scenery in Manitoba and on Lake Superior:
View of St. John’s College Ladies’ School” (front)
Source: Archives of Manitoba, St. Johns Ladies College - 6.

“Scenery in Manitoba and on Lake Superior:
View of St. John’s College Ladies’ School” (back)
Source: Archives of Manitoba, St. Johns Ladies College - 6.

Stereoview (broken in half):
View inside passenger lounge of steamboat “City of Winnipeg” on Red River
Source: Archives of Manitoba, Transportation - Boat - City of Winnipeg - 3.


1. Ontario marriage registration, Ancestry.

1A. Manitoba Free Press, 15 November 1873, page 1.

2. Manitoba Free Press, 10 January 1874, page 2.

3. Manitoba Free Press, 8 January 1875.

3A. Manitoba Free Press, 19 December 1874, page 6.

4. Manitoba Free Press, 9 March 1875, page 3.

5. Manitoba Free Press, 18 March 1875.

6. Manitoba Free Press, 8 June 1877, page 3.

6A. Manitoba Free Press, 21 July 1877, page 7.

6B. Birt’s Saddlery (Former Baker and Duffin Blocks), Winnipeg Historical Buildings Committee, Duffin reported in an advertisement in the Winnipeg Times (6 June 1881) that he had moved his studio to temporary quarters at the corner of Main and Rupert Streets during construction of the Duffin Block. The new studio opened on 19 December 1881 (Manitoba Free Press, 28 March 1882, page 1).

7. Manitoba Free Press, 26 January 1878, page 2.

8. Winnipeg Times, 19 March 1880, page 3.

9. Manitoba Free Press, 20 March 1880, page 8.

10. Winnipeg Daily Times, 18 May 1880, page 1.

11. Winnipeg Daily Times, 14 July 1880, page 4.

12. Butte Cabin Register, 28 June 1882. I thank Ken Robison of the Overholser Historical Research Center (Fort Benton, Montana) for providing information on Duffin’s time in Montana.

13. Fort Benton River Press Weekly, 20 December 1882.

14. Fort Benton River Press Daily, 9 May 1883.

15. Personal communication from Ken Robison of the Overholser Historical Research Center (Fort Benton, Montana).

16. Fort Benton River Press Weekly, 7 November and 21 November 1883.

17. Manitoba Free Press, 18 January 1884, page 4.

18. Biography of Simon Duffin in F. H. Schofield’s Story of Manitoba, volume 2.

19. Death registration [Sarah Jane Duffin], Manitoba Vital Statistics, 24 December 1886.

19A. “Obituary” [Simon Duffin], Manitoba Free Press, 30 July 1900, page 4.

20. Birt’s Saddlery (Former Baker and Duffin Blocks), Winnipeg Historical Buildings Committee,

Biographical information on Duffin can be found in Manitoba Pictorial and Biographical, Volume 1, S. J. Clarke Publishing, 1913, page 99, as well as in the Dictionary of Canadian Biography XII, 275.

This page was prepared by Gordon Goldsborough.

Page revised: 1 August 2023

Manitoba Photographers: 1858 to Present

A list of professional photographers who have worked in Manitoba, from 1858 to the present, compiled by the Manitoba Historical Society.

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Gordon Goldsborough & Manitoba Historical Society. All rights reserved.