Scion to the Shirriff's food empire switched to
Groomed to specialize in jams and jellies, his career was
interrupted by the Second World War after which the famous
company was later sold. He then formed a successful vinyl
Special to The Globe and Mail
December 1, 2008
David Shirriff was born with a sweet tooth. Fortunately for
him, his family made its living producing jams and jellies.
For generations of Canadians, the name "Shirriff" has been
synonymous with jams, jellies and especially Good Morning
Marmalade, the country's most popular orange marmalade. The
Shirriff family owned and operated Shirriff's Ltd. for seven
decades but has had no connection with the company since it
was sold in 1965. The firm no longer exists as a separate
entity. However, food products on the supermarket shelves
still carry the Shirriff label and its jams and orange
marmalade continue to tantalize the taste buds of Canadians
as they munch on their morning toast.
Mr. Shirriff played an important role in the growth and
success of the company, and later launched a successful
business in a field totally unrelated to food.
Born in Toronto, he was the middle child of Margaret and
William Shirriff. His father worked in the family business
that his grandfather, Francis Shirriff, had founded in 1883.
Initially known as the Imperial Extract Company, it produced
vanilla, almond and other flavoured extracts. By the time
David was four years old, his father and his three uncles -
Frank, Colin and Quentin Shirriff - were running the company
and had renamed it Shirriff's Ltd. to reflect an
ever-growing line of packaged foods, including jams, jelly
powders and pie-filling mixes.
Young David grew up in the central Forest Hill area of old
Toronto. As a teenager, he worked in the family business
during summer vacations. He received no preferential
treatment and was assigned menial jobs which exposed him to
different sectors of the company. That experience would
serve him well with his future business endeavours. One task
he particularly enjoyed was working in the Shirriff food
booth at the annual Canadian National Exhibition in Toronto.
After graduating from Upper Canada College in 1940, he
enrolled in the liberal arts program at the University of
Toronto's Trinity College. However, Canada was at war by
then and he felt duty bound to fight for his country.
After completing officer training in Brockville, he was
stationed at Camp Borden while waiting for deployment to
Europe. His unit, the 11th Canadian Armoured Regiment, more
commonly known as the Ontario Regiment, was based in Oshawa,
a small town east of Toronto. The regiment was nicknamed the
Black Cats for the cat on its badge. The cat symbol was
adopted from the one on the Clan MacGillivray family crest
because a MacGillivray had once commanded the regiment.
After the First World War, the cat was redesigned into a
fierce pose, echoing the experience of the regiment members
in that war.
The Black Cats shipped out in November, 1942, heading for
England where they were based awaiting action. That came in
the early hours of July 9, 1943, when the regiment landed on
the southeast beaches of Sicily as part of a combined
Canadian-British-American invasion by amphibians and
airborne landings. The plan was to quickly take Sicily and
then Italy, thus freeing the Mediterranean seaways. A month
or so later, the Allies controlled the island, having forced
Italian and German troops to retreat to the Italian
The Ontario Regiment fought with distinction through Sicily
and, once it was secure, through southern Italy and into
tough battles in the Liri Valley, Cassino and Ortona. The
fighting at Ortona, a village on the Adriatic coast, was the
bloodiest of the Italian campaign for the Canadians. They
engaged German troops in house-to-house fighting while
facing the threat of snipers, booby traps and land mines at
every turn. The capture of Ortona, dubbed the "Italian
Stalingrad," is considered one of Canada's greatest
achievements in that war.
The Sicilian and Italian operations led to the downfall of
Benito Mussolini and to Italy negotiating a peace
settlement, but it came at a great cost to Canadians: 562
dead and 664 wounded. Mr. Shirriff, by then a captain, was
not injured in either campaign but he had a narrow escape
when shrapnel struck a hole in the top of his helmet, just
missing his skull.
In late 1943, he was sent back to England to teach at Royal
Military College Sandhurst. Later, after the war ended in
Europe, he spent several months helping the Allies rebuild
On his return home in 1946, Mr. Shirriff took a business
administration course at the University of Toronto in
anticipation of joining the family business, which he did
the following year. In 1948, he married Elizabeth Urquhart,
who was part of his Toronto circle. She had spent the war in
the Red Cross and she four times crossed the Atlantic to
escort war brides on their trip to Canada to join their
Mr. Shirriff had a variety of management roles with the
family business, including sales, purchasing and marketing.
At the same time, he furthered his business credentials with
more administration courses at the University of Western
By 1953, he had taken over the company's jam division. His
father had died and his uncles were elderly and tired of the
business demands so the time seemed right to sell. The new
owner, J. William Horsey, president of Dominion Stores,
asked him to stay on and manage Shirriff's. He remained for
A man of foresight, Mr. Shirriff realized the potential
growth of plastic products and had the guts to take a chance
on a field that was alien to him. In 1965, he launched
Pillar Plastics Ltd., a vinyl extrusion company.
That same year, he realized a dream: He bought one of
England's oldest inns, a place he had visited during the
war. He had spotted a for-sale notice in a British magazine
and, with childhood friends Keith McCord and Barbara McCord
Pickup, he purchased the Crown Inn in Chiddengfold, Surrey,
about 65 kilometres southwest of London.
The inn, which dates from 1260, had only six bedrooms but it
was internationally known for its continental cuisine and
hospitality. The new Canadian owners installed a manager but
visited often. There was no resentment over the historic
landmark being in foreign hands. "Canadians are rather
popular there," Mr. Shirriff told The Globe and Mail shortly
after the purchase. In 1975, the partners sold the inn and
it is now part of Britain's National Trust. Mrs. Shirriff
said she and her husband loved going to the inn and did so
regularly. Owning the Crown Inn was "the greatest 10 years
we ever had," she said.
By 1982, Mr. Shirriff had grown tired of the business world
and sold Pillar Plastics. He retired at 60, and travelled,
played golf and visited family and friends. He loved music,
particularly big-band numbers by Benny Goodman and others.
Another favourite pastime was to play the drums and jam with
two friends, one of whom played the guitar and the other the
washtub bass, which is also called a gutbucket.
If not drumming, he liked going to watch the Toronto
Argonauts and the Toronto Maple Leafs play. He lived a
simple life, enjoying good friends and his family, his wife
said. "We were very lucky."
William David Shirriff was born on Aug. 15, 1922, in
Toronto. He died Oct. 24, 2008, in the veterans' wing of
Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre in Toronto, of natural
causes. He was 86. He is survived by Elizabeth, his wife of
60 years, and by children Bill, Martha and Judy. He also
leaves four grandchildren and his sister Kathryn.