Toronto the Good was one mean city 160 years ago

In a city that had only the beginnings of horse-drawn public transit, social differences were more pronounced in Toronto of 1857, where all but the richest had to live within walking distance of their work. 

Back then, Toronto was industrializing rapidly. Immigrants were pouring in and the Ontario, Simcoe and Huron Railway – the predecessor to the Grand Trunk and Canadian National – ran trains out of a station near the site of the present Union Station.

Beyond its growing historic core north of Bloor (First Concession Road until 1855), streets were surveyed but most of the land was Park Lots cleared of forest and converted to farms and market gardens. There were some pockets of development, including landed estates, farmsteads, villages and the beginnings of towns that are now part of a greater city that has no clear boundaries.

West of Yonge, the 50-hectare block bounded by College, Yonge, Queen and University and known as Macaulaytown, was settled by fugitive African-American slaves. They built churches and homes, created businesses and were eventually joined by poor immigrants – Irish, Chinese, Jews, Italians – from everywhere in an unplanned, unhealthy but bustling community renamed St. John’s Ward in 1880.

The citizens of “The Ward” were told they lived in a slum, but they were never far from the spectacle of gentility that surrounded them and goaded them to escape to riches of their own making, if they could. 

With its dirt roads and wooden sidewalks, Toronto was “Muddy York.” Osgoode Hall, the skyline’s grandest building, was nearing the end of a major expansion. St. Michael’s Cathedral was missing its spire but it had its Bishop’s Palace in 1857, its architect, William Thomas, was embarking on the project that would kill him, the building of the Don Jail. It’s a mark of Thomas’s genius that so many of his buildings are still standing today.

Socially and culturally, Toronto was an ardently church-going city in a straitjacket of sectarian rivalry. Between 1852 and 1858 there were six major riots between Protestants and Catholics

There was high culture – 1857 saw the founding of the Metropolitan Choral Society and a performance of Handel’s Messiah by the Sacred Harmonic Choir at the Royal Lyceum. 

At St. Lawrence Hall (site of one of Canada’s first basketball courts) Jenny Lind, the “Swedish Nightingale” sang, and abolitionist Frederick Douglass addressed the Canadian Anti-Slavery Society in 1851, ahead of the North American Convention of Colored Freemen.

Toronto was less than a century old and already a city, but it was hardly Toronto the Good. 

Adam Bunch, creator of the Toronto Dreams Project, tells us that the city had 152 taverns, 203 beer shops, as well as two race tracks and a great number of brothels. 

It was in Mary Ann Armstrong’s “house of ill fame” on King that the Circus Riot of 1855 began, when the clowns of S. B. Howe’s travelling circus invaded the pleasure house favoured by the Hook & Ladder Firefighting Company.

The firefighters got the worst of it that night. Next day, it was the clowns’ turn. At their pitch on Fair Green, east of St. Lawrence Market, the firefighters shredded their tents and set them alight. If the police had not arrived – belatedly since, like the firefighters, they were Orangemen –  the animals would have burned in their cages. | @nowtoronto

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