Friday, March 6, 2015

# 47 ~ Toronto's Birthday, Then and Now

March 6th, 2015, marks the 181st anniversary of the Incorporation of the City of Toronto, from the old Town of York.  

The story is a pretty basic part of Toronto's history.  The old Town of York had been established by John Graves Simcoe back in 1793.  When the Province of Upper Canada (now Ontario) was created back in 1791, Simcoe was appointed as the province's first lieutenant-governor.  He set sail with his wife, Elizabeth, who was an incredible woman.  It was custom at the time for a woman of her social position to stay at home, back in England, while her husband fulfilled whatever position he was posted to.  But, it is due to her rugged determination to travel with her husband, that we know so much about early history in Toronto and southern Ontario.  She was a keen diarist and painter, and her writings and illustrations illuminate what society and nature were like in the dwindling years of the 18th century.

York would eventually become the provincial capital, replacing Newark (now Niagara-on-the-Lake). Although the provincial government met in York pretty consistently from 1796, there was no actual government to run the town.  The difference between "town" and "city" was an important one.  It would be forty years before there was enough of a population to qualify the Toronto region as a city.  A clutch of bureaucrats, known as the Home District Council, settled matters pertaining to the Town of York.  In many cases, matters may have been sent to the Executive Council of Upper Canada, or even the lieutenant-governor, if the Home District Council could not form a decision.  Looking back, it seems like a case of splitting hairs, as whoever was on the Home District Council probably served on the Executive Council, too.  In some cases, certain matters may have been passed back to the Colonial Office, in England.  This was of course a time when communication between the Toronto region and England could take two months, at least - one way.  So, it may take six months for any political decree to return from England.

Tories versus Reformers

A lot of local and provincial affairs were dictated by a small cluster of a few dozen wealthy and powerful men.  Nicknamed the "Family Compact", they were the politicians, judicial figures, bankers and government appointees who held sway.  Through the 1820s and 1830s, there was a growing Reform Movement  - a group of individuals who began to oppose the Family Compact.

Several of these prominent Reformers began to petition the provincial government in 1833.  They demanded that the Town of York become incorporated into a city, which would mean a broadened electoral system, and therefore, an increase in democracy.  The Tory-controlled provincial Parliament sought a way to lessen the chances that Reformers would get elected.  The bill to incorporate into a city passed on March 6, 1834.  The old Town of York passed away, and was now the City of Toronto.

This is often heralded as a great triumph for democratic elections.  But who could vote?   Women did not have the franchise in Canada, at this point.  The provincial Tories had set the bar high in terms of qualifications for voting for an alderman.  There were conditions stipulating that only those who owned a certain amount of land could qualify to have a full vote.  Out of an adult male population of 2,929, only 230 of these grown men could vote.  No one from the general population could vote directly for the mayor.  He (and of course, it would be a "he"), was chosen, or appointed by the elected aldermen, from among their own number.


Late in 1833, not too long before Toronto's first election was called, there was a brewing labour dispute.  The Tories of the Family Compact had alienated a large number of the city's construction tradesmen, who went on strike.  This created a sympathy for labour and Reform, and led to a landslide victory in our first municipal elections.  Reform candidates chose William Lyon Mackenzie from their own number.  Mackenzie needs little introduction in Toronto historical circles - unless, of course, the introduction serves to dispel some of the rumours about him!  For a lot of greater detail about Mackenzie I would refer you to his entry at the Dictionary of Canadian Biography.  

THEN : Proclamation of the new City of Toronto, 1834.


The Town of York was named for Frederick Augustus, the Duke of York and Albany, and second son of King George III.  He was also remembered in Frederick Street - one of the streets to make up the early town.  The Duke of York was principally a military figure who had led British troops to victory just prior to the naming of our Old Town.

THEN : Prince Frederick, Duke of York and Albany, circa 1793 - the same year that our town was named after him.

As plans were being set for the incorporation of Toronto, there was great debate as to whether we should keep the ancient aboriginal name from which "Toronto" stems, or hold fast to the British sounding name of York.  John Graves Simcoe had been fond of renaming settlements with sold English sounding appellations, and there were those in the 1830s who felt strongly that the name "York" should remain.  Others suggested reverting to "Toronto".  The name of our current city has been so strongly corrupted from the traditional aboriginal tongue, that it's hard to tell exactly where it comes from.  For years, it was accepted that it came from an aboriginal word for an area near the mouth of the Humber River, where aboriginal people used to gather, trade and communicate.  This belief set the definition of the word as "Place of Meeting".

In the last decade, it has been conjectured that the word derives from an aboriginal term that describes a method of fishing, where sticks are plunged into the waters to form fishing weirs.  This definition would have Toronto mean "Where Sticks Grow In The Water".

Obviously, despite debate, the name "Toronto" won out.  The name York lives on in today's Royal York Hotel, York University, and in other institutions.  Back then, we also had York Township, York County, and according to folklore, one of the big reasons we opted for Toronto over York was because we were nicknamed "Little York", in a rather demeaning fashion, after the big New York that lay south of the border.

That's the basics.  Our city governance has grown and changed a lot in the past 181 years.  I wanted to leave you with a number of illustrations that shows you what Toronto looked like during it's 40 year life as the Old Town of York.

THEN : Ships in the harbour fire a gun salute to commemorate the victory of the Duke of York at the Battle of Famars, and the naming of Toronto as York, on August 24th, 1793.  This was one of the many paintings made by Elizabeth Gwillim Simcoe that illustrate life in our early province.  

THEN : This map of York, the surrounding region and the harbour was made in 1793 by surveyor Alexander Aitken, for Lieutenant Governor John Graves Simcoe.

THEN (AGAIN) : I've taken the liberty of editing the above map to highlight the position of Fort York, and the Old Town of York.  The town took up 10 blocks, from today's Jarvis Street east to Parliament Street, and from Front Street up to Adelaide Street.  Also marked is today's Queen Street, which was the first Concession Road north of the town.  The street was originally dubbed "Lot Street" as all the park or farm lots were measured north from there.

THEN : A view of the harbour at York, looking west from the military blockhouse at the base of Berkeley Street in 1812. 

THEN : "Plan of the Harbour, Fort and Town of York, the Capital of Upper Canada, March 16th, 1816"

THEN : Looking north across the harbour from the Gibraltar Point Lighthouse in 1817.  The lighthouse had been built by 1808, and despite its remote location it is one of the more well known of Toronto's Georgian remnants.

THEN : A map of the Town of York from 1818.  By this time, the area between Yonge Street west to Bathurst Street had started to be filled in.  Here you can see which early luminaries got which properties.  At the time this was still largely farmland and countryside, but imagine the property taxes today!  Also, some street names have changed over the years.  Graves Street, which was named after John Graves Simcoe, was changed to Simcoe Street.

THEN : Another view across the harbour from Gibraltar Point.  This one dates from 1828.


THEN : Scadding Cabin, originally built in 1794, is credited as the oldest surviving building in Toronto today.  It was built for John Scadding, a pioneer and aide-de-camp to John Graves Simcoe.  Originally built near the Don River and Queen Street, it was taken apart and reassembled on the grounds of today's  Canadian National Exhibition.  It is maintained and operated by the York Pioneers Historical Society.

NOW : How Scadding Cabin looks these days.

THEN : Castle Frank is more than just the name for a subway station.  This was the "summer home" of John Graves and Elizabeth Simcoe.  Built in 1794, it stood in the wilds north of York, just south of today's Bloor Street, overlooking the Don River.  The Simcoes abandoned it when they returned to England.  When the Americans invaded York in 1813, they saw Castle Frank on a map.  Mistaking it for a real castle, worthy of plunder, they tramped through the woods only to find a rotting wooden cabin.  Castle Frank was accidentally destroyed in a fire in 1829.

THEN : The birthplace of noted Canadian politician, Robert Baldwin, was built on the northwest corner of King and Frederick streets, just prior to Baldwin's birth there in May of 1804.  Robert Baldwin would go on to lead the moderate reform movement in Canada and usher in "responsible government" in the 1840s and 1850s.  The Baldwin family only lived in the house for a few years, but a later inhabitant of note was William Lyon Mackenzie.  He lived here with several members of his family and several apprentices, too, but was down in New York State, evading his creditors, in 1826.  The sons of several of those Family Compact clans broke into his home, which was also where he printed his radical newspaper "The Colonial Advocate".  They did their best to bust up his operation and destroy his equipment.  This became known as "The Types Riot".  The subsequent trial (called "The Types Trial") saw Mackenzie awarded enough money to fight off insolvency and launch his political career.  Mackenzie later moved out of the house, and it was eventually destroyed by fire, by 1849.  Today a Starbuck's stands on the site.

THEN : These were the grand "Palaces of Parliament" that stood along Front Street, between Front and Berkeley streets.   Constructed in the 1790s, they lasted for less than 20 years, before being infamously torched by invading Americans.  A second set of parliament buildings were built on the same site, before they too were lost to fire - this time, accidentally.

THEN : An early sketch of the original St. Lawrence Market.  The original market was build on the north side of Front Street, running up to King Street (where today's "north market" stands).  The very first market opened in November of 1803.  Several incarnations and additions later, St. Lawrence Market is today a very popular destination with both locals and visitors to the city.  In this drawing you can see the town well, centre foreground, as well as the harbour, in the back of the picture.  The harbour, of course, extended south from Front Street at the time.  

THEN : The first church of St. James was constructed on the site of today's Cathedral Church of St. James in 1807.  After several fires, and restorations, we have the Victorian spire that we know today.  But this original church was a very simple wood frame building - and the only church in town in 1807.

THEN : Built in 1822 on Adelaide Street, at the top of Frederick Street, and nearly lost to demolition, Campbell House was saved and moved to the northwest corner of Queen Street and University Avenue.  The home of Sir William and Lady Hannah Campbell, the house was a jewel in the Crown of Georgian York.  We are blessed that it still survives.  Today it operates as a public museum, and if you've never been for a visit, you should!

THEN : This map was produced to mark the incorporation of the City of Toronto on March 6th, 1837.

THEN : A new city was seen as a reason to celebrate.  Here we see revellers gathered around the windmill owned by the Gooderham and Worts families - this windmill was the precursor to today's Distillery District.  Party goers would have gathered on the frozen over harbour - where the parking lot for the Distillery District is today - to skate, ride in sleighs and enjoy a bonfire.


  1. Happy belated b-day Toronto Great article and loved the images of old York :)

  2. Fascinating post and photos. Thank you so much for sharing, and warm greetings from Montreal.

  3. Fascinating post and photos. Thank you so much for sharing, and warm greetings from Montreal.