Tuesday, April 7, 2015

# 51 ~ Toronto & The First World War, Part IV - Production

A soldier guards a trench at the Battle of Ypres, his bayoneted rifle at the ready.  Belligerent nations in the First World War all struggled to produce enough munitions to battle the enemy.


This is the fourth in a series of nine posts leading up to the centenary of John McCrae's writing of In Flanders Fields, on May 3, 1915.  I've planned for articles to be posted over the next several weeks, and to culminate with actives commemorating the centennial of McCrae's poem.

Images of John McCrae or the poppy, or recitals of the poem, In Flanders Field, are usually just relegated to Remembrance Day.  We have come to associate certain images so much with November 11th, that they seem out of place during the rest of the year.  As I publish these posts, I hope that you will find enough about Toronto's history, to make the articles of interest.

John McCrae wrote his poem during the Second Battle of Ypres, which took place between April 22nd and May 25th of 1915.  The battle saw the first massed use of poison gas by German forces on the Western Front.  It was a important engagement for Canadian troops ~ for the first time, a group of "colonial" soldiers defeated a European power, on European soil.  Military experts often refer to how engagements like the Battle of St. Julien or Kitcheners' Wood helped to usher Canada into national adulthood.  

However, instead of focusing on an analysis of military activity in Europe, my series of posts will mostly follow how the war was "fought" on the Toronto home front.


This is the fourth instalment in my posts on Toronto during the First World War.  It is called “Production”, and it discusses those sites the industrial efforts that went on in Toronto, in order to produce the armaments that were needed to fight the war.

Prior to the war, Canada had experienced an economic recession.  At first, the war worsened it, by causing layoffs, contract cancellations, and cutbacks in the already struggling railway industry.  Some factories shut down, and construction stopped on civilian projects.  Some buildings in Toronto, like our new Union Station, were halted and wouldn’t be completed until after the war.
Work on the contemporary Union Station had begun in 1914, and actually did continue through the First World War period, through to 1920.  However, the work went on very slowly, due to significant delays because of the shortage of men and material during the First World War period.  Although the current station was officially opened in August of 1927, work was not entirely finished until 1930. 

This photograph from 1929 shows the train sheds at the south of Union Station being constructed.  the terminal to the north has been completed, and the newly opened Royal York Hotel is also visible.  The completion of Union Station is just one example of how public works in Toronto and around Canada were interrupted by the war effort.

The economy was eventually stimulated by the demand for war supplies.  Military production grew and turned the economy around, from recession to rapid expansion.  Due to the combined demands of military service, industrial production, and agricultural production, unemployment virtually ceased in Canada by 1916.
Children like the pair shown in the photograph, below, from 1908, lived in one of Toronto’s poorest districts, called “The Ward”, prior to the Great War.  The Ward was located up Terauley Street (now Bay Street), and in fact, in the second photograph below, you can see Toronto’s 1899 City Hall in the background, behind the slums.  The father of the two children in the first picture may very well have gone off to be a soldier, for pay, while their mother quite possibly could have obtained work in a munitions factory, or in some other form of industrial war production. 

Children of "the Ward", Toronto 1908.  It's possible that the war improved their economic situation, if their father enlisted in the military, or their mother found factory work.

Slums of the Ward, on Terauley Street (now Bay Street).  Toronto's City Hall is visible in the background.

The military required a nearly insatiable amount of artillery shells.  Armies expended them by the millions in great barrages and siege-like battles, and no Allied economy was organized to produce artillery shells at anything near the required levels.  Canada’s Minister of Militia and Defence, Sir Sam Hughes, had established a “Shell Committee” to coordinate production, but this failed to deliver on agreed contracts.  The Shell Committee’s failure to produce led to angry recriminations between Canada and Britain, and there were widespread rumours of corruption.

Sir Sam Hughes led the so-called Shell Committee, which failed to produce an adequate supply of munitions for the war effort.  He and his committee were replaced by Joseph Flavelle and the Imperial Munitions Board, late in 1915.

Read the original 32 page booklet "War Scandals of the Borden Government", published in 1915, here.

Late in 1915, Prime Minister Borden replaced the Shell Committee with the Imperial Munitions Board – or, the IMB, for short.   This board answered solely to British authorities but was run by a Canadian, a well known Toronto business man named Joseph Flavelle.   He ran the board according to sound business practices and hired professional managers to oversee operations.  The problem of scarce labour was resolved when Flavelle’s board hired 30,000 women to work in factories and offices. 

Flavelle's Imperial Munitions Board - often abbreviated to the IMB - ushered in thousands of female employees.  This would revolutionize the conventional role of women, who had been usually relegated to the role of wife and mother.  Women were leaving their traditional place in the home and going to work in factories.

By 1917, Flavelle had overseen a great expansion in military production.  His Imperial Munitions Board oversaw dozens of companies that produced about $2-million worth of goods each day.  The Imperial Munitions Board expanded to include propellants, brass casings, and complicated fuses.  By 1917, about one third of all British shells were being manufactured in Canada. 

The IMB constructed ships and aircraft and developed airfields for a large pilot training program. By war's end, its 600 factories had completed some 103 naval vessels, 2,600 training aircraft, and 30 flying boats. When the IMB ceased operations in 1919, it was Canada's largest civilian employer, with over 289,000 employees.

Slide # 76 – Here, a Canadian pilot sits in a JN4 “Jenny” airplane in a Toronto airfield.  Today’s Royal Canadian Air Force originated as the Canadian Aviation Corps, which was an early attempt to create an air force in Canada.  Created in 1914, the unit was attached to the Canadian Expeditionary Force.  The Canadian Aviation Corps was affiliated with Britain’s Royal Flying Corps.  By the end of the First World War, the Canadian Aviation Corps had evolved into the Canadian Air Force, which eventually evolved in turn into the Royal Canadian Air Force, established in 1924.

A Curtiss JN4 "Jenny" airplane in a Toronto airfield, 1916.

A Curtiss JN4 "Jenny" airplane, Long Branch Airfield, Toronto, January, 1917.
Gassing up a Curtiss "F" Flyboat, Toronto Harbour, 1915.

With more and more men away on service, women’s work became pivotal. So-called “women’s work” was initially an extension of what women would have done at home, like knitting and sewing clothing for soldiers. Non-traditional canvassing, recruiting, clerical and factory-floor roles followed. By the end of 1916, Toronto employed 2,500 of Canada’s 4,000 female munitions workers.

Toronto women knit socks for soldiers in 1914.

A group of women assembly parts in a Toronto airplane factory in 1916.

A woman adjusts a fuse inside the Russell Motor Car Company factory.

A "Woman Worker" badge was issued to every woman who worked for the Imperial Munitions Board for at least 30 days.  Everyone would want to wear something that could show that they were "doing their bit" for the war effort.

In Toronto, the Imperial Munitions Board was able to take advantage of the city’s established manufacturing base, by taking over several existing firms.  The Russell Motor Car Company was a case in point.  Russell worked in partnership with the Eaton’s Machine Gun Battery, which was bankrolled by Sir John Eaton, the head of the department store chain. 

Russell was also one of the first Canadian companies to receive a munitions contract. After producing Canada’s first shell fuse in 1916, Russell sold off its vehicle works to focus on making munitions. By 1918, Russell had four Toronto factories in operation and proudly attested to the productivity of its large female workforce.

Sir John Eaton presented armoured cars to the Imperial Munitions Board.  They were manufactured through the Russell Motor Car Company and seen here at Toronto's Exhibition Camp in 1915.

Here we see employees posing for a photograph outside the Russell Motor Car Company, on King Street West and Duncan Street (between University Avenue and John Street) in 1917.

The IMB’s name was something of a misnomer. While it was charged with awarding ammunition contracts across the country, its industrial mandate soon broadened, and again Toronto was the beneficiary. Shipbuilding exemplified this.

Shown here, below, is a 1918 painting by Robert Gagen, entitled “Shipbuilding in Ashbridge’s Bay”.  It shows ship construction at the Polson Iron Works, near the foot of Sherbourne Street.  In the foreground is the War Taurus, and behind is either the War Hydra, or the War Timiskaming.

"Shipbuilding in Ashbridge's Bay", pained in 1918 by Robert Gagen.

In 1914, Toronto had one shipyard in operation; in 1918, it had three. The initial wartime products of the Polson Iron Works, established in 1883 at the foot of Sherbourne Street, were shells and shrapnel. Later it built trawlers for the Royal Canadian Navy; then it moved on to steel freighters commissioned by the IMB.

Shipbuilding, Polson Iron Works, 1918.

Toronto’s other two shipyards took shape thanks to the Toronto Harbour Commission. The Dominion Shipbuilding Company occupied newly made land between Spadina Avenue and Bathurst Street, and adjoined the newly created Keating Channel.  Polson, Dominion and a third company, the Toronto Shipbuilding Company, built 24 St. Lawrence Canal-size vessels between 1917 and 1920 — nearly one-third of the IMB’s ships.

Toronto's Dominion Shipbuilding Company.

Launch of the Floraba at Toronto's Dominion Shipbuilding Company.

In addition to shipbuilding, the Imperial Munitions Board had three of its seven “national factories” in Toronto. These were British Forgings Ltd., British Acetones Toronto Ltd. and Canadian Aeroplanes Ltd.

  British Forgings was formed to process waste metal from shell production and make new munitions.

While British Forgings was built from scratch, British Acetones relied on an existing plant. With Prohibition looming — meaning poor prospects for beverage alcohol — Gooderham & Worts offered its distillery to the Imperial Munitions Board for wartime purposes. Operating under its new name, the factory became the Empire’s largest producer of cordite in 1917 and 1918. This material was an essential ingredient in war-related explosives.

Toronto's Distillery District in 1917, while it served as British Acetones Toronto, Ltd.

Canadian Aeroplanes Limited was regarded as the IMB’s most successful venture. Of the 2,951 aircraft built in 1917 and 1918, most were JN-4 (“Jenny”) trainers used by the Royal Flying Corps Canada at such sites as the IMB’s aerodromes at Long Branch, Armour Heights and Leaside. Many of the rest were massive flying boats built for the US Navy.

A JN4 "Jenny" airplane at the Leaside Aerodrome, in 1917.

A JN4 "Jenny" airplane is pushed back into an aerodrome hangar in 1916.

A pilot in a JN14 "Jenny" airplane, 1918.

A Curtiss "F" flying boat, Toronto Islands, 1915.

A Curtiss Canada Bomber, 1916.

When going through the Toronto Archives online collection, I found this photograph of an aviator named Bert Acosta, preparing to take a Toronto photographer named William James, Sr., up in an airplane from the Leaside Aerodrome, in 1916.  William James, Sr., was a major contributor of photographs to the Toronto Archives, and ended up filing hundreds, if not thousands, of photographs of Toronto to the archival collection.  

William James, Sr., can be seen in the back of the airplane, with his rather bulky looking camera.  His trip over the skies of Toronto in 1916 resulted in what was said to be amongst the first "movies" filmed from an airplane in Canada.

The end of the war ended most of this economic activity. Munitions contracts were cancelled immediately. Two of the shipyards were bankrupt by 1920; the third became a dry dock. Canadian Aeroplanes and British Forgings were sold to foreign interests and closed in the early 1920s. British Acetone again became Gooderham & Worts, but struggled during the Prohibition period.

Alcohol continued to be produced there until 1990, when production was moved to Windsor, and the facility became abandoned.  It was eventually converted to a recreational complex full of art galleries, restaurants and cafes, and survives today as Toronto’s Distillery District.

At the end of the war, women returned to their traditional unpaid roles. They were not the only Torontonians to be disappointed; in the postwar slump, many “returned men” failed to find work. The economic boom of military production had become a bust.

As for Sir Joseph Flavelle, the man behind the Imperial Munitions Board, he was granted a baronetcy in 1917, in recognition of his work in supplying for the war effort.  He died in 1939, and bequeathed his mansion near Queen's Park to the University of Toronto.  It is now part of the University's Law School.


Coming up : My next instalment of the "Toronto & The First World War" series is entitled "Dedication".  It discusses the contributions that those in Toronto and across Canada were expected to make to the war effort.  It also explores some of the propaganda art that was used to stir the patriotism of Canadians, or shame them if they weren't seen as making enough of an effort.


No comments:

Post a Comment