Search just our sites by using our customised site search engine


Click here to get a Printer Friendly PageSmiley

Click here to learn more about MyHeritage and get free genealogy resources

History of Toronto and County of York in Ontario
Part IV: Chapter IX. From 1838 to 1851


THE year 1838 witnessed the trials in Toronto of those implicated in the rising of the previous year. It also witnessed the removal of the man who by his fatuous policy had contributed in no small measure to bring about the events of 1837. Sir Francis Bond Head had proved himself eminently unfitted to cope with the task with which he had been entrusted, and he was permitted to resign. On Friday, the 23rd of March, 1838, he left the city on his way homewards, a few hours after his successor, Sir George Arthur, had assumed the reins of office. Sir George's first public utterances subsequent to his assumption of his new dignity were on the occasion of the presentation to him of a congratulatory address by the mayor and aldermen of the city. His reply, in which lie urged a policy of justice tempered with mercy, created a most favourable impression, and excited great hopes— which were doomed to be disappointed—of the success of a petition, signed by 30,000 people, praying for the commutation of the sentence of death passed on Lount and Matthews.

A question now arose, however, involving interests of far greater importance to the city than either the arrival of the new Governor or the trials of the rebel prisoners. This was nothing less than a proposal for the * removal of the seat of Government from Toronto. The agitation had its origin in Kingston, which aspired to supplant Toronto as capital of the Province. It was urged by the advocates of the removal scheme that recent events had proved that Toronto's unprotected position unfitted it to be the centre of government: whereas, in view of the existence of fortifications at Kingston, the latter city offered every security for the safety of the Government. The press of both cities took up the matter, and for some time waged a fierce war of words. The supporters of Toronto argued that as a matter of fact her citizens had amply proved their ability to defend the capital; that Kingston was not as central as it was desirable the seat of Government should be; and that, if the Government must be removed, it should be westward rather than eastward ; that it would be folly to abandon the existing buildings in Toronto, and either hire or erect new ones elsewhere; and that, finally, such a removal would be ruinous to the business of those who had invested in property in Toronto on account of its being the seat of Government. And so the wordy conflict raged. But in the meantime events elsewhere were slowly paving the way for the change so much dreaded by the Toronto folk.

In July of the current year, Toronto received a visit from Lord Durham, the statesman who had been entrusted by the Imperial Government with the task of solving the Canadian problem. On the 17th His Excellency landed, and was conducted in great state to the Parliament buildings, where he was presented with an address by the Mayor and Corporation. The next day he left the city, and a few months later returned to England, having resigned his office. Doubtless the enthusiastic citizens of Toronto who so vigorously cheered His Excellency had little idea of the grave results for their city that his mission would indirectly be the means of bringing about.

In October of this same year arrived in Canada the Right Honourable Charles Poulett Thomson—afterwards Lord Sydenham —who had been despatched hither by the Home Government to carry out the recommendations of Lord Durham with a view to effecting a union of the Canadas. On the 21st of November, Mr. Poulett, having gained the assent of the Special Council of Lower Canada to his plans, arrived in Toronto with a similar object in view in regard to the Upper Canadian Legislature. Parliament was convened on December 3rd, and before the end of the month both •Houses had, in compliance with the evident wish of the Imperial authorities, passed resolutions in favour of union, on the understanding that the capital of the united Provinces should be in Upper Canada, a proviso which the Governor-General undertook to carry into effect. So far as the people of Toronto were concerned the project was unpopular. A scheme which included the removal of the capital from Toronto had nothing to recommend it to them. But, satisfied or not, there was nothing for t but to submit, and to put the best face on the matter possible. But when A became known that Kingston had been- selected as the new capital, then indeed it was felt that a crushing blow had overtaken Toronto. A general panic prevailed; people refused to believe that the city could continue to flourish after being stripped of her glory as the premier city of the Province. It was expected that a tremendous fall in lands and rents would be the inevitable result of the change, and not a few merchants began to contemplate the advisability of removing to Kingston. We shall see that all these fears were utterly groundless ; Toronto's prosperity was too well founded to be dependent for its continuance upon the presence in her midst of a staff of Government clerks. After the passage of the Union resolutions by the Upper Canadian Legislature the Imperial Parliament lost no time in passing a Union Act; a royal proclamation dated February 5, 1841, gave effect to its provisions, and on the 10th of the same month the union of the Provinces was consummated.

In Toronto, as in many other cities of the Province, the first year under the new regime was marked by sanguinary election riots, m order to quell which it became necessary to invoke the assistance of the troops. But the first excitement over, the city settled down to a long period of quiet, marked, notwithstanding the occurrence of periods of commercial depression, by a steady advance in progress and prosperity. Dining the eight years from 1841 to 1849 the growth of the city was rapid, and the improvements, of which the principal will be noted here, numerous.

At the time of the incorporation of the city in 1834 its population was somewhat under 10,000; in 1841, theflirst year of the Union, it was slightly in excess of 15,000. Sir R. H. Bonnycastle, who visited Toronto in 1845, describes it as "a city in earnest, with upwards of 20,000 inhabitants—gas-lit, with good plank sidewalks and macadamized streets, with vast sewers and fine houses of brick or stone. The main street—King Street, he adds, "is two miles and more in length, and would not do shame to any town, and has a much more English look than most Canadian places have." Gas had been introduced in 1840, under contract with Mr. Albert Furniss, a Montreal gentleman largely interested in the gas works in that city. But this subject will be referred to again in connection with "The Industries of, Toronto." In the following year, 1846, a local chronicler stated that the city—the entire length of which was three miles—contained ninety-two streets, twenty-one churches and chapels, fifteen common schools, and ten newspapers; it enjoyed the privileges not only of gas but of waterworks; it was connected by steamboat with Kingston, Hamilton, Niagara and Rochester; property had. increased wonderfully in value, and buildings in. good business localities commanded rents as high as $1,000 and §1,250 per annum. Truly the removal of the seat of Government had been ineffectual to interfere with the progress of Toronto. And equally resultless had it been in affecting for good the fortunes of Kingston. Three years after the change which struck with panic the business men of Toronto, Kingston ceased to be the capital, and the seat of Government was again removed, this time to Montreal—soon, however, to return once more to Toronto.

But before Toronto was to be permitted to assume the proud position of capital of Canada, she was destined to be visited by the double scourge of fire and pestilence. Fires of some magnitude occurred during the early months of 1849, but in April of that year the city was visited by a conflagration which did infinite damage to property—which, indeed, has been regarded as the most disastrous known in Toronto. It broke out early in the morning, on Saturday, the 7th of April, in some outbuildings in rear of a tavern on the corner of King and Nelson Streets. It then spread to the main part of Nelson Street', on the east, consuming Post's Tavern and the Patriot Office. A contemporary account, quoted by Mr. J. C. Dent, in the Semi-Centennial Memorial Volume, thus describes the progress of the flames: "The fire extended from King Street to the south of Duke Street, where it consumed nearly all the back buildings and the office of the Savings Bank. It then crossed to the west side of Nelson Street to Rolph's Tavern, destroying the whole block, including the Mirror Office, to Mr. Nasmith's bakery. Proceeding from Rolph's Tavern, the flames laid hold of the corner building, occupied by Mr. O'Donohue, which was speedily consumed, and then they ran along the whole block to Mr. O'Neill's, consuming the valuable stores of Messrs. Hayes, Harris, Cherry, O'Neill and others. About three o'clock the spire of St. James's Cathedral took fire, and the budding was entirely destroyed. About the same time the flames broke out in the old City Hall, consuming the greater part of the front building, including Mr. McFarlane's small store. The fire then extended from the Cathedral across to the south side of King Street, where a fire had lately occurred. The shops of Mr. Rogers and others were with difficulty saved; all that block was in great danger. Some of them had most of their goods removed, and great injury to property was sustained. About five o'clock the flames were m a great measure subdued, j he exertions of the firemen were for a long time retarded for want of water. The soldiers of the Rifle Brigade from the garrison were extremely active, and deserve the highest gratitude of the citizens. The loss by this fire is estimated at the lowest computation to be £100,0.00 sterling. It is not easy to describe the gloom which this calamity has cast over the city, or the ruined appearance of the ground so lately occupied by many respectable and industrious individuals, who, by the work of four or five hours, were suddenly thrown out of business or seriously injured in their circumstances. In whatever light this serious event be regarded, it must be acknowledged as a heavy blow and sore discouragement to Toronto; the heaviest it has received. There cannot be a doubt, however, that the activity and enterprise of the inhabitants will soon surmount the loss. The season is favourable for rebuilding, and many improvements will doubtless be inntroduced in the formation of new streets." And so it proved. The present noble cathedral of St. James rose from the ashes of that destroyed in the great conflagration, and around it sprung up a better class of buildings than those which had succumbed to the flames. But it was not only the loss of property that cast a gloom over the city. Several casualties occurred, and one valuable life was lost. Mr. Richard Watson, Queen's Printer, a man generous and generally beloved, perished in the flames while attempting to save his stock.

To there succeeded the pestilence. Cholera made its appearance among the immigrants landed at Quebec early in the season, and rapidly swept across the country, reaching Toronto towards the end of June. All possible precautions were adopted to stay its ravages, but in vain; it pursued its course unchecked until the cool weather set in, when it abated, but not until it had occasioned a mortality of sixty per cent, of those attacked.

In political as in general affairs, 1849 was a memorable year for Toronto—more especially in connection with matters arising out of the Rebellion of 1837-8. Shortly after the middle of March, in consequence of the passage of the Baldwin-Lafontaine Amnesty Bill, William Lyon Mackenzie returned to Toronto, where he was the guest of Mr. John Mcintosh, of Yonge Street. His return gave great offence to the ultra-Loyalists of the city, a party of the more hot-headed of whom assembled on the evening of Thursday, the 22nd of March, with the object of making an anti-amnesty demonstration. After parading the streets they burnt in effigy Messrs. Robert Baldwin and Wm. Hume Blake, the law officers of the Government, in front of the residence of the former gentleman. They then marched to Mcintosh's house, which some of the noisier of the rioters threatened to pull down ; but, fortunately, they contented themselves with storming the building and burning Mr. Mackenzie in effigy. Mr. George Brown, editor of the Government organ, the Globe, next came in for a share of their attentions. His house was aiso besieged and stoned, after which the mob dispersed, without a single effort having been made by the authorities to put a stop to its lawless doings. It would appear, indeed, that some of the leading city officials at heart sympathized with the rioters, for we are told that Mr. George L. Allen, Chief of Police, and at least one member of the City Council, were unconcerned witnesses of the outrages, while other members of that body called the Mayor, Mr. Gurnett, roundly to task for having incurred the expense of providing special constables to save the life of such a "scoundrelly rebel" as Mackenzie. Another alderman went even further, and declared in the presence of the assembled City Council that, if it were not for the law, he would not scruple to take Mackenzie's life.

Fortunately the anti-Amnesty riot in Toronto had no serious results for the city in which it occurred. It was otherwise with the disturbances in Montreal, during the following month, arising out of the passage of the Rebellion Losses 1311, and which culminated in the burning of the Parliament Buildings and the mobbing of Lord Elgin—the former on the 25th and the latter on the 30th of April. Montreal's loss in this case was Toronto's gain. It was decided to remove the seat of Government from the former city to the latter for the two remaining sessions of the existing Parliament, and then to transfer it alternately to Quebec and Toronto for periods of four years. But, previous to arriving at this decision, the Governor-General deemed it advisable to pay a personal visit to Upper Canada, for the double purpose of satisfying himself as to the state of public feeling there, and of holding a conference with the President of the United States on the subject of reciprocity. His Excellency arrived in Toronto on the 9th of October, and though his reception was generally characterized by good feeling and enthusiasm on the part of the citizens, its heartiness was somewhat marred by the disposition of certain individuals, during the Governor's progress from the wharf to his hotel, to repeat in Toronto the scenes which had disgraced Montreal on the last day of April. There was some stone and rotten egg throwing; but a baker's dozen of the offenders were arrested, and as the grand jury was then ii> session, the rioters were forthwith presented and committed to gaol. Toronto was evidently in no mood to put up with any follies that might endanger its chances of becoming the capital of Canada.

During the following month (November) the removal took place, and the administrative departments were lodged in the Parliament Buildings on Front Street—the same which had been in use by the Legislature of Upper Canada previous to the Union, and which are now occupied by the Ontario Legislature. Of course the buildings had been renovated and fitted up for the reception of their new occupants. The Governor-General, soon after his arrival, established himself at Elmsley Villa, once the residence of Chief justice Elmsley, and years later on to be converted into Old Knox College. It occupied the site on which the Central Presbyterian Church now stands. In Toronto the Government remained until 1851, when, pursuant to the arrangement agreed upon, it was removed to Quebec.

The municipal affairs of the city during the period under consideration may now fairly engage our attention. It has been seen that Mr. Powell, of Montgomery's Tavern fame, occupied the chief magistrate's chair during the years i838-'39-'40. The successive occupants of the chair, from the latter year until 1851, were as follows: 1841, Mr. George Monro; 1842-'43-44, the Honourable Henry Sherwood; i845-'46-'47, Mr. William Henry Boulton; i848-'49-'5o, Mr. George Gurnett. Until the last-mentioned year the municipal electrons had been held under the Act of 1837, by the provisions of which the aldermen and common councilmen held office for two years, the representative of each class in each ward who received the smallest number of votes returning at the end of one year, but being eligible for re-election. In 1849, however, an Act was passed reducing the number of aldermen for each ward to one: but this was repealed by an Act of the following year. The number of wards at this tune was six, an additional ward, that of St. James, having been formed in 1847 from St. David's Ward.

In 1851 Mr. Gurnett—who, shortly after the expiration of kis term of office, accepted the position of Police Magistrate—was succeeded is the occupancy of the chief magistrate's chair by Mr. John G. Powes, a gentleman described by one of those who knew him best, as " y far the ablest man who hail ever filled the chair." During his last year of office (1853) Mr. Bowes's name was brought into unpleasant prominence in connection with a transaction in Ontario, Simcoe and Huron Railway stock, but his fellow-Citizens testified that their confidence in him was unshaken by electing him to the civic chair in 1861-'62-'63.


Return to Book Index Page

This comment system requires you to be logged in through either a Disqus account or an account you already have with Google, Twitter, Facebook or Yahoo. In the event you don't have an account with any of these companies then you can create an account with Disqus. All comments are moderated so they won't display until the moderator has approved your comment.

comments powered by Disqus