Let us consider, for a moment, what it was like to be a Catholic in the early years of the diocese who was not a priest, nor a bishop, nor a wealthy philanthropist; to examine, for moment, what it would be like to be a normal, ordinary Catholic in the city of Toronto.
But first, a caveat: There are two common mistakes made when people regard the past. the first is that everything was wonderful. The second is that everything was horrible. The truth is, the past was neither, and it was both. Having said that, for now I'm going to examine the downside to life in the early diocese of Toronto.
It isn't hard to see the downside to life in that period. To begin with, there was the city itself. In order to understand the city from about 1850 onwards to about 1900, one must first think of the city today, in all its details, and then wipe that thought out you your head. The city of today bears no resemblance to the city of the past.
One of the first differences between the city of the past and today is the mere size of the place. Toronto was originally the central town around the harbour. It was a small, growing town, a hub of commerce and transportation. There were many other villages surrounding Toronto- Mimico, Etobicoke, Scarborough to name a few- long since swallowed by the growing city. Mimico, now the Western border of the city, was originally more than half a day's travel from the city. The area where I live on the northern border of the city was a full day's journey. Between here and the city were great expanses of farmland, now plowed under and paved over, along with a fair number of inns and halfway houses-usually slightly enlarged farmer's houses- to give a bed to those who could not make the full journey, and to provide food and drink, especially drink, to weary travellers.
There are some holdovers from the past, for example, there are some pieces of architecture that escaped fire and the wreckers ball. Buildings like St Lawrence Hall and Market,
or some of the churches that still stand among us today, or some of the banks
Even so, there are still places which have survived, here and there, mainly near the downtown core, but not within it. The kind of area where working class families lived and worked. Their homes
(even these were the better sort of working class homes from the time)
It was in these lower class houses where the vast majority of Catholics of nineteenth century Toronto lived. They often did not own the houses where they lived, but stayed in as boarders. The houses they owned or boarded were made of wood, very often flimsy. Fire was a real concern, and, indeed, the downtown core of Toronto burned on several occasions in the century. Nor was fire the only danger. Diseases were common, with typhoid and cholera being among the most feared. There were several outbreaks during this time. Outside the homes, the streets were made of dirt, and the frequent passage of horses left a permanent layer of manure. Sewers came in during the period, but outhouses were common into the twentieth century. The factories often burned coal for their power. Coupled with the fact that most of the people of the city did not bathe on a regular basis, and the smell of the place must have been indescribable.
So we have a city that is dirty, smells bad, a shanty town by and large, where fire and disease were common. Newspaper reports tells stories of streets filled with beggars. If you wish to find a modern analog for Victorian Toronto, it would be Calcutta.
The Toronto of the second half of the nineteenth century was undergoing huge changes. When the period began, most of the goods made within the city were produced in artisans shops by skilled craftsmen. By the end of the period Toronto had industrialized, and the goods were made in large factories, by machines and unskilled labour. This was bad for the craftsmen, but good, in a sense, for the unskilled labourers. The Catholic population, I should note, was largely unskilled. In some ways we can relate somewhat to the city of the past. It was a city undergoing huge changes. The train was changing the way people travelled. The telegraph changed the way they communicated. Mechanization changed the way they worked. Many old jobs disappeared. New ones appeared.
Not everyone had a job in the changing economy. Unemployment was common and endemic. Child labour was common, often elder children forced to try and support their families either due to the parents' unemployment, or due to one parent (usually the father) dying. Those who did have jobs faced long hours- fourteen hour days were common- with only Sundays off. Working conditions were commonly dangerous. Maimings and death on the job were not uncommon.
All this, of course, assumed that the Catholics could get a job. Signs reading "No Irish or Dogs" or "Papists need not apply" were a common sight in Toronto well into the twentieth century. Catholics would find work with other Catholics, or with an employer who did not care where their employees worshipped, as long as they were cheap.
Unemployment would have been a regular feature of the life of a labourer of that time. Jobs would die out, or they were seasonal. Labourers would often move, and move again, to follow whatever work was to be found.
When not working, the poor Catholics of the period sought entertainment and relaxation. One of the most common ways of relaxing after a week of work was, unfortunately, hard drinking. Toronto was a city of churches, but it was also a city of bars, both legal and illegal. Drunkenness was very common among the Irish Catholics. It is no wonder, then, that many times throughout the period the Temperance movement would hold rallies in the basement of S Paul's or the other churches in Toronto. Often the rally was held with a dinner, and those who took the pledge were given a free meal. Many of the poor Catholics would come by and eat the dinner and swear the oath. It is entirely possible a few even meant it.
The Catholic identity which was so dear to the efforts of Charbonnel was really the only identity allowed to the Irish Catholics of the time. Shut out from many of the jobs and positions within the city, the Catholics often turned to the Greens and to the Church for help and jobs. Working within the Church was all well and good, but the Catholics could not completely isolate themselves in the city. they shared the city with others, including an enemy, and the enemy held the power. The famine and the influx of Irish did not only swell the ranks of the Catholics and the Greens, it also energized and changed the Orange Lodge.
From the time of 1839 to Confederation in 1867, the Orange Lodge was involved in no less than 29 riots in Toronto. At first the riots were political (some occurring during polling as the Lodge sought to sway the then open voting process), but after the arrival of the famine Irish, sectarian rioting began to occur in Toronto. From 1852 to 1858, Orange and Green clashed in force no less than six times. The Catholics almost always got the worst of it, if not during the fighting, then after the dust settled, for they were the ones who were arrested, charged and convicted. The reason why is simple: the Orange Lodge controlled the police force.
At the time, police were by and large appointed by the elected officials of the city. Most of the city council belonged to the Lodge, including a succession of mayors, who would then appoint other Orange Lodge members to the force, who would then indirectly sway further elections by not doing anything about violence and intimidation by the Lodge on elections days, so more Lodge members were elected, and so on, and so on.
How were Catholics served under this system? I’ll give you two examples:
In 1853 in the city of Hamilton (at the time still a part of the diocese of Toronto) an Orange parade in honour of the Glorious Twelfth of July was interrupted by a mob of Catholic Greens. When the dust settled, a Catholic lay dead on the ground, stabbed. No charges were laid, as it was deemed the Orangemen acted in self-defence.
On March 16, 1858 in Toronto a banquet in honour of St Patrick was broken up by Orangemen, and ended in a serious riot in which D’Arcy McGee, future father of confederation, was assaulted. At the procession the next day an Orange Carter drove his cart into line of march, and in the riot that ensued an Irish Catholic was fatally stabbed. At the trial, Chief of Police Sherman refused to testify against his fellow Lodge member.
In less lethal examples, Irish accounted for 67.3 percent of all arrests in Toronto in 1858. Irish women accounted for 84.4 percent of all female arrests in 1860. At the time, the Irish accounted for 25 percent of the population. In the case of Orange/Green riots, the police could not be counted on to attempt to break up the riots with any sort of impartiality. In fact, they were more likely to join the riot on the side of the Orange, or to stand by and do nothing, and make some arrests later.
The system of policing could not stand in a growing, increasingly sectarian city. Calls were made periodically to reform the system but little was done. As long as it was the Catholics on the receiving end of the corrupt police system, the Protestant majority didn’t much care. But then a pair of very odd riots occurred just weeks apart in 1855 which finally kick started the long needed reform of the police department. This time the Protestants could not ignore the problem nor lay the blame on the Catholics and throw them in jail, because on these two occasions no Catholics were involved.
On the night of June 29th a fire broke out on Church St. Two fire companies responded. In their attempts to put out the blaze, the companies were colliding and getting in each other’s way. Before long, the companies dropped their hoses and began fighting with each other. Constables swooped down to try and separate the companies, but the companies responded by turning on the constables and giving them a sound thrashing. In the fury of the moment, the constables actually arrested several of the firemen and laid charges.
At the trial, however, a curious thing happened. The constables developed amnesia. Their testimony was deliberately scrambled and contradictory. The firemen, I should mention, were also members of the Orange Lodge, and the perception to all the public was that some sort of deal had been reached between the members. Public disgust over the event was considerable, and it was about to increase over one of the most unlikely named events in the city’s history- the Clown Riot.
On July 12th, still in 1855, the Howe Circus from America came to town. On the evening in question, some of the clowns of the circus headed over to Mary-Anne Armstrong’s place of business on King St.- historians call it variously a “speak-easy”, a “house of ill-repute”, a “bordello”, or a “brothel”, of which there were many in Toronto. A fight broke out between one or two of the clowns and local- ah- revellers. Two of the revellers were injured rather badly. They belonged to a Hook and Ladder company of the Fire department.
The next day members of the Hook and Ladder Company went to the circus to find the “Yankee SOB”. Fighting broke out. At first, the Circus defended itself, but then more firemen arrived and the Circus members were forced to flee. The circus tent was pulled down, the wagons overthrown and burned. Police Constables were seen standing by, doing nothing. One of the few who tried to stop some of the rioting was called a “damned Papist” for his efforts. Eventually the Mayor, himself an Orangeman, disgusted with the whole affair, called out the army from Fort York, and they were the ones who dispersed the mob and restored order. Afterwards, the constables were unable to recall seeing any accused rioter at the scene, despite standing only feet away.
Police reform now came into the forefront of municipal politics. Talk began of having police independent of any secret societies. The new force would be more strictly trained, along a military model, and would be free of political patronage. It was to be, in a word, professional. One of the primary elements in their training was to be, not surprisingly, dealing with riots.
The reform was slow and took time, but the first elements were in place by the end of the 1850’s. The new force, consisting of 58 constables, even had 8 Catholics, although they were shut out from the top positions. Chief Constable Sherman was replaced by William Stratton Prince, who lead and trained the early force. Slowly, a new police force began to take shape.
Though not at the centre of the events that really started the reforms of the police, Catholics were very much interested parties in the progress of the Police department. For them a great question hung in the balance: could Catholics in Toronto ever expect fair treatment under the law, by its officers? The answer was not long in coming, as the changed Police department was to be tested severely in the 1870’s, when another set of riots occurred. These riots, unlike the riots that kicked off the reform of the police department, did involve Catholics, and the story of these riots begins, oddly enough, with an ad in a newspaper.