It’s a long story that deserves to be told.
A long time ago, before most of us knew anything about pandemics, social isolation (quarantine) and social distancing, Toronto knew epidemic disease too well. Travellers bought it here: some were sick when they arrived, others appeared healthy but were already infected. But these weren’t tourists or people returning home after a business trip or a holiday oversea. These were what some term “economic refugees”. They were Irish fleeing the Potato Famine, hoping to find food and a home, desperate, some already beginning to starve. There was no Canadian Border Agency to stop them. They had no visas, they just came.
On August 20, 1845, the curator of Dublin’s Botanic Gardens. David Moore, discovered the potato blight Phytophthora. The wind or a careless botanist carried the spores of this American mould (an oocyte, not a fungus) across the Atlantic to Europe. Since potatoes spread vegetatively, the Irish potatoes were genetically alike: clones. Several varieties of potato were grown in Ireland, and the very worst of them — lumpers — were what the peasants ate. With no genetic diversity, the lumper variety that the Irish ate had no resistance to the unknown pathogen. Potato blight withered the foliage in the field, turned the spuds in the ground into a gooey, stinking inedible mass and even rotted the tubers in storage.
The potato was the staple food for poor people across Western Europe by this time. But the Irish poor were particularly reliant on it. Potatoes provide everything except calcium and vitamins A and D, which are readily available from milk, and many Irish families kept a cow and, if a little more prosperous, a pig. A simple diet of potatoes and milk did provide a healthy diet for people with little access to other foods, such as fresh fruits and vegetables.
Potatoes are easy to grow. A large crop can be grown on a tiny plot of land. Few tools are required, just a spade and a pot and a peat fire to cook your spuds on. Potatoes produced more food per acre than any other crop Irish farmers had grown before. They produced more calories per acre. Rye was the only grain that could be depended on to ripen in the short, rainy summers of Northern Europe that extended from the North Sea to the Ural Mountains. Four times as many people could live on potatoes from the same amount of soil that produced rye. Potatoes could be planted in the fallow fields required for the cultivation of rye. One acre could feed eight people. A working man could live on three kilos of potatoes a day, supplemented by milk. He could eat 16 potatoes at a sitting.
Potatoes came to be propagated in lazybeds, a kind of raised row of self-draining potato hills, throughout Ireland. Lazybeds could be prepared on any type of ground regardless of stones, soil quality or even how level it was. The ridges of lazybeds show up on aerial photos of long abandoned fields in Ireland.
The Irish tenant farmer raised a pig not to be eaten but to pay the annual rent. Most tenant farmers sold other crops, such as wheat and oats, to pay the rent. Landlords had grown wealthy exporting these cash crops to England. Food exports continued without slowing throughout the Famine. The British government could have banned the export of grain during the Famine, saving many lives. They didn’t.
Only in Ireland that did the potato became the sole subsistence crop. Disaster struck Ireland in 1846 when a blight struck the potato, robbing the common people of sustenance and hope. In 1846 winter was particularly severe. This was the mid-nineteenth century Little Ice Age. Starving people foraged through snowdrifts for weeds, roots or anything edible. People stole turnips, sheep and goats. Pigs disappeared. Dogs and cats disappeared. People ate nettles and other wild plants in order to survive. Beggars wandered the roads, sleeping in ditches and under bridges, in rags. In the footsteps of famine followed cholera and typhus, sweeping millions of Irish away like a tide sweeps sand off rocks.
“Had only one child or a few children been so afflicted…aid would have been immediately forthcoming from relatives, neighbours, even strangers. But there were thousands of them, and they were everywhere, inside and outside hovels, in the towns and along the roads. They no longer spoke, much less cried; they just stared with a gaunt unmeaning vacancy, a kind of insanity, a stupid, despairing look that asked for nothing, expected nothing, received nothing.”
Nearly 30,000 came Irish came to Canada in 1845. This was more than twice those arriving in 1844.
The blight did not strike again in 1847, but by then many had nothing left. They had sold everything they had for food. They ate their seed potatoes and could not any to plant. In 1848 the blight would strike again.
The landlords were strongly motivated to send their tenant farmers to North America. If a tenant was driven into the Poor House by starvation, the landlord had to pay 12£. The landlord could put a family on a coffin ship for only 6£.
It usually took five to eight weeks to reach North America. But in 1847 late sea ice slowed the trip. Canada was not the destination of choice for most Irish Catholics. They wanted to go the U.S. But, aware of the rising tide of poor and sick Irish, the American government raised a tariff on the immigrant ships and passed a rule making the ship master responsible financially for his immigrant passengers for up to two years. So, the ships headed for Canada.
In 1847, 90,000 Irish landed at Quebec.
Ships anchored in the Gulf of St. Lawrence to drop their passengers at the quarantine station on Grosse Île. Immigrants needed a health certificate in order to go on. “Coffin ships” were hulks (“old tubs”) used in the lumber trade out of Quebec. With holds full of pine, they floated high and were seaworthy. Without lumber they were sieves.
“The fever fleet” with Irish crowded below deck without water, food or toilets. These were the poorest of Ireland’s poor; the workhouse or the landlord paid their fares just to be rid of them. The fare was one or two pounds, but people didn’t have enough food and starved on the way or died of typhus. Many subsisted on “rat stew”. 40,000 died on the ships or shortly after debarking. Their bodies were usually thrown into the sea. Starvation, cholera, typhus and other diseases killed as many as over two million Irish. Most lie in unmarked graves, unrecorded, on the shores of the St. Lawrence, Lake Ontario or in the cities of the Great Lakes, in the lakes or in the sea itself.
Those who governed Canada was not uninformed. They knew by April of 1847, according to an article published in the Quebec City newspaper Le Canadien, that 100,000–possibly 200,000–Irish immigrants would come up the Gulf of the St. Lawrence that year, nearly two months before the first ships arrived. They knew that 28,000 Irish in absolute destitution had embarked from Liverpool and Irish ports. Yet Doctor Douglas, in charge of the quarantine station on Grosse Île, was not given the extra funds he requested. So, on May 4, 1847, he opened up his hospital with his usual staff of just three. Consequently, the hospital and the whole island was swamped by sick immigrants who died in the woods, on the beaches, in sheds and tents, virtually unattended. The Famine did not discriminate. Grosse Ile itself had a Catholic and a Protestant chapel.
The first Irish Memorial on the island can be seen as the boat approaches the island. The Ancient Order of Hibernians put up a 50-foot high Celtic Cross on August 15, 1909, in memory of the Irish buried on Grosse Ile. The base of the cross has inscriptions on 3 sides – in Gaelic, English and French. Both the English and French translations have a less bitter inscription than that of the Gaelic. The Inscription in both French and English read:
...to the sacred memory of thousands of Irish who, in order to preserve their faith, suffered famine and exile, and, victims of typhus, ended their sorrowful pilgrimage here, comforted and strengthened by the Canadian Priests. Those who sow in tears reap in joy.
The Gaelic inscription reads:
Children of the Gael died in their thousands on this island having fled from the laws of the foreign tyrants and an artificial famine in the years 1847-48. God’s loyal blessing upon them. Let this monument be a token to their name and honour from the Gaels of America. God Save Ireland.
The Irish Stone
At Montreal passengers changed to barges and steam ships, stopping to unload dead and dying.
In the centre of a railed-in spot of land at Point St. Charles, within a hundred yards or so of the Victoria Bridge, that wondrous structure which spans the broad St. Lawrence, there is a huge boulder, taken from the bed of the river, and placed on a platform of roughly hewn stone; and on that boulder there is this inscription:
TO Preserve from desecration THE REMAINS OF 6 THOUSAND IMMIGRANTS, Who died of Ship-fever, A.D. 1847-8, This stone is erected by the WORKMEN OF MESSRS. PETO, BRASSEY, and BETTS, Employed in the Construction of the Victoria Bridge, A.D. 1859.
As the immigrants moved up the St. Lawrence and into Lake Ontario, ports along the way tried to hustle them on. Though the Government knew in advance for several months that thousands of destitute Irish were coming, little was done. There was not enough food, beds, doctors, medicine or shelter. Saving money was more important that saving Irish lives, particularly Catholic ones. Lord Grey stressed in a communiqué to Governor General Lord Elgin said: “The importance of enforcing the strictest economy in affording such assistance, if not rigidly guarded, may have the effect of inducing the emigrants to relax in their exertions to provide for themselves.”
The Government only provided a daily ration of three quarters of a pound of bread and meat. A pound of raw beef has about 600 calories. A half pound of whole wheat bread has about 450 calories. Their diet allowed just over 1,000 calories a day. The Government also restricted shelter in the board of health immigrant sheds to a maximum of six days or even less. Many perished who might have lived had politicians and officials provided the extra funding requested by local authorities. Instead, they continuously pushed the immigrants farther up the river to no set destination.
In Toronto, a Roman Catholic bishop did his best to prepare for the looming disaster. In 1841 the Catholic Church divided Upper Canada into two dioceses. Michael Power, an Irish Canadian born in Halifax, became Toronto’s first Catholic bishop. His father was a sailor; his mother kept a boarding house. He and many of his priests and parishioners as well as many other Torontonians prepared themselves to do what they could. Toronto had only 21,000 residents then. 38,560 immigrants were to come to Toronto that year.
The Jane Black was the first famine ship from Ireland to arrive in Toronto. She arrived from Limerick on May 23, 1847.
The Provincial Secretary, Dominic J. Daly, instructed Mayor W.H. Boulton to build hospitals and sheds for the migrants. He promised that the City of Toronto would be reimbursed by the Province of Upper Canada, but Daly also pointed out in his directives, on June 7, that municipalities were responsible for direct aid through their mandated Boards of Health. The Immigrant Sheds or “Fever Sheds” were near the Toronto General Hospital at King and John Streets. Even those who were very sick were only allowed to lie there for 6 days. Then they went to a convalescent home near Bathurst and Front, walked down the roads leading out of Toronto to find work and sustenance or died on the way, lying unburied in fields and under hedges.
Thus began a flood inland. Before June 7, 1847, only 2,592 migrants had landed in Toronto, less than seven percent of the season’s total migrants came to Toronto. By late June 1847, city officials knew that sick migrants were not being landed in Montreal or Kingston (or ports along the way). Instead, they were being passed on to Toronto, which one local described as “a general Lazaretto” or pest house.
On June 8, the City of Toronto landed 700 men, women, and children. Of these 250 (adults) were described as “indigent”; they arrived from Kingston at the “expense of the Government”. Local journalists noted these poorer migrants came from the south and west of Ireland. The adults in “good circumstances” came from Ulster and England.
Those who managed to make it to Toronto had to disembark at Reese’s Wharf, near the foot of Simcoe Street, where the Metro Toronto Convention Centre is now. Edward McElderry, the local Emigration Agent and representative of the Government of the Province of Canada and Constable John B Townsend, the Clerk of the Toronto Board of Health, processed them in a make-shift shed. Simcoe Street docks: the “quay at Toronto was crowded with a throng of dying and diseased abjects; the living and the dead lay huddled together in horrible embrace,” reported The Times of London.
They arrive here to the extent of about 300 to 600 by any steamer. The sick are immediately sent to the hospital which has been given up to them entirely and the healthy are fed and allowed to occupy the Immigrant Sheds for 24 hours; at the expiration of this time, they are obliged to keep moving, their rations are stopped and if they are found begging are imprisoned at once. Means of conveyance are provided by the Corporation to take them off sat once to the country, and they are accordingly carried off “willy-nilly” some 16 or 20 miles, North, South, East and West and quickly put down, leaving the country to support them by giving them employment….It is a great pity we have not some railroads going on, if only to give employment to these thousands of destitute Irish swarming among us. The hospitals contain over 600 and besides the sick and convalescent, we have hundreds of widows and orphans to provide for. — Larratt Smith
No one was immune. When the typhus –ridden ships arrived to disembark refugees from the Potato Famine, clergy including Catholic Bishop Michael Power and Anglican Bishop John Strachan and the rector of Little Trinity19 (who died of fever), doctors, many government officials and volunteers there for them. As the Bishops and other priests bent over to hear every word and administer the Last Rites, the fleas and lice that spread typhus moved from the dying to the living.
A Toronto doctor lamented:
“Victim after victim is offered at the shrine of duty… The physician is compelled almost to exist in an atmosphere highly impregnated with poisonous miasma; and in the discharge of a most but imperious duty, which his obligations forbid him from betraying, in innumerable instances pays for his devotion with his life…. During the imported fatal fever which has ravaged this country, we have had to deplore the decrease of many valued members of the profession.”
As June passed hundreds more immigrants came, and the Board of Health came under heavy pressure to meet the needs of the sick migrants while coming up with money for medicines, beds, and larger buildings. Infectious patients should not be admitted to the General Hospital where they could spread pestilence to Torontonians.
The City passed sanitary regulations to set up Emigrant Sheds to quarantine the victims of typhus and cholera. The Board of Health contracted the building of sheds on the grounds of the General Hospital. They were at first 50×10’ with open-side and with 2 rows of seats, “to protect the emigrants therein from the sun’s rays”. The first in the city, were established at the north-west corner of King and John for cholera. Other sheds were set up near Bathurst (site of Lamborghini dealership) for typhus.
Toronto Board of Health,
ADOPTED BY THE BOARD OF HEALTH,
JUNE 19, 1847.
First—That all Emigrants arriving at this Port by Steamers or other Vessels be landed at the Wharf at the foot of Simcoe-street, commonly known as Dr. Rees’ Wharf, and there only. And the Master of any Steamer or other Vessel violating this Regulation, will subject himself to the penalties prescribed by the City Law in that case, made and provided.
SECOND—That all Emigrants arriving at this Port, at the public charge except only those who come hither to join their friends or connections residing in, or in the immediate neighbourhood of this City, be forwarded to their intended destination by the very first conveyance, by land or water, which the Board of Health or the Emigrant Agent may provide for that purpose. That after the means of conveyance, as aforesaid, shall have been provided for them, no such Emigrants shall be permitted to occupy the Emigrant Sheds, or to receive the Government allowance of provisions, except only in case of sickness of the Emigrant or his family, and except in such special cases as may be sanctioned by the Board of Health.
THIRD—That provision being made for all such Emigrants during their necessary detention in the City, no such Emigrant will be allowed to seek alms or beg in the City, and anyone found doing so, will be immediately arrested and punished according to the City Laws, in such case made and provided.
FOURTH—All Tavern-keepers, Boarding or Lodging—Housekeepers, and other persons having Emigrants staying in their premises, are required to make immediate report to the High Bailiff, or other Officer on duty at the City Hall of any sick person who may be staying in their houses; and any Tavern, Boarding or Lodging-Housekeeper, who shall neglect to make such report of any sick person who may be in their premises, will, upon conviction, be fined conformably to the Law.
FIFTH—That the Medical Officer in charge of the Emigrant Hospital, be required to visit the Emigrant Sheds, morning and evening of each day, for the purpose of examining and removing to the Hospital all sick Emigrants, who may require medical treatment, and that the said officers be also required to visit all Steamers, or other Vessels which may arrive at this Port with Emigrants, immediately on the arrival of such Steamer or other Vessel, for the same purpose as above stated.
Published by Order of the Board of Health, Charles Daly, C.C.C. Clerk’s Office, Toronto, June 19th, 1847.
By the end of June, the Board of Health moved the General Hospital from King and John Streets. Its former buildings became the temporary home of the Emigrant Hospital. On July 9, 1847, the Toronto Mirror newspaper reported:
The state of the emigrants daily becomes worse and worse. On Wednesday, the Steamer Sovereign brought up 1,000 souls. This is a horrible traffic in human blood…what the ultimate results are to be, we shudder to contemplate: but if, in December such an extent of utter want of food prevails, whence is sustenance to come, in May, June and July, and should the potato no longer be looked forward to, as a means of relief? This is a question that should come home to the heart of every man who has a heart.
Forced to leave the City of Toronto, thousands of Irish immigrants spread out east along the Kingston Road, north on Yonge Street and west on Dundas Street. They found whatever help they could on their way. Some found work and stayed in the towns and villages along those roads. Others kept going until many ended up in the U.SA.
The Famine did not discriminate. Michael Power died on October 1, 1847 of typhus. He was 42. His grieving diocese buried him under the altar of St. Michael’s Cathedral, still under construction. In November 1847, Edward McElderry, the emigration agent who had met all incoming Irish refugees at Reese’s Wharf, died of typhus.
The Famine and Black ‘47 changed Toronto and Leslieville forever. By 1851-52 the Irish were Toronto’s largest ethnic group. Toronto had a large Irish Catholic element, but an even larger Irish Protestant contingent.
Many Irish Catholics emigrated to Leslieville during and after the Irish Potato Famine of the 1840s. The Fogartys, Finucans, Flynns, Larkins, Ryans, Hollands, Kavanaughs and others lived between Curzon and Leslie, north of the Kingston Road. Here they had small market gardens or slaughterhouses of their own, but Irish Catholics also took on the jobs no one else wanted. Working people did not put their economic security in “one basket”. The whole family worked at whatever they could find. They laboured for low wages in market gardens, cut ice, fished and did the unskilled jobs in brickyards.
Until 1878, the Catholics of Leslieville walked down to St. Paul’s on Power Street for mass or St. Paul’s sent out priests to celebrate mass in their homes or in the Catholic school. There was only one Catholic graveyard in Toronto: St. Paul’s at Power Street and Queen. Leslieville Catholics buried their dead there until, in 1855 the graveyard at St. Paul’s became too full for even one more body and was closed. And that’s how the bones of Leslieville residents ended up in a schoolyard in Corktown.