This is the story of the Breckles family who came to Canada like so many others did in the early 1900s. Escaping high unemployment and poverty in the industrial cities of Britain, they hoped for better overseas. Toronto was a mecca for many, including the Breckles. Let me be clear here. I am not related to this family nor do I pretend to know intimate details about their lives. This is just the story that the public record tells and I include it because I found that it was interesting both because a Breckles family was one of the first to live on Coady Avenue and because it moved me.
So let the story begin.
When Anthony Breckles was born on January 31, 1854, in Tunbridge Hill, Kent, England, his father, Anthony, was 26 and his mother, Elizabeth, was 25. He spent his early years in Ipswich, Kent, but by the time he was seven the family had moved to Birmingham in the Midlands where his father worked as a laborer.
They lived in the Ladywood, a densely inhabited neighbourhood of it long straight streets of closely packed row housing. Behind the terraces back-to-back houses surrounded grimy courtyards with outdoor privys. Ladywood was to gain the reputation as the poorest place in the United Kingdom. High employment, squalor, deprivation, and high infant mortality were facts of life there. From time to time, cholera epidemics swept through.
By the time he was 17, Anthony Breckles was working as an iron moulder while his father worked as an engineer’s labourer. The family of nine lived in a back-to-back house behind Number 7 Chester Street. About forty men, women and children crammed into six narrow, dark houses and shared three outdoor toilets.
Anthony Breckles married Laura Lee on March 14, 1874 in St. Johns Church, Ladywood. He was 20 years old and worked in a blast furnace. He would spend all of his working life as an iron moulder. Laura Lee was from Hinckley in Leicestershire where my own mother was born. They were married in Ladywood. Their son Thomas William was born in October 17, 1874 in Ladywood. Mary “Minnie” 1876–1949 was born on May 1, 1876, in Ladywood. George was born in February 1880 in Bassingbourn, Cambridgeshire, England. Frederick James (1883-1918) was born on January 28, 1883, in Wednesbury, Staffordshire, eight miles northwest of Birmingham. In 1885 was born in Wednesbury followed by Walter 1888, Arthur 1890, and Lillian 1895 all in Wednesbury, Staffordshire, England.
Anthony Breckles worked as an iron moulder at the enormous Patent Shaft steel works. Their home, 108 Church Hill, was a step up, still a terrace, but bigger and fronting a main road. In 1901 son Thomas was working as a gasfitter. The Breckles had seven more children. In 1901, they were still living in the same house and Anthony was still at the Patent Shaft works where he was joined by sons George and Frederick. George worked as a puddler while Fred was a laborer in the tube works.
On April 29, 1903 Anthony Breckles and Laura Lee, both 49, and Walter (13), Arthur (11) and Lillian (9) boarded the S.S. Kensington of the Dominion Line, bound from Liverpool to Quebec. Anthony was ostensibly immigrating to Canada as a farmer, though he had never worked on the land. Farm labour was in demand in Canada so “farmer” he was. Their son Thomas William was already in Toronto, living at 148 Carlaw, just above Eastern Avenue and working as a butcher. He and brother Fred would open a retail butcher shop at 692 Queen Street East next to the Broadview Hotel around 1909. Anthony also became a butcher and worked in a shop on Gerrard Street East.
In September 1903 a Toronto court granted an injunction against the strikers of the Iron Moulders Union at the Canada Foundry. Anthony Breckles had attempted to prevent strike breakers from crossing the picket line at the plant on the west side of Lansdowne Avenue just north of the CP rail line. Globe, Sep 7, 1903.
In 1904 the family was living at 163 Pape Avenue. Anthony was still working as an iron moulder. Amy was working as a clerk. Arthur was an apprentice. Fred was a labourer. George was a trackman for the Toronto Street Railway, the privately-owned streetcar company. In 1910 Anthony Breckles was at 267 Booth Avenue.
Son Walter was still at home working as a tinsmith. In 1911 Frederick James Breckles lived at 1 Coady Avenue and working in the butcher shop at 692 Queen Street East. By this time his father was suffering the effects of diabetes.
By the time of the census in 1911, the Anthony Breckles and his family had moved to 106 Galt Avenue. Anthony was working as a labourer in a factory specializing in making wheels while sons Walter and Arthur were working as tinsmiths. All the men worked 50 hours a week. Anthony earned $450 a year while son Walter earned 500 and Arthur 550. Daughter Lillian worked at home as a dressmaker.
His wife Laura passed away on September 17, 1915, in the family home on Galt Avenue at the age of 61. They had been married 41 years.
Anthony Breckles went into a diabetic coma and died on November 22, 1917, at 51 Belmont Street, Toronto, York, Ontario, at the age of 63, four years before Banting and Best discovered insulin. He lived long enough to see son Arthur marry Louise Powell on the 13th of June 1916 in a ceremony held at the Pape Avenue Baptist Church. Arthur was working in a munitions plant. He and his young bride lived at 62 Jones Avenue.
More to come…
From Tremaine’s Map of the County of York, 1860
It is sometimes difficult to trace the origins of street names. Clearly most Leslieville streets were named after families who lived here or after the builders who put up the houses on the street. Only a few, such as Eastern Avenue, are more or less self-explanatory. Moreover, street names changed over time. Doel became Dundas; Kingston Road became Queen Street, etc. Street names were changed because citizens requested it (as with Erie Terrace with became Craven Road) or because amalgamation with the City of Toronto led to confusing duplication of street names. A number of streets in the newly annexed areas had the same names as streets in the old City of Toronto so those streets were renamed.
Street naming went through fads and suffered at the whim of politicians. In 1905, the City of Toronto’s Street Naming Sub-Committee (all aldermen) wanted all new streets…
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Although large operations like those of Joseph Russell and John Price with heavy machinery dominated the industry by the time Riverdale Collegiate was built, small operations like this still continued using methods that had changed little since the Middle Ages.
The horse is working the first type of machine that was introduced to the brick industry — in the 1850’s. The horse walks around and around that beaten track, pulling that big piece of timber which turns a grinding wheel. The machine, a pug mill, grinds the clumps of clay into a powder. The brick moulder mixes it with water and sand and pushes it into a wooden mould (in his hands). He then dumps it onto the ground to dry in the sun.
The figure to his right is a young boy, probably his son. Often the women and younger children worked with the father but by this time it was not socially acceptable so they don’t appear in the photo. The children did much of the heaviest labour.
The green is the richest clay and the best for bricks. It was found near the surface south of Gerrard Street and along the creeks, including Hastings Creek. Between Gerrard Street and the railway tracks the deposits were covered with sand but still not far below the surface. But north of the railway tracks the deposits were deeper. Brickmakers used steam shovels to dig through the sand to get at the good clay, but when they had used that up, they dynamited the shale (gray in the illustration) and made it into bricks.
There is an urban legend that Myrtle, Ivy and Harriet Streets were named after local women (true) who argued so much that they could never meet so the streets don’t meet (not true). The deep ravine called “the Devil’s Hollow” had more to do with keeping the streets from meeting. The women were all members of local brickmaking families who actually seemed to have got along quite well.
Canada’s immigration policy was openly racist and specifically sought white Scottish, Irish and English immigrants to counter the feared “Yellow Peril” — immigration from China and, to a lesser degree, Japan. This is clearly and, none to subtly, reflected in the poem below. John Wilson Bengough (1851-1923) was one of Canada’s leading cartoonists.
British immigrants crossing the “Bridge of Tears” over the railway tracks at Union Station around 1911. It was called this because here people said goodbye to loved ones or cried because they had left everything they had to gamble on a new start in a new country. Everything they own is in their hands.
Most came in family groups like this. Mother has baby in her arms. Dad is at the back. Two teens carry the luggage and grandmother is at the back carrying another child. The grinning child on the right reflects the hope they had, but others don’t look so enthralled with Toronto.
At the same time that a Shacktown was growing outside the city, families like the Andersons built brick and brick-fronted houses like these west of Greenwood Avenue. The City of Toronto imposed stricter building requirements due to the danger of fire. The so-called “Fire Limits” required brick construction at least on the street facade and fire resistant cladding on the other walls. Much of that cladding was Insulbrick, a kind of asphalt impregnated with asbestos. There is still a lot of that material around, often covered with newer aluminum siding.
The Andersons, professional builders from Scotland, preferred to build solid brick, sturdy houses, like these three. Many of those still stand today near Riverdale Collegiate. (Photos courtesy of Guy Anderson)
After 1905 a Shacktown developed east of Greenwood Avenue on land that was still outside of the limits of the City of Toronto. A flood of impoverished British immigrants arrived here to start new lives only to find that while jobs were available (at least at first), there was no housing for them. So they bought lots at around $5 to $10 a foot of frontage and scrounged bits of lumber, old crates, tarpaper, tin and whatever could use to create their own homes. These are on Coxwell Avenue.
December 22, 1919 Boys playing hockey on Hastings Creek. Hastings Creek crossed the Danforth just east of Jones and cut a ravine at Ravina Crescent in “The Pocket” and another gully, known as the “Devil’s Hollow” between Jones & Greenwood.
The creek continued south through the Hastings’ farm (Hastings Avenue to Alton Avenue) and across where Greenwood Park is to enter Ashbridge’s Bay between Leslie Street and Laing Street. The City filled the ravine in a number of times and finally buried the creek in the sewer system in the early 1920’s.
A staff member at the East End Garden Centre recalled when her grandfather caught fish in this pond. Others have told me of their grandparents tobogganing down the hill or skating on the pond.
Cattle and pigs were driven along roads leading into Leslieville from very early in the 19th century. The men and boys who managed the cattle en route were called “drovers”. Later they were brought in by train. When they reached Leslieville the animals were let loose to graze on the nutritious meadow grasses along Ashbridge’s Bay.
Some were even fed on the leftovers from the Gooderham Worts Distillery. Then they were slaughtered by butchers in the many abattoirs that were feature of Leslieville’s economy. Of the cattle that were fed on whisky mash, it is said that they died happy.
This is looking west along Jones Avenue just north of Riverdale Collegiate. Heavy industry lined the track, including a pork packinghouse on the west side of Jones where pigs where slaughtered. The stench was incredible especially on hot days, making nearby houses and the high school even more uncomfortable in the days before air conditioning,
Did you ever wonder what was here in days gone by? Who lived here? What buildings stood here? Why did they build here?
This picture shows Riverdale Collegiate on the far hill on December 22, 1919. We are looking from Prust Ave. Landfill with large concrete rubble fills the ravine in the immediate foreground. The new Hastings Avenue lies in the mid-ground and just west of it, hidden from sight, is Hastings Creek. On the slope immediately east of Leslie Street is an orchard with an apple storage barn (cold storage).
Lucius O’Brien, Among the Islands of Georgian Bay, watercolour, 1886. This painting depicts Anishnaabe families similar to the Mississauga people whose traditional territory included the site of Riverdale Collegiate. The Mississauga are a group within the larger Anishnaabe (also known as Chippewa or Ojibway people).
When the first white settlers came to the area around Jones and Gerrard the Kichigo family of Mississaugas helped them adapt to life here, welcoming them and sharing food and medicine. Many native people still live in Leslieville.
For more about the Mississauga of the New Credit First Nation go to: http://www.newcreditfirstnation2015.com/community-profile/
Lieut. Governor John Graves Simcoe granted large parcels of land to people who supported the government of Upper Canada. Most of these did not actually settle on the land but held it as an investment, hoping to subdivide it later for sale. Riverdale Collegiate lies in Lot #11 which was granted to United Empire Loyalist Benjamin Mosely. (Mosely Street is named for him.) The writer of this article, Joanne Doucette, is herself a United Empire Loyalist being a direct descendant of Capt. Matthew Hawley of Connecticut.
For more about United Empire Loyalists go to http://www.uelac.org/
George Leslie attributed to John McPherson Ross ca 1907. George Leslie (1804-1893) was the founder of the small community that grew up around the corners of Leslie Street (named for him) and Queen Street East (then known as Kingston Road).
Leslie was a market gardener whose Toronto Nurseries became the largest tree-growing business in Canada in the 19th century. He was a public school trustee and a strong advocate for free education for everyone. His market garden was between Queen Street and Ashbridge’s Bay (south of Eastern Avenue) and Leslie Street and Caroline Avenue (named after his first wife Caroline Davis).
His home was at the northeast corner of Queen and Jones and Leslie Grove Park is the northern part of his arboretum and site of his greenhouses.
Below 1868 Gehle, Fawkes & Hassard: Reconnaissance Sketches of Toronto Area.
This map was prepared by British army officers in order to secure Toronto in case the Fenians attacked the city. The curved line across the map is what is now the GO Train line (CNR) but was then the Grand Trunk Railway line, the first rail connection between Montreal and Toronto.
The note “brickfield” is just west of what is now Jones Avenue. Gerrard Street doesn’t exist yet but a faint line of dashes just below “Nursery Grounds” on the right of the map marks where the street will be in the future. The school marked on the map is the Leslie Street school still on that location today. The north-south street west of Jones is Pape Avenue and to the west of that is Logan Avenue. Mill Road is now Broadview Avenue. It was originally an indigenous trail.
The creek immediately to the east of Riverdale College (forked creek on the map) was Hastings Creek flowing through the Nathaniel Hastings farm. The other creek on the map was Leslie Creek and it began in springs just south of Danforth Avenue. Both creeks entered Ashbridge’s Bay where the Loblaws parking lot is at Eastern Avenue and Leslie Street.
Rembler Paul (1832-1916) was George Leslie’s brother-in-law, married to Elizabeth Davis (1831-1914). Rembler Paul was an English veterinarian, horse dealer and real estate agent. Gerrard Street East was originally called “Rembler’s Way” or “Rambler’s Way” after Rembler Paul.
George Leslie’s first wife, Caroline Davis (1820-1852), and her sister were the daughters of one of Toronto’s first police officers. (Both loved animals and are buried in a tomb on a mountain top in British Columbia along with the family cat.)
for more about Rembler Paul and Elizabeth Davis:
Leslieville showing Gerrard Street East (Late Ramblers Rd.) at top of map. Detail from Goads Atlas 1890 Plate 47
The Bicycling World and Motorcycle Review, 1915