Gerrard Ashdale Library

North & South Riverdale/Beaches/Street signs. - 1970-1989Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted.

Albert Einstein

Today governments and politicians tend to evaluate success by measurable outcomes: things that definitely can be counted like the number of books circulated or how much it costs to pay staff. They miss things that cannot be counted like a neighbourhood’s quality of life or its spirit. At the same time as we, today, become obsessed with statistics, we also tend to assume that what we have now is inevitable or just somehow happened naturally. Roads, sewers, police cars, fire trucks, schools and, yes, libraries are all part of our urban landscape that we take for granted. Yet even the most basic of research soon shows that nothing can be taken for granted. Every single public service we have today began somewhere at some time and was fought for, paid for and treasured.  So it is with our Ashdale Gerrard community’s library. Nothing is to be taken for granted.

If we want to retain what we value, it is vital to give an accounting of how it came to be.  Local history is for me an exploration of how things I see around me came to be. I start with a specific focus and then research and bring the findings back to you, that community, in one form or another. In another age, it might have been a hard cover book. Today it is in this on-line format. Such a history is essentially storytelling, however rooted in facts. It is not just about dates although dates are important. History has traditionally ignored the little places and the little people, focusing on leaders and mega-history, the great events of war and empire. As such, we are lost in it and most of us become invisible and our values and struggles forgotten.  But I would contend that the greatest things in life, as in history, come about through the efforts and caring of individuals and families, ordinary people who through their lives create extraordinary things like inclusive communities, literacy, human rights and libraries. History must finally account for these. This is just such an accounting: of how the Gerrard-Ashdale Library came to be.


But first, let’s follow the early history of the Toronto Public Library, the parent of our Gerrard-Ashdale Branch. When Toronto began there were no public libraries. Mechanics’ institutes, school-district libraries, and association or social libraries served this need before the public libraries began.

York Mechanics' Institute. Courtesy of the Toronto Public Library Digital Archive
York Mechanics’ Institute. Courtesy of the Toronto Public Library Digital Archive.

In 1832, two years before Toronto became a City, a committee of men formed the York Mechanics’ Institute. Its purpose was to provide public lectures to educate Toronto’s citizens and a lending library for its members. The 434 books that had been the lending library of the Mechanics’ Institute constituted the first collection of the Toronto Public Library (TPL). In 1834 the Town of York became the City of Toronto and the York Mechanics Institute became the Toronto Mechanics’ Institute.

Before 1850 very few people could read and write, books were expensive, and most people worked in jobs, like farming or labouring, that did not require them to know how to read and write. Literacy increased after the 1850s. Public schools were established across Ontario and teaching was professionalized with the founding of “normal schools”.  Fostered by free public schools, reading, once the preserve of the elite, was now for everyone. Cheap paper made from wood pulp made printing books cheaper than ever before. The pocket novel, the “Penny dreadful” and the so-called “Yellow press” popularized reading for all classes of people as cheap books became available. As the industrialization of work and the growth of large urban centres drew rural Canadians to the big cities, reading became a necessary skill for many.  Middle class men and women needed to be able to read to get ahead, as did many working class people, especially those in the trades. The demand for schools and the demand for libraries went hand in hand.

John Hallam, no date. Toronto Public Library.
John Hallam, no date. Toronto Public Library.

When more and more ordinary people knew how to read and write, they wanted books for themselves and their children. By the 1870s people began calling for free libraries, paid for by taxes and run by municipalities. Most public libraries began with the support of their communities and the fruits of a library movement, usually championed by one or more local politicians; and funded with gifts of money and books from private collections.

In 1882, Ontario passed the Free Libraries Act, after a vigorous lobbying campaign spearheaded by Toronto Alderman John Hallam, the first Chair of the Toronto Public Library (TPL) Board. The next year, on January 1, 1883, Toronto’s citizens voted in favour of a referendum for a free public library passed. The Toronto Public Library was one of the first libraries in Canada to choose to be a free library. It was the largest of Canada’s free libraries. This was a New Year’s resolution that would truly last.

In 1883 James Bain was appointed as Toronto’s first chief librarian. James Bain was born in London, England on August 2, 1842. In 1846 his family came to Toronto. In 1856 he began working for his father, a bookseller and stationer. He worked there until 1866 when he began working for James Campbell and Son, booksellers. He visited England as a buyer until 1874 when he opened a branch of this store in London. He worked there until 1878 when he joined John Nimmo and Son, publishers, in London. The business went on under the name of Nimmo and Bain until 1882 when the partnership broke up and Bain returned to Toronto where he soon took up his position as Chief Librarian. He was himself “an insatiable reader”. He went back to London shortly after he became Chief Librarian on a buyer’s trip to purchase books.

Portrait of James Bain, D.C.L. (1909)Public Domain Special Collections Toronto Public Library from Toronto, Canada
James Bain, 1909. Toronto Public Library.

On March 6, 1884, the Toronto Public Library officially opened. It was housed in the former Mechanics’ Institute at Church and Richmond Streets.  Before the Library opened, the Mechanics’ Institute had functioned in many ways like a public library. It circulated about 28,000 books in the last year of its existence. The first year of the Public Library saw an increase to 170,000 books circulated. Two branches, the Northern and Western, opened within the first year.

The demand for books was enormous and the new Library could barely keep up. In 1887, 540,000 books circulated. That year the Library was extensively renovated to accommodate the increased circulation (Daily Mail and Empire, May 15, 1887).

In 1888, the Chair of the Toronto Public Library Board of Management was James Mason, a founder of the Canadian Institute, veteran wounded at the Battle of Batoche, prominent banker and Brigadier General. By 1888, 48,000 books were on TPL shelves as well as magazines, reviews and journals. At that time, the Library Board focused on buying rare, expensive technical books. Books had to be of educational value. “No books of a controversial nature are admitted to the Library list; but all books free of this taint, and not irreligious, are acceptable.”

Very few Catholic books were on the shelves, hardly surprising given the nature of the Board and indeed all public institutions in Toronto at that time. Toronto’s politics were very much controlled by Orangemen who could claim victory at the Battle of the Boyne over Irish Catholics and at Batoche over Canadian Catholics. According to the Irish Canadian, “It has been stated that Catholic works are very scarce in the Public Library, owing to a constitutional dislike of them by a majority of the Management”. Although the editor of this newspaper called on readers to submit lists of good Catholic books to the Board, it is unlikely that many Catholic books appeared on Library shelves until at least 20 years later. Toronto was not an inclusive place although large minorities of Catholics, Jews and others did exist  (The Irish Canadian, March 1, 1888).Parading on KingThe City was reluctant to fund the collections then just as it was when I was Chair of the Toronto Public Library Board. (In the late 1980s, I served as a Trustee and became Chair of the Toronto Public Library Board.  During this period I was also participated in the Ontario Library Strategic Plan.) Initially, the Toronto Public Library planned on having one central branch and three district branches: the Western, Northern and Eastern Branches. However, the Library could not grow or even meet the needs of its existing users at the end of the nineteenth century because municipal politicians were reluctant to fund the public library and fulfil their obligations.  The City of Toronto chopped its operating grant to the Toronto Public Library in 1899 “leaving the board without sufficient funds to properly maintain the library and its branches” (Daily Mail and Empire, January 31, 1899). In 1900, the Toronto Public Library took the unprecedented step of suing the City for funding — and won.

The timing was right because soon people demanded libraries, not just downtown, but in their neighbourhood. Before 1900 there was a very different view of government and the role it was supposed to play in daily life. There was little sense that a City government was there to provide anything more than the most basic of necessities:  roads (generally bad), public transportation (grudgingly), water (not always clean), sewers (belatedly), and police and fire protection, at the lowest possible cost. For everything else the individual and possibly family were deemed responsible.

Photographer, Unknown, 1901?. Inscribed in pencil, mount vso: Bolton Ave. Reproduced in T.P.L. Annual Report for 1900, following p. 18. Called Riverdale Branch 1909-1910. Public Domain Available on line at
Photographer, Unknown, c. 1901.  Reproduced in Toronto Public Library Annual Report for 1900, following p. 18. Called Riverdale Branch 1909-1910. Public Domain.

The first Toronto Public Library branch east of the Don was in Riverside, just west of Leslieville. It owed its existence to public demand and the lobbying of a local businessman and leading member of the Masonic Lodge, William B. Poulton.

In 1888 Poulton, with the assistance of some local men, tore down an old brick house next to the Poulton Block. The Poulton Block, designed by Kennedy, Gaviller and Holland, was home to a Masonic Hall, at the corner of Queen Street East and Bolton Avenue. Poulton put up a new building adjoined to the Masonic Hall in the same Gothic Revival style. This new building became the home for Toronto Public Library’s first branch “over the Don”. The branch was just north of Queen Street East on the west side of Boulton Avenue. The Globe commented, “This is a step in the right direction, as many who patronize the Free Library have to travel all the way to Church street to secure their books” (Globe, July 18, 1888).

This prominent building was constructed for William B. Poulton, a painter and a Mason, primarily for use by the Masonic Orient Lodge. The block was designed by Kennedy, Gaviller & Holland, Architects, in Gothic Revival style. Early occupants of the ground-floor shops included a druggist and a bank. The third floor, marked by Moorish window arches, served as ‘Orient Hall’ until 1912. From 1888 to 1910, the Toronto Public Library’s ‘Eastern Branch’, its first branch east of the Don River, was located in rooms at the back of the building.

2007 Heritage Toronto Plaque

The Eastern Branch of the Toronto Public Library was the only branch east of the Don until 1910 when a Carnegie grant funded the new Riverdale Branch at Broadview and Queen Street East.

City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1244, Item 102. William James photographer. A British immigrant family standing on “The Bridge of Sighs”, the pedestrian bridge crossing the many rail lines at Toronto’s Union Station.
City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1244, Item 102. William James photographer, courtesy of the City of Toronto Archives.  A British immigrant family standing on “The Bridge of Sighs”, the pedestrian bridge crossing the many rail lines at Toronto’s Union Station.

The period from 1900 to 1910 was a time of great hopes and dreams for the working class immigrants that peopled the new suburbs springing up on Toronto’s outskirts. For most this was the first time they’d been able to buy their own homes, however humble they might have been.  Most men had relatively good jobs in a growing economy. For most they could really believe that they had a chance to get ahead.  If all their dreams could not be lived in their life time, they expected that the lives of their children would continue to improve through education and hard work – the proverbial “elbow grease”. This was a time when the belief in progress permeated all levels of society. They expected good schools and libraries so that they and their children “could get ahead”.

Davis & Sanford, N.Y. "Andrew Carnegie, Three-Quarter Length Portrait, Standing Behind Chair, Facing Front." ca. 1905. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress (USA).
Davis & Sanford, N.Y. “Andrew Carnegie, Three-Quarter Length Portrait, Standing Behind Chair, Facing Front.” ca. 1905. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress (USA).

They were not alone in their aspirations, but had the richest man in the world on their side. Andrew Carnegie epitomized the belief that a man could, through hard work, pull himself “up by the bootstraps” to become a success. Carnegie was born in Scotland in poverty. His family sailed to America and he became enormously wealthy through manufacturing steel.

Carnegie attributed his success not just to his own work ethic. A kind gentleman, seeing young Carnegie’s hunger for learning and his efforts to educate himself, gave the poor lad access to his private library.  This was a gift that Andrew Carnegie never forgot and he started to give most of his money away in 1901, after he sold his steel company to J. P. Morgan for $500 million. He retired and devoted his life to giving others the opportunity to read that he had enjoyed. Carnegie had an immeasurable influence on the public library movement. He put his fortune to work by giving it away to build new libraries, branch libraries to expand collections and services across North America.

On January 23, 1903, Andrew Carnegie pledged to give money to the Toronto Public Library to construct four new library buildings.  Andrew Carnegie’s deal was not without strings attached: the city politicians would have to pay their share too. If the City would guarantee annual funding of $35,000.00, he would match it with a grant to build a central library and three new branches. The City accepted. With the 1903 grant, the Toronto Public Library opened a new central library in 1909 and three branches: Northern (Yorkville, 1907), Western (Queen and Lisgar, 1909) and a new Eastern Branch (Riverdale, 1910).  This branch library for Riverdale was built on jail property at the north-west corner of Broadview and Gerrard. Aldermen Hilton and Chisholm had lobbied the Board of Control for the property for the Carnegie public library for some time (Toronto Star, March 16, 1909).

Riverdale Library, formerly known as the Eastern Branch Library
Riverdale Library.

On May 8, 1908, Andrew Carnegie had committed a second grant of $50,000 to build two more branches of the Toronto Public Library. However, on May 22, 1908, Chief Librarian James Bain died of cancer at his Brunswick Avenue home.

George H. Locke. Courtesy of the Toronto Public Library Digital Collections.
George H. Locke. Toronto Public Library.

The new Chief Librarian was George H. Locke. He was born in Beamsville, Ontario, on March 29, 1870, the son of a Methodist minister, and graduated from Victoria College, the University of Toronto with a B.A in 1893, and a Masters in 1896. Locke studied in the United States and became a professor at Harvard and the University of Chicago. He was editor of the School Review from 1900 to 1906. He returned to Canada to become dean of education at College Ste. Anne de Bellevue, Quebec. On James Bain’s death in 1908, Locke was appointed Toronto’s Chief Librarian.

There was no love lost between Locke and some of the senior TPL administrators and there was a large turnover in senior management. With the subsequent departure of upper management personnel, the plans for the new branches were shelved for several years.

Change was inevitable. Libraries were no longer just for adults. After 1908 the Toronto Public Library, under George H. Locke, introduced children’s departments. As well, the days when a library user had to ask a librarian to get a book from “the stacks” were over as open access to most collections became the norm. Standard cataloguing and classification systems, namely the famous “Dewey decimal system”, made it easier than ever before to find books on the shelves.

George Locke had a different vision of TPL’s future. He wanted more than just the new central library on College Street, the old Mechanics’ Institute on Church Street, and district libraries (Northern, Western and Eastern). Locke wanted branches in neighbourhoods across the City, close to where people lived and accessible to everyone. Between 1907 and 1916 ten Toronto Public Library branches opened in Toronto. These branches were funded by Carnegie grants totalling $487,500. Due to the turnover in senior management, TPL had to reapply to the Carnegie Corporation of New York, the private philanthropic foundation succeeded Carnegie’s personal giving in 1911. The Toronto Public Library did not receive the second grant until February 6, 1915.

These “forgotten” Carnegie grants funded three “triplet” branches, almost identical buildings: Beaches, High Park and Wychwood, all opened in 1916. Seven of these Carnegie libraries are still in operation today though modified and updated to meet the changing needs of Toronto’s library users. The seven Carnegie libraries include: Yorkville, Annette Street (formerly the Western Branch), Riverdale, Weston, Wychwood, High Park and Beaches.

Beaches Branch, Toronto Public Libary. Coutesy of the Toronto Public Library.
The earlier branches were in the Beaux Arts style, like miniature Renaissance palaces; the later branches reflected the Arts and Craft movement, resembling Tudor or Elizabethan manor houses.



Typical English slum demolished c. 1913
English slum demolished c. 1913

The Ashdale-Gerrard neighbourhood began at a time of great expectations. There was an economic depression in Britain just before World War One, following on an earlier depression in the 1890s. Unemployment soared and the big industrialized cities of Britain had high levels of poverty. The future looked bleak for many working class people in places like Belfast, Glasgow, Birmingham, Sheffield, Manchester, Leeds and other manufacturing centres.

Governments and private charities sponsored immigration so that Britons could move to Canada where there was hope for a better future. The British Bonus underwrote the cost of a boat trip to Canada, enabling many to escape poverty at home by going “to the Colonies”. A flood of immigrants to Canada from the big cities of Britain poured into Canada, and especially into Toronto, creating a housing boom and providing labour for the growing manufacturing sector here.

British immigrants, Toronto, c. 1911. William James collection, City of Toronto Archives.
British immigrants, Toronto, c. 1911.

These immigrants usually came as families, as immigrants still do today. Often a father, son or brother came first and a year or two later the rest of the family. Thus extended families of several generations landed at the docks or Union Station.

When asked, “Why did you come to Canada?” They often replied, “To better myself”. They wanted and found better jobs, better homes and better education for themselves and their children. For most it was a life of hard work in the factories and plants along Carlaw and Eastern Avenue and the new manufacturing district (now known as “the Portlands”) that was created by Toronto Harbour Commission when they filled in Ashbridges Bay.

Eviction, c. 1919.

Most of these families were incredibly frugal by today’s standards, saving so that they could own their own homes and forever be safe from the fear of eviction. Eviction and homelessness were only one or two pay cheques away for many poor families of the time. Owning your own home was the golden grail for the first generation of immigrants to Toronto. Suburbs like the Gerrard-Ashdale neighbourhood made that dream a possibility.

Tent interior. September 6, 1912.

In 1884 the east side of Greenwood Avenue and the land west of it to Danforth Avenue were incorporated into the City of Toronto along with a narrow strip running along the north side of Queen Street to the Beach. The Ashbridges family passed down portions of the original estate to various descendents so that the original estate was subdivided into smaller farms. As a result, narrow strips of farm fields ran north-south from Queen Street up to the Danforth Avenue. They are clearly visible on this map, lying east of Morley Avenue (later re-named Woodfield Road) to Coxwell Avenue. The farmers used deeply rutted, narrow farm lanes to drive their farm equipment onto these fields. These farm lanes ran beside the fences at the boundaries of the properties.

1903 Goad's Atlas.
1903 Goad’s Atlas, Plate 50.

Goad’s Atlas, 1903, Plate 50, shows the Gerrard-Ashdale neighbourhood before it was developed. The Ashbridge estate stretched from Queen Street to Danforth Avenue with Ashbridges Creek flowing through it down to Ashbridge’s Bay.

Top picture courtesy of the Toronto Public Library Digitial Collections. Bottom photo 2012 by Julia Patterson.
Top City of Toronto Archives. Bottom J. Patterson.

Hastings Creek can be seen on the map. It flowed south from near Danforth Avenue, through a culvert under the Grand Trunk Railway line, to disappear into the brick pits north of Gerrard just east of Hastings Avenue. This creek dug a deep gully here. The remnants still can be seen west of Prust Avenue, along Harriet, Myrtle and Ivy.

There is an urban myth that these three streets were named after three women of the neighbourhood who quarreled loud and long so that even the streets named after them could never meet. However, the gully of Hastings Creek, deepened even more by brickmakers quarrying for clay, is a better, if more boring, explanation.

The gully came to be known as “The Devil’s Hollow” or “The Devil’s Hole”, perhaps because the teams of horses hauling goods along Gerrard Street East (formerly Rembler’s Road) had a “devil of a time” getting up and down the incline (later the site of a fatal streetcar accident due to brake failure). The Devil’s Hollow may also have gained its satanic reputation from ghostly figures formed by marsh gas (methane) seeping from natural pockets in the soil and rock beneath. The big green gas ventilation pipes at the corner of Alton Avenue and Greenwood Avenue remain today as silent reminders of the presence of this gas.

East of Coxwell Avenue, Goad's Map, 1903.
East of Coxwell Ave., Goad’s Map, 1903.

East of Coxwell Avenue the farmlands were mostly undeveloped in 1903 with some housing along Edgewood Avenue and Kingston Road, to the east of Small’s Pond. Small’s Creek is clearly visible, running down from the Grand Trunk Railway line (now the CNR) to cross Upper Gerrard and empty into Small’s Pond.

The large block of land south of the railway line, east of Coxwell Avenue to about what is now Eastwood Road and Bowmore Road belonged to the Toronto Golf Club and was one of Canada’s first golf courses. The clubhouse was on Gainsborough Road, north of Upper Gerrard Street, and sat high up overlooking the valley below, with views to the lake.

Wellington Ashbridge sold the family estate and it was broken up into lots from 1907 to 1909. New homes had been springing up on the farm fields just outside of the City of Toronto in the Township of York since the 1890s when the area just west of Coxwell Avenue was developed. A long narrow north-south street, Erie Terrace, was developed for low income people with tiny lots. This was the first subdivision in the Gerrard-Ashdale neighbourhood. Therefore, after 1907 when the Ashbridge Estate was subdivided, the area had a real mix of housing and of residents.

Some houses were neat, little bungalows built from plans or kits and others were substantial, larger houses called “villas” in the real estate lingo of the day. However, many others were tiny houses, put together out of tar paper, discarded lumber, cardboard and whatever else the owner/builder could scrounge. The area gained an unenviable reputation as a “Shacktown”, lawless, without services, poor, outside of the City of Toronto. A 1907 advertisement captured the essence of Erie Terrace, offering cheap land and wood to build with:

$10 A FOOT—Erie Terrace, 100 feet north of Gerrard street cars, no money down, lumber supplied to build. David, 75 Adelaide east. (Toronto Star, Dec. 21, 1907).

Realtors sold lots, advertising that they were safe and secure from eviction in hard times, affordable and accessible by street car:

Our Sub-Divisions For Home Sites.

Our east end sub-division, including lots in Gerrard Street, Morley Avenue, Hiawatha Road, and Ashdale Ave., and several other streets in this location, at from $3 to $15 a foot, present exceptional bargains. We will sell the lots on easy terms, or for $15 down we’ll give a deed to a lot. You will find salesman at our sub-division office, corner of Woodward Avenue and Queen Street, daily from 1 p.m. to 5p.m. …


When you buy a lot from us on our instalment plan it’s YOURS.  You may put a shack on it; you may pitch a tent on it; you may live on it. You are assured of the most liberal treatment, and you’ll live to bless the day that you determined to cease paying profits and tributes to landlords. We are offering you delightful home sites in all parts of Toronto, so you had better come and get acquainted with our plan of providing you a home by the simplest, easiest means. Robins, Ltd. 22 Adelaide Street East North-easterly corner of Victoria Street. Office Open Every Evening This Week.  (Toronto Star, Thursday, April 2, 1908)

Ashdale Avenue, Sept. 20, 1910. Showing a "villa" under construction (left) shacks (center) and a bungalow (right). Courtesy of the City of Toronto Archives.
Ashdale Ave., Sept. 20, 1910. A “villa” under construction (left) shacks (center) and a bungalow (right).
Riverdale Gardens
Toronto Star, May 21, 1910
Toronto Star, March 4, 1908
Toronto Star, March 4, 1908

Small subdivisions sprang up on the Toronto Golf Club lands to the east, Monarch Park to the north, and Riverdale Gardens to the west.

The community around Gerrard and Ashdale was known by a number of names:  “Roden community” after the neighbourhood elementary school; “Midway” because it was mid way between the Village of East Toronto and the City of Toronto; “Shacktown” for the tiny owner-built houses that first went up on the farm land sold by the Ashbridges; and, much later, part of it became “Little India” for the South Asian bazaar.

The Toronto Sunday World, April 19, 1913 Monarch Park
The Toronto Sunday World, April 19, 1913 Monarch Park

Initially these new suburbs were in the Township of York and outside of the City of Toronto itself. They had almost no services at first:  no running water, but only wells (soon badly polluted); no sanitary sewers, only outhouses (whose material seeped into the sandy soil to contaminate the groundwater); no regular police patrols; no fire services; no building inspectors and no public health inspectors either.

When the numbers of people living there were low this was acceptable. After all people had moved “outside the bounds” into rural York Township because they could afford the cheap building lots and the low taxes. But the taxes were low and the lots cheap because there were no services and the Township of York, a farming community, was unable and/or unwilling to provide services to the newcomers.

Toronto Star, Oct. 25, 1912
Toronto Star, Oct. 25, 1912
Rhodes Avenue Presbyterian Church Ladies Aid group, 1909. Courtesy of the Toronto Public Library Digital Collections.
Rhodes Avenue Presbyterian Church Ladies Aid group, 1909. Toronto Public Library

Virtually the first services to come to the area were the churches. New churches sprung up in the new subdivisions.

Bloor St. Presbyterian Church sponsored a small congregation that began meeting in a tent at the corner of Gerrard Street East and Reid Avenue in 1906. That same year they built a small brick church. Rev. D. Wallace Christie, just graduated from Knox College, became its first minister in 1907. In 1909, the City of Toronto changed the name of Reid Avenue to Rhodes Avenue. In 1909 volunteers added an annex to the church. In 1924, the Rhodes Avenue congregation voted for Union in 1924 and some members left to start St. Matthew’s Presbyterian Church on Eastwood Avenue.Anglican preacher

The area east of Coxwell was considered part of the little postal village of Norway which sprung up around the corner of Woodbine Avenue and Kingston Road.  It was named “Norway” after the red pine that flourished on the sandy soil there. Red pine was commonly known as “Norway pine” in the nineteenth century.  St. John of Norway served the people of Gerrard-Ashdale at first. The large (and beautiful) cemetery at St. John Norway is the burial-place of many of Leslieville’s pioneers and the immigrants that came to Gerrard-Ashdale. In the early 1900s St. John Norway Anglican Church sponsored a mission to the Gerrard neighbourhood: St. Monica’s. In 1907 parishioners build St. Monica’s Church, a small wooden building at the northwest corner of Gerrard Street East and Ashdale Avenue. As with the other denominations, a top priority was a Sunday school to serve the many children of these growing families.

St Monicas
St. Monica’s Anglican Church, n.w. corner Gerrard and Ashdale, c. 1907. Toronto Public Library.


To Build An Addition to St. Monica’s Anglican Church

St. Monica’s Anglican church, at the corner of Ashdale avenue and Gerrard street, is in need of an additional room to be used for Sunday school club, and guild work. The amount needed to build and furnish such a room would be about $600, and a committee consisting of Rev. Robert Gay, 65 Leuty avenue, and Mr. J.H.A. Hird, 45 Elmer avenue, has been appointed to make an appeal for the money. (Toronto Star, Sept. 21, 1908)

In its early years, the congregation of St. Monica’s was composed of “mostly English artisans”.

St. Monica's choir, about 1908. Courtesy of the Toronto Public Library Digital Collections.
St. Monica’s choir, about 1908. Toronto Public Library 

The Methodist Church, already close by, with its old chapel at Vancouver and Queen Street East, build a new Riverdale Methodist Church. J. W. (Joe) Flavelle laid the cornerstone of Riverdale Methodist Church on July 24, 1912 at the corner of Gerrard and Leslie. A three-storey brick Sunday school building was built as well. In 1925 Riverdale Methodist, WoodGreen Methodist, Rhodes Avenue Presbyterian and other churches joined to become the United Church of Canada.

City of Toronto Archives.
Ashdale School, date unknown. City of Toronto Archives.
Top: Postcard, c. 1906, photographer unknown. Bottom 2014, photographer Julia Patterson.
Top: Postcard, c. 1906, photographer unknown. Bottom 2014, photographer Julia Patterson.

Even before the area was annexed to the City of Toronto, a new school was built to serve the area’s children: the Ashdale School opened in 1907. Riverdale Collegiate at Jones and Gerrard opened as well that year. Then as now, working class immigrants looked to education as a way out and up for their children, if not themselves. It is important to note that Riverdale Collegiate was an academic school, not a technical or vocational school, symbolizing the great hopes and dreams of a “Little England”.

Teacher and Students, c. 1907, Ashdale School. Courtesy of Toronto Public Library Digital Collections.
Class, c. 1907, Ashdale School. Toronto Public Library.

Schools followed, but library service lagged behind. The new Riverdale library at Broadview and Gerrard soon proved inadequate as it was too far for those in the new Gerrard-Ashdale neighbourhood that grew up on the Ashbridges farm. Clip Art WorkmenWhen the Ashbridge family sold their estate, the first people to move onto the empty farm fields of the Hastings and Ashbridges’ farms were tradesmen and entrepreneurs. (The Erie Terrace folks were there before them. It had been build on land to the east of the Ashbridges’ Estate beginning about 1895.) Carpenters, plumbers, electricians, roofers and a wide variety of skilled workers in the building trades built their own houses first. They were on the scene early, prepared to offer their services to newcomers who had purchased lots.

Initially real estate brokers sold lots, not finished houses. Then the owners of lots either put houses up themselves or hired a contractor to build their dwellings. Contractors only built small “subdivisions” of usually less than a dozen houses, not the huge, sprawling estates of today.

Courtesy of the Toronto Public Library Digital Collections.
City of Toronto Archives.

Along with the trades people, entrepreneurs moved into the neighbourhood. Often the first visible sign of a new suburban development was the appearance of corner groceries and dry goods stores at the four corners of major intersections like Greenwood and Gerrard or Coxwell and Gerrard.

Soon almost everything people needed was within walking distance of home: stores, schools, churches, social clubs, but few public services.

As the area became more densely populated, typhoid epidemics from contaminated water struck (Toronto Star, Oct 20, 1906). Houses burned to the ground because there were no firemen to fight the blaze. Petty crime accelerated without police. The roads, already bad, became impassable. From 1907 onwards there were persistent calls for the extension of either Ashdale Avenue or Coxwell Avenue north from Queen Street to Danforth Avenue. Many of the north-south streets in the neighbourhood were almost impassable due to the sandy soil with patches of quick sand.  Many of them only reached a short distance above Queen Street: the distance the farmers had opened to get to their fields and no further. In 1907 Ashdale Avenue’s new residents only had a 15 foot wide private right-of-way to gain access to Queen Street. The City of Toronto refused to open the street up since the Gerrard-Ashdale neighbourhood was still in the Township of York and the residents did not pay taxes to the City of Toronto (Toronto Star, Sept. 13, 1907).

Greenwood Avenue looking south from the GTR Tracks, 1901. Courtesy of the Toronto Public Archives.
Greenwood Avenue looking south from the GTR Tracks, 1901. 

The growing population on the Hastings and Ashdale estates brought an end to the old Leslieville era of brick works, market gardens and livestock-raising. So, even though water, fire, police and sewers were lacking, the schools and churches were virtually the only public services in the area. And they were full to over-flowing. There was no public transit. And there was no library. People wanted better for themselves and their children and sought to join the City.

Shacks Coxwell Avenue, c. 1910. Source unknown. Public domain. Coxwell Avenue, similar houses, 2012, photographer Julia Patterson.
Shacks Coxwell Ave, c. 1910. Source unknown. Coxwell Ave, similar houses, 2012, photo J. Patterson.

A referendum to join the City of Toronto succeeded and in 1909 the City of Toronto annexed Midway, the area south of the Danforth between Greenwood Avenue and the Village of East Toronto. The new residents demanded the type of municipal services we almost take for granted today: clean drinking water piped into homes along mains, storm and sanitary sewers, fire protection, police and bigger schools. At that time there was almost no town planning. Government at all levels was chiefly reactive, responding to crises as they developed, not planning for the future or being proactive. New suburbs were hampered by nineteenth century thinking carried forward into the twentieth century.

Building Streetcar Line. Courtesy of the Toronto Public Archives.
Building the Civic Streetcar Line, Gerrard Street, Oct. 18, 1911. Note the sandy soil. This is probably taken on Upper Gerrard looking east across the former Toronto Golf Club grounds.
Courtesy of the City of Toronto Archives.
City of Toronto Archives.

In the next few years the City extended Gerrard Street and provided streetcar service on Gerrard, Coxwell and Greenwood as well as Danforth Avenue. Side streets, such as Ashdale Avenue and Morley Avenue (now known as Woodfield Road) were also extended. New streets were laid out.

With streetcar service in 1912 the area boomed as a working class “streetcar suburb”. Many men and women still walked to work, being unable or unwilling to pay the cost of a trip on the streetcars that served these “streetcar suburbs”.

When the properties were further developed after annexation in 1909, a road network followed the pattern of the farm lanes and fences along the edges of these strips of farm field. Reid Avenue (now Rhodes Avenue), Erie Terrace (now Craven Road), Ashdale Avenue and Hiawatha Road mark the edges of the old fields. Morley Avenue (Woodfield Road) was the lane through the Ashbridges orchard to the farm fields to the north. Redwood Avenue marked the eastern boundary of the 1884 extension of the City of Toronto. Glencoe Avenue (now Glenside) ran through a brickyard, later used as a garbage dump. The west side of Glenside was not developed until 1940 (Toronto Star, July 31, 1940) and the east side was not developed until the 1950s. Highfield Avenue was developed on Wellington Ashbridge’s land after before World War One. To the west of Greenwood Avenue, development spread over the old Thomas Hastings’ farm with more new streets like Marjory Avenue and Galt Avenue. Leslie Street now stretched all the way to the railway tracks. Hastings Avenue itself had not been extended since a large brick pit occupied the land bounded by Leslie Street on the west, Greenwood Avenue on the East and Queen Street on the south. Clay pits extended north of Gerrard Street along the Creek.

In tandem with the real estate development on the farm fields of old Leslieville, industrialization changed the face and economy of the area. With the advent of cheap electricity from Niagara Falls, factories sprung up along Eastern Avenue and up Carlaw Avenue. The southwest corner of Leslieville west of Carlaw and south of Gerrard to the lakeshore was heavily industrialized. Leslieville soon had a glove factory/tannery, several box factories, a rubber factory, a tent factory, three chewing gum factories, paint factories, etc. Map dated 1910 GoadsThis Goad’s Atlas map is dated 1910 and shows the development of the area. The 1910 map shows a number of local landmarks though most are not identified, as well as the street grid. I have added labels to the 1910 Goad’s Map to show the location of some important facilities, as well as some of the many brickyards. Gerrard Street (west to east)

  • the Riverdale Collegiate (Gerrard and Jones);
  • the Russell Brickyard (Gerrard and Leslie);
  • the Devil’s Hollow (just east of Gerrard and Hastings);
  • the Greenwood Theatre (Gerrard and Greenwood);
  • the Classic Theatre (Gerrard and Redwood);
  • the Glenside Ravine;
  • the Ulster Arms Hotel (just west of Highfield Avenue on Gerrard);
  • the Ravine, Woodfield Road;
  • the Ashdale Library (site of St. Monica’s Anglican Church);
  • and the Hamilton Hardware store (near Gerard and Ashdale).

I have marked on Greenwood Avenue (north to south):

  • the Vera Apartments (Greenwood and Wagstaff);
  • the Riverdale Gardens subdivision (Prust Avenue to Greenwood Avenue, north of Gerrard);
  • the Isaac Price house (Greenwood and Gerrard);
  • Greenwood Park;
  • the Ulster Stadium;
  • Dundas Street (not built until the 1950s);
  • the John Price House;
  • and the Motordrome (north of Queen, west of Greenwood to Alton Avenue and Dundas Street).

Also labelled are:

  • Leslie Grove Park;
  • the site of the George Leslie House (now a store with the Alexander Muir mural on it);
  • the George Leslie Store;
  • St. Joseph’s Church;
  • St. Joseph’s School;
  • the Leslie Street Public School;
  • the Ashbridge House;
  • the Duke of Connaught School;
  • and the Roden School.

The new subdivisions shown on this 1910 map were quite different from old Leslieville. The Gerrard-Ashdale neighbourhood, born from the sale of the Ashbridges and Hastings farms, was overwhelming British and urban, not Celtic (Scots/Irish) and rural as Leslieville had been. Most people were still church-goers, but were Anglican primarily with some Methodists and Presbyterians. Old Leslieville had been divided on religious grounds: Protestant (mostly Presbyterian and Methodist) vs. Roman Catholic (Irish). Though it had hard-drinking, hard-living roots, Leslieville became more Sabbath-observing, more teetolling (against drinking, not just abstaining) and more strait-laced as time passed. The old Leslieville had been dominated by a Anglo-Celtic middle class characterized by men like George Leslie and Martin McKee.

The Toronto World, October 24 1919
Toronto World, Oct. 24, 1919

Union JackThe new neighbourhood north and east of old Leslieville was a “Little Britain” or “Little England:, self-consciously working class. The streets were populated by men and women who belonged to labour unions and identified as workers.

In Britain, their social life would have revolved around the local pub. Denied that here by the temperance movement and prohibition, they turned to their own social clubs and lodges until Ontario repealed the ban against liquor and the Ulster Arms filled the old traditional role.

Most of the extended families that came here included young families with children as well. Often grandparents and aunts and uncles came together, in family groups. The old saying, “Blood is thicker than water”, was true as family was the only safety net most people could count on if a wage earner became ill or injured. What social assistance that did exist was all too often punitive as well as being inadequate. Families preferred duplexes to a detached home as it allowed several generations to live under the same roof while insuring a degree of privacy and independence. Where extended families did not live in the same duplex or triplex, they still managed to live close to each other, often on the same street or within a few blocks, for example, with father and mother living on Hiawatha and son and daughter-in-law living on Ashdale.

Bungalow, Leslieville, with a “double villa” or duplex beside it. Spring 2010. Photograph by the author.
Bungalow, Gerrard-Ashdale neighbourhood, with a “double villa” or duplex beside it. Spring 2010. Photograph by the author.

The side streets were lined with bungalows and villas and the odd owner-built homes that stood out both because of their small size and their individuality. Butchers, bakers, confectioners, greengrocers, tobacconists and hardware stores populated Gerrard Street and Coxwell Avenue.

Violet Handley. Courtesy of descendents. In Public Domain.
Violet Handley. Courtesy of descendents. In the public domain.

Where there is no vision, the people perish: but he that keepeth the law, happy is he. Proverbs 29:18 The Bible (King James Version) The immigrants brought with them great dreams and great expectations, but, initially at least, their hopes were thwarted by the lack of amenities and services. These were services that these British city dwellers took for granted. Their absence came as quite a shock. They demanded change as they met with their elected representatives in meeting after meeting.

On June 10, 1910, the Board of Control of the City of Toronto visited the neighbourhood to inspect Ashdale, Rhodes and Coxwell Avenues in order to determine which street should be extended from Queen to the Danforth (Toronto Star, June 10, 1910). On September 10, 1910, the City of Toronto announced that it was extending Ashdale Avenue south from Gerrard Street to Queen Street East and it called for tenders (Toronto Star Sept. 8, 1910). The City Engineer estimated that building a subway (underpass) at Ashdale Avenue would cost $45,000.00, a very large sum at the time (Toronto Star, Oct. 13, 1910). Residents competed for the City’s attention and approval of their street for the proposed subway and extension. Ashdale, Rhodes and Coxwell were all in the running and tempers were high as the improvements would increase the property values of those lucky few who got the subway on their street. The politicians bravely passed the decision over to the Board of Works (Toronto Star, Jan. 20, 1911).

Coxwell Avenue, looking south from railway, 1912. This was before the underpass was built. It was still a dangerous level crossing. Courtesy of the City of Toronto Archives.
Coxwell Avenue, looking south from railway, 1912. Courtesy of the City of Toronto Archives.

Change was not fast enough for the residents.

Portrait painted by J. Russell of Mayor Sam McBride, June 24, 1937, City of Toronto Archives
Portrait painted by J. Russell of Mayor Sam McBride, June 24, 1937. Courtesy of the City of Toronto Archives

The records of one meeting in particular make clear their frustration. On December 2, 1911, the members of the Midway Ratepayers’ Association met with their aldermen in the Orange Hall on Rhodes Avenue.

It was a stormy, roily meeting of the members of the Midway Ratepayers’ Association who gathered last night in Rhodes Avenue Hall to batter with a load of complaints everyone aldermanic who had the courage to show himself within the doors, and at the same time it was a house divided against itself, between loyalty to and abuse of the reigning aldermen.” …”Half of those who live in that district’ he [local resident Mr. Gillespie] stated, “were too lazy to get out and work on a petition. They want water they want sewers, they want everything all at once, and they won’t work for it. I know of men on Erie Terrace who refused to pay the extra 37 ½ up to 75 cents taxes which would have entitled them to vote in the city, and yet they’re the ones who are doing the hollering because the aldermen don’t get them everything in a minute.” (Toronto Star, Dec. 2, 1911)

The residents wanted sewers, clean water piped in from the municipal waterworks, sidewalks, roads – in short, they wanted everything residents in older, downtown neighbourhoods had. They wanted EVERYTHING and they wanted it NOW. They wanted a subway built under the Grand Trunk Railway to improved road access from the neighbourhood to Danforth Avenue and Queen Street East. They wanted a walkway build under the railway track so that children could get safely from the streets north of the rail line to Roden School.

Alderman Sam McBride, who came down upon a special invitation, made an attempt to smooth the troubled waters, and explain to the Midway ratepayers just what position they occupied with respect to the rest of the city. Without censuring the district, he stated that the Midway should congratulate itself upon the city having taken it in considering the condition they were in when annexation was broached… Alderman Chisholm responded:  “You came here because this land was cheap. If you expect the city Council to put in waters, sewers, etc., and make your land valuable in a minute, you are mistaken, it can’t be done. Erie Terrace wants the city to bear the expense of its widening. Other streets don’t get such concessions, and as for your aldermen, we have far, far exceeded any promises we ever made to you.” (Toronto Star, Dec. 2, 1911)

Erie Terrace (now Craven Road), 1916. 1916 Photographs courtesy of the City of Toronto Archives. Photo 2012 by the author.
Erie Terrace (now Craven Road), 1916. 1916 Photographs courtesy of the City of Toronto Archives. Photo 2012 by the author.

In essence the politicians told the disgruntled ratepayers that they should be happy that the City of Toronto took the neighbourhood in at all given the bad shape it was end. Being told that they should be grateful for their lot and not complain did not go over well.

The public began to demand parks and recreational facilities. Under the leadership of Silas Armstrong and others in the Playground Movement new parks came to old Leslieville, along with a new attitude towards children. Children had previously been banned from public parks and now slides and playground equipment welcomed them.

Alongside and in tandem with the Playground Movement, the settlement house movement came to Riverdale. From this movement came the first professional social workers and the idea that municipalities had an activist role to play in social welfare. The old days of laissez-faire were fading as champions of public health like Dr. Charles Hastings brought pasteurization to Toronto’s milk, inoculations for children, and well baby clinics across Toronto, including to Gerrard Street East. Increased intervention was a mixed blessing for low income families as middle class activists turned their sights on the slums of downtown and the Shacktowns on the fringes of the city.

 Our Slums

Possibly the most terrible aspect to contemplate in connection with our slum districts with its underfed and poorly housed population is — not the problem of the unemployed, but the problem of the unemployable. There is being born in our midst babies so badly nourished that neither bones nor muscles are made sufficiently strong to do any useful thing when they grow up – and these poor defective bodies have poor defective minds. Now we cannot kill the physically unfit, nor the mentally unfit, they are not self-supporting so they must be supported – they are not self-reliant, so they must be care for and the lives of bright young girls and competent women are being sacrificed to look after these human wretches who should never have been born. A vigilant committee of men and women in our cities whose duties it would be to watch conditions to see that no building should be allowed to stand after it became unsanitary, and not fit for habitation, to see that there was not too much cluttoration. Decent housing to keep people fit to work seems a cheaper proposition than housing them when unfit in our hospitals, asylums and jails. We can never build from the top down. We must begin at the bottom up. We must not spend our time and money getting rid of slums, but rather spend brains preventing slums. Closing the doors after the horse has gone has been the policy of too many cities. Cannot Toronto do better? Flora MacDonald Denison in (The Toronto World, February 5, 1911)

Dr. Charles Hastings, City of Toronto Archives
Dr. Charles Hastings, 1925. Coutesy of the City of Toronto Archives.

Some, including Toronto’s Medical Officer of Health Charles Hastings, saw these Shacktowns, like those of the Gerrard-Ashdale neighbourhood, as epidemics waiting to happen.


M.H.O. Gets Reports Indicating Most Unsatisfactory Conditions

Dr. Hastings, Medical Health Officer, proposes a thoro [sic] housecleaning of homes in the ward and downtown residential section when spring arrives. The four women inspectors he has sent out to make investigations of conditions in the slums are already reporting that they are not finding everything satisfactory. Extortionate rates are being charged for miserable hovels. As a result of the conditions and the magnitude of the undertaking Dr. Hastings will add to the number of inspectors and will supplement the work by getting four men to gather statistics during the night as to the number of lodgers. A moral cleanup by the police department is hinted at because of conditions existing in some of the rooming houses visited (The Toronto World, Feb. 10, 1911).

Many Midway residents had to rely on City water carts for drinking water. Their wells were too contaminated to ever allow them to be used again. Safe drinking water was an urgent necessity when even the City water was bad. When Midway was annexed, Erie Terrace came into the City of Toronto. This narrow street, with houses on only the east side, stretched from Queen Street past the railway tracks. Unscrupulous developers cut this strip of land into tiny lots on which poor people built tarpaper shacks and tiny houses, densely packed together, with no outhouses and no running water. This virtually guaranteed the contamination of their wells, the nearby creek and the ground water.

Toronto World, c. 1911. Eviction ordered by Chief Medical Officer of Health Charles Hastings due to unsanitary conditions.
Toronto World, c. 1911. Eviction ordered by Chief Medical Officer of Health Charles Hastings due to unsanitary conditions.

Medical Officer of Health, Dr. Charles Hastings pushed the City of Toronto into passing a By-law requiring all houses in the newly-annexed areas to have a flush toilet, a wash basin, a connection to City sewers and piped-in City water. Erie Terrace residents protested against being charged for sewage connections. They had no choice but to comply, leave or be evicted. The Public Health Department closed their homes as unfit for human habitation if they failed to puts in “the modern conveniences”. Soon there was another outbreak of typhoid fever. Rhodes Avenue residents were sick and some were dying – this time not because of their own wells, but contaminated City water. “It is feared that a number of others may develop in the East during the next week or so, the result of not boiling the unchlorinated water, which has been pumped through Balmy Beach intake to supply that section” (Toronto Star, June 8, 1911). In the next year a more serious typhoid epidemic was to strike communities around the Great Lakes, including Toronto.

Duke of Connaught School, May 1919, James Salmon Collection, City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1231, Item 1005.
Duke of Connaught School, May 1919, James Salmon Collection, City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1231, Item 1005.

In 1911 the Toronto Board of Education offered $27,000 for 6 ½ acres of Ashbridges land: the old orchard behind the house on Queen Street. Jesse Ashbridge sold the house. By that time 3,000 Toronto elementary school students were in temporary school rooms. One of the schools recommended was to be on Morley Avenue (now Woodfield Road). It was to have 23 rooms and to cost approximately $115,000 (Toronto Star, Nov. 11, 1911). The Duke of Connaught School was meant to relieve over-crowding at the Leslie Street School and the Roden School. The Board of Education named their Morley Avenue School after the Duke of Connaught (Toronto Star, Nov. 10, 1911).

As soon as these schools were built they were overcrowded, with more children enrolling than available spaces. Classes were huge, often 60 or more children.  There were never enough resources as the Toronto School Board perpetually played “catch up”, putting children in basement rooms, portables and nearby church halls, including St. Monica’s (Toronto Star, April 24, 1911). The Duke of Connaught School and Roden School expanded over the years to meet the need.

All the crossings over the Grand Trunk’s tracks were level crossings. These were extremely hazardous as both adults and children were frequently hit by trains:


Ivor Goodsell, a young lad living at 237 Erie terrace, had his foot amputated at the General Hospital last night. He and several other youths were playing with a handcar on a G.T.R. siding near his home when he fell off the car and it passed over his foot. He was rushed to the hospital in the police ambulance (Globe, March 26, 1912).

Children had to cross the railway lines at great peril to attend the Ashdale School. In 1913 the Toronto School Board renamed the 1907 Ashdale School after Ephraim Roden, a long-time school trustee.

In February, 1911, to the outrage of those on Ashdale Avenue and Rhodes Avenue, the Toronto Board of Works recommended that the much-desired subway be built on Coxwell Avenue. The Coxwell Avenue option would cost $69,000 according to the City Engineer; the Ashdale option would cost $45,000. Such decisions are as mysterious now as they were then (Toronto Star, Feb. 11, 1911). Not long after, the City decided to close Leslie Street north of the railway tracks. Residents there were, predictably, outraged (Toronto World, March 2, 1911). Improvements in the streets were vital to the development of the neighbourhood. Ashbridges Creek’s two branches cut across the lands north of Gerrard. In 1911, it was still deep enough to drown the unlucky (Toronto Star, March 24, 1911).In 1912 Greenwood Avenue was in such bad shape that it had ruts three to four feet deep (Toronto Star, Nov. 18, 1912).

When the civic street car service opened along Gerrard Street in December 1912, there was an almost immediate jump in real estate sales. “And then people could see that this part of the east-end was being brought very, very near to downtown, and that it was a beautifully wooded stretch of land. The cars discovered Gerrard street. They have take hundreds of home-site buyers and builders down there. Prices have jumped with the heavy buying all the way from $5 to $15 a foot (Toronto Sunday World, Dec. 22, 1912).

In 1912 the Ashbridges sold Ashbridge’s Woods to developers for the Monarch Park subdivision. That year Wellington Ashbridge published The Ashbridge Book. By that time the Ashbridge property was no longer a working farm. (W.T. Ashbridge, The Ashbridge Book. Toronto: The Copp, Clark Col. Ltd., 1912, 110-111). The Ashbridge Book is the best source for Ashbridge Estate history.

At that time, politicians were not universally in favour of parks. Parks were genteel places where the middle classes could stroll or listen to music played by military orchestras from band shells. They were places like Allen Gardens, pride of the city’s horticultural society, planted with George Leslie’s trees just as was Mount Pleasant Cemetery. In fact, there was a strong connection between graveyards and parks. Denied public green spaces, working class people in the nineteenth century frequently turned to cemeteries as places to picnic. There were few green spaces in the brown lands of industrial areas or the downtown slums of the Ward. The area was growing fast so that even the mission churches could stand on their own. St. Monica’s became an independent parish in 1912.

Greenwood Brick pit
The “tail end of a brickyard” that was to become Greenwood Park. Note the horses grazing in the distance. This was part of the property that Joseph Russell sold to Monarch Realty. Courtesy of the City of Toronto Archives.

In 1913 Leslieville’s largest brickmaker, Joseph Russell, sold 55 acres on Gerrard Street East from Hastings to Greenwood Avenue and from Gerrard south to what is now Dundas Street. This was his last brickyard in Leslieville. The buyer was Monarch Realty Company through agents Tanner and Gates. Tanner and Gates laid out a subdivision on the land, including three streets. They had to do considerable grading and level. “The land on all sides has been built up and the property became too valuable for brickyard purposes” (Toronto World, January 14, 1913). The area soon had a silent movie house and even a vaudeville hall.

The growth of the self centred community in different parts of the city is shown in the building of a light vaudeville theatre to seat a thousand at the corner of Redwood and Gerrard streets. Redwood is the first street east of Greenwood, and the building, which will have two storeys of offices above the theatre, will be built at the northwest corner on ground 45 feet by 120. A. Wellwood is the owner, and Neil G. Beggs, architect. The World has before pointed out that this section of the east end was becoming a city in itself, with its own factories, stores, banks and amusements. Take one layout near Danforth and Greenwood as an instance. Monarch Park was last fall barren of anything but trees. Today the city is putting in sewers, the water and sidewalks are already in, and buildings by the dozens are going up.

Toronto World, May 29, 1913

It was not long before people here began to demand a library, both for themselves and their children. In 1913 representatives from the East End Ratepayers’ Association presented their case for a branch library to the Toronto Library Board.  They claimed that about 30,000 people lived in the block of land between Greenwood and Woodbine, north of Queen Street to Danforth Avenue. But others had gone to the Library Board before them: a deputation from the Beaches and another from the old village of East Toronto, near Main and Gerrard, also wanted branch libraries.

Midway would have to wait in line.  The old Mechanics Institute on Church Street was being renovated and the Beaches and East Toronto and already been promised their own libraries. Money was short. The Library Board suggested that the Midway people get together with those from East Toronto and find a compromise site. The local alderman would have to support whatever site was chosen and, indeed, back up the Ratepayers’ Association since the Library Board did not have the power to buy land. Only the City of Toronto could purchase the property (Toronto World, June 14, 1913). Real estate was booming in Gerrard-Ashdale as salesman targeted both builders and low-income families.


We have some very desirable building lots for sale on LAMB, BATHGATE, GILLARD AND ASHDALE AVENUES

at low prices.

These lots are situated a few minutes’ walk from the Parliament car line, and are very close to the new Civic Car Lines. Para Water and sidewalks have been laid.  Electric light is on some of the streets.

Gas and sewers are being arranged for.

We are offering a special reduction of $5 a foot to the builders of the first ten houses on these lots.

Prices range from $35 a foot up. Terms very easy.

These are the cheapest building lots offered so close in, in the East End.



(Tanner-Gates Building)

26 – 28 Adelaide St. West. Phone M. 5893

Branch Office:  Cor. Gerrard and Greenwood Ave. Phone Gerrard 645.

Toronto World, May 14, 1913

On April 14, 1914, calls for a local library were renewed as library circulation soared and books disappeared from the shelves at an astonishing rate:


The new Beaches branch had only six fiction books on shelves. The rest were circulating since demand for books was so high. A Kew Beach ratepayer talked to the reporter who wrote that “the new library was quite inadequate to serve the district in the eastern half of Ward One. The districts of Riverdale, East Toronto, Norway, Kew Beach and Balmy beach are served by the library at the corner of Broadview avenue and Gerrard street and the new branch…It is thought that more provision should be made for the large population adjacent to the Duke of Connaught School.  At present the community, immediately north, east and west of the duke of Connaught School, which now totals over twenty thousand, has no public library.” It is suggested that a library building could be advantageously placed on the city’s land facing Queen street, just south of Rhodes Avenue. The matter is to be taken up in the immediate future by the various ratepayers’ associations in that section of the city.”


Interviewed by The World last night regarding the prospect of a new library being built to serve the midway and East Toronto districts, Dr. George H. Locke, the chief librarian, stated that the question was receiving the careful consideration of the library board, and everything possible was going to be done for the districts in question.  He intimated that owing to the large amount which had been spent by the board recently in building new libraries, it was not likely that a new building would be erected in the immediate future, but it was possible that a store might be rented in which to carry on the work.”

Toronto Sunday World, April 1, 1914

In 1914, the East Toronto Boys Club had its own small library, but found that “the supply of books does not commence to meet the demand” (The Toronto Sunday World, April 19, 1914). In the summer of 1914 all of these concerns began to be pushed aside. People at the time had no idea of the disaster that lay ahead. With the outbreak of World War One, Canadian men (and a handful of women), young and old, married or single, lined up to join the war effort and go overseas to fight “the Hun”. They expected to be home by Christmas, but World War One blew these families apart, often literally as men disappeared into the trenches of Belgium and France never to be seen again. The dream became a nightmare for many.Clip Art Painter


Percy Reid right, in uniform. Courtesy of the Reid family descendants (published on line at
Percy Reid right, in uniform. Courtesy of the Reid family descendants. Public Domain.

It is important for those of us so many generations removed to understand the impact of “The War to End All Wars” also known as “The Great War” and, after the Second World War (1939-1945), the First World War. The War changed the Ashdale neighbourhood profoundly and affected everything and everyone here, including the future library that so many wanted. Initially there was great enthusiasm as people thought British victory over the Germans would be swift and with relatively few casualties. This initial naivety did not last long. By 1915, when Jack Love of 401 Ashdale Avenue enlisted, people had a much better idea of the horrors of the trenches. They had begun to count their dead and wounded as letters from overseas hinted at the terrible conditions.

Painting of lion by Raden Sarief Bastaman Saleh, also known as Raden Saleh Ben Jaggia, Raden Saleh Syarif Bustaman, 1838
Painting of lion by Raden Sarief Bastaman Saleh, also known as Raden Saleh Ben Jaggia, Raden Saleh Syarif Bustaman, 1838

As the war ground on, men did return to Canada because of wounds or because they were on leave.  Working class people had a very good idea of just what was going on in the trenches. Still even fathers of young families, such as the Loves, joined up “for King and Country”. Even fathers with large families went. Men frequently lied about their ages in order to be accepted as recruits. Older men chopped years off their age turning 55 into 45 or even 40. Younger boys made themselves appear older and 14 easily became 19. Sons and fathers enlisted, sometimes together. The “War to End All Wars” accelerated industrialization in Leslieville. New technology, powered by cheap electricity, and a disciplined workforce, vastly increased Toronto’s industrial capacity. Women moved into factories replacing men who had gone to the front. Leslieville’s women had always worked – in market gardens, brickyards, hotels, etc. However, now Leslieville became home to munitions plants and heavy industry, bigger in scale and different in character than the family businesses of earlier days. Cheap electricity from Niagara Falls supplied the power and the pool of British immigrants that lived nearby provided the labour, but World War I essentially kick-started an industrial Leslieville.

Factories lined Carlaw Avenue, Eastern Avenue and Gerrard Street. From 1914 to 1918 military orders poured in as many men marched off to war. Unemployment disappeared as industries made shells around the clock.

Many men from old Leslieville families served overseas. Robert Wagstaff, 148 Hiawatha Road, served in the 238th Battalion Canadian Expeditionary Force (CEF). William Jones of Erie Terrace died of wounds in 1915.  Percival John Pape, a gardener by profession, served overseas too.

Newcomers to Leslieville joined up wholeheartedly as well. In 1911 William Bouldry moved with his family from Sheffield, England to Leslieville. His family lived at 30 Morley Avenue. He worked in the furniture trade. Private Bouldry was killed in action in 1915.

As the war ground relentlessly on, more and more Leslieville men went to their graves. Some were clear about their fate.

Joe Hickey was killed on November 15, 1915. He enlisted in the Canadian army at Lindsay in 1915, under the alias “Thomas John Smyth”. He lived at 119 Leslie Street. He had a tattoo over his heart on his left breast – a tombstone. His name is on the Menin Gate Memorial in Ypres, Belgium. This memorial is Joe Hickey’s tombstone. It bears 55,000 names, men who disappeared without a trace during the Battle of Ypres. Carved in stone above the central arch of the gate is:  To the armies of the British Empire who stood here from 1914 to 1918 and to those of their dead who have no known grave. Every evening at 8 p.m., all traffic through the gate halts while two buglers sound the Last Post.

The war must have been constantly on the minds and hearts of family and friends of those overseas. In May 1915, St. Monica’s church was packed for the celebration of Victoria Day. An open air service was held on the church grounds in the morning. Professor Wrong, of the University of Toronto, called on the congregation to support the Red Cross. This was something tangible people could do in wartime. Joseph Russell, Member of the provincial legislature, spoke about “the need of a united empire and church” in wartime. Collections were taken up at for the Red Cross Society (The Toronto World, May 25, 1915).

Wren Wounded Missing
All photographs are in the public domain.

Meanwhile more new factories came to Leslieville and unemployment dropped to virtually nothing.

The Railway Board gave permission to the City of Toronto to build another subway, this time a pedestrian one, under the railway lines as the railroad planned on adding more lines to meet the additional demands of the War (Toronto World, Oct 13, 1915). In January 1916, the Board of Control was asked to approve funds for the new pedestrian subway under the Grand Trunk Railway and grading of Ashdale Avenue. It was expected to cost about $33,000. “Much of this land is broken and more or less unfit for building purposes, on west side of the street [north of the railway lines] the property is park land” (Toronto World, Jan.19, 1916). Things did not go well. Works Commissioner Harris had his hands full: Some of the harmony that it was hoped would exist in this year’s civic works committee was blown to the winds yesterday when Alderman Sam McBride told Alderman McBrien to “shut up” (Toronto World, Jan. 29, 1916). Council approved it on February 22, 1916. In February, Works Commissioner Harris, recommended the building of the pedestrian subway (Toronto Star, Feb. 11, 1916).

Toronto Star, Nov 2. 1916
Toronto Star, Nov 2. 1916
Toronto World, Dec. 23, 1916. What better present for the troops than gum? Apparently they used the neatly-wrapped sticks of gum to stop bleeding and cover wounds (not an approved use).
Toronto World, Dec. 23, 1916. What better present for the troops than gum? Apparently they used the neatly-wrapped sticks of gum to stop bleeding and cover wounds (not an approved use).

In 1916 the Wrigley gum factory was built on Carlaw Avenue. This former gum factory was converted to lofts in 1998. In 1918 Wrigley Canada built a private fire hall, at 87 Boston Avenue, to service its factory. It is hard to imagine chewing gum as a wartime necessity but Wrigley’s advertising seemed to make it so.

The Toronto Hydroelectric System built a new building at 369 Carlaw Avenue in 1916, to supply power to industry. They added an addition to the south in 1924. (In the 1920s a “Hydro Store” promoted appliances, such as electric refrigerators and stoves. Women, to some degree liberated by their participation in the wartime labour force, were the target audience.)

Recruiters worked Leslieville thoroughly. In 1916 recruiting drives were held at the Teck Theatre, 700 Queen Street East, and Greenwood Theatre, 1275 Gerrard Street East.

In 1916 Lance Corporal William Clare died. He lived on Erie Terrace and was 35 years old. He is buried in the Ridge Wood Military Cemetery, Belgium. In 1916, Private James Harold Spencer of the 24th Battalion, died from wounds. He was 20.  He lived at 269 Ashdale Avenue. Sometimes families were left not knowing or having false information. For example, “Pte. Herbert J. Green, presumed dead, resided at 284 Ashdale avenue. He is survived by his wife and two children.  Pte. Green has been declared killed in action and missing on other occasions. Comrades in the 3rd Battalion have informed Mrs. Green that her husband is a prisoner. She has yet to hear from him (Globe, Oct. 18, 1916). He actually died on May 2, 1915, but his body was never found. This 31-year old infantry man and contractor enlisted in September 1914, just after the war began, and simply disappeared, like so many others, into Flanders fields. In 1916 Private Richard Head was killed in action. He had grown up on Logan Avenue. His wife and three children lived on Withrow Avenue. Mrs. Head’s brother, Private Edward Trotter, from Carlaw Avenue, was also killed in action. Not all the casualties of war were in Europe. In 1916 a local newspaper had a contest for the best letter to Santa. This is one that they printed:

Dear Santa: My name is Jack Head. My mother said you would not give two prizes to one house, but I hope if I don’t get a prize you will send me a gun with some good bullets. Then when I get a man I can get after that big German my sister told you about that got my dear uncle [Edward Trotter] and daddy [Richard Head]. As I am the man of the house now, my mother tells me so, I want to feel she is safe. Jack Head, Age 6.

Another letter from Leslieville shows how war affected children:

 12 Paisley Ave., Toronto, Dec. 6. Dear Santa Clause: I would like a box of paints and a pair of skates. I really do think there is a Santa Claus because he comes to cheer the poor little boys and girls. And hope he won’t forget the soldiers at the front, who are fighting for us, for the need cheering, too. And don’t think there would be any Christmas if there was no Santa Claus. And I am just counting the days till Christmas. I will be 10 next birthday. Your friend, Kathleen Fortescue. 12 Paisley avenue, Toronto, Dec. 5.

Her brother wrote:

 Dear Old Santa: I want an artillery car and a box of soldiers. I should rather think there is a Santa Claus. That is why boys and girls are so fond of Christmas time. And I hope you won’t forget to leave the soldiers something good. Santa don’t you get very tired taking all the presents round and sitting at the table for a cup of coffee and a piece of cake. I am eight years old. Your friend Ernest Fortescue. P.S. – Will leave cellar Window open.

These letters are from The Toronto World, Dec. 14, 1916.

Private James Thomas Murphy had one brother, Vincent and eight sisters including Annie, Alberta, Loretta, Josephina and Mary.  A newspaper reported:


Pte. J.T. Murphy Dead – One of Ten Children.

Pte. J.T. Murphy, son of Mr. and Mrs. James Murphy, 64 Jones avenue, died of wounds in the Australian General Hospital, France, on October 15th. He was 26 years of age, and unmarried. Before enlisting he was employed by the Toronto Harbour Commission. Pte. Murphy went overseas with the 92nd Battalion in May. He had not been long at the front when he received his fatal wounds. In a letter written on September twentieth, he said that he was well and entering the trenches for the second time. He is survived by his parents, one brother, and eight sisters, six of whom are married.” (Toronto Star, October 19, 1916.)

Toronto Star, Oct. 20, 1916
Toronto Star, Oct. 20, 1916

A second obituary gave more information. Mrs. James Murphy, 64 Jones ave., yesterday [received a tele]gram announcing the death of her son, Pte. James T. Murphy, as the result of wounds in the chest and legs. The message followed a cheerful letter from her son who stated that he was feeling well and that he hoped to return soon to Toronto. Pte. Murphy was 25 years old and enlisted with the 92 Highland Battalion. (Toronto Star, October 20, 1916.)

Murphy is buried in the St. Sever Cemetery, Rouen, France.

Death struck cruelly at Leslieville; many families in this Little Britain lost more than one man.  Two sisters, living at 445 Morley Avenue both lost their husbands. Hugh Forgie was killed on October 8, 1916. Before enlisting Hugh Forgie was a conductor on the Toronto Civic Railway. His five brothers were also soldiers. Thomas Forgie was killed on August 8, 1918.

Thousands were shell-shocked or, in today’s terms, suffering from post-traumatic stress:

 Corp. Alex. Sheppard Shell-shocked

CORP. ALEX. SHEPPARD, whose cousin, Walter Barber, lives at 206 Ashdale avenue, is suffering from shell-shock. The official announcement was received on Saturday by another cousin, Mrs. Frank Barber, whose home is at 259 Ashdale ave. Corp. Sheppard is an Englishman. He had lived in Canada over six years before enlisting, and was employed in the City Street Cleaning Department.  He left for overseas last September, and has been in the trenches since May 1st.  Last December his wife followed him to England, where she is now living with her parents. She has six brothers in khaki, and her husband has five (Toronto Star, June 26, 1916).

Life went on at home.  The pedestrian underpass was delayed and children continued to get hurt.

 Child Playing on Track Hurt by a Train.

Sydney Richards, aged six years, 786 Erie terrace, narrowly escaped death yesterday afternoon on the Grand Trunk tracks near Coxwell avenue. His right foot was crushed under the wheels of a Grand Trunk train. He was taken to the general Hospital by Dr. Broad of 460 Danforth avenue, who amputated two of the toes. The poor state of the fences along the tracks, which permitted children on the eve of the departure of the Bantams to swarm over the tracks, is said to have been the cause of this accident. It is stated that children of Erie terrace and the locality find no difficulty in playing on the track running through this section because of the nature of the fences (Globe, April 27, 1917).

In 1917 the Imperial Munitions Board built a $3 million dollar plant on the new industrial land in Ashbridge’s Bay.  It occupied 60 acres of the reclaimed marsh. The Toronto Harbor Commission was in charge of the work, building electrical and forging facilities. The THC put their Engineering and Construction Department “at the disposal of the Munitions Board.” The THC constructed new docks and rail lines near Cherry Street to accommodate munitions works (Globe, January 17, 1917).There was also a munitions plant on Coxwell Avenue just north of the railway tracks.

Woods Mfg., photo by J. Doucette, 2013
Woods Mfg., photo by J. Doucette, 2013

Woods Manufacturing’s plant on Logan Avenue was busy as the chief supplier of tents to the British Empire’s armies. In 1895 James William Woods, an Ottawa businessman began making and supplying everything a lumber camp needed — except food. He sold clothing, camping outfits and tools, etc. In 1900 he supplied the British government with canvas tents for the troops in the Boer War, establishing his reputation as a military supplier. He became wealthy furnishing equipment to the British and Canadian armies in World War One, while his tent factory became the largest in the world. He diversified and was involved in realty, coal companies, shoe manufacturing, the Standard Explosives Company and a canvas bag company.

Globe Sept 10 1927In 1917 Rolph-Clark-Stone Limited built its new building at 201 Carlaw Avenue. Rolph-Clark-Stone Limited was one of Canada’s largest graphic arts companies.

The neighbourhood gained jobs, but it paid for its participation in the War dearly. This Little Britain poured its soul into fighting for King and Country. Gerrard-Ashdale residents served throughout the Canadian armed forces, suffering heavy casualties. Many were lost in the trenches or came home maimed in mind or body.

The war effort was headed by an Orangeman, Colonel Sam Hughes, until he was replaced by another Orangeman, Sir Edward Kemp. Kemp was a familiar figure in the East End. He represented the Leslieville area in Parliament, part of an area now known as Riverdale. The Orange Lodge lost a disproportionate number of members in World War One since Orangemen enthusiastically enlisted.

The absence of men and the loss of so many changed Canada in many ways.

Munions factory, c. 1915, William James family fonds, City of Toronto Archives
Munitions factory, c. 1915, William James family Fonds, City of Toronto Archives

By 1917, the influx of men and women from rural area to work in the factories caused an acute housing shortage. Rental housing was particularly scarce.  “…the supply of houses to rent has by far been insufficient to meet the demand. Practically all of the real estate agents in Ward One mourned the dearth of small houses for rent…” (The Toronto World, March 10, 1917)

Around World War One everything from the Don to the Beach began to be called “Riverdale”. While people who lived in the neighbourhood continued to use the term “Leslieville”, the name disappeared from planner’s maps and directories. In 1917 the “Leslieville Ratepayers’ Association” changed its name to the “Riverdale Ratepayers’ Association”. After the war Leslieville rarely appeared in newspapers, except as a nostalgic reference.

Civilians were casualties too. In 1917 A. R. Clarke, owner of the tannery on Eastern Avenue, was on the Lusitania off the coast of Ireland when a German u-boat sank the liner. Clarke sustained fatal internal injuries when he was dragged under by the great ship’s death throes.

In the fall of 1917, as the war raged on, City Council debated the extension of Applegrove Avenue (now part of Dundas Street East). They showed that decisive indecisiveness characteristic of City Council:

 Who Pays for it.

Applegrove avenue extension was resurrected for the board to chew over. The land for it was first secured as an easement for the trunk sewer, and then the proposition was jointed with that of the Wilton avenue extension, since abandoned. Now, in order to assess $20,000 which has been spent on the work against the properties benefitted, it is necessary to pass the extension of Applegrove avenue from Ashdale to Coxwell avenue. “Just a matter of bookkeeping,” said Ald. Singer. “Who’s to pay for the work?” asked Ald. Archibald. “Are the people to pay for the city’s mistakes?” queried Ald. Robbins. “Then you must do the same thing with the Duplex and Teraulay street extensions.”It was decided to get another report (Toronto Star, Oct. 27, 1917).

By this time the cheerful optimism of 1914, characterized by popular songs like “It’s A Long Way to Tipperary” and “Pack Up Your Troubles In Your Old Kit Bag, and Smile Boy Smile”, had been murdered by the carnage overseas. The fatalism of the troops was expressed in a new song, “We’re Here Because We’re Here Because We’re Here Because We’re Here”. The refrain was the same and equally depressing.

Men began to shoot themselves in the foot, getting a relatively minor, but disabling wound, a “Blighty”, in order to be sent back to “Blighty”, the nickname for England and its huge military hospitals – and out of the war for good.

Conscription was introduced in Canada and recruiting pressures became enormous. Those who had loved ones in the trenches pressured others to go overseas even presenting strangers on the street with white feathers, indicating cowardice.

People were getting fed up with the status quo in politics and this time women were involved. A women’s meeting was held in St. Monica’s Anglican Church Hall to support of a candidate. Miss McMurchy addressed the audience along with Sergeant-Major D. Forzie, winner of the Military Medal and Private Daniels, also winner of the Military Medal.  Wartime heroes were stepping into politics along with women. They wanted to speak for themselves not allow elites to speak for them. Soon soldier candidates would be contesting elections. The times they were a-changing (Toronto Star Dec. 13, 1917).

In June 1918, St. Monica’s Church held a floral fete. The women’s committee was responsible for the event which was a fundraiser for the church. “The taxes on our property this year are $432, a very heavy burden to bear, with all the other calls incidental to a thickly-congested parish such as ours”, stated Rev. Robert Gay, the minister for the parish. The parish intended to plow up their grounds to plant vegetables just as many others were plowing up unused land to produce vegetables “for the war effort” (Toronto World, June 4, 1918).

Infectious diseases continued to sweep away many of the young of the neighbourhood.

 Child’s Funeral Today.

The funeral of the late Dorothy Robotham, aged five years and 11 months, only child of Mr. and Mrs. R. Allen Robotham, 1198 East Gerrard  street, who died of diphtheria after an illness of one week, will take place at 10 o’clock today at St. John’s Cemetery, Norway. The funeral service will be conducted by Re. J. Madill, St. John’s Anglican Church, at the graveside

Toronto World, June 15, 1918

At home frustration boiled over into violence in the early days of August, 1918. Returning veterans hated “slackers” and aimed their rage at foreigners. Some minorities, such as Greek immigrants, had not endured the horrors of the trenches since their home country was neutral. They stayed in Canada and were seen to prosper while “true patriot sons” of Canada died. The pervasive racism of Canada in that era could and did erupt in violence from time to time. Immigrants were obvious and easy targets. The unselfconscious racism of the times is reflected widely in the literature and newspapers.

In connection with the library the very valuable historical collection of drawings and paintings made by Mr. John Ross Robertson, which is on exhibition free to visitors on the main floor of the reference library, attracted 12,642 persons. In times that are as historic as any the British race has seen a collection of this kind will kindle the finest instincts and the highest patriotism in those who visit it and give it study. 

The Toronto World, Jan. 30, 1915

Mayor Thomas Church issues anti-riot proclamation. Toronto Star, August 7, 1918.
Mayor Thomas Church issues anti-riot proclamation. Toronto Star, August 7, 1918.
Anti-Greek Riots, Broadview and Gerrard, Globe, Aug. 6, 1918
Anti-Greek Riots, Broadview and Gerrard, Globe, Aug. 6, 1918

In August, 1918, what came to be known as the “Greek Restaurant Riot” or the “1918 Anti-Greek Riots” saw thousands of veterans pouring onto Yonge Street and other city streets to loot and burn Greek-owned businesses. They fought pitched battles with the police on Toronto’s streets. (See Thomas W. Gallant, Michael Vitopoulos, George Treheles, The 1918 Anti-Greek Riot in Toronto, Toronto: Thessalonikeans Society of Metro Toronto, 2005). They even assaulted a policeman at Broadview and Gerrard.

Whatever happened on the “home front”, local boys continued to die overseas, right up until the War’s end.

Private William McGregor was killed on August 8, 1918. He was 20, son of Archibald and Catherine McGregor, of 131 Highfield Road. He had only been in France three months. He is buried in the Demuin British Cemetery at the Somme, France. He went overseas with the McLean Highlanders and was a Riverdale Collegiate graduate. He worked for Imperial Oil before enlisting. Private Harry Stradling was born on August 6, 1883, in Yorkshire, England.  He enlisted at Toronto on March 2, 1915. He was then working as a shipper.  He was militiaman, and had served with the Devonshire Regiment in England for three years. He was killed August 10, 1918, during the Battle of Amiens. He is buried at Mezieres Communal Cemetery, Somme.More casualtiesPrivate Charles Walter Sturdy, 238 Greenwood Avenue, was killed in action, September 5, 1918, only 11 days after he reached France.

Worse was yet to come. While millions died, killed in action or dying of wounds, sickness killed millions more. The troops came back to an influenza epidemic that had spread through the military camps and troop ships then spread to the civilian population around the globe. It killed about 22 million around the world in 1918 and 1919. Sometimes soldiers came home to find their wives and children dead. A story from the time speaks of the impact of this pandemic here in Toronto and in this neighbourhood:

 Dr. Hastings Forbids Conventions In City

Over 300 New “Flu” Cases are Reported at the City Hall.

List of the Deaths Increase Reported in the Schools – 50 Per Cent Absent From Some of Them

Dr. Hastings issued strict orders to-day that under no condition must conventions of any kind be held in Toronto until the present epidemic of influenza had died out. There were forty new cases reported to the Department of Health this morning, while others will come in during the day. Up to date, 170 have been reported to the department. This, however, does not by any means represent the number of cases in the city, as there are over 300 cases in the hospitals alone….Up to noon to-day the following deaths from pneumonia and influenza had been reported since yesterday: … [Died of influenza] Walter J. H. Barber, 15 years, 206 Ashdale avenue. … Henry Hunter, 37 years, 589 Erie terrace. Martha Mitchell, 62 years, 4 Fairford street. …Rosie May Jones, age 37, of 19 Jones avenue. Agnes M. Ferguson, age 17, of 114 Logan avenue. Nellie McNelley, 201 Morley avenue… The epidemic of Spanish influenza in the Toronto schools is on the increase, according to information received by The Star this morning. In many of the larger schools as many as 50 per cent of the pupils are away, and in practically every school in the city, a large percentage is away sick.

Toronto Star, Oct. 11, 1918

Poster, c. 1918. Provenance unknown. Public domain.
Poster, c. 1918. Provenance unknown. Public domain.

On November 11, 1918, the Armistice ended the War. Canada, with a population less than 10 million, sent some 660,000 soldiers to Europe from 1914 to 1918. Over 60,000 died and some 173,000 were wounded. Over 16,000 Canadians were killed, injured or declared missing at Passchendaele alone. The war cost Toronto about 10,000 lives.

This neighbourhood suffered particularly high casualties both because it supplied recruits that became the infantrymen that were “cannon fodder” and because the level of enlistment was so high in this Little Britain.

Even after the War to End All Wars finished, it killed men. Mountie William George Rawbon died of wounds on February 14, 1919. The Royal North West Mounted Police went overseas to serve, just as they had in the Boer War. Rawbon had been in South Africa. Now he served in France under Robert Leslie Jennings, George Leslie’s grandson.  He lived at 47 Marjory Avenue. He is buried at Huy (La Sarte) Cemetery, Belgium.

It also left men maimed mentally.

Slowly the service men began to return home. On December 27, 1918, Private Lewis R. Cook returned to his home at 151 Ashdale Avenue. He had served since 1916 and been wounded twice – at Lens and Cambrai (Toronto Star, Dec. 27, 1918).

Weeping Lion. Memorial erected by the Sons of England, 1916, St. John Norway Cemetery. Photograph by the author.
Weeping Lion. Memorial erected by the Sons of England, 1916, St. John Norway Cemetery. Photograph by the author.



Globe, Jan. 18, 1925
Globe, Jan. 18, 1925

The Great War brought death but also accelerated change, bringing new technology and new ways of doing things. Chain stores began to replace small stores. Self-serve began to replace counter services for groceries, dry goods and even hardware, just as open shelves were replacing “the stacks” in Toronto’s libraries.

It was no longer men behind the counters serving women, but women serving themselves. In 1919 Dominion Stores incorporated.  That year a new Loblaws Store opened at Queen and Logan.  Loblaws, with its experimental “We Sell For Less” cash-and-carry format, quickly became so popular. (Personal communications from Derrick Clements, Weston Corporate Archives, March 30, 2008).

After “The War to End All Wars”, Canada saw itself differently.  The men who returned were not the same and the places they returned to had changed in unexpected ways. The xenophobic outpouring of the August 1918 anti-Greek riots reflected not only the racism widespread in Canada at the time but the thwarted sense of entitlement of war veterans. So much had changed, but so much was dreadfully the same.

The flu epidemic was followed by a smallpox epidemic that even closed the public libraries for two weeks (Globe, Jan. 10, 1920). Another disease, tuberculosis, commonly called “consumption”, consumed or ate its victims alive. They withered away to skin and bones, coughing their lungs out. It was also known as the “white death” from the paleness of its victims. Tuberculosis was endemic in the big cities of the time. Crowded living situations and poor diet made low-income people particularly vulnerable to tuberculosis. Thus this disease was rampant in the slums of “the Ward” downtown but also in the new working class suburbs like the Ashdale neighbourhood.

There were no antibiotics to fight infectious diseases until Alexander Fleming found penicillin in 1928 and it was mass-produced in World War II. One of the biggest differences between 1924 and 2014 is the development of effective pharmaceuticals to treat infectious illnesses as well as inoculations to prevent diphtheria, typhus, typhoid fever, polio, etc. Small pox has now been eliminated worldwide, but viruses still elude the best efforts of medicine and another flu epidemic, some say, could be as bad as the epidemic of 1918 to 1919.

Soldiers came back to not only epidemics, but high unemployment. Having served through hell, the veterans of the trenches expected perhaps not heaven on earth, but at least a job and a chance to build a new life with a family and friends. Their strong sense of entitlement turned to resentment and anger as the cry of “Jobs, jobs, jobs” went up.

Protest Against Scabs
Courtesy of the Toronto Public Library Digital Collections.

The years after World War One saw great unrest with the 1919 Winnipeg General Strike, transit strikes here in Toronto in 1919 and 1920, a national postal strike in 1924 and other strikes as well as unrest on the streets. “Scabs”, non-union men hired to replace strikers, delivered mail from door to door in the Gerrard-Ashdale neighbourhood, but only in the face of the threat of violence and many actual attacks by both men and women.

This was neighbour against neighbour and quickly became violent. It was easily turned on minorities, especially those seen as “foreign” or “slackers” (those who failed to do their duty in the war effort).

In the civic elections in the winter of 1918, a housing shortage for working men and returning veterans was on everyone’s minds. Many suggested that the City build homes for working men in the suburbs like the Ashdale neighbourhood. Debates at Riverdale Collegiate between the various candidates focused on this issue. W. W. Hiltz, who had been alderman since 1911, spoke out in supporting of filling in the Devil’s Hollow on Gerrard Street East and of opening branch libraries at Greenwood and Gerrard and Pape and Danforth (Globe, Dec. 31, 1918). The Toronto World commented, “Old England is also a large factor in the vote. It was stated yesterday afternoon that Earlscourt and Riverdale are large British centres in the city” (The Toronto World, Oct. 24, 1919).

W.W. Hiltz
W.W. Hiltz. Source unknown. In the public domain.

In early January 1919, the Riverdale Ratepayers’ Association met in the Leslie Street School. Alderman W.W. Hiltz said that: …although he made no promises for last year he would promise that the East Gerrard street hollow [the Devil’s Hollow] would be attended to this year.  “I don’t see why the work cannot be done, the street filled in and a pavement laid at this point.” He also said that: A branch library should be established near Greenwood and Gerrard and also at Pape and Danforth. Hiltz also supported taking over the privately-owned Toronto Street Railway and replacing it with a new transit commission controlled by the City of Toronto (Toronto World, Jan. 8, 1919). William Wesley Hiltz, a devout Methodist, former teacher and building contractor, was known as a man of his word. The Ashdale Library had a powerful voice on Council.

Fuel prices, particularly that of coal, soared and many families were hard pressed to find money to pay to heat their homes.  The East End Citizens’ Committee fought for lower coal prices (Toronto World, Jan. 27, 1919).

The period just after World War one saw a great change in thinking about what society though its City government could and should do. People demanded better roads and Ontario’s first system of paved highways was built starting with the Kingston Road. Paved streets even came to the old Leslieville. Riders insisted on better public transportation and the old inefficient (and arrogant) street railway company was taken over and the Toronto Transportation Commission now called the Toronto Transit Commission (TTC) replaced it, improving and extending routes across the City.

People thirsted quite literally for clean water and a massive pumping and purification plant was built on the edge of the Scarborough Bluffs at the east end of Queen Street. Nicknamed “the Palace of Purity”, this lovely art deco building brought water in from far out in Lake Ontario and fed it through mains to Toronto.

The sewage plant at the foot of Woodfield Road sat on Ashbridges Bay and was inadequate from the time it was built just before World War I. All the sewage of Toronto was to be poured into this one plant for treatment. While it was a step in the right direction, it was not good enough — even then.

Other services followed including police stations and fire halls.

Libraries were part of this massive change in how Torontonians thought about their city and what was due to them as citizens, both homeowners and tenants. Under Chief Librarian George Locke, libraries, like parks, were now for everyone not just elites.

Not only did the returning veterans feel they deserved better, they felt they were owed better and they demanded it, not tomorrow but now and they voted in soldier candidates, often their sergeants and corporals, to make sure they got what they wanted.

War veterans protesting lack of work, c. 1919, City of Toronto Archives.
War veterans protesting lack of work, c. 1919. Courtesy of the City of Toronto Archives.

Picketers marched on Thanksgiving, 1919, carrying placards asking, “WHAT IN HELL DO WE HAVE TO HOPE FOR?”

Monarch Park, July 1, 1921. Courtesy of the City of Toronto Archives.
Monarch Park, July 1, 1921. Courtesy of the City of Toronto Archives.

Residents of the Ashdale neighbourhood wanted a number of things including the extension of Coxwell Avenue across the railway tracks to connect the Danforth with Queen Street. They wanted a pedestrian underpass under the railway line so that they and their children could pass freely and safety to Roden School in the south and to Monarch Park in the north. They wanted a new park on the site of the old brickyards west of Greenwood Avenue south of Gerrard Street. They wanted water, fire service, police patrols and a public library. They wanted their own park too.

One solution to the housing problem was the building of small apartment buildings with four units, called a “Quadraplex”. So-called Quadruplex houses were objectionable to many including Sam McBride, Controller, who said, “You’re forcing people for the want of homes to go into houses that are a disgrace to Toronto.” The City voted to allow the construction of these buildings.

The City Parks Commissioner, Charles E. Chamber, wanted an athletic grounds for each area of Toronto. Mayor Church opposed the purchase of Willowvale Park [Christie Pits]. However, Charles Chambers was very popular as were the parks he was creating. The motion passed (Toronto Star, Dec. 5, 1919).

Toronto Mayor Thomas "Tommy" Church, Toronto World, Jan. 2, 1918
Toronto Mayor Thomas “Tommy” Church, Toronto World, Jan. 2, 1918

Thomas “Tommy” Church, Mayor from 1915 to 1921, publicly stated that he did not support turning the old brick pit on the west side of Greenwood Avenue into a park. He clearly felt that it was a waste of money. Ashdale’s residents fought even stronger for their park, vigorously lobbying City Council and Park Commissioner Chambers who did not meet much persuading. Chambers was soon at loggerheads with Mayor Church. (Even a most cursory reading of new reports of the day shows the depth of personal animousity between Church and Chambers). On October 6, 1919, “in spite of a strong fight put up by Mayor Church and Ald. Baker, the City Council decided to purchase the 13.76 acres of land on the west side of Greenwood avenue for a park as recommended by the Parks Commissioner [Charles Chambers], at a cost of $134.168. One Alderman sneered that the site was “a tail-end of a brick yard”. Others defended the new park and Commissioner Chambers. Sam McBride said that it was unfair of the Mayor to go after Chambers,”…the man attacked is an official and cannot defend himself. Commissioner Chambers knows more in his little finger about park sites than the Mayor does in his whole body” (Toronto Star, Oct. 7, 1919).

In late October, the Mayor went after Chambers again. According to the Toronto World of October 29, 1919, Mayor Church said, “that the present was no time for purchasing parks and some which had been bought were nothing but brickyards”. Chambers fought back against what he called the Mayor’s “half faked and brass band methods”. Letters to the Editor promised retribution if the East End did not get its way:


A Warning for Mayor Church

To the Editor of The Star: Sir, Your editorial comment regarding matter of expenditures for parks, in to-day’s issue is duly noted and as an East End property owner I wish to thank you for your defence of the East End residents in this connection. Mayor Church for some reason or other seems “dead set” against giving the residents in the neighbor hood of Greenwood avenue a playground and apparently the only thing he is able to say against it is that it’s “an old brickyard.” I fail to see why in the world this enters into the question at all – would his Worship desire to have it remain so or would it be to the interest of the city at large to have the spot improved and at the same time prove a great benefit to the health and welfare of the community. Look out, Mr. Mayor. Your treatment of the East End in this matter is very poorly camouflaged by “economy” talk at this time. The East End is coming into its own. EAST ENDER

Toronto Star,  Nov. 1, 1919

By 1920, the Midway Neighbourhood was almost totally built up. Stores lined Gerrard Street East. The shop was at ground level and the merchant and his family lived on the second floor above or it was rented out to tenants. The main intersections formed hubs at Greenwood and Gerrard and Lower Gerrard and Coxwell Avenue. The houses were mostly “Bungalow-style”, inspired by Stickley and the Arts and Crafts movement. However, they were adapted to Toronto’s harsher climate by being raised a little with basements. Originally the Arts and Crafts movement stressed hand-crafted goods and houses, producing beautiful, functional objects and homes that were too expensive for the ordinary working family. Gustav Stickley in his Craftsman magazine produced floor plans and designs for everyone, including people with very little money, large families and even single women.

Pre-fabricated bungalow, advertisement, Toronto World, April 1, 1911.
Pre-fabricated bungalow, advertisement, Toronto World, April 1, 1911.

Bungalows were mass-produced and sold by department stores like Sears in the USA and Eaton’s here in Canada, as well as many other dealers. These cheap, pre-fabricated homes and designs produced for people to build themselves became the first really good housing for working class people.

These houses were designed specifically to be convenient for women, including the first modern kitchens with “built-ins” – kitchen cabinets built into the wall rather than free-standing cupboards.

These new designs were more “open concept”, doing away with the front parlour and replacing it with a new invention: the living room. The dining room was not shut off from the living room or kitchen but they flowed into each other. Still there was an old-fashioned feeling as these modern bungalows were centered on an ancient invention: the hearth. Stickley and others believed that the fireplace should be the focus of the home.  In the days before the television and the family room, the living room and its hearth was where the family sat and played games, read books or simply rocked in their oak Mission-style rocking chairs. (Eaton’s sold a knock-off for $4.95.)

The Arts and Crafts home was adapted to Toronto by including certain touches that appealed to the British immigrant, including half-timbered gables. The California bungalow was translated from its American roots into a bit of “Ye Merry Olde England” in this space, this place. This was reflected in the Toronto Public Library branches of this period which resembled Elizabethan manor houses. The new Eastern Branch was a perfect illustration of what some have jokingly called, “Tudorbethan” architecture since it was a mixture of Tudor and Elizabethan styles more calculated to satisfy homesickness for Britain than to reflect historical accuracy.

Main Street Branch, courtesy of the Toronto Public Library
Main Street Branch, courtesy of the Toronto Public Library

On April 23, 1920, L. W. Mullen, president of the Riverdale Ratepayers’ Association, revealed that he had a plan of the new park to be created on the west side of Greenwood south of Gerrard. Parks Commissioner Charles Chambers had passed it on to him. The plan of “the new civic athletic field” had a tennis court, a lawn bowling green, a quoiting (horse shoe throwing) ground, a cricket field, a lacrosse field, one football field and four baseball diamonds (one of which has since become a dog park). Mullen told a reporter that:

The arrangement is in every way satisfactory, with the exception of the proposed location of the building, which , in his opinion, should be near the Greenwood avenue entrance, where lavatory accommodation could be installed and a branch public library on the second storey, which would relieve congestion at the Broadview and Gerrard branch, which is not large enough for the territory at present served and is also too far distant for the residents of the Greenwood district.

Toronto World, April 23, 1920

Unlike the Toronto Public Library today with its formal planning process, plans moved ahead quickly once a site was chosen. A site for the new Eastern branch was chosen in 1920, but it was not exactly the site that the residents of Gerrard Ashdale wanted.

The new East Toronto branch of the public library was to be built soon.  It was quartered in the YMCA in their Main Street branch. Now the library board had secured a site on the east side of Main street, just south of Gerrard. The old cottages there were to be torn down and a handsome brick and stone building erected. A sum of $37,000 was appropriated for the site and building by the city council some time ago, but owing to the advanced cost of labor and material it is thought the amount will not be sufficient for the class of building intended by the architect. Branch library buildings are also required in the Midway district, and on Danforth avenue between Broadview and Main street. Deputations have waited upon the library board from these sections, and consideration was promised as soon as funds warranted.

The Toronto World, July 15, 1920

Meanwhile, overcrowding continued in the schools. In September, 1920, the Board of Education was granted a permit to put “a portable school” or portable classroom on the west side of Ashdale Avenue near Gerrard Street. It cost of $5,000. This was the site of the old St. Monica’s Church which had moved to a bigger building on Ashdale Avenue. (Toronto Star, Sept. 23, 1920).

The Eastern Branch Library was approved in the spring of 1921 and opened in December of the same year, in what would be by today’s standards, breath-taking speed. (Another new library branch Earlscourt, now Dufferin/St. Clair, also opened in 1921.) 


Management Orders Plans Prepared and the Calling of Tenders.

The Library Board discussed the new Main street branch after the chairman of the finance committee, N.B. Gash, presented his report. The finance committee review and approved “sketch plans for the building”. The Board instructed that tenders be issued for the building and for tearing down the three old cottages on the site. E.S. Caswell, the secretary, was instructed to invite the Roden Ratepayers’ Association to send a deputation to wait upon the finance committee at the next meeting to supply data as to the claims of that district in population, etc., for the erection of a branch there.

The Toronto World, March 12, 1921

The Eastern or Main street branch was expected to cost $30,000.00. As demand for services grew, the neighbourhood continue to grow. An “American Plan Bungalow” at 60 Ashdale Avenue was on sale for $5,500.00. It was one of three new homes and had “6 large, bright rooms, hardwood finish, oak floors, side drive. These houses are new, all modern conveniences.” Terms were $600 cash and a $4,900 mortgage (Toronto Star, March 15, 1921 and Toronto Star, April 2, 1921). Library use continued to climb.

1921 Increase in Number of Library Books Used.

About 20,000 more books were used by patrons of the Toronto Public Libraries during November than during November of 1920, according to the statement of Georg H. Locke, Chief Librarian.  All the branches showed increases, except the children’s department at Deer Park. The seven libraries with a circulation of more than 10,000 for the month were: College, Dovercourt, Riverdale, High Park, Earlscourt, Beaches and Western.  The number of books used at the Reference Library was 30,621, an increase of 1,600.

Globe, Dec. 5, 1921

The new branch at Main Street included a large children’s department and a children’s librarian.

East Toronto’s new Public Library, at Main and Gerrard streets, was opened last night for the adult population, but the children will have their initial function on Saturday. The building is of brick and raftered stucco, and, while the lower floor, for the grown-ups, is pleasant, the upper floor, which is to the children’s own, is a near approach to the ideal.  Miss Margaret Wainwright is children’s librarian and Miss Redmond will look after the serious literary needs.

 Globe, Dec. 16, 1921

This new “Eastern Branch” was the successor to the closed Eastern Branch at Queen and Boulton and the Eastern Branch, now renamed the Riverdale Branch, at Broadview and Gerrard. But it merely fueled the Ashdale neighbourhood’s thirst for a library branch of its own because it was simply too far to walk to. The “East End” was far too large for the “Eastern Branch” in the old Village of East Toronto. (Recognizing this, the Toronto Public Library changed the name of the Eastern Branch to the “Main Street Branch” in 1939.)

On February 15, 1922 the Toronto Public Library Board asked the City of Toronto Board of Control to appropriate $4,000 to buy a site and construct a new branch library in North Toronto. (Globe, Feb. 16, 1922). This fueled the demand for more branches, including the one in Gerrard-Ashdale’s growing neighbourhood with its mixture of bungalows and do-it-yourself houses, including tents and shacks.

The Roden Ratepayers’ Association selected a site on its own for TPL’s consideration:

It has been suggested by the Roden Ratepayers’ Association that the city buy the old St. Monica’s Anglican Church, at Gerrard street and Ashdale avenue, for the proposed East End library. The idea was put forward at a meeting of the Executive Committee held in the Roden School, with F. Barber presiding. Secretary Woolnough stated that the Roden Association was working in conjunction with the Riverdale Ratepayers’ Association, in the matter of choosing a suitable site for the library. The idea of the old church site being utilized would be brought to its notice, and also Dr. George Locke would be communicated with, said Mr. Woolnough.

Globe, May 15, 1922

In 1922 The Roden Ratepayers’ Association pressed their elected representatives for action with some success. Now they had the site and a bit of money:

Three members of the City Council, Controller Nesbitt and Aldermen Baker and Maxwell, addressed the meeting briefly on Hydro-radials, and at the conclusion the association expressed itself as being strongly in favor of their construction and operation by the municipalities. The Secretary also reported that the association had been instrumental in having a grant of $5,000 passed for the construction and equipment of a branch of the public library in the district. The question of a site will be taken up with the Chief Librarian. (Globe, Nov. 10, 1922)

Ashdale residents continued to fight for the extension of their streets, a pedestrian route under the rail line, a park and a library branch of their own:


Members of the Roden Ratepayers’ Association hope before long to have another line of communication from Gerrard street to Danforth avenue opened up between Greenwood and Coxwell avenues. For some time they have been petitioning the City Council in an endeavor to have their claim that Ashdale avenue be made a through roadway recognized, and at their meeting last night the Secretary reported that the matter would come before the Works Committee today. The proposal to be considered is that a subway be constructed under the Grand Trunk main line at Ashdale avenue. This is necessary, the ratepayers claimed in discussion, in order that more freedom of communication between the northern and southern parts of the district might be established, particularly in view of the fact that the only park in the district is north of the railway tracks, and at present inaccessible to residents to the south. (Globe, Nov. 10, 1922)

Residents of the Ashdale-Gerrard neighbourhood wanted their roads extended, a pedestrian underpass to connect to Monarch Park, a library and a park of their own. The Chief Librarian George Locke and the Library Board supported the Ratepayers’ Association:

Want Own Library in Roden District

Residents’ Desire for Branch Backed by Central Management

The Board of Control of the coming year will be asked to include in their estimates a sum of money sufficient for the Branch Library at the corner of Ashdale and Gerrard streets, which has been promised for the Roden district, according to the decision of the TORONTO PUBLIC LIBRARY Board of Management, at the regular monthly meeting yesterday afternoon. (Globe, Dec. 9, 1922)

In 1923, Toronto City Council granted $35,000 to build and equip “a new Branch Library to serve the Roden district.” That year another new library branch opened: the Northern Branch (1923-1975) later it was renamed St. Clement’s).

In 1907 the Anglican Church had built St. Monica’s Church at Gerrard and Ashdale on land purchased directly from the Ashbridge Estate, but moved to a new church on Ashdale Avenue. in 1920. In 1921, St. Monica’s had sold the site at Gerrard and Ashdale. The land and building were sold to the Toronto School Board in 1921 (Toronto Star, June 16, 1945) and in turn sold for the building of the Ashdale Branch of the Library. The Toronto Library Board then resold part of the property to the Eastwood theatre.

A new location was acquired for the Church was acquired between Ashdale Avenue and Hiawatha Road, a short distance south of Gerrard. This building, which was extended in 1922, served as the worship space for St. Monica’s until 1930, after which it was used as a parish hall.

The tenders for the new library branch were let in May, 1923. (Toronto Public Library Annual Report, 1923, 5)

Toronto Star, May 10, 1924
Toronto Star, May 10, 1924


Streetcar passing through the new underpass, Coxwell Avenue, City of Toronto Archives.
Streetcar passing through the new underpass, Coxwell Avenue, City of Toronto Archives.

The neighbourhood finally got the underpass they wanted. Coxwell Avenue was extended, widened and a bridge built to carry the rail lines. Gerrard and Coxwell became the “main streets” and the “four corners” at Lower Gerrard became the nucleus of the community with independent merchants and later chain stores like Kresges.

Pedestrian underpass between Woodfield Road and Monarch Park, August 11, 1924, City of Toronto Archives.
Pedestrian underpass between Woodfield Road and Monarch Park, August 11, 1924. Courtesy of the City of Toronto Archives.

They got the pedestrian underpass in 1924 when City work crews enlarged the dry gully of Ashbridges Creek to make a tunnel and walkway Monarch Park.

Courtesy of the Toronto Public Library Digital Collections.
Courtesy of the City of Toronto Archives. Mayor Tommy Church and the baseball teams look on while Commissioner Charles E. Chambers prepares tosses a coin to decide the opening pitch.

They got the park they wanted when Mayor Tommy Church “ate crow”, opening Greenwood Park on July 2, 1920, in the pouring rain while a triumphant neighbourhood association and Parks Commissioner Chambers looked on. Charles E. Chambers was appointed Parks Commissioner in 1912, succeeding his father John Chambers in the position. Charles Chambers held the position until 1947, long after Tommy Church disappeared from politics. Toronto owes Chambers a debt of gratitude for the park system that he set up. It is still with us today.

Photograph of the Ashdale Library, c. 1924, courtesy of the Toronto Public Library.
Photograph of the Ashdale Library, c. 1924, courtesy of the Toronto Public Library.

Lastly they got the library branch that they wanted. The Gerrard Library opened on Thursday, May 15, 1924 at 8 o’clock in the evening (Globe, May 10, 1924; Toronto Star, May 10, 1924). The event was co-hosted by the Roden District Ratepayers’ Association (Toronto Star, May 16, 1924). (The branch was later renamed the Gerrard Ashdale Library.)

Story telling time, Ashdale Library, north end. Courtesy of the Toronto Public Library Digital Collections.
Story telling time, Ashdale Library, north end.

Architects Shepard and Calvin built the new branch in the Arts and Crafts style so that it looked like an English manor house, just as did so many libraries of that era. It appealed to the ethnic identity of the British immigrants while, at the same time, quietly stating, “This is a special place, a place to mind your manners, a treasure in your midst.”

Children's Section, Ashdale Library, south end. Courtesy of the Toronto Public Library Digital Collections.
Children’s Section, Ashdale Library, south end. Courtesy of the Toronto Public Library Digital Collections.

Inside the branch, books opened opportunities to young and old alike. Courses could take a young man or woman places that their parents would never have dreamed possible. However, just as this branch and other new branches were succeeding beyond expectations, complaints arouse about the costs of public libraries. Parsimonious politicians began to look for ways to cut the “soft services” that many of them had been reluctant to support in the first place. There was an uproar over the 1924 Library budget:

It is suggested that Toronto’s city council was guilty of a sin of omission when it failed to prune the estimates of the public library board, which “are $68,000 in excess of the amount the board can demand from the city, and include $15,000 for salary increases.”

Library supporters countered that:

…“salary increases” do not amount to $15,000.00. This sum includes new salaries as well as increases. The new salaries enable the board to open a new branch at Ashdale and Gerrard next month and to perform other useful services. Of the increases, all but two are on schedule; that is, they are similar in principle to those which city school teachers receive. A girl with the educational and other qualifications which library work requires is hired by the libraries at $1,000, is increased $100 per year until she reaches $1,800, and then, by passing an examination, she may secure $1,500.  The only sums in the $15,000 which are not on this schedule, or for new salaries, go to the chief engineer and the janitor at the main library. and they amount, together, to $600. The public libraries of the city are splendidly managed, courteously staffed, and their estimates are not excessive. It would be as reasonable to eliminate the schedule increases of school teachers as those of the librarians.

Toronto Star, March 4, 1924

That year in The Toronto Public Library’s Annual Report, Dr. George H. Locke, Chief Librarian, stated simply that, “We have had a much greater year than we had expected.” In May there was a brief report in the Globe on the new Ashdale branch:

2,200 Books Per Week Lent By New Library

One year ago on Saturday last the latest of the Branch Libraries in Toronto –that in the Gerrard district—was opened. The figures of circulation are now available, and show that during that time 103,000 books were borrowed, of which 46,000 were borrowed by boys and girls. This means that 1,000 books each week that the Library was opened were read by boys and girls, and 1,200 by the older people

Globe, May 18, 1925

Famous novelist, Hugh Garner (1913-1979), was a patron in the Ashdale library’s first year. In 1924 Hugh Garner was eleven years old.

Since, in the words of his brother Ron, “there was nothing to hang around the house for,” hanging around an interesting street corner became the usual thing.  The corner of Broadview Avenue and Gerrard Street was one favourite spot, since a public library, a YMCA and the nickel java at Joe the Greek’s coffee shop offered something for just about everyone. Unknown to most of his cronies, Hugh had become an active user of the public libraries, joining the Ashdale Avenue and Gerrard Street branch as soon as he had reached the minimum age of twelve. There he read widely and unselectively in everything from the classics to current popular fiction.  At a local Owl Drugstore lending library, he paid three cents per day to rent titles the public libraries of the day refused to stock:  Henry Miller’s The Tropic of Cancer,  Erskine Caldwell’s Tobacco Road and – from the under-the-counter, five cents per day section – D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover

Paul Stuewe, The Storms Below: The Turbulent Life and Times of Hugh Garner, p. 16.

Hugh Garner himself said that he “educated myself in the Toronto public libraries” and, despite an unfortunate quarrel with an unsympathetic librarian at the Ashdale Branch, he noted that “I like some librarians very much, also female bank tellers, girls at check-out counters, prostitutes, stewardesses and secretaries” (Montreal Gazette, Feb. 6, 1965). Feminism had obviously not touched Garner.  Hugh Garner was “the most famous of us all”, said local resident Olwen Anderson in an interview for the local history collection of TPL. “Hughie Garner was so smart that people simply didn’t have the time for him.” He was considered smart-alecky. He rode the rails as a tramp in the 1930s and joined the International Brigade in the Spanish Civil War. Skinny Moore who lived on Empire went with him. Skinny was killed. Garner survived, but, according to Olwen Anderson, had a drinking problem. (Anthony, Anita, interviewer. Olwen Anderson Interview. August 26, 1986. In the Local History Collection of Toronto Public Library, Broadview-Greenwood Branch, p. 17-18.)

The Ashdale neighbourhood remained a strongly-unionized, working class neighbourhood, full of veterans and their families, not to be trifled with. In the 1924 letter carriers’ strike, replacement workers (pejoratively known as “scabs”) were “booed, chased and heckled by the women” of Ashdale Avenue and other neighbourhood streets (Toronto Star, June 27, 1924).  On Ashdale Avenue women with brooms attacked a replacement worker, calling him “blackleg” and assailing him for not serving in the military. “Why didn’t you go to the front?” they shouted as they chased him down the street (Toronto Star, June 28, 1924).

With the new branches and the expanded library system, more people were using the libraries than ever before. The increase in children using the library was noted, but also that of adults. 2,122,464 circulated in 1924, an increase of 200,000 more than 1923. 600,000 books were loaned to children. Toronto’s Reference Library reported that 226,407 books were used. The new Gerrard branch circulated 28,212 children’s books and 28,265 adult books for a total of 56,477 books. It was a complete success (Globe, Jan. 31, 1925). Circulation continued to grow. There is no doubt that residents valued their libraries highly.

Appreciation Shown by Toronto Readers

Chief Librarian Reports Great Increased in Books in Circulation

Reference Room Filled

We thought an increase of 200,000 over 1923 was a wonderful achievement. Already this year we are 40,000 ahead of last year. That means in fourteen months we are practically a quarter of a million ahead of where we were before.  Now, there can be no question anybody’s mind but that the Public Library is meeting a great social demand,” says Dr. George H. Locke, in his monthly report. The actual use of books during the month reached a total of 210,412. Among boys and girls there were 57,843 books circulated.  Gerrard, the newest branch, circulated 10,536 books. There were 24,000 books used in the Reference Library alone, and, says the report, “It may be of interest to say that on one Saturday afternoon there were 186 persons at one time engaged in study in the Reference Library, and yet there are still some of our friends on earth who think that the Public Library is a place where only fiction is used.” Practically every branch in the service reports an increase

Globe, March 4, 1925

In 1925 the new Gerrard branch was circulating about 2,200 books a week:

One year ago on Saturday last the latest of the Branch Libraries in Toronto –that in the Gerrard district—was opened. The figures of circulation are now available, and show that during that time 103,000 books were borrowed, of which 46,000 were borrowed by boys and girls. This means that 1,000 books each week that the Library was opened were read by boys and girls, and 1,200 by the older people

Globe, May 18, 1925

A local newspaper commented in 2012:

Built in the late Georgian style, it was said to be one of the most beautiful buildings in the Coxwell and Gerrard district. In its early days librarians were concerned that with the low windows they were in a fishbowl, and that people would peek in after-hours. Borrowers of that era often drove up in their model Ts to check out current bestsellers such as Edna Ferber’s So Big or E.M. Forster’s A Passage to India

Beach Metro News, March 20, 2012

By the next year, the branch was offering university extension courses:

The librarian in one branch (Gerrard) has been responsible for getting a university extension class instituted in her neighborhood, and it is held in the library. She sees that the most interesting books on the subject of the lecture are available to the members of the group, and acts as a buffer between the students and the lecturer.”

Globe, July 21, 1926

The Gerrard library’s popularity continued to grow and the Toronto Public Library remained committed to supporting adult education. George Locke said that the future “looks promising for adult education” (Globe, July 5, 1927). (In 1927 another new library branch opened: the Downtown Branch 1927-1965). The Gerrard-Ashdale Library grew out of the hunger for self-improvement, the great expectations of a streetcar suburb with its bungalows and shacktowns.

The Gerrard Library was born in the Roaring Twenties when the economy was expanding and factories were booming along Carlaw and Eastern Avenue. Unemployment was almost non-existent, but this was in many ways the best of the good times and hard times were to come.

Riverdale Settlement House, 1471-73 Gerrard St.E. Infant Clinic, 1910
Riverdale Settlement, 1471-1473 Gerrard Street East – Infant Clinic, September 18, 1914. 

Other services were coming to the neighbourhood. Public health and the local Settlement House opened a free baby clinic on Gerrard Street East in a storefront at 1471-73 Gerrard Street East, between Rhodes Avenue and Craven Road on the south side of Gerrard. How worn and old the young mothers look! They were coming from poverty and it was their husbands and brothers speaking out at meetings, calling for libraries and parks. It was these babies who would fill Roden School, borrow books and play baseball in Greenwood Park.

Lila Eva May Marker. Courtesy of a family member. Public domain.
Lila Eva May Marker. Courtesy of a family member. 

Adult Education, Social Justice and the Ashdale Library

It was a poor neighbourhood, but more welcoming than most and more diverse, possibly because of that very poverty.

In looking at real estate advertisements of the period, one often comes across the term “restricted”. A neighbourhood could become restricted in a number of ways. One was through the use of what were known as the “brick limits”: that is the area within which all new buildings must be built of brick, not wood or other flammable materials. The brick limit by-laws were tightened through the last part of the nineteenth century and into the twentieth century out of concern for public safety. A series of fires had ravaged downtown Toronto and wooden buildings always carried a certain risk.

So-called “restricted neighbourhood” grew out of the imposition of the brick limits, but it was a restriction not simply because of public safety. Ratepayers consciously used the brick limits to keep low-income people out of their neighbourhoods.  Hence, “restricted” in real estate ads meant more than simply architecture. More insidious than the use of brick limits was the use of “restrictive covenants” to keep neighbourhoods white and Protestant.

Restrictive covenants were terms inserted into mortgages specifying that the property could only be sold to representatives of certain groups, namely white, Anglo-Saxon Protestants, and, correspondingly could not be sold to immigrants, people of colour, Jews, Catholics or other undesirables. Such racist and discriminatory restrictive covenants were common throughout Ontario and, like a cold silent wall, kept thousands of people in ethnic ghettos.

Local resident Harry Wilmot, in an interview for the TPL local history collection, recalled, “When I was a boy, very rarely you met anybody who wasn’t born here or Anglo-Saxon or whatever you call them.”

Midway and the Ashdale neighbourhood was overwhelmingly British with immigrants mostly from England with a strong Scottish contingent and a number from Northern Ireland. The Orange order was strong here, meeting in its Dian Hall on Rhodes Avenue, and drinking in the Ulster Arms. This anti-Catholic semi-secret society dominated political life in Toronto for most of the Victorian era and its power in city politics was strong until the 1960s. It was said that a Catholic or Jew had little or no chance of becoming a policeman or fireman in that period.

1045 Gerrard Street East is the home of 36 Ulster Division – 36th Ulster Division Memorial Hall.  This is locally known as “The Orange Hall”.  Many members of the Orange Order and the Ulster Defense Force jointed the 36th Ulster Division in 1914.  They demonstrated great bravery in battle suffered particularly heavy casualties.  This Orange Hall is named in their memory.

Proud Orangemen from this neighbourhood not only had their own lodges, but they could watch soccer played by the Ulster Red Handers in the Ulster Stadium, a large stadium just south of the Ulster Arms. (It was later known as “Soldiers’ Field”).

However, while this neighbourhood was a firmly Orange, Little Britain, it was not restricted by brick limits. A 1917 ad makes this clear:

$35 — $25 DOWN AND $25 QUARTERLY buys a 20-ft. Lot on Ashdale ave., near Gerrard, water, gas, sewer; no restrictions. See Mr. Campbell, 265 Ashdale ave. G. 2335

(Toronto Star, Oct. 13, 1917).

While restrictive covenants in mortgages no doubt kept some houses for Anglo-Saxons only, streets like Woodfield Road were more diverse than might be expected. Black Canadian families, Catholic families, Italians and other non-British immigrants found homes in the Gerrard-Ashdale neighbourhood. One family played a significant role in the defeat of restrictive covenants and the opening of Toronto’s minds and hearts to greater diversity. They are Ashdale neighbourhood’s unsung heroes, the Wren family. One of the Wren brothers lived on Morley Avenue (which in 1924 became Woodfield Road). Most of the family lived on Curzon Avenue near Queen Street in the heart of old Leslieville. Adult education was seen as a way out and up for many returning veterans. In 1918, the Canadian Workers’ Educational Association (WEA) was founded in Toronto. It was based on the British WEA and its purpose was to provide “a university education to working people.”

Drummond Wren first joined the WEA to take classes himself after returning from the First World War (he was one of those young men who lied about his age in order to serve in the armed forces.)

Wendy Terry,  Drummond Wren:  Human rights advocate, innovator in Liberal Arts education for all, martyr, originally published March/April 2011 in Learning Curves.

Drummond Wren was a veteran of World War One, badly wound in action and captured by the Germans and kept in a POW camp until the war ended. This Scottish-born Torontonian came back home strongly convinced of the need for adult education. The new Ashdale library hosted meetings of the Worker’s Educational Association (WEA) and other measures designed to help local men and women “pull themselves up by their bootstraps”, very much in keeping with Andrew Carnegie’s vision for libraries. 


New South Wales W.E.A. Director Tells of Activities

Eagerness and enthusiasm were strongly manifested at the first organization meeting for the season of the Workers’ Educational Association, held in the Ashdale and Gerrard Street branch of the Public Library last evening.  Dr. W.. Grant, Principal of Upper Canada College, the President of the association, being in the chair…Dr. Grant presided. Alfred MacGowan, Vice-President; James Richards, the first President of the association, and Drummond Wren, the Secretary, also gave interesting addresses eulogizing the work of the association.

Globe, Oct. 11, 1927

There was wide support initially for the Worker’s Educational Association (WEA) and especially from George Locke, Chief Librarian, and the Toronto Public Library. (For more about the Worker’s Educational Association see “A Link Between Labour and Learning”: The Workers Educational Association in Ontario, 1917-1951  Ian Radforth and Joan Sangster in Labour/Le Travailleur Journal of Canadian Labour Studies, 8/9, Autumn 1981/82, p. 60.)

This support was clearly expressed at the Worker’s Educational Association’s first annual banquet held in the Blue Tea Rooms on March 28, 1928. The Principal of St. Andrew’s College, W. D. Grant praised the Association which was “aimed at offering every facility for the acquisition of knowledge by workers in their spare time at a minimum of expense to themselves.”  Toasts followed. Drummond Wren, WEA’s Secretary, proposed a toast to the University of Toronto which was involved in offering extension courses through Toronto’s public libraries. John Cunningham proposed a toast to “The Public Libraries of Toronto.”  George Locke was absent, being on vacation, but his secretary, Miss M. Ray, responded on his behalf. “Miss Ray said that the W.E.A. had no better friend than in Toronto than Dr. Locke, head of the public libraries, who could not be with them.”

In 1929 Drummond Wren became the General Secretary of the Workers’ Educational Association of Canada (WEA) and held that position until 1951. Jeffery M. Taylor, of Athabasca University, wrote a history, Union Learning: Canadian Labour Education in the Twentieth Century (Thompson Educational Publishing Inc., Toronto, 2001) that deals with WEA’s history in adult education. According to Wendy Terry, “many WEA students were primarily seeking a Liberal Arts education at a university level—one that they would not normally be able to afford. Many of the WEA students were not union members.” (Terry, Drummond Wren).

In 1929 William Wesley “Bill” Hiltz (Mayor of Toronto, 1924) must have been pleased to finally see a new library branch open: the Danforth branch now known as the Pape/Danforth Branch. He’d been championing it for more than a decade.

Toronto Star Feb 27 1930
Toronto Star, March 20, 1930

In 1929 the stock market crashed and the economy sunk into the Great Depression of the 1930s. In the Dirty Thirties, the Ashdale branch faced stiff competition from the Eastwood Theatre next door as “talkies” became enormously popular. Movies like Richard Barthelmes; “Young Nowheres” (Toronto Star, Feb. 27, 1930) and “They Had To See Paris” with Will Rogers (Toronto Star, March 20, 1930) gave new impetus to that old fib, “I’m only going to the library”. The hero of “Young Nowheres” is, appropriately enough for a film of the Great Depression, an elevator operator who falls in love and wins the heart of a hotel maid. (The film has been lost.)

University extension courses were offered in the evenings in the Ashdale library from the mid-1920s. In 1931, the WEA began free lectures for unemployed men and women. This was in co-operation with the Unemployment Educational Association.  In 1932 WEA began a summer school (Terry, Drummond Wren). The WEA was inclusive at a time when Canada was definitely not a multi-cultural society.

In many ways and at many levels it was an openly racist society. Imperialist notions of Anglo-Saxon supremacy were widely accepted in English Canada.

By 1934 there were 17 TPL branches in addition to the Central Library on College Street (now the University of Toronto’s Koffler Student Services Centre). Library usage shot up during the Great Depression, just as it does in economic downturns today. Locke commented that library users “had been spending their enforced idleness in reading literally hundreds of books”. The library, he said, was “a moral and …an intellectual and therapeutic agent for many people in distress.”

That would have been particularly true of the Ashdale branch which was situated in a working class neighbourhood hit hard by the Great Depression (Montreal Gazette, April 2, 1934). The Ashdale library continued to give adult education programs throughout the Dirty Thirties. In 1935, the branch hosted a series of six lectures on “The School-age Child”. This was organized in conjunction with the eastern branch of the home education committee of the Toronto Home and School Council. The first speaker was Mrs. Fred Bartlett, convener of home education for the Toronto Home and School council and a member of the staff of St. George’s School for Child Study. She spoke on “What Is Parent Education?” Other topics included “Educating the parent Through Books and Reading,” by Mrs. Harry Johnson; “The Hoe as an Educator,” by Mrs. Samuel Cohen; “How Children Learn,” by Dr. W.E. Blatz; “discipline in Home and School,” by Mrs. E.A. Bott; and Religious Education of the Child,” by Mrs. C.M. Hincks (Toronto Star, Feb. 9, 1935).

However, hard times made even the library’s slim pickings fair game for burglars. On December 11, 1936, thieves broke into the Ashdale branch after climbing a fire escape.  “Police state no damage was done to the books and only 25c was stolen” (Toronto Star, Dec. 12, 1936).

George H. Locke, a firm supporter of adult education, died on January 28, 1937, at the age of 67. First Chief Librarian James Bain (Chief Librarian 1883 – 1908) and his successor George H. Locke (Chief Librarian 1908 – 1937) oversaw the first 50 years of Toronto Public Library’s existence. “There are only a handful of names in librarianship which are known the world over, and Dr. Locke’s name is one of these,” Charles R. Sanderson, Deputy Chief Librarian of Toronto, said in paying tribute to his chief. “His status on this continent is shown not only by the splendid public library system here, but also because of the fact he was a past president of the American Library Association with 13,000 members” (Montreal Gazette, Jan. 29, 1937). According to newspaper reports, “He developed the Toronto Public Library from a small, dusty main library with four insignificant branches to an up-to-date giant organization with special facilities for children” (Montreal Gazette, Jan. 29, 1937).

Despite Locke’s death, TPL’s support for adult education at all levels, including local branches like Ashdale, continued. Drummond Wren2Drummond Wren had a hand in ending that oppressive society which gradually evolved into the more open Canada of today. It started innocently enough. Wren had bought a house in East York with the intention of auctioning it off to raise money for the Workers’ Educational Association. However, after he had purchased the property, he found that the property was bound by a restrictive covenant limiting its sale to Protestants. That restrictive covenant stated, “Land not to be sold to Jews or persons of objectionable nationality.” Drummond Wren found this highly objectionable so he took the case to court and fought to end all discriminatory restrictive covenants. Wren worked with future Chief Justice Bora Laskin to bring the case to a successful conclusion.

What made Wren’s case even more remarkable was that Wren’s lawyer did not rely on the Racial Discrimination Act. He didn’t argue about jurisdiction or technicalities. No. He argued that the restriction was against the public good and therefore void as being contrary to public policy. In other words, he argued that discrimination was simply wrong. Finally, a judge agreed. Judge Mackay believed that public policy must evolve as the society it serves evolves. He spoke of the terrible price Canada had paid for freedom and justice. He quoted the San Francisco Charter of the new United Nations, and leaders like Roosevelt and Churchill. Ultimately, the covenant was declared invalid, and Drummond went home and slept a little better.

from Human Rights in Canada: A Historical Perspective, The Canadian Human Rights Commission, available on line at

In 1945 Judge Mackay ruling on the Wren case, stated that restrictive covenants were offensive to the public good:

If sale of a piece of land can be prohibited to Jews, it can equally be prohibited to Protestants, Catholics or other groups or denominations. If the sale of one piece of land can be so prohibited, the sale of other pieces of land can likewise be prohibited.

Judge Mackay, from Re Drummond Wren, in Human Rights in Canada

By 1945 the Allies had opened the gates of the Nazi death camps to find the horrors there. Nazism was profoundly discredited. The judge in the Wren case found discrimination particularly odious in light of the fight against Nazism in Europe. It was becoming harder to justify such anti-Semitism at home. In another case, Justice Chevrier also ruled against restrictive covenants, stating in his decision, that:

“Racial and creed discrimination have been an outstanding evil. The horrible holocausts, the barbarous and sadistic cruelties inflicted upon certain races and creeds by a satanic direction in the present war, have melted the hearts and touched the souls of a multitude of people.”

Toronto Star, March 10, 1945

The struggle against racism was far from over. Nothing came easy. But a strong beginning had been made. Italians and Greeks moved into the Gerrard Street neighbourhood, but they weren’t always welcome. “Few voices expressed this view more directly or crudely than the member of the Orange Lodge who wrote Ontario’s premier in 1954 complaining of the recent infestation of “these ignorant, almost black people”, born in “a Vatican controlled country”, and whose young men were typically “armed with knives and…continually holding up people and especially ladies near parks and dark alleys” (Franca Iacovetta, Such Hardworking People: Italian Immigrants in Postwar Toronto. Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen’s. Press, 1992, 103, 106).

The neighbourhood was in decline despite a boom (and a baby boom) that fostered economic growth elsewhere. By 1957, a 30-year resident of the neighbourhood stated that he had “seen during the course of that time a considerable deterioration, partly due to age but mainly from tenants with no pride in the appearance of the property they rent and with little regard for the property of owners who try to hold back the inevitable creation of a slum area” (Toronto Star, June 20, 1957). Unemployment soared and this neighbourhood experienced high levels of poverty that did not end with the boom following World War II.

The future looked bleak for many working class people here, just as it had for their parents in places like Belfast, Glasgow, and Birmingham. The housing stock declined and the area gained an unenviable reputation as the factories closed down and Carlaw became a ghost town. However, in 1962, a new library opened in old Leslieville: the Jones branch and Jones and Dundas Street East. More change was to come in that decade.

Canada amended its Immigration Act in 1962, specifying that henceforth every prospective immigrant would be considered “entirely on his own merit, without regard to race, colour, national origin or the country from which he comes”.

In 1965 the Canadian Nazis Party tried to gain a toehold in this run-down, primarily Anglo-Canadian community. They ran their operations for a short period out of an old house on Rhodes Avenue. The neighbours did not approve:

First it was termites – now this!” exclaimed a woman who watched as William Beattie, a 23-year-old with a swastika arm band, alternately begged and commanded 50 non-sympathizers to get off his front lawn…He said to one onlooker: “If you’re a good Jew, you’ve got nothing to worry about. If you are a Communist Jew you will be hung.”

Windsor Star, April 22, 1965

Old businesses closed.  The Eastwood Theatre, 1430 Gerrard East shut down in 1966 unable to compete with television.

The 1960s ended with great change: Pierre Trudeau’s promise of a “just society”, a more open immigration policy, government espousal of multiculturalism, a new Ontario Human Rights Code and a Human Rights Commission. The restrictive and outright discriminatory nature of Canadian immigration regulations changed in 1967 with the introduction of the points system. These new regulations directly led to a dramatic increase in the number of non-white immigrants from the Caribbean, Asia and Africa from the 1970’s on.

The first South Asians to come to the area were well-trained and highly educated Asians. Idi Amin, president of Uganda and dictator, expelled that country’s South Asian merchants in August 1972. The British government urgently appealed to the Commonwealth to take in the refugees. Pierre Trudeau’s Liberal government accepted about 5,000 refugees initially. Officials and politicians moved carefully, fearing public opposition and a backlash. Eventually Ottawa relaxed the points system and medical requirements to allow another 4,420 Ugandan refugees to enter Canada. They came to Canada on an emergency airlift in fall 1972.  Another 1,278 Ugandan Asians followed 1973.

I remember this period well as at that time I worked for Employment and Immigration Canada and helped serve the long lines of South Asian refugees. They were not welcomed by all.

In the early 1970s, a far right political group moved onto Ashdale Avenue. The Western Guard was not welcome in the neighbourhood where their Nazi-style salutes were greeted with jeers and, in some cases, violence (Globe and Mail, July 30, 1973). In November of that year members of the group were charged with hate crimes (Globe and Mail, Nov. 13, 1973). In the next year members were charged with stealing a memorial plaque to Norman Bethune (Globe and Mail, March 4, 1974), but increasingly those of right wing, racist ideology would find themselves completely out of place as the Gerrard-Ashdale went through a dramatic change, becoming “Little India”.

Gian Naz transformed the abandoned Eastwood Theatre into the Naaz Theatre in 1972.  The theatre was packed with Indians traveling from all over Ontario to watch Bombay’s latest releases. Theatre would be the catalyst for a business district with more than 100 South Asian stores—the biggest Indian market in North America. The area was run down and shabby and still mostly Anglo-Saxon.  Many, but not all, locals were hostile to their new South Asian neighbours. There used to be lot of racist incidents, colloquially known as “Paki-bashing” in the mid-to-late 1970s. Racism led to taunts and sometimes violence.

In the late 1970s there was only a handful of Indian businesses in the Gerrard Street area, but a strong sense of community among the South Asian business people and their families.

In 1977 the Gerrard Ashdale Library was completely renovated by A. J. Diamond, Associates and renamed Gerrard/Ashdale Branch. It reopened in November of that year as a new, more modern building, no longer appearing as a genteel English manor house. However, the oak-beamed ceiling upstairs remained to testify to earlier times.

In 1980, a violent incident on the steps of the library spoke to some of the stresses involved with the changing demography of the neighbourhood and the new merchants on Gerrard Street. A  Gerrard Street East man, Andrew Robinson, claimed that he was assaulted by four men on July 27, 1980.  He alleged that his assailants threatened, “We’re going to kill you this time.” Achar Singh Sandhu, 23, of Kennedy Rd., Scarborough; Kormal Raj Goyara, 26, of Rusholme Rd.; Surinder Singh Dhillon, 21, of Woodycrest Ave.; and Jaspal Singh Samra, 31, of Howard St. pleaded not guilty. The racial overtones in this incident were clear, but they weren’t the first or the last in the neighbourhood (Toronto Star, Nov. 26, 1980). Racial taunts and shouts of “Paki” caused the fight. A group of kids who’d just left a pinball arcade, shouted “Paki” at South Asian passerbys on Gerrard (Toronto Star, Dec. 3, 1980).

The decades of anti-racist struggles against discrimination still had not touched some of the deeply ingrained attitudes towards immigrants, black Canadians and members of First Nations. Reports of police violence towards South Asians also occurred but gathered little attention in the media (Toronto Star, July 15, 1980).

In 1984, Drummond Wren, the local hero who had fought so long and hard for equality, died. He is buried in an unmarked grave in St. James Cemetery. In July, 1984, students were funded to begin a local history project that created collections in libraries, including the Gerrard-Ashdale Branch. Drummon Wren did not appear in that history collection.

By 1984, the strip on Gerrard Street East had become a government-approved Business Improvement Area, officially named “the Gerrard India Bazaar”. In the 1990s things began to change again as Leslieville was reborn as a desirable location for young middle-class couples to buy a “starter home” near downtown. Leslieville began to gentrify, but the Gerrard neighbourhood had already, in the mid-1970s, metamorphosed from its ugly cocoon into a vibrant Little India. South Asian immigrants, drawn to the Naaz cinema with its Bollywood movies, the sari shops and restaurants, transformed the Orange-dominated Anglo-Saxon inner city neighbourhood into something the members of the Roden Ratepayers’ Association would not have recognized.

Yet many of the landmarks were still here although transformed. The Eastwood Theatre became the Naaz cinema (now under development as a condominium). The Ulster Arms still served ale (until recently).

The Gerrard-Ashdale branch continued to change to meet the needs of its community and become more accessible. The branch closed on March 23, 1992 so that an elevator could be installed for better access to people with disabilities and so that the carpet could be replaced. By 1994 the local collection included material in Chinese and East Asian languages.

Everything about human rights and cultural diversity that we have today (and sometimes take for granted) was gained after long struggle, court case after court case, changing the public mind one person at a time. Because of the bravery and commitment of people like Wren and the quiet support of others, such as the librarians of the Ashdale Library, no one in Ontario today can be discriminated against by reason of race, creed or colour when buying a home. By 2014, the only restriction would-be Gerrard-Ashdale homeowners now face is the astronomically high cost of real estate in what is now a prime location.

This history is a story not just about dates or about great men and Great Wars. It focuses on a little place, a neighbourhood, and the ordinary people who made it.  No one should be lost in time. Even though we may not know their names, the people who lived here before us are neither invisible nor are their struggles forgotten. Through their lives they have created extraordinary things like the inclusive Ashdale-Gerrard community of today, literacy, human rights and libraries.

In this accounting we have indeed looked at what can be counted: books, money, casualty figures, etc. However, the hopes and dreams of many, like even the great Albert Einstein, encompass things that cannot be counted and these are often some of the most important. While the Gerrard-Ashdale neighbourhood has changed dramatically since it was first settled by British immigrants, some things remain: descendants, newcomers, immigrants, the streets, sewers, schools and library are still central to our urban landscape that we take for granted. Yet we know now the hard work and struggle that people put into getting even the most basic of services. Research shows that nothing can be taken for granted. Every single public service we have today began somewhere at some time and was fought for, paid for and treasured.  So it is with our community’s library.

The Gerrard Ashdale library still opens doors to dreams.

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