The Great Shacktown Crisis




By Joanne Doucette (copyright 2017)

A common saying around 1900 was that “it is desirable to keep Distress, Diseases and Domestics out of polite conversation.” “At the Sign of the Maple” in The Canadian Courier, Vol. III, No. 13 (Feb. 29th, 1908), 21.

Do you want to understand your Toronto neighbourhood of today?

Then let’s take a visual journey into the past of 110  years ago, boldly going places no one has gone before since society has forgotten Shacktown and the Great Panic of 1907.

I am writing this first draft of an upcoming book on a cold February day in 2017. If I listen I can hear a dog bark in this distance and the hum of the traffic and rumble of streetcars on Gerrard Street.

In 1908 it would have been another sound:

The sound of little children crying was yet in the wind that whimpers and blows over the land of tar-paper homes when The GLOBE reporter visited it last night.  Globe, Feb 1, 1908

1915 City of Toronto Map showing the recently annexed suburbs. These are virtually a map of the narrow half donut of “tar-paper castle” neighborhoods that came to be called “Shacktown”. I have colored Shacktown in beige.

Shacktown was made up of a series of separate shanty towns beginning in Parkdale in the west, Swansea, Runnymede, The Junction, Earlscourt, Fairmount, Mount Denis; through Wychwood, Bracondale, parts of Forest Hill, Deer Park and the Don Valley; to Todmorden, Chester, Doncaster, the Gerrard-Coxwell neighbourhood, parts of Leslieville (the Devil’s Hollow and Eastern Avenue), and through to beyond East Toronto (the Main Street area).

Below is a slide show composed of the map above and a series of 1913 Goad’s Atlas maps showing the areas of Shacktown “across the Don”.

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Same Physical Space

CAPTION: “A suburban street peopled by working men. Where the township road is the highway and the foot-path in the grass serves for a sidewalk; soon to become part of a big city.”

For many new British immigrants the years of 1904, 1905, and 1906 were the best years of their lives. This serene, quiet little street in the photo above reflects a life outside of the City of Toronto. Summers were warm, but not hot; winters were mild with little snow.

This was time and for picnics, walks through the nearby pine and oak woods, and playing outside.

The Ashdale Ravine, Shacktown, Rhodes Avenue
Looking north on Ashdale Avenue, September 22, 1912. On the right is a common kind of shack. The family has dug and poured the concrete for the basement and built a tar-paper structure and roof on top to live through the next winter. This kind of shack was actually much warmer and easier to heat than most because earth is a good insulator and most of the dwelling was below ground out of the wind.

Different Social Space

Union JackAlthough we still live on the same flat areas that they called the “Goose Flats” and beside
the same ravines and on the same hills, we live in a very different space socially. The Ontario of 2017 is not the Ontario of 1907.

Was always a multicultural society? Not unless you consider “multicultural” to mean English, Scottish, Welsh and Ulster Irish.

Outing, Vol. XXXV, Oct. 1899-March, 1900. New York.

The White Man’s Burden

Most of Toronto’s residents truly believed in the superiority of the so-called “Anglo-Saxon race” — although they lumped the Celtic Scots, Welsh and Irish under the Anglo-Saxon banner. Toronto society at all levels was characterized by a firmly-held set of unquestioned beliefs, epitomized by the illustrations above and below:

  1. There is such a thing as “race” and the world was neatly divided up into the various races each with its own distinctive features.
  2. One race, the Caucasian or “Anglo-Saxon” was superior to all the others.
  3. All the other races were inferior and, as such, were doomed either to extinction (e.g. First Nations) or subservience (“Negros”).
  4. The Country (Britain) peopled by the superior race (British people) were destined to rule an Empire composed of the Motherland (The United Kingdom); Colonies peopled by Caucasians; and those peopled by “lesser breeds without the law” from the National Hymn of Britain. See for the lyrics and to listen to it.
  5. It was “The White Man’s Burden” to bring the Gospel (and Pears soap?) to the lesser races, conquer them by British Grit and the strength of the Royal Navy, and bring them into the Empire. As God made Man to rule Woman, and Man to Rule all Living things (The Bible, Genesis), it was the White Man’s Burden to Rule The World.
The Canadian Courier, Vol. VIII, No. 17, September 17, 1910

Canada was called “The Dominion of Canada” to recognize that it was part of the British Empire.

To be living in a Dominion is to be dominated which was a good thing.

Especially if you belonged to the right race and spoke the right language and believed in the right religion.

No one seemed to challenge the concept of “race”, completely discredited now.

Rudyard Kipling spoke to a cheering audience in Ottawa:


Breed and racial history will tell on his citizenship in this country…I would rather have a poor looking horse of good stock than a good looking horse of poor stock.

Pick your immigrants, and remember British history and British traditions.

… those who had borne the white man’s burden were still the best of earth’s races.

Rudyard Kipling, Toronto Star, Oct 21, 1907

Typical English slum c 1913
The deserving poor: Typical English slum demolished c. 1913
The Undeserving Poor: Breadline in the Ward, Toronto. Photo from Emerson G. Hough, “The Sowing,” The Canadian Courier, Vol. IV, No. 20 (October 17th, 1908

The Dominion of Canada wanted the best possible people to settle here. Naturally, that meant “British people” and this term only applied to Anglo-Saxon, English-speaking, Christians.

Everyone else was not wanted or, at least, not wanted very much.

This photo is from Emerson Hough’s book, The Sowing. Britain needed to plant or sow its Empire with the right seed, the Britisher, or it was in danger of being overwhelmed by hordes of Jews, Eastern Europeans, “brown-skinned” people and “Orientals”.


People were especially afraid of “The Yellow Peril”: a flood of immigrants from China and Japan.

These races which, although still inferior, were outnumbered Caucasian peoples (numerical superiority).

They were industrializing rapidly and were supposedly more cunning (i.e. intelligent) than the other lesser peoples and were beginning to build up strong military forces with modern weaponry.

Red Flags

The Canadian Courier Vol. XI, No. 14, March 2, 1912 British children lining up at a soup kitchen in an English city
Women coming to Canada to work as domestic servants. The Canadian Courier, Vol. XI, No. 14, March 2, 1912

Especially Desirable

At least 5,000 girls are needed as domestic servants. The extraordinary feature of that class of emigrants is that they get married so quickly. Toronto Star, February 24, 1906

A Quid a Week, Grub, and a Chance to Splice The BossToronto Star, February 2, 1907

The home life in the younger Britains is in danger of decadence, owing to the paucity of women . Toronto Star, January 5, 1907

But fear of rampant homosexuality, ridiculous and homophobic as this last quote is, should have been the least of the Dominion’s worries. There were warning signs of disaster to come.

British immigrants. - [1911?]
British immigrants, Toronto, c. 1911. William James collection, City of Toronto Archives.
Why didn’t people see the warnings?


The desire to “pump in the white man” was strong.

The steamship lines, steamship agents, realtors and investors made enormous profits with little outlay — and quick profits.

The charities thought they were doing a great public service while benefiting financially at the same time.

Canadian farmers got cheap labour. The grain harvest was moved. Even the use by the Canadian Manufacturers’ Association had agents in London, England, to bring in factory workers under the table to undercut trade unionism and break strikes.

13a-red-flagBritish Bonus AND corruption: a contract which would enable a few men to make their fortune at the expense of the country. St. John Daily Sun, Apr. 25, 1906


Propaganda: Poor people in London…were told that all they had to do was to come to Canada, and without money, obtain work and homes in this country.… General fear was expressed that the coming winter would bring a lot of suffering among recently arrived immigrants in Toronto. Toronto Star, Sept. 25, 1907

“I did not know when I was well orf. ’Ad a pound a week, a cottage and a cow and threw it hup to come ‘ere. Them bloody lies told by the h’emigration people caught me. And it was all Toronto – Toronto, Queen City of the west, streets paver with gold and hall that tommy-rot. Work for all! Where is it?” Toronto World, Jan. 15, 1911

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13a-red-flagNo demand for labour except farms: Mr. Walsh [Associated Charities].. They should be told plainly that they would have to work on farms. Hundreds of Englishmen and others came out here and said that farms had never been mentioned to them. Toronto Star, Dec. 10, 1906

No effective system of dealing with immigrants: For the first eight months of this year [1907] the total immigration to Canada was 216,865, an increase of 50,058 as compared with the first eight months of 1906. The total for the eight months is more than the total immigration during the whole six years, 1896 to 1902. Toronto Star, Oct. 4, 1907


These British immigrants are crossing the pedestrian overpass, “The Bridge of Sighs”, from Union Station to Front Street. They are carrying everything they own, wearing their “Sunday Best” and hoping for the best.



 Toronto’s house famine experience is along somewhat the same lines as that of the cities of the old world. The introduction of electric street cars failed to clear the crowded centers, and authorities state that were the rules of the Health Department strictly enforced thousands would be turned on to the streets with nowhere to go. Our building by-laws have in some cases prevented the erection of needed frame and roughcast houses. Toronto Star, Jan. 19, 1905

We are now in the midst of good times, when temporary work may be found for many who could not be employed under normal conditions. When hard times come, we may find ourselves confronted with very serious social problems as the result of misguided zeal for increase of population. Toronto Star, May 13, 1907


The residents of Doncaster are uneasy over the spread of typhoid fever in that locality. Toronto Star, Nov. 21, 1904


“The Englishman in Canada has most of his troubles when he arrives.” The snow and cold of the harsh winter of 1908 stunned the British immigrants. The Canadian Courier, Vol. V, No. 1, December 5, 1908

City of Toronto Archives, Series 1465, File  314, Item 1. British immigrants arriving in Toronto in the early 1920s.

Thousands from the  slums of East London, Manchester, Leeds, Sheffield, Birmingham, Liverpool, Glasgow, Belfast and other cities packed into the steerage class rooms of steamships to come to Canada.

Charities paid for their tickets in many cases.

19121014 Poster lecture on CanadaThe Dominion of Canada’s Government wanted British immigrants with British ideals and paid the charities and the steamship agents money — per capita. For every British immigrant these organizations sent the received “The British Bonus”.

Both charities, like the Salvation Army and the agents such as the White Star Line (owners of the Titanic) and others vigorously recruited people to come to Canada.

Canada’s economy was booming and thousands in Ontario were leaving the farm to head for Toronto and jobs in the factories. New plants sprang up downtown and at the edge of the city.

Electric power from the new hydro project at Niagara Falls made this growth possible. The unemployment rate in Toronto and other large Canadian cities was virtually zero.

General William Booth, founder of the Salvation Army, Daily Telegraph, June 14, 1907

Meanwhile rural depopulation left farmers in a bind: they relied on low-paid, uneducated but knowledgeable farm hands: the very men who had gone to “The Queen City” or “The Belfast of the North” — Toronto.

The West needed new immigrants both as farmers and as farm labor, especially in the grain harvest in the fall. Farm work was still largely non mechanized and even with mechanical reapers, thrashers and combines, men were needed by the many thousands.

The steamship agents and charities were supposed to only recruit farm laborers and not bring in factory workers, skilled mechanics, and tradesmen like carpenters and plumbers. There was no demand for them.

Sometimes the charities trained men to become farmers, but that training, done on small English farms, was virtually worthless in Canada.

Sometimes the agents and charity recruiters told the men that they could only come if they were willing to work on a farm.

General William Booth strongly support assisted immigration to Canada and defended it from even the mildest criticism. However, it is clear that the Salvation Army was part of the problem, bringing over thousands of impoverished people. It was also part of the short-term solution, opening soup kitchens, shelters, etc.

Sometimes agents and charities told the immigrants that farm workers made only $125 a year while the average factory worker made $7 a week or about $364 a year.

Often they didn’t.

Many British emigrants did not have a clue what they were getting into. Sometimes although the men knew that their trades were not welcome, they lied and wrote “farm worker” or “farmer” on the applications to come to the Dominion.

The Dominion Government in Ottawa gave no thought to where all these prospective “farmers” would live. Ottawa believed that they would all immediately get on trains at Union Station in Toronto and happily head out west to the Prairies where homes awaited on farms.

Others thought they were headed to prosperous farms on the hard rock country of the Canadian Shield or in the Clay Belts of Northern Ontario.

No one imagined that they would come to Toronto and go no further. Toronto was in a “house famine” or housing shortage from the influx of rural Ontario to work in the factories. Even well-to-do young married couples couldn’t find apartments or houses.


There was no housing for the new immigrants who got off the trains, found out the true terms of their prospective employment, and went no further.


13a-red-flagThe new immigrants had great hopes, especially for their children.

“Why did you come to Canada?” “We came for our boys’ sake…it was a constant struggle, and we came to the conclusion to come here in the hope that the boys would have a chance better than at home.” Toronto Star, May 4, 1907

Those hopes were soon dashed, often right at Union Station.

Many refused to go with the farmers who were at the station. They claim that they were led to expect higher wages than are offered. Toronto Star, Feb 18, 1907


Those who thought they would have permanent jobs on farms out West found that the grain harvest jobs were only seasonal. Many “rode the rails” back to Toronto.

I was working on a farm but was not wanted after the harvest, so I came here, thinking I could get work. I am starving.

I was shipped out from the old country on a cheap rate. Sold out my home to come here, on the strength of emigration advertising. I have been unable to get a job since I came here. Toronto World,  Jan. 15, 1911

Now most people who work in factory jobs or as skilled trades people think of themselves as “middle class”.  In that period before World War One most British immigrants were self-consciously working class. Many had been union members back in The Old Country. There was a sowing going on in that pre-War period, but the seeds were planting social unrest.

Winnipeg-GeneralStrike10 (1)
Winnipeg General Strike, 1919 Public Domain.

Unemployment remained high right up until the outbreak of World War One. The Shacktown communities emptied of men as they enlisted both for patriotic reasons and for the money.


The Coxwell-Gerrard neighbourhood Shacktown and the Earlscourt Shacktown had the highest enlistment rate in World War One. About every third house lost a man killed in action, died of wounds, or a victim of the diseases spread by trench life.

When they came home, they came home bitter, disillusioned and, to their shock, unemployed…again.

What in hell do we have to hope for
War veterans protesting lack of work on Thanksgiving, probably 1919, City of Toronto Archives.

They were mad and they weren’t going to take it any more.

… incredible as it may seem, the poor have feelings. Toronto World, Jan 15, 1911

Manufacturing Shacktown

Real estate agents, acting for private investors, had purchased farms and market gardens in the Township of York just outside the City of Toronto limits. They “nursed” these projects, sometimes for decades, leasing the land to farmers and market gardeners.

They were waiting for the right time to develop subdivisions; some were already laid out and registered. When the flood of immigrants came pouring across the Bridge of Sighs into Toronto’s downtown from Union Station, the real estate agents were ready.

They divided their holdings into lots and sold those lots as quickly as they could to the newcomers, relying on sales volume to make their fortunes.

They sold lots “on the cheap”. They sold the lot at a set amount per foot of frontage and arranged mortgages at a low rate, usually about 6 percent on a short term of about five years.

Often the real estate agent was involved with the trust company or bank that offered the mortgage.

Often the real estate agent was only a front for a consortium of investors in Britain or wealthy Torontonians like Sir Henry Pellatt.

Only two dozen men held most of the wealth of Canada in 1907. Frederick B. Robins was the biggest of all these real estate agents. He owned Robins Realty Co., but was also deeply involved in banks and trust companies.

So was Wilfrid Servington Dinnick of the Erie Land Company who was the developer of Erie Terrace (Craven Road) and Reid Avenue (Rhodes Avenue) just outside Toronto’s eastern city limits.


Who would be without a house when he can build it for $40?

There is a deep and growing feeling of resentment against the landlords becoming more and more evident among the tenants. Some of them are slow to anger, and say little, but others of a more fiery disposition voice their wrongs and sorrows quite forcibly.

Toronto Star, May 28, 1904

What is going on, in fact, is the creation of the future slums of a greater Toronto… these very districts are being used by avaricious people for the building up of the slums of the future.

Toronto Star, Nov. 2, 1907

The Canadian Courier Vol. XIII. No. 6, January 11, 1913

Wilfrid Dinnington Servington was responsible for creating the long, linear slums on Craven Road and Rhodes Avenue, but he claimed later that he was doing a service providing working men and their families homes in a housing shortage. A shack or a tent was better than nothing. And perhaps he was right.

We have exercised a powerful influence in the destiny of Toronto. We have done much to shape its extensions. We have opened up, developed and built up thousands of acres of land which at one time were considered “out in the country”

… we have studied its real estate so thoroughly during all these years that we have always been able to forecast its direction of growth. We have accordingly opened up, developed and sold to our clients, subdivision after subdivision – always just on the edge of the city’s expansion, so that the increase in value has been immediate and the profits to our customers have amounted to millions of dollars. Evening Record, Dec. 6, 1913

Dinnington and Robins and their investors made their fortunes by building Shacktowns but they wanted bigger and better things. Later they were involved in more upscale projects like Lawrence Park.

At the time, they congratulated themselves and were congratulated for performing a public service, housing. W. S. Dinnington, speaking of the Coxwell-Gerrard Shacktown, boasted:

We have 500 people coming in here and paying their $5 each every month now…This plan has solved the problem of the workingmen’s houses. I drove through this section, and found that most of the people were Old Country immigrants, and the heads of the families all had permanent positions. They were all as happy as clams in their little homes.

Globe, Aug 10, 1906

Toronto Star, November 26, 1907

These were good investments. The real estate agents placed many ads aimed at working class families in Toronto newspapers. They also placed ads aimed at small contractors and investors here in Toronto, but also ads and stories in financial papers in Britain, particularly London.

Robins: WHERE INVESTMENT IS BEST In the past few years the value of Toronto Real Estate has increased from 50 to 100%. THE OUTLOOK in the Real Estate Market was never better than now. Houses are scarce – how many families are now boarding and paying storage for their furniture because they cannot get suitable houses? What does it mean? It means that there is going to be expansion; vacant land is going to be bought and houses are going to be built by people who are sick of having their rent raised or of having houses sold over their heads.

Toronto Star, May 5, 1906



F. B. Robins’ home, Strathrobyn, in one of his “better” subdivisions, Sidley Park. Construction [Vol. 10, no. 5 (May 1917)] . Sidley Park is now Armour Heights, at Bathurst and Wilson. Today it is the Canadian Forces College where our military trains its Generals and other “top brass”.


Dinnington was a smart marketer, though, unfortunately, a dabbler in “creative accounting” or “cooking the books”. In Britain the metamorphosis from lowly and sometimes ugly, real estate caterpillar to “investment banker” butterfly was complete.

The Dinnick House, photo by Peter Scott, 1981. Toronto Public Library. Northern District Branch. Local History Collection.

This is the Dinnick House, 77 St Edmunds Drive, in Lawrence Park, the beautiful and exclusive subdivision, developed in the 1920s. It was the pride and joy of W. S. Dinnick and Frederick B. Robins and a shining example of the Garden Suburb in Canada. For more about the Dinnick House see:


This ad is from 1904 when Dinnick and Robins had just purchased the Rhodes Avenue and Craven Road property from speculator Edmund H. Duggan. No stranger to high pressure sales tactics, the text reads:

The procrastinator of 1904 may become reminiscent in 1910 and give evidence against himself as he tells how in 1904 he could have bought a lot in Reid Avenue for $150 by paying $5 down and $5 per month. his hearers will wonder how he could have been so stupid as to have neglected such an opportunity.

The lots on Reid Avenue (Rhodes Avenue) were big, but often the small investor/purchaser divided the lot into two parts. The lots on Erie Terrace (Craven Road) were small — only 10 or 15 feet wide.

In many cases the Reid Avenue Shackers (Shacktown residents) built their shanties fronting onto Erie Terrace. They planned to build bigger and better houses fronting on Reid Avenue on their bigger and better lots. Sometimes the Reid Avenue lot had two shacks: one fronting on Reid, the other on Erie, as in the photos below.

Robins also acted as real estate agent for the Ashbridge brothers when they sold their farm in 1907. Fred Robins was the dealer and developer for almost all of the block of land between Greenwood Avenue on the west and Coxwell on the east, the railway track on the north down almost to Queen Street on the south.

His subdivisions filled up quickly with immigrants and shacks, sending shivers of fear through the medical community — and with good reason.

The Monster in the Well


Shacktown was in the Township of York. The Township welcomed their tax money and turned its face away from the rural slum that it allowed.

The Township provided a school sometimes (e.g. the Roden Public School). They paid the teaching staff, all women, including the Principal, as little as possible. When the City of Toronto took over this Shacktown in 1909, they promptly fired the very competent Principal and replaced her with a man at a higher salary.

Shacktown children at Roden Public School, Ashdale Ave., w. side, n. of Gerrard St. E.; infant class, 1911, from the collection of the Toronto Public Library.

The Township did not improve the incredibly bad roads. It saved money, but also could help to keep the Township rural, or so some thought.

Councillor Baird stated that he was very much opposed to paying out money for good roads and then have “the automobile fellow” come out on them from Toronto. He stated that these machines went at a terrific rate, and were very dangerous.

Toronto Star, November 27, 1903

Abandoned by the Township of York, outside the City of Toronto, the Shackers had no running water, no sewers, no police and no fire services. But their taxes were low compared to Toronto.

They lived in their shacks as close to the city line as possible. This was so they could walk to whatever work they could find. They could also walk into the City to scavenge scraps of wood, tar-paper and whatever they could to build their “typhoid traps”.

This Typhoid Monster is a based on a map of the Shacktowns that formed a half donut around Toronto. This also constitutes a map of F. B. Robins and W. S. Dinnick’s 1904-1914 subdivisions
A 1915 City of Toronto map with the Shacktown area clipped out.
A poster from “The Old Country” warning of the danger of having a well too close to a privy. Source unknown. Public domain.


Shacks on Rhodes Avenue looking south towards Ashbridge’s Bay from the GTR (CNR) line, April 18, 1912.

Beer mugIronically, the very men and women who worked so hard to help the Shackers also limited their access to the one liquid that they could be sure had no typhoid: Beer.

Prohibition and social reform went hand in hand at that time.

The temperance movement had wide support in the old Leslieville but not in Midway’s Shacktown. In England social life revolved around the parish and the pub. There were no licensed pubs in Midway.

Beer would have been far safer than water.


This was no April Fool’s Joke, but the simple truth. Beer was boiled, filtered and boiled some more. Everyone drank beer in Britain, even children (watered down). Toronto Star, April 1, 1911

The makeshift houses were themselves dangerous. Tar-paper was highly inflammable and without fire services flames quickly spread along a street.

outhouseBut the most dangerous shacks were the small ones in the back yards next to the wells. Many were on buried creeks. The waste from the outhouses spread through the sand into the water table and into the wells.

The Panic of 1907


Wall Street During Oct 17, 1907 Brokers, bankers and others flood onto the street as the stock market crashed curing the Panic of 1907. Source Unknown. Public Domain.

 …the tide of prosperity rolled on almost without check until the beginning of 1907, prices advancing, the stock market booming, bank clearances swelling, the average man convinced that good times, being deeply rooted in natural conditions, would persist so long as the sun shone and the rains fell.

Joseph French Johnson, “The Crisis and Panic of 1907.” Political Science Quarterly, 23, no. 3 (1908), 454-67.

What was behind the Panic of 1907?

1905 and 1906 were boom years with easy credit and high employment.

  • Many financial institutions were lending more money than they themselves were worth and often the collateral was valueless or its value inflated.
  • The cost of living was growing faster than the increase in working people’s wages.
  • Speculators and financiers were growing rich while the poor, particularly the urban poor, were feeling the pinch or borrowing to get the little luxuries of life. People who had next to nothing paid on credit or on installment plans: for houses, for clothes, for vacations, for funerals, for weddings, for Christmas.
  • It was also a time when many little people, without much understanding of stocks, played the market, investing what little they had (sometimes borrowed) to buy cheap and hopefully get rich overnight.
  • People in all walks of life had locked up their money in real estate and put their savings into junk mining stocks fed by new finds in northern Ontario.

The 1906 San Francisco Earthquake initiated the Panic as British financial institutions sold securities to pay insurance claims from that catastrophe. This triggered more and more sell-offs of securities.

At the same time, speculators tried unsuccessfully to corner the market on copper by buying up the stock of the United Copper Company.

The banks and trust companies did not have adequate reserves to back their loans. At some point they would have to tighten their credit.

People withdrew their money from the banks that had lent to the copper speculators. A week later the Knickerbocker Trust Company collapsed. This was New York City’s third-largest trust company.

On October 16, 1907, the “Panic of 1907’ (also called the 1907 Bankers’ Panic or Knickerbocker Crisis) hit.

A bank panic ensued as people withdrew their savings from banks and trust companies.  Regional banks withdrew their reserves from New York City banks creating a domino effect leading to more and more runs and more and more bank collapses.

Over three weeks from the middle of October, the New York Stock Exchange plunged, losing nearly half its value from its peak in 1906.

Some Canadian banks and trust companies were involved in the same unwise practices as though south of the border.

For example, Sir Henry Pellatt had his fingers in a number of pies. To put it more politely, he had diversified his interests widely across banking (the Home Bank, Standard Loans and Trust, etc.) and stock brokerage (Pellatt and Pellatt), real estate development (The Land Securities Company, Toronto Estates Company, Dovercourt Homes, etc.).

He was smart, personable, egotistical and unethical, as were many but not all of the successful “robber barons” and many smaller financial kingpins were. Sometimes it pays to be a sociopath.

Immediately rumours began to circulate that Sir Henry Pellatt was bankrupt.

The photo of Sir Henry Pellatt and his “pet” regiment, The Queen’s Own Rifles. From The Canadian Courier Vol. VII. No. 25 (May 21st, 1910). After the 1907 financial crisis, “Sir Henry Pellatt”, Sons of Canada, 248
Casa Loma, Sir Henry Pellatt’s, castle on a hill
Standing in line, hoping to withdraw savings that had already vanished. Source Unknown. Public Domain.

Five Canadian banks failed between 1905 and 1908. The failure, in January 1908, of the Sovereign Bank was the biggest.


The Panic lasted from October 16 to November 7, 1907, but the financial crisis was much longer.

Both the US and Canada slipped into depression as a result of the Panic. Canada’s per capita GDP growth fell by 7.8% in 1908 as a result of the crisis on Wall Street.

In Canada and the USA banks tightened their lending and credit became hard to find.

Banks foreclosed on mortgages and factories laid off workers by the thousands. “Last hired, first fired” struck the Shackers over and over again.

The federal government had to offer financial assistance to ensure that the Prairie grain harvest got to market.

The consensus of opinion seems to be that while newcomers to Canada this year will have rather a difficult time, that on the whole there is nothing to indicate real hard times throughout the Dominion. 

Toronto Star, November 13, 1907

Financier and banker John Pierpont Morgan stepped in and pledged his own money to stabilize the banks. He lead by example and encouraged other millionaires to do the same. J. P. Morgan earned the credit for “saving the street” after the panic on Wall Street.

All this was before U.S. government passed the Federal Reserve Act in 1913 and the creation of the Federal Reserve System. Canada’s Bank Act was amended after collapse of the Home Bank in 1923.

Source unknown. Public Domain.



“It is almost impossible to get people in the city to believe how some of the families are existing,” said a gentleman who had done considerable relief work. “In one home I went into there was the mother, father, and 5 children living in a shack that had been put up in a hurry by the father during the fall. The father had been out of work for some weeks, and in order to provide food for the family the mother hired out as a washerwoman in the city.

Toronto Star, Dec. 12, 1907


Photo from The Archives of Ontario

Not being able to buy boots or winter clothes so their children could go to school devastated the Shackers, as the worst winter in living memory took hold.

The woman’s shoes were worn out, and she was wearing her husband’s boots. the husband had to look after the children while his wife was out working, and he had to get along as best he could without his boots. I gave the mother some money, and she bought a pair of boots.

In another home I found a family too poor to buy boots for a little girl who should have been going to school. I got the size of boots required, and bought the little girl a pair in the city and took them out to her. She is now fit to go to school.

Toronto Star, Jan. 25, 1908

But individual acts of compassion were not going to be enough.

Thousands were in the same condition: no money, no food, no winter clothes, no coal for the stove, no money for doctors and a home made of cardboard, old packing crates, skids or soap boxes, with no insulation except rags and newspaper stuffed in the cracks.

The thermometer began to drop and drop and drop.



Thousands of recently-arrived British immigrants – sturdy English and Scotch mechanics and laborers—have built little houses of their own, houses in many case ill able to withstand the blasts of winter.

There, with the British pride we all inherit, many of the newcomers are silently suffering cold and hunger.

After a statement from a staff reporter [Britton Cooke] who has been looking into the conditions in Shacktown, The Globe felt warranted in taking immediate action.

There is not idea of creating a charity organization. The money contributed is merely loaned to self-respecting people who will, when they are able, pay it back by helping someone else in time of need.

Globe, Jan. 28, 1908

Investigative reporter before his time, Britton B Cooke, from a private collection

Britton B. Cooke:


 We have had a week of the severest weather recorded in a generation.

Clothing is being supplied, too, in very large quantities, and the distribution has been wonderfully prompt and effective – thanks to the army of volunteers assisting in the work. They have not dropped in for a few hours, but day after day they are “fighting the wolf.”

The wolf, Hunger, can have no place in Canada.

Globe, Feb. 5, 1908

Stuart Lyon, Globe Editor, The Canadian Courier Vol. VII, No. 9, January 29, 1910

Cooke  described a situation in Little Piccadilly where a 12-year old girl was looking after her six  younger brothers and sisters alone.

The mother had died in October, 1907, and later father was laid off. He spent all their savings on his wife’s funeral and so was left with nothing to draw on during the hard winter that followed.

Neighbors pitched in to help the 12-year old who was responsible for making the fire in the stove and keeping it going, cooking the meals, washing and clothing the other children.

The father scraped by with odd jobs until the beginning of January when he could find no work. The competition from thousands of other recently arrived British immigrants was intense.

For two weeks the family subsisted on liver and potatoes and nothing else, but then the father became ill and the girl called a doctor in. He diagnosed a case of bronchitis, serious in those days before antibiotics.

Little girl scavenging for fuel at the Consumers’ Gas Plant on Eastern Avenue. Close up from a photo in the collection of Library and Archives Canada When a train came along a rail line Shacker children swarmed mob to the rails. The ones that were there first got the coal that tumbled out of the coal cars. Even  half burned clinkers were a treasure. Many children met their deaths this way, struck by the locomotive or pulled under the box cars.

As the doctor tended the sick man, the 6 younger children crowded on another bed across the shack, huddled behind their older sister. Chilled to the bone, the doctor asked the girl to put some coal on the fire:

 “Please, could you let us ‘have a bit o’coal?”  asked the doctor.

“No sir,” replied the little head of the house.  “That’s the last of it. I picked it up along the track just so long as I could, sir. I used to get quite a bit, but I ‘urt me foot and m’shoes wore out, so I couldn’t go any more, sir.

Globe, Feb. 5, 1908

The Globe called for donations to total $18,000, the sum Stuart Lyon and Britton Cooke thought necessary to provide relief for six weeks until the spring. The Shacktown Relief Fund was probably the biggest charitable drive in Canadian history to that date. Their goal was:

To relieve the destitution, following upon lack of employment in the ring of territory surrounding the city but outside the city limits. Globe, Feb. 3, 1908

They looked at the map of Shacktown and divided into seven districts (later eight) with a manager or “convener” in charge of each district. In all cases the convenor was an ordained minister.

The chair of the Shacktown Relief Fund was the Rev. Dr. Abraham, a Presbyterian theologian voluntarily working in one of the poorest kirks in Ontario.

When the Shacktown crisis began with the first cold weather in the fall of 1907, the churches put their resources to meeting the needs of not only their own congregations, but those who went to other churches or no church at all.

“The first thing we do,” said the preacher, “is to get them warm, and to feed them. After that, we can tell them about Christ.” Toronto Star, Nov. 19, 1906

But the resources of the churches were not enough. Ministers and priests had little left to offer but prayers and compassion and these were not edible.

In the first days, funds poured into the Shacktown Relief Fund from all walks of life and from across Ontario and Canada and even around the world.

A child sent in the money saved in a piggy bank to buy a new set of toy blocks. A cowboy from the American range sent in his small contribution. Others with deeper pockets dug deeper, and then deeper again and again.

Sectarian division, Catholic against Protestant, Orangemen against Irish Catholics, the bane of Toronto in the 19th century, was set aside as it had been when the Potato Famine victims arrived starving and sick on Toronto’s wharves in 1847.
Shacktown, Morley Avenue (Woodfield Rd.) with the new house in the foreground and a shack in the background (with outhouse). The water tower is in a brickyard. The photo is from a private collection.

The receipt of this money enabled the committee to distribute supplies freely yesterday, and all the church organizations in the district – Anglican, Presbyterian, Roman Catholic, Methodist and Baptist – have entered the organization.

Globe, Jan. 30, 1908

Looking west from 275 woodfield rd. toward greenwood This house was built by my great uncle Jack Miller the year was 1915 or 1916 Look at the old water tower in the distance
New house foreground, shack and outhouse background. Water tower in brickyard. Morley Avenue (Woodfield Rd). From a private collection.

Globe reporter, Britton Cooke:

In a little two-roomed home under a thin cluster of pine trees the reporter found a woman whose husband was sick, and who by great good luck was able to get a few days’ washing occasionally. There were two children, and by the woman’s work food was supplied the little household. For fuel the children were sawing up an old pine tree with a borrowed saw. But the woman was wearing her husband’s boots, with cardboard inverted to replace the soles.

“How is it,” The Globe asked, “that you were caught by the winter without any provision?”

“Well,” the woman explained, a little on the defensive, “John built the house here and we moved in. Along in Oct. it was done, but when we moved in there was always little things needed –some paper here, some more boards there, and a window in the back, so the little ‘e could spare ‘e laid aside for such things of paid it on the lot. When the foundry got slack ‘e went’ ‘a didn’t expect it like, and we ‘adn’t nothing laid by. So that’s ‘ow it is, sir, yes, sir.”  

Globe, Jan. 28, 1908

The American Golfer, Vol. II, No. 1, July 1909, p. 53

But in this Shacktown relief work it is the privilege of the strong and kind in other places to have a share.

Globe, Feb. 5, 1908

Some of those who dug deepest were the creme de la creme of Toronto society. This included the members of The Toronto Golf Club who had more reason to care than most wealthy Torontonians.

At that time, the Toronto Golf links ran from just east of Coxwell Avenue on the west to the Town of East Toronto on the east.

Their magnificent and quirky clubhouse, Fern Hill, sat on high ground with a wonderful view across their links and over the Lake. On clear days they could see the mist from Niagara Falls and the Niagara Escarpment.

But to get to their Clubhouse they had to go either up the miserable, sandy track that was Gerrard Street East or the slightly less-rutted Coxwell Avenue…right through Shacktown.

Outing. v.15 (Oct 1889-Mar 1890), 29.

Most of Toronto’s wealthiest citizens belonged to private clubs such as The Granite Club and prestigious churches such as St. James Cathedral.

In many ways the wealthiest class in Toronto was like a small village, as Leslieville had been. They were god parents to each other’s children; They went to the same schools and universities.

Globe, November 7, 1896 1They played the same games and wintered at the same resorts.

They married each other and buried each other and lie in the same cemeteries. Often they are in huge, elaborate mausoleums like those in St. James Cemetery and Mount Pleasant Cemetery.

They also gossiped, had affairs, shared good times and bad, and grieved over lost children.

In short they were human just like anyone else — no better and no worse. I don’t wish to apologize for them, or even explain them — if I could, which is doubtful. But I don’t want to demonize them either.

Spectators at a race. - 1911
Spectators at a race, Woodbine, 1911

There was little “old money” in Toronto and many had climbed the social ladder through hard work, risk-taking, luck and good timing.

Though some were scoundrels in pinstripes, most were more or less devout, principled and generous. When the Shacktown Crisis hit, they had the money to make a difference. And they gave it.

These wealthy men and women watched Shacktown spring up from 1904 onwards, one flimsy structure, one or two poor families at a time and then in a surge during 1907.

They got to know their poor neighbors who waved and called out as they passed by in their carriage or on foot. Golfers are great walkers.

Postmarked 1907. The Toronto Public Library.

Though some were touched by the Panic of 1907, many of Toronto’s elite were wise and smart investors, captains of industry, top bankers, lawyers and doctors. Their lives went on as usual after October 16. But they knew others didn’t.

The Toronto Golf Club members saw the suffering first hand. Many other wealthy Torontonians did not, but they knew and listened to what the golfers had to say.

As they went out to Fernhill for the annual caddy dinner in December, they saw children without winter boots or coats. As their drivers motored them out to Christmas parties at the Clubhouse, they saw women who were lean with hunger. After enjoying sleigh rides, tobogganing, snowshoeing and the new fad, skiing, they went down Coxwell Avenue past unheated, cold shacks where ice grew thick on the walls inside.

The wealthiest gave big sums. And mostly they gave quietly. Donations came, often anonymously, through their churches, existing charities and the Shacktown Relief Fund. Donald Mann, the CNR railway tycoon, gave money behind the scenes and ton after ton of coal. It’s hard to hide 16 tons of coal.

Drawing by T. G. Greene, in Augustus Bridle, “A Shacktown Christmas”, The Canadian Magazine Vol. 34, no. 2 (Dec. 1909)

The urgency of The Globe’s appeal is in the fact that these thousands of out-of-work and helpless men and women and children are absolutely without the range of adequate municipal aid.

They live in the township of York. The public institutions of Toronto have no responsibility for them, and the township authorities seem indifferent or incapable in face of so serious a problem.

These people crowded into the district last year, many of them newcomers from England. They remained in the township in order to escape the civic assessments.

They live in the township. Their taxes go to the township. But the township has proved unable to cope with the problem created by their sudden and extreme distress. 

Globe, Feb. 5, 1908


Near but yet so far. The view from the Wychwood Shacktown to the City of Toronto. They were not entitled to use any of the City’s charitable institutions. Stuart Logan Thompson, 1907, The Toronto Public Library

The Divisions of the Shacktown Relief Fund

1. Runnymede
2. East of Toronto Junction
3. Little Piccadilly and the north half of Earlscourt
4. Wychwood
5.Dovercourt and Earlscourt (Dr. Abraham’s own district)
6. Seaton Village (between Dovercourt and The Annex)
7. Midway — the area east of Don River to East Toronto (convenor, Rev. Robert Gay of St. Monica’s Anglican Church)
8. Chester and Doncaster east of Don (Rev. Alan L. MacFadyen, Chester Presbyterian Church)

This list is based on that in The Globe, Feb. 13, 1908

Close up of Chester Presbyterian Church, 1889 A. L. McFadyen, Minister was the minister here and the Convener of the Shacktown Fund for District 8: Todmorden, Chester and Doncaster.  Fonds 1244, Item 7272, City of Toronto Archives.  The church was on the west side of Broadview Avenue just north of the corner with Danforth Avenue.

Chester Folk Take Hold.

 Owing to the intense cold of last week, and which still prevails, much suffering is reported in the vicinity of Chester. The below-zero weather caused a large number to seek warmth by huddling together in the living apartments rather than spend the night in cold rooms.

While only a small proportion of the deserving poor up to last week applied to or came under the notice of the churches and authorities for aid, the increase was so noticeable towards the end of the week that the attention of The Globe was called to the conditions prevailing by Rev. A. L. MacFadyen of the Chester Presbyterian Church.

Relief was promptly given to families in distress on Saturday. The work was begun in earnest at the meeting Sunday afternoon, and workers will make a door-to-door canvass. Clothes, groceries or provisions sent into the central distributing depot at the corner of Danforth and Pape avenues, a house placed at the disposal of the committee by Mr. H. R. Frankland, J.P., can be disposed of to the great comfort of people in need.

Globe, Feb. 3, 1908

St. Barnabas’ Anglican Church (1858-1912), Chester, Toronto Public Library

Several cases…of severe distress have come to the notice of the [British Welcome] League, where families of five, six, seven and even more have only one boy or girl earning from $2 to $3 per week, and help for a good many such cases must come from the city or the League. Many of these struggling and starving families look on city relief as they used to look on the workhouse and pauperism in England, and so they have suffered rather than apply to Mr. Taylor [a welfare official in the City of Toronto.  

Globe, Feb. 3, 1908

St. Michael’s and All Angels, Anglican Church, Wychwood Ave. Winter of 1907-1908


Rev. Robert Gay, St. Monica’s 1907 Both photos from the Toronto Public Library

The Rev. Robert Gay, time and again, noticed how the first to help a poor neighbor was a poor neighbor.

I came across a case recently of a man and his wife who had scarcely any food and no money. The man was out of work, and the wife’s efforts to get work were of no avail.

They were hard pressed, but were not so poor that they could not help those worse off than themselves. They took in two friends, a married couple from the city, who had been turned out by their landlord for failure to pay the rent, and together the household had been putting up a brave fight.

It was a case of the poor helping the poor. 

Globe, Feb. 7, 1908

The ministers worked closely together. The distribution depot for the Midway Shacktown was in the Reid Avenue Presbyterian Church. Later both St. Monica’s and Rhodes Avenue  Presbyterian Church enlarged their buildings with additions to better serve the local income people of the neighborhood. Photo of the Church, Toronto Public Library. Photo of Rev. David Wallace Christie, Toronto Star, Oct. 6 1916


Social work was in its very early days, drawing heavily on recruits from the families of the well-to-do.

Many were volunteers for organizations such as the Riverdale or Evangelia Settlement House. The Settlement Movement, founded by Jane Addams, is considered the mother of social work as a profession rather than a volunteer past-time for “do-gooders”.

An older charity, the City Relief Fund, had pioneered the system of dividing Toronto into districts and sending out “a Friendly Visitor” to determine need and recommend aid if the family was one of “the deserving poor”.

Needless to say, the social gulf was wide between visitor and the visited. Often the not-so-friendly visitor was judgmental, moralistic and preachy. She frequently offered unwelcome advice on such things as:

  • child care (when she had no children),
  • cooking (when all her food was prepared by a domestic)
  • and the proper home economics at a time when many had no money to be economical with.


Some saw giving to the poor, that act of charity, common to all of the major world religions, as counter productive and even immoral.

It was the law of nature, said Social Darwinists,  that the poor starve and especially the transients and the foreign poor of the Ward. These were the hand-to-mouth people.

But the Shackers were different. They were British and hard-working.


It perhaps offends against the principles of scientific charity to make these efforts for relief of Shacktown. When indiscriminate aid is extended to those in poverty, permanent improvement in their condition is rarely effected. To feed the tramp and support the beggar are means of multiplying those types. To rush to the aid of the unemployed with money and food will not solve the questions that the existence of such a class raises. Continuous support of the idle cannot be justified on any grounds.

But the relief of Shacktown is extraordinary.

Queen’s University Journal, Vol. 35, no. 8 (Feb. 17, 1908), 382

The money poured into the Shacktown Relief Fund, sometimes in large sums, most often in small.

A man working in a factory in Canada around this time made about $364 a year or about $1.50 a day. The average factory worker in Canada in October, 2015, made $1,078.86 a week or about $216 a day. A donation of $5.00 for the average worker would be about equivalent to a donation of over $1,000 dollars today. Source: Canada Year Book, 1907. Table accessed Feb. 5, 2016 at Statistics Canada

267 Coxwell Avenue, Toronto Star, March 22, 1918. The members of the Toronto Golf Club passed this shack every time they went to their course on Fernhill at Upper Gerrard and Coxwell Avenues.

Britton Cooke: This is the story of a young couple who were married just before leaving old England. They had then a pleasant dream of Canada and all that this young country could do for them. But when The Globe discovered them they had come down to the reality of living in one room, without bed or bedding, without a fire, without food, and with very few clothes.

At first the visitor’s questions were met stolidly. The wife, left alone while the husband was out looking for work, put on a brave face. In the end she told the story in reluctant words.

Some might have laughed had they looked about the solitary room; others would have bitten their lips. There were just two boxes in the middle of the floor; one was used as a cupboard, the other as a sort of table. There were three chairs and a stove. The home was very simple, very cold; there was no fire in the stove.

Globe, Feb. 5, 1908

The Toronto Star left the Shacktown Relief fund to its competitor, but also kept the crisis in the eye of its readers.


A Large District where Many Families are Suffering – Fuel, Clothing, Food, and Work Urgently Required – What a Star Reporter Found Out There.

There is a district lying to the north and east of Broadview avenue and Danforth avenue, where very little relief has been given, and where it is urgently needed. Shacks of every conceivable shape and size cluster around in wild confusion. There isn’t any money to spare up there; it’s a struggle to keep the babies fed. Accompanied by a nurse from a downtown mission one of The Star’s reporters spent yesterday afternoon going from shanty to shanty, not carrying assistance, but trying to find out where it was most needed.


And it is needed pretty nearly all over. There are not many people left up there who will not now take charity. The last two or three days has done a lot to break down any remnant of pride that they may once have had. “We’ve come down pretty low,” said one woman yesterday. “We used to be in a position to help people ourselves and now, unless somebody helps us I don’t know what we’re going to do.”

Franklin avenue is a small street, but there is a lot of suffering on it. Shacks of the rudest description straggle down both sides. Yesterday it was bitterly cold up there.

The first place visited was not in such dire straits as some of the others. They had enough coke ahead to last for a week, and a meager stock of groceries. There was not one cent of money. Like nearly all the others in the street the family is English. There are 5 children and one of the little girls is very ill with Bright’s disease [a kidney disease].

She began to cry as soon as she saw the visitors. “It’s all right,” said the mother. “She thinks it’s the doctor, and he hurts her so, she says.” “I don’t suppose we have any right to complain though. So far we haven’t been really hungry, thanks to the shop-keeper. He has given us credit so far. My husband is a bricklayer and it is 7 weeks since he has earned a cent.”

ashdale-avenue-20-sept-1910g“We’re better than my husband’s brother’s family. He has been in the hospital for 10 weeks with an ailment of the spine. Once the warm weather comes it will be better.”

Next door there is a much harder case. This is also an English family in this country less than a year. two large families are living in four small rooms. The front of the house is a mere skeleton of scantling and joists. The builders were caught by the cold weather and hard times, and hastily finished off the kitchen with tar paper and bits of rag before the snow came. Inside it was cheerless and cold.

There are five small children there, and in the Sick Children’s Hospital there is another with a wasting disease.

The husband is a bricklayer, and for three months has done nothing. He had good work on railway construction when in an accident he had his leg crushed. He was no sooner recovered from this than he ran a spike completely through his right hand. By the time this was healed there was no market for bricklayers’ labor. A table, a small sideboard, three broken chairs, and three improvised beds are all the furniture in the place. Boxes covered with paper did duty for everything else.

No Boots for Children.

“Why aren’t the children at school?” asked the reporter. “They have no boots for one thing and no warm clothing for another. I wish I could send them, but I can’t,” replied the mother. “How are you off for provisions and coal?” “I’ve got about half a scuttle of coke left; that will see me over the night.”

“Thanks to the kindness of the baker, I’ve had a little bread, but I’ve got such a bill with the grocer that I’m afraid he will shut down on me.” “Your husband can’t get work?”

“No, he can’t, and the poor fellow has tried hard enough, goodness knows. You see, out around here, there is no work to do, and by the time a man gets into the city, if he has to walk, all the jobs are taken. He and I can get along all right, but it makes me feel bad to see the children cold and hungry. They haven’t any underclothes.”

ashdale-avenue-20-sept-1910cOnly a Little Green Wood.

Across the street there is another pitiful case, perhaps even more destitute than the last. Over there the little cabin was bitterly cold, a few sticks of green wood smoldered and smoked in a stove intended for coal. there was nothing here save a stick or two of the rudest furniture imaginable, In the bedroom, the second room of a shack as a rule, were piled a few big posts and a half bag of potatoes sent there by the charity of somebody. By this time it was growing dark, but there was no light; coal oil or candles are too expensive, and you don’t need a light to be cold and hungry by.

Beside the stove sat the father of the five little children. Of these the youngest looks very pale and delicate. Sometimes it cried in a weak, fretful voice. The room was full of smoke; it was dark and the draft whisked through the chinks in the clapboard door and ill-fitting windows.

ashdale-avenue-20-sept-1910fThe man of the family was suffering a lot of pain from a bad looking sore on his leg. Some weeks ago he gave it a small scratch, and the wound got poisoned. Somebody with more zeal than medical knowledge advised court plaster, and the result looks very much like blood poisoning.

With deft fingers the nurse stripped the plaster from the sore and gave directions as to bathing and bandaging and disinfecting, while the man grew white with the pain of it, and leaned his head against the wall for support.

…that group of tar-paper castles is trying to hide its troubles in corners and nooks, and always under a brave face. Wednesday night a man and two children slept on the bare floor of one shack, with a single blanket over them, all because there was only the one bed, and the sick mother needed that part of the furniture.

ashdale-avenue-20-sept-1910e[Robert Gay] told The Globe yesterday that he once thought he had had all the experiences that could come to anyone engaged in that kind of work.

His conclusion had, he said, been rudely shattered when on the previous evening he found 5 families of his own parish who he believed to be independent of any charity in dire distress.

The thought of taking relief to them was almost embarrassing to him, and it was only with the greatest difficulty that he could induce them to tell their circumstances. In two cases his offer of orders on the grocer was refused.

“What,” exclaimed on woman in sobs, “What would ma people in Scotlan’ think if they heard o’ this?”

Toronto Star, Jan. 31, 1908



“It’s bread we miss,” said the wife. “The baker stopped giving it to us when our bill got up to about $4. The grocer gave us credit up to $11, and he stopped. I don’t blame them, you know. They’re poor men, too. Sometimes the neighbors send us in a bit of bread.”

Toronto Star, Jan. 31, 1908

“Do you know what I wish I had almost more than anything else? Just a cake of soap. I hate to see things so dirty. The children are just awful.” Toronto Star, Jan. 31, 1908
The Canadian Courier, Vol. X, No. 18, September 30, 1911


A street in Earlscourt[ca. 1910] A note on the back of the photo: Woe to be the shack dweller whose place is not windproof in this kind of weather.

A Shacktown father:

Now is no time to stand on ceremony when you have seven little kids who are going to be hungry soon.

Toronto Star, Jan. 31, 1908

A woman:

We don’t want charity. We want work.

Toronto Star, Jan. 31, 1908

Source Unknown. Public Domain.

An Anglican clergyman working in the Doncaster district gave to The Globe yesterday the particulars of a case which had come under his notice. The church of which he has charge had been assisting one very deserving family for some time. The clergyman was taken ill and was unable for some weeks to visit the house.

On Saturday last he called again. He found husband and wife and three children huddled about the stove. A five-year-old boy was racked by a cough which showed him to be in the early stages of a rapid decline. “Not feeling well, Tommy?” the minster asked. “‘Iss,” whispered the boy. “Any pain?” “‘Iss.”

Later a doctor examined the child and confirmed the clergyman’s suspicion. The five-year-old had consumption. It was not hereditary tuberculosis, for there was no predisposition on the part of the parents. It was a case of a boy being insufficiently fed, poorly-clad and unable to get the simple remedies needed for his first cold owing to the poverty of his parents.

The father of the lad, broken-spirited himself, recited the account of his endeavor to keep fire in the house. “We ain’t ‘ad no fire for a day, sir. The last fire we ‘ad I sifted the ashes once; w’en we’d burned that, I sifted again, and I was just a-goin’ to wash ‘em now, dir, to get the last of ‘em.”

He indicated where he had been pouring water over the ashes in order to secure what little carbon might yet be left after the fuel had gone through the stove twice. The little boy in this instance was supplied with cod liver oil and proper clothing at once, and an effort is being made to have him placed in a sanitarium. 

Globe, Feb. 5, 1908

[ca. 1907]
Ashdale Avenue, 1912

With not a spark of fire in the house, a father and mother on Ashdale avenue, had to keep their two little children in bed one cold morning this week. The father had been out of work for several weeks, and could not get employment of any kind. There was only a little food in the house, enough for a meal or two.

The mother went into the bed-room and told the children they would have to stay in bed.

“Why?” they cried.

Toronto Star, Jan. 31, 1908


From a Private Collection. This photo was taken after 1910. The City of Toronto built sidewalks, graded the road and laid sanitary sewers and water mains. Soon  Shacktown would disappear as residents replaced their “tar-paper castles” with neat bungalows and two-storey villas.

The Rise of the Shackers.

Three years ago the financial panic in the United States caused rather keen depression in the Dominion for a few months, chiefly because of the precautionary measures taken by large concerns that did not know how long the disturbance would last.

Among the victims were about a thousand old-country families, who when they came to Toronto had invested their little savings in lots on the outskirts of the city on which they built little shacks in which to live until they could afford to erect more permanent quarters.

Their enterprise and desire to own a little bit of land proved their undoing, and when the factories with which they were connected shut down or reduced their working force the distress  in Shacktown was of a sort rarely witnessed in Canada.

Believing that these sturdy immigrants of our own British stock only needed a chance to get on their feet. The Globe’s readers contributed a very considerable sum toward helping them through the winter.

The thousands of out-of-town friends of the shackers would be delighted to see Shacktown to-day. The new-comers are highly prosperous, their original shacks are in many cases the kitchens of good houses, and everywhere building is going on.

The rosy-cheeked English children are becoming sturdy little Canadians, and the hard winter of 1907-8 is but a memory that will make their elders feel more kindly all their lives toward the land of their adoption.

Readers of The Globe may rest assured that they have never made a more profitable investment than the $20,000 put into Shacktown three years ago.

Globe, November 5, 1910



Then and now, photos of Ashbridge Avenue. The one on the right is courtesy of Karen Hamilton, a descendent of one of the first merchant families in Midway. Hamilton Hardware store on the south side of Gerrard Street was a neighborhood institution.


Hamilton Hardware. Toronto Public Library.

The Total Sum Expended for All Purposes, Including the Free Labor Bureau and Gardens, Was $18,806.58 – Money Carefully Spent.

When the readers of The Globe so generously contributed almost nineteen thousand dollars during January and February, 1908, for the relief of the sore distress then existing in Shacktown the promise was made that the money would be spent most carefully by the General Relief Committee, of which Rev. Dr. Abraham was Chairman and Mr. John Wanless, jun., Treasurer, and that when the fund was closed a report would be presented after a thorough audit of the books.

The work done under the direction of the committee was extremely varied. The greater part of the fund was expended in providing food and fuel. In a few cases clothing had to be purchased, but the vast supplies of clothing placed at the disposal of the committee by the Globe’s readers reduced the outlay on clothing and bedding to a comparatively small sum.

A free labor bureau was organized under the direction of Mr. E. Dickie, and those who read the report of its operations published in these columns two months ago will understand that the $1,292 devoted to its operation and to paying the fares of heads of families for whom out-of-town places had been found was money was well spent.

Another sub-department was the garden project launched at the suggestion of Mr. Wallace Nesbitt, K.C. Last season eleven acres of land were rented and cut up into almost a hundred small allotments. The vegetables raised on these plots did much to lessen distress in many little homes over the hill during the winter.

It is a matter of great satisfaction to the management of The Globe to be able to say that the fund has been managed with scarcely any other help than that of volunteer works, who gave their services freely.

It cost $443 for cartage, labor, and packing of the stores of food and clothing received at the Elm street depot.

On the eight districts into which the territory dealt with was divided the total expenses of administration did not exceed $200, a remarkably small sum when it is remembered that at one time 1,200 families were in receipt of relief.

The economy shown in administration was, of course, only possible through the use of church buildings and church organizations.

A certificate from Mr. E. R. Greig, Manager of the Land Security Company, who audited the accounts, is appended.



John Wanless, one of the founders and Treasurer of the Shacktown Relief Fund from Jesse Edgar Middleton, The Municipality of Toronto, Vol. III., 1923

John Wanless, one of the founders and Treasurer of the Shacktown Relief Fund from Jesse Edgar Middleton, The Municipality of Toronto, Vol. III., 1923

“I have examined the receipts and disbursements of this fund and have pleasure in vouching for their correctness. The total contributions were $19,806.38, besides large quantities of clothing and supplies.

The money was disbursed as follows:

District No. 1 – Mr. A. Gilchrist

District No. 2 – Rev. Dr. Dewry and Rev. R. Seaborn

District No. 3 – Rev. P. P. Bryce

District No. 4 – Rev. W. J. Brain

District No. 5 – Rev. Dr. Abraham

District No. 6 – Rev. C. A. Seager

District No. 7 – Revs. R. Gay and D. W. Christy

District No. 8 – Rev. A. L. McFadyen and H. R. Frankland

Mr. E. Dickie [free labor bureau]

From Elm St. Depot

For seeds and gardens




“The disbursements were carefully guarded and the books in the principal districts have been so kept as to indicate in detail how much food of various sorts was supplied to each family and how frequently supplies were distributed.

Too high praise cannot be given to the workers who on a few days’ notice evolved a system that made imposture almost impossible and secured the end aimed at, the helping of a great number of self-respecting people at a minimum of cost and with little publicity.

 “E. R. Greig

Globe, February 27, 1909

Drawing by T. G. Greene, in Augustus Bridle, “A Shacktown Christmas”, The Canadian Magazine Vol. 34, no. 2 (Dec. 1909)
Drawing by T. G. Greene, in Augustus Bridle, “A Shacktown Christmas”, The Canadian Magazine Vol. 34, no. 2 (Dec. 1909)


Now and Then: Ashdale Avenue. Photo on right courtesy of Karen Hamilton. The shack above was built while this large villa was being constructed.
Shacks Coxwell Avenue Then and Now
Then and Now, Coxwell Avenue, c. 1910. Source unknown. Public domain. Coxwell Avenue, similar houses, 2012, photographer Julia Patterson.

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


Why should Toronto build palatial apartments in the very center of our city to house a foreign element of very undesirable people?

Why not pick them up, bag and baggage, plant them out in the suburbs, provide them with suitable houses in a town laid out after modern ideas, and provide them with single street car fares?

The city would be made healthy and beautiful, and the low, immoral element improved, and at least taken from under our eyes and noses.

IF large apartment houses were built in the Ward for these foreign people, would they not keep on increasing, crowding, and spreading out of the Ward till the center of our fine city would more foreign than Canadian?

Toronto Star, Dec. 29, 1906

Are we so very different? Yes and no.

Toronto divided: A tale of 3 cities

The affluent move to the centre, the poor are pushed to the edges and the middle class slowly fade from view

by JOHN BARBER 20 December 2007.

The Globe and Mail

The economic polarization of Toronto into distinct regions of great wealth and great poverty is even sharper than anecdotal reports suggest, according to University of Toronto researchers.

Using detailed census data to chart 30 years of change at the neighbourhood level, they have created a striking and disturbing new image of the city, one in which traditional mixed-income neighbourhoods are reduced to a mere buffer between an increasingly wealthy core and increasingly impoverished suburbs.

The observation is not new, but it has never been presented with such authority or drama as it is in the new analysis, titled The Three Cities within Toronto: Income Polarization among Toronto neighbourhoods, 1970-2000.

“All this frankly surprised us,” said lead author David Hulchanski, director of the university’s Centre for Urban and Community Studies. “We knew there was a shift. That’s not new. We didn’t know how dramatic it was.” The newly mapped data “explains an awful lot about us and what’s happening to us,” according to Prof. Hulchanski, “and it is sad.”

…“There always were rich and poor parts of the city, but we’re seeing many, many more poor parts of the city – and in a totally different location,” he said.

Although it became evident in the 1970s, the new face of Toronto only emerged clearly after the social-service cutbacks of the 1990s, according to Prof. Hulchanski. As a result, new policies can refashion it back into a more humane image.

“It’s been 35 years in the making and it’s going to take a while to change,” he said. “But we can chip away and turn things around.”

Unlike the ominous picture that emerged from the report, however, the optimistic view rests more on hope than hard data.

To see the report go to:

Statistics Canada Toronto’s Population 1901 28,040; 1911 377,000 increase of over 81%. 2017 population of the City of Toronto 2.81 million to 5.1 million in 2027.

What if 2021 was a good year with a growing economy?

What if in 2027 the stock market crashed and we had an unemployment rate of 20% or more?

What would happen? How would we deal with it? What would that mean for the new ring of impoverished people living in the a half-donut that now surrounds downtown Toronto?

From David Hulchanski, The Three Cities Within Toronto, Cities Centre, University of Toronto, 2010






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