TORONTO POLICE IN THE 1850s
The Gangs of Toronto and the Call For Reform
1857 -- Looking North Up York Street from King to Osgood Hall at Queen
political dynamics of Toronto of the 1850s were radically different from
those of the 1830s. The old
Family Compact-Tory-Reform issues had faded in the 1840s, despite the
occasional flare-ups like the Rebellion Losses Bill riots. Mackenzie, once a fugitive from the hangman, had returned to
Toronto and lived out the rest of his life in relatively docile retirement
on Bond Street. Change in
Toronto began to take a form beyond the context of municipal partisan
essentially remained a large trading village until 1850.
But with British abandonment of colonial trade protection policies
and the collapse of the imperial trading route through Montreal and the St.
Lawrence, Toronto found itself looking towards the Erie Canal and New York. In 1853 the first railroad in Toronto went into service.
By 1856 there were three railways and Toronto was connected to the US
networks. The mere existence of
the railways lead to a huge manufacturing industry for rails, railway stock
and engines, apart from the rise of factories manufacturing goods to put on
ethnic balance within Toronto’s mostly British stock was destabilized by
the 1850s. The population of Toronto swelled from 23,000 in 1848 to
30,000 by 1850 as a result of mostly Irish Catholic peasant refugees
escaping the ongoing famine.
The new Irish presence was not warmly welcomed in Toronto.
arrived in Toronto under the most horrendous circumstances, and Toronto
authorities did everything possible that they not remain in the city. Larratt Smith, a rising young city lawyer wrote his relatives
back in England about the Irish immigrants in Toronto:
They arrive here to the extent of about 300 to 600 by any
steamer. The sick are
immediately sent to the hospital which had been given up to them entirely
and the healthy are fed and allowed to occupy the Immigrant Sheds for 24
hours; at the expiration of this time, they are obliged to keep moving,
their rations are stopped and if they are found begging are imprisoned at
once. Means of conveyance are
provided by the Corporation to take them off at once to the country, and
they are accordingly carried off "willy nilly" some 16 or 20
miles, North, South, East & West and quickly put down, leaving the
country to support them by giving them employment...John Gamble advertised
for 50 for the Vaughn plank road, and hardly were the placards out, than the
Corporation bundled 500 out and set them down...The hospitals contain over
600 and besides the sick and convalescent, we have hundreds of widows and
orphans to provide for.
1841 to 1848 the percentage of Catholics in Toronto rose from 17 to 25
percent. The new Irish immigrants were a tougher and more volatile
people, hardened by the brutal life they experienced in Ireland.
They were the source of some of Upper Canada’s first violent labour
unrest, rioting on the Welland Canal dig where many were employed at a
Some of the first big mob sectarian clashes in Ontario between the
Protestant Orange and Catholic Green unfolded in the Niagara region
around the canal construction during the 1840s.
Toronto began to gradually nudge its way towards industrialization, many of
the new Irish immigrants began to settle in the city seeking out unskilled
employment. Although these types of statistics are not available for the
early 1850s, those nearing the end of the decade and early 1860s give us a
glimpse of Irish urbanization. According
to a Toronto Catholic Archdiocese census in the early 1860s, forty-five
percent of Toronto’s Catholics were unskilled labourers.
The Irish, both Catholic and Protestant, also represented 67.3
percent of all arrests in 1858.
Irish women, in 1860, corresponded to 84.4 percent of all female
arrests, despite the fact that Irish composed a little over 25 percent of
Toronto’s total population.
to this, we begin to see emerging riots and clashes between Orange
Protestant and Green Catholic factions increasingly displace the old
Reformer vs. Tory brawls. Between
1852 and 1858, six major riots between Protestant and Catholic militants
unfolded in Toronto.
The city’s Orange-dominated constabulary was of little help in
quelling these disorders with any semblance of impartiality.
1850s would witness the first union organizing of unskilled workers as well
as increasing militancy from skilled trade unions in the face of increasing
mechanization and deskilling in manufacturing.
In Toronto there were at least fourteen strikes between 1852-1854, a
level of labour militancy not to be seen again until the 1870s.
The news filtering back to Toronto of riots and revolutions
throughout almost all of Europe in 1848, in which monarchies and governments
fell, must have made local authorities contemplate the efficiency of the
nature of poverty was also beginning to change.
Previously impoverished peoples were migratory and seasonal.
With industrialization they were now becoming permanently settled in
increasingly densely populated quarters of the city like Macaulaytown in
Toronto’s St. John’s Ward.
only had the nature of the poor changed, but the nature of the wealthy and
those in between as well. The
rise of industrial manufacturing in Toronto created not only a new wealthy
class, but also a larger property-owning middle-class, eligible to vote.
The introduction of omnibuses in the late 1840s, and later street
railways in 1860, segregated Toronto into neighborhoods by income and
inevitably by class. The perceived threat to Toronto’s middle-class
property owners was gradually being shifted from that of spontaneous riots,
rebellions, and occasional external incursions, to a more permanent and
geographically fixed source from within the city, whose identification
gradually began to shift from ethnic to one of class; a focus on the threat
from “dangerous classes” of unskilled working poor and destitute
was going to need something more than the type of English parish watch it
currently had for a Police Force. The
conditions in Toronto during the 1850s began to resemble more those of
highly urbanized London, England in the 1830s when the London Metropolitan
Police was founded. There was a gradually growing middle-class consensus in
Toronto that began to place police reform on a higher priority than
Toronto’s political autonomy from the Province.
This was clearly being felt in the chambers of the Toronto City
1850, City Council debated the viability of establishing a nightwatch no
less than five times, but postponed any final decision.
There is some evidence, that like in Detroit, downtown businesses in
Toronto were beginning to finance their own private nightwatch.
City Council debated appointing that watch as special constables and
paying them a municipal salary.
need also to extend the constable’s individual powers was evident as City
Council called on:
A law to
extend the power of Constable in making arrests of parties guilty of
breaking the peace on the authority of persons not magistrates who shall
give the constables sureties to appear and prosecute the accused parties
before the police magistrates.
City wanted police magistrates to be granted:
Powers to suppress bawdy houses and to register Gambling Houses.
Power to make byelaws [sic]
for the purpose of regulating Boarding houses and for the summary punishment
of Tavern and Boarding House proprietors who may be guilty of Fraud or
imposition on Immigrants or Travellers.
A Law to punish persons for
using grossly insulting language calculated to provoke breaches of the
nature of these desired measures, indicate that there was a broadly based
concern with public order.
identification numbers were issued for the first time to be worn by
constables on hats and collars.
By 1855, the Toronto Police exceeded fifty constables and by 1857
there would be six sergeants as well, supervising the force across the two
divisions into which the city was divided.
Rare view of Toronto looking east along King Street from Yonge
Street. Circa. 1860 - US Civil War Era.
On the left in the distance one can see the roof of the second St. James
burned down in 1849 and would not get back its familiar tower and spire
of the old problems addressed in the 1841 Provincial Commission were still
plaguing the Toronto Police. Constables now prohibited from holding liquor licenses, were
instead registering them under family member’s or friend’s names.
would be two riots in the summer of 1855 that would expose the Toronto
Police to unanimous condemnation in Toronto and illustrate just how far the
new industrial middle-class consensus had replaced the old Orange municipal
solidarity in the Toronto City Council as far as it came to the
Alderman-appointed constables. Ironically, neither of the two riots—the Firemen’s Riot
or the Circus Riot, were sectarian in their causes.
Fire department was composed entirely of volunteers, who combined their
firefighting activities with social and club activities—sort of like
weekend sports teams.
On June 29, 1855, a fire broke out on Church Street, and two
different firefighting companies responded.
Colliding with each other as they attempted to extinguish the fire,
it was not long before the competitive firemen dropped their hoses and began
to fight. A squad of Toronto
constables swooped down to separate the brawling firefighters, who then
together turned on the police officers and gave them a thorough beating.
In the heat of the moment, the constables ended up charging the
firemen with assault.
Toronto Firemen from Firehall No. 11 at Yorkville Avenue (circa 1880)
the police force, most of Toronto's firefighters, were also members of the
Orange Order. When the matter
came to trial, the Toronto constables had second thoughts about the charges
they laid against their fellow Orangemen, and had to be forced into court to
testify against their fellow-Orangemen.
Once on the stand, the constables deliberately confused their
testimony. Reform newspapers the time, practically howled with
indignation. The Globe
reported that “it is plainly asserted by those who have access to the best
information that during the days which have been allowed to elapse since the
fire, a compromise has been effected between the constables and the firemen,
who are too much birds of a feather long to differ.”
The Examiner denounced the event as “Utterly disgraceful to
the administration of civic justice, this case demands the reconstruction of
the police force which thus proves itself utterly corrupt.”
weeks later on July 13, 1855 both the firemen and police officers, were
implicated together in the Toronto Circus Riot.
A circus came to town from the USA.
That night, clowns from the circus visited a King Street bordello and
got into a brawl with some local citizens.
The clowns got the upper hand, seriously injuring two Toronto
patrons, who were also members of the Hook and Ladder Firefighting Company.
The next day, a crowd of rowdy locals gathered at the circus, and
attempted to pull the tent down. At
first the circus people held off the crowd but soon the Hook and Ladder
Company arrived, and with their company wagon, pulled the tent down and the
circus was overrun. The clowns
escaped, but circus wagons were overturned and set fire to by the firemen.
The Toronto police in the meantime stood by and watched without interfering.
Only when the Mayor called the army out, was the rioting halted.
Again, the Toronto Police came under severe criticism when 17 of the
rioters were arraigned in court but not one constable could remember seeing
the accused at the scene. The Globe complained, “There are three classes in
the city which thoroughly understand one another as hale fellows well
met—the innkeeper, the firemen, and the police.
These classes are fed by the Orange Lodges.”
Corner of King and Yonge Streets (1868)
the 17th of March 1858, there was rioting again between Orange
and Green factions on the occasion of a St. Patrick’s procession resulting
in a stabbing death. This time
it was Chief of Police Samuel Sherwood who refused to testify against a
fellow Orangeman implicated in the violence.
Chief Sherwood further deepened the dissatisfaction with Toronto’s
police system when in the October of 1858 he unilaterally released a
prisoner accused of bank robbery.
Mayor Boulton demanded the resignation of the Chief but City Council
refused to support it. Boulton resigned in protest in November.
In the next election, a Reform candidate, Adam Wilson was
elected—the first Reformer to be chosen to the Mayor’s office in two
decades. In the previous year,
George Brown was elected to the Provincial assembly on a Reform ticket as
well. The legislative climate
was right for the enactment of police reform in Toronto and in 1858,
the legislature of Upper Canada enacted the Municipal Institutions of
Upper Canada Act, Section 374 of which provided that in each of the five
cities in the colony there was to be a Board of Commissioners of Police. Section 379 provided that "The Constables shall obey all
the lawful directions, and be subject to the government of the
This section was gradually expanded to include other municipalities in the
province and is still today the effective regulatory system for municipal
police departments in Ontario.
Historians have broadly painted the
enactment of the Municipal Institutions Act as an imposition of a
Police Board regulatory system by the Province upon a corrupt Toronto City
Council attempting to cling to its power over the city’s police.
City Council minutes tell a different story.
In the wake of the Circus Riots a
committee of Toronto Aldermen reviewed the conduct of the police.
In the twenty previous years of collective misbehavior by Toronto’s
constabulary, City Council rarely censured the police constables its
Aldermen had nominated and appointed to the force.
By 1855 the attitude was much different:
The Committee of Council
having carefully considered the whole of the evidence brought before them
relating to the conduct of the Police Force at the late disgraceful riot
on the Fair Green on the night of the 13th instant are
unanimously of opinion:
That the Force did not act
on that occasion in a prompt and energetic manner, which might have been
expected from any well regulated constabulary but on the contrary
displayed an utter [lack] of efficiency and discipline.
The committee are further of
opinion that an entire change should at once be made in the organization
of the Force…
It must be evident to
everyone who had had an opportunity of perusing the evidence that there is
at present an entire absence of any system of organization or discipline
in the Police…
are decidedly of opinion that the present mode of appointing the
Police is highly objectionable and that the
power of appointment ought not to continue to be vested in an elective
body like the Council.
First, because it is necessarily more or less
liable to this abuse that private or political considerations may have
more weight in the appointment of the men than their individual
fitness for the Office.
Secondly, Because it is
hardly possible that any committee of the Council can or will make that
vigorous investigation into the previous character and the physical or
moral qualifications of the various applicants, which could and would be
made by parties independent of popular control and who would be held
personally responsible for their choice.
The Committee also
most strongly recommend that for the future the power of appointing and
dismissing the members of the Police Force should be vested absolutely in
the Police Magistrate, the Recorder and the Chief of Police.
In the meantime, the Province in 1856
began to consider legislation
for a province-wide police force of 350 constables to be controlled by
government-appointed police commissioner and two-thirds paid for by the
municipalities to replace the local constabularies.
Mackenzie’s Weekly Message warned that the bill was a “new
dodge of a Roman Catholic Police from Lower Canada to take the place of our
The bill was abandoned, however, in May after a ministerial crisis
and the resignation of Premier Allen MacNab.
City Council in the meanwhile
had petitioned at the same time the Provincial Assembly to instead, “Amend
the Municipal law (12 Vic
Chapter 81 Sec 47) so as to place the appointment and dismissal of all the
Police Force of Cities except the Chief Constable in a Board to be composed
of the Mayor, Recorder and Police Magistrate.”
The Province finally enacted the necessary amendments
in 1858, while Toronto City Council unilaterally made several different
attempts at forming a Board of Police Commissioners on its own starting in
In December 1858, the
Provincially sanctioned Toronto Board of Commissioners sat down for the
first time and began to make plans as to how to replace the constabulary
with a new police force. On
February 8, 1859 the entire force from the Chief down to constable was
dismissed and a new one took its place the next day.
Only twenty-four of the old constables would be rehired on the new
force of fifty-one men and seven NCO’s.
Toronto’s current police department today traces its regulatory and
institutional lineage directly to the 1859 department and regulatory
structure governing it.
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