Rascals, Scamps & No-Goodniks

Banner photo is of the Moss Park Recreation Centre Boys’ Game Room, November 30, 1916. From the City of Toronto Archives.

I’ve been thinking about childhood a lot lately (as you can probably tell from my Cool Water and Fair Days posts) and it suddenly hit me that we haven’t come across many kids in these strolls through Toronto’s past.  But, of course, they were there – at the edges of all these stories – even if they were seldom mentioned.  Which is probably the way you’d want it to be if you were a kid in early Toronto – or, even more so, the parent of one.  Because, for the most part, the only kids mentioned in print were the ones who’d been up to no good.

Oh sure, there was the occasional happy account of a child winning a prize or, on the darker end of the scale, of one falling off something or being injured by heavy machinery.  But for the most part, they really only got the public’s attention when they were being little creeps:

Toronto Daily Mail August 20 1881 Mischievous Boys and Wasps
You get the feeling that there wasn’t a whole lot going on in town. The writer sounds way too appreciative of the boys’ antics. From the Toronto Daily Mail, August 20, 1881.

On a personal note, I was stung by a wasp last week and I’m here to tell you  – it’s really not that funny.

Here’s one for the hooligans file:

Rowdy Parliament Boys Toronto Daily Mail December 1 1884
This raises a couple of interesting points: 1) There was a night school in the 1880s? 2) How does one know that an egg is rotten before cracking it?  I’ve always wondered.  From the Toronto Daily Mail, December 1, 1884.

And another:

Throwing rocks at trains The Record News May 3 1923
The dread these kids must’ve felt – “D’you hafta tell my Pa?” From The Record News, May 3, 1923.

So far these appear to be your garden variety scamps – not exactly shining examples of kid-dom, but certainly not bad seeds.

… But then you have your mean little buggers:

Daily Mail and Empire March 4 1899
Jeez, tough neighbourhood. From the Daily Mail and Empire, March 4, 1899.

Unfortunately, this type of random attack cropped up from time to time:

Girl hit by stone Toronto Daily Mail August 23 1882
Oh yeah, this sounds like my Mom.  She wouldn’t have rested till she’d got the kid by the collar.  From the Toronto Daily Mail, August 23, 1882.

But happily (?), for the most part, the little rascals were mostly concerned with swiping random objects that didn’t belong to them:

Boys bottle trade Toronto Daily Mail Mar 21 1892
I know it was wrong but – eight dozen bottles?  You can’t fault their work ethic. … I had a feeling someone would suggest smacking the miscreants before long. From the Toronto Daily Mail, March 21, 1892.
Lad Lagged Toronto Daily Mail December 1 1884
Aw, he was just trying to woo a girl… But then, I suppose, that’s how it always starts.   From the Toronto Daily Mail, December 1, 1884.

Considerably more heinous than stealing hats was swiping fruit:

Juvenile Depradators Toronto Daily Mail August 22 1890
So a banana was worth three hours, but a watermelon was good for six days?  Jeez, forbidden fruit, indeed. From the Toronto Daily Mail, August 22, 1890.

I love the line “A visitor to the court would imagine that the Toronto boy is a bad boy.”   There sure seemed to be a good crop of them (I wasn’t going for a fruit pun, but it works so I’ll keep it).  But they weren’t alone – little girls sometimes got a cut of the action:

Mary Berry thief Toronto World Oct 27 1890
Mary Berry?  I’d be tempted to think she gave the cops a phony name if we hadn’t just met Edward Berry, the banana burglar.  I wonder if they were related.  From the Toronto World, October 27, 1890.

For the most part, though, these wee criminals sound like small potatoes (sorry, the produce puns seem to write themselves) but occasionally one showed signs of going pro:

Ottawa Citizen September 16 1865
Somehow it’s startling to come across the phrase “not ‘all up with him’ yet.” It’s just  not a phrase I associate with the 1860s. From the Ottawa Citizen September 16, 1865.

Now, as you may have noted, those that weren’t let off with a warning and a word to their parents, had to serve time.  In the early days, this meant cooling their heels in police cells.   But by 1887, the city had a better alternative – or at least they thought it was:

There’s nothing quite like a private train of stuffed shirts to herald the opening of a boys’ detention centre. From the Toronto Daily Mail, May 17, 1887.

The Victoria Industrial School, as noted in the article above, was built in neighbouring Mimico.  At the time, Mimico was a town unto itself but with the amalgamation in 1998, it became part of Toronto.

Let’s take a look at the set-up:

The boys greet us with a synchronised interpretive dance. 1898.  Courtesy of Toronto Public Library.
Here the boys pose convincingly with their school books. 1898.  Courtesy of Toronto Public Library.
Dinner time at the Industrial School. Caps on the floor, please. 1898.  Courtesy of Toronto Public Library.

The school, like many others of its ilk, was meant to save little boys like the ones we’ve just met – troubled and in trouble, alike.    While numerous differing circumstances brought each of them to its door, most of them had at least one thing in common – poverty.

The vast majority of boys placed at Victoria Industrial came from working class families, many with only one parent struggling to make ends meet.  Sadly, the strain brought by little income, long, hard work days and few options compelled many parents to give up their sons to the school.  One can’t blame them for believing that the “home” in the country would provide the boys a better existence.

And that’s exactly what the school promised.  The grand, idealistic belief was that by giving poor and wayward boys a home-like atmosphere and a rigid routine they’d become disciplined and obedient.  Grow up into “better” citizens.  Unfortunately though, as can happen when the emphasis is on obedience, the balance was tipped and ugly tales of violence and cruelty began to surface.

And it was pretty immediate.  Within just a few years of its opening, Public School Inspector James Hughes fought to have the superintendent, Donald McKinnon, removed following allegations of abuse.  Terribly, no sooner was he gotten rid of than another just like him took his place.   McKinnon, himself, admitted to a certain likeness in their methods of discipline:

I’ll spare you more details than this, but it gives you an idea of what it must’ve been like. From the Toronto World, February 29th, 1912.

For his part, Inspector James Hughes seems to have had his heart in the right place.  Not only did he work hard to prevent the boys from ill-treatment, but he also wrote books on education and the preciousness of childhood – one in particular leaves no doubt as to his greatest influence:

The typesetting could be better, but you get the point.  From Dickens As An Educator, 1900.

Here’s a snippet:

From Dickens As An Educator, 1900.
James Langhlin Hughes and Sir John Morison Gibson review University of Toronto. - 1914
James Laughlin Hughes (with cane) and Sir John Morison Gibson review University of Toronto, 1914. From the City of Toronto Archives.

Despite Hughes’s best efforts and numerous investigations by inspectors and newspapers of the day, the Victoria Industrial School was continuously plagued by scandal.  But no matter how many terrible accounts found their way to the press, the allegations were always dismissed by the school’s private board – often with ridiculous rationalizations for the abuse like “it’s the only way some kids learn.”

It wasn’t until 1935, after 48 years of grisly management, that the province finally had the place shut down.

A handful of years later, during WWII, the former Victoria Industrial School site served as a POW camp before eventually becoming the Mimico Correctional Centre – a medium security correctional facility.  I imagine that if you told that to any of the little boys who lived at the school, they’d wonder what the difference was.


On a personal note …

When I first started school it was at Hughes Public, which was named for our good Inspector, James Laughlin Hughes, who fought for the boys of Victoria Industrial.  I didn’t know that then, of course.  All I knew was that the school seemed enormous, had a beautiful vaulted ceiling (to this day I wonder if I imagined it) and that the teachers were kind and always let me have first pick at the play centres.  Also, there was an amazing, hidden space under the front stairs absolutely filled with bright bicycles.  I never got to ride one but just knowing they were there delighted me to no end.   I suppose someone must’ve shown them to me, but I only ever remember it as my own little secret.

So, while James Hughes’ efforts to protect the childhood experience were stymied by the old boys of the Industrial School board, in a roundabout way he still managed to enrich mine.

13 thoughts on “Rascals, Scamps & No-Goodniks

  1. I’m not sure how you tell an egg is rotten from the outside, but because I read too many children’s books, I can tell you that in Judy Blume’s Blubber, the main character buys eggs a month in advance and keeps them in her dresser so they’ll be rotten for Halloween night. Which displays an impressive amount of forethought on the part of the boys if that’s what they were doing. Also, Mary Berry is the name of one of the judges on Great British Bake-off, so there is at least one real one (I can’t stand her because she constantly mispronounces genoise and advises people to use margarine in some of her cake recipes. I can’t understand how someone who thinks margarine is better than butter is qualified to judge anything)! But I digress…it was fun reading about the antics of these bratty children, even though I think some of them deserved a wasp sting or two of their own. That industrial school was definitely a bridge too far though…poor kids.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Ha! I should’ve remembered that Blubber bit. To be honest, I was fairly impressed with those boys too – it does point toward a certain talent on their part.
      I had no idea about this modern Mary Berry but she sounds far less likable than the little sneak-thief. Margarine?! So gross. I’m no pro, but I bake a lot and I would be ashamed to even own a tub of the junk.
      Yeah, except for the little jerks that hit other kids with rocks and got wasps to sting dogs, I was kind fond of this bunch. A lot of it just seems like kids being kids. I mean, I was a pretty square kid myself and never stole a thing, but I do remember my sister and I once spent an afternoon tossing rocks into the pockets of clothes drying on the neighbour’s line. We thought it was brilliant, but it would probably have gotten us written up by these old Torontonians.


      1. I wouldn’t call Mary Berry modern…she’s about 105. I suspect the whole margarine thing is because she lived through rationing, but that still doesn’t make it ok. Especially for someone who is often treated as a doyenne of British baking (no wonder most British cakes aren’t very good). I can’t stand margarine; even the smell makes me gag a little bit.


      2. Ha, 105! That made me laugh. Yeah, my Dad who was just a little guy in the ’40s won’t touch the stuff, calls it “war butter.” When my mom told me that early margarine came with an orange capsule that you mixed into the tub to give it a butter-like hue, any likelihood of my using it went out the window.


      3. That’s funny, I was just discussing the margarine dye capsules with my boyfriend yesterday. I only knew about margarine dye because I used to read Reminisce magazine (North America’s top-selling nostalgia magazine, apparently..I’m an old person at heart. Though maybe not as old as Mary Berry) whenever I went over my grandparents’ house.

        Liked by 1 person

      4. Weird, what a coincidence. Yeah, it probably didn’t help that I always pictured the dye capsule looking like a vitamin B-complex tablet. Aw, I’d never heard of Reminisce before and just looked it up – sounds like fun reading and the perfect thing to find at your grandparents’. Better than scouring Readers’ Digest for the jokes.

        Liked by 1 person

      5. Oh, I read Reader’s Digest too! I spent a lot of time with my grandparents, so I was an avid reader of all old people magazines. In fact, I’m pretty sure my grandparents only kept the subscription to Reminisce because I loved it so much. I seriously looked into getting my own subscription a few years ago, but either they don’t ship to the UK, or it was super expensive.


  2. OK, let’s go back to George and Willie, the watermelon stealers, for just a minute. George got six days in jail, Willie got three. The reason for the difference? William pleaded guilty, while George “denied it and looked guilty.” Looked guilty? He looked guilty so he got an extra three days in jail? Boy, you Canadians are tougher than I thought! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Ha! I know, the judgements could be ridiculously fierce. Poor little William was given a rougher time than some of the adult drunks and hooligans in the same court. I shared this story with my dad who’d had a dalliance with watermelon stealing as a little guy in California. He never ran afoul of the law himself, but still felt a keen solidarity with those kids 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

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