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:
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:
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:
Unfortunately, this type of random attack cropped up from time to time:
But happily (?), for the most part, the little rascals were mostly concerned with swiping random objects that didn’t belong to them:
Considerably more heinous than stealing hats was swiping fruit:
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:
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:
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:
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 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:
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:
Here’s a snippet:
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.