Back in the 1830s, when the city was still being carved from the immense, dark forest but was already gaining fame for its boggy streets, Toronto had a problem neighbourhood brewing: March St.
Just two blocks long, it wasn’t a large area but what March St lacked in size it eventually made up for in trouble. Which is pretty remarkable because, at the time, it was one of the newer streets in the town – and it wasn’t like some city planner had said “And this where the red light district shall be.”
March St certainly began innocently enough. Before it’d been shaped into a street, running east from Upper George St (now Victoria) to New St (now Jarvis), the land had been part of the playground surrounding the Home District Grammar School or, as it was more commonly known, the Blue School – because it made kids sad that they had to go. … Oh alright, it was painted blue.
The illustration above is thought to be circa 1888, long after the school had moved on to new quarters and would soon become Jarvis Collegiate, but its idyllic quality doesn’t appear to have been imagined. In Toronto of Old, our own early, tireless historian Henry Scadding wrote his recollections of being a student at the Blue School. Of the grounds he wrote:
“Through the middle of it, from north to south, passed a shallow “swale,” where water collected after rains; and where in winter small frozen ponds afforded not bad sliding-places. In this moist region, numerous crayfish were to be found in summer. Their whereabouts was always indicated by small clay chimneys of a circular form, built by the curious little nipping creatures themselves, over holes for the admission of air.
In different places in this large area were remains of huge pine-stumps, underneath the long roots of which it was an amusement to dig and form cellars or imaginary treasure-vaults and powder-magazines. About these relics of the forest still grew remains of the ordinary vegetation of such situations in the woods; especially an abundance of the sorrel-plant, the taste of which will be remembered, as being quite relishable. In other places were wide depressions showing where large trees had once stood. Here were no bad places, when the whim so was, to lie flat on the back and note the clouds in the blue vault over head; watch the swallows and house-martins when they came in spring; and listen to their quiet prattle with each other as they darted to and fro-“
I don’t know what your schoolyard was like but that makes mine, with our games of “Red Rover” on a small patch of grass bound by chain-link fence, kinda dim in comparison.
Alas, by the late 1820s the lush grounds had been cleared and cut up into new streets. As Scadding grimly noted:
“The six acres of play-ground are thickly built over. A thoroughfare of ill-repute traverses it from west to east. This street was at first called March St; and under that appellation acquired an evil report.”
But of course it didn’t start off “evil.” When first laid out, it was like numerous other streets – home to a few dozen residents, sprinkled across its two blocks in modest wood homes. There were also a few grocery and provision shops, a children’s day school, a boarding house and two churches: the Roman Catholic Chapel of Ease and the Baptist Meeting House.
Of these early residents, the only one that raises an eyebrow is Mrs Anderson who ran the grocery store next to the Baptist chapel:
I don’t know about you, but I’d love to know more about what Mrs. Anderson was up to – and how it paired with groceries. Whatever it was, I doubt she was putting on a Punch and Judy show.
But by 1837, Mrs “Entertainment” Anderson and many of her neighbours had been replaced with a new crop of residents. Among them was a man named James Austin. Like many March St residents before and after him, he wouldn’t linger long either – but unlike most he had a better future ahead of him.
James Austin, born in Ireland, had come to York (Toronto) with his mom, dad, brothers and sisters in 1829. Just 16 years old, he had the good fortune to be taken on as an apprentice in William Lyon Mackenzie’s print shop. After four and a half years learning the trade, Austin was ready to go it alone and went into printing for himself. It’s at this early point in his career, and at a pivotal point in Toronto’s history, that we find him living on March St.
Now Austin may have left Mackenzie’s print shop years before, but he’d held onto the fiery Reformer’s ideals and was actively involved in the movement. He was so active, in fact, that following the Upper Canada Rebellion he thought it best to head to the States to let things cool down a bit. When, in 1843, amnesty was granted to those involved in the Rebellion James Austin came home and set about a new course in life.
Like stepping stones to greener pastures, Austin moved from being a small grocer to a partner in a successful wholesale company to founding the Dominion Bank and being a founding director of Consumers’ Gas. So the man really did alright for himself. While he is no doubt still revered in the hallowed halls of the above concerns, he is probably best known today as the man who built Spadina House, one of city’s great, old manors – now, a beloved museum.
Though I doubt many March St inhabitants experienced even a fraction of James Austin’s success, I do know that a large number shared his humble beginnings. Several of his neighbours were tradesmen like himself, but many more were unskilled labourers. Also common amongst them were Irish roots – specifically Irish Catholic roots. And, as we’ve noted here before, in a city ruled by Orangemen, these were considered the wrong kind.
This group would swell enormously when, beginning in 1847, the city was swept by tens of thousands of Irish immigrants looking to escape the potato famine. The poverty, illness and desperation for work that accompanied them meant few could afford to settle and put down roots in a community. Because of this, there was much movement on March St and the only things which remained constant were the large number of labourers, the overcrowding of shoddy houses and an impressive number of taverns.
The high point for the latter came in 1846 when there were seven taverns on March St –and remember, this is just two blocks we’re talking about. Among the choices where one could wet their whistle were the Erin Go Brach Inn, the Cavan Arms, the Princess Royal Inn, the Cornish Arms and the Prince Albert. This ready availability of so much liquor probably helps explain why, in Recollections and Records of Toronto of Old, W. H. Pearson wrote :
“Fights and brawls on the street were of frequent occurrence, and respectable citizens would only go through it in the night-time with much reluctance.”
Public disturbances such as these, along with a reputation for being home to several brothels, helped to give March St its bad name. Adding insult to injury, the street also proved disappointingly susceptible to cholera. So, as far as city councillors were concerned, not only were the residents obviously morally-corrupt, they were filthy too. And so it became clear that something would have to be done. And really, there was only one solution: the street would have to be renamed.
And so, in April of 1850, Stanley St was born.
Having employed such a hard-hitting tactic you may be surprised to learn that Stanley had all the same troubles that the entirely-different-sounding March St had had. If anything, they actually seemed to have ramped up.
By the 1860s, Stanleyites (as the residents were affectionately known (note: little-to-no actual affection) were being regularly featured in the Police Court columns of local newspapers. The court reporters, with humorous quips and lively descriptions, often made the daily proceedings sound like a raucous episode of Night Court. Other accounts were just … strange:
For their part, the Stanleyites appear to have found the police court great entertainment as well – so long as they were observing from the gallery.
With a great show of camaraderie, the residents regularly attended the proceedings to boo, hiss and applaud as the situation required. But they soon became such a disruption to the court that the presiding judge, Alex McNabb, thought he’d outsmart them by imposing a “good coat” rule. Just as it sounds, this meant that spectators were only allowed entrance if they were well-dressed:
This rather back-fired on McNabb when a notorious character from Dummer St – which was a close second to Stanley for worst Toronto ghetto – showed up to court in a formal swallowtail coat and dress pants, much to the crowd’s delight. Thereafter the dress code was relaxed and the reporters were able to return to a favourite description of the attendees:
“Mayor Doyle”, as you’ve probably picked up, was not actually an elected official but a very popular Stanleyite. Unfortunately, on this particular occasion, Doyle was there to answer for some eye-gouging he’d engaged in:
Naturally, there were concerned citizens who worried that such lively accounts might not be strong enough in the “cautionary tale” department. And so a fellow reporter for The Globe, Robert Cunningham, felt obliged to lift the veil on Stanley St and show the city how ugly it really was:
It’s a fairly long (cough, heavy-handed, cough) account and so, with your permission, I’ll sum it up here:
Strolling downtown on Christmas Eve, enjoying the merriment of the season, Cunningham spies a sad, young girl selling newspapers. Concerned that she is badly off, he buys up all her papers and then follows her home to Stanley St. From outside her home, he hears a man berate her and so goes ahead and lets himself in. The angry man – presumably her father – not unnaturally asks him who he is and what it is he wants. Cunningham explains he feared the girl wasn’t being treated right. Having got that off his chest, he then takes a good look around, notes the mother passed out drunk on the floor and leaves.
But the event has piqued his interest – so much so that he decides he must see more of the street. Wisely, perhaps, he asks a cop to join him and then sets about entering residents’ homes over the next two days. (Now here I have to nitpick and point out that the timeline is odd because he refers to both days as Christmas Eve. But then, maybe, that’s just the magic of the season.)
Anyhow, with the exception of one old woman who is so focused on a picture of Jesus that she doesn’t hear them enter (because that’s what they’re doing, just letting themselves into people’s homes) everyone they meet is an absolute, abysmal drunk. Truly, reading Cunningham’s description, Stanley St could be a double for Hogarth’s Gin Lane – but with one key difference: the terrifying drunks are all women. (In the interest of fairness, I should note that he does encounter one or two men who are drunk during his adventure, but as he considers them “hilarious” I don’t think we’re meant to worry about them.)
Worst amongst the women is the wife fresh out of jail who’s pawned all her furniture to buy gin. But that isn’t the half of it. She then invites some girlfriends over and they celebrate by locking her husband in the attic – something they gleefully admit to Cunningham and his friend, the cop. Hearing this, the two ask to visit the man in the attic. Not to save him, mind you, just to hear what he thinks of his wife’s behaviour. Well, the poor captive shares his thoughts and naturally they are appalled, leading Cunningham to this conclusion:
Of the wretched poverty on Stanley St, Cunningham has less to say other than that it boils down to an unwillingness to work. And with that all sorted, so ends Christmas Eve on Stanley Street and you’re left feeling it’s one heckuva tale. Not, of course, that you’d ever doubt the veracity of it all – I mean, why would you when it begins with this assurance:
While Robert Cunningham’s account of his grim experience no doubt shocked his readers (and likely made more than one husband eye his wife suspiciously) it appears to have had little to no effect on Stanley St itself. Seven years after he twisted hearts with his Christmas tale, the street still showed no signs of improving. And so in 1876, because it had worked so well before, the city decided to re-name it once more:
I imagine by this point there were a few veteran city council members who felt Lombard St was proof that the old line about leopards and their spots was true – and just gave up any expectation that it would ever change. But eventually, of course, it did.
In 1886, a long-vacant swath of land near the NW corner of Lombard and Jarvis became home to a handsome new fire hall.
Soon after, as manufacturing and industrial concerns began to blossom across the city, Lombard St was suddenly found to be pretty prime real estate. Several ramshackle wood buildings, once dangerously overcrowded but now increasingly vacant, were cleared and the lots sold to incoming companies like Ontario Lead and Barb Wire Co, the R. G. McLean Printers and Dunlop Tires.
By this time the city was discovering it had a new troubled area, and several new groups of immigrants, on which to focus its concern – The Ward. And Lombard St, finally freed from the ghosts of March and Stanley streets-past, slowly took on a new life.
Its former hold on the city has slipped so much that whenever I mention Lombard St to someone there’s usually a moment of hesitation while they try to place it. Nearly every time though, it’s the mention of one landmark that helps them pinpoint the location: the beautiful old Fire Hall, of 1886, that still stands. After retiring from its civic duties, it was taken on by Second City in 1977 and it’s where Dan Ackroyd, Gilda Radner, John Candy and many others great comedians got their start. So it makes me happy that this is how we know and recall Lombard St today. It’s nice to know the street’s most distinctive feature is one of the last things that bridges old Lombard with the new.
- The banner image is a rooftop view looking northwest towards Lombard St from the east side of Church in 1876.