Banner image is of Toronto General Hospital on Gerrard St. From A History of Toronto General Hospital, 1913.
Tucked away between Sackville and Sumach, running north from Gerrard, is a short street with a rather unique history.
If you were to look it up, you would find that Gifford St is most notable for its lack of Victorian architecture – something that’s a bit rare for a residential block in Cabbagetown.
Instead, Gifford is home to a healthy helping of Arts and Craft-style homes. This uniqueness is put down to the fact that the street was laid out in the 1920s. But here’s the thing – that’s not really true. Or, rather, I should say it’s kinda true – but it’s certainly not the whole story.
The fact is, the Gifford of today is actually a remnant of a much older street – Gifford the Elder, if you will – which dates back to 1875. Which most definitely had Victorian homes on it. To get to the bottom of this street – by which I mean its origins, not Gerrard St – we first have to head west, across the city, to the old York Hospital.
Much as I enjoy the above illustration, you really don’t get the redness of the brick as you do in this livelier version by one of our early doctors, Norman Bethune:
Built in 1820, the York Hospital sat at the corner of King and John – which at the time lay on the western outskirts of the city. But by the 1850s, the city had grown enough that development was pushing westward and so – as will happen – the land around the hospital had become quite valuable.
Hoping to expand, the hospital trustees reviewed their options and decided it was probably time to up sticks and move somewhere they could spread out a bit more. Luckily for them, they did not have to start land-hunting entirely from scratch. Early on, in 1818, the powers that be had carved out large parcels of land to be held in reserve for just such an event.
And you may be surprised to hear (likely not) that it was some pretty prime land:
Of the many parcels available to them – minus the six acres west of Church which had been sold off early on – the trustees chose the seven acre chunk between Parliament St and the Don River.
This new site was bound by Pine St (now Sackville) on the west, Sumach to the east, Don (now Gerrard) to the south and Spruce on the north:
Now, while the trustees might’ve been pretty pleased with the new locale, a number of Torontonians were not. At the time, it was considered unthinkable to move the hospital so far east. But then, as its defenders countered, it wasn’t like the west end had been particularly close for east-enders either.
But of greater concern among many – particularly the doctors who wrote for a medical paper called the Upper Canada Journal – was the belief that the east end harbored a certain condition which made it a poor locale for a health care facility. This was the dreaded miasmata – a kind of general, noxious stink in the air which was thought to bring on ague.
And frankly, there probably was something to this. The area would definitely have had a certain whiff about it as a number of odiferous industries – including tanneries, distilleries and breweries (not to mention plain ol’ sewage) – had long polluted the Don, making the great river less a thing of beauty than an assault on the senses.
But, in defense of the trustees’ choice, an editorial in The Leader scoffed at the doctors’ concerns and pointed out that it wasn’t like central Toronto didn’t stink itself.
But of course, all this stink-shaming didn’t amount to a hill of beans. The trustees forged ahead with their planning and the first phase of the new hospital – now called Toronto General – was opened in 1854.
Initially, as you might imagine, the hospital didn’t have a lot of neighbours. In fact, for the first 20 years or so of its new life in the east, the surrounding area lay undeveloped:
But despite the area’s remoteness, and apparent stink, it was not thought incapable of drawing new blood. And so, in 1875, a new street was laid out to welcome all comers. This, of course, was Gifford St:
Now, as for why Gifford was chosen for the street’s name, well, that’s a trickier tale to unravel…
While there were a few Giffords sprinkled throughout Toronto in the early days, none really seem to fit the bill. Of the three recorded in the mid 19th century, Andrew Gifford was a sailor, while Richard was a carpenter and William a porter. All very decent men, I’m sure (she says, knowing no such thing), but hardly the sort that the city bigwigs would celebrate by naming a street after.
And so, my money’s on this guy:
Born in Devon, England in 1821, Charles Gifford was educated as a lawyer before coming to Upper Canada. While I haven’t a firm date for when he first crossed the pond, he most definitely had settled in the Cobourg area by the 1860s. Once there, he became a successful business man and enjoyed an active involvement with the local militia – which accounts for the get-up you see him in above. Also, like any number of other successful business men, he felt a pull towards politics (of the Conservative variety) and became the MPP for Northumberland County from 1872 – 1874.
But far and away, Charles Gifford’s greatest passion was for sailing. In fact, it was this hobby which would come to define him more than anything else he’d put his hand to. Though, I suppose calling it a “hobby” is a bit disingenuous – he had, after all, been made vice-commodore of Toronto’s Royal Canadian Yacht Club .
And, let me tell you, he was no slouch as vice-commodore. In 1872, Gifford won the Prince of Wales Cup, sailing his own boat – the enchantingly named, Gorilla.
But it was in 1875, the same year our street was laid out, that Gifford began planning for the race which would bring him even greater renown – the America’s Cup.
For this race, he needed a special schooner and so Gifford formed a syndicate to raise the funds necessary to build one. Though a number of members across Ontario and Quebec contributed, money was tight – and time was even tighter. Gifford had issued the challenge to the New York Yacht Club, in early 1876, while the builder – Captain Alexander Cuthbert – was still putting the schooner together. The Americans, aware of the fact, were already counting on a win.
Here’s the Countess herself:
Alas, the Americans were right. Charles Gifford’s Countess of Dufferin would ultimately be defeated by New York’s schooner, Madeleine.
Despite the loss, Gifford would be remembered for his gallant efforts to win Canada its first America’s Cup. And, at the very least, he certainly succeeded in giving many Canadians the thrill of having a stake in such a prestigious race.
… And now that I’ve regaled you with that tale, let us return to the street which I believe bears his name…
Though first carved, mapped and named in 1875, Gifford St would not actually host any homes or residents for two whole years. It was only in 1877 that the first Giffordite moved in – a fellow named Robert Orr:
But Mr Orr would not be neighbour-less for long. The very next year he’d be joined by a handful of folks: William Hibbet, a tailor, a couple of labourers named Henry Simmonds and Joseph Bannister, and a builder named Henry Hagon.
As Gifford continued to grow throughout the 1880s (in homes, if not blocks) the neighbourhood seemed to attract a rather more white-collar crowd. Outside of one bricklayer – delightfully named Thomas Brick – the bulk of residents were clerks, book-keepers or shop managers. It also, apparently, was a draw for a few men who worked for the city’s newspapers – Alexander C. Lewis, a reporter for The World and printers for the Star, Isaiah Kerfoot and Charles Booz (I make no bones about it, I love that name.)
Incidentally, Booz has a connection to another fellow we met recently in The Fourth Man – Solomon Cassidy. Both were leading members of the Typographical Union in the 1890s and would’ve known each other well.
Now, as exciting as all that is (I’m just going to assume you’re as thrilled about that as I am), someone even more unexpected would turn up on Gifford in 1892. An American, from Illinois, his name was Henry Cuthbert Tunison:
Born into a farming family, on February 5th, 1855, young Henry seemed determined from the get-go to make his own way in the world. And at the tender age of 13, he got a job which would set him on that path: canvassing.
Rather than gathering voter information, as we might think of them now, canvassers of the 19th century were actually more like door-to-door salesmen than anything. Primarily, they sold books and maps – like the encyclopedia Britannica salesman of yore (yore, in this case, being a period I vaguely remember). And like those guys, they weren’t exactly always welcomed warmly. In fact, in 1879, a man named Harrington Bates wrote a book about the dreaded canvasser and his various schemes to talk you into buying things.
Here’s a snippet of Bates’s introduction:
Here’s an illustration from the same book which highlights just one of Harrington’s concerns:
Now, whether young Henry Tunison was as scheming as Harrington Bates would have us believe is hard to say. But I can tell you this: not long after becoming a canvasser, little Henry hired several sub-agents to expand his sales territory. So, at least we know he was enterprising – if not a bit wily.
As for the items he was selling, it’s a fair bet that he was one of Bates’ dreaded Illinois map sellers. I say this because Tunison’s next, and most famed, venture was:
At the time, Tunison may indeed have been “peerless” – his maps were certainly very popular and it’s claimed his was a “household name.” No doubt helped along by a vast network of canvassers:
In particular, his striking maps were famed for being coloured by hand.
Hold onto your hat – things are about to get splashy:
Delightfully, Tunison’s Atlas was filled with much more than maps. It also featured some enlightening, and inventive, graphs:
Here’s another fun one, and personal favourite of mine –
Putting the “universe” in “Universal” he also helpfully included the solar system:
Amongst the entries for North America, Tunison even included this view of Toronto:
However, as Tunison’s Atlas predates his Gifford St stay, it’s doubtful he was here mapping the joint. More likely, I believe he was in town setting up another arm of his map manufacturing business, of which he had several across the U.S. – and even one in London, Ontario:
Now, it should be mentioned, that also living at 10 Gifford was Tunison’s shop manager, a fellow map maker named Wilber Goodrick:
And while it appears Tunison went back to the States in 1893, and his Toronto shop closed up in 1895, Goodrick would continue to be recorded as a map maker right up until 1920. … You know, generally, when I write something like that, it means you can assume the person died shortly after the given date. But not in Wilber’s case – here it just means that, for whatever reason, he made a surprising switch and went into insurance.
Anyhow, by this time, Gifford St itself was undergoing a major change. The Toronto General Hospital, long its close neighbour, had decamped to College St back in 1913, and for a time, its hulking former home at the foot of Gifford St remained. But by 1923 the wrecking ball had come calling and, just like that, Gifford St suddenly doubled in length.
Though it took some time, this new southern extension was eventually built up – first with the smart and modern Gifford Apartments in 1926:
And these were followed by the Arts and Crafts homes for which the street is now known.
So, through and through, it was a residential street – that is until 1930 when a unique site opened up next-door to the Gifford Apartments:
This handsome, homey-looking building was the new site of the Neighbourhood Workers Association or, as it was also known, “Kemp House.”
By either name, its purpose remained the same – to provide aid to the city’s most vulnerable. Namely, unwed mothers, the unemployed, the homeless and the intemperate.
Here we see the site as it appears today:
As for the original Gifford St block, well, its days were numbered. In 1956, the 81 year old block – once home to scores of families, including Charles Booz and Henry Tunison – was severed from its southern end and demolished. And 23 households were scattered to the wind.
Now, though I’m just the sort of oddball, sentimental person who mourns the loss of a street I’ve never known, I certainly find no fault with its replacement – Regent Park Public School. Or Sprucecourt Junior Public, as it’s known today:
Still, should you ever find yourself in the area, it would do my heart a world of good to know you joined me in remembering all those who were once here and called it home – and maybe even tipped your hat a little. (Note: it can be an imaginary hat.)