Gifford Street

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.

Gifford looking North
Gifford St looking north from Gerrard.

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.

York Hospital King and John TPL
Rather pleasing in its simplicity, isn’t it?  1858 illustration of the York Hospital. Courtesy of Toronto Public Library.

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:

To be fair, he apparently drew this from memory – so perhaps he just remembered it that skewed.  Courtesy of Toronto Public Library.

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.

Hospital Lands 1818
Certain lands for certain parties – that’s the Toronto way.  From A History of the Toronto General Hospital, 1913.

And you may be surprised to hear (likely not) that it was some pretty prime land:

Hospital land allottment
That’s a lotta lots.  From A History of the Toronto General Hospital, 1913.

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:

Boulton's 1858 Map General Hospital Don
The hospital on its new east end lot. Detail from the Boulton’s Atlas of Toronto, 1858.

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.

My hat’s off to the author – “a delicious mixture of feculent matter” and “a most fertile source of menance” – that’s hard to beat.  Excerpt from The Leader, August 10th, 1853 as noted in A History of Toronto General Hospital, 1913.

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.

Toronto General 1854
A remarkably grand pile, isn’t it?  Designed by William Hay it was, apparently, modeled after a hospital in Scotland.  From A History of the Toronto General Hospital, 1913.

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:

North side of Toronto General 1860
Nothin’ outside them walls but boys layin’ in the dirt. The north side of Toronto General, as seen in 1860. Courtesy of the Toronto Public Library.

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:

1872 1878 Plan
Here we see Gifford, stretching between Spruce and Carleton (now Carlton, minus the “e”), in a detail from Wadsworth and Unwin’s Map of the City of Toronto, 1878.

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:

Captain Charles Gifford
Captain Charles Gifford, circa 1880.  Courtesy of the Cobourg Public Library.

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 .

1874 TCD Royal Yacht Club
Captain, M.P.P., vice-commodore – that’s a heady bunch of titles. From the 1874 Toronto City Directory.

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.

Gorilla Yachting-on-lake-Ontario
Gifford’s Gorilla racing the Arrow in William Armstrong’s painting “Yachting on Lake Ontario.” I have to confess, I know zilch about sailing, so – look, boats! From Toronto Reference Library, Special Collections.

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.

Countess of Dufferin Cleveland Herald April 3 1876
Oh okay – just so long as it’s seldom.  From the Cleveland Herald, April 3, 1876.

Here’s the Countess herself:

Races for the America's Cup
They had me up to “Balloon Jib.” From Henry Irving King’s Races for the America’s Cup, 1893.

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:

1877 Robert Orr
Wouldn’t it be fun if he were the same Robert Orr who was grandfather to hockey great, Bobbie Orr?  Well, let me burst that bubble right now – sadly, he isn’t.  From the 1877 Toronto City Directory.

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:

Henry C Tunison Souvenir White Hall, Illinois 1911
Henry Cuthbert Tunison looking rather dashing, from the Souvenir of White Hall, Illinois, 1911.

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:

How Tis Done 1879
One assumes Bates had already decided against having this effort sold door-to-door. From How ‘Tis Done: A thorough ventilation of the numerous schemes conducted by wandering canvassers, together with the various advertising dodges for the swindling of the public, 1879. That’s the whole title, honestly. And really, it’s all laid bare there, isn’t it?

Here’s an illustration from the same book which highlights just one of Harrington’s concerns:

How Tis Done Illustration 1879
Bad times, indeed. The wife’s ire has made everyone so tense that no one even notices the poor baby’s fallen right over, and the dog feels compelled to turn away from the sorry scene. From How Tis Done, 1879.

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:

Tunison's Peerless 1885
“Ladies, I have an idea.” From Tunison’s Peerless Universal Atlas of the World, 1885. “Universal” and “of the World” is a bit redundant to me, but it does sound impressive.

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:

American Bee Journal 1882 Tunison
“That’s $2,000 a year, if you do the math, fellas.”  From the American Bee Journal, 1882.

In particular, his striking maps were famed for being coloured by hand.

Hold onto your hat – things are about to get splashy:

Tunison's Ontario 1885
That’s our very own Ontario – in all its Technicolor glory. From Tunison’s Peerless Universal Atlas of the World, 1885.

Delightfully, Tunison’s Atlas was filled with much more than maps.  It also featured some enlightening, and inventive, graphs:

Production of Cotton Tunison's Peerless 1885
Here we have a breakdown of the world’s cotton production and consumption. As well as that of glass, silk and steel – and illiteracy, for good measure. From Tunison’s Peerless Universal Atlas of the World, 1885.

Here’s another fun one, and personal favourite of mine –

Variations of the Earth's Surface Tunison's Peerless 1885
Yep – you got your water, your mountains, your standard-issue hills, a valley, a dry patch over on the left …  From Tunison’s Peerless Universal Atlas of the World, 1885.

Putting the “universe” in “Universal” he also helpfully included the solar system:

Solar System Tunison's Peerless 1885
Poor Father Time – he’s only now realizing his job is much bigger than he’d thought. From Tunison’s Peerless Universal Atlas of the World, 1885.

Amongst the entries for North America, Tunison even included this view of Toronto:

Toronto Tunison's Peerless 1885
Unfortunately, it’s a bit on the tiny side so you can only just make out the wharves and the CN Tower’s spire. (That’s a joke.) From Tunison’s Peerless Universal Atlas of the World, 1885.

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:

Tunison Gifford Listing 1892
From the Toronto City Directory, 1892.

Now, it should be mentioned, that also living at 10 Gifford was Tunison’s shop manager, a fellow map maker named Wilber Goodrick:

1892 Wilber Goodrick
Wilber Goodrick is an almost perfect old-timey name, in my books.  From the 1892 Toronto City Directory.

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:

Gifford Apartments
The Gifford Apartments as seen today. Don’t look now but those two blue cars are squaring off for a fight.

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:

Kemp House, 18 Gifford Street. - June 4, 1930
18 Gifford St as seen on June 4th, 1930. City of Toronto Archives, Globe and Mail fonds, Fonds 1266, Item 20566.

This handsome, homey-looking building was the new site of the Neighbourhood Workers Association or, as it was also known, “Kemp House.”

Kemp House, group : C.A. Kemp, Q.V. Henderson, F.N. Stapleford, W.H. Carruthers, R.F. Thompson, Dr. R.S. Laidlaw. - June 4, 1930
Here we see its opening with some of the association’s members.  They’re a jolly looking bunch, aren’t they?  Though the man on the left would probably have to seriously re-think that mustache in a few years.  June 4th, 1930. From the City of Toronto Archives.

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:

Kemp House
Sadly, the Neighbourhood Workers Association/Kemp House no longer dwells here and the building looks a bit neglected and forlorn.

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:

Spruce St School
Sprucecourt Junior Public School – a decent example of the mid-century modern school – now occupies the original Gifford St site.

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.)


22 thoughts on “Gifford Street

  1. Although I lived in Riverdale for many years I never really learned Cabbagetown and all its streets. Explored it a little while reading the History of UofT by Martin Freidland, searching for the Women’s Medical College at 291 Sumach Street and Trinity Medical College at 40 Spruce Street. I’ve also never really known where the original Toronto General Hospital was, so thank you! Great story, as always. Love your humour.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Oh, you’ve made my day! So glad you found the Toronto General history of interest too (and that you like my little jokes.) As I was working on this one I realized that the hospital really deserves a post of its own – so I think one will be in the works soon. So many great characters in its early years.


  2. I clicked the Cabbagetown link because I was curious how the area got its name, and was surprised that it was because of Irish immigrants. I suppose cabbage does turn up a fair bit in Irish cookery, but for some reason I associate it more with Germanic, sauerkraut eating countries. Anyway, I love Norman Bethune’s drawing, especially that thing on the door that looks very much like a cartoon eye peeping out, and “feculent” is a fantastic word. I’m going to have to start using it (I already say “miasma” way too much – I wouldn’t say I’m a believer in miasmatic theory, but there are some smells that are just not right. Feculent ones, I suppose).
    Tunison’s books are a delight (those are truly the worst charts I’ve ever seen), and your comment on the guy with the Hitler mustache cracked me up. Kind of a shame the hospital didn’t survive though – it was a splendid building. I’d totally live there if they broke it up into flats, even though I suspect it would be super haunted!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It’s funny about the name Cabbagetown – over the years, I’ve stopped hearing the “cabbage” part of it even though many homes in the area fly flags with a cabbage on them, believe it or not. So I forgot that it probably sounds funny if you’ve never heard it before – like “You live in Banana-burg? What?” But yeah, I agree – I tend to think of cabbage as a Germanic thing, not Irish.
      I love that Norman Bethune drawing too – cracks me up every time. Though to be honest, it’s probably better than I could’ve done (but not by too much.)
      I’m so glad you enjoyed Tunison’s crazy charts! I had to stop myself from making the whole post just a gallery of his weird graphs – they’re just so entertaining.
      I’m really sorry they tore down the old hospital too. If it had been saved and converted, I’d absolutely live there too. But yeah, it’d be super haunted and probably have very dodgy plumbing.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Another awesome piece, thank you! I don’t think I’m related to this particular Charles Gifford but there are definitely Charlies in the family, and they stretch from around Oshawa to Cobourg. I’ll imagine that one of them competed in the America’s Cup, because why not. I’ve always wondered why that little stretch of road carries that name. I’m guessing you’re right. Thanks again.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m so glad you liked it! And thank YOU for introducing me to Gifford – it’s a wonderful example of how much history can be tied up in one (then two, then one) city block. It does pain me that I couldn’t pin down its namesake for you with more certainty, so I’ll definitely keep working at it – but I think the Captain’s a pretty good fit. And given how uncommon a name Gifford was in Ontario in the mid-to-late 19th century, I hoped he might be of some relation. … Any strong desire to be out sailing?


  4. That would be my grandfather, Rev. Frank Stapleford, third from the left in front of Kemp House. He was one of the founders of the Neighbourhood Workers Association and their executive director from 1918 until his death in 1952. The NWA carries on today as Family Service Toronto.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. What a treat to get your note! I am grateful for the identification of your grandfather and to learn about his long association with the NWA. I’ve read much on their good works and am pleased to know it continues today.
      Thank you for writing! Katherine


  5. I grew up at 18 Gifford in the 70s when it was owned by the same owners of one of the larger Chinese restaurants on old Chinatown on Dundas West of Bay, Sam Woo.

    Liked by 1 person

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