At the mid-point of the 19th century, on the eve of the railway era, Toronto was very much a British colonial city in an expanding empire. In 1851, 97 per cent of the population claimed origins in the United Kingdom (of whom about one-third were Canadian-born). The city also was mainly Protestant, being the faith of 73 per cent of its people. By 1871, native-born people formed the majority of inhabitants through natural increase and in-migration from other parts of Canada. UK origins and Protestant belief, however, continued to dominate the city’s demographics through to the end of the Victorian era and for over a half century beyond. Yet, the term ‘British’ masked different ethnicities and regional identities that made Toronto more diverse than most of its provincial counterparts in Britain but less varied than comparable American cities across the border. Furthermore, even within the Protestant majority, there was tremendous divergence, as exemplified by the theological chasms that separated Evangelical Baptists from High Anglicans. Toronto also had a sizeable Roman Catholic population (25 per cent in 1851; 15 per cent in 1901). Some religious tension blemished urban life, especially between Catholics and Protestants of Irish origins, with, for example, 22 riots and near riots occurring between these two groups from 1867 to 1892. (These occurred mainly on the iconic Catholic feast of St Patrick on 17 March and the Protestant commemoration of King William III’s victory over the Catholic monarch, James II, at the 1690 battle of the Boyne on 12 July.) In fact, the Irish presence in the city – along with the character of much of its downtown architecture – led late Victorians to refer to Toronto, with some pride, as the ‘Belfast of North America’ – a title that speaks to how much has changed in the city over the last century or so.

Lights of a City Street, 1894 (Hudson’s Bay Company Corporate Collection)

Of course, other people, with origins outside of the United Kingdom, were present in Victorian Toronto and made their contributions to the cultural mosaic in increasing numbers as time passed, as exemplified ethnically by modest numbers of Blacks, Italians, Germans, Slavs, and descendants of the original native population. By the 1901 census, for instance, about 8 per cent of Toronto’s 208,000 people were of non-British origin, including individuals whose ancestral or personal past lay in Asia (219 souls), France (3,015), Germany (6,886), Italy (1,054), the Netherlands (737), Russia (142), and Scandinavia (253), along with 3,090 people of Jewish heritage and 2,714 people recorded as ‘other.’ Many of these individuals – being newcomers with few connections, sometimes hindered by limited skills for an urban environment, and suffering from the prejudices of the day – ended up in the harder occupations of the era, but in the process fulfilled critical jobs that allowed Toronto’s industrial and commercial growth to occur with particular vigour.

In October 1851, a groundbreaking ceremony took place on Front Street to begin construction on a railway to the outside world. Two years later, in 1853, the first train of the Ontario, Simcoe, and Huron line pulled out of the city along track that ran north to Barrie on Lake Simcoe. Then, in 1855, the line reached Collingwood on Georgian Bay. The route mimicked the ancient Toronto Passage to the upper lakes, but in the long run it created a far more powerful connection to the north. In 1855, the first east-west rail line opened when the Great Western ran to Toronto from Hamilton and points west. With increased rail construction, Toronto quickly became linked to Montreal, Quebec, the Atlantic colonies, and the United States with a previously unimagined efficiency. The net result was that the city became the main railway hub in Canada West, which further deepened and extended Toronto’s dominance over the enlarging hinterlands and rival municipalities.

Major Railway Connections, 1867 (City of Toronto Culture)
Northern Line Engine, C.1860-70 (Library and Archives Canada)

Hand in hand with these developments, Toronto profited from other commercial opportunities (although it also suffered numerous economic downturns, some of which were severe). In the earlier part of railway era, there was a strong demand for staples, such as lumber, which travelled from the hinterland through the city’s port facilities and out to various markets (facilitated in part by the Reciprocity Treaty of 1854-66 with the United States, which allowed free trade in grain, lumber, and other basic products). Yet, these opportunities decreased by the 1880s after the forests within Toronto’s reach had been cut and as farmers switched from export-oriented grains to mixed farming directed at expanding local markets. In the 1860s, industry began to concentrate in key railway centres like Montreal, Toronto, and Hamilton, where new factories used coal-fired steam power to produce a wide range of products that could be distributed conveniently along the iron rails. As coal had to be imported from Pennsylvania by ship, industry tended to concentrate either on the Toronto waterfront or along rail corridors that emanated from the harbour in order to reduce transportation costs.

Toronto Rolling Mills, 1864 (Toronto Public Library)

Industrial needs, along with those of the railways and the port facilities that serviced them, transformed Toronto Harbour. Beginning in the 1850s, the port became a grimy and busy industrial zone, and would continue to be so for well over a century to come. So great was the need for additional industrial port lands that the old shoreline (located just south of Front Street east of Bathurst, and south of Fort York to the west), had to be moved southwards by filling in the lakefront. Between the 1850s and the 1920s, for example, the shoreline at Fort York shifted 900 metres south through lakefill operations.

Esplanade East, 1894

Beyond the transformations brought on by railways and industrialization, other businesses opened or grew with the expanding city, with iconic examples being the founding of Eaton’s and Simpson’s, in 1869 and 1872 respectively, two firms that would dominate the city’s retail world until the latter part of the 20th century. Like other enterprises, these businesses entered the national market, as represented by their mail order operations, starting with Eaton’s in 1884, followed a year later by Simpson’s. Other factors fostered economic expansion in the Victorian city, such as an inflow of British and other investment and the development of the city’s own capital infrastructure through the founding of the Toronto Stock Exchange in 1852. Like the railways, factories, and department stores, these ventures extended their reach well beyond the city, especially with the expansion of the national market after the confederation of Canada.

In 1867 Toronto became a city within a country instead of a colony when New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, and the United Province of Canada formed the ‘Dominion of Canada’ within the British Empire (and with the united province dividing into Quebec and Ontario). The new nation grew quickly with the acquisition of the great northern and western interior by 1870, followed by the entry of British Columbia and Prince Edward Island into Confederation in 1871 and 1873 respectively (to be followed later by the acquisition of the Arctic from Britain in 1898 and the entry of Newfoundland in 1949).

The creation of the dominion in 1867, the demise of the old united province, and the concurrent formation of modern Ontario (and Quebec) resulted in Toronto becoming the capital and the largest urban centre in the most populous province of the new nation. Those changes further solidified the city’s already-dominant influence in the region. At the national level, the growth of the country opened new markets for Toronto manufacturers, especially after the ‘last spike’ of the Canadian Pacific Railway was pounded into the ground in 1885 to open a rail connection to the Pacific Ocean. Another national advantage for Toronto manufacturers (including branch plant operations set up by British and American owners) came with the protective tariff implemented by the federal government in 1879. It fostered local industries by making imports too expensive to be competitive, although it disadvantaged consumers in the process.

Toronto’s rise as an industrial city saw the accompanying emergence of industrial classes in place of the older hierarchies that had divided society. Families like the Gooderhams, Masseys, and Eatons formed a commercial-industrial elite. Below them a large middle class developed, as did a significant working class and a smaller underclass. Much of the working and underclass lived in marginal conditions because of unemployment, infirmity, age, or other affliction at a time when social services were in their infancy. In seeking to better their conditions in the face of competing elite interests, workers organized unions with increasing frequency during the Victorian era, with a watershed occurring with the establishment of the Toronto Trades Assembly in 1871 and the ‘Nine Hour Movement’ of 1872, which sought to cut an hour off the length of each of the six days in the work week. Nine hours, higher wages, and the very right to strike itself became burning issues in 1872 when printers walked off the job against free-market employers such as the famous Liberal, George Brown of the Globe. During the confrontation, the police arrested printers and the courts found the strikers guilty of participating in an illegal ‘combination’ to restrain trade. Yet, this heavy-handed response saw public opinion shift to a more favourable stance on unions, and the federal government of Conservative Prime Minister Sir John A. Macdonald responded by legalizing unions in Canada on the same, more generous, footing that their counterparts in Great Britain already enjoyed.

Commercial Activity in Toronto, 1878-95 (City of Toronto Culture)

Women’s rights became the subject of increased debate and change in the Victorian era as women demanded reforms to support values that they embraced, centred mainly on improving the condition of families and children as well as advancing social, health, and moral reform. Typically their call for change emanated from an English-Canadian, middle-class, Protestant perspective, which sometimes clashed with other ethnic, class, religious, and cultural values. The Victorian period also saw some of the first halting changes to provincial and federal laws that began the move away from the patriarchal principles that had shaped them. Much of the impetus behind these reforms came from pressure women in Toronto exercised through the organizations they founded or dominated and which often assumed a provincial or national role (and even an international one, as represented by church-centred missions).

One example of such an organization dominated from Toronto was the country’s largest women’s group, the National Council of Women of Canada, established in 1893. It was a federation of women’s groups that attempted to be inclusive in its membership across class, linguistic, and other divides, and that largely embraced a moderate reform programme. One well-known icon of the First-Wave Feminist movement in Toronto was Dr Emily Stowe. Trained in the US because no Canadian medical school would take her, she began her practice in Toronto in 1867 but was not licensed until 1880; however, in 1883, she saw her daughter, Ann, become the first female medical school graduate in Canada. Stowe Sr helped to establish the Toronto’s Women’s Medical College in 1883, and was the principle founder of the Toronto Women’s Literary Club in the late 1870s, which concerned itself in part with extending votes to women and which became the Canadian Women’s Suffrage Association in 1883. At the time of Stowe’s advocacy, women only had limited voting rights in elections for school trustees and municipal council, not getting voter equality with men until the years around the First World War. (The first women elected to office in Toronto won three of the seats on the Toronto Board of Education in 1892.) Many of these early women’s organizations and successor groups continued their work through the 20th century to play major roles in Toronto and Canadian life down to the present, with most of these organizations evolving along with the changing society that they served.

The ongoing innovations of the Victorians continued to shape the maturing city. In 1861, horse-drawn streetcars entered service at a time when urban growth meant that people often had to travel beyond comfortable walking distances on a regular basis. Telephones and electric lights in homes, businesses, and on the street arrived in the 1880s. Asphalted streets appeared in 1887 and slowly replaced the macadamized, cedar-paved, and dirt roads of earlier days. Between 1892 and 1894, with over 100 kilometres of track in place, streetcars were electrified. (Later, in the first decade of the 20th century, power from Niagara Falls rather than from local coal-powered generators reduced the cost of electricity, and the city took over the supply of hydro, further securing Torontonians’ access to reliable, low-cost power). One important development in transit occurred in 1897 when a majority of voters agreed to allow streetcars to run on Sundays, despite opposition from labour unions fearing that a more open Sunday would thwart their dreams of shorter working hours and from Methodists worried that the Sabbath would be desecrated by such an innovation. New technologies affected building construction, whether they were the elevators and steel construction that allowed for such ‘tall’ buildings as the seven-story Board of Trade at Front and Yonge streets in 1889, or were improvements to personal comfort, such as people’s widespread adoption of the modern flush toilet towards the end of the 19th century.

Horse-Drawn Streetcars, C.1890 (Toronto Public Library)

The industrializing city experienced an intensification in the distinctions between neighbourhoods as Toronto divided into more clearly-defined residential, commercial, and industrial areas. One example of this development started along the waterfront in the 1850s. As railways and industries overran the harbour and destroyed the attractiveness of life by the water’s edge, affluent people retreated to more congenial environments, such as north on Jarvis Street, which had been opened up for development in the late 1840s. That shift was representative of an increasing segmentation in the population, as individuals and families gravitated to particular neighbourhoods, religious institutions, clubs, and organizations where fellow members shared similar values and status.

Much of the city’s Victorian expansion occurred through unregulated private enterprise. This created numerous problems, such as the poor construction and other inadequacies of the port’s infrastructure. A large percentage of Toronto’s housing stock also was shoddy, and the municipal government missed opportunities to lay out grand streets and parks that might have served the population then and provided legacies for future generations to enjoy. Yet even with unregulated growth and neglected opportunities, Victorian Toronto boasted some important buildings and amenities that survive to grace our lives today and that placed the city in competition with the other urban centres of the Great Lakes region in the latter 1800s. One was University College, erected in the 1850s, another was the Ontario Legislative Assembly at Queen’s Park from the 1880s, and a third was the famous concert venue, Massey Hall of the 1890s. At the same time, the Victorian period saw the construction of some of the city’s finest churches (in which liturgy and music improved over earlier times and where clergy advanced good causes with increasing influence). As part of the era’s public park movement that changed many cities for the better, George W. Allan donated Allan Gardens between 1857 and 1862, while John and Jemima Howard worked to open High Park in 1873 upon the foundations of their west-end property (which at the time lay beyond the city limits). Other expressions of cultural distinction took shape: publishing houses served the national market, a plethora of societies promoted an astonishing variety of worthy causes, and concerts, lectures, sporting events, while other diversions competed for the population’s leisure and self-improvement hours.

University College, C.1895 (constructed 1859); Massey Hall, C.1910 (constructed 1894) (Toronto Public Library)

The city grew beyond its 1834 boundaries and liberties when it annexed Yorkville in 1883, Brockton in the west and Riverdale in the east in 1884, and several other areas before the First World War, including North Toronto and Moore Park in 1912. As the city grew and as government became more complex, Toronto needed new facilities for its council and municipal employees. Thus in 1899 a grand new Romanesque city hall opened at the head of Bay Street, a building that stands today as one of the nation’s late Victorian architectural gems. Despite the grandeur of city hall, municipal government did not function without controversy. People argued over public morality, aldermen found themselves accused of lining their pockets by favouring developers over the public interest, reformers charged the civil service with cronyism and incompetence, and voters demanded improvements to such essential services as water, which the city took over from private concerns in the 1870s. Yet, the degree of unsavoury behaviour and corruption in a community that called itself ‘Toronto the Good,’ while disturbing, seems to have been below average in comparison to other North American municipalities at the time.

Toronto Firefighters, C.1878 (Toronto Fire Services); Design for Old City Hall, 1889 (City of Toronto)

Despite a comparatively laissez-faire municipal government, services and regulations did grow. Following the great fire of 1849, for instance, the city required new development to be more fire-resistant than before. In 1861 Toronto completed its conversion away from hand-pumped fire engines to steam powered machines. Police services expanded from an initial establishment of five full-time constables in 1834 to a force of more than 60 men after reforms in the late 1850s. Free education became widely available after the creation of a public school board in 1850, to be followed by compulsory schooling in 1871, and the implementation of kindergarten programmes in 1883. In 1884 a public library system began to serve the population. There also were advances in public health reform and hospital construction. These and other initiatives paid off, as represented by the decline in the death rate, from 21 per 1,000 people per annum in 1883, to 15 per 1,000 by 1896, in a city that had become much larger, more complex, and hence more difficult to manage than the one that had existed on the eve of the railway era almost half a century earlier.

Annexations to 1914 (City of Toronto Culture)