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Historicist: Patriarch of the Police Court

Every Saturday at noon, Historicist looks back at the events, places, and characters—good and bad—that have shaped Toronto into the city we know today.

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Court Room, Old City Hall, c. 1908–1910, from the City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1244, Item 637.


Between the time Colonel George Taylor Denison III took the bench in 1877 and his retirement in 1921, Toronto’s population grew from seventy thousand to over five hundred thousand. The dramas that played out in his courtroom in the intervening years revealed a great deal about a city coming to grips with rapid urbanization, the tensions wrought by immigration, and the conservative reaction to the changing city.
In a typical scene outside the Police Court, “[a] hundred voices, in subdued tones and a half-dozen languages” buzzed, as defendants wait to be called before the magistrate to answer usually minor crimes like drunkenness, vagrancy, theft, and gambling. Renowned court reporter Harry Milner Wodson described the anxiety of one archetypal man and his family in The Whirlpool (1917): “He does his best to appear confident of his dismissal, and talks with mock gaiety, but every now and then a shadow of anxiety swiftly crosses his face, and his wife sees it. She, too, is playing a part, and brightly flicks a speck from his coat, or straightens his tie, as if he were waiting to interview the head of a manufacturing concern…and she was anxious that he should look his best.”


Policemen and plainclothes detectives waiting to give testimony on this case or that milled about among the throng, offering advice or “receiving the angry scowls of culprits out on bail.” It was also common to find fashionably dressed tourists from as far as Cleveland and Chicago lingering around the Police Court, eager to be entertained by the rabble in the courtroom.
According to British tourist and author John Foster Fraser in Canada As It Is (1909), it was “[t]he only place [tourists] saw a hustle” in all of Toronto. The object of their attraction to the courtroom was Denison himself: Toronto’s spirited police magistrate who handled the cases brought before him with swiftness, wry wit, and piquant quips. His charismatic demeanor made him a favourite of local court reporters like Wodson, whose accounts for Toronto Evening Telegram were reprinted in a number of papers across the States and accounted for the magistrate’s fame across the continent.

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Portrait of George Taylor Denison III from his memoirs, Reflections of a Police Magistrate (The Musson Book Co., 1920).

Denison was a member of one of the city’s wealthiest and most prominent families upon whom, the Dictionary of Canadian Biography notes, “[t]he burden of tradition and expectation thus weighed heavily.”
Called to the bar in 1861, Denison practiced law with his brother, Frederick Charles Denison. But he was a military man at heart, and rose through the ranks of the militia to command the Governor General’s Body Guard. A founder of the Canada First nationalist movement, devoutly loyal to the crown, and a supporter of lost causes, Denison was a frequent author on nationalist and imperialist topics. He was also noted for his thoroughly researched books on military history and tactics. Nevertheless, Norman Knowles suggests in the Dictionary of Canadian Biography, Denison was haunted in middle age by “his lack of personal accomplishment.”
With no real inclination towards the law, it was Denison’s personal friendship with Premier Oliver Mowat that led to his appointment as police magistrate in 1877. “This surprised me, as I had made no request for any appointment, and had no desire to take a public office,” he noted in his autobiography, Recollections of a Police Magistrate (The Musson Book Co., 1920). “In fact it was contrary to the tradition of my family, no one of whom up to that time had ever taken any civil appointment.” He reluctantly accepted the patronage appointment, which carried a yearly salary of four thousand dollars paid by the city.

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Lantern Slide of the Criminal Court at Toronto City Hall, c. 1925, from Archives of Ontario (F 4436-0-0-0-176).

Upon taking the bench, Denison gave up his law practice—unlike his predecessors—and received agreement that his brother and former law partners would never accept clients appearing before him. Although the sacrifice wasn’t required by law, Denison made the conscious decision to never accept directorships of companies and appointment to commissions—the sort of positions one would expect a member of the governing class to assume—as long as he was on the bench. Denison refused gifts from theatres, railways, and other companies that his predecessors had accepted. He was not beholden to any political party (as an adherent of the Canada First movement), and he was not a member of any fraternal organizations. He was determined to neither accept nor offer any favours as a result of his judicial position. “This policy has been a great satisfaction to me ever since,” he declared in his Recollections. “I am independent of everyone.”
In The Whirlpool, Wodson summed up Denison’s demeanour on the bench:

A swift thinker, a keen student of human nature, the possessor of an incisive tongue, he extinguishes academic lawyers, parries thrusts with the skill of a practiced swordsman, confounds the deadly-in-earnest barrister with a witticism, scatters legal intricacies to the winds, will not tolerate the brow-beating of witnesses, cleans off the ‘slate’ before the bewildered stranger has finished gaping, shuts the book with a bang, orders adjournment of the court, then, stick in hand, strolls off to lunch at the National Club. During the morning he may have committed a burglar to the penitentiary for five years, told witnesses that he couldn’t believe a word of their testimony, informed a troublesome lawyer that he was wasting time over technicalities, made peace between husband and wife, exchanged pleasantries with an old-timer, ordered a wife-beater to be lashed, and disposed of a hundred other cases.

Above all, Denison’s brand of justice was swift. “I was a little breathless at the slapdash manner in which he disposed of forty cases in exactly forty minutes,” Fraser recalled of his visit to Denison’s courtroom. Even calling the names of the next defendant and administering witness oaths to save time, the magistrate wasted no time on hearing legal technicalities. “I never allow a point of law to be raised,” he boasted proudly of his common sense view of justice. “This is a court of justice, not a court of law.” Calling the very idea of precedents “illogical,” Denison believed each case to be unique. “The best plan,” he said, “is to go into the whole facts and decide what is fair and right between the parties.”
Denison was only interested in the specific criminal act and the immediate effects—not causes or social circumstances. In any case, as a member of the governing class, he was far removed from first-hand knowledge of the conditions in lower class districts that might be conducive to crime. A man of his time, as Gene Homel writes in a 1982 Ontario History article, Denison believed “that crime was simply an innate tendency in the character of many commoners,” and that the justice system’s traditional role was punitive (not rehabilitative).
Yet, Denison was held in high regard by defendants for his sense of fair play. On a visit to a Kingston Penitentiary, one prisoner told Denison:

We all think well of you, Colonel, because you always give us a fair trial. The detectives have got to prove their case clearly or you will not convict, but some of the magistrates and judges decide against a man with a record because he has a record, whether the case is proved clearly or not, and that is not playing the game fairly. If the detectives cannot prove their case they should not get the decision, but if they do prove it then we never complain of the judge for sentencing us. All we want is fair play.

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Editorial from the Toronto Star of 16 July, 1921.

Denison’s Recollections caused a minor stir when they appeared serially in the Canadian Magazine from July 1919 to August 1920. In them, he freely admitted that he often based his rulings on his personal intuition towards a defendant’s innocence or guilt. Yet, in July 1921, Saturday Night argued that it’d be difficult to find “a shrewder, juster or more sanely sympathetic magistrate.” And by Denison’s own count, of 31,800 cases he tried in one eleven-year span, nine were appealed to a higher court. Only one was quashed.
On at least one occasion, Denison declined appointment to a higher court, because, as he put it, “I felt that my position was more important in many ways, and that I might be much more useful to the community where I was.” With a sort of paternalism, he felt it was his duty to quietly look out for the interests of those defendants who couldn’t afford a lawyer.
Denison’s intuition sometimes prompted him to take irregular action on behalf of a defendant. On one occasion, a carpet shop employee who stood accused of embezzling thirty dollars from his employer pleaded “Not guilty” with such conviction—in the face of strong evidence of guilt—that Denison became convinced of his innocence. The magistrate, who also sat on the Board of Police Commissioners, therefore sent a police constable to make further inquiries into the evidence. The real culprit was apprehended, the innocent party released, and, on this occasion at least, Denison’s intuition was confirmed.
While he might be inclined to show leniency to retired soldiers, some other groups were looked down upon. He was particularly antagonistic towards labour activists, and he held a low opinion of the city’s Irish and blacks, both of whom—in Homel’s words—he regarded with “bemused contempt.” In Denison’s memoirs, both blacks and the Irish make repeated appearances as comic relief—with their dialect and colloquialisms spelled out phonetically. He also commented upon Jewish, Italian, and Chinese immigrants that appeared in court as if they were exotic specimens.
Denison’s views were shared by many Torontonians of the time. And his administration of justice in the interests of the governing class was in keeping with common practice across Canada. In an Urban History Review (February 1984) article, Thomas Thorner and Neil B. Watson demonstrated how G.E. Sanders, Denison’s police magistrate contemporary in Calgary, espoused similar views and tactics in the courtroom.
From the tone of his memoirs, Denison clearly liked career criminals because they accepted the role of the judge as long as he adjudicated fairly. He expressly disliked the few defendants he tried who were drawn from the respectable and wealthy classes. They might expect special treatment and often held personal grudges against magistrates.
He was harsher on those for whom he held greater expectations, while the labouring classes benefited from his paternalism. Wodson wrote:

Police Magistrate Denison is of the governing class. His mind is more or less remote from the affairs of the rank and file of humanity. Not that he does not fathom their viewpoint—he does that to a marvelous [sic] degree, but he appears to regard their street fights, domestic wrangles, and lesser crimes, as incidental to the commoner’s life. On the other hand, if a “very superior person” ever comes before him, he reminds him that riches, and social, and educational advantages, are accompanied by additional responsibilities, and that if a man possessing these things, breaks the law, he is a greater offender than his less favored brother; ergo, if a navvy and a blue-blooded university professor were before his court on identical charges, the navvy would get the lighter term.

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Sketch from Harold Milner Wodson, The Whirlpool: Scenes From Toronto Police Court (1917).

Denison also took a harsh negative view of upper or middle class moral reformers and their campaigns against, as Denison put it, “certain classes of the criminal population who offended their tender susceptibilities.” Denison was not one to hector or lecture defendants from a judicial pulpit. “He may not pray for them,” Wodson noted, “but he doesn’t increase their burdens with gruff treatment. If there were fewer prayers for law-breakers, and more service in their behalf, the daily calendar of offences against the State might be shortened.”
Although his own actions can be interpreted as a bulwark of conservatism against the changes wrought by immigration and rapid urban growth, Denison was vocal in criticizing the legal system. “I would do away with the legal profession altogether,” he once proclaimed, castigating lawyers for prolonging legal proceedings with motions and appeals for no reason but to increase the fee charged to the defendant. The magistrate wanted a simpler trial and appeal process and advocated for state-provided legal aid to those who couldn’t afford representation. Such opinions elicited strong denunciations in Canadian law journals. Indeed, over his career, Denison had his share of run-ins with the legal establishment and city council over his methods and opinions.
With the passage of time—and an increasing number of cases—some reforms were implemented. The corps of translators was expanded, for example, and separate children’s and women’s courts were gradually created. But by the time Denison was contemplating retirement, local newspapers grew more vocal about the urgent need for wholesale reform of the police court system. Although his public reputation insulated Denison from too much personal criticism, the day for his brand of paternal, common sense justice, blind to social context and mitigating factors, had passed.
Denison retired in the summer of 1921, and died in 1925.

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