Every morning for over 40 years, a maverick thinker and politician presented his views to Toronto and the nation.
The Toronto World once declared that “A newspaper editorially has no inherent personality of its own nor apart from that of the individuals who direct and control its policy. That is the basic element in journalism, though it is often forgotten or ignored by the public to whom it is of vital interest.” Readers of the World wouldn’t have disagreed, as the paper’s 41 year history was so entwined with owner William Findlay “Billy” Maclean that when he died in 1929, the Star reflected that its content was “mainly autobiographical” and “never did much else but portray the iconoclastic reactions of this outstanding fighter.” Had Maclean been content to run his newspaper and not dabbled in politics or stretched his poor business sense, his contemporaries believed the World might not have ceased publication in 1921.
Maclean was, according to a Star profile, “one of the nimblest-witted men ever born. He can see your point before you make it, and is ready with a point or two of his own. His head is infested with ideas, usually a little ahead of their time.” Often ridiculed for his thoughts, time has been kind to Maclean’s worldview. Among the issues he and the World fought for: public ownership of utilities (especially hydro), Sunday streetcar service, subways, suffrage, and the Bloor Viaduct. Stating its editorial policy in a 1909 feature akin to an extended version of Charles Foster Kane’s declaration of principles, the World declared itself neither a Conservative nor a Liberal rag, “but a democratic national newspaper” which didn’t promote partisan policies “except those which it advocates openly and unreservedly.” Through promotion of free elections, civil and religious liberties, and moderate protectionism, the World desired a Canada that was “the home of a genuine democracy where the people shall share to the full in the benefits that ought to come from the splendid natural wealth and resources which are their heritage.” His nationalism was such that as an MP he proposed renaming Hudson’s Bay as the Canada Sea.
Born in Hamilton in 1854, Maclean followed his father into the journalism field, quickly rising to city editor of the Globe. In 1880 Maclean, along with two other Globe reporters, was approached by city alderman Peter Ryan to create an evening paper to back his candidacy as a Liberal in a federal by-election in West Toronto. This wasn’t unusual, as Toronto’s history has been dotted with numerous short-lived, highly biased papers created for similar purposes. When the first edition of the World appeared on August 19, 1880, it was assumed it would fold after the election. While the World failed to elect Ryan, Maclean liked running a paper and kept it going, though he switched its publication from evening to morning.
The paper quickly became known as a cheap, irreverent read. “Bright and iconoclastic” noted Maclean’s entry in the Dictionary of Canadian Biography, “the World gave Torontonians a taste of the populist crusades and sensationalism pioneered by the New York Herald. The new one-cent daily had an immediate impact; some found it the ‘editorially boldest,’ others viewed it as decidedly downscale.” In their book The Revenge of the Methodist Bicycle Company, Christopher Armstrong and H.V. Nelles commented that “The World had none of the chic smartness of Saturday Night or the weighty seriousness of either the Globe or the Mail. It aimed directly at a working-class readership, appealing to them with its readiness to take the mickey out of the local establishment.”
Among the World’s favourite targets was Toronto’s repressive Sunday blue laws. Maclean had no time for moralists who opposed any form of entertainment or work on the Sabbath. One form of giving them the finger was the launch in May 1891 of the Sunday World, which competed with the Globe’s Saturday edition and American Sunday papers [PDF]. Though it could bear a Sunday dateline, printing or selling the paper that day was illegal, so the World resorted to distributing it late Saturday evening. The content likely infuriated the Sabbatarian killjoys with its emphasis on leisure activities and sensationalistic stories. Around the same time, the World stood alone among city papers in its loud support of Sunday streetcar service. Whenever public meetings were held, World reporters were jeered. Undeterred, Maclean pushed the issue until, following two unsuccessful votes, service was approved by the public in 1897.
Maclean’s personal political record was mixed. Despite the World’s beginnings backing the Liberals, Maclean spent most of his career as an “independent” Conservative who frequently opposed Tory policies. He was first elected to the House of Commons in an 1892 by-election in York East, succeeding former Prime Minister Alexander Mackenzie. He earned the wrath of many party members when the World printed gossip about the true state of Prime Minister John Thompson’s health in 1894. Though the information the paper received was confirmed after Thompson’s fatal heart attack at Windsor Castle, fellow Tories felt he had tried to destroy the party by making it look vulnerable and never forgave him. Maclean ran for mayor in 1902 on a platform of public ownership, labour concerns, and attacks on corporations, but he lost to Oliver Howland (who described Maclean’s campaign as a bid to “revolutionize everything”) by less than 5,000 votes.
Given his on-again, off-again relationship with the Tories, it’s not shocking that Maclean played a role in launching one of the party’s greatest press enemies. Established by printers locked out of the News during a labour dispute in November 1892, the Toronto Star required a press to produce the city’s newest evening paper. Maclean offered the Star the use of his printing plant and an office at the World in exchange for 51 per cent of the paper. The Star agreed, on condition that Maclean remained a silent partner and did not interfere with the paper’s business or editorial direction. Relations between the Star and Maclean soured quickly, as he mused about turning the Star into an evening edition of the World. Worse, rumours spread that the Riordan family, who owned the News, had approached the financially shaky Maclean for his stake in the Star. After nearly two months, Maclean agreed to sell his stake to the Star’s Horatio Hocken (later a mayor of Toronto) in exchange for a $5,000 promissory note. Maclean also sold the Star a press he wasn’t using, but it was seized by the tax collector the following day. The Star was temporarily printed by the Empire until Maclean settled that particular debt and the press could be freed.
Maclean’s fellow Star owners had good reason to worry about who Maclean contemplated selling the paper to, since nobody ever praised his business acumen. That the World lasted for 40 years was a miracle, as its owner was always deep in debt. Some days the World had to steal its paper supply to ensure it hit the streets. Part of the problem was that Maclean spread himself too thin, trying to be a newspaper publisher, politician, horse breeder, and land speculator, with any profit coming from the World used to pay off his other debts. His constant need for money caused Maclean to develop a reputation as someone who, despite his beliefs, could easily be bought. When the Conservatives fell out with the party-directed Mail over editorial matters in 1887, Sir John A. Macdonald contemplated buying the World, but balked when Maclean insisted he be retained as editor-in-chief. Following the approval of Sunday streetcar service in 1897, the World was rewarded by the owners of the Toronto Railway Company through a bank note co-signed by Star publisher E.E. Sheppard.
The World frequently rewarded advertisers who bought large volumes of ad space by publishing puff pieces about their products. While a sketchy practice, in the case of real estate it produced a valuable record of the city’s development in the early 20th century. Flip through the World’s pages and you’ll find plenty of ads and stories touting developments in areas then at the edge of the city like the Danforth, Fairbank Heights, and Lawrence Park.
Despite the flow ad money brought, the World’s bank accounts tended to be bare. Employees could never rely on regular payments, yet Maclean’s personal magnetism and ability to inspire writers was such that, according to a 1913 profile in Canadian Courier, he was “the only newspaper proprietor who was ever unable to pay all salaries regularly and publish a paper and remain popular.” Maclean built his popularity by maintaining a relaxed atmosphere, where employees might find him scribbling ideas at their desks, telling stories about his mishaps at Donlands Farm (Maclean’s home, located along Don Mills Road north of present-day Wynford Drive), or sweeping the floor. Hector Charlesworth, who worked at the World during the 1890s, provided a glimpse of the World’s office at that time:
I doubt if there has ever been a newspaper office anywhere that was run in a more rough and ready manner or was such a gathering place for interesting characters, as the old World office of the nineties. Situated near the corner of King and Yonge streets, the very heart of the city’s life, its accessibility made it a place of visitation at all hours of the day or night. The premises had been a retail shop in other days; in the forward part, the counters where the clerks had sold dry goods or groceries still remained and this served as the business office. Behind, an ordinary mercantile storeroom had been converted into editorial quarters with very bare furnishings. A lane ran alongside from which strangers could walk in off the street upon the staff, without any of the formalities which attend admission to an editorial sanctum to-day. When it was necessary for an editor to carry a confidential conversation, the participants got into a corner and talked in whispers, or more frequently adjourned to the hotel next door. There was a good deal of drinking among the lesser members of the staff, but the paper always came out and somewhere on its front page there was always something fresh and pungent to interest the public. For the great virtue of the World office was that not only W.F. Maclean himself, but all his senior aides were first rate journalists by instinct, with their fingers on the public pulse, and an inherent ability to distinguish what was news from what was not, and “dish it up” in a vitally interesting way.
In 1909, the paper moved to a new building across from Simpson’s department store at the corner of James Street and Richmond Street West, which it redubbed World Square. The structure barely outlasted the paper, coming down when Simpson’s expanded at the end of the 1920s.
Eventually, Maclean was unable to perform any last-minute miracles. Following the end of the First World War, the weaker dailies fell in an oversaturated Toronto market. The News attempted to rebrand itself as the Times in early 1919 and vanished completely by year’s end. In March 1920, creditors forced the World to go into liquidation. The paper continued to publish amid rumours of purchasers ranging from the United Farmers of Ontario to the Southam chain. When Maclean had his personal effects packed up and sent to Donlands in early April 1921, World employees, some of whom hadn’t been paid for 12 weeks, knew the end was near.
The World’s death notice appeared on the front page of the April 11, 1921 edition of the Mail and Empire, which had purchased its assets. While the daily paper was immediately discontinued, the Sunday World continued until the Star bought and merged it with Star Weekly in November 1924. Obituaries for the World praised Maclean’s willingness to fight for what he believed in, especially the Bloor Viaduct, but lamented his poor business sense. As for Maclean, he continued to sit as an MP and was the longest-serving member of the House when he was defeated by a fellow Conservative in 1926. Though deprived of a daily forum, his mind remained fertile, foreseeing massive projects like the St. Lawrence Seaway and the impact of radio and television on news gathering. When he died in December 1929, he was remembered for his eccentricities and intelligence.
Hector Charlesworth summed up the legacies of Maclean and the World in his book Candid Chronicles:
The battles he fought for the public ownership of public utilities, for such boons as Sunday street cars, for the development of the beautiful suburban environs of Toronto, have all borne prodigious fruit, but only from the few has he ever received a word of gratitude; and by many of his contemporaries in the newspaper calling he was regarded with jealousy and suspicion.
Additional material from The Revenge of the Methodist Bicycle Company by Christopher Armstrong and H.V. Nelles (Toronto: Peter Martin and Associates, 1977), Candid Chronicles by Hector Charlesworth (Toronto: Macmillan, 1925), J.E. Atkinson of the Star by Ross Harkness (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1963), From Politics to Profit: The Commercialization of Canadian Daily Newspapers, 1890-1920 by Minko Sotiron (Buffalo: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1997), and the following newspapers: the December 9, 1929 edition of the Globe; the December 9, 1929 edition of the Mail and Empire; the December 9, 1929 edition of the Montreal Gazette; the April 12, 1921 and December 7, 1929 editions of the Toronto Star; the December 10, 1909 edition of the Toronto World; and the February 23, 1913 edition of the Toronto Sunday World.