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culture

Historicist: “A Carnival of Vice”

Toronto helps the Junction to celebrate the closing of its bars in 1904.

The Peacock Hotel, on Dundas near Annette Street, in 1912. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1231, Item 1106c.

In 1878, the federal government passed the Canada Temperance Act, drafted by Liberal Senator Richard William Scott. Sometimes known as the Scott Act, this legislation granted individual municipalities the right to put alcohol sale to a plebiscite, and to enforce a ban on its sale should the majority of voters favour one. Implementing such a ban on alcohol sale was generally known as exercising “local option,” and over the years several Ontario communities chose to take advantage of this right. One such community was Toronto’s Junction neighbourhood, which banned the sale of alcohol in 1904, while still an independent municipality.

In 1903, the Junction was the town of Toronto Junction; its reported population in October of that year was just shy of 7,000. Convenient rail access, low tax rates, and a local customs office had served to attract many factories to the area, which in turn spurred commercial growth, particularly along Dundas Street. These amenities, coupled with the Junction’s six hotels, served to make the town a popular stopping point for those going to and from the city of Toronto. The local hotels did steady business, with each maintaining a barroom where the bulk of the profits were made.

The factors which brought enforced temperance to the Junction were many and nuanced. While the temperance movement was growing across much of Canada, there was local concern over the unfortunate reputation that the Junction was earning for itself.

Annette Street Methodist Church, as it looked in 1888. Courtesy of Toronto Public Library.

Both Heydon House, located at the northwest corner of (Old) Weston Road and St. Clair, and Brown’s Hotel, located further north, had a reputation for fights and general rowdiness. For several years Heydon House, the Junction’s largest hotel in 1903, was also a regular venue for cockfighting, and sometimes the subject of police raids. On February 22, 1903, Rev. T.E.E. Shore gave a sermon at the Annette Street Methodist Church on “Some Needed Reforms in Toronto Junction.” Shore outlined several problems he believed to be plaguing the town, including the existence of gambling dens, to which he accused the local police of brazenly turning a blind eye. He reserved most of his ire, however, for the local hotels, the primary (legal) purveyors of alcohol in the Junction. The Star quotes Shore as saying “Many a poor fallen girl has told me down in yonder mission how she fell into sin and degradation in Junction hotels. Men do not go to those hotels merely for refreshments or to quench their thirst. They are cesspools, I say. Cesspools of harlotry, vice, and iniquity.”

The sermon ignited a debate over local option which raged in Toronto Junction throughout 1903. The town divided into those who saw alcohol as the root of the problem, and the moderates who argued that they could make do with more vigorous enforcement of the current laws and an investigation into the liquor licensing system. The pro-local option side was led by several prominent townspeople, in particular the Protestant ministers, who increasingly called for prohibition in their sermons. The cause was also championed by some members of the town council, particularly Councillors A.H. Perfect and future MPP William A. Baird. The “Antis,” as the opposition was known in the press, were understandably led by the local hotel owners, whose livelihood depended on alcohol sales; on the town council, their political champion was councillor and former Junction mayor James Bond.

That autumn, both sides held public meetings around the town, each believing their opinion to be that of the local majority. The issue was amplified by a fight at Heydon House that September. The fight is described in a 1987 family history by A.J. Heydon, who writes that the fight “was said to have been fought between some cattlemen from the Union Stockyards and a group of C.P. railway workers—the subject of disagreement having been the favour of one of the neighbourhood prostitutes… It was largely the result of this incident that public sympathy began to side with the prohibitionist cause.”

Heydon House, seen in 1927. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1231, Item 1110.

In the annual municipal elections held on January 4, 1904, local option was put to Toronto Junction voters as a plebiscite. Although both sides predicted a strong majority in their favour, it was those in favour of local option who emerged victorious, with 56 per cent of the cast vote. William Brown, owner of Brown’s Hotel, attributed the results not so much to local sentiment, but to the better organization of the local option campaign. John Harris of the Subway House blamed the result on the female vote, claiming that “they don’t know enough about hotels to vote on them.”

Despite the outcome of the vote, alcohol did not disappear from the Junction overnight. The ban did not go into effect until May 1, giving the hotels (and the one Junction liquor store) some time to exhaust their supplies and arrange new business plans. A few of the hotel owners are reported as having investigated a legal challenge to the vote, but nothing appears to have come of this. Instead, most of the owners vowed to remain in business for as long as possible to minimize their losses, and expected to close up shortly thereafter, believing the Junction hotel business to be unprofitable without liquor. The exception was Heydon House, which closed in early April when the proprietor abruptly left town, perhaps ahead of his creditors. For those who remained, Toronto Junction yielded one final opportunity for the bars to do some good business.

On Saturday, April 30, there was a minor election in the City of Toronto. Although Toronto had also had its municipal elections that January, some unexpected results and accusations of ballot-stuffing had called into question the results in the Board of Control returns, as Fred Richardson had been elected with unusually high numbers. Accusations of corruption persisted, and in mid-April, Richardson announced his resignation with an intention to immediately seek re-election in order to clear his name. The Toronto Star wrote that “what he wants to secure is a public vindication, and if his friends have told him, as they seem to have done, that he needs one, they are not far wrong.”

The Subway Hotel, at the southwest corner of Keele and Vine, in 1923. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 16, Series 71, Item 2619.

Torontonians, thus, returned to the polls on April 30. According to the laws in place, all the bars in Toronto were closed on election day. This practice was not unusual in North America at the time, designed to encourage voter turnout and, possibly, to discourage candidates from buying votes with liquor. The result was a perfect storm: all of the bars in Toronto were closed on the last day of legal alcohol sales in the Junction. For anyone in Toronto looking for liquor that particular Saturday, there was only one place to go.

Preparations began the day before. According to the Telegram, “all [day] brewers’ waggons [sic] were up and down to every hotel and every cellar is full. The police expect a general carousal… in fact one of the wildest nights the Junction has ever seen.” Junction Police Chief Josiah Royce swore in four additional constables to deal with whatever problems might ensue.

Beginning at noon, streetcars began arriving along Dundas, bringing the first revellers from the city. The streetcar stopped right outside the doors of the Peacock Hotel, located near where Dundas meets Dupont, which was normally a spot for farmers and market gardeners who were passing through town. This being the Junction’s easternmost bar, it became the first point of arrival for the Toronto crowd. According to the Telegram, “every car deposited its tightly packed cargo of thirsty Torontonians at the Peacock. Those who could be were accommodated there. The overflow wended their way further up, till every [public] house was surrounded by a huge crowd, waiting for their turn to order liquor.”

Image of the Peacock Hotel of the crowds on April 30, 1904. The Toronto Daily News, May 2, 1904.

According to the Toronto Daily News, the Toronto newspaper reporters endeavoured to stick together and forced their way into the Peacock to survey the scene, but “the phalanx of journalists was broken up before it got a yard inside the door, and the individual members fought their way through to the door on the other side as best they might.”

Newspaper accounts describe the confusion: floors covered in liquor and broken glass; crowds (and liquids) spilling out into the streets; customers attempting to make their orders heard over the yelling, singing, and din of cash registers. The Mail and Empire described it as “the wildest saturnalia the Junction has ever seen.” The Toronto World wrote “the event was the ushering in of the local option bylaw and giving a parting salute to King Bacchus and six of his satellites, the Junction bars. There is no doubt that the crowd made it a success, if debauchery, fighting, and ill-temper constitute features worthy of the term ‘celebration.’” The World also quoted Rev. Mr. Heston, of the Annette Street Methodist Church, as describing it as “a carnival of vice, in which the powers of darkness held reign.”

In order to make room for new customers, some of the hotels moved those already served outside, where people reportedly drank in stables and other outbuildings. “In one such place,” wrote the Telegram, “which seemed to have been quite lately vacated by poultry, quite an organized concert was being held and the erratic “encores,” which followed a somewhat thick rendering of ‘Bedelia’ in which everybody joined, could be heard a long distance up the road.”

At the Subway Hotel, located at the southwest corner of Keele and Vine, the group reportedly remained static, with drinks being passed over patrons’ heads towards their intended recipient. Proprietor John Harris spent much of the evening standing on the bar, shouting orders and warning his patrons to behave.

C.J. Herbert, who ran the Junction’s only liquor store, kept his establishment locked to protect the furniture, and only admitted small groups at a time, who would then drink their purchases in the streets, or in sheds, or back lanes.

The Avenue Hotel, located at the southwest corner of Dundas and High Park, was the Junction’s westernmost bar. On April 30, the crowd there was described by the Telegram as being “largely of mechanics and apprentices and workingmen,” and just as boisterous as that at the other hotels. “For over 100 yards, both on Dundas Street and High Park Avenue, past the hotel, dozens could be seen with bottles to their heads… One man stayed so long he had to be removed to the driving shed in a wheelbarrow.”

(Above: C.J. Herbert, proprietor of Toronto Junction’s liquor store in 1904. York Tribune, 1901.)

Rumours had circulated ahead of time that drinks would be given away for free, although none of the six major Toronto dailies at the time found any evidence of such; in the chaos it was presumably hard to tell. All the papers agree on a rough estimate of 10,000 Torontonians going to the Junction that afternoon and evening to patronize the five open bars and single liquor store.

Before too long, the teeming crowd was firmly in its cups. In an article bearing the headline “Drunken Orgy at the Junction,” the Mail and Empire wrote that “the streets were crowded with men in various stages of intoxication. There were jolly drunks, fighting drunks, noisy drunks, and stupid drunks.” The Daily News noted that “in the dense press, a man might be dead drunk comfortably, for there was no room for him to fall down.” Some grew belligerent; others were inclined to sing. Many passed out in out-buildings or stables.

Glasses grew to be in short supply; not only were many of them in use, but some chose to keep them as souvenirs. Others, as the Telegram reported, “suggested themselves as missiles to those who began to feel frolicsome.”

Charles Kelly, proprietor of the Occidental Hotel on Dundas near Indian Grove, had the police clear his establishment as early as 5 p.m., two hours before the stated last call. J.H. Leflar of the Avenue also closed up early, after he ran out of glasses. Shortly before 7 p.m., efforts were made by police to begin clearing out the remaining bars. After closing the Peacock and the Subway, a crowd of several hundred descended on the Occidental, evidently with a plan of rushing the prematurely closed venue and absconding with the remaining liquor; they were held back by the constables.

According to the Star, “once outside, with absolutely no chance of getting more liquor, the crowd commenced good-humouredly serenading Mayor Chisholm and singing drinking songs.” Chisholm maintained a clothing store on Dundas, and numerous papers mention groups from the crowd, evidently believing the Toronto Junction mayor to be responsible for the impending alcohol ban, putting their opinions to him through music. The Daily News wrote that “the roisterers leaned in a ridiculous circle against the lamp-post outside, and favoured him with the ditty ‘Glorious Beer’ in the most awful series of discords that alcohol could produce.”

(Above: J.R. Chisholm, Mayor of Toronto Junction when the town voted to enforce local option. York Tribune, 1901.)

Others remained outside the Occidental, the Telegram noting that “a hilarious party of English labourers succeeded in making the night hideous by howling incessantly for nearly an hour the following ditty:

“I am so dry, I am so dry;
Nobody knows how dry I am.”

Considering the reports, arrests and altercations were relatively few. For the most part, little force was necessary in dispersing the crowd, beyond shutting down the bars and evacuating the people into the streets, with the Telegram commending the police for their restraint in not dispersing the crowd by force and thus avoiding serious trouble. During one of the few arrests at Keele and Dundas, however, the crowd momentarily turned on Police Chief Josiah Royce, who in turn drew his pistol, proclaiming “I’ll shoot the first man who follows.” This proved effective, and Royce evidently endured no other rebellion from the crowd.

Although many of the newspaper accounts dwell on the arrests and handful of reported thefts, Royce told the Mail and Empire that “we have had comparatively little trouble, far less than we expected. It was largely due to the city contingent that we had as much as there was. You must have sent us fully 10,000 of your best drinkers, and these caused most of the disturbance.” All of the newspapers reported fewer than 10 arrests, with most of those arrested being Toronto residents under the age of 22.

The next week, Toronto newspapers reported on the Junction’s hangover. On Monday morning, wagons came to the Junction to take away what was left of the lager. The Peacock was still serving dinners, but most of the other hotels are reported as entirely closed. C.A. Kelly of the Occidental Hotel nailed boards and a piece of tin over his hotel’s windows and door. William Brown attempted to remain open one additional day, but was warned by the police about the law, and was forced to follow with the others.

On May 4, the Telegram noted that outside the Peacock Hotel, “the driving sheds are boarded up, and dealers who meet the farmers there are perched on empty boxes on the sidewalk, this being the only shelter they can get.” The Star noted that even not factoring in the already-closed Heydon House and its 80 rooms, closing the hotels meant about 50 people were without accommodation and over 100 would be losing out on meals.

(Above: Toronto Junction Police Chief Josiah Royce. The Toronto World, May 2, 1904.)

In the years that followed, there is evidence of bootlegging in the Junction, including at Heydon House, which soon got a new owner. Many of the old hotels became boarding houses. Local option remained in effect in the Junction for over 90 years, with the last section overturning it in 2000.

At the end of the revelry, the Telegram predicted that the Junction “for some time will not witness such debauch.” Once the streets were cleaned up, the Toronto World reported on life in Toronto Junction: “Sunday was a quiet day. It was the lull after the storm… The streets had less people on them than usual, and as the day was very bright, many people spent the afternoons in the parks and ravines about town.”


Additional material from: The Globe (May 2, 1904); A.J. Heydon, The Heydons and their Hotels: The first four generations of the Heydon family in Ontario (Pro Familia Genealogical Servies, 1987: Toronto); The Leader & Recorder’s History of the Junction, Diana Fancher, ed. (Coach House, 20047: Toronto); The Mail and Empire (May 2, 1904); The Toronto Daily News (May 2, 1904); The Toronto Star (February 23, March 21, April 7, September 9, November 23, December 14, December 21, December 28, 1903; January 4, January 5, January 7, April 30, May 2, May 3, May 4, 1904); The Evening Telegram (January 2, January 5, April 25, April 28, April 30, May 2, May 4, 1904); The Toronto World (April 27, May 2,
1904).


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

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