A populist who never met a hand he wouldn't shake.
Each month in the run-up to the municipal election on October 27, Torontoist will profile one of the 64 people who served as Mayor of Toronto—people who shaped the city, displayed colourful personalities, or managed to do both.
Tommy Church never met a hand he wouldn’t shake. Throughout his half-century political career, Church was the epitome of the glad-handing campaigner, one blessed with an extremely good memory. “He couldn’t walk a block through the streets of Toronto without meeting someone he knew,” the Telegram reflected upon his death in 1950. “Often he would call them by first names. And even when he couldn’t remember them he was adept at making them believe that he could.”
This tactic worked so well that Church was elected to an unprecedented seven consecutive one-year mayoral terms—not until Nathan Phillips in the early 1960s would anyone surpass that record.
Great things were predicted for Thomas Langton Church. When he opened a downtown law practice after graduating from Osgoode Hall in 1897, the Globe declared, “He will no doubt meet with success in his profession.” Glory came, but not in the legal profession. The following year, Church was elected to the Board of Education and began his climb up the municipal political ladder.
First voted onto city council in 1905, Church was a scrapper who didn’t always get along with his colleagues. “I refuse to travel with that bunch of stiffs,” he declared when he refused to accompany the Board of Control on a business trip to Cobalt in 1913. “They make me tired.” When he was kicked out of a council session in March 1914 for making inflammatory statements toward controller J.O. McCarthy, an editorial in the News observed:
Only those in real touch with municipal affairs know what a hindrance he is to good government and what a nuisance to civic officials. He discredits Council periodically with exhibitions of childish petulance. Where a strong man would be censured, he is pitied … It is not fair that a progressive council endeavouring to do good work should be represented as an association of hoodlums, because Mr. Church plays the clown.
(A description that might just call to mind a certain councillor/mayor we’ve observed over the past decade.)
Church long eyed the mayor’s chair. He served as acting mayor during the summer of 1912 while Mayor George Reginald Geary sold City debentures in England. He was angry when council passed him and appointed Horatio Hocken as permanent mayor after Geary resigned later that year. He threw his trademark straw boater hat into the ring in December 1914, running on a platform that supported public ownership of the hydro-electric system and opposed purchasing the City’s main private streetcar provider, the Toronto Railway Company, under the poor terms being offered. While conservative papers, especially the Telegram, were in his corner, the rest of the press endorsed J.O. McCarthy. A News editorial observed that the paper had “no bitter criticism of Mr. Church, save that he is totally unfitted for the Mayoralty of Toronto.”
The electorate ignored these criticisms, giving Church a comfortable margin of victory when the votes were tallied on January 1, 1915. It didn’t hurt that Church had spent the previous day personally calling 1,000 voters who owed him favours.
Church won five subsequent elections, as well as being acclaimed mayor in 1917. His populism included the ability to change his views quickly depending on how the wind blew. Though in 1914-15 he opposed a proposal to purchase the TRC and develop a new public transit provider, by the end of the decade he fully supported the move to absorb its lines and create the TTC. Church could campaign on a single issue for months before dropping it as if it had never existed.
If Church wished to ignore a particular argument, he simply claimed that, due to his partial deafness, he couldn’t hear the debate. He was also stubborn: when the TTC’s initial fare was set at seven cents in 1921, Church protested by refusing to preside over the council meeting during which the bylaw was passed.
And then there was the glad-handing. “Mayor Church,” the Globe observed in a 1917 profile, “can cover more ground, shake hands with more people, attend more functions and appear in more of the most unheard-of places than any known person who has had the fate to run against him for public position.” Ernest Hemingway poked fun as this trait when he attended the same boxing match as Church in early 1920. “Any sporting event that attracts voters as spectators numbers His Worship as one of the patrons,” Hemingway wrote in Star Weekly. “The mayor enjoyed the first bout hugely. During it he shook hands with everyone around him. He did not seem to know when the bout stopped, as he was still shaking hands when the bell rang for the end of the last round.”
His support for soldiers fighting in the First World War comforted many families. When any troops shipped out of Union Station, Church saw them off. “For many soldiers,” historian Donald Jones noted, “the last thing they remembered about Toronto was the sight of their mayor running beside the train shouting goodbye and wishing them good luck.” He was also there to welcome the soldiers back. He called families upon hearing of fatalities and asked if he could help. He successfully urged city council to insure every enlisted man from Toronto for $1,000 each. From these actions arose Church’s nickname, “The Soldiers’ Friend.”
Church shifted to federal politics in December 1921, running successfully as a Conservative in Toronto North. Apart from a break in the early 1930s, he represented several Toronto ridings on Parliament Hill until his death. His rapid delivery during speeches confused the press and his fellow MPs alike. It was joked that Canada had three languages: “English, French, and Tommy Church.” Reporters gave up trying to decipher his speeches and relied on Hansard for quotes. Church also amused colleagues with his increasing eccentricities, including his firm insistence that he was eternally 57 years old. Though an old-school Tory, Church often voted against his party and supported measures such as family allowances and old-age pensions.
One of Church’s rare electoral losses occurred when he ran in the 1924 municipal election. He believed he could juggle his MP and mayoralty duties concurrently. The Telegram produced some of the most ludicrous newspaper support ever given to a Toronto mayoral candidate. They tried to stoke fear in voters via an evil anti-Church conspiracy involving the Globe, the Star, former mayor Horatio Hocken, Orangemen who didn’t favour Church, and others. Female voters were reminded of Church’s devotion to soldiers. Most absurdly, the paper offered praise from Premier Sir James Whitney, who had died a decade earlier. The paper’s deification of Church failed, and he lost to W.W. Hiltz. “There comes a time when the welcome is worn out,” noted a Star editorial. “Seven is the perfect number, and Mr. Church ought to have realized that.”
The depth of the affection for Church among some Torontonians was evident during his funeral in February 1950. Minutes taken during the city council meeting following his burial note one mourner’s cry: “Oh Tommy, Tommy, Toronto will never be the same, not quite the same since you are gone.”
Additional material from the October 6, 1897, October 2, 1913, January 1, 1915, and February 3, 1917 editions of the Globe; the February 8, 1950 edition of the Globe and Mail; the March 25, 1914 and December 31, 1914 editions of the News; the January 2, 1924, February 8, 1950, and December 22, 1984 editions of the Toronto Star; the March 13, 1920 edition of Star Weekly; the February 8, 1950 edition of the Telegram; and minutes from the February 22, 1950 meeting of Toronto City Council.