Historicist: Challenging Times at Brockton Town Hall

Torontoist

2 Comments

cityscape

Historicist: Challenging Times at Brockton Town Hall

The village of Brockton struggles with the responsibilities of running an independent municipality.

Brockton (Town) Hall, a year before it was sold by the City of Toronto. The Toronto Star, March 14, 1911.

In the 1870s, Toronto’s western boundary was marked by Dufferin Street. The area to the west of Dufferin, along Dundas, featured a growing community known as Brockton, taking its name from early landowner James Brock, a cousin of Isaac Brock, hero of the War of 1812.

As the population of Brockton grew, so did the apparent need for amenities such as local law enforcement, sidewalks, water, sewer systems, streetcar connections, and fire service. Taxes were needed to pay for such amenities, and these taxes could only be implemented if Brockton legally incorporated itself as a village. Although rumours of Brockton incorporating had begun some time earlier, it appears that serious discussion of the issue began in the autumn of 1880.

In September 1880, a reported “large majority” of residents agreed to petition the York County Council to have Brockton legally incorporated as a village. A census was taken in November, in which Brockton was found to have slightly more than the minimum 750 residents required for incorporation. John Winchester led a delegation at the Council, securing their support in petitioning the Ontario Legislature to have the incorporation made official.

Detail of Hart & Rawlinson’s 1878 Map of the City of Toronto, with Suburbs of Yorkville, Parkdale, Seaton Village, Brockton, and Ben-Lamond. Courtesy of Toronto Public Library.

While awaiting provincial assent, Brockton held an election in January 1881, with John Winchester elected as reeve, to preside over a village council of four elected councillors. Over the winter, this anxious council met regularly in George Rosbach’s Hall over the Brockton Club House at Dundas and Sheridan, forming committees in an effort to prioritize civic improvements. At one meeting on January 31, councillors announced intentions to propose several by-laws on matters such as postal service, licensing hotels, and the regulation of local street names. At this meeting “the Reeve stated that the Council had no power to do anything towards stopping horseracing on the street till their [incorporation] Bill was passed by the [Ontario] legislature,” wrote the Globe, “but he had spoken to the authorities in Toronto to stop it in the city, and as the greater part of the racing complained of was inside the city limit he had no doubt that it would be stopped altogether.”

Ontario declared Brockton an incorporated village in March, defining its boundaries as the area south of Bloor between Indian Road and Dufferin, with its southern boundary being the northern boundary of Parkdale, running east along an area near to today’s Wright Avenue, and then southeast along the Grand Trunk Railway tracks.

The council’s priorities in the first few months ranged from smaller matters, such as licensing peddlers and establishing a local animal pound, to issuing debentures for sidewalks, sewers, and the construction of a school building. Although landlocked, Brockton was able to connect its sewers to those of Parkdale. Sewer construction was underway by the autumn of 1881, when the Globe reported that a “Mr. Parker sustained severe injuries by falling into an unprotected drain near the Town Hall. One of his arms was fractured, besides other injuries about the head.”

Classified advertisement for builders from architect Joseph Fowler for Brockton Hall. The Globe, August 27, 1881.

In the summer of 1881, local market gardener Robert Worm announced plans to build a new structure on his property at the southwest corner of what is now Dundas and Brock, which he would be willing to lease to the village as a municipal building. “The structure will be of red brick with dressings of white brick, two storeys in height, and walls 18 inches thick,” reported the Globe after seeing the plans in August. “A handsome ornament is provided for fronting on Dundas Street, and another over the fire hall on Brockton Road.” Worm intended to keep ownership of the building, but would lease space to the Village of Brockton, with specific rooms set aside as a public hall, a council chamber, a committee room, a fire hall, a vault, and two jail cells.

As the building neared completion, the Globe described it as “a very handsome building. The front on Brock Avenue, in which the fire hall, surmounted by a tower, is situated, presents an imposing appearance. The public hall, the entrance to which is also on Brock Avenue, is 61 feet by 125 feet…The public hall is fitted up with every convenience, such as a stage, dressing rooms, etc.”

Brockton Hall—soon referred to regularly in the press as Brockton Town Hall—had its official opening on January 24, with a public concert emceed by John Winchester. The Globe noted that the concert was well advertised and well attended, claiming that “the audience was the largest ever got together in Brockton.” Several solo performers were credited as part of the program, as were the Brockton Glee Club and “Prof. Curtis’ Brass Band.”

Over the next two years, Brockton Hall served as the village’s municipal building, while also hosting a variety of public meetings and concerts. In 1882, the Toronto Mail announced that “the proprietor of the Brockton Hall [presumably Robert Worm] threatens an action against the parties who held a theatrical entertainment in the hall last week, for indulging in a dance afterwards, against his wishes.”

John Winchester was succeeded in 1882 by a new reeve, Dr. John McConnell, and the council continued to proceed with civic improvements, including the installation of paved sidewalks. Finding an affordable source of water for the village proved elusive, however, as attempts to form agreements with both Toronto and Parkdale fell through. Making matters more difficult were the limited funds available; Brockton’s population was small, and it reportedly proved difficult to collect adequate tax revenue to fund the desired amenities.

Brockton’s treasurer John Mallon. The Toronto Board of Trade: A Souvenir—A History of the growth of the Queen City and its Board of Trade with Biographical Sketches of the principal Members thereof. (Sabiston, 1893: Toronto)

In early 1883, it became apparent that something was amiss with Brockton’s record-keeping. The ratepayers requested to see the books, upon which it was discovered that the financial records were in complete disarray. “The items of expenditure were accounted for,” reported the Globe, “but they could not trace the debenture account. Mr. [John] Mallon, the treasurer, said he did not sell or handle the debentures. The money was put in the bank, but he did not know where it came from.” The ratepayers petitioned the provincial government to conduct an investigation of Brockton’s finances, which was to be conducted after the council had a team of accountants rewrite the books to put the village’s records in order.

In June, the village council held a meeting, which Reeve McConnell could not attend, at which they acknowledged that the rewriting of the books had not been finished on schedule, and agreed to assist in the province’s investigation. At the next scheduled council meeting, McConnell, who may have wanted for more time to correct the books, refused to sign the minutes of the meeting held in his absence, claiming that the meeting held in his absence had been illegal.

That December, the reeve left a meeting prematurely, and thus was not involved in scheduling the next meeting. When the councillors arrived at Brockton Hall for their next meeting, they found a constable from York County guarding the door, “with instructions from the reeve to prevent any meeting of the Council that night,” according to the Globe. Nevertheless, the council proceeded to the chamber and began their meeting, which was reportedly attended by more than twenty interested Brockton ratepayers. According to a letter in the Globe, signed by the village’s four councillors, “the Reeve got word of the meeting, and not expecting to find so many present, rushed into the chamber, throwing off his coat, and evidently from his actions determined to clear out the whole business; in a most disorderly and insane manner he rushed for the gas, turning all lights out repeatedly…His very act, which can be substantiated by the ratepayers present, was simply that of an insane man. The members of the Council, fearing serious trouble, and perhaps bloodshed, wisely left for Mr. Rosbach’s Hall to conclude the business of the evening.”

Brockton Hall, as it appeared in 1952. Courtesy of Toronto Public Library.

The province completed its investigation into Brockton’s financial records in January 1884. Commissioner Joseph Blakely’s report concluded that there had been no fraud perpetrated, but that “I find the books, etc. [of Brockton] in a very unsatisfactory condition. There is an utter absence of system in the keeping of accounts.”

The poor accounting appears not to have been the only misstep in Brockton’s brief municipal history. In her 1990 biography of John Mallon, Mary Frances Mallon also notes that the village by-laws were not kept organized nor written in legal language, but rather “written by the secretary in longhand, for the most part on foolscap.” Furthermore, the village had incurred debts for 16 civic improvements without having passed adequate by-laws authorizing the relevant debentures, requiring the province to intervene and draw up the necessary legislation in 1884.

With the village’s organization and finances in a mess, Brockton soon petitioned for annexation into Toronto. Local concerns over the likelihood of increased taxation were generally trumped by arguments that Toronto’s greater resources would allow for the quicker implementation of needed civic improvements. One editorial in the Mail opined “Is it not time the people sought for themselves the advice of older municipalities, who are able to give us free libraries, free water, and police protection for the same money?”

Brockton, as seen in the 1890 Goad fire insurance atlas.

Despite his erratic behaviour the year before, John McConnell had been reelected as reeve of Brockton in 1884, and led the annexation delegation to the province, presenting them with a petition favouring annexation signed by all but two of the property owners in Brockton. Toronto, which was now running out of undeveloped land within its existing boundaries, was already in the process of acquiring Riverdale in the east, and proved happy to add Brockton as the city’s sixth ward. In the process, Toronto also brought in unincorporated land between High Park and Brockton’s western boundary. C. Pelham Mulvany, in his 1884 book Toronto: Past and Present, observed “Brockton has been annexed to Toronto, and there can be no doubt that the city, in its westward advance, will form an important business centre at this advantageously-situated district…Brockton is a rapidly improving neighbourhood, and is fast assuming the appearance of a town, or rather of an outlying part of the city.”

The reeve and the two councillors with the highest vote totals in the last Brockton election were immediately added to Toronto’s City council as the aldermen for the new ward. At his first meeting as Toronto alderman in March of 1884, McConnell requested that the City purchase Brockton Hall, so that it could be used as the local municipal building for the new ward, to serve as a public hall, free library, police station, and fire hall. In its short life as Brockton’s municipal building, the building had fulfilled few of these purposes, as Brockton could not afford to provide most of these services; Brockton had been forced to rely on Toronto and Parkdale during fires, and had employed only one police constable. The Toronto World reported that McConnell saw police service as “one of the urgent needs of the new ward. As a village they were not able to cope with the evil-doers in that locality.”

20151205Star1904Dec30

Toronto dutifully purchased the building, and covered the various debts incurred by the village. Over the next few decades, Brockton Hall was known as both Worm’s Hall and St. Mark’s Hall, although the name “Brockton Town Hall” appears to have been preferred by the newspapers and local residents. City directories reveal that it was indeed used as a fire hall and a public library, while various businesses apparently used the ground level space for retail.

(Right: Advertisement for a rally for mayoral candidate George Gooderham. The Toronto Star, December 30, 1904.)

The public hall remained in use for several years, hosting a variety of concerts and other public entertainments, including the annual bird show of the Parkdale Canary and Cage Bird Society. Its main function, however, was to serve as a venue for political meetings. Both the local Liberal and Conservative Associations held regular meetings there, and Brockton ratepayers and residents frequently gathered in the hall to debate political and development issues. Brockton Town Hall became particularly well known throughout the city for hosting spirited mayoral debates each December, prior to the annual municipal elections in January.

At one political debate in 1896, the Star reported that “a considerable number of Brockton boys were present, who evidently were determined to keep up the reputation which Brockton enjoys for holding what the boys themselves call ‘red-hot meetings.'” One speaker from the floor reportedly “concluded his turn by professing a strong desire to knock down an old man, who had made a remark not to his liking.” The Globe added that this was typical of meetings at the venue, and that “Brockton Town Hall is a place of many memories in the way of lively political meetings.”

A 1907 Star article claimed that “the knowing ones, who like a political meeting of the good, old-fashioned style, never miss an opportunity of attending such a meeting when it is held in Brockton Hall. Brockton people take politics seriously, as men were wont to do in olden days, and the right of free speech of the speaker is always limited by the right of the auditor to break in when he feels like it with questions and remarks opportune or inopportune as the case may be.”

20151205Star1912May25

The City proposed selling the hall in 1911, citing concerns about public safety over its apparent state of disrepair and lack of needed fire escapes. Debate over the building’s safety and suitability purpose had dogged the building nearly from day one; in 1882, the Mail had reported that a change in design midway through its construction had resulted in structural weaknesses, claiming that “the Brockton Town Hall is not a very safe structure for a large crowd to assemble in: the walls are only nine-inch and hollow.”

(Left: Brockton Hall for sale. The Toronto Star, May 25, 1912.)

In December 1911, Toronto mayor George Geary told the Board of Control “I would not take the responsibility of keeping it open for public gatherings. It is a fire-trap.” A local alderman fought to retain the popular meeting place, and over the next few months, the City debated the merits of upgrading the building versus demolishing it, until the spring of 1912, when it eventually agreed to sell. With the new McCormick Recreation Centre under construction, featuring three new committee rooms, Brockton Hall became surplus.

Since its sale in June of 1912, the old Brockton Hall building has housed several different retail businesses. The building was designated under the Ontario Heritage Act in 2008. City staff wrote that “With its characteristic late 19th century architectural features and its prominent position on the southwest corner of Dundas Street West and Brock Avenue, Brocktown [sic] Town Hall is an important historical reminder of the Brockton community.”

With its sale seeming inevitable in December of 1911, the Star lamented the end of an era. “Who now is left to sing to the historic story of Brockton Hall—dark, deserted, Brockton Hall? For thirty years this old building at the corner of Brock and Dundas has been the storm centre of Brockton politics. Many are the tales that the old-timers tell of the wordy wars that have waged within its walls, and not infrequently have physical arguments been brought into play. Sometimes, when logic failed to convince, muscle was more mighty. All political and municipal gatherings of any importance in the west end were held in Brockton Hall. Its reputation was more than local.”


Additional material from: The Globe (April 19, 1879; September 9, September 16, November 17, November 19, December 8, 1880; January 4, February 2, August 6, August 25, August 27, November 10, 1881; January 16, January 21, January 26, June 29, 1882; January 1, April 24, May 15, May 16, June 12, June 15, June 19, June 26, September 3, October 26, October 29, December 31, 1883; January 15, March 14, March 18, March 29, 1884; January 1, December 31, 1896; May 14, 1897; December 21, 1907; March 14, March 20, March 21, April 4, August 26, December 16, December 27, 1911; February 2, 1912); The (Toronto) Daily Mail (February 28, April 3, 1882; October 20, November 21, 1883; February 6, February 20, 1884; October 11, 1890; January 2, 1899); Mary Francis Mallon, John Mallon of Brockton and Toronto (1836–1913) (Pro Familia, 1990: Toronto); Mary Francis Mallon, “The Village of Brockton” in The York Pioneer (Vol. 71, No. 2: Fall 1976); C. Pelham Mulvany, Toronto: Past and Present – A Handbook of the City (W.E. Caiger, 1884: Toronto); Cynthia Patterson, et al., Bloor-Dufferin in Pictures (Toronto Public Library Board, 1986); John Ross Robertson, Landmarks of Toronto: A Collection of Historical Sketches of the Old Town of York from 1792 until 1833, and of Toronto from 1834 to 1895 (J. Ross Robertson, 1896: Toronto); The Toronto Star (December 30, 1896; September 17, 1901; June 9, October 13, 1904; December 27, 1905; December 31, 1907; March 14, March 21, March 31, June 9, June 24, December 15, December 22, December 27, December 30, 1911; January 23, February 9, February 20, February 27, May 25, June 8, 1912); Statutes of the Province of Ontario – 1881 (John Notman, Toronto); Statutes of the Province of Ontario – 1884 (John Notman, Toronto); The Evening Telegram (December 23, 1911; February 27, 1912); The Toronto World (April 1, 1884; December 28, 1911).


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


Did you like this article? Do you love Torontoist? Support articles like this by becoming one of the first Torontoist subscribers. Get great perks and fund local journalism that makes a difference—join Raccoon Nation now.

Comments