Historicist: The Telegraph and the Early Career of John Ross Robertson

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Historicist: The Telegraph and the Early Career of John Ross Robertson

Early journalistic efforts of the founding publisher of the Telegram.

Front page of the second edition of the Telegraph, May 22, 1866.

Front page of the second edition of the Telegraph, May 22, 1866.

While it only lasted six years, the Telegraph filled an important role in shaping one of Toronto’s most powerful newspaper publishers. The experience taught John Ross Robertson the pitfalls of being caught up in party politics, and provided a dry run for the eventual success of the Telegram.

Born in Toronto in 1841, Robertson’s passion for muckraking journalism manifested itself early on. While attending Upper Canada College, he launched College Times in 1857. In its debut edition, he criticized school leadership for approving a land deal, which threatened a student playground. To avoid expulsion, he changed the paper’s name. Within the next decade, he published one of Canada’s first sports periodicals (Sporting Life), a satirical paper (The Grumbler), and a railway guide.

Hired as city editor of the Globe in 1865, Robertson developed such a nose for local news that he won a contest among the paper’s reporters by gathering 150 stories in a single day. He implemented a policy of publishing lots of short local news stories instead of a few long-winded articles on major events. But he wasn’t happy at the paper, thanks to publisher George Brown’s insistence on publishing lengthy political diatribes at the expense of Toronto news. Robertson soon regarded his boss as “the most notable charlatan this country has ever known.”

Robertson’s unhappiness led to his becoming co-owner of a new evening newspaper. Launched on May 21, 1866, the Telegraph attempted to serve as an independent conservative-leaning counterpoint to the Globe, which was the mouthpiece of the emerging Liberal party. The Telegraph’s prospectus advocated stronger connections with Great Britain over political union with the United States, confederation of the British North American colonies ASAP, a renewal of the reciprocity free trade treaty with the Americans, encouraged better management of public land, and political reform within the U.K., and promised “unswerving support” to interests which promoted the development of Toronto regardless of their political leanings.

The Telegraph quickly developed a flair for breaking local news, echoing developments in the popular press south of the border. The paper’s sensationalistic style was well-reflected when Robertson’s personal reports of the Red River Rebellion in 1869 and 1870 were carried across North America. They also aroused the wrath of provisional government leader Louis Riel, who imprisoned Robertson and Globe reporter Robert Cunningham at Fort Garry for a week. Both were then expelled by Riel for being “dangerous characters.”

Laying of the cornerstone of the registry office on Albert Street by Tommy Church (left) and John Ross Robertson (centre), 1915. Toronto Public Library.

Laying of the cornerstone of the registry office on Albert Street by Tommy Church (left) and John Ross Robertson (centre), 1915. Toronto Public Library.

Robertson’s fiercely independent nature led him to criticize groups he was allied with. Although he was a staunch Orangeman, he had no stomach for a row which broke out between the Orange Young Britons and a similar group of young Irishmen in September 1870. Reputedly caused by the desire to avenge a slight, a fight started at a tavern of ill-repute down by the Queen’s Wharf (near present-day Bathurst and Front) turned into a riot. Unlike past battles between Orangemen and the Irish, authorities stepped in and charged several Young Britons. Robertson condemned the fighters, calling them “young rowdies.” The Young Britons were not amused: During a meeting at St. Lawrence Hall on September 19, 1870, an R. Reynolds claimed that the “Orange and the Green” lived in peace and harmony (a ridiculous claim given the history of battles between the two), a peace which had been attempted to be interrupted by the foul and atrocious articles which have recently been printed in certain newspapers in this city.” Members of the group sent intimidating letters to the Telegraph, threatening to destroy the office. Cooler heads prevailed.

The Telegraph joined other Toronto newspapers in waging war with their printers in 1872. The Nine-Hour Movement was an international effort to shorten the work day for labourers. Toronto’s newspaper owners, led by Brown, formed the Master Printers’ Association (MPA) to resist the demands of the Toronto Typographical Union. The Telegraph dutifully printed MPA propaganda, portraying the printers as unreasonable in demanding a nine-hour work day. “This assault on the press is but the forerunner of the coming attack on employers and employed in all branches of industry,” one missive declared, “and the importance of firmly resisting it can hardly be overestimated.”

Editorials predicted a strike, which began on March 25, 1872, would quickly collapse and save the Dominion from commercial collapse, but the workers hung in, culminating in a 2,000-strong march and mass rally in Queen’s Park on April 15. After Brown arranged the arrest of strike leaders, the federal government swung into action. Within days, Prime Minister John A. Macdonald introduced the Trade Union Act, which legalized labour unions. The result left organized labour allied with Macdonald’s Conservatives for several years.

An early satirical look at John A.Macdonald, the Grumbler, May 7, 1864.

An early satirical look at John A.Macdonald, the Grumbler, May 7, 1864.

The Trade Union Act was probably added to the growing antagonism between Macdonald and Robertson. The PM had hoped that, despite its independence stance, the Telegraph would eventually be moulded into a reliable party organ. In 1869 co-owner James Cook promised stronger support to the party in return for financial aid. But, despite its shaky finances, Robertson regularly attacked the Tories. Macdonald, who felt the Telegraph was becoming “a mere blackmail sheet,” withdrew support after Cook’s departure in 1871.

In a May 3, 1872 editorial, the Telegraph asked “Who Are the Conservatives?” The ensuing rant declared that the Tories should have crushed Riel’s provisional government instead of talking with them, had given too much support to British PM William Ewart Gladstone (a Liberal!) in negotiating the Treaty of Washington, and generally betrayed the sort of conservative principles Robertson stood for. If anything, Robertson found more to admire in the views of Canadian Liberals (or Reformers, as he still referred to them) aligning with British Conservatives.

The leaders of the Conservatives have abandoned and destroyed their party, and that a new party is forming of Canadians of truly conservative tendencies, and formed of the old Reform party, who have obtained their reforms, and the truest of the Conservatives who cannot be bought by office to sacrifice their principles, and will strive to uphold the honour of Canada at the expense of turning against their old leaders.

Such editorials, along with failed attempts to buy out Robertson, had led Conservative party brass to fund the launch of the Mail in March 1872. According to a May 6 Telegraph editorial, several writers “were bribed away by the promise of larger salaries on a new organ, which was to subserve the cause the Telegraph had so unwisely repudiated.” The same editorial complained that agents of Macdonald had bribed printers during the strike to either leave the Telegraph or damage its printing equipment. Robertson viewed these events as a conspiracy which was “the most perfidious that ever smirched the annals of any government.”

Without Conservative support, the Telegraph drowned in debt. Eliminating its morning edition in May 1872 didn’t help, and the paper folded within a month.

Despite their mutual loathing, Robertson soon resumed his professional relationship with Brown, serving as the Globe’s London correspondent for three years. The inevitable end came when Robertson arranged a dinner for Brown to meet members of the British press, during which the sullen Globe publisher muttered that the bill had better not show up in Robertson’s expense account. He soon returned to Canada as business manager of The Nation, a weekly paper run by members of Canada First, a movement dedicated to defining Canada as a proudly British Protestant nation.

Goldwin Smith in his study at The Grange, 1909. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1244, Item 690.

Goldwin Smith in his study at The Grange, 1909. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1244, Item 690.

While at the Nation’s office in March 1876, Robertson received a letter hand delivered by Toronto mayor Angus Morrison from one of the paper’s owners, Goldwin Smith. When Robertson arrived at Smith’s home library at the Grange, he was told that Smith was withdrawing from the Nation. “Tell me, Robertson,” Smith asked. “What chances would an evening newspaper have in Toronto?”

Smith, along with fellow Liberal and Canada First member Edward Blake, had previously backed the Liberal, an attempt to compete with the Globe, which lasted four months. That paper’s assets were still up for sale, and were offered via middlemen to Robertson. Smith envisioned a politically independent paper, one “for the masses and not the classes.” Robertson had contemplated a similar publication since returning from London.

In the prospectus for the new paper, Robertson promised it would be “a newspaper, not an organ; it will have no patron but the public.” Handbills with the prospectus teased a publication full of fresh news, discussion of public issues presented “freely, honestly, and in a spirit of justice to all parties, opinions and men.” Dubbed the Evening Telegram, the paper vowed to live up to the speed implied in its name by adding stories up to press time, beating the morning papers on some items by up to 18 hours.

Debuting at 4 p.m. on April 18, 1876, the initial print run of 3,480 copies sold out within an hour. The paper quickly turned a profit, thanks to Robertson’s decision to sell classifieds for a penny a word, half the standard rate. Ad revenue blossomed, which allowed Robertson to cut the paper’s price in half a year after its launch. Its financial success also ensured that Robertson could continue to maintain his independence from rigidly toeing the Conservative party line during the remainder of the Macdonald era, which allowed the Telegram to evolve into the voice of conservative, working-class Toronto.


Additional material from Toronto Workers Respond to Industrial Capitalism 1867-1892 by Gregory S. Kealey (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1980); The Paper Tyrant by Ron Poulton (Toronto: Clark, Irwin & Company, 1971); The Rise and Fall of the Toronto Typographical Union by Sally F. Zerker (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1982); the September 3, 1870 and September 20, 1870 editions of the Globe; the May 31, 1918 edition of the Telegram; and the May 21, 1866, March 22, 1872, May 3, 1872, and May 6, 1872 editions of the Telegraph.


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