Historicist: Life in Wartime
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Historicist: Life in Wartime

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

Visit of Chinese officials to John Inglis Company, February 27, 1942. City of Toronto Archives, Series 1057, Item 2171.

On September 10, 1939, Prime Minister Mackenzie King officially declared war on Germany. Toronto was impacted by the war almost immediately. Drawn by patriotism, adventure-seeking, or just the lure of a job after nearly a decade of the Great Depression, thousands of young Torontonians spilled into recruiting stations and from there into manning depots. In Bill McNeil’s Voices of a War Remembered (Doubleday Canada Limited, 1991), Torontonian Ella Trow recalled how every family was touched by the Second World War. “My brothers and my husband went into the services,” she wrote, “and most of my friends were in the same boat.”
By the fall of 1942, Mike Filey wrote in his Sun column of March 25, 2001, military vehicles were as common a sight on city streets as servicemen in uniforms. Training exercises and mock battles were staged in Riverdale and Eglinton parks. From boats moored in Humber Bay, an attacking Canadian force stormed entrenched “enemy” positions on Sunnyside Beach. Blackouts were expected, if infrequent, training exercises. On a set day but at a surprise time air-raid sirens would blare, signalling for the lights to go out in a four-hundred-square-mile area from Bronte to Highland Creek, preparing locals for the possibility of an attack on North American soil. In May 1942, a blackout drill, Filey recounts, was given added drama because a German POW, recently escaped from a camp in Bowmanville, was thought to be “prowling the darkened city streets.” The Star reported that police were called when a transient taking shelter in a Brampton barn was thought to be the prisoner.
Civilian life was thrown into turmoil as well, as industrial manufacturing converted to wartime industries and ramped up production, providing new employment opportunities for women. In some ways the city’s transformation brought citizens closer together as a community, cooperating on fundraising drives and other initiatives. Some people, however, saw fault in the transformation. “I don’t believe that the Toronto I grew up in,” Trow wrote, “existed at all once the war started. In my mind, the changes were not for the good.” The massive influx of industrial workers and their families created a housing shortage and, to Trow, the people on the now-crowded streets grew less considerate. For better or worse, the Second World War altered the patterns of daily life for almost all Torontonians.

Unidentified 48th Highlander soldier holding child, 1940s. City of Toronto Archives, Series 1057, Item 2241.

The lingering smell of horses was one of John R. Grimshaw’s clearest memories of wartime Toronto, as he recalled in Voices of a War Remembered. The first stop after the recruiting station for the eighteen-year-old Toronto native—now rechristened as Aircraftsman Second Class—was the manning depot, where bewildered recruits received their basic training and introduction into military life. As frequently happened in wartime, the authorities converted whatever buildings were available for military purposes. The RCAF’s Number One Manning Depot was housed in the CNE’s Coliseum building, which usually hosted the Royal Winter Fair. The horses may have been removed but, as Grimshaw remembered, the smell lingered as a constant companion.
The Coliseum became the centre of their existence. Here they underwent the “Shortarm Inspection” to medically test for communicable diseases, slept on uncomfortable metal bunk beds, drilled, and learned to avoid the menial punishment of peeling potatoes. The Coliseum was crowded but, for some, it could be “the loneliest spot in the world.” For most, however, loneliness was staved off by the countless chores—polishing brass buttons and buckles, shining boots, and pressing uniforms—as they subsumed their individuality into the common cause of military life.
If the weather was poor, Grimshaw and his fellow soldiers would march indoors. But if the weather was nice, they’d march along Lake Shore Boulevard and back—after a break at a doughnut shop to listen to big-band music on the jukebox. “Toronto didn’t offer much in the way of entertainments for the thousands of young soldiers who flocked here during the war,” Brigadier John McGinnis recalled in Mike Filey’s I Remember Sunnyside (Brownstone Press, 1982). So such moments away from the Coliseum were precious. Opportunities for romance could arise here or at Sunnyside’s Seabreeze dance pavilion, where, McGinnis added, servicemen could spend “exciting afternoons and evenings…trying, usually successfully, to meet girls to share the fun.”
Not everyone approved of the “quick romance and the even quicker marriage,” as Trow put it. But, with the preponderance of servicemen and airmen from around the Commonwealth doing part of their training in Toronto (as part of the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan, for example), at war’s end many young women who’d never travelled far from home found themselves with new husbands and families in exotic pockets of the world, like New Zealand.

Lord Halifax watching female war workers at John Inglis Company, January 24, 1944. City of Toronto Archives, Series 1057, Item 2187.

Grimshaw—who would serve as part of the RCAF contingent in the RAF Transport Command and in Bomber Reconnaissance Squadrons—was one of about a million Canadians who enlisted. The ten million or so who remained at home, according to stats provided in D.B. Scott’s The Home Front in the Second World War (Minister of Supply and Services Canada, 1995), retooled the Canadian economy for the war effort. Private-sector companies set aside the manufacture of consumer goods to produce war-related products. Toronto’s John Inglis Company, for example, converted its washing machine assembly line to the fabrication of parts for Bren guns.
The rapid industrialization opened up opportunities for women to enter what had been considered men’s work just a few months earlier. Nearly a million women, Scott estimates, assumed factory jobs. Others in Toronto drove streetcars, “oiled engines at the Canadian National Railway yards,” and tackled any job required—fuelling an economic boom that would outlast the war. In 1939, at the tail end of the Depression, the unemployment rate had been a staggering 15%. With men in uniform and women on the factory floor, it had dropped to 1.2% by 1944.
Those on the home front not directly involved in industrial work found other ways to contribute to the war effort. The women of the Ontario Public Service, Dorothy Inglis recalled in Voices of a War Remembered, knitted socks—with wool donated by the Red Cross—for men in the service.
“Anytime there was a spare moment in the office the knitting needles would be out,” Inglis wrote. “We knit before work, during work, during our lunch hours, after work and at home. For those of us who were unable to join the forces or take jobs in the war industries, it made us feel as if we were really doing something useful.”
Inglis’s coworkers also made quilts for English families affected by German bombing raids and donated to bottle drives, scrap-metal drives, and used-paper drives. Still others tilled victory gardens, cultivating hard-to-come-by vegetables.

Fundraising billboard outside St. Paul’s Anglican Church, Bloor and Jarvis, 1940s. City of Toronto Archives, Series 1251, Item 94.

Fundraising efforts replaced knitting socks as relative economic prosperity and job security allowed people to contribute to the war effort financially through celebrity-endorsed Victory Bond drives. Over the course of the conflict, Scott estimates, Canadians contributed $8.8 billion to the war effort.
Even school children contributed to the effort. Under the influence of teachers extolling the virtues of duty and patriotism, the girls of Havergal College adopted a British minesweeper, the H.M.S. Prompt, by raising four hundred dollars for the Service League for British Ships. When British parents sent children to the safety of foster homes in North Toronto, the six-hundred-student school accepted an additional 110 British girls by 1941.
Another reality of wartime life was the rationing of staples like meat, sugar, coffee, tea, and alcoholic beverages—a development that brought with it a whole slew of regulations that needed to be enforced since not everyone wanted to play by the rules. By the end of 1941, the Wartime Prices and Trade Board called upon the RCMP for help investigating abuses of the WPTB’s price ceilings on certain goods and allegations of rationing fraud, whether it involved counterfeiting or loose (but genuine) coupons traded illegally.
William Kelly, who had arrived in Toronto from Saskatchewan to be a plain-clothes investigator, was assigned to lead the special two-man unit that became known as the Black Market Squad. “One feature of black market activities,” Kelly recalled in Policing in Wartime: One Mountie’s Story (Centax Books, Regina, 1999), “was that otherwise ordinary, law-abiding citizens gave little thought to the far-reaching consequences of their disregard of the rationing regulations. Perhaps they thought that what they were doing as individuals had little effect on the rationing system. But when such activity was multiplied by millions, the effects were serious.”
Gasoline rationing—which severely curtailed civilian automobile use since categories of ration books were distributed according to the importance of the driver’s occupation to the war effort—created many problems for Kelly’s squad because an elaborate, illicit market for the theft, counterfeiture, or reselling of gas-ration coupons developed.

Clare Wallace interviewing war veterans in hospital, 1940s. City of Toronto Archives, Series 1057, Item 4522.

With gasoline rationing, for example, Kelly noted that almost all service station operators—who were supposed to tear coupons from the driver’s ration book only if the book matched the license of the vehicle—accepted illegal loose coupons because they knew enforcement of the law was nearly impossible unless they were caught in the act and because they knew that if they turned away the illicit business, a competitor down the street would not. But Kelly had his share of informants, some of whom—like a service station operator who’d been turned down for active service—regularly provided information, perhaps out of a sense of duty towards the war effort.
Kelly sometimes went undercover to capture crooks. In one case, a minor charge against the owner of a fur store precipitated an undercover sting operation to nab the supplier of the store owner’s illegal gas ration book. Posing as a candy salesman in danger of losing his livelihood if he could travel more widely, Kelly called upon William Glenesk, an employee in the Oil Controller’s Spadina Avenue office with the authority to issue ration books. He offered him seventy-five dollars for a ration book for a falsified occupation allowing for much greater mileage. When the government employee returned with the officially stamped but illegal book, he was arrested. Found guilty of a breach of trust under the Criminal Code in May 1942, Glenesk was sentenced to two years less a day. By then, the black market squad had been enlarged to ten men but, Kelly recounted, black market activities were so widespread that their investigation only scratched the surface.
War permeated every aspect of culture and daily life. Trow remembered the family “crowding around the radio for the latest war news, the wonderful feeling when all was going well, the despondency when it was not.” Lorne Green’s deep baritone invested his news updates with added gravity while Matt Halton, formerly the Star‘s European correspondent and now a reporter with the CBC, gave impassioned radio reports from various overseas locations. They and other broadcasters, such as Gordon Keeble, chief announcer at the CBC in Toronto, took their role in disseminating war information and broadcasting patriotic programming quite seriously. But, in an era when everything was broadcast live-to-air, there were also lighter moments.
Keeble recalled a drama he was involved with that went disastrously wrong. At the drama’s climactic moment, when a submarine was to surface from below the waves, the sound effects man miscalculated and, Keeble recalled, “there was this great clanging of a streetcar’s bell and the sound of a motor car starting up and driving away.” Everyone in the studio lost it. They fell over laughing uncontrollably—on the air—until an engineer had the presence of mind to kill the signal. Afterward, an announcer began to stuffily explain that the program could not continue due to technical difficulties before breaking down into a fit of laughter himself. Such moments provided welcome respite from the deeply serious impact the Second World War had on Toronto and the men and women who served in uniform, and the war’s effect on the families of countless local servicemen who made the ultimate sacrifice in the service of their country.