Historicist: Read of the Fifty Days

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Historicist: Read of the Fifty Days

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.

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Sketch of David Breakenridge Read. The Toronto World, May 12, 1904.

Of the possible futures for those in the current race to succeed David Miller as mayor of Toronto, there is one distinction that the victor will not likely achieve unless death or scandal strike immediately: the shortest term in office. Those vying for that title have generally been caretakers brought in to fill out a term, as happened when Fred Beavis filled in for Mayor David Crombie in 1978 when the latter ran for federal office. The winner of the short-term sweepstakes is David Breakenridge Read, who owed his fifty-day tour of duty to a police scandal. Make any jokes you want, but, as a study of the city’s early high officials noted, it would “be an injustice to Read to belittle his talents, abilities, and accomplishments because of his being somewhat a cipher as Mayor.”


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Toronto City Hall, 1868. Wikimedia Commons.


Read was born on June 13, 1823, in Augusta, Upper Canada of United Empire Loyalist stock. He moved to Toronto in his early teens to study at Upper Canada College, which is where he happened to be when the Rebellion of 1837 broke out. Read later liked to tell friends of his attempt to aid the government forces against William Lyon Mackenzie’s rascals. According to Read’s obituary in the Globe, when the future mayor and several of his classmates offered their assistance to Lieutenant-Governor Sir Francis Bond Head, they received a pat on the head and were told they weren’t needed. This experience might have coloured the pro-government bias he displayed when he wrote The Canadian Rebellion of 1837 sixty years later. Following his time at UCC, Read studied law and was called to the bar in 1845. He rose steadily in his profession, his law career culminating in appointments as a bencher of the law society in 1855 and a Queen’s counsel in 1858.
It was bungling of the law that led to Read’s assumption of office. Until the late 1850s, city council was responsible for appointing police officers, which led to constables who gained their position through political connections rather than ability. Samuel Sherwood, who served as chief of police from 1852 to 1859, epitomized the downfalls of this approach. A tavern owner, Sherwood’s family had close ties with the conservative “Family Compact” that reigned in the city and province—his brother Henry had served as Toronto’s mayor for a spell in the 1840s. As described by Conyngham Crawford Taylor in Toronto Called Back From 1892 to 1847, Sherwood was “a quiet, good-natured man, who did not insist on any strict regulations as to the dress or discipline of the men. They wore a uniform, but without uniformity, except in one respect—they were universally slovenly.” This sloppiness translated into inept handling of high-profile incidents, especially during several riots in the 1840s and 1850s—most of the force were members of the Orange Lodge and didn’t mind assisting fellow Orangemen in beating up anyone in a melee who didn’t belong. Favours to friends were the norm, which sometimes meant overlooking small details like participation in a bank theft.
When Sherwood let a prime suspect in the robbery of the Bank of Upper Canada go free without question in October 1858, Mayor William Henry Boulton blew his top. An inquiry was called, with which Sherwood did not fully cooperate. When the police commissioners filed a report that let Sherwood off lightly, Boulton noted his dissent and planned to have the matter discussed further at city council. Sherwood sent a letter to local newspapers, printed on October 27, in which he claimed he was unable to provide evidence and tarred Boulton for taking a “star chamber” approach to decision making. This infuriated Boulton, whose rebuttal was published the following day. Boulton proposed to council that Sherwood and the deputy chief of police should be suspended or dismissed. One of the seediest objections to Boulton’s call came from Councilman James Smith, who urged Sherwood to resign so that the police chief could still receive another government job that was promised to him. Subsequent council meetings broke down into accusations over who said what in the affair. When the matter came to a vote, council voted fourteen to ten in favour of Sherwood. Disgusted and humiliated by what he saw as a miscarriage of justice, Boulton handed in his official resignation on November 8, though he remained a candidate for high office in the upcoming municipal election, which would be the first where the general public would directly elect the mayor. As for Sherwood, provincial legislation mandated that cities were required to establish independent police boards by 1859, which soon led to the dismissal of Sherwood and his entire force in favour of better trained, better disciplined officers.

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David Breakenridge Read. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1267, Series 1397, Item 91.


When council met on November 11 to nominate a fill-in for the rest of Boulton’s term, Councilman William Ramsay urged Boulton to take back his resignation; the former mayor refused. Read’s name was put forward and approved by a vote of fourteen to eleven. Read had missed most of the battle, having skipped council meetings due to other pressing matters. He had only served one term as an alderman for St. Patrick Ward (whose boundaries were present-day Queen, Bathurst, Bloor, and University) and had decided not to return for another go-round, which probably made him an ideal candidate. Read hoped that he could restore harmony to council, work for the public good, and, as the Leader noted, “maintain the dignity of the chair.”
Since Read was a caretaker, little of consequence was decided during his brief term. Among the items published in newspaper summaries of council business were debates on home drainage systems, the acceptance of a petition to build a sidewalk on Jarvis Street, intense discussions on whether to sell land earmarked for an industrial farm to be located next to the new jail on the east side of the Don River, the necessity of buying new capes and shoes for the police, and the receipt of a “fine map” of Troy, New York.
After his term ended, Read carried on in the legal profession until his retirement in 1881. His attention drifted towards writing, especially sketches of early judges in Upper Canada, records of whom were on the verge of disappearing forever. The subjects of the five historical tomes he wrote between 1888 and 1900 included Sir John Graves Simcoe, Sir Isaac Brock, and the lieutenant-governors of Ontario. Read also stayed busy as a warden of St. Matthias’s Church, a member of several historical societies and the Royal Canadian Yacht Club, an active alumni member of UCC, a devoted supporter of the Conservative party, and the honourary president of the Caer Howell Bowling Club. Friends found him a warm, witty companion—an editorial in the Globe upon his death noted “he had a fund of anecdotes of the stirring period in his early manhood which served to enliven his conversation when he was in a reminiscent mood. All trace of partisan aggressiveness passed away from him long ago, and during his later years some of his most intimate friends were his former opponents.”
Read’s activities were curtailed after a stroke in November 1902 left him bedridden. He died surrounded by family on May 11, 1904, at his home on Breadalbane Street (a site now occupied by the Metro Central YMCA) and was buried in St. James Cemetery.
Additional material from Mayors of Toronto Volume 1 1834-1899 by Victor L. Russell (Erin: The Boston Mills Press, 1982); Toronto Called Back From 1892 to 1847 by Conyngham Crawford Taylor (Toronto: William Briggs, 1892); the May 12, 1904, edition of the Globe; the October 26, 1858, October 28, 1858, November 9, 1858, November 12, 1858, November 23, 1858, and December 31, 1858 editions of the Leader; and the October 23, 1982, edition of the Toronto Star.

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