Historicist: Rough-and-Tumble Politics of Sam McBride
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Historicist: Rough-and-Tumble Politics of Sam McBride

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.

Mayor Samuel McBride in his office, 1930s. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1257, Series 1057, Item 3517.

If Samuel McBride was ever in danger of forgetting where he came from, he only had to gaze out almost any window at Old City Hall to see the neighbourhood of his youth: the city’s most notorious slum. The streetwise political brawler, who served as mayor in 1928–1929, and 1936, had been born in the Ward, where his father ran a lumber yard.
He quit school at thirteen to become a newspaper boy. In those days this was usually less an occupation than a euphemism for a street ruffian splitting time between begging and selling papers. “These lads are,” Christopher Clark wrote in Of Toronto The Good (Toronto Publishing Company, 1898), “as a rule bright, intelligent little fellows, who would make good and useful men if they got a chance.” McBride’s success later in life was certainly confirmation that Clark’s optimism was warranted. And McBride’s education on the rough-and-tumble streets of the Ward remained a strong influence throughout his business and political careers.

A younger Samuel McBride as depicted in Torontonians As We See ‘Em (Canada Newspaper Cartoonists’ Association, 1905).

McBride learned municipal politics, Ward-style, at the meeting hall at his father’s lumberyard where late-nineteenth-century political debates and candidate meetings often devolved into fistfights spilling into the streets. Soaking up the spirit of these meetings, McBride found his life’s ambition at a young age, as Donald Jones notes in his April 30, 1983, history column in the Star: “He wanted to be mayor of Toronto.”
A successful lumber salesman in the 1880s, McBride had his own lumber company by the 1890s. The state of his neighbourhood’s roadways, Jones suggests, prompted his initial entry into active politics. The streets were in such bad shape that McBride’s employees found it near impossible to transport heavy loads of timber over them. But, it was said, he had all of the Ward’s main roads paved within a year of being elected alderman for the first time.
Although he avoided the vice of tobacco and other intoxicants, McBride’s unrefined political style was ideal for getting press attention. At the best of times, his fiery speeches were tinged with anger. In worse moments, it boiled over. Once, when he objected to an alderman’s comments, McBride rushed across the council chambers, grabbed the alderman by the collar, according to Jones, “and banged him by the neck and banged his head against the wall until he almost knocked him unconscious.”
Many objected to his gruff and aggressive style—a hold-over from the brawls at the meeting hall in the Ward. The night before one municipal election, Jones notes, those determined to keep him out of office “ran a full-page newspaper advertisement listing all the reasons why McBride should never be mayor of any city.” Nevertheless, he remained incredibly popular with his fellow Irish-descended citizens.

Mr. Gale from Isle of Man with Mayor S. McBride, September 21, 1937. City of Toronto Archives. Fonds 200, Series 372, Subseries 41, Item 443.

McBride dedicated his time to studying politics and the issues of the day. Although McBride never had an official office throughout his political career, a rotating cast of visitors visited his home at 351 Palmerston Boulevard to discuss city business.
In a political career that lasted more than a quarter-century, McBride was elected to municipal office twenty-three times. He served first as alderman, then as a fixture on the Board of Control by the 1910s, and eventually—after numerous unsuccessful elections—as mayor.
When he was elected mayor for the first time in 1928, McBride discovered dishonest dealings in the municipal public service. Rather than hush it up to save face, in the view of sixteen-year-old Phyl Aristone on the editorial page of the Star on November 28, 1936, and save himself the political embarrassment, he revealed his discovery to the city. “Even though it led to his unpopularity,” the youthful noted, “he refused to allow the news to be silenced, believing that the public should know what it taking place in the Administration.”

Mayor Samuel McBride and wife Frances Jane outside Toronto’s Hotel Carls-Rite in the 1930s. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1257, Series 1057, Item 3515.

He brought a businessman’s philosophy to city hall and oversaw the booming city’s tremendous downtown growth in his first term as mayor in 1928, when a number of major projects were begun, such as the Canadian Bank of Commerce.
He helped create the Toronto Transportation Commission and initiated construction of the Coliseum at the Canadian National Exhibition. As a result of his support for the development of the waterfront in the 1920s, one of the city’s ferries were named in McBride’s honour.
Despite his youthful ambition in the Ward, McBride didn’t get to be mayor until very late in life. He was 62 during his first term in 1928. Serving another term as mayor in 1936, at age 70, McBride became the first Toronto mayor to die in office. Phyl Aristone called McBride “a great man and a splendid citizen” in an editorial for the Star on November 28, 1936. Looking back in Toronto Since 1918 (James Lorimer & Company, 1985), historian James Lemon felt that McBride’s death “marked the end of an era in Toronto’s electoral politics.”