Stanley Barracks, From Red Coats to Squatters
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Stanley Barracks, From Red Coats to Squatters

Postcard of Parade at Stanley Barracks, 1910, from the Toronto Public Library’s Digital Collections.

In the 19th century, British officers garrisoned at the New Fort in Toronto—now better known as the Stanley Barracks—had active social lives. Perceived by Torontonians as educated and cultured, the British officers received countless invitations to tea parties, dinners, and dances. For locals, the presence of a gentleman in an officer’s red tunic lent an air of worldliness and glamour to such events. From the perspective of locals, author Aldona Sendzikas argues, “the garrison played a key role in setting the tone of local society.”
Stationed at the New Fort with the 93rd Regiment, army surgeon William Mackenzie recorded in his diary an opinion of his Toronto hosts that was typical of the British perspective:

[T]hey fancy themselves very aristocratic, there are, as in all provincial Towns, lots of scandal, & every body knows what his neighbour eats drinks & wishes for. But notwithstanding, I think there are some very nice families here; there are certainly many very ladylike handsome Girls, already I believe to accept of a red coat, with other very ordinary pretensions, but alas! the Sweet fair ones are all minus the needful!

Other British officers echoed Mackenzie’s view. In letters home and personal diaries, cautionary tales about starry-eyed locals hoping to secure an officer for a son-in-law were as common as complaints about the Toronto winter. As advantageous as such a marriage might be from a Toronto point of view, British officers had to be on their guard.
Such anecdotes form the core of Sendzikas’ book Stanley Barracks: Toronto’s Military Legacy, a history of Stanley Barracks and its place in Toronto’s social life, recently published by Dundurn Press under its Natural Heritage Books imprint.

Cover of Aldona Sendzikas’ Stanley Barracks: Toronto’s Military Legacy (Dundurn, 2011).

While all that remains of Stanley Barracks today is the officers’ quarters—a lonely stone edifice surrounded by a vast parking lot at the CNE—it was once a collection of six stone buildings and less substantive structures surrounded by a defensive picket built in the 1840s. After the British military’s withdrawal from Canada in 1870, the New Fort—eventually renamed Stanley Barracks in 1893—was used repeatedly as a staging ground for action elsewhere. Some of the North West Mounted Police’s very first recruits trained on its grounds in the 1870s. Part of Canada’s new, permanent military force, the Royal Canadian Regiment and the Royal Canadian Dragoons—originators of the musical ride—were headquartered there. The site was used as an internment camp for enemy aliens during the First World War, as well as training grounds for Canadian soldiers during that conflict and the Second World War.
Sendzikas documents each of these phases in the history of Stanley Barracks. At times, the level of dry, minute detail can be too great—as with the extended discussions of the fort’s construction, renovations, and physical composition over the years.
Stanley Barracks really shines with Sendzikas’ use of diaries, letters, and other personal records that allow the people who inhabited the fort to emerge as strong characters. As a former assistant curator at Historic Fort York—and now a lecturer at the University of Western Ontario—Sendzikas is well acquainted with the archival record regarding the garrison district, and she mined it to uncover a rich vein of interesting personal stories. She’s done an admirable job of populating an institutional history with personal anecdotes and perspectives.
One such character is Lieutenant-Colonel Goodwin, the elderly and put-upon caretaker of the New Fort in the 1870s. After the departure of the British troops, “the New Fort was neglected for several years. The buildings fell into disrepair, while the grounds around the fort were left uncared for.” It was discovered that through a forcible entry, “loose, & disorderly women” had apparently slept within. At one point, seven women and one man were arrested on the premises and tried for vagrancy.

Royal Canadian Dragoons leaving Stanley Barracks through arch, April 14, 1925. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1266, Item 4985.

Nevertheless, squatters continued to occupy the fort and it was unclear whether Goodwin had the authority to evict them. For example, Colonel Thomas Scoble occupied seven or eight rooms in the officer quarters with not only his own family but also two servants and their families. With doors falling off hinges and other damage, each tenant blamed another for the dilapidated condition of the buildings and for the cows and horses and wagons that tore up the grounds. Eventually, Goodwin was able to establish order—evicting everybody by order of the minister of the militia—and peacefully retired on a pension.
If there is a short-coming to the personal stories Sendzikas selects, it’s that the vast majority are from military officials. It would be beneficial to hear the private thoughts of average Torontonians regarding Stanley Barracks, particularly in the 20th century. What did members of the public think of the demonstrations of drills and soldiers charging out of trenches they witnessed as an attraction at the CNE during the First World War? The absence of such perspectives is noticeable because, by the early 20th century, there existed a growing tension between the city and the military reserve.
Initially comprising about 500 acres on the western edge of town, the military reserve was parcelled off piece by piece for other civic purposes—including the creation of the Provincial Lunatic Asylum and the exhibition grounds—until it was half its original size by the 1870s. Nevertheless, the military reserve was viewed as hindering the booming city’s natural growth and expansion.

Stanley Barracks, Exhibition Park, 1960s. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1257, Series 1057, Item 744.

Further complaints arose about members of regimental bands hiring themselves out and taking jobs from the city’s musicians. Safety concerns were raised when day-to-day leisure activities came into conflict with the active militia’s need to drill at Stanley Barracks. For example, Perley Macdonald was the victim of a stray bullet from the rifle range while passing by in a rowboat on the lake.
The tensions crescendoed into calls that the barracks be relocated. Sendzikas also details the counter-balancing—but quieter—cry for the historical preservation of the site. Despite efforts of citizen groups, all but one building was demolished in 1951.
The sole remaining building has since housed a marine museum, the Canadian Sports Hall of Fame, and office space for the Toronto Civic Historical Committee, and it is now slated to be resurrected as a boutique hotel. Sendzikas has done Torontonians a service by highlighting the history of the oft-overlooked site—and the role Stanley Barracks played in the city’s development—through rich detail and interesting personal stories.
Stanley Barracks is available at most book stores and online retailers, as well as from the publisher.