The First Official Victoria Day
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The First Official Victoria Day

Back in 1901, the holiday weekend was a washout.

Source: the News, May 25, 1901.

Since 1845, Torontonians have been enjoying a holiday on May 24 to celebrate Queen Victoria’s birthday. Following her death in 1901, a federal act declared that date (or May 25 if the 24th fell on a Sunday) would thereafter honour Britain’s longest-serving monarch. While it’s easy to imagine that the decision was made out of the deep veneration that existed for the recently-deceased monarch, we suspect people continued to desire a late May holiday.

Unfortunately Mother Nature spoiled the first official Victoria Day.

As the Telegram observed, Torontonians woke up early, looked out the window, and went back to bed: “They saw wet and muddy streets, pelting rain, black drifting clouds, and they remembered that the good Queen was dead.” People still filled streetcars, but they visited friends at their homes instead of enjoying the traditional holiday picnic. Island ferries reported five per cent of their normal holiday business, which wasn’t helped by the cancellation of most activities at Hanlan’s Point. Over in the Beaches, Munro Park Amusement Park proceeded with its season opener—while a balloon event and band concert were cancelled, a vaudeville-style bill went ahead, and rides like the Ferris wheel weren’t stopped by the rain.

Also affected by the weather were the holiday’s major sporting events. A baseball doubleheader pitting the Maple Leafs against the Syracuse Stars suffered a rain delay; the match was eventually called after five-and-a-half innings, with the home team behind 4–3. Toronto manager Ed Barrow planned to protest umpire “Silk” O’Loughlin’s decision to halt the game, but was rewarded for his decision by five minutes of jeering from the stands at Diamond Park.

The major sporting and society event of the weekend was the Ontario Jockey Club’s horse races at the old Woodbine Racetrack near the Beaches, starting with the Queen’s Plate on May 23, 1901. As the paparazzi didn’t exist yet, newspapers endlessly detailed what the well-heeled ladies in attendance wore. For example, the World noted that “Mrs. Brown of Hamilton, one of the most stunning women at the races, looked very smart in a lovely dress of reseda green crepe de chine, lace inserted, with long corsage effect, and a bisque hat.” While the sun made a cameo appearance for the Queen’s Plate, showers on Victoria Day brought out only a quarter of the 20,000 people who normally showed up for the Toronto Cup race.

Left: tribute to Queen Victoria by cartoonist J.W. Bengough, the Globe, May 24, 1901. Right: cartoon, the Telegram, May 23, 1901.

Also enjoying their holiday at Woodbine were pickpockets and other unsavoury characters. Police arrested 10 Americans at the racetrack on Victoria Day on charges ranging from pickpocketing to vagrancy. The Star noted that the five-fingered discounters “were dressed in the usual flashy style of race track touts. Gaudy coloured shirts vied in effect with flaming neckties, but the loud-checked clothing put both shirts and ties in the shade.”

Police were also involved in a near-fatal incident that evening. Around 9 p.m., Robert Sweezie (alternately spelled “Sweezey” or “Sweezy”) attempted to retrieve bedding he left behind at a boarding house at 118 Adelaide Street West. Management initially claimed they no longer had Sweezie’s stuff before handing it over to him. On his way out, resident Samuel Helpert warned him to never return, which led to a scuffle before the hallway light went out. In the darkness, Sweezie was stabbed three times across his body and staggered away to find help. While Sweezie was taken to hospital, Helpert fled to his father’s home on Pearl Street, where police attacked him after a brief standoff. Helpert tried to slip a pen knife to his father, but officers confiscated it. Despite his severe injuries, Sweezie declined to press charges and the case was dismissed a month later. Magistrate George Taylor Denison offered Helpert some friendly advice: “You can go, but don’t do it again; you might get caught.”

“Don’t do it again” might have also been words 17-year-old Logan Avenue resident Frederick Armstrong heeded after pieces of a Roman candle he set off flew into his right eye; he was expected to recover his sight eventually. Though the poor weather left retailers with enough fireworks to avoid placing reorders for the July 1 holiday, the temptation to set them off led to injuries. Incidents such as Armstrong’s prompted the Telegram to editorialize about the dangers of large fireworks known as “cannon crackers.” The paper believed all firecrackers should be banned in the city and cannon crackers should be outlawed everywhere. “Every man or boy who toyed with a cannon cracker yesterday,” the editorial noted, “can feel that it was good luck, rather than good management, which saved him from the fate of the young man whose right hand was blown off.”

The rain drove people to the dry comforts of Toronto’s entertainment halls. At the Grand Opera House, 400 people were turned away. Every possible piece of seating was utilized—even the doorkeeper had to give up his stool.

We hope no theatre workers have to make that sacrifice this weekend.

Additional material from the May 25, 1901 edition of the Globe; the May 25, 1901 and June 21, 1901 editions of the Toronto Star; the May 25, 1901 edition of the Telegram; and the May 24, 1901 and May 25, 1901 editions of the Toronto World.

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