Meet a Toronto Mayor: William Holmes Howland
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Meet a Toronto Mayor: William Holmes Howland

Driven by his strong sense of faith and social conscience, Howland was a leader who helped redefine the mayor's role.

Each month in the run-up to the municipal election on October 27, Torontoist will profile one of the 64 people who served as Mayor of Toronto—people who shaped the city, displayed colourful personalities, or managed to do both.

Portrait of William Holmes Howland on a memorial pamphlet, circa 1894–1895. City of Toronto Archives.

On the wall above the mayor’s chair, William Holmes Howland posted one of his favourite Biblical passages, taken from Psalm 127: “Unless the Lord keep the city, the watchman waketh but in vain.” The phrase captured the intensity of Howland’s faith and his investment in making Toronto a moral, livable city. As Toronto’s primary watchman for two years, Howland increased the prestige of his position, and demonstrated that the mayor could provide crusading leadership through a defined platform instead of being merely a figurehead overseeing council.

Born in 1844 in Lambton Mills, Howland was the son of William Pearce Howland, a Father of Confederation who also served as Lieutenant Governor of Ontario. His approachable, outgoing personality aided a swift rise to success in the business world—at 27, he was the youngest insurance company president in Canada, and by 30, he was president of the Toronto Board of Trade. As his professional accomplishments grew, his religious convictions deepened, and he had adopted evangelical Christianity by 1877. His strong faith and investment in helping others manifested themselves in his involvement in the temperance movement, anti-poverty organizations, penal reform, labour activism, hospital volunteerism, and the establishment of training schools for delinquents. Howland placed his philanthropic work above his business interests—an approach that eventually resulted in financial distress.

As the 1886 municipal election approached, members of a growing civic reform movement in Toronto sought a mayoral candidate capable of shaking up the city’s political establishment. These reformers shared Howland’s religious zeal, and found common cause with movements across American cities dedicated to eradicating alcohol, corruption, and poverty. As Howland biographer Desmond Morton noted:

If reformers in the 1880s expressed a thoroughly modern contempt for capitalism and industrialism, if they often sympathized with trade unions and the struggling poor, they also tended to see such personal weaknesses as intemperance as the central cause of social malfunction. Whiskey and gin were the evils; the sanctity of the family was a sublime good. On the other hand, neither Howland nor his supporters saw any sin in rapid development and Toronto experienced some of its fastest growth during his years in office. Just as modern reformers must somehow reconcile the elevated preaching and economic self-interest of their middle class constituents, Howland had to serve the moral fervour and material concerns of his prosperous Methodist backers.

The News threw its support behind Howland in 1886  A sampling of headlines taken from (clockwise from bottom left) the December 31, 1885, February 2, 1886, and February 5, 1886 editions of the paper

The News threw its support behind Howland in 1886. A sampling of headlines taken from (clockwise from bottomleft) the December 31, 1885; February 2, 1886; and February 5, 1886 editions of the paper.

Howland resigned as president of the Temperance Electoral Union in late 1885 to run against Mayor Alexander Manning, who was regarded as one of the city’s wealthy elite. Manning drew fire from labour for supporting the anti-union sentiments of his business peers, and loathing from the temperance crowd for his support of liquor—he himself owned part interest in a brewery. Howland used his lack of elected political experience as a selling point, positioning himself as an outsider candidate who was above party allegiances and the temptations of patronage. He promised that as mayor, he would strictly enforce liquor laws and reduce the number of licences, increase the police force, combat high taxes, provide “economical civic government,” and improve the city’s deteriorating water infrastructure.

Howland drew support from labour and moral reform groups, but he also tapped into a new source of votes when Torontonians cast their ballots on January 4, 1886: women. Recent provincial legislation had extended voting rights to spinsters and widows who owned or rented out at least $400 worth of property. The middle-class voters who fit this profile tended to be drawn to the reform causes Howland championed. The News observed that, although election day saw heavy rain, women were “undeterred by the weather” and “bravely followed their escorts to the polls for the purpose of declaring for good government and against the whisky ring.” Many male voters shared that purpose, and Howland comfortably defeated Manning.

Implementing his agenda proved trickier than expected. Council was filled with Manning supporters who remembered that Howland had denounced them as stooges of corporations and liquor interests. Only two of the 12 members of Howland’s first executive committee could be counted as trusted allies. The mayor’s attempt to push through liquor controls like capping licences and raising fees resulted in rage-fuelled late-night sessions. The executive committee believed liquor control was a provincial matter in which city council should not be meddling. When it prepared to shelve a special committee report on liquor regulations, Howland cried interference during a heated full council meeting on February 19, 1886. The report was defeated in a 21-15 vote after Howland accused one of his allies of cowardice for suggesting that reducing the number of liquor licences would provoke a rise in illegal establishments.

Opponents pounced on Howland. Manning’s supporters produced evidence that Howland lacked the legal property requirements to run for office. Because of his messy financial situation, Howland had legally transferred some properties to his wife—a move that, ironically, fell afoul of recent provincial legislation he had supported preventing male political candidates from claiming their spouse’s holdings. The result was a mayor-less city for a week. The move backfired on Howland’s enemies, though, as both the public and higher levels of government offered their sympathy. The province quickly passed an amendment that qualified future candidates on the basis of spousal property. When nobody else stepped up at a nomination meeting to fill the mayoralty, Howland returned to office.

Illustration of riots during lockout of Toronto Street Railway workers  The News, March 13, 1886

Illustration of riots during lockout of Toronto Street Railway workers. The News, March 13, 1886.

The remainder of Howland’s first one-year term was marked by turmoil, as council continued to block his agenda. He scored one victory with the hiring of police inspector David Archibald as a one-man morality squad dedicated to fighting prostitution, vice, and child abuse. During a series of strikes against the Toronto Street Railway in the spring of 1886, Howland backed the workers despite the legal upper hand held by the TSR’s despised owner Frank Smith—although he did urge strikers to end streetcar blockades after several days of civil disobedience.

Howland increased his vote total in the January 1887 election. Though a more sympathetic batch of councillors was elected, and he cleared out the committee chairs that had traditionally held power on council, implementing his agenda remained a challenge. A licence reduction achieved through a by-law devised by future mayor Robert John Fleming barely passed. The City solicitor sabotaged attempts to create a municipal reform bill. Mass corruption was uncovered within the water department. If Howland had a key weakness, it was that he concentrated on his major issues instead of managing day-to-day matters. He continued to pursue his faith-based and philanthropic activities, such as teaching Bible classes and visiting the poor.

On November 3, 1887, Howland announced he would not seek a third term. He supported councillor Elias Rogers as the new civic reform champion, but Rogers was revealed to be part of a price-fixing “coal ring.” The eventual winner, Edward Clarke, continued Howland’s efforts to strengthen the power of the mayor within city council.

Howland remained dedicated to his philanthropic work and to advancing the moral and religious ideas that shaped the notion of “Toronto the Good” until his death from pneumonia in December 1893. The Globe eulogized him as “one of those large-hearted men who have a genial smile, a cheering word and a hearty handshake for all. He was the most approachable and kindly sympathetic of men, and for this reason the poor and unfortunate came to him for counsel and assistance, knowing that they would not be turned away from his door empty-handed if it was in his power to help them.” His family’s tradition of public service continued: brother Oliver served as mayor of Toronto from 1901 to 1902, son Goldwin was the city’s first nerve specialist, and grandson William [PDF] was Chief Justice of Ontario from 1977 to 1992.

Additional material from Mayor Howland: The Citizens’ Candidate by Desmond Morton (Toronto: Hakkert, 1973); Mayors of Toronto Volume 1 1834-1899 by Victor Loring Russell (Erin: Boston Mills Press, 1982), the December 13, 1893 edition of the Globe; and the December 31, 1885 edition of the News.