Historicist: Toronto's First Firefighter Fatality
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Historicist: Toronto’s First Firefighter Fatality

Volunteer fireman William Thornton is fatally injured in a November 1848 blaze.

Firemen at the fire hall (Engine House, No  2) on Court Street, near Church Street, 1860  From the Toronto Public Library Digital Collection

Firemen at the fire hall (Engine House No. 2) on Court Street, near Church Street, 1860. From the Toronto Public Library Digital Collection.

Just after 1 a.m. on November 22, 1848, a fire broke out in Thomas Webb’s shoe store at 76 King Street East, just east of Church Street. In no time, the flames spread to engulf Campbell & Hunter, a saddler that shared the same brick building.

Like a shot, Webb bolted from his dwelling above his store to ring the bells at St. James Cathedral across the street, signalling for the city’s volunteer fire companies that a building was ablaze. Fighting fires was a perilous duty at the best of times, but on this night one of the firemen, William Thornton, would be fatally wounded, becoming the first firefighter to die on the job in Ontario.

Toronto's first fire hall, on Church Street, from John Ross Robertson's Landmarks of Toronto, Volume 2 (1896)

Toronto’s first fire hall, on Church Street, from John Ross Robertson’s Landmarks of Toronto, Volume 2 (1896).

Roused from bed by the tolling bells at St. James—the standard fire alarm in the city of 23,000—the volunteer firefighters hastened from their homes to the Firemen’s Hall, a two-storey brick building on the west side of Church Street, between Court and Adelaide streets, which housed three of the city’s engine companies and its two hook-and-ladder companies.

The days of the bucket brigade had passed by the 1840s, but firefighting was still a rudimentary art, requiring large numbers of volunteers to man the hand-drawn, hand-powered firefighting equipment. Since Toronto’s first volunteer fire company was founded in 1826—later supplemented by the formation of additional volunteer engine or hook-and-ladder companies—men from all over town, employed in any number of occupations, offered their service.

“These volunteers became the guardians of their towns, protecting the citizens from the ravages of fire, performing heroic acts, and often being injured without compensation,” Robert Kirkpatrick describes in Their Last Alarm (General Store Publishing House, 2002).

Early firefighting equipment from C W  Jefferys' The Picture Gallery of Canadian History, Volume 3 (Ryerson Press, 1950)

Early firefighting equipment from C.W. Jefferys‘s The Picture Gallery of Canadian History, Volume 3 (Ryerson Press, 1950).

It was a dangerous, thankless duty. No matter the weather, the relatively untrained men risked their lives through smoke and fire, entering buildings severely weakened by flames and threatening to collapse. If they were injured, which happened frequently, the best a volunteer firefighter or his family could hope for was some modest provision from the Firemen’s Benefit Society, a charitable fund established in June 1845 with £50 in seed money from the city council.

The city council exerted a modicum of municipal control over the various volunteer companies through the appointment of a chief engineer, Robert Beard, in 1838, though the volunteers still elected each company’s officers. Municipal regulations, outlined in the Toronto City and Home District Directory, 1846-1847 (George Brown, 1846), authorized the mayor and aldermen to press into service any Toronto man between the ages of 16 and 60 to assist the fire brigade—provided the elected official carried “a wand with a gilded flame at the top” as a symbol of their authority. Any member of the public refusing to comply with their orders could be jailed or “further dealt with as the mayor and aldermen may determine.”

Perhaps, then, the main benefit of volunteering in advance to fight fires—besides the pride of service and camaraderie—was the exemption it earned a man from militia duty, jury duty, and similar appointments. “It was considered in those days quite an honour to be a fireman,” Stephen Ludwig Sniderman writes in “Firefighting in the Town of York,” in the York Pioneer (1967).

Detail of the neighbourhood of the 1848 fire from the W R  Gregg's 1919 reproduction of Bonnycastle/Tazewell's City of Toronto: The Capital of Upper Canada (1834)  From Historical Maps of Toronto

Detail of the neighbourhood of the 1848 fire from the W.R. Gregg’s 1919 reproduction of Bonnycastle/Tazewell’s “City of Toronto: The Capital of Upper Canada” (1834). From Historical Maps of Toronto.

By the time the firemen covered the few blocks from the Firemen’s Hall to the south side of King Street East, pulling their hand-pumped engines and other apparatus, the carters were likely already there. Carters, who hauled puncheons—large casks or barrels filled with 60 to 80 gallons of lakewater—raced their horse-drawn carts to the scene of fires at breakneck speed, and often arrived before the firefighters themselves.

The first carter to arrive was paid a premium of four dollars, the second three dollars, the third two dollars, the fourth one dollar, and a York shilling for each subsequent puncheon of water arriving on the scene. The combination of muddy and rough roads and the carters’ enthusiastic pace meant a lot of water spilled en route. To ensure enough water for the fire engines to do their work, municipal fire regulations included a clause specifying that a puncheon needed to be three-quarters full for a carter to be paid. Nevertheless, a lack of water was a common complaint at the scenes of fires as late as 1851.

South side of King Street East, looking east from Church Street, ca  1872  Sketch (1894) by William James Thomson from the Toronto Public Library Digital Collection

South side of King Street East, looking east from Church Street, ca. 1872. Sketch (1894) by William James Thomson from the Toronto Public Library Digital Collection.

Firemen fought the flames with Engine No. 1 (the “York”) positioned on King Street, at the front of the buildings, with 16 men working the side bars of the goose neck machine up and down to pump water through the hose. Engine No. 2 (the “Rescue”) stood on Church Street, where volunteer firemen worked the fire from the east end.

As the fire grew, enveloping the shoemaker’s and saddler’s premises, it spread to the upper floor of the adjacent building, at the southeast corner of the intersection, containing the offices of Bell & Crowther, Solicitors; accountant John Maulson; barrister Charles Lount; and land agent Thomas Bell. From there it spread further: to the ground floor, occupied by William Hall’s dry goods store, and to two vacant houses to the south, located behind the storefronts.

(Right: Coverage of the fire from the Globe [November 22, 1848].)

Many of the affected tenants lived within a few blocks, and were likely on the scene, panicking. John Bell lived at the corner of Church and Richmond, and John Maulson just north of that. William Hall resided a block or two to the northwest on Adelaide, Charles W. Lount a few blocks to the northeast at the corner of Duke and Caroline streets.

Given the rudimentary nature of firefighting equipment, a large part of the firemen’s duties involved endeavouring to save furniture, merchandise, and other valuables from burning buildings—and those adjacent—with the goal of reducing the property damage of a fire.

Most of the contents of the second-floor professional offices and the dry goods store were emptied, as were all the contents of Joseph Rogers’s hat shop at 78 King Street East, and Francis O’Dea’s clothing store at 90 King Street East, which, with the wind blowing sharply from the west, appeared to be in imminent danger of catching fire for a time.

William Thornton, a 22-year-old member of the No. 1 Hook and Ladder Company, was in the corner of the burning building when what has alternately been described as a “stone windowsill” or a “heavy stone facade” collapsed on him. His head severely fractured, Kirkpatrick recounts, the injured firefighter was carried back to the Firemen’s Hall a couple blocks away. There, he was treated by Dr. Walter Telfer, who resided nearby at the corner of Church and Richmond Street. The doctor cleaned his wound, bled him—a common medical treatment of the time—and sent him home to recuperate.

William Thornton’s gravestone, erected in September 2003, in St. James Cemetery. Photo by Kevin Plummer / Torontoist.

By the time the firemen extinguished the flames, just after three in the morning, extensive damage had been done. Four large brick buildings were nearly totally destroyed, with only a few brick walls still standing—although the structure at the present-day address of 107 King Street East would be rebuilt and still stands. Webb lost everything; Hunter & Campbell lost nearly everything. Most of the affected businesses and professional offices were insured, newspapers reported, but not to the full amount of their losses. In the Globe (November 22, 1848), Thornton’s injuries merited attention only after a detailed accounting of the property losses.

The southeast corner of Church Street and King Street East, as it appears today. Photo by Kevin Plummer / Torontoist.

“About two inches square of the skull was driven into the brain,” the newspaper described his fate, “and he was also injured on the side.” After he returned home, the Globe attested, Thornton “was doing well at the last accounts.” The newspaper proved to have been over-optimistic regarding the fireman’s condition. Two days later, Thornton succumbed to his injuries, dying at home on November 24. His funeral and interment in St. James Cemetery, at Bloor and Parliament streets, on Sunday, November 26, was attended by the entire fire brigade.

Little is known of Thornton. He was employed as a teamster by William M. Gorrie, a coal and wood merchant who operated a wharf at the foot of Yonge Street, and looked after his widowed mother and two sisters—though his name and address were not listed in the city directory. Unable to afford even a gravestone, the family relied upon relief funds raised by Thornton’s fellow firefighters and the city council.

Last Call monument on Toronto's waterfront  Photo by Ross G  Strachan from Flickr (under Creative Commons)

Last Call monument on Toronto’s waterfront. Photo by Ross G. Strachan from Flickr (under Creative Commons).

Kirkpatrick, a Mississauga fireman who began research for his history of Ontario firefighting in the mid-1990s, was shocked to learn that Thornton’s grave was unmarked. Kirkpatrick’s campaign to more fully recognize fallen firefighters, beginning with the publication of Their Last Alarm, led to a gravestone eventually being laid on Thornton’s burial site—pinpointed by calculating its distance from other markers recorded in cemetery records—in a ceremony on September 14, 2003. As the first firefighter killed on duty in Toronto and Ontario, Thornton’s name has been inscribed in the honour rolls of firefighter memorials on the waterfront (outside Toronto Fire Station 334) and on the northeast corner of College Street and Queen’s Park.

Sources consulted: History of the Toronto Fire Department (The Burial Fund of the Toronto Fire Fighters, 1924); Marla Friebe, A History of the Toronto Fire Services, 1874-2002 (Toronto Fire Services, 2003); John Ross Robertson Landmarks of Toronto, Volume 2 (1896); and articles from the Globe (November 22 & 29, and December 9, 1848); and the Star (July 12, 2002; and September 12, 2003).

Every Saturday, Historicist looks back at the events, places, and characters that have shaped Toronto into the city we know today.