Historicist: Learning the Writer's Craft
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Historicist: Learning the Writer’s Craft

Before finding fame for his tales of the supernatural, a young Algernon Blackwood struggled to find success in Toronto.

Algernon Blackwood in 1924. The Evening Independent (St. Petersburg, Florida). April 12, 1924.

In 1887, there was little to suggest that Algernon Blackwood would one day become one of England’s premier writers of horror and supernatural fiction. His father, Sir Arthur Blackwood, held the prestigious position of Under-Secretary of the British Post Office, and was well connected across the Empire, particularly in temperance and religious circles; naturally, Sir Arthur had hoped that 18-year-old Algernon would demonstrate an aptitude for school or business. Algernon, however, was a mediocre student and, after floundering in English schools, had spent the previous year studying in Germany, where his father had hoped he might flourish under greater discipline. Still lacking a direction in life, Algernon suggested to his father that he might pursue a career in farming. Recognizing that greater agricultural opportunities were available in Canada than in England, Sir Arthur took Algernon on a trip to Canada, a trip which would eventually lead to Algernon Blackwood’s earliest forays into public writing.

Arthur and Algernon Blackwood sailed to North America in September 1887, travelling up from New York and making stops across Canada. It was also a business trip For Sir Arthur; the Canadian Pacific Railway had been completed just two years earlier, and the Post Office wanted to investigate its suitability for mail delivery. While in Canada, Arthur was also pressed into some speaking engagements, and took Algernon to meet several of his Canadian contacts, including CPR executive Donald Smith and Governor General Lord Lansdowne.

They arrived in Toronto on September 15, and stayed a full week at the Queen’s Hotel on Front Street. When not meeting with acquaintances of Sir Arthur, the Blackwoods investigated agricultural opportunities, including a tour of the Ontario Agricultural College in Guelph (which was then affiliated with the University of Toronto), and a visit to an award-winning farm near Agincourt, in Scarborough.

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Following a visit to some of the eastern parts of Canada, the Blackwoods returned to Europe, where Algernon began agricultural studies at Edinburgh University. His grades remained less than stellar. While his father conceded that a career in farming might not be in his son’s future, he still believed that Canada held ample opportunities for Algernon, possibly in business or government work. Thus, in April 1890, Algernon Blackwood returned to Toronto with an allowance of 100 pounds a year—enough to keep him alive, but not much to live on—and several letters of introduction, with the expectation that Algernon would soon find a way to increase his income.

(Right: Algernon Blackwood’s father, Sir Stevenson Arthur Blackwood. Some Records of the Life of Stevenson Arthur Blackwood, K.C.B.: Compiled by a Friend and Edited by his Widow. (Hodder and Stoughton, 1896: London.)

Blackwood found his first apartment at 29 Elm Street, and used his one of his letters of introduction to secure unpaid work at the offices of the Temperance and General Life Assurance Company, located on the north side of King Street West, just west of Yonge. Blackwood later dismissed his work there as “licking stamps.” He did, however, find that many of the clerks in the insurance office were interested in learning French, and accepted several of them as pupils, charging a rate of fifty cents per lesson.

After three months at the insurance office, Blackwood managed to meet William Withrow, editor of The Methodist Magazine, who took Blackwood on as a personal assistant at four dollars a week. According to Blackwood’s own early memoir, Episodes Before Thirty, Withrow taught him how to use the typewriter, “and with my shorthand I took most of his letters at dictation, and certainly earned my money.” Blackwood’s role soon expanded to that of assistant editor of the magazine, copy editing and contributing occasional articles, mostly describing trips he had taken in Europe prior to coming to Toronto. He also helped edit some Methodist pamphlets designed for children. His first forays into writing were not highly regarded by Blackwood later in life; in Episodes Before Thirty he wrote that the job with Withrow “taught me that, just as I had no ambition to write, so, likewise, I possessed no talent.”

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(Left: Algernon Blackwood later in life, as seen on a cigarette card. From the George Arents Collection at the New York Public Library Digital Gallery. (Cartophilic reference books C82-58.)

Nevertheless, Blackwood clearly had an interest in writing something more than travelogues. While studying in Europe as a teenager he had developed an interest in Eastern religion and philosophy; indeed, among the books he brought with him to Toronto were the Bhagavad Gita and the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. Blackwood asked Withrow if he might submit an article for The Methodist Magazine on the subject of Buddhism, and revealed himself to be a Buddhist. Behind the idea, Blackwood later wrote, “lay an ever keener desire to write something on Hegel, whose philosophy I felt certain was based on some personal experiences of genuine mystical kind.” Somewhat taken aback by Blackwood’s request, Withrow decided that such a piece “would be hardly suitable.” Blackwood’s relations with Withrow cooled somewhat after this exchange, but he was allowed to retain his position with the magazine. “He read most carefully every word I wrote in his magazine and children’s pages,” noted Blackwood, “but he never referred to the matter again.”

Despite doubling his income through his French instruction and his role with the magazine, Blackwood still wanted to secure an income through farming. Through his bank, Blackwood met Arthur Cooper, who owned a dairy farm in what was then the village of Islington, which Blackwood describes as “a lovely little Hamlet on the shore of Lake Ontario.” In December 1890, Blackwood and Cooper formally went into business together as the Islington Jersey Dairy, with Blackwood investing what small capital he had into the enterprise, and ostensibly handling the business side of affairs from a rented office on College Street.

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The farm, as described by Blackwood, was about eight acres. “It was charmingly situated, the fields running down to the water, pine copses dotting the meadows to the north, and the little village church standing at one corner near the road.” Although he still lived downtown, Blackwood very much enjoyed his visits to the countryside, and wrote that he “gave picnics at our pretty little farm for customers I knew socially.”

(Right: Advertisement for the sale of the Islington Jersey Dairy herd. The Globe, March 19, 1892.)

The Islington Jersey Dairy did well at first but was soon best by problems, chiefly that the milk started to go sour. Cooper began to press Blackwood for more money to invest in the farm, but Blackwood lacked both the business ability and the agricultural knowledge to whether the setbacks. The company was dissolved after about six months, and the cows were eventually sold at auction in April 1892.

Although William Withrow may not have been sympathetic to Blackwood’s growing interest in Eastern wisdom, there were others in Toronto who were. In February of 1891, Blackwood became one of the charter members of the Toronto branch of the Theosophical Society, and became the group’s first corresponding secretary. At this time the Theosophical Society was a young and growing spiritual organization that incorporated elements of religion, philosophy, and science, with particular interest in Eastern thought and the occult.

Led during its early years by Albert Smythe, a journalist and poet (and also the father of Conn Smythe), the Toronto Theosophical Society emerged as a group interested in a wide variety of topics including women’s rights, labour issues, spiritualism, and astrology. In her history of the early years of the Toronto Theosophical Society, Gillian McCann notes that the Society was “the first group in Canada to attempt to systematically introduce Indian religious and philosophical ideas to the Canadian public in a sympathetic manner” and that the group became “a hothouse for incubating artistic movements and included in its ranks members of the Toronto literati and artistic community.”

Other founding members of the Society included socialist labour advocate Ethel Day MacPherson, and both Emily Stowe, the first female licensed doctor in Canada, and her daughter Augusta Stowe-Gullen, the first woman to graduate from a Canadian medical school.

Cover of The Lamp, the publication of the Toronto Theosophical Society. May 15, 1895.

Still in need of income, and still hoping to please his father by achieving some financial success, Blackwood went into business with Johann Kay Pauw, who convinced him to invest his remaining capital in the Hub Hotel, an establishment of dubious repute located on Colborne Street just east of Leader Lane. Some measure of the Hub Hotel’s character under its previous ownership can be gleaned from an incident in early 1889, when police were called to the top floor to break up “a dog and coon fight.” According to the Toronto Mail, “the unexpected visit of the police caused consternation among the sports who had assembled to witness the fight.”

Blackwood described the Hub Hotel as “a three-story building with a little tower, clean windows, and two swinging doors.” It had few bedrooms; the main source of revenue was to be the bar and the lunch counter, along with two meeting rooms available for rent. A brief feature in the Toronto World outlined Blackwood and Pauw’s intentions to make the Hub Hotel a respectable, profitable business, proclaiming: “The wines and liquors will be of the most approved brands. Nothing inferior will be kept. The premises are now being renovated and decorated, and a large smoking room upstairs will be fitted up. It is lighted with electricity and it can be engaged for smoking concerts and meetings.”

Over the lunch counter hung a framed photograph of Lord Dufferin, the former governor general of Canada and a distant cousin of Blackwood’s. According to Blackwood, “the stories of what Dufferin and his wife had done for Tom, Dick, and Harry, for their wives and their children or their dogs” improved business, “making cash-registers clink frequently.”

Advertising card featuring an image of Lord Dufferin, ca. 1885. Courtesy of Toronto Public Library.

As with the dairy, the Hub Hotel was initially a great success. “All day long the shoal of customers flocked in and rattled their money across the busy counters,” wrote Blackwood. “The dining room did a roaring trade and every stool at the long lunch counter had its occupant. How easy it all seemed! And no one the worse for liquor!”

Nevertheless, the Hub Hotel soon faltered. Business dropped off and debts mounted, which Blackwood attributed to the hotel’s business manager taking more than his share. More to the point, Blackwood grew to loathe the Hub, feeling suffocated while at work and desperate for moments when he could get away to the countryside. In the spring of 1892, before the hotel went under, he transferred his interests to Pauw, effectively divesting himself of most of the money he had. When creditors began to pursue Pauw, the two took a train north to Gravenhurst and stayed for several months at a friend’s property on North Bohemia Island, in the Muskoka region.

Advertisement for the Hub Hotel. The Toronto City Directory for 1892, Might’s Directory Co.

Following his time in Muskoka, Blackwood moved on to New York, trying his hand at journalism and a variety of other schemes, before eventually making a name for himself as a writer of weird fiction. Although he would never return to Toronto, several of his popular stories, including “The Wendigo” and “Skeleton Lake,” feature a Canadian setting.

Blackwood’s happiest memories from his Toronto years were the moments he spent outside of the busy downtown core. In Episodes Before Thirty, he fondly recalls that “an east-bound tram soon took one beyond the city, where the shores of Lake Ontario stretched their deserted sands for miles.” He added that “a pine forest beyond Rosedale was my favourite haunt, for it was (in those days) quite deserted and several miles from the nearest farm, and in the heart of it lay a secluded little lake with reedy shores and deep blue water. Here I lay and communed, the world of hotels, insurance, even of Methodists, very far away.”


Additional material from: Mike Ashley, Starlight Man: The Extraordinary Life of Algernon Blackwood (Constable, 2001: London); Algernon Blackwood, Episodes Before Thirty (Cassell and Company, 1923: London); John Robert Colombo, Blackwood’s Books: A Bibliography Devoted to Algernon Blackwood (Hounslow, 1981: Toronto); Greg Gatenby, Toronto: A Literary Guide (McArthur, 1999: Toronto); The Globe (September 3, September 16, September 20, 1887; January 7, 1889; March 18, March 19, May 23, 1892; The Lamp (May 15, 1895); Lucifer (January 15, 1892); Toronto Daily Mail (January 5, 1889); Gillian McCann, Vanguard of the New Age: The Toronto Theosophical Society, 1891—1945 (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2012: Montreal); The Methodist Magazine (December 1890; January, February, June, November 1891; June 1893); Some Records of the Life of Stevenson Arthur Blackwood, K.C.B.: Compiled by a Friend and Edited by his Widow (Hodder and Stoughton, 1896: London); The Toronto Star (October 4, 1921; February 16, 1924; October 26, 1929); The Toronto World (November 26, 1891).


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

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