I was doing some research this week on the history of another part of Toronto by looking at Charles E. Goad’s fire insurance plans. That side tracked me a little bit into thinking about how much Toronto has changed over the past century. I’ve always been fascinated with the area around old St. John’s Ward, which now roughly comprises Nathan Phillips Square, Old City Hall, Osgoode Hall, Trinity Church and the Eaton’s Centre. This area has changed dramatically since Goad recorded the area in 1884 and again in 1912. Although Goad recorded the basic information about building materials and street layouts in this area, it wasn’t until the early decades of the twentieth century which saw the area officially documented photographically for the first time. Two of the best known photographers of this area were William James and Arthur Goss. This week’s article will examine the photographs of Arthur Goss from St. John’s Ward.
William Arthur Scott Goss was born in London, Ontario in 1881 but grew up in Cabbagetown where his father was a Toronto based journalist. In 1892, his father died suddenly, leaving a financial strain on the family. In order to help support his mother and younger siblings, Goss took a job that year as an office boy with the City of Toronto’s Engineering Department. A few years later at the age of fifteen, Goss won his very first amateur photographer’s contest. It is not currently known when, or where, Goss learned the craft of photography.The use of photography as a documentary tool was first utilised by the City of Toronto’s Water Works Commission in 1875 when they included photographs for the first time in their annual report. In 1911, the City of Toronto reorganised its city departments resulting in the creation of the Works Department which oversaw capital building and improvement projects. Between 1892 and 1911, Goss filled a number of roles at the City of Toronto from office boy to junior draftsman and even photo-documenting some minor capital works projects. As part of the new City Works Department, a new division called the Photography and Blue Printing Section was created where Goss was given the job as Toronto’s first Chief Photographer.
Although Goss’s photographic sensitivities tended to lean towards the artistic and aesthetic side, he was hired primarily to chronicle the growth of Toronto through infrastructure projects and urban development. His lens captured workers as they laid down miles and miles of new streetcar tracks for the Toronto Civic Railway (the precursor to the TTC) and mega projects such as the construction of the Prince Edward Viaduct (Bloor Viaduct) or the R. C. Harris Water Treatment Plant. However, the City of Toronto’s Photography and Blue Printing section had other clients, most notably the Department of Public Health and the Board of Education. For the Department of Public Health, in particular, Goss’s task was to photograph the poor living conditions of immigrant families and the effects of poverty on the health and welfare of children. These photographs were taken all over the old part of the city, but the most poignant images come from the immigrant slums of St. John’s Ward. These images capture a part of Toronto’s history which had been fully obliterated by the 1960s to make way for the new, modern, urban example of progress.
St. John’s Ward or more commonly referred to simply as “The Ward”, had been the home to many of Toronto’s immigrant families since the early nineteenth century. The area is roughly bordered by the streets University Avenue in the west to Yonge Street in the east and from Queen Street north to College Street. Although mainly consisting of slum housing interspersed among shops, lumber yards or small factories, there were also some prominent buildings erected here throughout the nineteenth century including Osgoode Hall, Old City Hall and the T. Eaton factory/warehouse.
The first wave of immigrants to The Ward included African American slaves who arrived via the Underground Railroad, refugees from Ireland’s Great Famine of the 1840s and Jewish immigrants. The area was also home to the city’s very first Chinatown. The first attempt to remove some of the slum housing came in 1909 when several acres were demolished in order to build the Toronto General Hospital. Further attempts to develop the area began more in earnest by the mid 1920s. Lands were expropriated in order to build high rise office towers, upscale hotels, multi-storey apartment buildings and government annex offices for Old City Hall. Below, are a series of photographs and maps which give a glimpse into this part of Toronto’s past.
These fire insurance plans compiled by Charles E. Goad in 1884, and updated again in 1912, show what the area around St. John’s Ward looked like in terms of development. Yellow buildings on the maps indicate wooden structures while red denotes brick structures. Many of these buildings hadn’t changed much since the mid nineteenth century when new immigrants began settling the area.By the turn of the twentieth century, and before Goss was hired by the Works Department as Chief Photographer, William James began capturing some of the first images of The Ward as seen in the pictures below.
The photos below captures an image in 1911 of poor, immigrant children in the heart of The Ward along Elizabeth Street. The second photo, taken from atop the T. Eaton Factory in 1910, shows a portion of the area’s slum housing units and lumber yards with Albert Street running east and west in the centre of the picture. The horse and wagon near the centre of the image, is approaching the intersection of Albert and Elizabeth Streets. Osgoode Hall is just visible at the top of the photo.
Goss captured images of harsh winters and tight, cramped living quarters where several families would share the same back yard privy or take turns hanging out laundry on the few clothes lines which were strewn across back garden terraces.
The picture below is of a slum housing unit in 1913 which housed several immigrant families. It stands in the shadow of the mighty Old City Hall building across the street and just over 50 years later, this derelict wood framed, stucco row-house became the site of the skating rink which stands today at Nathan Phillips Square.
One aspect of Goss’s work which set him apart from other photographers of his era was that he went inside these dwellings to photograph the inhabitants and their living conditions. He captured images from extended families sitting around the wood stove in a rundown kitchen which hadn’t been painted or white washed in years, to sitting rooms which tried to mimic an air of Victorian age splendour with roughly pasted damask-styled wallpaper on both the walls and ceilings. Because of extreme poverty while trying to cope with harsh winters, interior doors were often removed, chopped up and used for fuel to operate the wood stove. Panels of fabric, which hung in doorways, provided privacy from room to room.
Goss returned to photograph the Ward for the last time in his career between 1936 and 1937. As can be seen in the photos below, there were still a number of ramshackle dwellings and businesses left in the area. Arthur Goss died three years later in 1940, thus ending a nearly 30 year career as Toronto’s first, and longest serving, Chief Photographer.
The expansion of urban sprawl into the neighbourhood meant increasing development pressures pushed to completely obliterate the slums in the decades after Goss’s death. It all finally came to an end in the early 1960s when Chinatown was removed from Elizabeth Street to the south side of Dundas and finally on to its current location on Spadina. The rest of the slum houses of the Ward were also removed. The picture below was the result of modernising an area which has stood relatively unchanged for the previous 130 years. The opening of Toronto’s current City Hall and Nathan Phillips Square in September 1965 marked the end of one era of Toronto’s history and heralded the start of the city’s meteoric rise as Canada’s population and economic hub.
Commemorating a tangible part of a city’s past is difficult to do when there is no remaining physical evidence of that past. In Canada, we tend to conserve more buildings that have a strong element of exemplary craftsmanship or architectural style. Slum housing rarely, if ever, makes those criteria. However, it is still an important part of the City of Toronto’s heritage and history. The area lasted, and barely changed, for over 130 years. The Ward, therefore, was not just a fleeting part of Toronto’s past. In some cases, it took three and even four generations of these St. John’s Ward families to improve their social status and move out of the area. For a number of those descendants, growing up in the slum housing units of Elizabeth, Chestnut, Albert or Centre Streets, is still within living memory. But what will happen when those memories finally fade and die out? Heritage is not just about something old and aesthetically beautiful. It is also the rough, hard living conditions of so many immigrant pioneers who contributed in their own way to the growth and development of Canada from coast to coast.
Until August 25, the Ryerson Image Centre has an image exhibit called “Arthur S. Goss: Works and Days”. It is an exhibit of many of Goss’s photographs taken for a number of City of Toronto Departments throughout his career from 1911 until his death in 1940. These are images which show the development of Toronto in the first half of the twentieth century through documenting capital works projects. For more information, please check out the Ryerson Image Centre Exhibits page for times and location.
A special thanks to the City of Toronto Archives for making these photographs by Arthur Goss available to the public.