Monday, December 31, 2012

Frozen Toronto From Outer Space



This photo was taken yesterday, the second to last day of 2012, by Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield. He passed overhead in the International Space Station a little after noon.

Happy New Year's folks! Get drunk! Be safe!

Update: Torontoist has some more of Hadfield's photos of Toronto here

Saturday, December 29, 2012

Toronto On The Day Before Christmas, 1853

Hello all! Hope you're having a wonderful, snowy holiday season. I'll get back to regular posts in the new year, but figured I'd quickly share this drawing by one of our city's most famous historical artists, C.W. Jeffreys. (Dude even has a high school named after him.) He drew this in 1944, but it shows King Street a block west of Yonge on Christmas Eve in 1853. You can see the headquarters for George Brown's Globe newspaper (they'd just started printing their new daily edition that fall) in the  middle of the image, along with George Brown himself right outside the office, a newspaper tucked under his arm and a top hat atop his head.

I'm not so sure about the shops next to the Globe, but Toronto's first Surveyor General was named D.W. Smith. He made lots of the city's earliest maps, provided one of the most famous early descriptions of York back in the late 1700s, and built one of the very first houses in Toronto, Maryville Lodge, sort of near Front & Sherbourne, in 1794.

I found this on the Toronto Archives site, here.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Christmas on University Avenue in 1963







The Toronto Star has a Facebook page for their archives, full of neat old photos and stuff. For the holiday season, they've made this beautiful image their cover photo. It's from 1963 and we seem to be looking down University Avenue from the steps of Queen's Park. You can check out the rest of their stuff on Facebook here.

Monday, December 17, 2012

The Dreams Project & Spacing Magazine's Blog

The magazine whose blog I'm now cross-posting to
Oh hey, so if you follow me on Facebook or Twitter (which you should! and on Instagram too!) you probably already know this, but I should mention it here for those who don't: some of the best posts from The Toronto Dreams Project Historical Ephemera Blog are now getting posted to Spacing Magazine's blog too. (If you're not already reading their blog, you should be: they post all sorts of Toronto-related urban and public space awesomeness.) A few of my posts have been published over there already — the stories of drunk William Faulkner in a bi-plane and Toronto's first cat and the 11,000 year-old footprints on the bottom of Lake Ontario among others. You can check them out here. And I've got a new one going up every couple of weeks or so.

They've also just had the launch party for the brand new issue of their print publication. You can get subscriptions and stuff over here.

Thomas King's Massey Lectures Fucking Rule

Sky Woman & The Great Turtle, Museum of Civilization
The Massey Lectures, in case you're somehow unaware, generally totally rule. Every year they pick some super-interesting person to deliver a series of talks that get broadcast on the CBC. They've had Martin Luther King Jr., Noam Chomsky, Jane Jacobs, Douglas Coupland, Margaret Atwood, Northrop Frye, John Kenneth Galbraith, Stephen Lewis, Claude Levi-Strauss, John Ralston Saul... And in 2003, they had Thomas King

Thomas King has been a writer and editor and professor and photographer and filmmaker and created The Dead Dog Cafe radio show. He even ran for the NDP a couple of elections ago. He got the Order of Canada in 2004. Two of his books have been up for the Governor General's Award. And right now he's got a brand new book out; it's called The Inconvenient Indian: A Curious Account of Native People in North America (you can buy it here or borrow it here; the Globe and Mail reviews it here). The dust jacket calls it "at once a history and a subversion of history" and I just bought it and I can't wait to read it.

I'm especially excited about the book since I just finished listening to those Massey Lectures. They're amazing. Over the course of one week, he gave five different lectures in five different venues in five different cities across Canada: Montreal, Victoria, St. John's, Calgary and Toronto. They're collectively called "The Truth About Stories" and each one of them is great. They're about storytelling and history and Canada and the First Nations.

You can listen to them online here.

Each one of them is about an hour long. The time is very much worth it, but if that strikes you as too much of a commitment, I recommend listening to at least the fifth in the series. It's called "What Is It About Us That You Don’t Like". It's the lecture he delivered here in Toronto — at U of T's Massey College. It's a powerful conclusion.

And a timely one, too — as I write this, the Idle No More protests are gathering strength and Attawapiskat Chief Theresa Spence is about to enter the second week of her hunger strike.

Friday, December 14, 2012

New & Old Photos of Casa Loma

Over the last few weeks, I made a couple of visits to our magnificent, kitschy castle on the hill above Davenport: one while I was researching my big post about the history of the place, "Casa Loma & The Crooked Knight", which you can read here; and a second for the public consultation meeting discussing the possibility of turning part of the castle — or more likely the stables and/or potting shed — into a Toronto Museum.

I took my camera — well, um, phone — with me, so I could take photos and mix in some archival images, too. You can find the full gallery on Facebook here. (You should be able access whether or not you have an account.) And, as always, you can follow me on Instagram or Twitter to see my other photos as I post them: @TODreamsProject.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Celebrating The False End of the Great Boer War at Yonge & King in 1901

I recently posted this photo as part of the gallery at the end of my piece about J. Cooper Mason and the Great Boer War (which you can read here), but I wanted to highlight this photo in particular, since I was especially fascinated by it while I was writing that post. It's crammed full of interesting details.

It's the summer of 1901 and we're looking east down King Street (Toronto's earliest main street) from the intersection at Yonge. (You can see what the same view looks like today here.) The event is a parade to celebrate the return of the one of the Canadian units who volunteered to fight in South Africa in support of the British Empire's colonial war there. It seems at the time this photo was taken, as if the war is over and the British have won — although in truth it will take another couple of years filled with guerrilla warfare, a brutal scorched earth campaign and the death of tens of thousands of South Africans in British concentration camps. The Canadians forces, however, will all be home before that part of the war really gets going.

(Some of the details in this photo are a bit hard to see, so you might want to save it to your computer so that you can open it and zoom in more closely.)

Here we go:

01. In the middle-bottom of the photo, you can see the men of 'C' Company marching towards us with their rifles over their shoulders. You can make out a few of their faces and a couple of early 1900s moustaches.

02. The beautiful buildings which lined King Street back in the day are hung with bunting and flags. People in the crowd are waving them too. Almost all of them display the Union Jack or England's St. George's Cross — a reminder that it would be more than another 60 years before we got our own flag, that many people in Toronto still very much saw themselves as members of the British Empire, and that the war these men had just come back from fighting was very much a British one.

I really like the details in the cheering, too:

03. You can see men lifting their bowler hats in celebration.

04. If you look really closely at the building on the far right, you can see people leaning out the windows to shout through old-timey bullhorns.

05. This is probably my favourite detail in the whole photo. Outside that building on the right, on the telephone pole next to the fancy clock, a kid has climbed up (on the pole itself? on some kind of box or something?) to get a better view out over the crowd. Neat moment. Meanwhile, the building itself belongs to the Canadian Pacific Railway. A sign reads "CANADIAN PACIFIC TICKETS" and a glittery "CPR" logo is embedded in the middle of a crest above the door. That railroad, which famously helped to forge the Confederation of our nation, had been built just 20 years earlier. And only ten years after this photo was taken, that building would be torn down and replaced with the much bigger Canadian Pacific Building. (Designed by Darling & Pearson, one of the most important architectural firms in the history of our city, it would be the tallest building not only in Toronto, but in the entire British Empire: a whole 15 storeys high. It's still there now, home to the Shopper's Drugmart on the south-east corner of the intersection.)

06. The Canadian Pacific Railway isn't the only easily recognizable brand represented in the photo: there's also a sign for Holt Renfrew. The fancy Canadian department store started out as a hat shop in Quebec City in the 1830s.

07. You can see some other people who have also climbed up some telephone poles on the left-hand side of the street. One guy in the distance, just above where I've put the number 07, has managed to get up pretty darn high.

08. But some people have managed to find a spot even higher — you can see a few spectators standing on the roof of one of the buildings on the left.

09. And finally, in 1901 just like today, the pigeons of King Street East soared through the air above the crowd.

The City "Intends to Designate" King Street's Beautiful Victoria Row

Oh, well here's some promising news. The city "intends to designate" beautiful Victoria Row on King Street East, justjust west of Church. They've got a notice up on their website here. I stumbled across the news while I was actually looking for a page I could link to about how those buildings might be at risk. (Hopefully, all goes well — and they don't, say, mysteriously burn down like some of Toronto's other about-to-be-saved properties have had a habit of doing.)

The Row was originally designed all the way back in the 1840s by John Howard, one of Toronto's most important old-timey architects and amateur painters, who is also the guy who gave us High Park. It's been updated over the years. It played a vital role on King Street back in the days when it was our city's earliest main street. And it's still full of shops and restaurants and even the Albany Club (the secretive official Conservative Party hangout, which I wrote about here). This photo is from around 1890, when a statue of Queen Victoria was part of the facade.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Jane Jacobs On The Importance Of Downtowns

I've been slowly making my way through Jane Jacobs' The Death and Life of Great American Cities over the course of the last few months. I've already posted one excerpt from it, about the importance of old buildings, which you can check out here. (There's also a wee bit more background information about Jacobs, her book, and her move from New York to Toronto in that post.) But I figured I'd share another quick little passage from the book. This time, a brief paragraph on why an entire city benefits by having a vibrant downtown core:

"When a city heart stagnates or disintegrates, a city as a social neighbourhood of the whole beings to suffer: People who ought to get together, by means of central activities that are failing, fail to get together. Ideas and money that ought to meet, and do so often only by happenstance in a place of central vitality, fail to meet. The networks of city public life develop gaps they cannot afford. Without a strong and inclusive central heart, a city tends to become a collection of interests isolated from one another. It falters at producing something greater, socially, culturally and economically, than the sum of its separated parts." 

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You can buy The Death and Life of Great Americans Cities here. Or borrow it from the Toronto Public Library here. Or read more samples from it on Google Books here.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Casa Loma & The Crooked Knight

Once upon a time, a knight by the name of Sir Henry built himself a castle. It was magnificent and kitschy and big. So big, in fact, that it was the biggest home anyone had ever built for themselves in the whole history of Canada. It had 98 rooms. 30 bathrooms. 25 fireplaces. An elevator and a central vacuum system and space for an indoor swimming pool. An oven so big you could cook an entire cow in it. A library with thousands of books. Plus stables, secret passages, a tunnel, a fountain, a shooting gallery and three bowling alleys. It had been built by 300 construction workers at a cost of millions of dollars over the course of three years. And it was all made possible because Sir Henry Pellatt wasn't just a knight, he was also one of the richest and most powerful businessmen in the country. And one of the most famously crooked, too.

Dude was very 1%. Sir Henry's dad had been one of the most powerful stock brokers in Canada. And when he retired in the late 1800s, his son inherited the business. By then, Pellatt was already an extremely well-connected young man. He'd gone to Upper Canada College, made a name for himself as a teenager by setting the world record for running the mile (!!!), and joined the prestigious Queen's Own Rifles military regiment. Plus, he was a member of all the most important gentlemen's clubs — including the Albany Club on King Street: the official Conservative party hangout.

Armed with his contacts and his dad's business, Pellatt built an even bigger fortune. He invested heavily in stocks for the Canadian West, made money off the railroads, and got interested in electricity just as Edison and Tesla were about to change the world. By the time he was 30, Pellatt had a monopoly on all of the electric streetlights in Toronto. And if he had his way, that was just going to be the beginning. When he and a couple of other businessmen built the first hydroelectric dam on the Canadian side of Niagara Falls, it looked like they were going to have a monopoly on all of the hydroelectric power in Ontario for a long, long time to come.

As the 1800s turned into the 1900s, Pellatt had a fortune of $17 million dollars. Which was a hell of a lot back in those days. He was the head of more than twenty companies and was on the board of a hundred more. He was listed as one of 23 men who controlled the entire Canadian economy. Some people say he controlled a quarter of it himself.

But he was also pretty crooked. He lied to his investors, lied to his creditors, lied to the Board of Directors of his own companies. He cooked books. Committed fraud. Claimed nonexistent profits. He pulled all sorts of shady tricks to artificially inflate the value of his investments. When the federal government launched a Royal Commission to investigate this kind of stuff in the life insurance industry, Pellatt was specifically singled out for his sketchiness. When his father died, Pellatt even took money from the inheritance of his own siblings.

Sir Henry Pellatt
One day, his lies would catch up with him. And when they did, he would take the savings of thousands of innocent people and one of Canada's biggest banks with him. But until then, he was going to spend money like crazy. He bought all the fanciest new stuff, collected art and horses and cars. He had a beautiful home on Sherbourne and a country estate north of the city. He gave generously to the charities he believed in and even helped organize the first Canadian chapter of St. John's Ambulance.

But Pellatt especially liked to lavish money on his favourite militia. He eventually became commander of the Queen's Own Rifles and for the regiment's 50th anniversary, he threw a MASSIVE week-long party at the Ex. Every night there was a two-hour spectacle celebrating the military history of Canada: 1200 performers, two military bands, huge sets and elaborate costumes. Ten thousand people came to see it. Pellatt's wife, Lady Mary, presided over the festivities in diamonds and rubies and a gold crown.

And that wasn't all. A few years later, as the First World War approached, Pellatt took the entire 650-man regiment to England for military maneuvers. He paid for the whole thing himself — even brought all the horses along — and took great pride in showing the English that the Canadian military was willing and able to fight for the Empire.

The trip to England and the show at the Ex were both hailed as great successes (although a couple of people did die: one soldier — Peter Gzowski's great-uncle, oddly enough — was killed by typhoid while the regiment was in England, and one of the actors in the show was impaled on the pommel of his saddle when his horse rolled over on him). During the trip, Pellatt even got to meet the future King George V at Balmoral Castle. It was one of the greatest moments of his life.

Pellatt, like any good old-timey Canadian Conservative, was a big fan of the monarchy. When Queen Victoria celebrated her Diamond Jubilee, Pellatt went to England with some of the Queen's Own Rifles to be part of the honour guard. He even got a signed photo. When King George was crowned, not only did Pellatt go, they say he had a commemorative medal made for pretty much every child in Toronto. And that was nothing: in 1905, he talked his contacts into getting him knighted. One day, Sir Henry dreamed, he would be given a hereditary title to pass down to his son — and the Pellatt family would officially join the ranks of the British Empire's aristocracy.

And like any good old-timey British aristocrat, Sir Henry wanted to live in a castle.

He bought himself some of the most prestigious land in the city: everything from Davenport up to St. Clair and from Bathurst to Spadina, where Toronto's oldest ruling families had once built their country estates on the hill overlooking the city. Pellatt developed part of the land as housing, but kept the rest for his castle. To build it, he hired Toronto's grandest architect: E.J. Lennox, the same guy who designed Old City Hall, the King Edward Hotel, and the west wing of Queen's Park. Lennox came up with a design that combined Pellatt's favourite elements from his favourite castles — a medieval pastiche of architectural ideas from all over Europe, especially from Balmoral, the British monarchy's summer home in Scotland where Pellatt had met King George. And to top it all off, Sir Henry gave his castle a Spanish name: Casa Loma, the house on the hill.

Pellatt hoped to host royalty at his new home, so he wasn't going to spare any expense. Masons were shipped in from the Old World; stones for the wall were hand-picked by Lennox himself. Wood was ordered from all over the globe and carved by master craftsmen. Even the horses' stalls in the stables were made of mahogany, the floors of Spanish tile. The fixtures in the bathrooms were gold. The lighting and telephone systems were state of the art. The gardens and greenhouses were filled with rare and exotic flowers. The Simpson's department store was hired to find all of the most lavish art, furniture, wine and treasure — Pellatt wanted to quickly assemble the kind of historic collection those old, British, Downton Abbey-type families had built over the course of a few centuries. And he was willing to pay millions of dollars to do it.

The Ward in 1913
Of course, not everyone in Toronto was that lucky corrupt savvy at business. There was plenty of poverty in the city. Just a couple of kilometers away, at the foot of Casa Loma's hill, people were living in tar paper shacks. And in the distance, in the shadow of the spire of Old City Hall (which Pellatt could see from his window), poor immigrant families were squeezed together in the squalor of The Ward — a slum that used to be where Nathan Phillips Square is now. Slumlords forced tenants into overcrowded, ramshackle housing, rife with disease. Many families still lived without running water or even a drain. Those lucky enough to find work were likely to be working painfully long hours for low wages at dangerous factory jobs, in a city thick with coal smoke.

So, as you might expect, income disparity was a really big issue during the twenty years that Pellatt was planning and building and living in Casa Loma. Newspaper headlines were full of stories about injustice and of the clashes between the working and ruling classes. The Titanic sank with poor passengers left to drown. The Bolshevik Revolution brought Communism to Russia. The trenches of the First World War made a mockery of class distinctions. Meanwhile, unions were getting stronger and more powerful than ever, demanding stuff like a minimum wage, safer working conditions and an 8-hour workday. They were denounced as radicals, sometimes beaten by the police, even killed. In Winnipeg, when workers put together the biggest general strike in Canadian history, Mounties charged into the crowd on horseback, swinging clubs and firing their guns. Two strikers were killed and hundreds more were injured. They called it Bloody Saturday.

Sir Henry was no stranger to the violent side of labour relations. The only time he ever saw action with the Queen's Own Rifles was back in his younger days when they were called in to break a railway strike in Belleville. The regiment advanced on the workers with their bayonets drawn. Two strikers were stabbed and two soldiers were hit in the head by flying rocks. After it was all over, the men of the QOR were presented with medals made out of the rails the workers had pulled up. Pellatt wore his on his dress uniform for the rest of his life.

It wouldn't be the last time Sir Henry got caught up in the debate over private profit and the public interest. In fact, he played a central role in one of the biggest fights about it that our city has ever seen.

This was back before he started building Casa Loma. And it was about that hydroelectric dam he and his friends were building at Niagara Falls. It was a big deal: an engineering marvel, a beautiful design by E.J. Lennox, and a whole crapload of money-making potential. But at the same time the dam was being built, the public was getting fed up with private monopolies. The government didn't provide a lot of the public services it does today — and the private companies who did provide them had a reputation for using their monopolies to drive up prices while letting the quality of the services plummet.

As The Globe put it in the year 1900: "the twentieth century will be kept busy wrestling with millionaires and billionaires to get back and restore to the people that which the nineteenth century gave away... The nineteenth century shirked its duty, humbugged and defrauded the common people, playing into the hands of the rich..."

And so, many were beginning to suggest that hydroelectric power should belong to the people, not to Pellatt's private corporation. The champion of the idea was Adam Beck, the former Mayor of London who was now a Conservative MPP. "The gifts of nature are for the public," he declared. And he pushed the Conservative government to agree. "It is the duty of the Government to see that development is not hindered by permitting a handful of people to enrich themselves out of these treasures at the expense of the general public."

While Beck was leading the charge at Queen's Park, a man named William Peyton Hubbard was doing the same thing a couple of blocks down the street at City Hall. He was the son of escaped slaves, and had gotten into politics after saving George Brown from drowning in the Don River. He became the city's first Black alderman — the first Black politician elected in any Canadian city — and he sat on Toronto's City Council for a couple of decades, even stepping in as acting mayor more than once. He and Beck both argued in favour of what they called "public power."

Pellatt and his friends fought back. They claimed Beck's idea was the worst kind of socialism. That since they'd built the dam, they should profit from it. And that British investors would be scared away. (They then tried to get the British investors to promise that they would be scared away.) Pellatt even asked King Edward VII to intervene — but without any luck. The businessmen were eventually so desperate that they tried to bribe one of the newspapers who opposed them: $350,000 if the Toronto World switched sides and started arguing against public power. It didn't work.

None of it worked. The Conservative government at Queen's Park agreed with Beck. Premier James Whitney got up in the legislature and declared that "water-power at Niagara should be as free as air and, more than that, I say on behalf of the Government that the water-power all over this country shall not in future be made the sport and prey of capitalists, and shall not be treated as anything else, but as a valuable asset of the people of Ontario".

Old City Hall welcomes public power in 1911
That's how Ontario Hydro was founded. It became the biggest publicly-owned corporation on the continent. (It would survive all the way to the 1990s — until Mike Harris split it into pieces and sold some of them off to private owners.) Eventually, the government would take over the company Pellatt and his friends had founded for more than $30 million. And with William Peyton Hubbard leading the way, Toronto soon signed on to the new public power grid with a dazzling ceremony at Old City Hall.

Beck was knighted for his public service. And Toronto City Council built a monument in his honour. It's still there today: a bronze statue in the middle of University Avenue just south of Queen. In the years that followed, City Hall would take on more and more of the public services that private companies had been providing — it was even one of Pellatt's hydroelectric partners who lost the streetcar contract, allowing the city to create the TTC.

When people talk about how Sir Henry lost his fortune, they tend to mention that whole public power episode quite a bit. But he actually seems to have recovered pretty easily from it. He was still one of the most extravagantly wealthy men in the country. And he would be for a while. He started construction on Casa Loma soon after, and he lived there for a decade before everything fell apart. He and Lady Mary turned it into a social hub. They threw some of the most lavish parties in our city's history: garden parties, curling parties, hockey parties, diners with a hundred guests. And they threw parties for their favourite public causes, too. The Queen's Own Rifles were regular guests. And so were the Girl Guides of Canada — Lady Mary had been drafted into being their first Chief Commissioner (in part because she was super-rich and influential, in part because of her traditional views on womanhood and the vote). Pellatt would even fulfill his dream of hosting royalty: The Prince of Wales, who would go on to briefly become King Edward VIII before he abdicated his throne and left it to his stuttering brother, visited Casa Loma not just once, but twice.

Pellatt wasn't done fighting with the government, either. The feds took over his airplane factory during WWI. And when the Wall Street Journal accused him of making an exorbitant profit while selling shells to the army during the war, the Prime Minister forced Sir Henry to make a public denial. He waged a battle with the city over his property taxes, too. They'd gone up after he built his castle, so he took the city to court. His lawyers argued that Casa Loma was so big and so expensive that it actually drove the value of the property down — that Pellatt was a fool to have built it. (Meanwhile, he'd already mortgaged it for four times what the city claimed it was worth.)

Still, it wasn't until 1923 that everything finally went to shit. Here's how it happened:

Pellatt had borrowed a lot of money from a lot of different people. One of them was the Home Bank of Canada. It had been founded in Toronto back in the 1850s by our city's second Catholic Bishop. The idea was that it would give poor Irish-Catholic immigrant families a place to invest and get loans in super-Protestant, Catholic-hating Toronto. But over the course of time, the bank had become more and more secular, less and less charitable, and more just like a regular bank. Now, it had branches all over the country — more than 80 of them (including one on King Street just west of Yonge designed in part by E.J. Lennox). Tens of thousands of working class people had put their savings into the bank, Toronto Catholics and farmers in the Prairies more than anybody else.

Sir Henry, on the other hand, was in the habit of taking money out of the bank. It was run by a couple of friends of his: a Conservative Senator and his son, both of them from the Queen's Own Rifles. They were pretty sketchy business-wise, happy to lend their customers' money out to their friends without making sure those friends could pay it back. They gave Pellatt more money than anybody else, millions and millions of dollars, cooking their books to back some of his dubious investments. In return, they were supposed to get a cut of his profits.

But those profits never came. Pellatt was pulling his usual shady tricks, and this time they weren't going to work.

The Home Bank branch on King Street
For instance: He used a lot of the money to buy a bunch of land, sort north-west of Bathurst and St. Clair. Then, he sold that land to himself at an inflated price. That way, he could use the inflated value of the land as collateral to borrow even more money to buy even more land. But when the First World War broke out, people stopped buying land. And when it ended, the economy didn't recover right away. So when the bank was finally forced to ask Pellatt to pay them back, he just couldn't. All he had was a bunch of land and stocks that weren't worth anything near what he claimed they were worth. Plus, a giant castle and a shit load of debt. He owed the Home Bank $2 million and that was just one debt of many. He was screwed. And so was the Home Bank.

Pellatt desperately schemed and stalled and skimmed money — even dumped some of his sketchiest stocks on the staff at Casa Loma — begging for more time, but eventually that time ran out. The fraud was uncovered. On a Saturday morning in the summer of 1923, a blunt notice was hammered into the beautiful wooden door of the Home Bank branch on King Street: "BANK CLOSED PAYMENT SUSPENDED".

And just like that, everyone's money was gone.

Tens of thousands of Canadians lost their life savings. One customer even died of a heart attack at a public meeting about it at Massey Hall. Ten bank officials were arrested. One had a nervous breakdown. Some people say the Senator's son — who had once survived an armed bank robbery and a bullet through his lungs during the Great Boer War — killed himself because of it. Wikipedia goes as far as to link the bank's collapse with the rise of populist political parties out West — farmers on the Prairies were pretty pissed off at the Eastern bankers who had screwed them over.

In the end, the federal government, now run by Mackenzie King's Liberals, launched a Royal Commission to investigate the collapse. Corruption was uncovered. New rules were proposed. Conservative ministers from the previous government were grilled about a suspicious bailout they'd given the bank. Eventually, laws were changed to outlaw some of Pellatt's dirtiest tricks. And a new "Inspector General of Banks" was appointed to make sure those new laws were obeyed. About ten years later, on top of all the new regulations, the Bank of Canada was created to help control the country's banking system. Not a single Canadian bank has failed since.

Pellatt, meanwhile, managed to cover his own ass — but only legally. Before the collapse, he moved his assets around so he could never be sued for it. And he put Casa Loma in his wife's name so it couldn't be seized. His days as a titan of industry were over, though. His fortune was gone; his reputation ruined.

And so, Sir Henry was forced to move out of Casa Loma. The castle was waaaaaay too expensive to run: it took a million and a half pounds of coal to heat it every winter and tens of thousands of dollars to keep it staffed. He and Lady Mary moved into an apartment on Spadina, but she died soon after that — of a broken heart, they like to say. It was downhill from there. Pellatt remarried, but when his new wife died of cancer he bitterly accused her of having known she was sick all along — that she'd "bamboozled" him into marrying her. He moved into one smaller apartment after another. And when the Great Depression struck, Pellatt couldn't afford the castle's property taxes anymore. Ten years after the Home Bank collapsed, the City of Toronto took over Casa Loma.

Sir Henry signs Casa Loma's guestbook
Sir Henry was an old man by then. The last photos of him are pretty sad. He was thin and frail, almost blind from cataracts. He walked with a cane. He doesn't look anything like the imposing figure who spent 40 years as a financial giant. He looks like a tired old man. Defeated. And very mortal.

He spent his final days living with his chauffeur's family at their home in Mimico, down by the lake in the west end. He didn't have many friends or family left to care for him, but his niece and her mother would come by to read to him and listen to his stories. He consoled himself by retelling tales from the old days and with the few mementos he had left: his signed photo of Queen Victoria, his invitation to King George's coronation, a seating plan for the dinner at Balmoral... He still had his knighthood too — the city hadn't forced him to formally declare bankruptcy, so he got to keep it. And there was one last fancy dinner at the Royal York Hotel: a reunion of the Queen's Own Rifles for his 80th birthday, including a telegram of congratulations from King George's wife Queen Mary. Sir Henry was moved to tears. He died two months later, in his chauffeur's arms.

The Queen's Own Rifles gave him a full military funeral at St. James Cathedral, on the spot where Toronto has said goodbye to its most powerful Anglicans for more than 200 years. Thousands of people came to pay their respects.

Meanwhile, Casa Loma, once a monument to private wealth, was now in public hands. And it was quite the handful.

For ten years after the Pellatts moved out, the castle had been pretty much abandoned. It was a wreck. Kids had chucked rocks through all the windows; there were thousands of panes of broken glass. The pipes had frozen and burst, which let water warp the hardwood floors and the wood-paneled walls. Hundreds of birds and animals had moved in: owls and pigeons and bats. The floors were covered with layers of bird shit and bat shit and garbage and dirt and ashes and leaves. Restoring Casa Loma was going to be a major project. And plenty of people didn't think it was worth it — especially in the middle of the Great Depression. In fact, the very same year the city took over the castle, the Liberals won the provincial election with a promise to shut down Toronto's other grandest home: Chorley Park, the Lieutenant Governor's spectacular residence in Rosedale. Even just keeping the thing heated, they argued, was an extravagant waste of the taxpayers' money.

For a while the city thought about just tearing Casa Loma down. Or burning it down. Or blowing it up. But even that was going to be a ridiculous and expensive ordeal. It was a castle: so incredibly big and so incredibly well-built that an explosion big enough to knock it down would also destroy the surrounding houses and shatter every window in the west end.

There were plenty of other ideas, though. Pellatt had already briefly let it be turned into a nightclub. (The Casa Loma Orchestra became one of the biggest swing bands of the '30s.) E.J. Lennox figured he could turn it into an apartment building. Mary Pickford wondered about using it as a movie studio. Some people said it should be a gentlemen's club or an Orange Lodge or a monastery. Even a residence for the Pope. Or for the King. Others suggested that it should turned into a subway station or a fancy morgue or a home for the Dionne quintuplets — that same Liberal provincial government was in the process of turning the five baby sisters into the biggest tourist draw in Ontario.

The dawn of the Kiwanis Era
But in the end, City Council decided to let the Kiwanis Club run Casa Loma as a tourist attraction in its own right. They cleared out truckloads of filth, repaired all the damage, even finished parts of the castle that Pellatt had never been able to. And then they opened Toronto's most lavish private residence to the public. For 25 cents, you could wander through the castle, climb the tower, slip through secret passages and stroll through the gardens, walk the long tunnel to the stables, and wonder what it must have been like to be that rich.

The Kiwanis Club has been running Casa Loma ever since. And for the most part, those 75 years have passed without incident — even while the army was using the stables as a secret base to build a new SONAR system during the Second World War.

But recently, things haven't been going so well. For one thing, as awesome as the castle is (and it's pretty awesome) there's not much to see beyond the building itself. Back when the Pellatts were forced to move out, their historic collection of art and artifacts was sold off. It took five days to auction it all — most pieces sold for a tiny fraction of what they were actually worth. Chippendale and Louis XVI and Elizabethan furniture was bought at bargain basement prices. Chairs from the 1600s went for $30 each. Lady Mary's bedroom set from the 1700s went for $45. A brand new $75,000 pipe organ was bought for 40 bucks. There were paintings by Turner and Van Dyke and Paul Peel. A china set they say Napoleon presented to one of his generals. Even some Toronto history: a water bottle that once belonged to the man who founded our city, John Graves Simcoe.

So today, Casa Loma is little more than an Henry Pellatt Museum — without most of the stuff Sir Henry Pellatt actually owned. Some of the rooms are filled with period pieces. A few are dedicated to the history of the Queen's Own Rifles. There's a Girl Guides display. There's even a room dedicated to dispelling the "myths" of Pellatt's corruption (and a short video, too, narrated by Colin Mochrie), which conveniently skips over his lies and fraud, implying that his failure had much more to do with Adam Beck and the government than anything Sir Henry did.

Meanwhile, the castle has fallen into disrepair. Millions of dollars are needed to fix it up — costs the Kiwanis Club says they just can't afford. These days, the walls of the tower and the tunnel are tagged with graffiti, some of which clearly hasn't been cleaned up for years.

So it's not all that surprising to hear that attendance has been falling. Especially when you consider that admission is now about $20 — way more than Toronto's other historic sites. Fort York is less than $8. Mackenzie House is about $6. This month, you can go see "A Christmas Carol" at Montgomery's Inn for $15. And then there's Spadina House: also filled with period pieces, with an admission price less than half of Casa Loma's, and it's right next door to the castle.

When David Miller renewed the Kiwanis Club's contract back when he was Mayor, he almost immediately regretted it. (On top of everything else, Miller claimed the Casa Loma board was giving their own Chair all of the castle's legal work — that he made hundreds of thousands of dollars while the castle deteriorated.) So Miller bought out the Club. And now, 80 years after the city first seized it, the castle on the hill is back in Toronto's hands.

There are again plenty of ideas for how the castle should be used this time around. Rob Ford, unsurprisingly, argued that the city would have to sell it off to private interests. Some want it turned into condos. Or a hotel. There's even a Facebook group asking Drake to buy it and turn it into Casa YOLO.

But with Council's backing, two City Councillors hope they've found a new public use for it. Josh Matlow and Joe Mihevc are asking that part of Casa Loma be turned into a Toronto Museum. Instead of being a monument to the history of one man, it would be a monument to the entire history of our city. Once home to Pellatt's private collection, the castle would now be home to some of the more than 100,000 historic artifacts in the city's collection. The vast majority of them have been sitting in storage, out of public view, waiting for a chance to tell Toronto's story.

That's all assuming, of course, that everything goes well. It won't be easy. Or cheap. The city has been actively trying to find a home for a Toronto Museum for nearly a decade now — first at the Canada Malting silos on the waterfont and then at Old City Hall — without any luck. And no one even knows who the Mayor's going to be a few weeks from now. But they've already started public consultations. And later this month, a Request for Proposal will be sent out, asking for the castle to be used as "an historic attraction and special event venue" with the Toronto Museum as part of the plans.

So maybe, just maybe, after nearly a century spent looking out over the city from that hill above Davenport, after all of those ups and downs — the swanky parties, the tragic neglect, the scandals and the financial collapse — Sir Henry's castle will finally have its happy ending. And if we're lucky, if it all comes together and it's all run by the right people, maybe it will be a happy ending not just for one man, or one family, or one company, but for the entire city of Toronto.     

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You can read Matlow and Mihevc's letter about their hopes for a Toronto Museum here. And a Toronto Star editorial in support of the idea here. There's a record of the first public consultation meeting in a PDF here. And you'll find the Agenda Item History for the Council motions about the castle here.

You can listen to The Casa Loma Orchestra play "The Casa Loma Stomp" here.

I wrote a whole big post about that Senator's son, J. Cooper Mason, who survived the armed bank robbery and the Great Boer War before maybe having killed himself over the collapse of the Home Bank. You can check that out here.

I can't resist mentioning how much Sir Henry reminds me of another rotund Conservative millionaire who inherited his business from his father, likes sports, throws huge public parties, has trouble following the rules, fights passionately for the charities he works with while having trouble grasping the idea of the greater public good, and once showed in court to present a case that pretty much boiled down to him being a total fool. Pellatt, like Ford, even once tried to expand his property a bit, by taking over a sliver of adjoining parkland.

I also find Sir Henry's story an interesting compliment to Downton Abbey. He was trying to establish himself as the Canadian equivalent of that fictional family, at the same time that they were realizing that thir old world needed to change.

Bonus quote from a Sir Adam Beck speech in Kingston on Sept. 11, 1910, after the founding of Ontario Hydro: "Our work is only begun. We must deliver power at such a price that the poorest man may have electric light. There will be no more coal oil, no more gas, and I hope in the future, no more coal." 

I learned a lot of this information from two books in particular, Sir Henry Pellatt: the king of Casa Loma (buy here, borrow here, read excerpts here) and Casa Loma: Canada's Fairy-Tale Castle and Its Owner, Sir Henry Pellatt (buy here, borrow here). They're both filled with excellent information and many more details and anecdotes about Sir Henry's crooked dealings. There's also a bit more info online here and here and here. And you can learn more about the more recent developments with the Kiwanis Club here, here and here. And about the castle's post-Pellatt years from Torontoist's Jamie Bradburn here. I might end up doing a whole post someday on the SONAR system assembled in Casa Loma's stables. For know, you can learn a little bit more here.

There's some early history of the Home Bank of Canada here. And since individual banks used to print their own money, you can check out what some of their bills looked like here. The Law Society of Upper Canada website has a little bit more about the slum of The Ward here. And the photo I used of the slum was taken by Arthur Goss — blogTO has a whole post of his stuff here. If you're a total nerd, you can read the 1907 Royal Commission on the Life Insurance industry, which called out some of Pellatt's sketchy practices, here.

Finally, one of those old stories Sir Henry liked to tell was about a prank pulled on him by the dude who married his niece: Stephen Leacock — a super-world-famous Torontonian humourist writer guy who was a big influence on comedians like Groucho Marx and Jack Benny. He once sent Pellatt a telegram asking him to pick up the distinguished Sir Thomas at the train station. Sir Henry sent a car, and when the train arrived and the crowd cleared, it turned out that Sir Thomas was a tom cat.



A version of this story will appear in
The Toronto Book of the Dead

Coming September 2017 from Dundurn Press
Available for pre-order now

This post is related to dream
23 Sir Henry & The Sleeping Dragon
Sir Henry Pellatt, 1923

Saturday, December 1, 2012

A Ten Minute Video About Toronto's '70s Punk Scene

I seem to be spending my Saturday afternoon digging around into some of the history of Toronto's music scenes — a YouTube rabbit hole that has led me to a bunch of punk in particular. And so I thought I'd quickly share this little excerpt from a documentary about punk from 1976-79. These ten minutes are the bit about what was happening in Toronto during that time, when some of New York's biggest bands (like, say, The Ramones) were coming up north to play their first gigs outside the Big Apple in a scene filled with kickass local bands like The Viletones, Diodes, and Teenage Head.

(Ooh and it looks like there's a new movie about the history of punks in these parts from 1976-78 that just wrapped up filming after six and half years. You can learn more about The Last Pogo Jumps Again here.)

Monday, November 26, 2012

Dream 13 "The Fall of Rob Ford" (Rob Ford, 2012)

Rob Ford dreamed that he walked straight off a cliff.

He was late for a press conference, lost in a park somewhere out by the bluffs. He rushed down one path and then another, frantic, exhausted. It was a sticky summer afternoon. Too hot. Too bright. Suffocating. Below him, the lake flashed dizzying blues and silvers.

He was still a few meters from the edge of the cliff when he realized he was headed towards it. He could see it clearly. But he couldn’t stop himself. He couldn’t quite gather the thought together in his mind: that he needed to veer away. So instead he walked straight at it and then out over the edge, a mayor falling limply through open space.

He landed on the beach with a heavy, sandy thud. It shocked him awake.

He found himself on the floor, beside his bed, safe in Etobicoke. He lay there for a moment catching his breath, his chest heaving, his pajamas soaked with sweat. Then he hauled himself back up under the covers and drifted off to sleep, blessed with happier dreams of football and open roads and spending time with his family at the cottage in July.

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Explore more Toronto Dreams Project postcards here.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Photos of the Humber Arboretum

The Humber Arboretum is way up in the top left-hand corner of the city, along the banks of the Humber River near Finch & Highway 427, just behind the Humber College campus. It's pretty beautiful — and I hadn't been there since I went to nature camp there when I was little kid — so I made a couple of visit earlier this year: one at the end of the summer, one once the leaves had started to change. I took a bunch of photos, which you can check out on Facebook (whether or not you have an account) here.

The Star's Star Editor



Here's Joseph E. Atkinson, the old editor of the Star. He took it over in 1899, a few years after it had been founded by striking printers, and helped it grow into the most popular newspaper in Toronto — despite being a liberal voice in a very conservative city. In fact, it was so liberal that Wikipedia claims it was the first newspaper to be banned in Germany when the Nazis came to power.

The Star has an article all about the paper's early years here.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

J. Cooper Mason & The Great Boer War

I should maybe put a disclaimer on this one: this post contains some disturbing photos and descriptions.

Okay, so this is apparently probably maybe the very first photograph ever taken under fire on the front lines of a war. It's from the year 1900. These men are Canadians, volunteers who have left their day jobs back home to travel halfway around the world to fight for the glory of the British Empire. Now, they're pinned down in a dusty field of dirt and grass on the banks of a river in South Africa. Bullets are whizzing by overhead. The two guys in the foreground are staring at the enemy trenches, just a few hundred meters away. Behind them, you can see the helmet of a third guy (who might actually be Scottish). He's already dead. "The fire at this point was very hot," the photographer later wrote in a letter back home — he was a King Street banker-turned-soldier by the name of J. Cooper Mason — and as he lifted his head to take this photo, a bullet pierced his helmet and knocked the maple leaf badge right off the front of it. Amazingly, he was unhurt. But the day was young.

By the time the Great Boer War started, Europeans had been waging war in South Africa for more than 200 years. The Dutch started it — their settlers arrived in the 1600s, driving the local Khoikhoi people off the land where they had been living since the days when Jesus was a toddler. Then the British Empire showed up in the early 1800s, seizing control of the Dutch colony and waging their own wars — some with neighbouring indigenous nations like the Zulus, some with the descendents of those first Dutch settlers.

You see, a lot of those descendents weren't exactly thrilled with life under British rule. They were called Boers — the word for "farmer" not only in Dutch, but also in their own new language: Afrikaans — and the Boers were pretty pissed. The British had freed all their slaves, weren't helping the Boers fight the Black Africans on their borders, and would. not. shut. up. about Anglicanism. So in the 1830s and '40s a lot of the Boers just got up and left. They called it the Great Trek. They moved north, found land for new farms, and declared their independence. They created two new Boer Republics with kickass names: Transvaal and the Orange Free State.

The British were not amused. They claimed the Boers were an inferior people: there was the whole support for slavery thing... the complete and unapologetic lack of being even a little bit British... or even slightly Anglican... and they weren't giving British immigrants the right to vote. Plus, there were shitloads of diamonds and gold in the Boer Republics. Shitloads. Transvaal was producing a third of all the gold on Earth — it was quickly becoming one of the richest countries in the world.

Lots of the most powerful men in England happened to own mining companies. And weapons factories. And they were used to getting their way.

The first time the British tried to annex Transvaal, the Boers rose up in rebellion and kicked them out. That was the First Boer War. A few thousand soldiers fought in it. A few hundred people were killed.

Boer farmer-soldiers
The second time the British tried to annex Transvaal, it went much much worse. 

Right from the very beginning, in 1899, it was a pretty big deal. Even 13,000 kilometers away in Canada, people were passionately divided over it. Most Irish Catholics and Québecois (led by Henri Bourassa) didn't want their country to be involved in a British war for the British Empire. But most English-speaking Canadians did. Back then, Canada's military was really just a bunch of militias; they'd only fought in one foreign battle ever. To a lot of people, the Great Boer War seemed like the perfect opportunity to prove Canada could do more. (Not to mention that we still might need Britain's help against the Americans some day, so it paid to keep the British happy.) Supporters of the war wanted the Liberal Prime Minister, Sir Wilfred Laurier, to send in troops. He resisted, but in the end there was a compromise: Canadians could volunteer if they wanted to and the British would pick up most of the tab.

That's how J. Cooper Mason ended up in South Africa. He was from one of the most distinguished families in Toronto: his dad was the future Conservative Senator who co-founded the Royal Canadian Military Institute, the Empire Club, and Toronto's first library. They both worked at one of the country's most powerful banks and were members of one of the city's most prestigious militias: the Queen's Own Rifles. When the war started, Mason was one of the loudest voices calling for Laurier to send in troops. And as soon as he could, he headed off to war. He wasn't alone: an entire company of Torontonians joined him on the ship to Africa. There were more than a thousand Canadians in total.

Meanwhile, the war was off to a rocky start. Everywhere the British went, the Boer farmers formed spontaneous volunteer forces they called "commandos". Their rifles were better than the British ones. And so was their artillery. They had better riflemen and better cavalry; they could shoot from the back of a moving horse while the British had to get down off theirs. The Boers blended into the landscape, struck quickly, and then disappeared. They even used smokeless gunpowder so they'd be harder to see. By the end of 1899, they were holding off British forces three times their size. In the middle of December, they won three major victories in one week. The British called it Black Week. They were stunned.

Only a few of the Canadians had seen action by then. For the most part, they'd been kept off the front lines. They had no experience, after all. Instead, they performed drills, practiced their shooting, and helped out as much they could: building defenses, laying down railroads, helping to care for the wounded. When they got bored, they made a game of chasing ostriches. Some soldiers tried to pluck a feather without getting kicked. Others stole giant ostrich eggs to take home as souvenirs.

J. Cooper Mason passed some of his time by playing with a new gadget he'd brought with him from Toronto: a Kodak camera. It was a small little thing that folded up into a pocket-sized leather pouch — one of the very earliest portable cameras. He used it to take photos of troops marching by. Of soldiers returning from their drills or working on the railroad. Of men resting or having a bath. There's even a shot of the ostriches.

When the Canadians finally got their orders to join the fight, Mason took a photo of them breaking camp. And then another as they marched off toward their first battle.



click to enlarge, launch gallery

By then, the British were hoping the war was about to turn around. In the first few weeks of the 1900s, they fired their general, started to rethink their tactics, and sent in a ton of reinforcements. There were now 180,000 British soldiers in South Africa. Some from Australia, some from New Zealand, some from South Africa itself. By the end of the war, there would be half a million of them. It was the biggest army the British had ever sent overseas.

Now the new British commanders — Field Marshal Roberts and Lord Kitchener, both with glorious old-timey moustaches — finally saw their opportunity. Five thousand Boers were stuck out in the open and Kitchener had 15,000 men to chase them with. All he had to do was catch up with them before they got back to their capital. Then he could crush them.

Mason and the rest of the Canadians were called in to join the chase. Kitchener was driving his troops on a forced march across the baking African scrubland — called the "veld" — steadily making up ground. Ahead of them, the Boers were moving much more slowly. Many of them had their wives and children with them now — and in the dry summer heat, there wasn't enough grass for the pack animals to eat. Kitchener's men caught up with them about a week into the chase, at a spot called the Paardeberg Drift, along the steep banks of the Modder River.

The Canadians met the rest of the army there, racing more than 40 kilometers overnight without stopping for sleep. When they reached Paardeberg just before dawn, they each downed a biscuit, some coffee and a shot of rum. Then they crossed the river, pulling themselves along a rope through the strong current, water up to their chests. On the other side, they climbed the steep bank and headed toward the bend in the river where the Boers had set up camp, their wagons circled and trenches dug.

It was a Sunday morning. February 18, 1900. It would become one of the first days to ever be christened "Bloody Sunday."

A little after 10am, the first Canadians grabbed their bayonets and marched across open ground toward the Boer trenches. They had very good aim, the Boers. The first Canadian died with a bullet through his heart. The others rushed for cover behind whatever shrubs and anthills they could find. From there, they tried to work their way forward, making occasional dashes toward the Boer trenches, then diving back under cover if they hadn't been shot. An hour and a half later, they'd managed to get within a few hundred meters of the Boers. But they couldn't get any closer than that. Moving even just a little bit was risky. One captain peered up through his binoculars and got shot through the head. Two stretcher bearers came out to get him — and they were both shot too. For the next few hours, as the scorching hot sun slipped down from the top of the sky, the men were stuck there: lying in the dirt, without food or water or sleep, waiting for their next orders while the Boers gradually picked them off.

J. Cooper Mason was out there on the front lines and he had his camera with him. At about 4 o'clock, he managed to move over to a spot where a few other Canadians and a Scottish Highlander were pressed against the ground. That's where he snapped his photo, had the maple leaf shot off the front of his helmet, and then settled back in to wait.

British troops at Paardeberg
About an hour later, Kitchener's order arrived: Charge!

This was not a great order. "It is not my place to criticize," Mason later wrote in his letters home, "but for any sane person to think a body of men could dash across 700 yards of open ground in face of a concealed enemy, is to me a mystery... At the word charge, away all went with a cheer and then the bullets whistled like the buzzing of thousands of bees... it was a hopeless undertaking... When we started to move the bullets [were] like a perfect hailstorm, and the men fell by dozens all around me."

As the British bugles called out the charge, Mason sprinted forward with his bayonet fixed. He got within about 100 meters of the Boers before they hit him. A bullet struck him in the chest, sliced clean through his lungs and his shoulder blade and came out the other side. He fell to the ground. "I was almost powerless to move," he remembered later, "the blow being quite severe." Around him, dozens of men were wounded and dying. Many were shot a second time, killed where they had fallen. It would go down in history as one of the greatest disasters of the Great Boer War — the bloodiest day for the British and the Canadians. Hundreds were killed. Thousands more wounded. And few got any closer to the Boers than Mason did.

The banker from Toronto lay there bleeding in the dirt for the next two hours, waiting for the sun to set. Once it was dark enough, he crawled back to a spot behind some shrubbery where a few of the other survivors were waiting. They tended to his wound, gave him a swig of whisky and a cigarette. He would spend the next few weeks recovering in a hospital in Cape Town.

But that was only the first day of the Battle of Paardeberg. Much more blood would flow.

The next morning, the Boer commander asked for a ceasefire so he could bury his dead. The British refused. "If you are so uncharitable as to refuse me a truce as requested," he replied, "then you may do as you please. I shall not surrender alive. Bombard as you will."

So they did. For the next week, as the skies opened up and rain poured down on the Boer camp, so did British artillery shells. The farmer-soldiers and their wives and children tried to shield themselves in their muddy trenches, but it was of little use. Hundreds of them died.

Soon, all their animals were dead too. The stench was overwhelming. When they could, the Boers dumped the carcasses in the river to get them out of the way. The bloated corpses were swept downstream toward the British and Canadians, where they got stuck and dammed the river. They eventually had to be blown up with dynamite. Thousands of British and Canadian soldiers who drank the water fell ill with typhoid. Scores of them died too.

Finally, nearly ten days after the Battle of Paardeberg had begun, the Canadians were sent in again. Under cover of night, they snuck forward to dig their own new trenches just a few dozen meters from the Boers. After one last bloody clash, the farmers surrendered. Four thousand of them — a tenth of the entire Boer army  — were captured, including the commander and his wife. They were sent into exile on the black volcanic slopes of Saint Helena — the very same island where Napoleon had been condemned to live out his final years in isolation.

Canadians loot the Boer camp after the battle
One British soldier described the scene in the Boer camp after the battle had been won. "The stench down there," he remembered, "dead mules, dead oxen, dead people. Everything scattered all over the place. The stench was fantastic."

It was the first big victory for the British. And they kept coming after that. Within a few weeks, they had seized the Orange Free State. A few weeks after that, they had Transvaal too. It seemed as if the war was finally over.

All across the British Empire, people took to the streets in celebration. In Toronto, Yonge Street was thronged with crowds. In England, the Conservatives were re-elected in a landslide — their victory had so much to do with the good news from South Africa that they call it "the Khaki Election."

But the war wasn't over. The most bone-chilling horrors were still to come. To fight the occupation, the Boers switched to guerrilla tactics. The British responded with cruelty. They devastated the countryside with a scorched earth campaign: they burned crops, killed livestock, set fire to houses, poisoned wells and salted the earth to make sure that nothing could grow there again. When that wasn't enough to grind the Boers into submission, Roberts and Kitchener came up with a new plan. They would build more than 100 camps all across South Africa: 45 for the Boers, 64 for Black Africans. While the men were rounded up and sent into exile, the women and children would be forced into these makeshift prisons.

The British came up with a new name for them: concentration camps.

They were hell holes. There wasn't enough food or clean water. No fuel for fires or soap to clean with. People were crammed together in tents without beds or mattresses, forced to sleep on the soggy ground. There weren't enough toilets. Or medicine. Or doctors and nurses. Typhoid and measles and pneumonia and dysentery ran rampant. People starved. Photos of what happened in the camps are shockingly and devastatingly familiar to a modern eye. Children turned into skeletons. Seven year olds who look like frail old men. Some, purposely starved in order to punish their parents. Innocents left to die by the most powerful Empire on Earth. 

The British authorities, of course, tried to keep it secret from the public back home. But when an English feminist managed to talk her way into the camps — and then returned home with horrifying stories of what she'd seen — the government was embarrassed into launching an investigation. The future Prime Minister, Lloyd-George, denounced it as "a policy of extermination".

Lizzie van Zyl in the Bloemfontein concentration camp
By the time they finally improved the conditions, it was way too late for way too many people. More than a quarter of the Boers who were sent to the camps died there. A sixth of all the Boers in the world. Nearly 28,000 of them. Almost all of the dead were children under the age of 16. In the camps for Black South Africans, at least another 23,000 people died. Probably more, they say.

The Boers were finally forced to surrender. The Union of South Africa became one of the jewels in the crown of the British Empire. It was a fucked up mess, though, ravaged by war and racism. The British had claimed the moral high ground because of Boer bigotry, but after the British victory the Black South Africans were still horribly oppressed: they weren't allowed to vote, they weren't allowed to run for office, they weren't allowed to own land outside tiny reserves, they weren't even allowed to leave those reserves without a special pass. The foundations for apartheid were laid.

Between all the soldiers and civilians and concentration camp victims, the Great Boer War — which scholars call the South African War these days, with very good reason, since it engulfed so many Black South Africans too — had killed more than 100,000 people. About 270 of them were Canadian.

It was very literally the end of an era: Queen Victoria died during the war, the 1800s turned into the 1900s, and Britain's "imperial century" entered its final days. The next big war, ten years later, would be the First World War, announcing a new century of even more absurd horrors.

J. Cooper Mason and the rest of the Canadian soldiers had left South Africa back before the guerrilla war really got started. They came home to a hero's welcome. There was a parade down King Street with crowds of joyous people and a canyon of buildings draped in bunting and the Union Jack. People waved the British flag above their heads, lifted their bowler hats in celebration, and leaned out their windows cheering through bullhorns. Mason's dad got them to build a brand new monument in honour of those who had fought in the war: it's still there today in the middle of University Avenue at Queen, a towering obelisk topped by a winged angel holding up a golden crowd.

South African War Memorial
At first things went well for Mason after the Great Boer War. He rowed for the Argonauts rowing club, won championships, even got invited to compete at a prestigious rowing regatta in England. And he went back to banking, working at the main branch of the Home Bank on King Street. He kept climbing the corporate ladder and even added another heroic story to his legend: when three armed bank robbers burst into the branch, he fought them off and foiled it, even after they smashed him in the head with the butt of a revolver.

By the time the First World War started, Mason was nearly 40 — he didn't fight, but his family was still involved: his dad was Chief Organizer of the Reserve Militia. There were some other familiar faces, too: Wilfred Laurier and Henri Bourassa led the resistance to conscription in Canada, while over in England, Lord Kitchener was now Secretary of State for War. (He became an icon thanks to the "Lord Kitchener Wants You" recruitment posters that inspired the even-more-famous Uncle Sam version. We named the city of Kitchener after him.) Even Winston Churchill — now Lord of the Admiralty — had been in South Africa as a newspaper reporter: he became famous for making a daring escape from a Boer prison. A lot of the soldiers were the same guys too. Men who survived Paardeberg and Sunnyside and Spion Kop died in places like Ypres and Passchendaele and the Somme.

After the war, Mason's luck finally ran out. The bank that he and his dad had been running was totally corrupt. There were cooked books and fudged numbers and sketchy loans to their some of their best friends from the Queen's Own Rifles — including millions of dollars to Sir Henry Pellatt, the super-rich businessman who built Casa Loma. He was committing allllll kinds of fraud. And he was never going to be able to pay them back. In the end, they had no choice but close the bank. The life savings of tens of thousands of Canadians went up in smoke.

There would be a Royal Commission and a bunch of arrests and new banking regulations to make sure it never happened again. But J. Cooper Mason wouldn't live to see any of it. He died the day before the corruption was uncovered: a Monday afternoon in the summer of 1923. People disagree on the cause: some say it was cancer — that's what his obituary reported the next day. But others say that the man who had survived a bullet through his lungs, another through his helmet, and an armed bank robbery picked up his revolver in his home on St. George and brought his own story to a tragic end.

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J. Cooper Mason
It was actually research for a big Casa Loma post that I'm working on that first tipped me off to J. Cooper Mason. There's a bit of info in the book "Sir Henry Pellatt, the King of Casa Loma". Much of the info about Mason's time in the war comes from the retro-'90s-looking website of a documentary filmmaker, John Goldi: the Canadian Anglo-Boer War Museum. It has lots of photos and excerpts from Mason's letters and his diary here. The speculation about Mason's suicide comes from Wikipedia and Suite101 — his obituary (here) and a couple of other sources say it was cancer.

Interestingish fact: The same sculptor who designed the South African War Memorial on University also designed the Vimy Ridge Memorial after the First World War — the one that Harper just put on the new $20 bill.

There's another modern connection to the Harper government, too: James Buchan, one of the leading British administrators of the South African concentration camps would later go on to become Governor General of Canada. The Harper government's new citizenship guide for new Canadians sings his praises and includes a photo of him in an indigenous headdress. You can learn more in the book Warrior Nation: Rebranding Canada in an Age of Anxiety by Ian McKay and Jamie Swift.

There's a detailed description of the Battle of Paardeberg on the Royal Canadian Regiment website here. And a bit more from the Canadian War Museum here. And a map of it here. There are excerpts from a book about the Canadian role in the wars here. Between the wars, Mason's dad gave a speech to Empire Club calling for a bigger military and rifle practice in schools, among other militia-related things. They've posted it online here. And there's kind of an interesting article here about the celebrations around the Empire after one big victory: the end of the siege of Mafeking. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was there during the siege of Mafeking — he even wrote a non-fiction book called The Great Boer War. So was Winston Churchill's aunt, who smuggled out articles for the newspapers in England. The town was commanded by Robert Baden-Powell, the guy who would go on to start the Boy Scouts. (His wife would run the Girl Guides and get Sir Henry Pellatt's wife to run the Canadian chapter.)

Also, it strikes me as kind of crazy that when Churchill started his first war, the newest killing technology was the Gatling gun — by the time he was done with his last, it was nuclear weapons. He seems to have looked back on the Boer War as a more innocent time: "This kind of war was full of fascinating thrills. It was not like the Great War. Nobody expected to be killed. Here and there in every regiment or battalion half a dozen, a score, at the worst 30 or 40 would pay the forfeit, but to the great mass of those who took part in the little wars of Britain in those vanished light-hearted days, this was only a sporting element in a splendid game."

Canadian troops near Belmont, South Africa — taken by J. Cooper Mason
British troops (I think) marching near Belmont, South Africa — taken by J. Cooper Mason
Canadians sleep before Paardeberg — taken by J. Cooper Mason

Canadian troops cross the Modder River at the Battle of Paardeberg
The Royal Horse Artillery heads into battle at Paardeberg — taken by J. Cooper Mason
Canadian troops return to Toronto — parade at King & Yonge


I've put together a post taking a closer look at this last photo of the parade, with a legend exploring many of the details in it, here.