Thursday, June 30, 2016

Brexit, Eton College & The History of Toronto

The most famous boarding school in the world has just gotten a little bit more famous. Thanks to the shocking result of the Brexit referendum, Eton College has been popping up in the news. The posh boarding school is where two of the architects of the mess spent their teenage years. Prime Minster David Cameron and Boris Johnson, the former Mayor of London, both graduated from Eton in the early 1980s.

So if you want to understand the breathtaking, aristocratic entitlement that led the United Kingdom into self-inflicted disaster, it helps to understand Eton. And in understanding Eton, you can also better understand the history of our own city — because it's not just where Boris and Dave went, it's where the man who founded Toronto went, too.

Eton sits on the banks of the Thames, not far outside London, just across the river from Windsor Castle. It was founded all the way back in the 1400s; King Henry VI started the school as a charity meant to provide free education to the poor.

But oh how things have changed since then. In recent centuries, Eton has made its reputation by catering to the children of the rich and powerful, helping to perpetuate the strict British class system. Yearly tuition can cost as much as the equivalent of $60,000 in Canadian currency. For a long time, the school's official uniform was literally a top hat and tails. (They finally ditched the top hat in the 1960s, but they've kept the tails.) The school is synonymous with the idea of British entitlement: that the children of the country's ruling class should naturally become its next generation of rulers.

Nineteen British Prime Ministers have been students at Eton. Both Prince Harry and Prince William went there, too. So did George Orwell and Aldous Huxley and Percy Shelley and John Maynard Keynes. And if you're counting fictional characters, then so did James Bond and Captain Hook and Lord Grantham from Downton Abbey

Eton College
And so, it's not surprising to find that two of today's most powerful Conservative politicians both went to Eton, too. The outgoing Prime Minster, David Cameron (inept champion of Remain), and the former Mayor of London, Boris Johnson (Leave-supporting buffoon), both graduated from Eton in the early 1980s. They say you can trace the roots of their rivalry all the way back there — and with it, some of the very beginnings of the Brexit disaster.

As a student, Boris was older, more popular and more successful than Cameron — things that mattered even more than usual at such an aristocratic school. And since Johnson did better at Eton — and then again when both young men attended Oxford University — they say it drives him nuts that Cameron has risen to greater heights since then. Boris might be the former Mayor of London, a current Member of Parliament, and a newspaper columnist who got paid more than £250,000 last year (or "chicken feed" as he calls it) for writing one article every week — but that, apparently, isn't enough.

"Yes," Sonia Purnell writes in The Independent, "the fact that Cameron was two years below him at Eton – a terrifically hierarchical school – rankles deeply. As does the fact that it was Boris who shone there, not Cameron. Masters recall Johnson as a remarkable teenager. They do not recall Cameron at all."

According to countless media reports, Boris made it his mission to topple his old friend Dave and take his place as Prime Minster. If that meant joining the Leave campaign... well, that's what he was willing to do — whether or not he actually believed that leaving the European Union was a good idea for Britain.

Meanwhile, some suggest that Cameron's lifelong sense of entitlement — reinforced by his time at Eton — gave him a false sense of his own superiority. Slate describes him as "an establishment man through and through... the sort of person who gets away with too many things and comes to mistake his privilege for innate luck." When given the chance to gamble the future of his country in return for his own personal political gain, he did so. After all, he's been getting his way his entire life. Why would this time be any different? In order to appease the lunatic far-right fringe of his party, Cameron agreed to hold the Brexit referendum, confident that a Leave vote would never actually happen.

Boris and Dave
But when Boris — who is thought to have personally reassured Cameron that he would never support the Leave campaign — betrayed his old friend the Prime Minister, things suddenly became much more complicated. Johnson's support gave legitimacy to the Leave faction, even while it descended into absurd lies and bigoted violence. The racists behind Brexit never would have won, according to The Daily Beast, "without the fig leaf of Boris's charm."

The result: a stunning victory for the Leave campaign, an economy in disarray, bigotry and xenophobia on the rise, the murder of an MP, the end of Cameron's career, and scenes of Boris Johnson being booed the moment he pokes his head outside his front door. The Old Etonians have suddenly become two of the most hated men in the country they were raised to rule.

And in the end, Johnson's plan didn't even work: betrayed, in turn, by one of his own supporters (die-hard-Brexiter Michael Gove), Johnson has been forced out of the race for PM.

But the power of Eton College hasn't just been limited to British politics. Thanks to the Empire, the school's reach has historically extended far beyond England's own borders. In Toronto, you can trace Eton's influence all the way back to the founding of our modern city. More than two hundred years before Boris and Dave, there was John Graves Simcoe.

Simcoe went to Eton in the 1760s. And he too bought into its aristocratic vision for Britain. Years later, when he became the first Lieutenant Governor of Upper Canada, he was determined to make that aristocratic heritage an important part of his new province.

Before he sailed for Canada, Simcoe got in touch with another Eton graduate: the famous scientist Sir Joseph Banks. In his letter, Simcoe asked for any advice Banks might be able to offer, and laid out his vision for his new Upper Canadian capital: the city that would eventually become Toronto.

A strict class system, he insisted, would play a vital role. Simcoe didn't trust the general public; they couldn't be allowed to have real power. As a solider, he'd seen the bloody results of the American Revolution with his own eyes — and more recently, he'd heard the terrifying reports coming out of Paris during the French Revolution. In fact, the Reign of Terror began the very same summer Simcoe founded Toronto. In his experience, when the people gained power, they had a nasty habit of beheading the elites. And so Simcoe was determined that his new city would be free from what he called "tyrannical democracy."

"There are inherent defects in the congressional form of Government," he wrote in his letter to Banks, "the absolute prohibition of any order of nobility is a glaring one. I hope to have a hereditary council with some mark of nobility."

John Graves Simcoe
He would never quite get his wish: Toronto never developed an officially aristocratic system like the one they had back home in England. But Simcoe did make sure that power rested in the hands of a few loyal Tory families. For the first few decades of our city's history, families like the slave-owning Jarvis clan kept all of the best government jobs and appointments for themselves and their friends. The habit would eventually earn Toronto's ruling class a derisive nickname: The Family Compact.

With the backing of their British overlords, the Family Compact dominated the Legislative Assembly, blocked all democratic reform, and cracked down on dissent. Anyone who disagreed with the Tory elite or demanded change quickly found themselves subject to threats and intimidation — sometimes even violence or imprisonment.

The Family Compact had no doubt they were meant to be the natural rulers of the province — a sense of entitlement that would look familiar to anyone who has been following Boris and Dave during the Brexit fiasco.

To help ensure that the power of the Family Compact would continue long into the future, they even founded a Torontonian version of Eton. It's still around today: Upper Canada College. The school's own website describes it as being "modeled after the great public schools of Britain [what we call private schools in Canada], most notably Eton College." UCC's job would much be the same as Eton's job on the other side of the Atlantic: training the sons of the rich and powerful to become the new generation of elites.

And it worked. As Wikipedia points out, "The school has produced six lieutenant governors, four premiers, seven chief justices, and four Mayors of Toronto." There have been plenty of other rich and powerful graduates, too, like Michael Ignatieff and Norm Kelly. In Toronto, the Old Boys of Upper Canada College have played something of a similar role to that of the Old Etonians in England.

But not everyone in Toronto was happy with the Family Compact. There was plenty of resentment against the ruling class in those early years. The opposition gained momentum over the city's first few decades, building into a reform movement led by the radical newspaper publisher and first Mayor of Toronto, William Lyon Mackenzie. He was becoming increasingly frustrated by the lack of democracy in Upper Canada. He made appeal after appeal to the British government, but his complaints fell on deaf ears — which was maybe not entirely surprising: nearly all of the British Prime Ministers during that period were Old Etonians themselves.

William Lyon Mackenzie
In the end, Mackenzie finally gave up on trying to find a peaceful solution; after a disappointing trip to London, he became convinced that revolution was the only way to break the Family Compact's grip on power. In 1837, he gathered an army north of Toronto and marched down toward the city with the aim of overthrowing the government.

Even the street the rebels marched down was a reminder of Eton's influence. Simcoe named the biggest road in Toronto after another one of his Old Etonian friends: Sir George Yonge.

In the end, of course, Mackenzie's rebellion failed. Democratic reform came peacefully a decade later under the name of Responsible Government. The leading champion of the cause was the moderate Robert Baldwin, who had been educated by the leader of the Family Compact. And Baldwin was able to convince the British of its value thanks in part to the support of Lord Durham, yet another Eton graduate. Change didn't come to Canada until the people advocating for it were members of the old boys club themselves.

More than a hundred and fifty years later, you can still see some echoes of that seminal divide in the Toronto politics of today. We saw it on stunning display recently, when Rob Ford was able to frame his mayoral campaign as a campaign against the "elites" by positioning himself as an outsider and purposefully distancing himself from the traditional, Upper Canada College-style Tories. Those who felt ignored by the establishment voted for Ford in droves. Casting a ballot for an apparent outsider seemed like a rare opportunity to give voice to their anger.

Last week, we saw similar emotions lead to similar results in the United Kingdom. The Leave side denounced the experts and vilified the establishment even though the leaders of the Leave campaign were establishment figures themselves. Boris Johnson has made a career out of playing the blond buffoon, trying to seem like a man of the people instead of a millionaire raised in privilege. The Brexiters, much like Ford, managed to convince vast numbers of people that the real cause of their problems was a dastardly combination of expert opinion and immigration. Not, say, the damaging policies those very same Conservative politicians have been hawking for decades: like tax cuts for the rich paid for by service cuts for everyone else. 

Both campaigns were illusions. Rob Ford was a millionaire born into a political family. His policies were the same old Conservative policies that have been hurting the working class for years. His successor, the aptly-named John Tory, is the most establishment-friendly politician you could possibly imagine — and in general his policies are pretty much in line with those Ford was pushing. Even a vote against the establishment led to establishment-friendly policies; they were just served with a side of crack cocaine.
 
And now, six thousand kilometers and an entire ocean away, angry Britons have voted in protest against their own elites, unleashing a wave of bigotry and decimating their nation's economy in the process. They have managed to drive their establishment-friendly leader out of power; Cameron, forced to resign in disgrace, will be remembered as one of the worst Prime Ministers in modern British history. But if all goes to plan, even with Johnson out of the race, there will be yet another establishment-friendly Tory leader moving into 10 Downing Street in just a few months time, ready to pick up right where the last one left off.  

The Old Etonian is dead. Long live the Old Etonian.

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Via Viv Lynch on Flickr





You can learn more about the connection between the histories of Toronto and England with A Torontonian Historical Map of London here. Read more about Simcoe's vision for Toronto here. And more about Mackenzie's failed mission to London here.


There's a whole dramatized documentary about Johnson and Cameron's early years, "When Boris Met Dave," which you can watch on Vimeo here.

The main image of "Toffs and Toughs" via Rare Historical Photos here.  Photo of Boris and Dave via The Sun. Photo of Eton College by me as part of The Toronto Dreams Project's UK Tour, which explored the connections between the history of Toronto and the United Kingdom.

Friday, May 27, 2016

Some Stuff You Should See At Doors Open 2016

This weekend is Doors Open weekend in Toronto. More than a hundred and thirty buildings across the city will be opening their doors to the public over the next two days — including some of the most interesting, beautiful and historic buildings that Toronto has to offer. And since there's no way one person can manage to catch all of the cool stuff without a TARDIS or a DeLorean or a Time-Turner, I thought I'd share some of my own picks for this year's event.

I might be out and about myself this weekend and, if so, I'll be sharing my adventures on Twitter and on Instagram (@TODreamsProject). So you can follow me there!

 
THE CATHEDRAL CHURCH OF ST. JAMES

Not only is the Cathedral Church of St. James one of the most spectacular buildings in Toronto, it's also one of the most important buildings in the entire history of Canada. The story of St. James stretches all the way back to a small wooden church built at what's now the corner of Church & King in the very early 1800s — and over the course of that century, it played a central role in the battle for democracy in Canada. This was the church most our city's leaders attended. The first preacher, John Strachan, was also our city's first Anglican bishop, arch-nemesis of William Lyon Mackenzie and a figurehead of the infamously anti-democratic Family Compact. He's still there today, buried under the chancel. (I wrote the full story for Torontoist a while back; you can check it out here.) To this day, it's still the heart of the Anglican faith in Canada. Even the Queen prays here when she's in town.

The doors to the church will be open from 10 to 5 on Saturday and 12:30 to 4 on Sunday afternoon.


FORT YORK

Fort York is one of the jewels of Toronto. A National Historic Site hidden between the highways and the skyscrapers. The fort has been standing on this spot — the place where the modern city of Toronto started — for more than 200 years. Its story stretches back through one war after another, back through the bloody battle that raged here during the War of 1812, back all the way to the very first day the city of Toronto was founded. It was here, at what was then the mouth of the Garrison Creek, that the first British soldiers showed up to start chopping down trees and building the military base that would guard the mouth of our harbour. Meanwhile, Governor Simcoe and his wife Elizabeth lived in an elaborate tent overlooking the construction from the other side of the creek, exploring the beaches and the forests with their young children, their pet cat and a dog they called Jack Sharp.

The site will be open from 10 to 5 on both Saturday and Sunday, with tours pretty much every hour.


THE HIGH LEVEL WATER PUMPING STATION

Just like the much more famous R.C. Harris Water Treatment Plant out in the east end (which will also be open this weekend), the High Level Water Pumping Station takes Toronto's water infrastructure and transforms it into something beautiful. And the old building also played a central role in one of the most delightful episodes in the history of our city. Back in the 1960s, the residents of the surrounding neighbourhood — Rathnelly — declared independence from the rest of Canada. As the story goes, they wrote a letter to Prime Minister Trudeau, elected a Queen, issued their own passports, and sent an "air farce" of children holding a thousand helium balloons to surround the Pumping Station until their demands were met. To this day, the neighbourhood is known as the Republic of Rathnelly. They've even got their own custom street signs featuring a national crest.

The doors will be open from 10 to 5 on both Saturday and Sunday.


OLD CITY HALL
 
Old City Hall has been keeping time above the intersection of Queen & Bay since the very end of the 1900s. It was built by one of Toronto's most important architects, E.J. Lennox, the same guy who did Casa Loma, the King Edward Hotel, and the west wing of Queen's Park. It's Old City Hall that he gets the most attention for, though. In large part because of his battles with city council. He went waaaaaaaaaaaay overbudget, spending six times as much as he was supposed to. They retaliated by saying he wasn't allowed to carve his name into the building, like he usually did, but he did anyway. And hid his face among the grotesques adorning the entrance. Inside, you'll also find one of the most wonderful stained-glass windows in Toronto.

The site will be open from 10 to 5 on both Saturday and Sunday


OSGOODE HALL

Osgoode Hall has been on the corner of Queen & University, nearly as long as there has been a Queen & University. It was originally built in the 1830s, with lots of additions and subtractions since then (including that iconic, black, wrought-iron fence). The architect was William Warren Baldwin, a doctor and lawyer who was one of the most important pro-democracy figures in Toronto's early history. He's also the same guy who built the original Spadina House, and had Spadina Avenue carved out of the forest. Today, it's still home to the Law Society of Upper Canada and some of Ontario's highest courts.
 
Osgoode Hall is also where an escaped slave, Thornton Blackburn, got a job working as a waiter when he first came to Toronto. He used the money he earned there to launch the city's first horse-drawn cab company, which in turn gave him enough money to help other former slaves get on their feet after coming to Toronto through the Underground Railroad. (I wrote more about him here.)

The site will be open from 10 to 5 on both Saturday and Sunday.
  

Monday, May 2, 2016

Dream 22 "The Star Harvest" (William Peyton Hubbard, 1911)

The alderman dreamed of a night when the people of Toronto climbed up onto their rooftops, up to the highest branches of all the trees, up cathedral spires and skyscrapers. He joined them, too, high up the clock tower of City Hall. From there, you could reach the stars with a butterfly net. One swipe through the sky might bring down two or three at a time. They shone a soft, cold blue and were smooth to the touch, perfect and round. All over the city, they were collected in baskets and pillowcases and brought down to earth. They were taken to the sides of the roads, along sidewalks and ditches and lawns, where they were planted in the dirt by the light of the moon. By the time the sun rose, they had sprouted into tall, slender silver birches. They lined every street in graceful rows. And when night came again, those trees unfurled lush blue flowers. Inside each one was a brand new baby star. And all of Toronto glowed.

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William Peyton Hubbard was Toronto's first Black alderman — and even served as acting mayor on some occasions. The son of a former slave, he got into politics after saving George Brown (Father of Confederation and owner of the Globe newspaper) from drowning in the Don River. In the early days of electricity, Hubbard was a champion of public ownership of power utilities, teaming up with Sir Adam Beck to bring public power to the city of Toronto and the province of Ontario. 

You can read more about Hubbard on Torontoist here. Explore more Toronto Dreams Project postcards here.

Monday, April 11, 2016

Toronto's Depression-Era Beauty Queen Baseball Star

Women have been playing baseball for as long as anyone can remember. And for much of that time, they've been playing despite the men who've tried to keep them off the field. In baseball's early days, women were told they were much too fragile to swing a bat or field a grounder. Even Al Spalding, founder of the National League, said that women were welcome to sit in the stands and cheer for the men — but that was it.

"Neither our wives, our sisters, our daughters, nor our sweethearts may play Base Ball on the field," he declared. "Base Ball is too strenuous for womankind, except as she may take part in the grandstands, with applause for the brilliant play, with waving kerchief to the hero of the three-bagger." As if playing shortstop were somehow more physically demanding than, oh, say, giving birth.

Luckily, many women ignored that poor, Victorian advice. And when you look through the oldest photographs in the Toronto Archives, you'll find plenty of women already there, playing baseball on diamonds all over our city. They were forming their own teams and their own leagues, drawing their own big crowds.

By the time the end of the 1930s rolled around, even Miss Toronto herself was getting in on the action.

In 1937, the winner of the annual beauty pageant was a teenage softball pitcher from the Beaches. Billie Hallam's grandmother convinced her to enter the competition. And so, on a hot Saturday afternoon in July, she raced down to the Exhibition Grounds in her swimsuit, where she would parade before a panel of judges and 20,000 spectators. When Hallam was announced as the winner, the Mayor of Toronto presented her with a sash. She was only 17 years old, but in heels, she was already taller than he was.

That night, as the new Miss Toronto, Hallam was due to appear at a celebratory banquet at the Royal York Hotel. But she had business to take care of first. She rushed straight home from the pageant to change her clothes. From there, a police escort rushed her through the streets to Kew Gardens, where her ball team was playing a big game. She cheered them on from the bench in her evening gown, and then raced back downtown to the banquet.

The next morning, she woke to find the press knocking on her door, eager to interview the city's newest beauty icon. One journalist asked a version of the same question men had been asking for years: should women really play sports? Hallam's answer was pretty much the exact opposite of what Spalding had said decades earlier. "[T]here is nothing like exercise and sport," she told the reporter, "to make a girl a real lady."

The next time she returned to the mound, a crowd of more than 10,000 people was there to see her pitch — the most ever for a game at Kew Gardens. At one point, she even did a photo shoot wearing her uniform. You can find those photos in the Archives, too.

Hallam was far from the last Toronto woman to make her mark in the baseball world. More than 10% of the players in the famous All-American Girls Professional Baseball League — the league from A League of Their Own — were actually Canadian. In real life, the star of the Rockford Peaches wasn't Geena Davis, it was Gladys Davis, an interior designer from Toronto. Today she's in the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame and part of a display in Cooperstown.

Decades later, when the Blue Jays brought Major League Baseball to town, The Toronto Star's Alice Gordon made history as the first woman to cover an MLB beat. And she did it in the face of misogynist discrimination from many men in the game, including some of the Jays' own players. When the team travelled to Texas, the Rangers banned all reporters from the clubhouse just so they wouldn't have to let her in.

We have, of course, come a long way since then. Today, there are countless women writing about the game. This season, Jessica Mendoza is breaking new ground as a broadcaster with ESPN's Sunday Night Baseball. And on the field, players like Mo'ne Davis are making history, too. But we still have a long way to go. We were reminded of that just last week, when Blue Jays manager John Gibbons claimed that a new rule is making the sport less manly. "You know what, maybe we’ll come out wearing dresses tomorrow," he complained. "Maybe that’s what everyone’s looking for."

Well Gibby, Billie Hallam proved it nearly 80 years ago: you can sure as hell wear an evening gown and still be a damn fine ballplayer, too.

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Kevin Plummer has a much more detailed post about Billie Hallam's crowning as Miss Toronto here. Lots of my info comes thanks to him. And from old articles from Toronto Star written by another one of our city's pioneering journalists, Alexandrine Gibb.

The full, misogynist Al Spalding quote can be found in the book "Playing America's Game: Baseball, Latinos and the Color Line", which you can find on Google Books here. And I originally found part of it in another book, "Stolen Bases: Why American Girls Don't Play Baseball" which is also on Google Books here

The Rhino, in Parkdale, has a Miss Toronto mural overlooking the patio, as The Vintage Inn points out here.

Photo of Billie Hallam via the Toronto Archives. 
 

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Why Do We Celebrate Toronto's Birthday On A Day That Isn't Actually Toronto's Birthday?!

On March 6, we celebrated Toronto's 182nd birthday — which is weird, because Toronto isn't 182 years old, and it wasn't founded in March. Our city was founded 203 years ago, in the heat of July. But along the way, we've switched from celebrating the day Toronto was actually founded to the day it was officially incorporated as a "city." The reasons have a lot to do with Victorian whitewashing and there are allll kind of implications. And since it's always driven me nuts, I figured that this year I would mark the occasion with a Twitter rant.

(If you can't see the embedded tweets below, you can read them all on Storify here.)


Monday, March 14, 2016

An Awesome Empire Day Float from 1927


It's Commonwealth Day today, which we used to call Empire Day back when there was still an empire. The holiday started here in Ontario in the late 1800s and then spread across the rest of the colonies. And it was actually the Trudeau government who suggested the current date: the second Monday of March.

Every year, they have a big multi-faith shindig at Westminster Abbey in London; all the best royals show up. Today, the Queen used it as a chance to ask all members of the Commonwealth to welcome those "who feel excluded from all walks of life" — a big change in tone from the oppressive old world-conquering, Catholic-hating, Anglican-or-bust days of the empire, which saw plenty of blood spilled in the streets of Toronto back in the time when we were known as the Belfast of North America.

The best part of Empire Day? The awesome archival photos of old-timey floats. Like the one above: the Britannia float from Toronto's Empire Day parade in 1927.

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Photo via the Toronto Archives.

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

For International Women's Day: Five Fascinating Stories from the History of Toronto

Today is International Women's Day, which we've been celebrating since 1910, back in the days when not only were Canadian women not allowed to vote, our country didn't even consider them to be persons. The event has its own fascinating history, which you can learn more about on Wikipedia here — while my friend Rebekah Hakkenberg shared her own thoughts about the occasion on this day six years ago, and shared some great photos from the history of feminism, too.

I thought I'd mark this year's Women's Day by searching through the archives of this blog, looking for the most interesting stories about women from history of Toronto. It's been a valuable experience — and an important reminder: that I need to always strive to a better job of telling stories that are about people who aren't the old white dudes who have dominated so much of the storytelling about the history of our city.

Below, you'll find five of my favourites. From Elizabeth Simcoe and the founding of our city, to the blood-soaked nurses who saved lives during the First World War, to the death of the notorious anarchist who they called "the most dangerous woman in the world."


Elizabeth Simcoe's 1794 Nightmare — The Story Behind One of Toronto's First Recorded Dreams
Toronto was founded in a troubled time. It was the summer of 1793 when the first British soldiers showed up to clear the forest and make way for our brand new town. Just ten years earlier, some of those same men had been fighting in the American Revolution. Their commander, John Graves Simcoe, was a hero of that bloody war; no stranger to danger and death.... While Simcoe set to work planning his new capital, Elizabeth was charged with the task of bringing aristocratic British culture to this remote outpost tucked between the primordial Canadian forest and the vast waters of Lake Ontario. As the fledgling town began to take shape and the families of other government officials arrived, Elizabeth Simcoe was at the centre of social life in the new settlement... [continue reading this post] 


Two Toronto Nurses & One of the Most Terrible Nights of the First World War
One dark night in the summer of 1918, the HMHS Llandovery Castle was steaming through the waters of the North Atlantic. She was far off the southern tip of Ireland, nearly two hundred kilometers from the nearest land. It was a calm night, with a light breeze and a clear sky. The ship had been built in Glasgow and was named after a castle in Wales, but now she was a Canadian vessel. Since the world had been plunged into the bloodiest war it had ever seen, the steamship had been turned into a floating hospital. She was returning from Halifax, where she had just dropped off hundreds of wounded Canadian soldiers. On board were the ship's crew and her medical personnel — including fourteen nurses. They were just a few of more than two thousand Canadian women who volunteered to serve overseas as "Nursing Sisters," healing wounds and saving lives and comforting those who couldn't be saved. As the ship sliced through the water, big red crosses shone out from either side of the hull, bright beacons in the dark. The trip was almost over. Soon, they'd be in Liverpool.

But then, without warning, the calm of the night was shattered by a terrible explosion... [continue reading this post]


Mary Pickford's Nightmare Honeymoon
It was 1920. Mary Pickford was the most famous woman in the world. She'd been born in Toronto in the late 1800s: on University Avenue — where Sick Kids is now — and made her stage debut as a young girl at the prestigious Princess Theatre on King Street. Her early days here launched a career that took her all the way to Broadway and then to Hollywood where she became one the greatest silent film stars of all-time. She was at the height of her career in those early days of cinema when the movies were redefining what it meant to be famous. Her golden curls became a global icon. One columnist went so far as to call her "the most famous woman who has ever lived".

Now, Pickford had fallen in love with another one of the most famous movie stars ever: Douglas Fairbanks Jr. They were married in a small, private ceremony outside Los Angeles. Their honeymoon would take them to England and to Europe. And it would be unlike anything the world had ever seen... [continue reading this post]


One Last Victory for the Most Dangerous Woman in the World
The Most Dangerous Woman in the World was playing a quiet game of cards. It was a snowy Toronto evening in the winter of 1940, that first terrible winter of the Second World War. She was staying with friends at their home on Vaughan Road, waiting for a meeting to begin. That's when she slumped over in her chair. It was a stroke. One of the greatest orators of the twentieth century couldn't speak a word. 

This wasn't the end most people would have expected for Emma Goldman. For decades now, she'd been the most notorious anarchist on earth. Her ideas made nations tremble: thoughts about freedom and free speech and free love; about feminism and marriage and birth control; about violence and pacifism and war. She'd been thrown out of the United States for those ideas, forced to flee Soviet Russia, driven out of Latvia, Sweden, Germany... [continue reading this post]


Frances Loring and her life-long partner, Florence Wyle, had come to Toronto in the early 1900s. They'd both been born in the United States and shared a studio in Greenwich Village. They were at home in that neighbourhood's bohemian atmosphere, getting to know their artist neighbours like Georgia O'Keeffe and Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney. But their parents didn't approve. One day in 1913, Loring's father shut down the studio and offered to move the pair to Toronto. He would be able to keep an eye on them here — and hoped our city's conservative values might rub off on them. Instead, it was the other way around... [continue reading this post]