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A short and violent history of Toronto's Central Prison

Posted by Chris Bateman / October 20, 2012

toronto central prisonToronto's barbaric Central Prison, a place where inmates were routinely beaten and subjected to cruel and unusual punishments, often for petty crimes, is thankfully long gone. The last part of the original Victorian structure is presently at the centre of a development proposal by a local restaurant chain. If approved, the former chapel of the old jail will be repurposed into a bar and grill.

Ironic really given the building's connection to the Roman Catholic faith and the numerous people locked up just beyond its walls for drunkenness.

Looking back on Central Prison, its practices, and inmates is to take a trip into an arbitrary and brutal time when relatively minor transgressions were punished with shocking savagery. The consequences of breaking the law were never so terrifying in Toronto.

toronto central prisonThe origins of Central Prison can be traced back to the popular mid-1800s notion that prisoners should be put to work while incarcerated. Overcrowding at the Don Jail and several other city institutions led to the creation of this and two other provincial institutions in Kingston and Stratford. A good work ethic and strict rules would surely straighten out society's deviants.

Built in 1871 by its future inmates to plans by official government architect Kivas Tully, the three-storey, 336-cell facility just southwest of King and Strachan included two large workshop areas at either end of its matching wings. Armed ex-police and army prison guards imposed a rigid military style structure within its halls under the stewardship of a former-alcoholic and ex chief of police warden.

A mutually beneficial agreement with the Canada Car Company, an early manufacturer of passenger and freight vehicles for various railway lines in Ontario, Quebec, and British Columbia, part-funded the prison's construction. Railway tracks branched into the prison grounds from today's GO Kitchener line, enabling the finished vehicles to be rolled out and completed at the CCC's own dedicated factory.

An active woolen mill, blacksmiths, furniture shop, kitchen and bakery also produced products for other prisons and for the commercial market. Prison workers also built many of the streets in today's Liberty Village using an on-site brickyard. The income from these projects and sales from the various workshops funded the day-to-day operation of the facility.toronto central prisonAlthough it purported to provide honest rehabilitation, the jail quickly developed a dark reputation as a place of severe beatings, deprivation, and despair. The prison didn't have running water for its first five years - it would take ten years to get electricity. Minor transgressions resulted in whippings, protracted periods in solitary confinement, or "ironings," the practice of shackling men to a wall in a standing position until long after their legs gave way.

According to author Ron Brown in his book Behind Bars: Inside Ontario's Heritage Gaols, "the rule of silence was strictly enforced ... so common were the beatings that the prison was labelled at the time as a 'terror to evil-doers.'"

"Evil-doers" is something of a stretch for the majority of those sentenced to time at Central. Peter Oliver from the Osgoode Society for Canadian Legal History in 'Terror to Evil-doers': Prisons and Punishment in Nineteenth-century Ontario says the majority of the crimes that resulted in a custodial sentence at Central were against property.

36.7 per cent of prisoners were being held for larceny, 15 per cent for vagrancy, and 7.5 per cent for drunkenness over the 40 years the institution was in operation. Oliver also writes that assaults were frequently viewed by the day's society as momentary lapses in judgement, where as property offenses were seen as more likely to be premeditated.toronto central prisonSuccessive wardens tried to ease the level of violence at Central but attitudes towards the rehabilitation of offenders was already beginning to change. In 1911, one of the last heads of the jail, Dr. J.T. Gilmour, was praised for allowing prisoners to work without an armed guard. In 1915, the last inmates were transferred to the Ontario Reformatory in Guelph and the building closed, a failed experiment.

After a short period of disuse, the former Central Prison found new life as a military factory and storage facility where it produced airplane parts. Other factories in the area, including the now-demolished Russell Motorcar Company building, produced materials such as fuses and bomb casings for the war effort.

A later Inglis plant, part of which would include a piece of the prison, produced bren guns for use in the second world war and created Canadian icon Veronica "Ronnie, the Bren Gun Girl" Foster.

At the end of the first world war Central Prison again found itself vacant. It briefly served as a processing centre for new immigrants and was mostly demolished in 1920. A small chapel at its southern end and a paint shop near the rail tracks were all that remained standing. The chapel is currently the subject of a redevelopment proposal by Pegasus Group, the operator of several local restaurant and bar brands.

MORE IMAGES:toronto liberty village aerialAerial view of Liberty Street - Central Prison is in the centre near the toptoronto bombs liberty streetBomb casings on Liberty Streettoronto central prisonSketch of Central Prisontoronto central prisonSoldiers at work in old prisontoronto central prisonA military tire shop within the prisontoronto central prisonView from the east of the rail tracks that once entered the prison yardtoronto central prisonAlternative view of the trackstoronto central prisontoronto central prisontoronto central prisontoronto central prisonDisused warehouse on the old facility.

Images: City of Toronto Archives



Gul Jassad / October 20, 2012 at 04:19 am
Amazing how people want to bring back prisons like these...
Martin Reis / October 20, 2012 at 08:10 am
Fine article. Thank you. Is this the chapel, Chris?
norm / October 20, 2012 at 01:32 pm
Hey Chris, just checking back on the Mercer Reformatory for Women that more or less existed from 1874 to 1971 at Frazer and King St. W. Did the Central Prison exist next to, or back to back, with the Mercer? See TOblog by Agatha Barc, Sept. 25,2010 using same picture as yours for location! I took a few loads of rectangular quartz? stones from the Mercer demolition site in August of 1971 for the garden of my new home near Casa Loma; there was not much left of the main buldings by that time. I don't remember anything about the Central Prison area in the '50s so it must have been long gone.
Chris Bateman / October 20, 2012 at 03:32 pm
@Martin Reis: Yep, sure is, that's a really cool photo.

@norm: The main entrance to Central pointed away from Mercer. You can see the reformatory in the map near the top of the page near the left.
Maude Walters / October 20, 2012 at 06:26 pm
interesting how property was and is so important!
Bruce / October 20, 2012 at 08:18 pm
Great article in an excellent series, thanks for the read and the photos you dug up.
evan / October 21, 2012 at 01:07 am
"Toronto's barbaric Central Prison, a place where inmates were routinely beaten and subjected to cruel and unusual punishments, often for petty crimes, is thankfully long gone."

Uh, the Don.
Rafa replying to a comment from Gul Jassad / October 21, 2012 at 03:20 pm
On the contrary, prisons like this (or worse) are EXACTLY where people who open fire in the Eaton Centre or rape and kill little girls need to go...
Me replying to a comment from Rafa / October 21, 2012 at 05:01 pm
And graffiti "artists". It might teach them some respect.
Gul Jassad replying to a comment from Rafa / October 22, 2012 at 04:50 am
No, they're no-and if you are one of the people (along with Me) asking for these, then society is really and totally fucked as far as having compassion for others in concerned, and both of you need to go back in time to this 'wondrous' era and stay there.
J T CUNNINGHAM / April 24, 2013 at 04:24 am
Chris, please email me, we also have to talk re The Liberty Area.

Blair / June 8, 2014 at 04:04 am
Amazing history--comment--well the kinder gentler way of nicey nicey sure doesn*t work Inmates have no respect or fear about going to jail--just laugh in the face of society as they know jail time comes to an end and they are back on the street once again ceating havoc for some poor vicime
zoe replying to a comment from norm / November 21, 2014 at 10:55 am
@norm - hi norm - i read that you actually saw the demolition site and have some rubble! amazing!

i am doing research right now on the reformatory, and am wondering if you by chance have any photographs from the demolition?

any leads would be greatly appreciated!

norm replying to a comment from zoe / November 21, 2014 at 02:05 pm
Hi Zoe, When I took the stones from the Mercer it was probably just a pile of rubble remaining. I did not take any pictures. Sorry, Norm.
Maura / February 6, 2015 at 10:01 am
I am tracing my family history and found out my great grandfather Thomas Quinn was Treasurer(whatever that means) for the Central Prison sometime in the mid-1800s.I would love to find some more info on him.
Kathryn Wright / February 6, 2015 at 11:25 am
Maura, I am related to you.
Angela / March 22, 2015 at 11:01 pm
I have a photo of my grandmother and great grandfather who are at the prison. My great-grandfather and great-great-grandfather were both guards there. This story does not bode well for them ;) Email me if you are interested...
Maura replying to a comment from Kathryn Wright / September 15, 2015 at 06:43 am
Really? Tell me more----I know that Thomas Quinn and Cecelia Fraser had about 10 children---what do you know about him?
Maura replying to a comment from Kathryn Wright / September 15, 2015 at 06:46 am
Kathryn---please let me know how we are related---
Paul Gilson / November 17, 2015 at 12:22 pm
I also have a great-grandfather who worked in the Central Prison ( John Bryan ) after emigrating to Canada from Dublin County, Ireland in 1890. He was later transferred to the new Guelph Correctional Centre ( Ontario Reformatory ) after the prison closed in 1915. He was employed in the very Irish occupation of gardener as he was on Lord&Lady Gough`s estate in Ireland.

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