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This is what Toronto slums used to look like

Posted by Chris Bateman / September 11, 2013

toronto slumsWhen Dr. Charles Hastings became Toronto's medical officer of health in 1910, the city was rife with disease. Hundreds needlessly died each year of typhoid fever, scarlet fever, and diphtheria, and the infant mortality rate was alarmingly high - Hastings' own daughter died as infant after drinking milk from a typhoid-infected farm.

In the wake of his personal tragedy, the white-haired, moustachioed physician turned his attention to improving Toronto's public health at 52 when others in his situation would be preparing for retirement. Focusing on food safety standards, nutrition, and public housing, Hastings fought hard and won a 1,000% increase in the city's health budget, swelling the team from 70 to around 500 workers during his tenure.

toronto slumsA year after Hastings took office, Toronto's poorest neighbourhood was The Ward, a dense cluster of timber-framed homes on the land now occupied by City Hall, the Superior Court of Justice, and The Hospital for Sick Children.

It was here poor new immigrants from Europe, particularly Austrian, Polish and Russian Jews, sought shelter in overcrowded, ramshackle rooms. Almost a quarter of the inhabitable buildings housed 10 or more people, often in unimaginable squalor: outdoor toilets overflowed with excrement, animals and humans slept side-by-side in damp, windowless basements, and families huddled in filthy backyard shanties.

toronto slumsJust 30 years earlier, St. John's Ward was like much of Toronto: populated by working class Protestants from England, Ireland, or Scotland. Many worked in skilled professions, like shoemaking or tailoring at the neighbouring T. Eaton Co. factory, or owned businesses.

Around the turn of the century the character of The Ward changed significantly. Overcrowding increased as homes were knocked down for civic buildings like Old City Hall and new arrivals were forced in to ever shrinking spaces by discrimination and xenophobia. Hastings studied the area and poor housing conditions in other parts of the city, producing a seminal report on slum conditions.

toronto slumsThe photographs that accompanied his inspection of more than 5,000 dwellings shine a powerful light on poverty in Toronto in the early part of last century. The six men in the picture above, recent Polish immigrants, shared two tiny connected upstairs rooms at 50 Terauley Street, now Bay Street. Hastings' staff estimated the room was suitable for three at most.

A bed typically cost 75 cents to $1.25 per week out of a salary of around $1.75 to $3.50 per day.

toronto slumsIn his report, Hastings called the slums "a menace to public health" and "an offence against public decency." He railed against unscrupulous landlords who refused to make sanitary improvements and preyed on vulnerable new immigrants but didn't pull punches when it came to the behaviour of nuisance tenants.

"They live cheap, work out all day, crowd into the houses at night, bring the mud of the streets into their homes, drink beer, play cards, and sleep, in the clothing worn during the day, in closed rooms," he wrote of a house of European immigrants. "No cleaning ever attempted until brought to court."

In the years that followed more than 1,600 of the worst homes were razed by the city and public health programs were introduced piecemeal until 1929, when Hastings retired aged 70.


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Images: City of Toronto Archives



GeoToronto / September 11, 2013 at 09:15 am
Very good article, thanks blog TO
A few years back I was doing some research for a book and we used a couple of the Archive images in the book.

It was rough for new immigrants back in the early 1900's, when my parents immigrated to Canada in the 50's there life in comparison was luxurious.
Steven / September 11, 2013 at 09:16 am
Humbling pictures.
Cbab / September 11, 2013 at 09:21 am
I realize these images depict a near living hell for the residents, but the images themselves are amazing. Excellent post.
Shelby / September 11, 2013 at 09:28 am
This is a fascinating article, thank-you for sharing! I love the intimacy of the black and white photographs, they truly evoke a connection to us as viewers.

It is very important to be aware, as current residents of Toronto, of our great city's early beginnings, and those who laid the foundations for community housing and healthcare.

It is remarkable how much can, and will change in a century, in terms of market rent and property values.
W. K. Lis / September 11, 2013 at 10:05 am
Compared with people living in the slums of the third world, welfare and support agencies allow people in lowest step in Toronto to live in what would seem to be luxury. TV, heat, water (both hot and cold) coming from taps in their own apartments, shelter, are luxuries in comparison.
X / September 11, 2013 at 10:46 am
That first picture of a broken-down slum in the shadow of the then-new city hall is just startling.

No question life has improved for many Torontonians, yet one can't help but be reminded of today's homeless, sleeping on subway grates in the shadow of Bay Street's wealth, not far from from the very spot this picture was taken.
BM / September 11, 2013 at 10:57 am
Yes. Blame Bay Street. Dumb hard workin' rich folks.
gabe / September 11, 2013 at 11:56 am
great article. thanks for all the hard research. toronto has a fascinating history!
Rob K replying to a comment from BM / September 11, 2013 at 12:23 pm
I agree. However, there is something to be said about the growing divide between the rich and the poor and how this city not only deals with it but what it has become, I don't know if 'less caring' is accurate but something along these lines. This isn't to suggest hard-working people, be they rich or middle class cannot enjoy themselves and what they have earned, but the compassion is certainly lacking these days.
C / September 11, 2013 at 01:01 pm
Wow, what haunting photos. They are arresting and almost otherworldly, but also stark reminders of our city's real past. I love the fifth from the top, in which a woman in the foreground is nursing an infant while her toddler approaches, smiling broadly.
Stephanie / September 11, 2013 at 01:19 pm
Thanks for this post. I'd seen a few of these photos before, but none of the ones showing the worst conditions. It's a good reminder that as much as we have problems now, we've tackled worse before; we can do so again.
BM, Oh replying to a comment from BM / September 11, 2013 at 01:49 pm
Except for nobody said that.
norm / September 11, 2013 at 05:05 pm
Excellent again Chris, There should be a statue of Dr. Hastings (& other great proponents, i.e. R.C.Harris) prominently displayed at City Hall to remind citizens of the people who made a difference to the health of the city. There were still slums in certain downtown areas right up to the '40's & '50's but by the '60's they were mostly gone.
Natasha / September 11, 2013 at 09:09 pm
Wow. Great story. I never knew this was part of the history of Toronto. Like one of the other commentors, my parents came to Canada in the 50s and lived in rooming houses. 1 family per room which I thought was incredibly humbling and I remember it often, to ground me. Compared to the conditions above, the rooming houses look like resorts.
Elizabeth / September 11, 2013 at 09:37 pm
Thanks for bringing these beautiful photos to light.
Arthur / September 11, 2013 at 11:13 pm
These are beautiful and humbling pictures indeed. Thank you for another great history post.

But did anyone spot the ghost on one of the pictures? Freaky.
Rui / September 11, 2013 at 11:18 pm
What is fascinating is that the city hall that rises in the back drop was almost the largest in North America when it was opened in 1899. The political dialogue that must have happened to accomplish that, built on and in the midst of the slums occupied by workers for Eatons. ...and then to read about a Medical officer of Public health who was able to get 100's more public health workers to address these problems.
loop / September 12, 2013 at 07:58 am
Most of us of no idea at all just how lucky we are with our first world problems. That was disturbing - thanks for posting it.
Skye replying to a comment from Arthur / September 12, 2013 at 12:34 pm
I saw that, too. My guess it's actually a long exposure (as was the norm) and the girl in the picture walked into the frame by accident...but who knows?
yzo / September 12, 2013 at 12:38 pm
many workers at the Eaton's Factory lived in the Ward.. the story here:
Jules / October 14, 2013 at 11:04 pm
That was a wonderful article. I had no idea that Toronto was so sadly squalid not so ling ago.

My great grandfather was Charles Hastings, and I've seen a lot of photos of his family, but I didn't realize quite the impact that he had on Toronto.

Just in case you are interested:

Charles Hastings came from a family of farmers. He became a pharmacist and was, with his younger brother, running a drug store on Queen Street for a while. Then he, and his younger brother, Andrew Ore Hastings, decided to become doctors. They both went to the University of Toronto (Charles was in Victoria College). They alternated with each other as to who would run the store and who would attend classes.

When Charles' daughter, Helen (whom they called "Girlie" because she was the only girl in a family of - at that time- 3 boys) died, he was devastated and searched endlessly for a cure for typhoid. I understand that he was partially responsible for bringing the technique of pasteurizing milk to North America.

In 1910, he decided to retire to an apple farm in British Columbia. He was also planning on being a part-time medical consultant.

But those plans were circumvented when he was approached by the city of Toronto for recommendations for a new medical officer of health. He gave them a couple of names, but in the end, he was persuaded to take the job. At this time, he lived in a house on Russell Hill Road, which still stands today.

I am told that when he died, his funeral was huge, almost on par with the state funerals of today.
Thhis design is steller! You most certainly know how to keep a reader entertained.

Between your wit and your videos, I was almost moved to start my own blog (well, almost...HaHa!) Excellent job.
I really loved what you had to say, and more than that, how you
presented it. Too cool!
Carly replying to a comment from Steven / September 19, 2014 at 07:34 pm
Indeed it is. What terrible conditions they lived in!
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