What’s in the database right now?

Number of schools: 120
Other organizations: 3
Names on memorials: 47,679
Latest additions:
St. Michael’s College
Newman Club of the University of Toronto

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Every day is Remembrance Day

Every day is Remembrance Day when working with war memorials, but as November 11 rolls around each year, the “For King and Country” team aims for an extra push.

Toronto Branch is pleased to add 3,026 names (from 10 schools) to our database in time for this year’s Lest We Forget observances.

Canada’s “too much geography, not enough history” comes to mind when reining in the nearly 600 Toronto District School Board’s schools crowded under one umbrella after the creation of our megacity on January 1, 1998.

Former smaller Boards (East York, Etobicoke, North York, Scarborough, Toronto, and York) were suddenly one. A lot of geography. A lot of ground to cover! Toronto schools don’t have “too little history,” but we do have the problem of information scattered in many places. The neighourhood focus of our project means we rely on those who know their school geography well.

Schools open, close, get renamed and misplace memorials. On the East York trail, we thank Connie Culbertson who knows her area inside out and has wonderful rapport with current school staff. Connie was involved in the development of the Century School, built and furnished to give today’s students an idea of school life in the olden days. In 1982, Connie compiled a history of R.H. McGregor and dug out many facts we used for our website. She applied her skills to William Burgess and Plains Road (now Diefenbaker) and continues to work away.

On the Scarborough front, thanks to Ken Cox, a former school principal who had often referred to war memorials during Remembrance Day ceremonies. Aware of the fast growth of north Scarborough in the 1950s, Ken headed for the southern schools, deducing that’s where memorials would be. Midland Avenue School (formerly S.S. No. 10 Scarborough and John A Leslie Public School) and Agincourt Continuation School are among his contributions.

If you, or someone you know can lend some neighbourhood knowledge to the For King and Country project, please contact us.

Your Country Needs You… and Your Pals

When war broke out in 1914, Britain’s standing army of about 450,000 was dwarfed by the conscript-heavy armies organizing in Europe. Lord Kitchener, Britain’s new Secretary of State for War, wanted to avoid the political hot potato of conscription, but believed “the last million men” Britain could send into battle would decide success. Manpower was the key.

A widely publicized poster, featuring a stern Kitchener pointing directly at viewers, captioned, “Your Country Needs You” fanned the flames of patriotism, especially after Germany’s Kaiser Wilhelm II reportedly referred to Britain’s “contemptible little army.”

An escape from the grinding poverty and tedium of everyday life; decent food, clothing, and pay (one shilling a day for privates) and the promise of post-war employment for returning veterans, encouraged further enlistment. But more soldiers were needed.

Men like Lord Derby and Sir Henry Rawlinson realized that whole groups might enlist more readily if they could serve with people they knew. Recruiting in Liverpool in 1914, Lord Derby coined the term “Pals.” The idea of Pals’ (or Chums’) battalions caught on. Crowds flocked to recruitment centres. Stockbrokers, artists, footballers, journalists, shop assistants, teachers, Glasgow Tramways workers, Tyneside Irish, and many other groups of friends, neighbours, relatives, and colleagues formed quickly.

These cohesive units would train together, travel together and serve together, fighting side by side with friends, not with strangers. Unforeseen was how many pals would die together.

On the opening day of the Battle of the Somme—July 1, 1916—the British Army suffered its greatest single loss in its history.  The nearly 60,000 casualties overall, of whom more than 19,000 died, included devastated Pals battalions. Some 720 Accrington Pals of East Lancashire who went over the top into No Man’s Land were “mown down like meadow grass” in less than half an hour. They suffered 235 dead and 350 wounded. Leeds Pals lost about 750 of 900. News travelled back to small towns where whole districts drew their blinds and listened to tolling church bells.

“Never such innocence again,” Philip Larkin wrote of the eager men lining up to enlist in 1914. The success of Pals as a recruiting tool came at too high a price in practice. A surviving Pal said, “Two years in the making. Ten minutes in the destroying. That was our history.”

This memorial to the 124th Pals battalion at its first barracks, Jesse Ketchum School, honours the one thousand men commanded by Lt. Col. Vaux Chadwick, recruited in a two-week “whirlwind campaign” from December 27, 1915 until the end of the first week of January, 1916. “Join the Pals” was the cry.

Inoculated and vaccinated at the Armories, trained at Toronto, Camp Niagara, and Camp Borden, they sailed for England aboard the Cameronia in August 1916. In Boulogne, France, by March 11, 1917, and redesignated 124th Pioneers (4th Canadian Division), they served at Arras, Vimy, Hill 70, Ypres, and Passchendaele. Some went as reinforcements to other units. All would face the same grim prospects as the British Pals.

War memorial at Jesse Ketchum School. ©Ontario Genealogical Society, Toronto Branch


Degrassi High and De Grassi Spies

Degrassi” evokes realistic high school drama for fans of the long running Degrassi TV series. There are no schools on Toronto’s Degrassi Street in Riverdale, though nearby Earl Grey school is one of several used as a setting for early episodes. While teaching at Earl Grey, Linda Schuyler, aware that there were no compelling depictions of teen school life, got the idea for the groundbreaking series, still running after more than 30 years.

Long before Degrassi TV, two De Grassi sisters, Charlotte, 15, and Cornelia, 13, starred in a real life drama of 1837 Ontario. Their father, Phillipe, supported the government against William Lyon Mackenzie’s rebels. His young daughters, excellent riders, rode with him one moonlit early December night from their Forks of the Don homestead to Government House in Toronto. Lieutenant-Governor Sir Francis Bond Head, had to know the numbers and strength of the rebels before confronting them.

Cornelia and Charlotte risked their lives to spy on the rebels and report vital information to Bond Head.

At a wheelwright’s shop near Montgomery’s tavern Cornelia pretended to ask the price of a sleigh. The rebels, suspecting her of spying, ordered her to dismount. She rode off at high speed. One musket ball went through her saddle; another grazed her clothing. When Cornelia told Bond Head that the number of rebels had been exaggerated, he revised his strategy. Mackenzie later wrote that one of the loyalists “had employed a woman as a spy (De Grassi, I think he called her) who we had let pass.”

Charlotte relayed messages behind enemy lines, carrying an important dispatch along Kingston Road and returning to the city with the answer. As she headed home, rebels shot at her, wounding her and her pony.

On December 7, Cornelia followed loyalist troops to Yonge Street to observe the cannon and gunfire and report to the chief justice. Homeward bound, she saw that rebels had set fire to the Don Bridge. She raced back to the city to raise the alarm.

The short-lived Rebellion of Upper Canada soon ended. Phillipe De Grassi recorded his family’s contributions in a diary. The exploits of Charlotte (d. 1872) and Cornelia (d. 1885) seen as inspiring examples of courage at the time, were not widely remembered as years passed. The De Grassi property was expropriated in 1968 for recreation and flood control.

Degrassi Street in Riverdale honours either Phillipe or a son, Alfio, a merchant and Mason well known in Toronto in the 1870s.

The De Grassi Family

Phillipe De Grassi (1793-1877) his English wife, Charlotte Hearn, and eight children came to Canada in 1831. Born in Italy, De Grassi served under Napoleon, was taken prisoner by the British, but later obtained a commission in the British army. On their 200 acres in the “Boatbuildery” area of the Don River and a further 200 acres added later, the family suffered setbacks including a devastating fire that left them with just the clothes on their backs. They moved into a shelter built for horses, where De Grassi said one child was “literally born in a stable and laid in a manger.” Phillipe died penniless in Lindsay, Ontario.

De Grassi Family papers are held in the Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library, University of Toronto, and among the Boyd Family papers (Series F) at Trent University Archives, Peterborough.

Print sources include:

Foster, Merna. 100 More Canadian Heroines: Famous and Forgotten Faces. Toronto: Dundurn, 2011.

Sauriol, Charles. Remembering the Don: a Rare Record of Earlier Times within the Don River Valley. Scarborough, Ontario: Consolidated Amethyst Communications, Inc., 1981.

The Macmillan Dictionary of Canadian Biography, by W. Stewart Wallace. Toronto: MacMillan, 1963.

If you have comments or questions about this post or the For King and Country project, we’d love to hear from you. Please visit our contact page.