The Toronto History Lecture was inaugurated in 2011 in memory of well-known local and family historian Paul McGrath and his love for telling people about Toronto and its past. Toronto Branch assumed responsibility for the lecture series in 2012, ensuring that it will continue as an annual event for years to come. It is free to attend and open to the public.
The 2023 Toronto History Lecture was held on August 8. If you have an interesting Toronto story to tell, please keep us in mind. We will issue a call for proposals for the next Toronto History Lecture in the spring of 2024.
PREVIOUS TORONTO HISTORY LECTURES
The 2023 TORONTO HISTORY LECTURE
(dedicated to the memory of Ron Junkin)
The Tragic Fate of Huron Elliott: A Forgotten Indigenous Worker on Toronto’s Water Tunnel Project
Speaker: Eric Sehr
During the early 1900s, Toronto experienced rapid changes due to industrialization, migration, and the implementation of major infrastructure projects. One of the most significant undertakings of this time was the construction of the Water Supply Tunnel in Toronto’s harbour, which was also the site of a notable archaeological discovery. Huron Elliott, a miner from the Mississaugas of the Credit First Nation, arrived in Toronto in 1907 to work on this project. Tragically, he and three other workers lost their lives just days later. Eric Sehr told us the unique story of Huron Elliott, a rare account of an Indigenous person actively shaping Toronto’s growth and development in the early 20th century.
Eric Sehr is an urban planner and an ardent admirer of Toronto. His interests include maps, old newspapers, and the tales that they hold. For over ten years, he has devoted his time to researching and writing about the history of Toronto, which he shares on his blog, “Toronto Shaped.”
The 2023 Toronto History Lecture was dedicated to the memory of long time Toronto Branch member Ron Junkin, in recognition of his many volunteer contributions to the Branch over 45 years.
The 2022 TORONTO HISTORY LECTURE
(dedicated to the memory of Father Edward Jackman)
The Toronto Circus Riot: A True Tale of Sex, Violence, Corruption and Clowns
Speaker: Adam Bunch
The strangest riot in our city’s history broke out in the summer of 1855. It was sparked by a brawl at a King Street brothel, when some rowdy clowns picked a fight with a battle-hardened crew of firefighters on the most dangerous night of the year. That bizarre encounter would reverberate through the city. The circus performers had made a terrible mistake; those firefighters were members of the Orange Order, the powerful Protestant society that ruled Toronto for more than a century. And they wanted revenge. The circus grounds would soon become the scene of a bloody clash that shook Toronto to its core and laid bare the fault lines that once violently divided our city. Speaker Adam Bunch revealed the characters and context with eye-catching graphics. He’s the author of The Toronto Book of the Dead and The Toronto Book of Love, the host of the Canadiana documentary series, and the creator of the Toronto Dreams Project.
The 2022 Toronto History Lecture was dedicated to the memory of Toronto Branch member Father Edward John Rowell Jackman in recognition of his encouragement and support for our transcribing and publishing efforts—and the activities of many other heritage organizations.
Adam Bunch’s books are available in our Toronto Branch Publications eShop. Click here for more information.
THE 2021 TORONTO HISTORY LECTURE
(dedicated to the memory of Dave Fenwick and John Craig)
Toronto Arts and Crafts Architect Eden Smith (1858-1949) and His Influence upon Canada’s Early Architectural Profession and Domestic Revival
Speaker: Adrian Gamble, PhD
Toronto architect Eden Smith was an influential figure within Canada’s early architectural profession and helped introduce the British Arts and Crafts Movement to urban Canada through his domestic works in High Park, Wychwood Park, the Annex, Riverdale, and The Beaches. Born in Birmingham at the height of the Industrial Revolution, Eden Smith brushed shoulders with the likes of William Morris before emigrating to Canada in the early 1880s. Once established in Toronto, Smith joined several professional and private associations, including the Ontario Association of Architects, the Arts and Crafts Society of Canada, and was a founding member of Arts and Letters Club of Toronto—the latter being home to many of Toronto’s most renowned architects, artists, musicians, and the entirety of the Group of Seven. Over the course of his 30-year career in Toronto, Smith designed hundreds of Arts and Crafts style homes, several churches, three Carnegie Libraries, and the Group of Seven’s Studio Building in Rosedale. Adrian Gamble’s lecture featured not only Smith’s life and work, but the many interesting personal and professional connections through the network of associations of which he was a part.
The 2021 Toronto History Lecture was dedicated to the memory of two former chairs of Toronto Branch OGS, Dave Fenwick and John Craig, with gratitude for their passionate and compassionate leadership.
THE 2019 TORONTO HISTORY LECTURE
Kicking the Cultural Traces:
James McCarroll in Pre-Confederation Toronto
Speaker: Michael Peterman
James McCarroll was an engaging Irish immigrant of many talents and interests, who challenged the prejudices of 19th-century Torontonians while entertaining them with his poetry, his music and his humour. He was ubiquitous on the literary scene and in the popular culture of the time, yet has been largely written out of the historical record because of his outspoken views and political choices.
Mr. Peterman explored the many ways in which this fascinating, inventive and mirthful figure left his mark on the city in the 1850s and 1860s.
THE 2018 TORONTO HISTORY LECTURE
(dedicated to the memory of Bill Britnell)
Battle of the Humber: Canadian Cyclists and Basic Training in Toronto, 1914–1916
Speaker: Ted Glenn
The story of Canadian Cyclists in the Great War is largely unknown. Drafted between 1914 and 1916, these troops spent most of the war digging trenches, patrolling roads, and delivering dispatches. Based on personal diaries, memoirs, and newspaper accounts, the lecture addressed the Cyclists’ early war experience as they learned and applied their unique skill sets for the first time in manoeuvres in and around Toronto, long before their historic contributions to the Hundred Days campaign at the end of the War.
The 2018 Toronto History Lecture was dedicated to the memory of Bill Britnell, an early member of the Ontario Genealogical Society, who left a remarkable legacy by transcribing the fleeting records of old graveyards across the province.
THE 2017 TORONTO HISTORY LECTURE SERIES
(dedicated to the memory of Jack and Jeannette Tyson)
To mark the sesquicentennial of Canada’s Confederation, The Toronto History Lecture was expanded to a three-lecture series for 2017.
Reconstructing a Lost World From a Photograph: Agnes and Terauley, ca 1910
Speaker: Bill Gladstone
Standing in an upper window of a T. Eaton Co. warehouse in Toronto about 1910, photographer William James snapped a marvelous photograph of the northern “Ward” district, showing the Agnes-Terauley intersection (now Bay and Dundas) with the Ontario Legislature along the distant horizon. Buildings visible in this cluttered streetscape include churches, schools, a synagogue, police station, hospital, Yiddish theatre, the city poorhouse, a three-storey apartment block and many private homes, both poor and grand.
Forgetting and Remembering the Lakeshore Psychiatric Hospital Cemetery
Speaker: Gregory Klages
A 125-year-old Etobicoke cemetery is a focal point for rethinking the city’s history, how we have treated marginalized populations, as well as contemporary heritage policies and concerns. The Lakeshore Psychiatric Hospital Cemetery is the final resting place for more than 1,500 persons buried between the 1890s and 1970s, most of them resident patients in a local psychiatric hospital, or children born to patients. Traditionally, psychiatric facilities have been regarded as marginal spaces for much of society, and less than 200 of the Lakeshore burials actually include headstone markers. Since the 1990s, and as public perceptions of mental health institutions have evolved, survivors, former hospital employees, and mental health advocates have worked to re-incorporate the site into community memory.
Yorkville through a House’s Eyes
Speaker: Joyce Munro
Sixty years after the founding of Yorkville, the village was beginning to show its age. Prominent houses along Bloor Street East, at the head of Jarvis Street, were maturing and so were their inhabitants. Joseph Bloor’s house sat vacant, overgrown with vines; his brewery was long gone. Yorkville, “that little offshoot of Toronto,” was no longer little. Joyce Munro presented the story of Yorkville in the 1890s, told through the eyes of one house—Bloorview—a spacious single-family home owned by the Thomas M. Thomson family, which, two decades later, was put to other uses. Photographs of Bloorview as it aged served as the backdrop for discussing changing times in Yorkville.
The 2017 Toronto History Lectures were dedicated to the memory of long-time members of Toronto Branch, Jack and Jeannette (Campbell) Tyson. Jack and Jeannette met at university and were inseparable for close to 50 years. As a team, they made significant contributions to genealogy and family history as committed volunteers on Branch cemetery projects – in particular, the mammoth St. John’s Norway cemetery project, an undertaking which lasted 20 years.
THE 2016 TORONTO HISTORY LECTURE
(dedicated to the memory of Joan Beckley)
The Chinese in Toronto: The way we were…
Speaker: Arlene Chan
The arrival of Chinese and the development of Chinatown in Toronto owe their modest beginnings to the Canadian Pacific Railway. After the completion of the CPR in 1885, a hostile British Columbia sent Chinese immigrants eastwards in search of employment and a more welcoming place. In 1894, the Chinese population in Toronto numbered fifty. Today, half a million make up the second largest visible minority in the Greater Toronto Area. Author Arlene Chan grew up in Toronto’s first Chinatown, located in what was once one of the city’s poorest neighbourhoods, The Ward, where she witnessed first-hand the transformation of the Chinese community into a thriving and integral part of our diverse urban mosaic. Arlene wove historical accounts and photographs together with her family stories to showcase the development of the Chinese community, from the dark years of the head tax and Chinese Immigration Act to today.
The 2016 lecture was dedicated to a great contributor to the community, Joan Beckley, nee Tackaberry. Joan was well known by family historians for her no-nonsense volunteering on behalf of the Ontario Genealogical Society, the Archives of Ontario and others. She also provided 39 years of service to the Girl Guides of Ontario through which she helped literally thousands of girls grow and develop as citizens and leaders.
THE 2015 TORONTO HISTORY LECTURE
(dedicated to the memory of Mary Garrett)
Returned Men: Toronto’s Veterans in the Great War’s Aftermath
Speaker: Jonathan Scotland
During the four-year centenary of the First World War, we commemorate Canada’s part in the conflict—a transformative event for modern Canada. Too often our efforts to look back at the War ignore its consequences, impact and aftermath. For the fifth annual Toronto History Lecture, historian Jonathan Scotland tackled these very themes by looking at how Toronto’s “returned men” tried to reintegrate into civilian life. He revealed how individuals, the city, and the province all played a much bigger role in assisting veterans and their families than previously recognized.
The 2015 Toronto History Lecture was dedicated to the memory of Mary Garrett, who joined the Toronto Branch of the Ontario Genealogical Society in its first year, 1967. Always an active and committed member, Mary was the first editor of our newsletter Toronto Tree, serving from 1968 to 1976.
THE 2014 TORONTO HISTORY LECTURE
(dedicated to the memory of J. Brian Gilchrist)
The Workers’ City: Lives of Toronto’s Working People
Speaker: Craig Heron
The 2014 Toronto History Lecture, titled The Workers’ City: Lives of Toronto’s Working People, offered a rare window on the diversity of working-class experiences in Toronto’s past and highlighted their distinctive place in its history. Generations of working people literally built the city and created the goods and services to sustain a large metropolitan population. Yet their stories are seldom told. Historian Craig Heron explored the opportunities and challenges that members of the city’s working class have faced over the past 150 years, and shared his insights into major changes and common themes during that period, through the lives of eight different Toronto workers.
The 2014 Toronto History Lecture was dedicated to the memory of J. Brian Gilchrist (1956-2014), a proud 4th generation Torontonian with a lifelong interest in family and local history, who became one of the country’s leading authorities in genealogy. Brian was a popular and entertaining speaker, who will be remembered for his dedication, generosity and humour.
THE 2013 TORONTO HISTORY LECTURE
(dedicated to the memory of Sandra Moore)
Mary Mink: The Making of a Myth
Speaker: Guylaine Pétrin
James Mink was a successful Black businessman in Toronto in the 1840s and 1850s. His story is one of the best known tales of Black Torontonians in the 19th century, told and retold many times in newspapers and books. In the 1990s, his story was made into a TV movie, Captive Heart: the James Mink Story, which was broadcast in Canada and the United States. In the screen version of events, Mink arranges for a white man to marry his daughter Mary and then stages a daring rescue when her husband whisks her off to the American South and sells her into slavery. The movie is said to be “based on historical records”, but as Guylaine Pétrin found out through her research, records can lie.
The 2013 Toronto History Lecture was dedicated to the memory of Sandra Moore (1937-2011), who inspired our speaker and many others with her tireless contributions to the pursuit of family history in Toronto. In recent years, Sandra was perhaps best known as the leader of the Branch Places of Worship Committee, coordinating the transcribing and indexing of church registers and records.
THE 2012 TORONTO HISTORY LECTURE
Stories of York’s Sacrifice: Militia Casualties of the War of 1812
Speaker: Janice Nickerson
To commemorate the bicentennial of the War of 1812, the City of Toronto Museum Services created a Book of Remembrance for the men of York who fell during the war and all the casualties of the Battle of York. This was a huge undertaking, as very little was known—not even how many lost their lives. Janice Nickerson’s research on the militia men uncovered so many fascinating stories that she decided to put them together in a book, York’s Sacrifice: Militia Casualties of the War of 1812.
THE 2011 TORONTO HISTORY LECTURE
Rebel Remembered: The Legacy of William Lyon Mackenzie, 150 Years After His Death
Speaker: Chris Raible
In 2010, Toronto’s newly elected mayor ended his inaugural acceptance speech with a reference to his predecessor, Toronto’s first mayor:
“William Lyon Mackenzie was a bit of a rebel. He was a colorful character who was not accepted by the establishment because he fought against privilege and FOR the little guy.”
Mackenzie would have been delighted, not only to be invoked, but so favourably. It was not always so. During his life, and for the century and a half since his death, Mackenzie was a figure of controversy—yet those who idolize him and those who demonize him have misunderstood him.Today Mackenzie is the only 19th-century mayor whose name anyone recognizes. What, other than his name, is worth remembering?
Paul McGrath, the historian who inspired the Toronto History Lecture, came naturally to researching, writing and speaking about Toronto history. After all, he was a 6th-generation Torontonian who loved living within the original Town of York—a stone’s throw from Toronto’s First Post Office, the Bank of Upper Canada and the sites of his Hutchinson and Pearsall ancestral homes. A local and family historian for more than 30 years, Paul was at the time of his sudden death in 2008 both the Chair of the Toronto Branch of the Ontario Genealogical Society and staff genealogist for the TV series Ancestors in the Attic. On TV Paul was a compelling screen presence. At genealogy conferences he was a popular speaker. Yet there was a less glamorous aspect of communication that was equally valued by Paul, who wore hearing aids due to an illness. Not only did he learn American Sign Language, but also Braille so that he could communicate with both deaf and blind communities. He contributed to a section of our Constitution that deals with the rights of the disabled.
Photo credits for 2014 montage, from top left:
1. Canadian Illustrated News, 23 April 1863
2. Press Operators and Typesetters (1898), City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1137, Item 1
3. Eaton’s manufacturing-factories and workrooms-sewing (ca 1912), T. Eaton Co. fonds F 229-308-0-1823, Archives of Ontario
4. Mel Starkman viewing records in the Archives of Ontario’s stacks (ca 1968), Archives of Ontario photographs RG 17-43
From lower left:
5. Construction worker Al Barnett [subway construction] (1952), City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1128, Series 381, File 163, Item 9144-1
6. Nursing student at Toronto General Hospital (1968), Julien LeBourdais fonds C 193-3-0-2013 68132-4, Archives of Ontario
7. Computer room, unidentified bank (1960s), City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1257, Series 1057, Item 90740