Tuesday, November 11, 2014

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. The ship had been hit by a torpedo. All the lights on board went black. The wireless had been knocked out, too; there would be no S.O.S. And when the captain ordered the engines reversed, there was no reply; the engine room had been hit, the men inside were already dead or wounded. So the ship continued to surge forward into the waves, filling with water as the prow plunged beneath the surface of the ocean. Within minutes it was clear: the Llandovery Castle was doomed.

The order came to abandon ship. Lifeboats were lowered over the sides and the evacuation began, but it was dangerous work. As the decks pitched forward and the ship lurched through the waves, two of the lifeboats were swamped with water, broken, and swept away. Others had already been destroyed by the explosion. The crew kept at it, though; they were calm, no one panicked. Within a few short minutes, it's thought that every single person who had survived the blast had been ushered into a lifeboat and lowered to the water below.

Mary Agnes McKenzie
Mary Agnes McKenzie was in one of those lifeboats. Her friends called her Nan. She had been born and raised in Toronto. She went to school in St. Jamestown as a young girl — at the Rose Avenue School, which is still there today. She lived in the neighbourhood of Rathnelly, on Macpherson Avenue, near Dupont & Avenue Road. She was still just a teenager when she decided she wanted to become a nurse. She got a job at a hospital here in Toronto and, in the years before the war broke out, got some experience working at the Military Hospital in Halifax. When the war did come, she volunteered for duty. She was originally posted to the Ontario Military Hospital in England, built by our provincial government, and then found herself serving on board the Llandovery Castle. While the ship had been docked in Halifax, she'd hoped for a chance to come home to Toronto for a brief visit with her family. But all leave had been cancelled. She promised her mom she would try again the next time they were back in Canada.

And she wasn't the only nurse from Toronto in that lifeboat. Carola Josephine Douglas had been born in Panama, but grew up with relatives in Toronto after both her parents died. She graduated from Harbord Collegiate before training to become a nurse. When the war broke out, she too volunteered to head overseas — filling out enlistment forms that still assumed all new recruits were "he" and the "man." Soon, she found herself in the thick of the action in Europe, tending to the wounded at one of the most dangerous military hospitals in France. As you might expect, the work she did there took a toll. After more than two years helping to stitch people back together near the front lines, she became a patient herself, recuperating from exhaustion. After that, Douglas was assigned to the Llandovery Castle.

The hospital ship was supposed to provide the nurses and other personnel with something of a rest — a relatively easy assignment for those who had already seen more than their fair share of stressful duty. But now, McKenzie, Douglas and the other nurses found themselves back in danger, lowered over the side of the doomed vessel, along with a few men from the crew, in Lifeboat No. 5.

And Lifeboat No. 5 was stuck. After it hit the water, it still was held by ropes to the side of the sinking ship. As they pitched in the waves, the small boat kept smashing against the hull of the big steamer. One of the men — Sergeant Arthur Knight from London, Ontario — grabbed an axe and tried to cut the lifeboat free. But it was no use; the axe broke. So did the second one. After that, they tried to use the oars to brace themselves, to keep from being crushed. One by one, the oars broke too. Until, finally, mercifully, the ropes snapped and they were free.

The lifeboat drifted away, but it still wasn't out of danger. They realized in horror that they were being drawn back toward the stern of the ship, caught in the suction as the Llandovery Castle sank beneath the waves. They were being dragged into a whirlpool. And there was nothing they could do.

HMHS Llandovery Castle
One of the nurses — Matron Margaret Fraser, daughter of the Lieutenant Governor of Nova Scotia — turned to Sergeant Knight as they drifted toward the swirling vacuum. "Sergeant," she asked, "do you think there is any hope for us?"

He later described those dreadful moments, stranded in a lifeboat with fourteen women who had spent much of the last few years up to their elbows in blood and guts, but whose entire gender was still dismissed by many Canadians as too frail for that kind of work, too weak and emotional to be trusted with an equal say in the world. "Unflinchingly and calmly," he remembered, "as steady and collected as if on parade, without a complaint or a single sign of emotion, our fourteen devoted nursing sisters faced the terrible ordeal of certain death—only a matter of minutes—as our lifeboat neared that mad whirlpool of waters where all human power was helpless... In that whole time I did not hear a complaint or murmur from one of the sisters. There was not a cry for help or any outward evidence of fear."

It took only ten minutes from the time of the explosion to the moment when the last of the Llandovery Castle disappeared beneath the waves. And she took Lifeboat No. 5 with her. Everyone on board was flung into the churning water. The nurses were all wearing life jackets, but most — if not all of them — were probably drowned right away. Sergeant Knight never saw any of them ever again. He was only saved by a lucky explosion — maybe the boilers exploding as the ship sank toward the ocean floor — which propelled him back to the surface. If McKenzie or Douglas or any of the other nurses did survive, they found themselves stranded in the dark waters, clinging to the wreckage as the night's final horrors got underway.

The U-boat wasn't finished yet.

The captain of the submarine had just committed a war crime. It was illegal to attack a hospital ship. The red crosses on the sides of the Llandovery Castle had been brightly lit and easy to see. The Germans hadn't given any warning or tried to board and search the ship first — which would have been within their rights. Instead, they'd simply fired their torpedoes. That was against international law and against the standing orders of the Imperial German Navy. So now, it seems, Captain Patzig was anxious to cover his tracks.

At first, the U-86 submarine seized one of the lifeboats and accused the Canadian crew of harbouring American flight officers or of shipping ammunition. But the crew denied it. And when it became clear they weren't getting anywhere, the Germans let that lifeboat go. As it rowed away to safety, Captain Patzig tried a new approach: the U-boat turned on the other survivors. 

For the next two hours, while those in the water clung to the wreckage and cried out for help, U-86 sailed between them, ramming the lifeboats that were still afloat, firing shells at any that weren't completely destroyed. Then, once all the Canadians had been forced into the water, the machine guns opened fire. They killed everyone they could find. If McKenzie or Douglas or any of the other nurses had managed to survive their initial plunge into the water, they didn't survive those guns. There had been 258 people on board the Llandovery Castle. By the time the night was over, the only survivors were the 24 lucky enough to be on board the one lifeboat Captain Patzig couldn't find. They would spend the next 36 hours alone in the middle of the ocean, until they were finally found.

Later, the captain of a British ship sailed through the wreckage. "[S]uddenly," he remembered, "we began going through corpses.... we were sailing through floating bodies. We were not allowed to stop — we just had to go straight through. It was quite horrific, and my reaction was to vomit over the edge. It was something we could never have imagined... particularly the nurses: seeing these bodies of women and nurses, floating in the ocean, having been there some time. Huge aprons and skirts in billows, which looked almost like sails because they dried in the hot sun."

Nearly a century later, the sinking of the Llandovery Castle is still considered to be one of the greatest atrocities of the First World War. And it immediately began to a play an inflammatory role in the hatred and violence between the Allies and Germany that would keep the world drenched in blood for decades to come. In the days that followed the attack, Toronto's newspapers were filled with cries of outrage. The Daily Star denounced "this latest exhibition of Hun deviltry." The Telegram went with "Hun savagery." Their words were officially echoed by the Canadian government, which decried the "savagery... and the utter blackness and dastardly character of the enemy..." Whether or not any of the nurses had survived long enough to be shot, Allied propaganda posters showed them there in the water as German submariners mowed them down.

Canadian propaganda
For the remaining days of the war, the Llandovery Castle became a rallying cry for Canadian troops. About a month after the sinking of the ship, the Allies began their final major push — The Hundred Days Offensive — which drove the Germans back out of France and finally to their surrender. The Canadians played a leading role. At the Battle of Amiens, they used "Llandovery Castle" as a code word. One brigadier from Moose Jaw told his men "the battle cry... should be 'Llandovery Castle,' and that that cry should be the last to ring in the ears of the Hun as the bayonet was driven home." Some say the outrages of that night in the North Atlantic helped to inspire some Canadian soldiers to commit their own — choosing to kill surrendering German troops rather than take them prisoner.

In the wake of the war, the Allies insisted that the German officers responsible for the sinking of the Llandovery Castle face charges. The case became one of the Leipzig War Crimes Trials, held by the German government to prosecute their own troops. As Captain Patzig fled the country, two of his lieutenants were tried and convicted to four years of hard labour. But they escaped on their way to prison and were later acquitted on the grounds that only their captain was ultimately responsible for their orders.

For many people living in Allied countries, the Leipzig Trials were seen as an example of the Germans being too lenient with their own war criminals. But many Germans saw the trials as yet another example of the unfair peace terms imposed upon them by the Treaty of Versailles. Some Allies had committed war crimes, too, but it was only the Germans who seemed to be forced to face the consequences. Those who stood trial in Leipzig were hailed as patriotic martyrs.

Many historians believe the anger over the peace terms — including the Leipzig Trials — eventually helped to propel Adolph Hitler into power. And when Hitler launched a Second World War, there was a familiar face on his payroll. Captain Patzig had been welcomed back into the German navy. And this time, he was in charge of an entire flotilla, training a new generation of German submariners how to wage war.

The Albertan writer and editor Debbie Marshall has a blog dedicated to the stories of the Canadian nurses killed during the First World War. It's called Finding the 47. She has posts about Nan McKenzie here and here, and about Douglas here and here and here.

McKenzie is still remembered — along with a few other nurses from the Ontario Military Hospital who died in WWI — with a plaque inside Queen's Park. And she's also remembered in a memorial at her grade school, Rose Avenue School, which you can learn a little more about here. The Toronto Star tells her story here. An historian from Rochester tells it here (she trained to become a nurse in Rochester). You can find her page on the Virtual Canadian War Memorial (including a form she filled out, press clippings, etc.) here. And her page the Canadian Great War Project here. Her exact address was 290 Macpherson Ave, which I don't believe exists anymore.

Douglas' photo still hangs in the halls of Harbord Collegiate as part of their war memorial and a memorial to all their former students who died during the war stands outside the school. Her page on the Virtual War Memorial (with some pics, filled out forms, etc.) is here. And the Toronto branch of the Ontario Genealogical Society has posted some information about her and the sinking of the Llandovery Castle as part of the "For King & Country" project here.

Another one of the nurses who died that night had family in Toronto. You can learn more about Mae Bell Sampson thanks to Finding the 47 here. There's a photo of her here. And a great photo of another of the nurses — Mary Jane Fortesceue of Montreal — here.

The Wikipedia page for the HMHS Llandovery Castle is here. Versions of the story are collected by the British Commonwealth Shipping Company Limited here. The Canadian Great War Project tells the story here. And the Canadian government version from 1920, pieced together from the witnesses, is here. If you've got a Toronto Public Library card, I think you'll be able to check out a Toronto Star article about McKenzie and the attack from July 3 1918 here. And from the day before that, just about the attack, here

Canadian soldiers were apparently known for being bad with POWS. According to the English writer, Robert Graves, who served on the front lines: "The troops with the worst reputation for acts of violence against prisoners were the Canadians..." Though he also added, "How far this reputation for atrocities was deserved, and how far it could be ascribed to the overseas habit of bragging and leg-pulling, we could not decide." Some of it is blamed on the reaction to the propagada story of a Canadian solider crucified by German bayonets.

The first propaganda image come via Wikimedia Commons. The photo of Nurse McKenzie via Vicki Masters Profitt's Illuminated History blog. The photo of the Llandovery Castle via the Historia y Arqueologia MarĂ­tima. The photo of U-86 is also via Wikimedia Commons. And the second propaganda poster is also also via Wikimedia Commons.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Sir John Henry Lefroy & Queen Victoria's Coronation

On the first night of The Toronto Dreams Project's UK Tour, I headed straight for the most famous place in London: Westminster. In my pocket, I was carrying a dream for one of the most interesting scientists from the history of Toronto: Sir John Henry Lefroy. I made my way through the hordes of tourists and — in a moment when it seemed like no one was watching — I left the dream here, in the middle of Westminster Bridge. I left it here because this is the spot where Lefroy was standing in the early afternoon of June the 28th, 1838 — at the exact moment when the Imperial State Crown was first placed upon Queen Victoria's head.

Lefroy was still just a teenager back then, a young lieutenant in the Royal Artillery. But it was only a few years later that he began the scientific work that would make him famous. When the British government decided to study the Earth's magnetic field — to figure out why it kept changing — Lefroy was chosen to play an important role in the project. So, by the time he was 25, he found himself living in Canada as the superintendent of "Her Majesty's Magnetical and Meteorological Observatory at Toronto".

The original facility was built on the grounds of what's now the University of Toronto, right next to where Convocation Hall is today. There's a plaque for Lefroy there. And there's a slighter newer version of the observatory that still stands on the lawn outside Hart House. Plus, there's an even more recent version: the building where the Monk Centre is now (on Bloor Street just west of Varsity Stadium).

While he was in Canada, Lefroy also made a famous trek into the Northwest Territories, travelling more than 8,000 kilometers with a team from the Hudson's Bay Company. He took hundreds of measurements along the way, getting even further north and further west than Yellowknife. Thanks to that trip, there's now a mountain in the Rockies named after him. And he became the subject of a Paul Kane painting. It's called Scene in the Northwest: Portrait of John Henry Lefroy, or, sometimes, The Surveyor. They've got it at the AGO. It's the most expensive painting in Canadian history. The Toronto billionaire Ken Thomson (who owned the Globe & Mail, the London Times and all sorts of other stuff) paid more than $5 million for it in 2002. That's more than double the previous record.

Paul Kane's The Surveyor
Lefroy lived in Toronto for more than a decade and left a lasting legacy in our city. While he was here, he teamed up with Sir Sanford Fleming and some other scientists to found the Royal Canadian Institute — it's still the oldest scientific society in Canada; its collection eventually became part of the ROM.

He also married a Torontonian. Emily Mary Robinson was the daughter of Sir John Beverley Robinson: a hero of the War of 1812, a Tory judge, and a hardcore member of the Family Compact who infamously sentenced two of William Lyon Mackenzie's rebels to death. Funny enough, she was also cousins with the Boultons: the family who built the Grange, the house that would eventually become the AGO, where that $5 million portrait now hangs.

Eventually, Lefroy headed back home to London and continued to lead a fascinating life. He teamed up with Florence Nightingale to reform the army, spent years as the Governor of Bermuda, and travelled all the way to the other side of the world to be the Administrator of Tasmania. He spent the rest of his life as of the senior figures of the British Empire — all in the heyday of Queen Victoria's reign.

Which brings me all the way back to that day in 1838, when Lefroy was a teenaged lieutenant standing on Westminster Bridge.

The coronation of the young queen — only a teenager herself back then —  was, of course, a Very Big Deal. London was buzzing. There were special songs written, special medals given, special ribbons designed. Huge crowds gathered. There were military bands and long lines of horses and soldiers. Guns fired a salute at dawn and then again when Victoria left Buckingham Palace in her carriage, part of a lavish procession of royalty and soldiers and ambassadors and officials. Decades later, the Sydney Morning Herald remembered the moment: "As the procession passed on through the streets—where sidewalks, balconies, windows, and the very roofs (where possible) seemed alive with spectators waving scarves and handkerchiefs, and shouting their loyal greetings—the sight was one never to be forgotten by those who witnessed it."

Finally, Victoria arrived at Westminster Abbey, where the coronation would take place. It's a absolutely stunning church even on an ordinary day. I visited the Abbey on my last morning in London; it's spectacular, home to breathtaking history, including the bones of monarchs like Elizabeth I and Henry V, scientists like Darwin and Newton, and writers like Dickens, Chaucer, Tennyson and Kipling. On this day, it was even more beautiful than usual. The floors and walls were draped in cloth of crimson, purple and gold. The most hallowed royal relics were on hand, ready to play their part in the ceremony. And the most important people in the Empire had gathered to watch it all happen.

The Coronation of Queen Victoria
Young Lefroy was supposed to be there, too. His commanding officer had selected him to play a role in the ceremony. He was going watch from a small window high above the throne where Victoria was to be crowned. His job was to wait until the moment when the crown touched her head, and then pass along the signal. He'd even been allowed to visit the Abbey the day before, getting to see it dressed in all the regal splendour of the occasion.

But at the last minute a big, famous military official learned about the plan and chose someone else instead. So, rather than getting to give the signal, Lefroy was now supposed to receive the signal and pass it along to the soldiers at the Tower of London, just around the bend of the Thames, so they could let the crowd there know that their queen had been crowned.

So, when the big moment happened, John Henry Lefroy wasn't perched high above his monarch, in the middle of all the action. Instead, he was outside, as he later remembered: "posted in the centre of... Westminster Bridge, in full uniform, to enjoy the jeers of the populace that came pouring in from Lambeth and the Old Kent Road."


Westminster Abbey

St. Martin in the Fields on Trafalgar Square
where Lefroy was baptised by the Bishop of London

1 Savile Row, formerly the Royal Geographical Society
The Bealtes played their rooftop gig next door

A dream for Lefroy at the old Geographical Society
where he was a member
Swanky Cambridge Terrace, where Lefroy lived
overlooking Regent's Park

Burlington House, home to the Royal Society

A dream for Lefroy outside the Royal Society
where he was a member

The Royal Automoblie Club on Pall Mall
formerly the Ordnance Office

A dream outside the Ordnance Office
which Lefroy used to run

St. George's Hanover Square

A dream at St. George's Hanover Square
where Lefroy married his second wife

The view toward Westminster Bridge

John Henry Lefory's autobiography, where that last quote comes from, is available to read for free at Archive.org here. The details and description of the coronation came from the Sydney Morning Herald via Queen Victoria Online, which you'll find here. And there's more information about the history of Toronto's magnetic observatory on Wikipedia here.

Both paintings come via the Wikimedia Commons.

This post is related to dream
33 The Magnetic History of Toronto
John Henry Lefroy, 1847

This post is related to dream
31 Saving the Canadian Artist
Paul Kane, 1865

Monday, October 20, 2014

Dream 11 "Feeding The Annex" (Dennis Lee, 1974)

One humid night in August, Dennis Lee dreamed that there was a street party in the Annex. People milled about in the middle of the road, chatting and drinking under the giant oaks. There were familiar faces in that crowd: Peg, Steve and Paul; he could see bpNichol’s wild smile and the full moon of Gwendolyn MacEwen’s round cheeks. But the poet was filled with a terrible sense of foreboding. And before he shared it with anyone, it was already too late.

In an instant, all the houses came to life. Old Victorian homes rose up off their foundations in a shower of red brick and sod. They lunged into the street, the ground pitching violently under their weight. People scattered and fled, abandoned glasses shattering on the pavement behind them, but in vain. Everywhere they turned, another black doorway swooped down, twisted wide and toothless, hungry. One by one they disappeared behind slamming doors. Thick, fleshy curtains lapped up pools of blood and red wine. Windowsills chewed on broken glass.

When it was over, and all of the houses had lumbered back into place, the street was quiet and still. So, as a new crowd formed, delighted to find unfinished drinks and half-eaten sandwiches, the poet’s warnings seemed like the ravings of a madman: nothing to fear at all.


Explore more Toronto Dreams Project postcards here.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

UK Tour Photos: Exeter

John Graves Simcoe, the founder of Toronto, was born in Northamptonshire — in the middle of England. But Exeter is where he grew up. The historic city in the West Country was his hometown: it's where he went to school as a boy, where he (might have) watched his brother drown in the river, where his mother would die while Simcoe was off fighting on the British side of the American Revolution, and where he would eventually die, too, having fallen ill on his way to fight Napoleon. So, on Day Nine of the Toronto Dreams Project's UK Tour, I headed to Exeter with a bunch of dreams for Simcoe, and left them in places related to the history of the man who founded Toronto. I've already written a big post about that history here. And now you can check out my photos from the day I spent in Exeter on Facebook — whether or not you have an account — right here:

And, as always, you can follow me on Instagram at @todreamsproject.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Three Dreams in the Heart of the British Empire

Once upon a time, this was the heart of the British Empire. It's a huge building in the middle of Whitehall, the London neighbourhood filled with  government offices. Right next door — on the very edge of this photo — is the Prime Minister's residence on Downing Street. Just a few doors in the other direction: Westminster and Big Ben. Today, they call this building the Foreign & Commonwealth Office. But it used to be known as the Colonial Office. It's in this building that British bureaucrats ruled over the biggest empire the world has ever seen.

And that, of course, included Canada — which means that some of the most important moments in Canadian history happened right here. For instance: in 1929, this is where British judges declared that Canadian women were persons, too. Even if Canadian judges didn't think so.

This summer, when I came to London during The Toronto Dreams Project's UK Tour, I left three dreams outside the building:

One was for William Lyon Mackenzie. Earlier this week, I wrote a post about his mission to London. He spent more than a year living in the city, trying to convince the British government to make Upper Canada a more democratic place. His attempts failed — helping to convince him that an armed rebellion was the only way to change things. He visited the old Colonial Office (an earlier building that stood on this same spot) many times during his year in England. You can read the full story here.

Three decades later, while this building was being built, the famous Canadian engineer Sir Sandford Fleming made his own visit to the Colonial Office. In 1863, he arrived with a petition from the Red River Colony in what would one day become Manitoba. They were hoping the British government would build a railroad to connect them to Upper Canada. But the English refused. The settlement became more and more alienated from the rest of the Canadian colonies. A few years later, it was the site of the famous Red River Resistance led by Louis Riel.

The third was for Macdonald, who dreams of Riel. Our first Prime Minister came here in 1866, while he was in town for the London Conference — the last of the big meetings on the road to Canadian Confederation.


This post is part of The Toronto Dreams Project's UK Tour, exploring the connections between the history of Toronto and the United Kingdom. You can read more here

This post is related to dream
10 The Battle of Montgomery's Tavern
William Lyon Mackenzie, 1837

This post is related to dream
21 Standard Time
Sir Sandford Fleming, 1878

This post is related to dream
35 The Final Campaign
Sir John A. Macdonald, 1891

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

William Lyon Mackenzie's Mission To London

It was 1832. William Lyon Mackenzie was fed up. He'd spent the last decade fighting for democratic reform in Upper Canada. He'd founded a pro-democracy newspaper. Written passionate editorials. Led protests. Organized committees. He'd even run for office and been elected to the provincial Assembly, where he gained a reputation as one of the most radical champions of the Reform cause. This was before he became the first Mayor of Toronto — and long before before his failed revolution — but he was already one of the most polarizing figures in the province. Still, no matter how famous he got, he was blocked at every turn.

Upper Canada was still pretty new back then. The province that would one day become Ontario was only a few decades old. It had been founded in the late 1700s as a safe haven for refugees from the American Revolution. During that bloody war, they'd seen for themselves the horrors committed in the name of democracy. And it was followed closely by the terror of the French Revolution. So, many of the early settlers in Upper Canada had a deep distrust of democratic ideas — what the first Lieutenant Governor, John Graves Simcoe, once called "the tyranny of democracy."

Even now, in the 1830s, Upper Canada was a very conservative place. Most of the power in the province was concentrated in the hands of a few democracy-hating, monarchy-loving Tory families. "The Family Compact," Mackenzie called them. They fought hard to maintain the status quo. Those who argued in favour of democratic reform tended to find themselves in jail or in exile. And if Mackenzie and his Reform allies ever did manage to pass a motion through the elected Assembly, the British Lieutenant Governor was there to veto it.

Sometimes, things even got violent. Years earlier, Mackenzie's home and business (in Toronto, still called York back then, on Front Street at Frederick) had been attacked by an angry Tory mob. His family hid in fear as the young rioters — dressed in a parody of First Nations clothing — trashed the newspaper office, broke the printing press and tossed the type into the lake. Mackenzie sued and used the settlement to set up an even bigger operation. But things still weren't getting much better.

Toronto in the 1830s (King St. at Church)
So Mackenzie came up with a new plan. He had been inspired by American and French writers and thinkers who launched all out war against their own governments, but he wasn't planning on going anywhere near that far himself. While others had assembled armies and wheeled out the guillotine, he was still hoping for a peaceful resolution. He still believed in the British system. If he could appeal directly to the British government — if he could present them with his grievances in person — he was sure they would listen to reason. So Mackenzie decided to pay them a visit. He would go to London himself.

He spent much of 1831 getting ready for his big trip. He travelled all over the province, meeting people, making speeches, gathering support, collecting signatures for petitions. When he arrived in England, he planned on having a mountain of evidence to support him. Meanwhile, he kept up his propaganda campaign against the Tories and the Family Compact, calling them names, interrupting their meetings, demanding change, and generally being a thorn in their side.

The Family Compact struck back. That winter, the Tories in the Assembly voted to kick Mackenzie out of office. It sparked a crisis that lasted for months. A mob of Mackenzie's supporters burst into the Assembly and demanded new elections. The Lieutenant Governor refused. But in the by-election that followed, Mackenzie was re-elected in a landslide. Only one person in his riding voted against him. A victory parade of more than 130 horse-drawn sleighs marched down snowy Yonge Street to the sound of bagpipes, bringing their democratically elected representative back to office.

Five days later, the Tories kicked him out again. There was another by-election. And another landslide victory for the famous Reformer.

Mackenzie went back on the attack, pissing even more Tories off. During a visit to Hamilton, he was beaten by thugs and left bloodied in the street. In Toronto, he was pelted with garbage and burned in effigy. Riots broke out. His newspaper office was attacked again. Mackenzie feared for his life. He was only rescued thanks to Colonel FitzGibbon — a Tory hero of the War of 1812 who would one day lead an army against the man he had just saved.

Mackenzie was so scared, he went into hiding. And he stayed there until spring. Then, as the ice melted, he finally boarded a ship bound for London.

He got off the boat in England at one of the most important moments in modern British history. London was in turmoil. While Mackenzie had been fighting the Tories back home in Canada, Reformers and Radicals in England had been fighting the Tories there, too. Now, it looked like they might finally be getting somewhere. For the first time in more than 20 years, the Tories had lost an election. The reform-minded Whigs were in power. And they were planning on using it: the Great Reform Act would be a landmark in the history of British democracy, doing away with the "rotten boroughs" (out-of-date ridings with tiny populations that gave wealthy Tories a way to buy a bunch of extra seats). But every time the Whigs passed the bill through the House of Commons, the unelected Tories in the House of Lords killed it. The stalemate was plunging the nation into crisis.

Political cartoon about the Reform Bill
At the very moment Mackenzie arrived in London, that crisis was reaching a boiling point. The Whigs were trying to pass the bill again. This time, they demanded the King appoint new peers to the House of Lords to make sure the bill became law. When the King refused, the Whig Prime Minster (Earl Grey, of tea fame) resigned in protest. The Tory leader (the Duke of Wellington, of kicking Napoleon's ass fame) took over as Prime Minister.

The country shut down.

They called it "The Days of May." For about a week it seemed as if anything might happen. As the news spread across the United Kingdom, shops and factories shut down. Political unions mobilized. Huge crowds gathered in protest. There were riots. Westminster was flooded by hundreds of petitions with tens of thousands of signatures. There was an orchestrated run on the banks and people withheld their taxes — for a while it seemed as if the country might go bankrupt. Angry placards and posters lined the streets of London. There were whispers of revolution; as one historian later put it: "the air was charged with talk of pikes and barricades and swords rough-sharpened..."

William Lyon Mackenzie watched it all happen. As the crisis hit London, our future mayor was living just a couple of kilometers from Westminster. He wrote about what he saw in letters published in his newspaper back home in Toronto. He'd seen, he said, the Duke of Wellington, "the hero of Waterloo, pelted with mud and fish heads in the streets of London. Tory peers were hissed, hooted and groaned at as they entered their carriages."

Finally, King William and the Tories backed down. The Whigs returned to power and the bill was brought to a vote. Tory Lords abstained. Mackenzie was there himself that day, watching from the gallery in the House of Lords as the Great Reform Bill was finally passed.

Inspired, Mackenzie set to work trying to win similar reforms for Upper Canada. He spent more than a year living in London with his family, in cramped quarters with little income and plenty of mounting debt. At first, it all seemed to be worth it. Things were going well. As spring gave way to summer, Mackenzie — along with a couple of other Canadian Reformers — began to have a series of meetings with the Colonial Secretary. It was a major coup: those meetings were hard to get; many leading Reformers had tried and failed. Now, a radical Reform politician from Toronto finally had the ear of the man who oversaw the running of the entire British Empire.

Mackenzie was feeling optimistic. The Colonial Secretary, he wrote, struck him as "friendly and conciliatory... I left him with the impression strongly imprinted on my mind that he sincerely desired our happiness as a colony..." Mackenzie even got to meet Earl Grey, and was left positively gushing about the Prime Minister. "Well does Earl Grey merit the high station and distinguished rank to which he has been called," he wrote, "truth and sincerity are stamped on his open, manly, English countenance; intelligence and uprightness are inscribed on all his actions."

Colonial Secretary, Viscout Goderich
The British really did seem to be taking Mackenzie's complaints seriously. While he was living in London, he was invited to share his thoughts in the major newspapers. He published a book. And when he produced his petitions signed by tens of thousands of Upper Canadians, the documents were presented to the House of Commons with the support of the Whig government. They even asked him to submit a written copy of all of his grievances. Mackenzie responded with his usual passion: he stayed up for six straight days and nights, writing furiously, switching from one hand to the other when the first cramped up.

Even more importantly, the British government started making real changes, accepting a bunch of Mackenzie's suggestions. The Colonial Secretary sent a stern letter across the Atlantic to the members of the Family Compact. The Anglican and Catholic bishops were asked to resign their seats in the Assembly to further the separation of church and state. The post office, he told them, should be reformed. There should be an independent judiciary. They needed to stop kicking Mackenzie out of the Assembly. And they should publish the letter, so the people of Upper Canada could see for themselves what the government in London was recommending.

But the Family Compact wasn't about to give up that easily. They sent the letter back, claiming that Mackenzie's complaints were unworthy of "serious attention". One of Toronto's most conservative newspapers, The Courier of Upper Canada, called the letter "an elegant piece of fiddle-faddle, full of clever stupidity and condescending impertinence." The Tories had already kicked Mackenzie out of the Assembly once since he'd left for London. Now, despite the letter, they did it again.

This time they'd gone too far. The Colonial Secretary responded by firing two prominent members of the Family Compact: the Attorney-General and the Solicitor-General. They'd both been leaders of the campaign against Mackenzie. For a few brief weeks, it looked as if the government in Westminster was finally taking Canadian Reformers seriously.

That was in March of 1833. In April, the Colonial Secretary was replaced. And everything changed. In May, Mackenzie got a nasty shock: as he left a meeting at the Colonial Office on Downing Street, he ran into the old Attorney-General. This was the same guy who had just been fired for his attacks on Mackenzie and his opposition to reform. The fired Solicitor-General would soon be joining him. They had come to London all the way from Toronto to defend themselves and undermine Mackenzie. And their plan was working.

Coldbath Fields Riot, 1833
The new Colonial Secretary was much more conservative than the last one. In fact, he would eventually leave the Whig Party to join the Tories. So, as you might expect, he had a very different attitude toward the Tories of the Family Compact. And he wasn't alone: many Whigs were beginning to change their tune. In England after the Great Reform Act, pro-democracy protests had continued to push for even more reform. The Whigs were losing patience. That same month, police brutally cracked down on a protest near Mackenzie's house. The tide was turning. And so, the new Colonial Secretary reinstated the Attorney-General and gave the Solicitor-General a sweet new job in Newfoundland. Just like that, Mackenzie's victory had evaporated. His mission had failed.

"I am disappointed," he wrote. "The prospect before us is indeed dark and gloomy."

He left London, never to return.

Mackenzie had plenty of time to think on the long voyage back home across the Atlantic. His faith in the British system had been deeply shaken. But the Colonial Secretary was far from the only person he'd met in London. He'd also spent plenty of time getting to know the Radicals and Reformers behind the democracy movement in England. He was good friends with Joseph Hume — a Radical Whig MP. And during the crisis over the Great Reform Act, Hume had welcomed him into the very heart of the movement. Mackenzie was taken into the back room of a tailor's shop just a few doors up from Trafalgar Square. There, he met Francis Place — the famous "radical tailor of Charing Cross," one of the leaders of the reform movement. He was the man behind many of the angry posters in London and the organized run on the banks. The back of his shop had been turned into a library filled with revolutionary ideas. (His collection still exists today, hailed as "one of the finest of its kind anywhere in the world.") The shop was ground zero for radical politics in England, where politicians and protesters alike came to discuss the ideas they were fighting for.

Place was much more radical than Mackenzie was — even on Canadian issues. So was Hume. They both believed the Canadian colonies should be independent. And that violence was an acceptable solution. If the Great Reform Act failed, Place was planning on leading a rebellion. He'd sent the government his plans earlier that very same day.

Mackenzie's Rebellion in 1837
As Mackenzie grew more and more frustrated, those ideas were going to make more and more sense to him. He'd gone to England because he believed the British government would listen. But he didn't believe that anymore. And when he got back to Toronto, the troubled continued. The Family Compact opposed democratic reforms at every turn and the British Lieutenant Governors continued to support them — in one election, the Governor even openly campaigned for the Tories.

Mackenzie grew ever more radical. Within a couple of years, he was publishing a letter by Hume in his newspaper, calling for Canadian independence from the "baneful domination of the Mother Country" even if that meant an armed revolution. A few years after that, Mackenzie took the advice. In the winter of 1837, he wrote a "Proclamation to the People of Upper Canada". He called for truly fair elections, meaningful reforms, and maybe most telling of all: "An end forever to the wearisome prayers, supplications, and mockeries attendant upon our connection with the lordlings of the Colonial Office, Downing Street, London." William Lyon Mackenzie was declaring independence.

Two weeks later, he gathered a rebel army on Yonge Street, just north of Toronto, and marched south into the city.

This post is part of The Toronto Dreams Project's UK Tour, exploring the connections between the history of Toronto and the United Kingdom. You can read more here

During the Tour, I left a few dreams for William Lyon Mackenzie at spots around London related to his trip. Like here, at Brunswick Square, where he lived with his family and stayed up all night writing, near where University College is today:

Outside the House of Lords at Westminster, where he came to see the Great Reform Act passed:

Outside the Foreign & Commonwealth Office at Downing Street, which used to be called the Colonial Office and still stands on the same spot as the old Colonial Office, where Mackenzie came to argue in favour of democratic reform in Upper Canada:

At 16 Charing Cross, the address of Francis Place's tailor's shop, where Mackenzie came to meet the famous Radical leader: 


I've written lots more about William Lyon Mackenzie, his rebellion, and the battle for Canadian democracy in a series of posts starting here.

Many of the details in this post come thanks to William Kilbourn's Mackenzie biography: The Firebrand: William Lyon Mackenzie and the Rebellion in Upper Canada. You can buy it here, borrow it from the Toronto Public Library here, or read it on Google Books here. Electric Canada also talks a lot of Mackenzie's mission to London here.

You can read J.R.M. Butler's book, The Passing of the Great Reform Bill here. You can read Mackenzie's "Proclamation to the People of Upper Canada" here. And you can learn more about Upper Canada's relationship with the Colonial Office thanks to the late William R. Wilson's wonderfully helpful "Historical Narratives of Early Canada" here.  Mackenzie's biography in the Dictionary of Canadian Biography is online here. His Wikipedia entry is here.

Somewhat tangentially, something I stumbled across while researching this post: Chris Raible has share some interesting thoughts on the history of Mackenzie's famous red wig here.

Images: Toronto in the 1830s via Wikimedia Commons; political cartoon about the Reform Bill via The Camden Review; Viscout Goderich via Wikimedia Commons; the Coldbath Fields Riot via The Islington Tribune; The Rebellion of 1837 by C.W. Jeffreys via Parks Canada.

This post is related to dream
10 The Battle of Montgomery's Tavern
William Lyon Mackenzie, 1837

Sunday, September 28, 2014

The Toronto Sound

This week in my column for the Canadian Music Hall of Fame, I wrote a bit about The Toronto Sound show. It was a landmark in the history of our city's 1960s music scene. A 14-hour showcase of local bands at Maple Leaf Gardens that attracted big label reps from all over the continent. They played a distinct, raw style of rock & roll that became known as "The Toronto Sound". Some of the best bands in T.O. played the show, including The Ugly Ducklings, The Paupers and The Big Town Boys.

You can check out the full story here.


Photo: The 5 Rising Suns play The Toronto Sound show (via Garage Hangover)