Thursday, December 13, 2012

Celebrating The False End of the Great Boer War at Yonge & King in 1901

I recently posted this photo as part of the gallery at the end of my piece about J. Cooper Mason and the Great Boer War (which you can read here), but I wanted to highlight this photo in particular, since I was especially fascinated by it while I was writing that post. It's crammed full of interesting details.

It's the summer of 1901 and we're looking east down King Street (Toronto's earliest main street) from the intersection at Yonge. (You can see what the same view looks like today here.) The event is a parade to celebrate the return of the one of the Canadian units who volunteered to fight in South Africa in support of the British Empire's colonial war there. It seems at the time this photo was taken, as if the war is over and the British have won — although in truth it will take another couple of years filled with guerrilla warfare, a brutal scorched earth campaign and the death of tens of thousands of South Africans in British concentration camps. The Canadians forces, however, will all be home before that part of the war really gets going.

(Some of the details in this photo are a bit hard to see, so you might want to save it to your computer so that you can open it and zoom in more closely.)

Here we go:

01. In the middle-bottom of the photo, you can see the men of 'C' Company marching towards us with their rifles over their shoulders. You can make out a few of their faces and a couple of early 1900s moustaches.

02. The beautiful buildings which lined King Street back in the day are hung with bunting and flags. People in the crowd are waving them too. Almost all of them display the Union Jack or England's St. George's Cross — a reminder that it would be more than another 60 years before we got our own flag, that many people in Toronto still very much saw themselves as members of the British Empire, and that the war these men had just come back from fighting was very much a British one.

I really like the details in the cheering, too:

03. You can see men lifting their bowler hats in celebration.

04. If you look really closely at the building on the far right, you can see people leaning out the windows to shout through old-timey bullhorns.

05. This is probably my favourite detail in the whole photo. Outside that building on the right, on the telephone pole next to the fancy clock, a kid has climbed up (on the pole itself? on some kind of box or something?) to get a better view out over the crowd. Neat moment. Meanwhile, the building itself belongs to the Canadian Pacific Railway. A sign reads "CANADIAN PACIFIC TICKETS" and a glittery "CPR" logo is embedded in the middle of a crest above the door. That railroad, which famously helped to forge the Confederation of our nation, had been built just 20 years earlier. And only ten years after this photo was taken, that building would be torn down and replaced with the much bigger Canadian Pacific Building. (Designed by Darling & Pearson, one of the most important architectural firms in the history of our city, it would be the tallest building not only in Toronto, but in the entire British Empire: a whole 15 storeys high. It's still there now, home to the Shopper's Drugmart on the south-east corner of the intersection.)

06. The Canadian Pacific Railway isn't the only easily recognizable brand represented in the photo: there's also a sign for Holt Renfrew. The fancy Canadian department store started out as a hat shop in Quebec City in the 1830s.

07. You can see some other people who have also climbed up some telephone poles on the left-hand side of the street. One guy in the distance, just above where I've put the number 07, has managed to get up pretty darn high.

08. But some people have managed to find a spot even higher — you can see a few spectators standing on the roof of one of the buildings on the left.

09. And finally, in 1901 just like today, the pigeons of King Street East soared through the air above the crowd.


  1. the link of young and king street is actually for young and king road.

  2. Whoops, thanks for pointing that out. Should be fixed now.

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