Toronto by Newsreel

Originally published on Torontoist on April 24, 2014.


Newsreel and press photographers, Queen’s Park, 1911. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1244, Item 8012.

Before videographers, there were newsreel photographers. Carting their boxy cameras around, they roved the city, covering the top events of the day, racing to disasters, and hunting for oddball human interest stories that would amuse audiences. In their heyday, services like The March of TimeMovietone News, and Pathé News brought the richness of the world to neighbourhood movie theatres.

Last week, British Pathé announced it had uploaded its entire film collection to its YouTube channel. Shot between 1896 and 1976, the 85,000 clips cover a huge range of material dealing with everything from the World Wars to clubs dedicated to waistcoats. Now that they’re easily accessible, you can count on hours of time being gloriously wasted, especially by history buffs.

Given the vast amount of material needed to fill newsreels each week and our city’s ties to the British Empire, it’s not surprising the collection boasts a few Toronto-centric items. Type “Toronto” into the search field and you’ll find royal visits, salutes to home-grown Nobel Prize winnersparades in old Chinatownentertainment for patients in iron lungs, and beauty parlours for dogs. (Some of the related descriptions are quite amusingly matter-of-fact: footage of Nathan Phillips Square from 1969, for example, is called “two semi-circular office blocks with waterfall in front.”)

Here are just a few of the clips that caught our eye.

The Prince of Wales in Canada (1919)

While this film covers the future King Edward VIII’s cross-Canada visit in August 1919, the last four minutes (starting at the 10:30 mark) highlight his stop in Toronto. The Prince attended the Canadian National Exhibition on August 25 and told a luncheon crowd that he was delighted to visit the city he’d heard such good things about from Canadian soldiers. “It seemed to me that a lot of them came from this great city, and I know no finer soldiers or better friends.” He promised that he would do his best “to be worthy of Canada’s friendship and of Canada’s trust.”

Other stops shown in the clip include Queen’s Park (“the Parliament Buildings”) and the Royal Canadian Yacht Club.

The Super Test (1924)

At first glance, it might seem as if this footage of motorcycles failing to conquer a steep incline is the 1920s equivalent of a “fail” video. But there was good reason for all the fumbling—the cyclists were dealing with slippery conditions on a 70-per-cent grade.

These early motorsport enthusiasts had gathered at the ravine by Bloor and Parliament streets on April 19, 1924, for the Toronto Motorcycle Club’s annual “hill climb.” That day, Canadian motorcycle champion Morris “Steamer” Moffatt avenged his loss of the previous year, powering up the hill in nine seconds flat. “American riders present claim the hill used is unequalled for this purpose,” observed the Globe. “The course was well roped off and the police gave splendid protection to both spectators and riders. Not an accident marred the day.”

We can only imagine the kind of complaints that would be generated if someone tried to recreate the event today.

Hooray—We Can Win Something! (1926)

The caption writer was on the ball when it came to this story about the April 29, 1926, home opener for the Toronto Maple Leafs baseball squad. The game marked the opening of Maple Leaf Stadium, which took only five months to build. Fans witnessed an exciting last-minute comeback by the home team against the Reading Keystones. Down 5-0 going into the bottom of the ninth inning, and just as patrons were starting to leave, the Leafs suddenly tied the game. Victory came in the bottom of the tenth, when Del Capes’s bunt allowed Herman Layne to run into home.

The 1926 Maple Leafs captured the International League title with 109 wins, then defeated the Louisville Colonels in the Junior World Series. The team actually included more future hockey hall of famers (Lionel Conacher and Babe Dye, though the latter was traded soon after opening day) than baseball stars (New York Giants pitching great Carl Hubbell).

Let’s All Be Young for a Few Moments! (1931)

Some things in Toronto never change. Arguments over the waterfront. Debates over another downtown subway line. Upside-down clowns at the Santa Claus Parade.

The 1931 edition of the holiday staple, held on November 14 that year, was loaded with bizarre floats and balloons that seemed poised to attack onlookers. Among the cartoon celebrities that took part in the procession were Felix the Cat and Mickey Mouse. The Star also mentioned the presence of “Woofus the Tiger,” but we have no clue who he was. Blackface radio stars Amos ‘n’ Andy were also represented.

Santa’s ride that year began at Geary and Bartlett, then headed down Hallam, Ossington, Bloor, Queen’s Park, and University, before arriving at Toyland at Eaton’s Queen Street. He was scheduled to greet kids at the store from 2 to 4 that afternoon.

Toronto (1939)

The Miss Toronto beauty contest ran from 1926 until 1992, shortly after city council voted to ban the City Hall portion of the event. The year 1939 marked the third year the contest was sponsored by the Amateur Police Athletics Association, which made it part of its annual Police Games at the CNE grounds. During the late 1930s, “real girls” were encouraged to enter, and all makeup other than lipstick was forbidden.

Nan Morris, who won the title on July 8, 1939, fit the bill. A Star headline described her as neither “jitterbug” nor “glamour girl.” Initially, she claimed she was single, but a front-page story a few days later revealed she had been married to her childhood sweetheart for three years. Even though married women were allowed to participate, Morris assumed public knowledge of her status would hurt her chances.

No scandal ensued. “I wondered how long it would be before you chaps would be catching up with me,” her husband Jack joked to the Star. “As long as you don’t start calling me ‘Mr. Toronto,’ though, I don’t mind.” He admitted that he didn’t know she’d entered the contest but said, “I’m mighty glad she won. Those judges and I both know how to pick them.”

By the way—the man draping Nan Morris with her sash? Mayor Ralph Day.

Ice Hockey (1948)

Given the eternal disappointment Toronto hockey fans have grown accustomed to, it’s refreshing to find footage that proves our team was once a contender. As the 1947-48 NHL season wound down, the Maple Leafs had their eye on both first place in the league and the Stanley Cup: they won both.

The game shown here was played in front of 13,874 fans at Maple Leaf Gardens on February 28, 1948. Sportswriters praised both teams for their wide-open, end-to-end play. The game also featured the unusual sight of Leafs centre Syl Apps, known for being a gentlemanly player who served as Ontario Athletic Commissioner on the side, flattening Chicago Black Hawks defenceman Ralph Nattrass. The Globe and Mail’s Jim Vipond dubbed Apps the “undefeated wrestling champion of the NHL.”

The corniest and most tortured headline—inspired by the play of Black Hawks goalie Emile “The Cat” Francis—came courtesy of the Star: “MUCH ADO-ING ABOUT PUCK WHICH ‘THE CAT’ HAS ‘MOUSED!’”

Additional material from Baseball’s Back in Town by Louis Cauz (Toronto: Controlled Media Corporation, 1977); the April 18, 1924 edition of the Globe; the March 1, 1948 edition of the Globe and Mail; and the August 25, 1919, November 14, 1931, July 10, 1939, July 11, 1939, and March 1, 1948 editions of the Toronto Star.

Dispatching the Police Radio

Originally published on Torontoist on May 30, 2011.


Inspector Charles Greenwood on motorcycle, circa 1932. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1244, Item 1009.

Imagine a Toronto City Council that almost turns down a request for additional funding from the Toronto Police Service and its union during a time of financial restraint. While a pay raise for officers, in our current political climate, doesn’t seem to constitute excessive spending, back in the mid-1930s funding requests for upgraded equipment were seen by some councillors as worthy of a ticket on the gravy train. In that historic instance, it may seem strange that implementing a police request to install a radio dispatch system to improve the force’s reaction to calls was regarded as a waste of taxpayer money.

According to a report prepared by the Board of Police Commissioners in 1935, the city’s police force was ill-equipped to handle rising levels of petty crime and armed robbery. Understaffing stretched the distance each street duty officer covered. Underfunding threatened to lay off 21 new recruits during the summer. The report asked city council for approximately $36,000 to fix 28 aging motorcycles, cover staffing costs, and provide radio-equipped cars so that officers could react faster to incidents.

When the proposal was submitted to city council, it was rejected by penny-pinching councillors who felt the new technology was a waste of money and, like other Torontonians suffering the effects of the Great Depression, the police should make do with what they had or less. Controller Samuel McBride felt that “one man on the street, to my mind, is better than five men in a car,” while Alderman Fred Conboy
noted that, despite the benefits of radio dispatching for efficacy, “I don’t think the police are going to the dogs just because there are a couple of bands of robbers running around.”

To the naysayers, Mayor James Simpson replied that “there are some who would have our Toronto police on foot chasing after high-powered cars employed by criminals. If it were not so tragic it would be laughable to realize that some people think Toronto is still a mud village.” He pointed to a report prepared for the police department that showed savings of $330,000 over 10 years by using a radio dispatch system instead of hiring 21 additional full-time officers. Alderman Robert Leslie had heard positive feedback regarding radio dispatching from friends on the Detroit police force and declared, “If this city is so financially embarrassed that it cannot find the money for this essential factor, then things are in a pretty bad way.”


Cowan Avenue Police Station, September 8, 1932. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 200, Series 372, Subseries 1, Item 1164.

On June 27, 1935, as city council prepared for another vote, the Globe published an editorial supporting police radio and criticizing small-mindedness within City Hall:

The question of police radio cars is not a petty issue of local politics, but a matter of vital concern, and the sooner the people’s representatives in the Board of Control and council approach it from a proper perspective, the sooner will those people feel that the Controllers and Aldermen are more concerned with the safety and protection of their constituents than with their own group allegiances and piffling prejudices.

One of Simpson’s final pleas to opponents echoes recent criticisms of the Ford administration’s voting habits. “Toronto is in a class by itself because of its lack of airport facilities and radio-equipped cruisers,” the mayor noted. “Once Toronto was in the vanguard of advance but now in some very important features of civic administration she is sadly lagging behind.” Police Chief Constable Dennis Draper addressed council with his rationale for funding, which included the high recovery rate of stolen vehicles in Montreal after that city installed a radio dispatch system. Draper’s appearance upset Alderman J.R. Beamish, who felt the chief should shut up and carry on as best as possible. “The head of any department should never get so high that he thinks he can tell the city what to do,” said Beamish.

Leslie submitted three separate motions in favour of police demands. By an 8–7 vote, council refused to consider the motions and deferred them to a special meeting Simpson promised to call. This meeting would deal with police funding and another issue that resonates today: the building of a tunnel link to the new airport at Hanlan’s Point. Deadlock over the issue between city council as a whole (which increasingly supported funding police radio) and the Board of Control (where the majority opposed) threatened to continue for some time.

After a council-wide vote on July 9, 1935 which went 14–5 in favour of police radio, Controller Ralph Day signalled he would switch his vote to favour the proposal so that the Board of Control didn’t obstruct the majority vote. “I do not wish this proposed vote to be construed as a change of heart, but simply as a means of keeping up the friendly feeling that should exist between city council and the Board of Control,” Day stated. A few die-hard opponents, like McBride, remained. “We’re being horn-swoggled by the police department,” he stated. “Radio patrols are a luxury for the police and a lodestone for the people.” Anyone who needed an officer in a hurry would disagree with McBride.

Additional material from the June 15, 1935, and June 27, 1935 editions of the Globe; and the June 25, 1935, June 26, 1935, June 27, 1935, June 28, 1935, and July 9, 1935 editions of the Toronto Star.