1793 - 1834

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Toronto as it appeared in the autumn of 1803
Illustration by Edward Walsh, surgeon, 49th Regiment

The early court records of York Town, later to become Toronto, were destroyed by a flood of water from a broken pipe during the 1930s.[1]  One of the few sources we have as to what they might have contained is a study based on some of those records prior to their destruction by a Toronto magistrate, James Edmund Jones, published in 1924.[2] 

According to Jones, Upper Canada authorities were having problems in compelling their citizens to function as Constables to the extent that they were imprisoning violators:  

  • In 1812, Uriah W. Bennett was found guilty by a jury of contempt of court in "refusing office of Petty Constable" and was fined £5 and costs, and imprisoned till paid.[3] 
  • In 1813, Thomas Cooper escaped being guilty of contempt on a plea that he was under age for a constable, but two others were indicted for neglect and contempt of Court.[4] 
  • In 1815 James McClure, a constable for the town, "begged the Court to be allowed to pay a fine for not serving as constable, he having taken a contract that would interfere."  He was fined £2, but the Magistrates added, "This is not to be taken as a precedent in future."[5]  

 The situation became so desperate that in 1823 the Magistrates directed that every innkeeper throughout Upper Canada be appointed a constable. This regulation remained in force in rural Ontario until 1887.[6]   

In 1826, the first police office was opened in Toronto, with limited office hours of 11 a.m. to 2 p.m., except Sunday, Christmas Day and Good Friday.[7] The number of constables in York called into service ranged from eleven[8] in 1810, twenty[9] in 1823, and down to twelve in 1830.[10]   The 1830 reduction in Toronto’s constabulary might have something to do with the rescinding that year of a daily honorarium of two shillings and six pence given to the men, which had no doubt previously softened the bite of constabulary conscription.[11] 

The number of constables is extraordinary in terms of a constable to population ratio.  If we take the 1830 figure, after its reduction of constables, there is still a highly over-policed ratio of one constable for every 241 inhabitants.  (Toronto’s population stood at 2,900 in 1830.)[12]   In 1823, with York’s population estimated at 1,500, the twenty constables would give a ratio of one for every 75 citizens.[13]  Much later in the mid-nineteenth century, the Toronto Police Board would argue that a ratio of one police officer for every 800 inhabitants was desired for the maintenance of order in Toronto and kept near to that figure in staffing the department.[14]   Today, by comparison, there is approximately one uniformed officer for every 475 Torontonians.[15]

It is difficult to assess why there was such a high ratio of constables to inhabitants in York but it would have had to do with issues other than a high crime rate, the presence of which there is no evidence for.  While there are no precise crime statistics for York itself, in Upper Canada overall between 1790-1835 there were a total of 1,106 criminal sentences handed down in Criminal Assizes, of which more than ten percent were death sentences (138.)[16]  (The population of Upper Canada was 60,000 in 1812.)[17]   But this high rate of capital punishment has more to do with the fact that the death penalty was the punishment for no less than 120 different crimes, then with a high rate of serious crime.[18] (It would be only in 1833 when the death penalty was restricted to twelve offences, and 1841 finally to only murder and treason.[19])   Furthermore, there were no penitentiaries in which to confine convicts for any extended period of time until Kingston opened its doors in 1830.  The statistics therefore, do not suggest a particularly high rate of criminal offenses.  A study by John Beattie at Toronto’s Center of Criminology also confirms this and in addition, finds that there was no perception of a threat from crime either.[20]  Later in this study, we will further explore the issue of crime and policing in the latter part of the nineteenth century.

One has to also bear in mind that the relationship between crime and the police was not as direct as it is today, especially in the non-urbanized Upper Canada.  The police were not ostensibly “crime-fighters.” Constables served various civic functions such as enforcement of produce and meat market regulations, livestock and animal control, tavern licensing, regulation of carters, health and fire safety.  They would have served the surrounding country as well.  Furthermore, they were not trained or full time professionals and as they were conscripted, the authorities, as bureaucracies do whenever they can, perhaps over staffed the strength of the York constabulary.

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[1] Jack  Choules, Archivist, Justice Records Portfolio, Archives of Ontario – statement to writer, Toronto, 1994.

[2] Jones, James Edmund, Pioneer Crimes and Punishments in Toronto and the Home District, Toronto: 1924.

[3] Ibid  p. 152.

[4] Ibid  p 153.      

[5] Ibid  p. 151.

[6] Ibid  p. 169.

[7] Ibid  p. 107.

[8] Ibid  p. 152

[9] Ibid  p. 169

[10] Ibid  p. 153

[11] Jones, p. 153

[12] Law Society of Upper Canada, Chronology, ;

[13] York Population in 1820:  1,240; in 1825: 1,677.  Firth, Edith (ed) The Town of York 1793-1834:  A Further Collection of Documents of Early Toronto, Toronto:  The Champlain Society, 1966.  p. ixxxii

[14] Toronto City Council Minutes 1859, Report of the Board of Police Commissioners, February 1, 1859.

[15] Toronto Police Service, Annual Report 1998, Statistical Report, Table 98, Toronto: 1999.

[16] See Table in:  Oliver, Peter, Terror to Evil-Doers:  Prisons and Punishments in Nineteenth-Century Ontario, Toronto:  University of Toronto Press, 1998.  pp. 14-15.

[17] Ibid  p. xxii.

[18] Jones, pg 1.

[19] Beatie, J.M. Attitudes Towards Crime and Punishment in Upper Canada, 1830-1850, Toronto:  Center of Criminology, University of Toronto, 1977. p. 10

[20] Ibid pp. 37-39

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Peter Vronsky ©2002-2004