1870 - 1920

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  PART 4

TORONTO POLICE IN 1870 -1920   
Constables as Urban Missionaries 

If the new Toronto City Police were reformed to meet a growing perceived threat from “dangerous classes” within the community, the strategy gradually shifted from being prepared to shoot down rioting mobs to a more systematic regulatory supervision of the working class life in Toronto.  Helen Boritch describes this as the “class control” function of 19th century policing.[1]         

The Toronto Police were seen as a force that could serve as an efficient “instrument in curbing the immorality of society.”[2]  Egged on by 'respectable' opinion, the Toronto Police began to define the moral reform of the poor as its particular vocation. At the same time, the Toronto constable prevented by regulations from living in lower-income neighborhoods and associating with lower class citizens in his off-duty hours, was kept aloof from the lower classes. 


Toronto Bay 1886 -- oil painting by George A. Reid       

Control of all aspects of working class people's lives was the goal set before the police.  To begin with, the force strove to curb the more unruly aspects of popular culture, prohibiting bonfires, restraining weekend revels, banning firecrackers, and curbing the activities of 'mischievous urchins' who sought to soil the crinoline dresses of respectable ladies on national holidays. [3]  Arresting drunks and prosecuting prostitutes became a major focus of Toronto Police activity.                       

Instead of responding to citizens’ complaints of specific offenses, the Toronto Police now more often sought out on their own initiative what they felt were offenses against 'public order.'  Through the offices of the Police Commission, the Toronto Police also had the power to create bylaws they felt necessary for public order.  

      Liquor Arrest on Queen West near Simcoe Street  circa 1917  [Toronto City Hall Clock Tower visible in background.]                  

Together with their responsibilities for liquor license controls and the enforcement of the newly emerging Sabbatarian laws, the Toronto Police began to see themselves more like urban missionaries assisting various other institutions in cleaning up Toronto.  Before the creation of the Humane Society in 1887 and the Children’s Aid Society in 1891, the Toronto Police oversaw animal and child welfare, regulating child support and abuse, for example.[4]  (Although it is entirely Dickensonian that the Humane Society was formed before Children’s Aid.)             

In the later nineteenth century, a small but steady increase of "foreigners" amongst the once exclusively British population once again shifted security concerns on ethnic lines.  Italians, Germans, Poles, Ukrainians, and Chinese were beginning to settle in the city.  When Chinese immigrants began to open laundries, lawyers representing British laundry operators petitioned the Police Commission to license the business.  It was pointed out to the Commission that Chinese laundries were largely increasing to the detriment of the white people engaged in that business. [5]   The next year the Chief reported "the Chinese are invading districts where their presence is considered objectionable by the residents.  I think the location of such laundries be subject to police control."[6]  It was done so the next year: for "improved sanitary conditions, less danger from infection, prevention of gambling, opium smoking, etc," the licensing of laundries was delegated to the Toronto Police in 1902. [7] 

Technology, industrial growth, and advancing public transit systems, continued to further geographically polarize Toronto's citizens by income and class.  Modern transportation gave further rise to the exclusively wealthy neighborhoods like Rosedale and Lawrence Park while industrialization intensified the density of slums like Parkdale and The Ward.   By the close of the century the Toronto Police were directly involved in virtually every corner of low-income communities, from private life to commerce and entertainment.

A series of commercial bylaws and license regulations were introduced by City Council and the Police Commission to be enforced by the Toronto Police. Most of these affected commercial activity of low-income citizens:  cab drivers, street vendors, corner grocers, tradesmen, rag men, junk dealers, laundry operators, etc. All required a license from the police to operate.  Unlike middle-class businesses, which were regulated by the Province, working class enterprises fell under the jurisdiction of the Toronto Police.[8]  As we have seen with the Chinese laundries, each new licensing provision often had a deeper hidden agenda.  Vendors, for example, were prohibited from plying their trade in upper scale neighborhoods or in front of the better theaters, hotels, and restaurants downtown.[9]

As a function of class control, some police responsibilities in low-income communities it could be argued had positive and progressive functions.  In the days before social services, the Toronto Police functioned as a social mega-agency, operating juvenile services, shelters for homeless, enforcing child support payments backed with the power of arrest.  The police ran the ambulances and they acted as the Board of Health.  Police stations at the time were designed with space for the housing of homeless, and virtually no other organization in Toronto dealt with this problem.  On the eve of the Great Depression, in 1925, the Toronto Police would house 16,500 homeless people.[10]  

Family: 152 Spadina Avenue, March 1916  (Toronto Board of Health Item No. 423) 

Despite some of the positive aspects of the police function in the low-income community, the Toronto Police nevertheless, represented middle and upper class property-owning interests.  Perhaps nowhere were the Toronto Police more intrusive than in their attempt to regulate the morality of Torontonians through a series of Sabbath and Public Order bylaws.

Someone once observed that the "criminologist's definition of 'public order crimes' comes perilously close to the historian's description of working class leisure time activity.”  Under public order provisions, the Toronto Police were responsible for the licensing and regulation of dance halls, pool halls, theaters, and later movie houses.  They were responsible for censoring the content of not only theatrical performances and movies, but of all literature in the city ranging from books to posters and advertising.[11]

Perhaps the most intrusive series of bylaws were the Sabbath laws, which even today, remain a source of controversy in Toronto.  The Sabbath laws were introduced at the behest of various citizen committees in the late 19th century, demanding that various recreational and commercial activities be prohibited on Sundays.  The demands of these committees became so shrill that tobogganing in High Park on Sundays was prohibited and even streetcars were not allowed to run on the Sabbath.[12] 

The Toronto Police were forced to spend an inordinate amount of time and energy enforcing Sabbath laws.  Again, there was a lurking hidden agenda behind the Sabbath laws that went the beyond religious issues.  Most workers endured a six-day workweek consisting of ten or twelve-hour shifts, and Sunday was their only day off.  It could be argued that the ancillary intention of the Sabbath laws was to minimize and suppress the movement and congregation of working class citizens in their free time.  Streetcars were prohibited to operate on Sundays, yet no wealthy Torontonian was prohibited from running his private carriage or requiring his chauffeur to work Sundays.  While Torontonians were strictly prohibited from buying and consuming liquor on Sundays, this prohibition did not extend into the private homes and clubs of the wealthy.  As one woman convicted of drunkenness at the time, stated to the magistrate, "The only difference between me and Lady Flaherty in Rosedale is that I don't have a powdered flunkey to carry me up to bed when I get drunk."[13]

When some misguided police constable charged several members of the Toronto Golf Club in 1895, for playing on Sunday, the courts quickly put the matter straight and dismissed the charges. The court ruled, "golf is not a game of ball similar in any sense to the games enumerated in, or intended to be prohibited by the statute," such as boys playing ball in the park.[14]  

Essentially, this kind of intense petty regulatory control would remain the function of the Toronto Police until the 1920s when proactive crime fighting gradually became its primary function.  

Some of the worst of Toronto's slums lay beneath the windows of City Hall.  (The Ward:  Elizabeth Street, 1912.)

Conclusion:  Toronto Police and Crime in the Nineteenth Century

There is little discussion in this website about the relationship between crime and the Toronto Police. That is because there was not much of a relationship.  If we define “crime” as offenses against persons and property such as murder, robbery, rape, and theft, as opposed to “public order” or “morality” offenses such as drunkenness, disorderly behaviour, vagrancy, prostitution and gambling, then crime was of little consequence in Toronto throughout the nineteenth century.  Not only that, but crime rates in Toronto declined throughout most of the century.           

In her analysis of arrest statistics in Toronto, Helen Boritch found that:     

The trend in criminal arrests for nineteenth century Toronto provides further support for the general thesis that the processes of rapid urbanization and industrialization did not produce increases in criminal behaviour or official criminality.  Instead, there is a substantial empirical basis to suggest that crime actually declined throughout this era.[15]      

The decline in crime rates in the nineteenth century American and European cities has been confirmed by numerous studies.[16]   As one study concluded, “The linking of crime, violence and disorder to urban growth must fall into the category of things people simply want to believe for the belief rests on no substantial foundation of fact or systematic analysis.”[17]

From John Beattie’s study of attitudes to crime in Upper Canada in the 1830s with which this essay began to the figures to be quoted below, the threat of traditional crime against persons and property was never a major factor in the evolution of Toronto’s policing policy.  Politics, fear of external enemies and rebellion from within were the driving factors.

A quick glance at statistics of arrests in Toronto in 1850 and in 1860, when the city was in the process of reforming its police, although not a complete picture (because arrests can also reflect police and political policy, reporting patterns, etc, as much actual crime rates) nonetheless suggest the premise that the crime rate was indeed declining.  The population of Toronto in 1850 was approximately 30,000;[18] in 1860 it was 44,500.[19]   

Some of the Toronto arrests were as follows:

                                                             1850[20]                       1860[21]                                                


Male Female Boys




Disorderly Conduct  84  224 32  1169 886 82
Drunkenness  297 64  

Drunk & Disorderly combined

Assault  229 50 18 229 44  
Larceny 60 52 12 230 143 53
Forgery  9     5    
Horse Theft 3     1    
Receiving Stolen Property  1 4   26 20  
Threatening  62 12   123 64  
Burglary and Robbery 2          
Rape  3       2  

One can discern the reformer impetus in the new police and its reorganization in the inflated number of arrests for drunkenness and disorderly conduct.  There is a rise in the rate of larceny but crime rates for offenses such as assault, robbery, and rape decline.  In neither of the two sample years are any homicide arrests recorded.          

Almost the entirety of nineteenth century policing in Toronto unfolded outside the context of traditional criminality.  The role that the Toronto Police play as crime fighters today is a relatively new one.  Although the Toronto Police Service traces a direct lineage administratively to the nineteenth century force, the functions and purposes of the two institutions are radically different.            

The Toronto Police began as a small English style parish watch, which until 1860 was inadequate and corrupt and tightly controlled by local municipal patronage.  By the end of the century it was a complex institution primarily tuned to serve two functions:  to fight rebellion by force in the city streets and later to systematically regulate potentially rebellious classes of inhabitants.  Fighting rebellion, overall, was the operative function, not preventing crime and apprehending criminals.  What distinguishes the Toronto Police of that period is its inherent inclination to the moderation in its use of force, both personal and collective by its constables—an inclination incorporated in its standing orders and demonstrated by its behaviour in the second half of the century.

While the Toronto Police served also as a crime fighting force, with all the accoutrements of that function—handcuffs, detectives, identification photography, holding cells, etc., its crime fighting function was contained in its general purpose of maintaining peace and protecting the property of its patrons.  Traditional crime itself, did not determine the primary evolution of the police until well into the twentieth century.           

Although the Toronto constables were indeed “formidable engines of oppression” in the hands of the Toronto City Council during the first twenty years, it was nonetheless, the same body that eventually carried out the reform of the police, albeit with some nagging from the Province.  Those reforms of 1857-59 have given us the current regulatory system under which policing functions in Ontario today. 



[1] Boritch, Helen, The Making of Toronto the Good:  The Organization of Policing and Production of Arrests, 1859 – 1959, unpublished doctoral thesis, University of Toronto, 1985.   p. 101

[2] Homel, Gene Howard., “Denison's Law:  Criminal Justice and the Police Court in Toronto, 1877-1921,” Ontario History, Vol LXXXIII:  p. 171.

[3] Homel, p. 171

[4] Boritch, 127

[5] Toronto Board of Police Commissioners, Minutes, 21 December 1901

[6] Toronto City Coucil, Minutes, 1903, Chief Constable’s Report p. 29

[7] Board of Commissioners, Minutes, 19 June 1902

[8] Boritch, pp. 149-150

[9] Ibid  p. 150

[10] Toronto City Council, 1926, Chief Constable’s Report 1925

[11]  Boritch, 147.

[12] Homel, Gene Howard, “Sliders and Backsliders: Toronto's Sunday Tobogganing Controversy of 1912”, Urban History Review, Vol. X, No. 2, 1981

[13] Denison, George T., Recollections of a Police Magistrate, Toronto: 1920.  pg. 11

[14] Homel, “Sliders and Backsliders”, p. 38

[15] Boritch, p. 211

[16] Monkkonen, Eric H., Police in Urban America, 1860-1920, New York:  Cambridge University Press, 1981;  Ferdinand, Theodor N. “The Criminal Patterns of Boston Since 1849”, American Journal of Sociology, Vol. 73 (1):  84-99, 1967;  Lane, Roger, “Urban Police and Crime in Nineteenth-Century America”, pp. 1-43 in N. Morris & M. Tonry (ed), Crime and Justice:  An Annual Review of Research, Chicago:  University of Chicago Press, 1980.; Lohdi, Abdul Q. & Charles Tilly, “Urbanization, Crime and Collective Violence in 19th Century France”, American Journal of Sociology, Vol. 79: pp 296-318; 1973.

[17] Lohdi, Abdul Q. & Charles Tilly, op cit, p. 296

[18] Goheen, p. 49

[19] Boritch, p. 345

[20] Report of Chief Constable on Crime in the City of Toronto,  1850

[21] Toronto City Council, Minutes, 1860.  Statistical Report of Crime Committed in the City of Toronto.

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Peter Vronsky ©2003-2004