In the 19th & early 20th century St. John’s Ward was a nasty festering pool of poverty & disease located in the heart of Toronto. Known simply as The Ward, it was defined by its borders of College, Yonge, University & Queen. The Ward housed TO’s poorest, people who had travelled from afar looking for a brighter future who then did their best to set up housekeeping in TO’s worst slum.
It’s hard to reconcile that description with Group of Seven painter Lawren Harris’ depictions of The Ward: brightly-coloured, sun-kissed cottages with picket fences (above: In The Ward. 1919). Harris’s vision of The Ward included the colour and warmth that settlers brought to their homes and neighbourhoods. Many of his Ward paintings do show the ramshackle nature of the buildings but the scene is always colourful and lively.
But another artist was at work in The Ward, depicting a seemingly different reality. For 37 years Arthur Goss was Toronto’s Chief Photographer. His official assignment, in part, was to document the unhealthy living conditions of Toronto’s immigrant families. But Goss was an artist and he left behind some of the most haunting images of life in The Ward, while recording it for Toronto’s Department of Health. (below: Goss. 1914)
Early inhabitants of The Ward included Irish immigrants escaping the potato famine and slaves fleeing the States via the Underground Railroad. (below: Harris. In the Ward. 1919)
A bustling Jewish community cropped up until it moved west to Kensington Market. Then came an influx of Italian immigrants who created Little Italy before moving west to College St. The Ward then housed TO’s first Chinatown, until it moved to Spadina and surrounding streets.
There were buildings of note in the ward: Osgoode Hall at University and Queen and Old City Hall, seen in the background in the photo below (Goss 1913). Where the row house stands in the foreground there is now a skating rink in Nathan Phillips Square.
Mary Pickford was born in the Ward in 1892 at 211 University Ave. She started life as Gladys Louise Smith and went on to become a star of the silent screen and “America’s Sweetheart”. At the height of her fame she posed in front of her old Ward digs. (photographer unknown. 1924)
One of the last largely untouched pieces of The Ward exists down an alleyway just south of the Toronto Coach Terminal (Bay at Dundas). People come from all over to catch a bus or eat a piece of cheesecake from Uncle Tetsu’s Cheesecake – hungry customers line up just south of the alleyway entrance for the coveted dessert, oblivious to the time capsule just steps away. (below: last of the ward. 2016. photo: MW)
The area that once was The Ward is now called “Discovery District” in honour of its pioneering doctors. Where once disease spread like wildfire now researchers are discovering cures. And down a little alleyway is the last reminder of a place that existed for 130 years in all its colourful humanity, as depicted by Harris, and all its drab inhumanity, as recorded by Goss. (below: The Group of Seven by Goss).