Great Famine History

As many as 450,000 Irish immigrants had already arrived in British North America (now Canada) before the first potato rotted in the soil of Ireland. Since the 1790s, Irish immigrants had settled in Upper Canada’s rich farmlands, built canals, established businesses in cities, and helped create the social and economic foundations of everyday life in this fledgling outpost of the British Empire.

However, the Great Famine, 1845-1851, was so traumatic in terms of the destruction of a way of life, the death of a million Irish people and the emigration of two million more. The memory of the famine would become the principal touchstone of identity for Canada’s Irish settlers, whether they had crossed the Atlantic in 1847 or not. Buckets of ink have been spilled in efforts to account for the causes of the famine (“the Great Hunger” or ‘An Gorta Mór’ to the Irish) and the diaspora it engendered, and to support the ensuing generations of finger-pointing as the Irish, their descendants and the British attempted to assign or deflect blame for this catastrophe or to attribute it to natural and historical forces.

For Torontonians, the influx of famine refugees from Ireland to their city in 1847 challenged public officials and strained local resources in what would amount to the greatest civic crisis in the young city’s history. The spring and summer of “Black ’47” would leave an indelible set of images regarding the nature and character of “the Irish.”

In the summer of 1847, the Toronto waterfront witnessed one of the greatest human tragedies in the history of the city. Between May and October of that year, 38,560 Irish Famine migrants arrived from Ireland at a time when the city’s population was just 20,000 people.

On July 9, 1847, the Toronto Mirror newspaper reported: “The state of the emigrants daily becomes worse and worse. On Wednesday, the Steamer Sovereign brought up 1,000 souls. This is a horrible traffic in human blood… what the ultimate results are to be, we shudder to contemplate: but if, in December such an extent of utter want of food prevails, whence is sustenance to come in May, June and July, and should the potato no longer be looked forward to, as a means of relief? This is a question that should come home to the heart of every man who has a heart.”

The sympathetic views of the Toronto Mirror towards the suffering of the Irish Famine migrants were widely shared by the inhabitants of the city. Bishop Michael Power, Toronto’s first Catholic bishop, had sent on a Pastoral Letter to Toronto from London in advance of his return to the city from a tour of Rome, London and Dublin. His letter, read out on May 15 from the pulpits of all of the Catholic churches in and around Toronto, urged congregations to be prepared for the influx of Irish Famine refugees. Power had witnessed at first hand the plight of the emigrants on the quayside in Dublin during his visit to the city in January 1847.

The Arrival

The vast majority of Irish migrants disembarked at Toronto in 1847, had already passed through Grosse Ile, taken steamers from the Upper St. Lawrence, and departed Montreal with the intent to survey settlement possibilities at Kingston, where many elected to board new vessels in order to investigate other Lake Ontario ports.

The travel was not without inconvenience. One commentator in Toronto’s Globe likened the overcrowding on the lake ships to conditions on board slave ships from Africa to the United States. In the spring of 1847, dozens of passengers who had disembarked in Port Windsor (Whitby), some 50 kilometers east of Toronto, were forced to backtrack 20 kilometers by foot in order to retrieve their baggage, which had been inadvertently deposited at Port Darlington.

Those who pressed on to Toronto were required to disembark at Dr. Reese’s Wharf, near the current site of the Metropolitan Toronto Convention Centre. There they would be processed at a makeshift shed by Edward McElderry, the local emigration agent and representative of the Government of the Province of Canada West (the union of what is now Quebec and Ontario) and Constable John B. Townsend, who was the clerk of the Toronto Board of Health.

Toronto, the former provincial capital of Upper Canada, ceased to hold this civic honour in 1841, when the union of the two provinces of Canada came into being. Thereafter the capital would alternate between the provinces until the late 1850s, when the sleepy logging community of Ottawa was selected as the permanent seat of government, to the delight of no one outside of the new capital.

Toronto’s nearly 20,000 inhabitants lived along dirt (often muddy) thoroughfares in a broad band of wood-frame, brick and stone houses between the Don River Valley to the east and Bathurst Street to the west. The southern extremity of the city was the bustling harbour on lake Ontario, and the northern limits of settlement were just beyond today’s Queen Street.

The mayor of Toronto in 1847, the Honourable William H. Boulton, was aware that the Irish calamity was on its way. As early as February, city council had formed a board of public health, and newspaper reports indicated that the sailing season might bring thousands from Ireland. This advance warning was confirmed by none other than the city’s Catholic bishop, Michael Power, who had spent the winter and spring of 1847 in Europe. Having returned to London, England from Ireland, where he saw the devastation of the famine first-hand, Power issued a Pastoral Letter to his diocese on May 15, indicating that the effects of the crop failures were far worse than anticipated.

As early as June, just as the first waves of Irish refugees were venturing into the interior (the first ship from an Irish port to arrive was the Jane Black from Limerick on May 23), Provincial Secretary Dominic J. Daly instructed Mayor Boulton to build hospitals and sheds for the migrants, with the promise of reimbursement from the provincial coffers. Daly was quick to point out in his directives on June 7 that municipalities would bear the responsibilities for direct aid through their mandated boards of health.

The Toronto Board of Health was soon under the firm hand of Alderman George Gurnett, who, on June 23, became its permanent chair. Gurnett and his associates on the board—Charles Daly, Joseph Workman, MD, J.G. Beard and Thomas J. Preston—would co-ordinate Toronto’s immigrant relief efforts, including the building and provisioning of “emigrant sheds,” the dispensation of appropriate medical care to the sick, and the inspection and triaging of migrants as they arrived at Dr. Reese’s Wharf.

Their mandate came none too soon because on June 8, the City of Toronto dropped anchor at its namesake and proceeded to unload its human cargo of 700 adults and children, of whom 250 (adults) were described as “indigent,” having arrived from Kingston at the “expense of the government.” Local journalists were quick to point out that these poorer migrants had come from the south and west of Ireland, whereas the remaining 150 adults in “good circumstances” were described as having hailed from Northern Ireland and England. This arrival marked the beginning of the surge inland, since prior to June 7, only 2,592 migrants had landed in Toronto, less than seven per cent of the season’s total. This landing of the sick and indigent was merely a harbinger of worse things to come.

In the month of June, the pattern was set for procedures at Dr. Reese’s Wharf. McElderry and Townsend (and later his assistant, Special Constable Thomas Foster) sent healthy migrants on their way—to Hamilton, to the rural hinterlands around Toronto, or to London or the neighbouring American States via Niagara.

Many Irish were able to re-establish ties with family and friends who had already settled in Canada over the previous 30 years. In Limerick, for example, local newspapers had contained letters encouraging the region’s farmers to join them in Canada. In one such missive, Daniel McNamara exclaimed to his former neighbours in Limerick: “Thank God we have left that miserable country [Ireland] that we are in a good country now, and our children had good health. I have 3s 9d a day and steady work, laying out a new road and levelling hills.” Just to make his case stronger, McNamara added that another Limerick County man, Patrick Shine, “is doing well here,” and that his daughters have good jobs in Toronto. Most of the 38,560 who would land in Toronto would not stay in the city, seeking out their own Daniel McNamaras and Patrick Shines.

The sick were another matter. By late June, it was clear to Toronto officials that ailing migrants were not being held in either Montreal or Kingston but were being passed on to Toronto, which one local described colourfully as “a general lazaretto.” Local residents and hotels were prohibited from housing any migrants suspected of carrying disease. Cabs and carters were instructed not to transport any migrants into the city if they appeared ill.

The Toronto Board of Health upheld a dual mandate: to protect Toronto’s citizens from the spread of disease and to support only the migrants who had fallen ill. Townsend’s orders were clear: only those migrants “in the case of sickness… or special cases as may be sanctioned by the Board of Health” were to be admitted to the sheds.

With each passing day in June and the arrival of hundreds more migrants, the Board of Health was under increasing pressure to meet the needs of sick migrants and to secure funding for medicines, beds and enlarged facilities. It was agreed that infectious patients should not be admitted to the General Hospital for fear of spreading any contagion to the local population.

By month’s end, the General Hospital was relocated from King and John Streets, and its former buildings became the temporary home of the Emigrant Hospital. With the sheds on Dr. Reese’s Wharf having been found wanting in almost every way, the Board of Health contracted the building of sheds on the grounds of the hospital, initially 50 by 10 feet, open-sided, with two rows of seats, “to protect the emigrants therein from the sun’s rays.” In June and July, tenders were advertised for the building of more sheds. By August there were close to 700 patients in the Emigrant Hospital and still others housed in 14 sheds, most of which exceeded the original sheds in size (75 feet by 20 feet).

The crisis in Toronto deepened when, on July 16, Dr. George Grasett, the chief medical officer at the Emigrant Hospital, died of fever, and construction workers building the new sheds laid down their tools, refusing to continue because several of their number had fallen ill.

The Impact

By year’s end, 1,186 migrants had died and were buried in Toronto, either in the plots set aside by St. James’ Cemetery of the Anglican Cathedral on Parliament Steet, south of Bloor or in the graveyard adjoining St. Paul’s Roman Catholic Parish Church on Queen Street East.

Particularly gripping is the story of the Willis family of Limerick. Both parents and five children boarded the Jessie at Limerick with 482 other passengers on April 18, 1847. Before the ship sailed, one son fell ill and had to be left in Limerick. After departing Ireland, the ship spent 56 days on the Atlantic, during which time 26 people died, including the Willises’ 18-year-old son and 10-year-old daughter. When the ship arrived at Grosse Ile in June and spent 13 days in quarantine, another daughter, aged 17, was removed to the lazorettos of the island, where she later died. The remaining three members of the Willis family landed at Quebec on June 26 and proceeded to Toronto, where they were quickly dispatched inland. They travelled by road to Brantford in the London district, where both the father and the remaining son died of fever, leaving only the mother under the watchful eye of the local Anglican minister, the Reverend James Campbell Usher.

Stories like that of the Willis family were common, although the names of many have been lost because of the expeditious ways in which names were recorded during the crisis and the loss of records over the past century and a half. We have a better sense of the more famous victims, Dr. George Grasett and Bishop Michael Power, who died after having contracted typhus from persons to whom they were ministering at the Emigrant Hospital and the sheds. Similarly, in November, Edward McElderry, the emigration agent who had met all incoming Irish refugees at Dr. Reese’s Wharf, died of the dreaded fever.

Apart from stories of individual courage and altruism, the experience of the famine migration to Toronto was not without its controversies. Local politicians and civic officials, enmeshed in the tight webs of patronage and cronyism endemic to colonial politics, were not above securing their own profits in the midst of the crisis. A relative of the mayor, Henry John Boulton, was able to rent some of his own properties on King Street in order to expand the Emigrant Hospital. John Ritchey, a former city alderman, landowner and colleague of Boulton and Gurnett, was able to secure all of the contracts for the building of the hospital sheds, at a price of $250 for each shed.

The summer of 1847 also witnessed public scandal, when physicians at the Emigrant Hospital and the Board of Health used the pages of the local newspapers to air their differences over how migrants, stricken with fever, ought to be medicated. Rumours also circulated that hospital workers were drinking or reselling the wine supplies that were intended to help restore health to the fever victims. Even Constable John Townsend was not beyond suspicion. In early August, a routine inspection of the fever sheds and Emigrant Hospital revealed that there were substantially fewer inmates present than he had reported. Had the operators of the hospital inflated the numbers of sick in order to maximize the government’s six shillings per diem allocated per patient? In any event, shortly after the shortfall had been explained away—patients leaving the hospital grounds without detection—Constable Townsend, the clerk of the Board of Health, published weekly hospital statistics in the Toronto newspapers.

Perhaps the most bizarre of all the controversies took place in August, when a hearse being driven by an employee of Thomas Ryan, the Catholic undertaker, broke down en route to St. Paul’s Cemetery. A coffin came hurtling off the wagon and smashed in the middle of King Street. The onlookers were horrified when two bodies spilled out of what was, by law, supposed to be a casket built for a single corpse. The regulations regarding the burial of the dead had been quite explicit. Bodies removed from the “dead house” at the Emigrant Hospital would each have their own coffin. Thomas Ryan had been awarded the contract for burying the Catholic dead, while H. B. Williams was commissioned to handle the arrangements for Protestants and Anglicans. Ryan would have to pay 10 shillings per internment at St. Paul’s, which suggests that either Ryan was saving expenses on burials (having knowingly packed in two bodies) or the hospital staff was shortchanging Ryan by saving the expenses on the extra body (underestimating the number of coffins “released” would ultimately allow them to retain the government’s per diem for a person who was dead but not recorded as such). Whether Ryan or the hospital workers were culpable, the local Irish newspaper, The Mirror, claimed that the relief workers were corrupt; however, these charges were neither substantiated in further reports nor taken to court.

When the final reports on the tragedy of 1847 in Toronto were issued in early 1848, the staggering toll of the “year of the Irish” was graphically revealed. Nearly 1,186 of the 38,560 migrants died and were buried in Toronto. Three in every four were Roman Catholic, marking a striking change to the nature of Irish migration to Upper Canada, which up until that year had been primarily Protestant. In February, the British Colonist reported that 757 Irish were buried in the Catholic Cemetery, 305 were buried at St. James’ Anglican Cemetery and 50 were buried in the Potter’s Field of York County, where today would be on Bloor, between Bay Street and Yonge Street.

With the memory of sickness and death behind them, local politicians began to prepare for the coming season and made ready petitions that their province no longer be considered by the British as Ireland’s graveyard. Their fears did not materialize because in 1848, migrants from Ireland preferred travel to the tidewater ports in the United States.

The psychological impact of the famine migration on Toronto was poignant, but the actual demographic change to the city was far less significant than popular mythology has indicated. By 1848, 35,650 of the migrants had moved beyond Toronto in search of family, relatives and work in either British North America or the United States. Aside from the 1,005 migrants still housed in the Emigrant Hospital, fever sheds, Toronto Convalescent and Fever Hospital, and the Widows’ and Orphans’ Asylum, according to The Globe, only 781 migrants from “Black ’47” had taken up lodgings in the city. Although several hundred would return to Toronto when job prospects in the countryside failed to materialize, the famine migration did not have a significant permanent effect on Toronto’s civic landscape. In time, those Irish who wandered back to the city would be stigmatized as lazy, ignorant, bellicose and intemperate paupers, but in 1848, the city witnessed no immediate stresses for housing and experienced no undue population congestion.

The most striking residual effect of “Black ’47” was the manner in which the local population would thereafter view all Irish through the single lens of this tragic moment. There would be no mistaking the hostility of locals to the Irish, whom they deemed more as a problem and an impediment to progress than as a blessing to their community. A decade later, The Globe ripped into the local Irish Catholic community, exclaiming, “Irish beggars are to be met everywhere, and they are as ignorant and vicious as they are poor. They are lazy, improvident, and unthankful; they fill our poorhouses and our prisons, and are as brutish in their superstition as Hindoos.” The “famine moment” left similarly powerful impressions upon the local Catholic population. Pre-famine Irish Catholic immigrants would come to identify the suffering of their brothers and sisters as a common suffering and, in time, the famine experience would become the touchstone for Irish identity in central Canada. Given the horrors that had transpired in the homeland and the trials of the new world, it is little wonder that the Irish came to see themselves in Canada as a people “more sinned against than sinning.”

Author: Professor Mark G. McGowan with Michael Chard, St. Michael’s College, University of Toronto

Image Credit: Top—Potato digging in Galway, National Library of Ireland. Bottom—Sailing Ship St. Mary, Antonio Jacobsen