19th-century NIMBYism and the typhus epidemic in Ontario

In the 1840s, thousands of Irish emigrants contracted typhus on their journey to Canada. When they got here, they were met with quarantine — and public fear
By Jamie Bradburn - Published on Mar 26, 2020
Sculptures in Ireland Park, along Toronto’s waterfront, commemorate the typhus victims. (Erin Sylvester)



The numbers surrounding the Great Famine, also known as the Irish Potato Famine, are staggering. Between 1841 and 1851, the overall population of Ireland declined from more than 8 million to around 5.2 million. Between 1845 and 1851, 800,000 people died in Ireland, and 1 million decided to leave. At the peak of the exodus, in 1847, nearly 110,000 voyaged to British North America. On their way here, they endured horrifying sea voyages during which many were afflicted with typhus: when they arrived in Canadian ports, they were met with public fear and quarantine.

Typhus was passed between passengers by infected lice, which thrived on dirty ships. After an incubation period of seven to 10 days, victims experienced fever, then delirium, dysentery, headaches, and a rash. Over the course of two weeks, eruptions formed on the skin, and internal organs, such as the liver and spleen, became enlarged. In a pre-antibiotic era, typhus was fatal in 50 to 75 per cent of victims.   

To protect the public, all ships stopped at Grosse Île, a quarantine station east of Quebec City. Those who passed a medical inspection were allowed to continue their journey west. Yet many of those approved for travel were still in the incubation stage, and being put back onto crammed dirty ships increased the infection rate on journeys that then lasted up to two more weeks.

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Anglo-Irish social reformer Stephen De Vere travelled to Canada on one of the ships so that he could report back on conditions to the Colonial Office in London. He reported the filth, the narrow sleeping spaces, the bad air, the awful food, and the lack of water for washing. While watching emigrant agent Edward McElderry inspect a ship upon its arrival in Toronto, De Vere wrote, he saw him “stagger back like one struck, when first meeting a current of foetid infection exhaled from between her decks.”

In Canada West (as Ontario was then known), the province was responsible for immigration, including the transportation of emigrants; municipalities provided hospital and recovery space. In June 1847, municipalities were ordered to create emergency health boards to handle the influx and to make provisions for processing sheds and emigrant hospitals. Food rations included 3/4 of a pound each of bread and meat for adults and half-a-pound of each for children. The province agreed to cover some care expenses, based on weekly reports. Battles over funding between both levels of government were frequent, and resources were stretched to their limits.

The first major stop in Canada West was Kingston, which processed around 2,500 emigrants per week. Initially, they were confined to the city’s wharves. “Those of them who are too frail to climb have to creep along on the very edge of the dock, at the risk of falling over and drowning,” an anonymous observer wrote to the British Whig. “They are moreover, under the necessity of remaining encased in the filth in which they are coated when they arrive, and the exposure of persons of such of them that attempt to get free of this crust is sometimes very indecent. By drinking the stagnant water in the slip … they are compelled to consume their own — and other matter with which this water is impregnated.”

Kingston General Hospital was barely equipped to handle the crisis: some patients had to lie on the bare floor. Sheds built at Emily and King streets were quickly filled to capacity: the Crown filed a legal complaint against the mayor, emigrant agent, and members of the board of health arguing that the sheds blocked normal traffic. The prosecution’s evidence included complaints from local residents angry about the stench and having to witness indecent sights, such as “females exposing their persons.” In an example of 1840s NIMBYism, one complainant, John P. Bower, Esq., said that he “did not like emigrants, would rather pay to keep them away from him; did not care what became of them, thought a better place might have been selected.”

The defendants were found guilty, and the sheds were moved. St. Mary’s Cathedral recorded 1,515 deaths between June and December 1847; most victims were buried in a common grave.

From Kingston, some migrants headed up the Rideau Canal to Bytown (today’s Ottawa). Sheds were built along the west side of the canal near present-day Parliament Hill. “When they arrived,” a local nun wrote, “we cut their hair, we shaved the men, we washed them and changed their clothes. When their bath was over and they saw themselves in a clean bed, many of them would say they were not sick any more, because they found themselves so comfortable. It is true that they must have felt some relief when we had removed from their body a plateful of lice, each as large as a grain of wheat and as red as fire.”

Local residents did not provide a warm welcome. “It is a disagreeable duty to notice the want of hospitality shown by our townspeople to the poor and destitute emigrants,” the Packet observed on June 26. The paper noted the case of a widow with a large family of sick children who had arrived the previous week and initially been offered a place to stay. “The persons who lodged them, fearing fever, turned them out; and but for the kindness shown towards them by Mrs. Francis Grant, who took them in and provided for them until morning, part of this family must have perished during a wet and otherwise disagreeable night.”

More than 3,000 people landed in Bytown. As the numbers grew, the local lay population withdrew its help, and care was left to religious personnel. To stop the flow of the sick, the canal was closed on August 2. Of 532 typhus patients treated in Bytown that year, 172 died.

While there were intermediate stops in ports stretching from Cobourg to Port Windsor (today’s Whitby), the next major stop was Toronto, which then had a population of just under 20,000. The city processed 38,650 emigrants  — 1,124 of them died. Emigrants landed at a wharf at the foot of Simcoe Street, where sheds had been erected for immediate care. Those arriving, an observer told the Streetsville Review, “were crowded together like herrings in a barrel, and many had difficulty in drawing a breath of fresh air.”

The city’s resources were overwhelmed. Medical professionals and politicians made proposals to expand Toronto General Hospital (located on the current site of the TIFF Bell Lightbox) or build an emigrant hospital across the bay on “the Peninsula” (now the Toronto Islands) were rejected. Instead, Toronto General surrendered its site for emigrant use and rented another building for general use. Regulations banned emigrants from begging if they moved on to other parts of the city; tavern and lodge keepers were obliged to report any signs of illness in patrons of their establishments.

Health officials suspected that their peers in Kingston and Montreal were passing their problems along. The emigrant hospital couldn’t cope with the volume: dining rooms were converted into treatment spaces; sheds were constructed on the property to process emigrants upon their arrival and provide immediate care on the spot. As conditions on the open barges bringing emigrants into Toronto worsened, the province made a deal with the Royal Mail Line to use its steamships. Conditions remained grim.

Political squabbling affected the course of care. When George Grasett, the chief medical officer overseeing the influx of emigrants in Toronto, died on July 16, it took a month to find a permanent successor due to arguments and the fact that at least one candidate fell ill. One attending physician quit after three days after he discovered that sanitary conditions were not being improved. By August, the gravity of the situation had led to the establishment of both a new convalescent hospital and a house of refuge for widows and orphans. The dead were processed at the emigrant hospital, then sent for burial at the relevant Catholic or Protestant cemeteries in the city’s east end. Residents complained about the stench from the steady stream of undertaker carts.

Besides Grasett, others sacrificed themselves to tend to the emigrants, and their efforts weren’t always rewarded. After McElderry died on October 29, his superior failed to convince the province to provide a lump-sum allowance to his widow. When the priests assigned to the victims fell ill, Michael Power, Toronto’s first Roman Catholic bishop, visited the sheds and conducted funerals. Less than two weeks after giving a stirring speech at a September public meeting convened by prominent figures to pressure the province for more funds, Power died.

The fearful public offered little help, angering the city’s Catholic newspaper, the Mirror: “Shun dirt — but do not run away from your fellow creature, smitten by the hand of Providence with a disease, which is the product of destitution and privation of every shape. Better to die in the performance of duty than to preserve life by the cowardly desertion of the afflicted. There are many old wives who dole out the stories of contagion and terror. Tell them to go home and wash their faces and say their prayers.”

The fear also spread into the countryside. Farmers refused to hire survivors as labourers or come into Toronto to sell their goods at local markets. “Wherever those wretched immigrants came,” a Peterborough housewife wrote, “they brought with them sickness and death.”

The emigrants who survived spread out throughout British North America and the United States; a significant number remained in or returned to Toronto when work proved unavailable elsewhere. They soon made up a quarter of the city’s population. For decades afterwards, they were viewed, according to historian Mark G. McGowan, “as a problem and an impediment to progress rather than as a blessing to their community.”

Today, monuments to the typhus victims — for example, a provincial plaque in St. Mary’s Cemetery in Kingston and sculptures in Ireland Park along Toronto’s waterfront — remind Ontarians of this dark chapter in the province’s history.

Sources: Flight From Famine by Donald MacKay (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1990); Death or Canada: The Irish Famine Migration to Toronto, 1847 by Mark G. McGowan (Toronto: Novalis, 2009); Kingston: Building on the Past by Brian S. Osborne and Donald Swainson (Westport: Butternut Press, 1988); Ottawa: The Capital of Canada by Shirley E. Woods, Jr. (Toronto: Doubleday Canada, 1980); the July 10, 1847, July 14, 1847, and October 6, 1847 editions of the British Whig; the August 25, 1847 edition of the Globe; the August 5, 1847 edition of the Mirror; and the June 26, 1847 edition of the Packet.

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