‘Dereliction of duty’: The rise and fall of Toronto’s first police force

Bloody riots. Stark partisanship. Here’s why every member of Toronto’s force was fired in 1859
By Jamie Bradburn - Published on Jun 20, 2020
Portrait of George Gurnett, Toronto’s first police magistrate, based on a painting by Paul Kane.

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Toronto’s first police force was established in the early 1830s. The story of the next quarter century was one of cronyism, corruption, and violence — and it culminated in a mass firing.

When Toronto was incorporated as a city in 1834, police were appointed by municipal officials. Within a few years, hiring had become patronage-based, and supporters of the Tories and Orangemen who ran the city’s political infrastructure were rewarded. This gave rise to partisan policing: whenever a riot occurred — and between 1839 and 1860, there were at least 26, often pitting Tories against Reformers or Irish Catholics against Protestant Orangemen — law enforcement had little trouble picking a side.  

At the beginning of that period, the Tories tried to intimidate the Reform opposition by sending police to violently break up meetings. In March 1841, though, Mayor George Monro and lawyer Henry Sherwood, who’d run as the city’s Tory ticket in the provincial election, lost to Reformers Isaac Buchanan and John Henry Dunn. The next day, the winners and their supporters paraded along Church Street, passing the Coleraine Tavern, which was regularly used for Orange Lodge meetings. Waiting for them there was Sherwood’s brother Samuel — and a group of armed Orangemen he’d brought in from Scarborough to cause trouble. When Monro was asked to send in more police to prevent violence, he refused, reputedly saying, “You may go to the Devil.” Paraders were hit with bottles and rocks. Buchanan and Dunn were shot at in their coach. One Reformer was killed. 

A provincial-commission report, issued later that year, criticized Monro for “dereliction of duty” and observed that, as long as current hiring practices remained in place, the police would be “employed as political instruments.” It suggested that the force be administered by “authorities remote from, superior to, and independent of local bias or interference” and concluded that the influence of the Orange Order was “a great and growing evil, which should be discountenanced, denounced, and repressed, by the exercise of every authority and influence at the disposal of the Government.”

In 1843, the province passed the Party Processions Act, which banned political parades. A second bill, the Secret Societies Act, was disallowed by the British government because it failed to distinguish the Orangemen from other organizations, such as the Freemasons, that stirred up less trouble. The ban on parades proved ineffective — municipal police felt it wasn’t their duty to enforce provincial laws — and, by 1851, it had been scrapped. The Municipal Corporations Act of 1849, which created a police magistrate’s court for the city, was more successful: although Toronto’s first police magistrate, George Gurnett, and recorder, George Duggan, were Orange Tories, they were far more fair-minded and non-partisan than anyone had expected. 

The Sherwood family remained influential. Henry succeeded Monro as Toronto’s mayor and held a variety of provincial positions until his death in 1855. Samuel — he of the Orangemen tavern ambush — was named Toronto’s police chief in 1852. In Toronto Called Back From 1892 to 1847,  Conyngham Crawford Taylor describes him as “a quiet, good-natured man, who did not insist on any strict regulations as to the dress or discipline of the men. They wore a uniform, but without uniformity, except in one respect — they were universally slovenly.”

Their appearance was not the only thing that was disgraceful about Toronto police. Two riots within a month of each other in mid-1855 demonstrated the force’s inability to handle public violence. The Fireman’s Riot involved competing firefighting companies that got into a brawl on their way to put out a blaze. When police arrived, all the firefighters turned on them. The firefighters charged with assault were, like most of the police, good Orangemen. Police constables first refused to testify, then gave evidence that was so confusing that the firefighters were acquitted. A few weeks later, the Circus Riot matched firefighters against visiting circus clowns who had been involved in an earlier brawl with the locals after visiting a bordello. As they fought, the police stood by and watched — and Mayor George William Allan was forced to call in the militia to restore order. In court, constables claimed they didn’t recognize any of the 17 people accused of rioting. Sherwood insisted that efforts he made to control the force were undercut by the power of patronage.

City council condemned the inaction of the police and recommended that, due to its lack of discipline and the prejudiced manner in which its members were chosen, the force should be reorganized. Allan argued for an independent police commission. Despite disagreements over whether a new police chief should be recruited locally or from England, council liked the idea and began working on a reorganization plan. 

“This prevailing consensus reflected the changing priorities of municipal politics: the growing insistence upon efficiency and order in a rapidly expanding Toronto; the need for a disciplined force to tackle the problems of immigration, drunkenness, rowdyism, and petty crime, which were beginning to attract great public attention,” historian Nicholas Rogers observed in a 1984 essay. “Above all, politicians wanted a police force attuned to the new image of Toronto as a prosperous commercial metropolis of the west and an appropriate seat of government.”

During the spring of 1856, the province introduced legislation to create a provincial force that would amalgamate all existing municipal police, though municipalities would cover two-thirds of the operation costs. Attorney General John A. Macdonald claimed that municipal officials were unable to handle large public disturbances. The legislation was received poorly by Toronto city council, which felt it interfered with municipal affairs and was too expensive. The effort was abandoned after a series of unrelated scandals hit the government. Though work to produce legislation giving cities the power to create police commissions continued, police reform went on the backburner. 

The true turning point came two years later. 

On March 16, 1858, a dinner held by Irish Catholics celebrating St. Patrick’s Day ended in a riot. The next day, Orangemen disrupted a procession, and marcher Matthew Sheedy was fatally stabbed with a pitchfork. Sherwood refused to testify during the inquiry, earning criticism from the press and several councillors. True to form, he appeared to be colluding with the men accused of killing Sheedy — and all four were acquitted.

Sherwood got in trouble again in October 1858, after he released the prime suspect in a bank robbery and refused to co-operate with the ensuing inquiry. When the police magistrate failed to punish Sherwood, Mayor William Henry Boulton registered his dissent. Nasty letters between Boulton and Sherwood appeared in the press; the mayor demanded that the chief be suspended or dismissed, leading to a series of heated city council meetings. Council voted 14-10 in favour of retaining Sherwood, and Boulton, a prominent Orangeman, resigned in disgust. David Breakenridge Read was appointed to fill out the 50 days left in Boulton’s term, becoming the shortest-serving mayor in Toronto history. Boulton decided that, despite the fact that he lacked traditional Tory support, he would run for his old job in the upcoming municipal election in January 1859 — the first that would see public voters, not council, choose the mayor.

In December 1858, the province finally passed the legislation required to sanction a Board of Police Commissioners, which was established immediately. It was made up of the mayor, the police magistrate, and the police recorder. At its first meeting, they decided that “the present police force in the city should be reorganized at as early a day as practicable after full enquiry and mature deliberation.” By the end of its first month, eight constables had been disciplined. 

Efforts to improve policing were boosted after the election, when Reformers, including new mayor Adam Wilson, took over council. The deputy chief was fired. Sherwood, who had won a council seat, was kept on as chief until his replacement was found. The police commission insisted that council offer a salary high enough to entice high-quality candidates. It also ruled that no member of any secret society could join the force, causing outrage among Orangeman, who claimed this violated their rights as good Englishmen.

On February 8, 1859, the police commission fired the entire force. A new force took over the next day: only 24 constables, deemed to have displayed good moral character and performance, were rehired. Thirty-four constables and officers were recruited, mostly from England and the Irish Constabulary. No effort was made to find local candidates, the idea being that old prejudices and neighbourhood connections should not be part of the new force.

New chief William Stratton Prince drew on his experience in the British army to instil military discipline in the new force. He introduced a daily order book that outlined contingency plans — such as increased patrols on St. Patrick’s Day — for events with the potential for violence. Over the next 18 months, a number of men were dismissed, primarily for inebriation, and council slashed several positions. In a Christmas Eve 1859 editorial, the Globe observed that a police force that had once been “a mixture of incapacity and ruffianism” was now “respectable in character and conduct, and thoroughly efficient in all respects.” 

Though the return of Tory control over council in 1860 overturned the prohibition on secret societies, the police force continued to behave in a more professional manner. In 1869, Prince, in his annual report, stated that a policeman “should be in the prime of manhood, mentally and bodily … and of a general good character, in order to command a moral as well as an official influence over those among whom he may be required to act, and subject to the most rigid discipline” and that he should be “far above the class of labourers and equal, if not superior, to the most respectable class of journeymen mechanics.”

Policing remained a minor part of the city’s budget — the force would not exceed 5 per cent of the total until 1880.

Sources: Toronto: Biography of a City by Allan Levine (Vancouver: Douglas & McIntyre, 2014); Forging a Consensus: Historical Essays on Toronto, Victor Loring Russell, editor (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1984); Mayors of Toronto 1834-1899 by Victor Loring Russell (Erin: Boston Mills Press, 1982); Toronto Called Back from 1892 to 1847 by Conyngham Crawford Taylor (Toronto: William Briggs, 1892); Crime and Punishment in Canada by Peter Vronsky (website); and the March 18, 1858 and December 24, 1858 editions of the Globe.

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