By Bruce Bell, Local Historian
One of my favourite Christmas stories of days past is the one about George William Allan, the son of one of the wealthiest families in Ontario who decided it was time to do something to help the children who lived on the mean streets of Toronto.
As legend has it, on Christmas Eve 1870 George went for a walk along Front Street from his home on the north east corner of Front and Frederick streets, heading towards the St. Lawrence Market where along the way he encountered children huddled in doorways trying to escape the cold.
After living a life of privilege, on that Christmas Eve George was determined to do something to help the homeless youth of Toronto whose numbers were growing.
That night, George decided to donate his townhouse on Frederick Street to become the Newsboys' Home where young boys were given newspapers to sell on the streets and at night a place to eat and sleep - such a concept was radical idea for those times.
Many rich and wealthy people in 19th century Toronto and the rest of the British Empire didn’t think that the lower classes and especially children should be educated or even looked after by government as they might grow up and take over society, leaving the privileged classes throneless.
Within a year, Allan's Newsboys' Home had become a place of refuge for up to 20 young orphaned boys, most of whom had never known a hot meal or warm bed. Not nearly enough room for all the homeless children of Toronto, but it was a start.
In a mere 50 years, Toronto had grown from an quaint agricultural town of 10,000 people in 1834, to becoming a vast polluting industrial city of a quarter million.
Children, however, were looked upon like animals today, some we love and some we eat.
George Allan felt differently and in taking the actions he took to create the Newsboys' Home doing he led the way for another remarkable man to leave his mark on Toronto’s history.
In 1874, a 10-year old boy named John Joseph Kelso arrived in Toronto with his family poor and starving escaping the unimaginable poverty back in Ireland.
The following year, John Joseph, JJ as he became known, at age 11 skipped school and got a job at James Bain's bookstore on King Street East just around the corner from the Newsboys Home.
As JJ became older, he was often sickened at the sight of young shoeless boys not fortunate to live at the Newsboys' Home forced as he would famously say to “demean themselves and give the money to their parents or unscrupulous elders to buy liquor”.
As time went on, JJ Kelso went to college, became a bright student and eventually got himself a job as a newspaper reporter at the Globe and through his writings lifted the lid of the gruesome world of Toronto street children.
Kelso once a poor destitute street child would then go on to found the Children's Aid Society of Toronto in 1891, giving hope at last to the most vulnerable amongst us.
But it didn’t end there; previously Kelso established the Toronto Humane Society in 1887 and the Fresh Air Fund in 1888 providing excursions to the Toronto Island for poor women and children.
In 1911, Kelso become one of the founders of the still thriving Central Neighbourhood House built to bridge the gap between rich and poor by having workers live communally in urban slums with those they wanted to help.
George Allan and JJ Kelso, two extraordinary men from extremely different backgrounds would transform Toronto making it a safer place for children and eventually leadign to the establishment of Children Aid Societies the world over.
After his death in 1901, and as a tribute to the memory of George William Allan who was also the mayor of Toronto in 1855, the city changed the name of the Horticultural Gardens to ‘Allan Gardens’. The gardens maintain that name today.
After leading a life dedicated to helping the poor and destitute of Toronto, JJ Kelso died on September 30, 1935.
And to think it all began with a walk along Front Street on a snowy Christmas Eve in 1870.
Holiday Inn Express Contest
The Holiday Inn Express at the north end of our neighbourhood at 111 Lombard St. is extending their Staycation Contest to January 3rd - see details below:
We know a lot people could use a romantic getaway right now so we've extended our Romantic Getaway Contest entry deadline to January 3rd! To enter, like our post (on Twitter @hiexpresstorontodowntown) and @ tag who you want to join you for an overnight stay for two with us including dinner from Hothouse Restaurant delivered to your room, a movie of your choice, and breakfast to go. Winner will be announced on January 4th. Conditions apply. (The Staycation Package can be booked separately starting at $189 at https://bit.ly/3gRmTmr.)
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Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays!
from the SLNA Board of Directors