Oshawa in 1867

What was our community like 150 years ago?


In 1867, the people of Canada were participating in the growth of a new country.  They were concerned with the Confederation Bill, Fenian Raids, as well as George Brown representing reform.  Oshawa was still a village in 1867, and the people in it had a strong interest in the politics and events which happened outside of the community as evidenced by the news stories found in the Oshawa Vindicator.  The newspaper always reported what was happening within the community so that everyone could remain informed about upcoming and past events or notes of interest.


Many of the villagers of Oshawa played an active role in the January 7th council election in the community.  During Election Day there were a number of close calls for electors who were voting for either S.B. Fairbanks or W.D. Michael, the two candidates for the Reeveship.  A number of electors had to climb over fences and through windows in order to cast their votes for either candidate before the polling booth closed and votes were counted.  Silas Fairbanks won his campaign for Reeve with 175 votes while W.D. Michael became Deputy Reeve with 172 votes.  E.B. Wilcox, J.W. Fowke and D.F Burk were elected as councillors.  D.F. Burk withdrew after being elected and Mr. Wall took his place.


Within the community, people were close knit and participated in numerous socials and activities that were planned by various groups and organizations.  For instance, the Mechanics Cornet Band secured the services of an instructor and leader and then canvassed the village for funds and encouraged honorary members to join for 30 cents per month.  The money would help pay for music, uniforms and instruments.  Not only did the Mechanic Cornet Band begin in 1867, but the Young Men’s Christian Association was also started.  A meeting was called for September 6th, for young men of Protestant denomination to get together for the purpose of organizing the new YMCA in Oshawa.  On one occasion there were so many people at the social held at Mr. Pake’s home that the floor gave way.  Luckily a cellar did not exist below the floor so that it only dropped by a foot.  There were few injuries.  On other occasions there were musical evenings planned.  One such evening was held at the Son’s Hall where solos, duets and quartets were performed.  Vocal and instrumental demonstrations were also performed by Oshawa’s best amateurs.  The highlight of that particular evening was an account of his life given by P. Benson Sr. through the use of illustrated panoramic views.  It must also be noted that throughout the numerous socials and other events held in Oshawa, the 34th Battalion and the volunteer militia were constantly kept ready for active service against the threat of an attack by Fenians.

On August 15, 1867 citizens were able to participate in the excursion of the season.  A boat ride aboard the Corinthian which started in Colborne, picked up passengers in Oshawa at 7:15 a.m., and arrived in Niagara Town at 10:00 a.m.  At this stop the passengers boarded a train to take them to Niagara Falls.  Passengers then had a number of hours to pursue the many entertainments available at the Falls.  At 4:15 p.m. they reboarded the train and were steaming towards Charlotte by 5:00 p.m.  They arrived in Charlotte at 10:00 p.m. and eventually arrived back in Whitby by 5:00 a.m.  This trip was advertised as a moonlight sail on Lake Ontario.  Single tickets were $1.50 and double tickets were $2.50.

Joseph Hall Works, Archival Collection of the Oshawa Museum (A987.25.3)

Oshawa also became renown through the industriousness of members of its manufacturing community.  W.H. Pellow and A.M. Walton, who opened a general hardware business in 1867, also manufactured a cheese vat which won a special prize at the Provincial Exhibition.  The Joseph Hall Works manufactured the Gordon Printing Press, which by the end of 1867 was winning admirers from various community printers outside of Oshawa.  As part of the early closing movement merchants entered into an agreement to close places of business at 7:00 p.m. throughout the year except in June, July and August when the businesses would remain open until 7:30 p.m.

There were a few fires and other accidents in the village.  In December slight tremors were felt from an earthquake that affected the eastern portion of the Dominion and New York.  There was a heavy snow storm at the end of April as well as a lightning storm which destroyed the chimney, stove and some windows in the home of John Sykes.  Mr. Atkinson, the druggist, reported the temperatures everyday from outside his store.  On Saturday August 18, it was 88 degrees Fahrenheit.

Simcoe Street Methodist (United) Church, from the Archival Collection of the Oshawa Museum

New businesses such as the general hardware business of W.H. Pellow and A.M. Walton opened.  Buildings such as the new Methodist Church, on Simcoe Street, were built to accommodate the growing population of Oshawa, which in 1867 was 3 500.

Dominion Day in 1867 was a relatively quiet affair in Oshawa, even though it had been designated as a celebration of Confederation for the country.  The day started with the firing of guns and ringing of bells and many houses flew flags.  A picnic was held later in the day at Cedar Dale for those people of the community who did not go elsewhere to places such as the town of Whitby to celebrate.

Above taken from Historical Oshawa Information Sheet

The Oshawa Vindicator, January 2, 1867.  Vol. XII, No. 18 to December 25, 1867.  Vol. XIII, No. 17.


Displaced Persons and Oshawa: A Memory Book Project

By Jennifer Weymark, Archivist

This summer the Oshawa Museum is undertaking a new and very important, oral history project.  The focus of the project is to collect the memories of those who arrived in Oshawa as Displaced Person after the Second World War.

The conclusion of World War II saw mass movements of people like the world had never seen before.  Canada opened its borders to help find homes for those who had no home to go back to.  Oshawa was considered an enticing place for many from the Ukraine and Poland as there was already a large, established community from these countries in the city.  It is these stories, memories and experiences of those who arrived in Oshawa that we at the Museum are working to collect and share.


While Oshawa is known for its industrial past, it has a rich cultural history that should not be overlooked.   The people who arrived in Oshawa after the Second World War helped to create the Oshawa of today.  They brought with them traditions, celebrations and of course food that are have become a part of Oshawa.

The aim is to learn about what life was like in Oshawa for those who came as refugees of World War II. Where did they live before the war?  How was the boat ride over? Why did they settle in Oshawa? What were their experiences once they arrived in Oshawa?  The answers to these questions and more, will help us to learn more about Oshawa during this pivotal time in history and to learn about the impact of the war on a more personal level.

The information collected will become a part of the archival record and will be the basis of a museum exhibit.  If you came to Oshawa as a refugee after World War II or you know someone who did, please consider taking part in this project.  We have developed a workbook to collect the memories and it is available to download.  If you don’t wish to download the booklet, please contact the Museum and we will happily send one out to you.  Museum staff is more than willing to come out and speak to people or groups about the project and to work together to collect these important memories.

Download the Displaced persons in Oshawa Memory Booklet.

William Smith and the Conservative Demonstration of 1911

By Lisa Terech, Community Engagement

In 1911, Canada was a much different place.  Our Prime Minister was Wilfrid Laurier, a PM who when faced with large national issues, attempted to find middle ground between the expectations of English Canada and French Canada.  Often, the end result was displeasure by both sides.  Laurier faced many issues during his 15 years as Prime Minister that found him trying to maintain peace between the two passionate groups, including participation in the Boer War, the Manitoba Schools Question, and the Naval Service Bill, and ultimately it was the issue of reciprocity with the US that saw a change in government, bringing the Conservatives to power in 1911.

William Smith, From the Parliament of Canada's Website
William Smith, From the Parliament of Canada’s Website

For the riding of Ontario South, William Smith was elected as a Conservative Member of Parliament.  William, or Billy, Smith was a Columbus native who worked as a breeder, farmer, and importer.  His farm in Columbus was 267 acres, and Smith was regarded as a progressive and prosperous agriculturalist, not afraid to engage with the ‘improved methods’ of farming.  The south wing of the main house was originally an old inn known as the ‘West Country Inn’ and was a halfway house for farmers and traders.

When he was elected in 1911, he was no novice when it came to politics.  Smith was first elected as an MP in 1887 and was re-elected in a by-election 1892.  In the 1911 election, the main issue was reciprocity, or free trade with the United States.  The Conservative Party, led by Robert Borden, was staunchly against this, and fear of American influence and/or annexation was one argument they used against the Liberals.  The Conservatives won the election with a majority government, and a Conservative Smith won the local riding of Ontario South.  As reported in the Whitby Chronicle, the election of Smith and the Conservatives was indicative that “so far as this riding was concerned reciprocity had received a knock-out blow.”

The Conservative Demonstration, 1911; from the Oshawa Community Archives Collection
The Conservative Demonstration, 1911; from the Oshawa Community Archives Collection

The Conservative victory was celebrated throughout the riding.  Election night saw celebrations in Whitby, and the following day, “an automobile procession left Oshawa for Pickering, Brougham, Claremont, Ashburn and Port Perry.”  The parade in Oshawa was complete with the motorcade, men on horses, and bands, and the event was photographed as it made its way eastbound along King Street.  A number of the images were in turn made into postcards, five of which are part of the Oshawa Community Archives’ Postcard Collection.

The Conservative Demonstration, 1911; from the Oshawa Community Archives Collection
The Conservative Demonstration, 1911; from the Oshawa Community Archives Collection
The Conservative Demonstration, 1911; from the Oshawa Community Archives Collection
The Conservative Demonstration, 1911; from the Oshawa Community Archives Collection
The Conservative Demonstration, 1911; from the Oshawa Community Archives Collection
The Conservative Demonstration, 1911; from the Oshawa Community Archives Collection

Interestingly enough, the Oshawa Community Museum has an artifact in its holdings related to WIlliam Smith: this butter paddle, engraved with “John Smith’s Print, 1808,” owned by William’s grandfather.

960.54.2 - Butter Press owned by John Smith, dated 1808
960.54.2 – Butter Press owned by John Smith, dated 1808

The Conservative Demonstration postcard, and other postcards from the Oshawa Community Archives Collection will be on display in Guy House in April 2015 in celebration of Archives Awareness.  Be sure to visit!

“Yesterday They All Went Gathering Maple Leaves” – The National Flag Turns 50

By Lisa Terech, Community Engagement

Today, it is so synonymous with Canadian identity – wearing a maple leaf immediately identifies you as a Canadian.  It flies from sea to sea on flag poles, from masts, even on the sides of cars, and it has been sewn, adorned, and even tattooed.  It flies proudly in celebration, and is respectfully lowered in mourning.

From the Oshawa Times, February 15, 1965, page 1
From the Oshawa Times, February 15, 1965, page 1

The implementation of the Maple Leaf as the National Flag was not without controversy.  Canada had been a country for almost a century before we officially had a unique emblem of our own.  The flag was inaugurated on February 15, 1965, after years of heated and passionate debates.  Talks of a distinctive flag for Canada had been taking place for decades before Prime Minister Lester Pearson made it a priority, promising in the 1963 election to have a new flag for Canada within two years.  This promise placed a certain urgency on the issue, as no one before had placed a timeline on establishing a new flag.  John Diefenbaker, ousted as Prime Minister by Pearson in the ’63 election, was adamantly against the issue and proved to be the chief opponent throughout the Flag Debate.

PM Lester B. Pearson at a press conference for the flag, December 1964; from Library & Archives Canada
PM Lester B. Pearson at a press conference for the flag, December 1964; from Library & Archives Canada

Prominence was placed on the issue in mid-1964, and by that autumn, a committee was established to debate the issue and ultimately decide on a course of action.  There were thousands of opinions on what should or should not be included in the design, and several options were put forth.  Ultimately, it came down to two options: the ‘Pearson Pendant’ featuring three red maple leaves on white, bordered by two bars of blue, and a design by historian George Stanley.  Stanley’s design featured a single maple leaf centred in a white square, with two bars of red on either side.  It was Stanley’s design that was chosen by the committee, and on December 15, 1964, Parliament voted 163 to 78 in favour of adopting the red and white flag.  After Official Royal Proclamation on January 28, the new flag was raised for the first time at the Peace Tower at noon, February 15, 1965.

The Union Jack (above), and the Canadian Red Ensign, 1957-1965 (below), from Library & Archives Canada
The Union Jack (above), and the Canadian Red Ensign, 1957-1965 (below); from Library & Archives Canada

The Royal Proclamation described the new flag as such:

 “a red flag of proportions two by length and one by width, containing in its centre a white square the width of the flag bearing a single red maple leaf, or, in heraldic terms described as gules on a Canadian pale argent a maple leaf of the first”

As would be expected, the flag debate saw many come out in favour of the new design, and others were opposed to the change.  One of the strongest opponents, besides Diefenbaker, was the Royal Canadian Legion, who placed high regard on the traditions that were established with the Red Ensign design.

In Ottawa, at the official inauguration, Prime Minister Pearson expressed the following sentiments about the new flag, saying, “Under this flag may our youth find new inspiration for loyalty to Canada; for a patriotism based not on any mean or narrow nationalism but on the deep and equal pride that all Canadians will feel for every part of this good land.”

The first raising of the Canadian Flag at Parliament Hill, from Library & Archives Canada
The first raising of the Canadian Flag at Parliament Hill; from Library & Archives Canada

On February 15, while the new flag was being raised with the proper pomp and circumstance in Ottawa, similar ceremonies took place at provincial parliaments and local governments, Oshawa not excluded.  However, the ceremony at Oshawa did not go smoothly; it was unclear if there would even be a new flag to raise!  Due to high demand and low stock from suppliers, Oshawa did not receive its flag until 17 minutes before it was supposed to be raised!  In fact, due to the rush and uncertainty, two councillors were unintentionally uninvited to this ceremony.  Alderman Hayward Murdoch, Property Committee Chairman, took responsibility for this oversight, saying councillors were not notified on the Friday before because the flags had not arrived, and if there were not flags, there would not be a ceremony.  Ultimately, the flags arrived and were unfurled at noon.

Many schools and businesses may have been flying the Ensign or Union Jack on February 15 simply because the Maple Leaf flag was so difficult to attain because demand was so high.  Many banks commented that they were simply waiting for their flag to arrive and were flying the Ensign/Union Jack or leaving their poles bare until it did.  The Oshawa Times reported on who was flying what, and they remarked at the end of the article that the Oshawa Yacht Club at the lake had no flag flying, “nor did the Henry House Museum just up the street.”

The Union Jack flying in Memorial Park on February 15, 1965.  From the Oshawa Times, February 16, 1965
The Union Jack flying in Memorial Park on February 15, 1965. From the Oshawa Times, February 16, 1965

Perhaps the most endearing local story from February 15, 1965 came from Donovan Collegiate.  The art department ‘hastily put together’ a maple leaf flag that was proudly hoisted on the school’s flag pole; the following day, they were again hard at work, manufacturing a more sturdy flag that could replace the ‘rather flimsy original.’  Flimsy or not, instead of flying the Union Jack or flying nothing at all, Donovan students displayed the national spirit that Prime Minister Pearson hoped this new symbol would bring about.

Students at Donovan Collegiate raising their handmade flag, from the Oshawa Times, February 16, 1965
Students at Donovan Collegiate raising their handmade flag, from the Oshawa Times, February 16, 1965

As our flag turns fifty years young, it has given Canadians a chance to reflect on our country and what being Canadian means and represents.  The Maple Leaf is symbolic of so many things, including our history and heritage. Happy birthday National Flag!

Within my heart, above my home,
The Maple Leaf forever!

Remembering the Empress

By Lisa Terech, Youth Engagement / Programs

You would be hard pressed to find someone who is not aware of the Titanic disaster.  If there was ever any doubt, a certain blockbuster secured its place in infamy.  However, mention the ship, the Empress of Ireland, and recognition typically decreases.  This year marks the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Empress of Ireland, a disaster which took the lives of 1,012 people, and it remains Canada’s worst maritime disaster to happen in peacetime.  Commemorations have been taking place this week to mark the anniversary and to remember those on board.  There are hundreds of stories that could be told about the ship and her passengers; today I would like to share three.

But first, background.  The Empress of Ireland first launched in January of 1906.  She was constructed in England by the Fairfield Shipbuilding & Engineering Co. and was owned by the Canadian Pacific Steamship Company along with her sister ship, the Empress of Britain.  She had made hundreds of trans-Atlantic crossings before May 1914 when she departed Quebec for her first voyage of the year.  On board, there was 167 members of the Salvation Army, actors Laurence Irving and Mabel Hackney, and explorer/politician Sir Henry Seton-Karr.

The Empress of Ireland, photo from Site Historique Maritime de la Pointe au Pere
The Empress of Ireland, photo from Site Historique Maritime de la Pointe au Pere

In the very early morning hours of May 29, the Empress of Ireland collided with a collier, the Storstad, and sank to the bottom of the St. Lawrence River in only 14 minutes. There were 1,477 people on board; 1,012 did not survive.  The Empress is commemorated at the site historique maritime de la Pointe-au-Père, a museum in Rimouski, Quebec

The Irvings

Earlier this year, after perusing through our postcard collection, my attention was captured by a simple photograph of the profile of a man and woman, with the inscription, “Laurence Irving—Mabel Hackney in The Affinity (The Incubus).”

Laurence Irving (1871-1914) was a noted British actor and playwright, the son of Sir Henry Irving, who was also a noted actor and stage manager.  Laurence married Mabel Hackney (1872-1914) in 1903.  They would often appear on stage together.

Postcard of Laurence Irving and Mabel Hackney
Postcard of Laurence Irving and Mabel Hackney, Oshawa Community Archives Collection

The Affinity, or The Incubus as it was also titled, was a play the pair toured with during the 1909/1910 season.  It was based on Eugène Brieux’s Les Hannetons, and Irving translated the play himself.  Toronto’s Royal Alexandra Theatre advertised that they would be showing this production before the Spring of 1910, and it also showed in New York, with critics declaring it “one of the most entertaining plays of the season,” “well worth seeing,” and “punctuated by appreciative laughter.”

During the Spring of 1914, the couple embarked on a cross Canada tour, performing four shows: Typhoon, Unwritten Law, The Importance of Being Earnest, and The Lily.  The tour wrapped in late May, and the Irvings, anxious to return home to England, booked passage on the Empress of Ireland; the majority of their company were to sail a few days later onboard the Teutonic. The Irvings did not survive the sinking.

Grace Hanagan

On July 7, 1906, Grace Hanagan was born in Oshawa, a daughter to Edward James Hanagan and Edith Collishaw.  The family was residing on Metcalfe Street at the time, but they would later relocate to Toronto.  Edward was the bandmaster for the Salvation Army, and their family was destined for England for the Salvation Army’s third International Congress. Edward made a stop in Oshawa and visited with friends on his way to Montreal to board the ship. Grace was the youngest person to survive the sinking, and she was one of only four children to survive.  Her parents both perished.  Grace became the last living survivor of the Empress of Ireland before she passed away in 1995.

The Hanagan Family. Grace Hanagan, left, was 1 of 4 children to survive the sinking. She was born in Oshawa in 1906. Photo from http://www.empress2014.ca/
The Hanagan Family. Grace Hanagan, left, was 1 of 4 children to survive the sinking. She was born in Oshawa in 1906.
Photo from http://www.empress2014.ca/

May Blakeburn

May was born in 1890 in Sunderland, County Durham, England, the youngest of three girls.  In 1912, she travelled to Canada to work for the family of Walter Black in Halifax.  She had been in Canada for 18 months when she boarded the Empress of Ireland to return home.  She was travelling 3rd class and did not survive the sinking.

The Empress of Ireland is often referred to as the Forgotten Empress as the story is not known to many, but I have known about this disaster for many years. I wrote many a research paper in University about the Empress.  In my research, I happened across a newsclipping in the Halifax Herald from after the sinking, profiling passengers on board the ship from Halifax and area.  May was mentioned in this article, and it was said that she was ‘much liked by those who knew her.’

The Blakeburn family, circa 1895.  May Blakeburn, right, was 24 when she was on board the Empress
The Blakeburn family, circa 1895. May Blakeburn, right, was 24 when she was on board the Empress

May Blakeburn is the reason why I am drawn to the story of the Empress of Ireland and why I have known about it for several years.  May Blakeburn was my two-times great aunt (my grandmother’s aunt).

Today, we remember the Empress.

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