Meet Me At Murphy’s

29 January 1983

One of the greatest of the shopping emporiums that used to line Sparks Street, once the commercial heart of Ottawa, was Murphy-Gamble’s. It ranked amongst the finest Canadian department stores, and had a well-earned reputation for quality merchandise. The store attracted the custom of the city’s elite, including governors general and prime ministers. But its particular claim to fame was its restaurant, the Rideau Room, located on the fifth floor of the building at 118-124 Sparks Street. It was the only Ottawa’s department store that featured a dining room. Here, one could enjoy fine food accompanied by a live band, sometimes a trio, sometimes a seven-piece orchestra. It also served high tea each afternoon to weary customers who needed to catch their breath before renewing their assault on the store’s many departments. “Meet Me At Murphy’s” became an oft-heard refrain.

Murphy, John Company August 1892, Topley Studio LAC 138219

John Murphy Company, 66-68 Sparks Street, August 1892, Topley Studios, Library and Archives Canada, 138219

Murphy’s roots actually begin in Montreal where in 1867, John L. Murphy opened a dry-goods store on Catherine Street.  In 1890, Murphy expanded to Ottawa, buying Argyle House, a dry-goods store located at 66-68 Sparks Street from David Gardner who had himself acquire the entire stock of Argyle House for 61 cents on the dollar in a bankruptcy sale. He also leased the premises for a few months to clear the stock. Argyle House had been known for its high-end merchandise and for catering to Ottawa’s elite. The store had originally been opened in the early 1870s by James Russell.

The new John Murphy & Company store prospered under the management of Samuel Gamble, the company’s first vice-president who also happened to be John Murphy’s son-in-law. In 1904, John Murphy, now seventy years of age, sold his Montreal store to Robert Simpson Company of Toronto. The store continued to operate under the well-respected John Murphy & Company name. This left the Ottawa branch, now a stand-alone operation, to find a new name. In recognition of the success achieved under Samuel Gamble’s direction, the Murphy, Gamble Company was born. John Murphy continued to act as an advisor to the firm, his knowledge being invaluable. During his career as a merchant, he had made more than 100 ocean crossings to buy quality goods from European fashion houses. At this time, the three-storey building at 66 Sparks Street was expanded back towards Queen Street, thereby increasing the selling space by one-third.

Murphy-Gamble

Murphy-Gamble Co at 118-124 Sparks Street, circa. 1955. The Centre Cinema next door is showing a double feature of Black Pirates and Thunder Pass which were both released in 1954. Notice the old Ottawa Citizen building on the right. Rankly.com.

In 1910, the company expanded again. A five-storey store was constructed at 118-124 Sparks Street, the former site of the Brunswick Hotel. The new store opened in early January 1910. The last day of trading out of the old premises proved to be memorable. So many shoppers, mostly women, crowded into the store to snap up merchandise on sale that store staff were overwhelmed. Police had to be called in to control the enthusiastic shoppers. For an hour and a half, the doors were locked with “blue coats” on guard to repel would-be bargain hunters from storming inside. The next day, Murphy-Gamble’s new premises were also swamped by shoppers wanting to get a first glimpse at the new department store. That opening day, uniformed boys assisted ladies from their cars and carriages into and out of the emporium.

Reportedly, the new store cost $175,000 to build; no expense was spared in its construction and its fittings.  As far as possible, contracts and subcontracts were awarded to local Ottawa firms. Its architect was Ottawa’s Colborne Powell Meredith, it’s builder, Frederick W. Carling. The building, apparently one of the first of its kind in eastern Ontario, was constructed of reinforced concrete, a new method at that time. It also boasted what has been described as “Chicago-style glazed curtain wall façades” on both its Sparks and Queen Street sides. The pillars holding up the five storeys were also made of concrete, reinforced with steel rods, as were the stairways. There were hardwood floors throughout. The building was deemed fire proof, and was equipped with automatic fire doors and hoses on each floor. It was the first building in the city to carry electricity and lighting through underground conduits. The new edifice was called the Carling Block, presumably in honour of its builder.

On the basement level, which opened onto Queen Street, there was a high-class grocery store. There were windows displays along the entire façade. To one side was an entrance and a passageway for receiving goods. Lockers and toilets for male employees were located on this floor, The Sparks Street entrance, which was covered by a marquee, was to be found on the first, or ground floor. All interior fittings on this floor were made of mahogany. Window displays ran along Sparks Street. Two public telephones were located here for the use of customers. The women’s and men’s clothing departments were on this floor. The millinery and mantles department were found on the second floor. Fittings on this floor were made of oak. To the rear were offices; dressing rooms were located on the sides. A spacious stairway led from the main floor to an overhead gallery, or ladies’ waiting room, called “The Mezzanine.” On the third floor was the carpet, curtains and draperies department, along with customers’ washrooms. The fourth floor was devoted to manufacturing purposes, while the fifth floor was initially used for storage and bathroom facilities for female staff. Later, the fifth floor became the site of the “Tea Rooms” and later the much-loved “Rideau Room” dining room.

Murphy-Gamble window, William Topley, 1920 LAC 3382921

Murphy-Gamble Window Display of Hoover Vacuum Cleaners, Christmas 1920, Topley, LAC 3382921.

Samuel Gamble died in 1913 and the management of Murphy-Gamble’s passed first to Mr. J.T. Hammill and then to Mr. S.L.T. Morrell. In 1925, James L. Murray, and his two sons, Walter L. Murray and G. Scott Murray, purchased Murph-Gamble’s. The Murrays operated a similar business in Hamilton, Ontario called Murray Sons, Ltd. The two Murray sons moved to Ottawa to manage the Ottawa firm which continued to trade under the Murphy-Gamble marque. The firm thrived under the new management. Two more floors at the back of the store and an elevator were added in 1948. The firm also established buying offices in all the major cities of Europe, as well as in Mexico and the Far East.

On staff at Murphy-Gamble’s was a master tailor and dress designer, Ernest Gordon. A Gordon gown was a much sought-after attire for gala events. Reportedly, Princess Juliana of the Netherlands bought a Gordon gown.  Gordon died in 1948, having worked at Murphy’s for thirty-three years.

Murphy-Gamble tea 23 Sept 1927 OC

Advertisement for Tea and a Modelling Show, Ottawa Citizen, 26 September 1927.

Christmas was a special time of the year at Murphy-Gamble’s. A fifty-foot Christmas tree was installed by the stairwell each year until later renovations made this impossible. A store choir sang carols every day during the week leading up to Christmas. Instead of Santa Claus coming to the store’s toy department, a series of parties was held for children in the Rideau Room where Santa gave a gift to every child. Easter was also special, bringing a visit from the Easter Bunny who handed out candy to the kiddies along with a copy of the Easter Bunny story.

Murphy’s was also known for going the extra mile for its customers. Reportedly, a bride-to-be asked Murphy’s to bake her wedding cake, just as the firm had done for her mother and grandmother before her. There was one hitch. The bride lived in the North West Territories. Undeterred, Murphy’s delivered the cake via a military plane and dog sled!

Murphy-Gamble Company stayed in the Murray family for close in fifty years. In 1972, now under the presidency of Russell Boyce, the son-in-law of Scott Murray, the venerable Ottawa landmark was sold to Robert Simpson Company, the same company that purchased the original family store in Montreal in 1904. All 300 of Murphy-Gamble’s staff were re-hired. The Murphy-Gamble sign came down to be replaced by Simpson’s.

Simpsons logo

Robert Simpson Company logo.

Simpson’s operated out of the 118-124 Sparks Street location for eleven years. At the end of 1982, Simpson’s, now owned by the Hudson’s Bay Company, announced that the Sparks Street store would close owning to low profit margins. The Ottawa Citizen said that shoppers were like “mourners at an Irish wake.” On 29 January 1983, Simpson’s closed its doors for a last time with the loss of 85 permanent and 150 part-time jobs. The company published a final “Thank You” to its loyal Ottawa customers. The closure of the store after almost seventy-five years of business under various owners marked the end of a retail tradition. It left only the budget conscious Zellers remaining as the last department store on Sparks Street until it too closed in 2013.

Scotiabank ottawa, 2017 Nelia

Bank of Nova Scotia, Sparks Street Branch, the former Murphy-Gamble building, 2017, Photo credit: Nelia.

The former Murphy-Gamble/Simpson’s building was acquired by the Bank of Nova Scotia in January 1983. After extensive renovations, the former department store was converted into a bank branch.

Sources:

Biographical Dictionary of Architects in Canada, 1800-1950, Meredith, Colborne Powell, http://www.dictionaryofarchitectsincanada.org/node/1483.

Daily Citizen, 1890. “$68,000 Bankrupt Stock of Dry Goods,” 17 May.

Heritage Ottawa, 1983. Newsletter, February.

Ottawa Citizen, 1972. “Fond farewell to Murphy’s,” 24 June.

—————-, 1982. “Simpsons’ loyal friends already mourning loss,” 31 December.

Ottawa Evening Citizen, 1910. “Last Day Was Memorable One,” 10 January.

—————————–, 1925, “Murphy-Gamble, Ltd. Store Acquired By Hamilton Firm,” 1 September.

—————————–, 1952. “Walter M. Murray Is New Head of Murphy-Gamble,” 18 November.

Evening Journal, 1890. “Argyle House,” 18 December.

Ottawa Journal, 1904. “Retail Dry Goods Deal,” 21 December.

——————-, 1910. “Magnificent New Addition To Ottawa’s Commercial Buildings,” 26 February.

Urbsite, 2012. Murphy-Gamble, Sparks’ Department Stores III, 14 May.

 

The Plains of Abraham

15 January 1908

The Plains of Abraham are one of the most important historical sites in Canada. They mark the spot where two empires clashed, setting the stage for the founding of what would become modern-day Canada. Outside the walls of Quebec, British forces under the command of James Wolfe defeated French forces led by the Marquis de Montcalm in September 1759, and occupied the city. Both commanding generals died in the battle. The British victory was the beginning of the end for the French Regime in North America.

It was also on the Plains of Abraham that the forces of the Chévalier de Lévis defeated the British led by James Murray seven months later in a virtual rerun of the previous battle. But there was one major difference. This time, the victorious French army was unable to capture the city. Shortly afterwards, Lévis retreated to Montreal when British ships arrived to resupply Murray.

France ceded its Canadian territories to the British in 1763 in the Treaty of Paris. In exchange, France retained valuable fishing rights off of Newfoundland and the islands of Saint Pierre and Miquelon as a base for French fishermen, while the British gave back the important sugar-producing islands of Guadeloupe and Martinique. Many thought that France got the better end of the deal. Voltaire famously dismissed New France as quelques arpents de neige [a few acres of snow].

In late 1775 and early 1776, the Plains of Abraham were again the site of military action. Revolutionary U.S. armies led in part by General Benedict Arnold (yes, the same Benedict Arnold who later switched allegiance back to the British and became forevermore a byword for treachery) unsuccessfully laid siege to British forces at Quebec. When the local French population refused to rise up, the arrival of British ships forced the Americans to retreat, thus ensuring Canada remained British.

Despite the importance of the battlefield sites on the Plains of Abraham to the development of Canada as a nation, little effort was made to conserve them for posterity until the early twentieth century.

Plains of Abraham 1907, Edmund Sargent LAC 3858782

The Plains of Abraham, Quebec, 1907. The provincial jail is centre right, the Quebec City Observatory is on the left. Edmund Sargent, Library and Archives Canada, 3858782.

Their conservation story begins in early 1907 when a small Quebec delegation came to Ottawa to meet with Sir Wilfrid Laurier with regard to the upcoming 300th anniversary of Samuel de Champlain’s arrival in Canada which was to occur the following year. The delegation sought funding from the Dominion government towards the celebration, the creation of a park on the Plains of Abraham, and the erection of monuments where English and French forces fought. While Laurier was sympathetic to the idea, he asked the delegation to go back home and flesh out their plans. That spring, under the direction of Mayor Jean-Georges Garneau of Quebec, the Quebec Landmark Commission released is report. It called for the preservation and maintenance of historic buildings and sites, the removal of private businesses (notably, the Ross Rifle Factory) from the Plains of Abraham, and the creation of a park from La Citadelle in the east to Wolfe’s Cove (L’Anse-au-Fulon) on the west. The Report suggested naming the entire park in honour of King Edward VII. The Report also called for the building of a national museum on the site.

These plans dovetailed nicely with those of Earl Grey who was an enthusiastic supporter of developing a national battlefields park in Quebec City. In December 1907, he spoke on the issue at the inauguration of the Canadian Women’s Club in Montreal. He said a national park consisting of the Plains of Abraham and the battlefield of Ste Foy would be a way of celebrating what amounted to the three hundredth anniversary of the birth of Canada, the union of French and English in the Dominion, and the founding of “Greater Britain” (i.e., the British Empire). He noted that the idea had been received with “warm approval” by Premier Gouin of Quebec and by Sir Wilfrid Laurier, the prime minister.

Plains of Abraham, Lord Grey LAC 157911

4th Earl Grey, Governor General of Canada, 1904-1911, Library and Archives Canada 157911.

To these plans he added another element—the building of a colossal statue of the “Angel of Peace” with outstretched arms to stand on Cap Diamant. This statue would greet new immigrants to Canada, offering welcome and hope, in a similar fashion as did the Statue of Liberty in New York. Grey noted with disgust that the first thing immigrants then saw as they entered Quebec, or passed on their way to Montreal, was a jail, “associated with all that is darkest in the life of Canada.” Finally, the Governor General announced the formation of a fund that would seek donations from across the British Empire to help fund the renovation of the Plains. He closed by saying that King Edward had subscribed 100 guineas ($525—equivalent to about $12,000 today) to the battlefields fund.

A month later, on 15 January 1908, plans to turn the Plains of Abraham into a national park received a major boost in Ottawa. First, during the afternoon at their national conference, Canadian Clubs unanimously agreed that they would co-operate in helping to bring forward Earl Grey’s proposal to celebrate the tercentenary of Quebec and the preservation of the battlefields of Quebec at the Plains of Abraham and Ste Foy. Second, a mass public meeting was held at the Russell Theatre that evening in aid of the proposal. It was a packed house. All of Ottawa’s great and good attended. Speakers at the event included Earl Grey, the Prime Minister, the leader of the Opposition, the speakers of both the Senate and the House of Commons, and the mayor of Ottawa.

At the Russell Theatre, the lead-off speaker was, of course, Lord Grey who repeated the message he made the previous month in Montreal at the Canadian Women’s Club. He congratulated the Canadian Clubs for “their spirited action” in support of his appeal to celebrate Champlain’s tercentenary by “rescuing the famous battlefields of Quebec from their present condition of neglect.” He singled out the Canadian Club of Edmonton in particular—the club had just pledged $500 to the project. Grey said that there was “no better way of doing honour to what may be regarded as the 300th birthday of Canada, than by taking the necessary measures to secure the nationalization of the battlefields of Quebec.” He added that “it was on the battlefields of Quebec that French and English parentage gave birth to the Canadian nation. Today the inhabitants of the Dominion… stand before the world not as English or French but as Canadians.”

Next up on the agenda was Sir Wilfrid Laurier who gave another stirring speech. “We should consecrate the ground around the old Citadel of Quebec, and make it a national property because it has been hallowed by the most heroic blood. We may certainly claim, and we of French origin, and of British origin, that nowhere was French dash and British resolution ever shown with greater éclat than at these places,” he said. Alluding to the 1775-6 American invasion, he added “And may I be permitted in this occasion to remember, British citizen that I am, a British subject as I am, that in my veins flows the blood of the race which saved the British flag at the time it was disgraced by those of Britain’s own kith and kin.” He noted that while monuments to victors are commonplace, the Quebec monument to Wolfe and Montcalm is probably unique in honouring both the victor and the vanquished. He was proud to recall that the monument was erected by the British government.

Robert Borden, the Conservative leader of the Opposition, echoed Laurier’s words. He also referred to the War of 1812 when “French Canadians saved Canada for the British at Chateauguay” when De Salaberry and 300 men repelled an American force ten times their size. He called the battle to “the Thermopylae of Canada.” (This was a reference to the famous battle in 480 BC when a small Greek force led by Leonidas of Sparta held off a massive Persian army at a mountain pass.)

In addition to similar speeches by Speaker Dandurand of the Senate, and Deputy Speaker Marell of the House of Commons, the 7th Lord Aylmer also spoke in favour of Lord Grey’s proposal. He was the nephew of the 5th Lord Aylmer who was the Governor General of British North America and Lieutenant Governor of Lower Canada during the 1830s. Aylmer’s inclusion in the evening activities was rather odd from a historical perspective. His noble forebear had not been known for promoting harmony between French and English. Rather, his policies exacerbated tensions between the two communities and contributed to the 1834 Rebellion. He was recalled in disgrace the following year. Whether Lord Alymer’s presence raised eyebrows is not recorded.

The evening wrapped up with a speech by Ottawa’s Mayor Scott. He moved “That this public meeting of citizens of Ottawa expresses its cordial endorsement of the proposal which has been launched by His Excellency Earl Grey for the fitting celebration of the tercentenary of the founding of Quebec and for the preservation of the historic plains of Abraham and of St. Foy, in that city, and pledged its hearty support to and co-operation in this most praiseworthy undertaking. Seconded by P.H. Taylor, ex president of the Canadian Club, the motion was unanimously approved.

With such distinguished support, the federal government quickly passed the National Battlefields Act in March 1908. The Act created the National Battlefields Commission with a mandate to acquire and conserve the Quebec battlefields and turn them into a national park, to preserve this legacy for future Canadians, and to develop the land so that the public can fully benefit from them.

A fund was also officially established for this purpose. Contributions came from across Canada and throughout the Empire. The Dominion government provided $300,000 with the provinces of Quebec and Ontario each giving $100,000. Other provinces provided smaller amounts. More than $50,000 was raised from Great Britain. In addition to the King, other illustrious contributors included the Prince of Wales, former Governors General and Princess Louise, who had been Canada’s vice-regal consort during the 1880s. Others also gave. The boys of Eton public school contributed $500. Here in Canada, collections were made across the country, importantly by the Canadian Clubs. Lord Grey gave a personal contribution of $1,000. Quebec City provided $50,000, with both Montreal and Ottawa each raising between $12,000 and $15,000 by the time of the tercentenary celebrations held in late July 1908.

Plains of Abraham, 1908, la messe solonelle 3362009

Tercentenary of Champlain’s arrival, Plains of Abraham, Quebec, La messe solennelle, July 1908, Library and Archives Canada 3362009.

The tercentenary celebrations were a triumph. While the history was sometimes shaky in its quest to find common ground between English and French, it was a fine show. Thousands of people dressed up in period costumes for the event held on the plains of Abraham where a re-enactment was staged of Champlain being greeted by indigenous Canadians on his arrival. The Royal Navy, the U.S. Navy and the French Navy all sent ships, this time in peace, to help celebrate the historic event. The new national battlefields park was officially dedicated by the Prince of Wales, the later King George V.

One thing not constructed was Lord Grey’s colossal statue of the “Angel of Peace.” Funding was likely part of the reason. Consequently, Canada’s answer to the Statue of Liberty was never built. It also took many years before the Plains of Abraham were restored to the state they are in today. The infamous Ross Rifle Factory remained there until 1931, even though the federal government expropriated the company in 1917. Jobs and where to put the factory were major issues. The provincial prison was finally closed in 1970. Restored, the building is now the Charles Baillairgé Pavilion of the Musée national des beaux-arts du Québec.

Sources:

Canada, Government of, Justice Law Website, 1908. An Act Respecting the National Battlefields of Quebec, 17 March.

National Battlefields Commission, 2016. Plains of Abraham, Inf Source 2016, http://www.ccbn-nbc.gc.ca/en/access-information-and-privacy/completed-access-information-requests/info-source-2016/.

Montreal Gazette, 1907. “Quebec Battlefields,” 14 December.

———————, 1908. “Quebec Battlefields,” 4 March.

———————, 1908. “From The Capital,” 10 April.

———————, 1908. “First Report of the Quebec Landmark Commission,” 29 June.

Ottawa Citizen, 1907, “Wants A Colossal Statue On Heights Of Quebec,” 13 December.

——————, 1907. “An Inspiring Project,” 13 December.

——————, 1908. “Earl Grey’s Great Conception Endorsed By Citizens Of Capital, 16 January.

——————, 1908. “Canadian Clubs Approve And Decide Upon Central Committee, 16 January.

——————, 1908. “Brilliant Conception,” 16 January.

——————, 1908. “Quebec Scheme,” 10 March.

——————, 1908. “An Appeal For Battlefields,” 13 April.

Ottawa Journal, 1907. “Save The Plains of Abraham,” 24 January.

——————-, 1908. Subscriptions Received,” 15 January.

Vancouver Daily World, 1907. “Ross Rifle Factory Causes Much Trouble,” 6 April.

Windsor Star, 1908. “Plains Dedicated,” 25 July.

Winnipeg Tribune, 1908. “Battlefield Fund,” 7 August 1908.

Canadian Citizenship

3 January 1947

Canada’s development as a nation was based on evolution rather than revolution. There is no bright line that marked its transition from a British colony to an independent country. Perhaps the most important step along the path to nationhood was the 1931 Statute of Westminster that recognized Canada and the other Dominions as being equal to and in no way subordinate to the United Kingdom in both domestic and foreign affairs. The final break occurred in 1982 when Canada’s Constitution was finally patriated from Britain over the objections of the Quebec Government. (For those who are wondering about the Queen, Canada’s monarch is considered to be Canadian.)  A similar progression occurred with respect to Canadian citizenship, though the dates don’t line up neatly with underlying constitutional changes.

Citizenship, 1947 LAC from Can Excyclopedia

New Canadians, Ottawa Citizenship Ceremony, Supreme Court of Canada, 3 January 1947.
(l to r) Naif Hanna Azar from Palestine, Jerzy Wladyslaw Meier from Poland, Louis Edmon Brodbeck from Switzerland, Joachim Heinrich Hellmen from Germany, Jacko Hrushkowsky from Russia, and Anton Justinik from Yugoslavia. (Back row: l.-r.:) Zigurd Larsen from Norway, Sgt. Maurice Labrosse from Canada, Joseph Litvinchuk, Roumania, Mrs. Labrosse from Scotland, Nestor Rakowitza from Roumania and Yousuf Karsh from Armenia with Mrs. Helen Sawicka from Poland. Credit: Chris Lund/National Film Board of Canada/Library and Archives Canada/PA-129262.

During the early 19th century, the word “Canadian” was for many a synonym for settlers of French descent. Other settlers were Irish, English or Scots, who just happened to be living in those territories that was known as Upper or Lower Canada. There were no barriers to immigration. But legally, all were British subjects, owing their loyalty to the British Crown with the right to live anywhere in the British Empire.

When the Dominion of Canada was formed in 1867, nothing changed, though under the British North America Act, the new country was given authority over the naturalization of aliens, i.e. non-British subjects, in Canada. There was legally no thing called Canadian citizenship. All Canadians remained “British subjects.”  Lord Monck, the Dominion’s first governor general, spoke about Canadians being a new “nationality.” However, what he meant is unclear. It’s possible that he was referring to a new more expansive Canadian nationality that would now include Nova Scotians and New Brunswickers. In 1891, during a hard-fought election over the issue of free trade with the United States, Sir John A. Macdonald, the Dominion of Canada’s first prime minister, said “A British subject I was born–a British subject I will die.” And he did.

However, a sense of being a Canadian began to coalesce during the late 19th century though dual loyalties remained strong, particularly among English-speaking Canadians. Most Canadians saw no contradiction between loyalty towards Canada and loyalty towards the Empire, particularly as both came under the same Crown. But a distinction was emerging between being a British subject and being Canadian (or for that matter an Australian or a New Zealander, etc.). The first term indicated a person’s status within the British Empire, and the second defined the person’s nationality.

Reference to the term “Canadian citizen” first appeared in Canadian legislation in the Immigration Act of 1910. It was apparently not designed to define who a Canadian was but rather to recognize those people who were exempt from immigration controls, in other words, British subjects either born or naturalized and domiciled in Canada. In 1921, the Canadian Nationals Act defined a specific group of British subjects who also had rights and obligations as Canadians. However, according to a Canadian government citizenship website, the references to “Canadian citizen” in these statutes did not create the legal status of Canadian citizen.

Ten years later, when the Statute of Westminster came into force, Canada became a distinct nation within the British Empire, responsible for its own domestic and international affairs. By the time of the May 1939 Royal Visit, constitutionally the Crown had been divided; King George VI came to Canada not as King of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, or as King of the British Empire, but as King of Canada. (This separation of Crowns was underscored by the fact that King George as King of Canada signed Canada’s declaration of war with Germany a week after he signed Britain’s declaration of war.) Notwithstanding this, Canadians remained British subjects.

Growing nationalism, especially through World War II, prompted the government to take a fresh look at Canadian citizenship. Apparently, when travelling abroad, permanent residents of Canada were not designated as Canadian citizens, but simply as British subjects living in Canada—something that irritated Canadian servicemen.  In 1946, the Liberal government of Mackenzie King passed the Canadian Citizenship Act, which came into force at the beginning of 1947. This Act defined all Canada-born or naturalized Canadians, as well as British subjects domiciled in Canada and brides of Canadian servicemen as Canadian citizens. However, Canadian citizens remained British subjects, holding all the rights and obligations associated with that status. A Canadian passport at that time stated that the holder was a Canadian citizen as well as a British subject.

On Friday, 3 January 1947, a glittering citizenship ceremony was held in the Supreme Court in Ottawa to mark the coming into force of the new Citizenship Act. At 8.30 pm guests, officials, and certificate recipients were met in the Great Hall of the new Supreme Court building on Wellington street with music played by the red-coated RCMP band. They assembled in the wooden panelled court room, where Canada’s coat of arms was emblazoned above the judges’ bench. Fifteen King’s scouts guided people to their chairs. At 9 pm, Chief Justice Thibaudeau Rinfret and five Supreme Court justices filed into the chamber in order of seniority as television cameras whirred and camera bulbs flashed. The Justices were dressed in their ceremonial garb of bright scarlet and white mink robes with black, shovel hats. Chief Justice Rinfret took the middle seat, a heavy, oak chair surmounted by a crown. Behind them filed government dignitaries, including Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King, Paul Martin, Sr., Minister of Health and Welfare, and Colin Gibson, Secretary of State. After the court usher called the Court to order, O Canada was sung in both English and French by a massed choir under the direction of Cyril Rickwood.

Paul Martin, who had taken the lead in writing the citizenship legislation in his earlier capacity of Secretary of State (there had been a cabinet shuffle three weeks earlier), addressed the assembly. He noted that there were two main purposes underlying the Canadian Citizenship Act. First, it was to define who a Canadian is and how to become one. Second, it was to establish a “community of status for all people which will bring them together as Canadians.” The Act also affirmed “the historical development of Canada with the British Commonwealth of Nations” and “attests to the nationhood of Canada.”

The Chief Justice then addressed the applicants who were presented in turn by Colin Gibson. First in line was Prime Minister Mackenzie King who received Canadian certificate No. 1. There were some poignant moments as one-by-one people came up to receive their citizenship certificates. Winnipeg’s Mrs Stanley Mynarski came forward proudly wearing the Victory Cross that her son, Pilot Officer “Andy” Mynarski, had posthumously received for valour during the war for saving the life of a comrade. After she repeated the oath of allegiance to the King in her strongly accented voice, Prime Minister King bowed to her in acknowledgement of the loss of her son who gave his life for his adopted country. Other recipients of their citizenship papers included the Aberdeen-born bride of Sergeant Maurice Labrosse of the R.C.A.F., 87-year old Wasyl Elyniak of Chapman, Albert, the first of 400,000 Ukrainians who came to Canada, and Armenian-born Yousuf Karsh, the Ottawa-based, world-renowned photographer. A group of eleven Ottawa-area new Canadians followed. First in line was Naif Hanna Azar of 443 Bank Street. A railway labourer, Azar came to Canada from Palestine in 1928. When he walked over to receive his certificate, Prime Minister King stood and shook hands with him.

The Prime Minister then addressed the assembly. He said “Canada was founded on the faith that two of the proudest races in the world, despite barriers of tongue and creed, could work together n mutual tolerance and mutual respect to develop a common nationality. Into our equal partnership of English-speaking and French-speaking Canadians, we have admitted thousands who were born of other racial stocks, and who speak other tongues. They, one and all, have sought a homeland where nationhood means not domination and slavery, but equality and freedom.”

The evening’s ceremony was also the occasion for the public presentation for the first time of an anthem called This Canada of Ours, written by Percy Philip, the press gallery representative in Ottawa of the New York Times, and set to music by Robert Donnell, the Dominion Carillonneur. The piece, which some had hoped would become Canada’s national anthem, was sung by the massed choir.

The citizenship ceremony closed with a singing of God Save the King. The Justices, Ministers and participants then filed from the chamber to the strains of the classic hymn O God, Our Help in Ages Past.

While a stirring ceremony, there were glaring omissions that evening. None of the participants who received citizenship certificates were indigenous Canadians or persons of colour. It wasn’t until 1956 that the Canadian Citizenship Act was amended to retroactively confer Canadian citizenship on “Indians defined in the Indian Act and the race of aborigines commonly referred to as Eskimos” who were born before 1st day of January 1947. Canada’s immigration policy at that time was also racist as it essentially precluded non-white immigrants “owing to their peculiar customs, habits, modes of life, or methods of holding property and because of their probable inability to become readily assimilated.” Just two days before the citizenship ceremony took place in Ottawa, a letter to the Editor of the Vancouver Sun appeared stating that Chinese should not become Canadian citizens. The letter states: “No matter how laudable their general conduct may be as law observers, their customs, their Oriental mental outlook and non-assimilativeness prevent a sociable unity between themselves and true Canadians.” The Chinese Exclusion Act, enacted in 1923, was repealed later in 1947, but a race-based immigration system remained in place until well into the 1960s.

In 1977, the Citizenship Act was radically changed. An amendment removed the special status previous enjoyed by British subjects when they applied for Canadian citizenship. From then on, immigrants to Canada were treated the same regardless of whether they were British subjects or nationals of countries outside of the Commonwealth. Canadians were also no longer defined as British subjects. As well, the sexism of the 1947 Act was addressed. Children born abroad of a Canadian parent were now eligible to be Canadian citizens by right. Previously, they had to have a Canadian father. More changes were made in 2009 and again in 2015 to address quirks of earlier legislation that denied Canadian citizenship to certain groups of people.

Meanwhile, the term British subject was also evolving. In 1948, the term was defined as any citizen of the United Kingdom, colonies, or Commonwealth country. These people had the right to settle in Britain. However, in the 1960s and 1970s, this right was increasingly restricted to only those who parents or grandparents were born in the United Kingdom. After 1983, very few people qualified as British subjects and for the most part the term had became obsolete. Even British citizens were no longer referred to as British subjects. Today, British subject status is largely confined to a handful of individuals born in Ireland and India prior to 1949 and to children of such people who would become stateless without British subject status. British subjects are not British citizens and do not automatically have the right to live in the United Kingdom (though most do). But they are eligible for a British passport and can ask for British consular assistance when travelling.

Canadians are still recognized as Commonwealth citizens in other Commonwealth countries and have certain residual rights depending on the country. For example, if resident in the United Kingdom, a Canadian citizen can join the British armed forces or the police, and can run for public office.

Until quite recently, British subjects, defined as citizens of the Commonwealth, continued to have special status in certain Canadian provinces. For example, British subjects could vote in New Brunswick elections until 1995 while in Nova Scotia, they were eligible to vote in provincial elections until 2006.

 

Sources:

Canada, Government of. 2019. History of citizenship legislation, https://www.canada.ca/en/immigration-refugees-citizenship/corporate/publications-manuals/operational-bulletins-manuals/canadian-citizenship/overview/history-legislation.html.

Canadian Council for Refugees, 2000. “A hundred years of immigration to Canada 1900-1999,” https://ccrweb.ca/en/hundred-years-immigration-canada-1900-1999.

Gazette (The), 1947. “Canadian Citizenship Begins,” 2 January.

—————-, 1947. “Canadians Have Status As Citizens From Now,” 2 January.

—————-, 1977. “We’re No Longer British Citizens,” 15 February.

Grey, Julius & Gill, John. 2019. “Canadian Citizenship,” The Canadian Encyclopedia, https://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/citizenship.

Maas, William, 2015. Access to Electoral Rights Canada, EUDO Citizenship Observatory, European University Institute, Florence, https://www.yorku.ca/maas/Maas2015b.pdf.

McCreedy, Christopher, 2005. The Order of Canada: Its Origins, History and Development, University of Toronto Press.

Ottawa Citizen, 1947. “Native-Born Citizens Officially Canadians,” 2 January.

——————, 1947. “Participants Briefed In Citizenship Ceremony, 4 Janaury.

——————, 1947. “Proud, Historic Ceremony As New Citizens Take Oath,” 4 January.

Paul, Daniel, 2019. Canadian Citizen Act Proclaimed: 1947, http://www.danielnpaul.com/CanadianCitizenshipAct-1947.html.

UK Government, 2019. Types of British Nationality, https://www.gov.uk/types-of-british-nationality/british-subject.

Vancouver Sun, 1947, “Votes For Chinese,” 2 January.

Winnipeg Tribune, 1947. “Mr. King Seeks Citizen Papers,” 2 January.

The Last Presentation of Debutantes

24 January 1958

Through the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, red letter days on the British social calendar marked royal levées and “drawing rooms” when aristocratic men and women met and socialized with the monarch. Levées, from the French word lever meaning to rise, had their roots in the old tradition of men attending the sovereign when he got up in the morning. To be present when the king used the chaise percée a.k.a. toilet was a great privilege for the up and coming courtier whose future could be made should the royal visage look favourably upon him. Intimacy meant power. Conversely, a courtier’s future could be dashed if he made some unpardonable faux pas, such as pointing and laughing. Like their masculine counterpart, “drawing rooms” were occasions for women to mingle with the sovereign, and became an opportunity for a young girl, or debutante, typically in her late teens, to be lancée, (literally thrown) into high society by being presented to the sovereign. Over time, the distinction between a levée and a drawing room faded.

These highly stylized rituals reached their zenith during the ancien régime in France prior to the Revolution in 1789, though Napoleon was no slouch in the etiquette department either. Courtiers attended every function of French royal life, bodily or otherwise. In Britain, Queen Elizabeth the First apparently mingled with commoners in the gallery at Greenwich Palace during the sixteenth century, with the practice become more regular and formalized by the reign of Queen Anne in the early eighteenth century. But it was during Queen Victoria’s reign that the tradition of presentation parties for young debutantes reached its peak. As anybody knows from watching Downton Abbey, coming out to Society, which had a very different meaning in those days, was a once in a lifetime event for a young aristocratic girl. It marked her emergence into adulthood—a sort of secular, Anglo bat mitzvah. It also marked the start of the social season, which included such events as the Royal Ascot, the Henley rowing competition and the yacht races at Cowes, as well as a constant swirl of parties and receptions. The aim of all these activities was the acquisition of a suitable husband, preferably one with a title.

In republican United States, the lack of a king or queen was only a minor hindrance. Debutante balls and cotillions were regularly held to launch young women into the upper ranks of American society. For those seeking a royal imprimatur, American heiresses with the right connections and heaps of money could be presented at the Court of St. James’s in London. Once presented, they could troll for a suitable British husband who had the right forebears but was short of cash to maintain the family pile.

debutante drawing room 230201888 oj

Notice of a Drawing Room, 23 February, 1888, The Ottawa Journal

Here in Canada, we were fortunate that there was a vice-regal “court” that followed the same traditions as in London. Governors General held levées and drawing rooms just as Queen Victoria did. Indeed, Lord Elgin held a levée in Bytown in 1853 when he visited the town to check it out as a possible capital for the new Province of Canada. By the time of Confederation, the presentation of debutantes to the Governor General was in full swing with “drawing rooms” held in the Senate chamber on Parliament Hill.

At one such drawing room held in February 1870, guests were given specific instructions. Sleighs were to enter Parliament Square from the eastern Elgin Street gate, proceed past the East Block and set down guests in front of the Senate entrance which was lit by red lights. Sleighmen were then to exit via the central gates. Parliamentarians with wives and daughters were to enter via the House of Commons door which was lit by green lights. All guests were requested to provide two cards with the name of the person legibly printed, one for the aide de camp at the door and the other for the presentation aide. Presentations would end precisely at 10 pm. In little Ottawa, this was the social highlight of the winter season and received considerable newspaper coverage. More than one thousand people might attend these events. The names of participants were listed in the newspapers complete with descriptions of what the ladies wore and their jewellery.

A whole industry developed to dress ladies attending the drawing rooms, and to provide deportment lessons to the aspiring debutante who was, understandably, stressed about literally putting the wrong foot forward. Girls would practise in the privacy of their bedrooms curtseying before chairs. (For those who need to know, the proper style is to put the right foot in front, left behind, make a deep knee-bend, hold out the right hand, and go down very slowly while maintaining eye contact. Then rise and retire without turning your back on the important personage.)

While many wanted the social cachet of being presented to the Queen or Governor General, some saw the whole rigmarole as excessive or a waste of time. As early as 1863, the satirical magazine Punch called the Queen’s Drawing Room “The House of Detention for Ladies.” In 1896, an American debutante said in the press that “it was vulgar to come out. Boys never come out.  What is the reason of it all, I should like to know? Isn’t it really to announce to the world that we are a marriageable age and that we are on the market? It is perfectly intolerable. I think we are like victims decked out for sacrifice.” Instead of spending thousands on dresses and dinner parties, she asked her father to give her the money to start a business.

By the time of the more egalitarian 1950s, the idea of being presented at Court seemed out-of-date. In November 1957, Buckingham Palace announced that presentations of debutantes would cease the following year and would be replaced by garden parties. This would allow the Queen and the Prince of Edinburgh to meet a wider range of people in a less formal setting. The announcement was widely applauded. “The selection of the privileged few [had] become increasingly difficult and even invidious” said one newspaper. The news led to so many girls applying to be presented that additional presentations had to be laid on in 1958 to accommodate everybody. The last presentation of debutantes in London occurred in July 1958 with the Queen Mother officiating as Queen Elizabeth was ill. The last debutante presented was a Canadian, twenty-year old Sandra Seagram.

debutante oj 17-1-58

Full page advertisement for Le Bal des Petits Souliers, 17 January 1958, The Ottawa Journal

The Buckingham Palace announcement led Vincent Massey, Canada’s Governor General, to also end the custom of debutante presentations in Ottawa which by this time had long left the formal environs of Parliament Hill, and replaced by a charity event held at a major hotel. The last official presentation of Ottawa debutantes occurred on 24 January 1958. Five young girls were presented to Governor General Massey in the context of gala charity dinner and ball hosted by La Ligue de la Jeunesse Feminine (the League of Feminine Youth). The event, held at the Château Laurier Hotel, was called Le Bal des Petits Souliers (the Ball of the Little Shoes) with funds raised going to buy shoes for underprivileged children living in Ottawa, Eastview, Hull, Pointe Gatineau and Aylmer. Called the Fiesta Espanola, the Château was Spanish territory for the evening. Tickets were $15 per couple.

Guests at the Fiesta entered through a wrought-iron portico where they were met by life-sized mannikins of toreadors and ladies wearing mantillas. The ballroom was decorated in red and yellow—the national colours of Spain with wide streamers radiating from the central chandelier which was lit by tiny red lights. The head table was decorated with black lace fans and red carnations. Other tables boasted centrepieces made of straw baskets filled with lemons and red carnations. In the corridor outside of the ballroom, guests could go shopping for Spanish handicrafts, refresh themselves at a Spanish-style café equipped with small tables and umbrellas, or try their luck in the games’ alley. Usherettes were dressed as Spanish dolls in colourful costumes.

The evening started with a reception where the Governor General was welcomed by the president of the League and members of the organizing committee. Later, seated at the head table with the Governor General Massey and senior members of the League, were the Spanish Ambassador and his wife, Mr and Mrs Eduardo Propper de Callijon, and Mr and Mrs Lionel Massey. Lionel Massey was the Governor General’s nephew and Secretary. Lionel Massey’s wife Lilas was acting chatêlene of Rideau Hall as the Governor General was a widower. The five lucky debutantes were: Miss Isabel Larrabure, the daughter of the Peruvian Ambassador, Miss Louise Brisson, Miss Pierrette Larocque, Miss Pierrette Vachon, and Miss Catharine Woollam. Each girl was given a fan of white Spanish lace with red carnations and streamers courtesy of the League.

the debutantes oc 25-1-58

The Debutantes,(left to right) Miss Pierrette Larocque, Miss Catherine Woollam, Miss Pierrette Vachon, Miss Isabel Larrabure, and Miss Louise Brisson, The Ottawa Citizen 25 January 1958.

Spanish-themed entertainment was put on during the evening with Don Quixote, alias comedian Roger Aucouturier, making an appearance with his pantomime horse Rocinante to poke fun at Ottawa. Lively Spanish dances were also performed by a troupe of dance students while a group of “non-so-little boys in berets and short pants” staged a comedic chorus. Dance music was supplied by Fred Quirouet and his orchestra. A strolling guitarist played Spanish tunes throughout the evening. At the end of the night, Mr and Mrs J.A. Roy of 351 Nelson Street won two airline tickets to Madrid in a charity draw.

While the 1958 edition of Le Bal des Petits Souliers was the last presentation of debutantes to the Governor General made in Ottawa, the tradition staggered on in other cities for a few more years. In Montreal, Governor General Massey greeted 28 debutantes at the annual St Andrew’s Day Charity Ball held in early 1959. The Artillery Ball in Toronto, where the Lieutenant Governor of Ontario greeted debutantes, was continued for another year. The last official provincial presentation of debutantes in Canada occurred at Nova Scotia’s St Andrew’s Day Ball held in 1965.

Notwithstanding the withdrawal of regal support, the tradition of debutante balls continues to this day, especially in the United States, but also in Canada. The most prominent ball is New York’s biennial International Debutante Ball that began in 1954.  This is an invitation-only event for the daughters of wealthy, well-connected New York society families. The daughters of U.S. presidents have been invited as have carefully chosen debutantes from Canada and other countries. Candidate debutantes are selected by previous debutantes and must be accepted by a committee. They also have to be able to afford the presentation fee of US$22,000. While the Ball has traditionally been held in the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York, the event moved to The Pierre while the Waldorf-Astoria undergoes a major renovation.

Since 1994, Ottawa has had its own fairy-tale ball where teenage girls and boys can pretend to be princesses and princes for the evening. Sponsored in part by the Austrian Embassy, the Viennese Winter Ball is held annually in March. In addition to fostering a love of Austrian culture and ball-room dancing, the Viennese Winter Ball raises funds for charity. Single tickets will set you back $400. $5,000 will purchase an eight-guest corporate table. Discount student and young adult tickets are available for as low as $150. Teenagers aged 16 to 18 years of age eager to participate must apply and write two short essays, the first on why they want to participate in this year’s ball and the second on themselves—their community service, charity work, goals and interests. The Ball Selection Committee will then review and interview the applicants, and invite them to a dance practice. (Apparently, kids practise waltzes, fox-trots and polkas for weeks leading up to the big day.) Twelve debutantes and twelve “cavaliers” will be chosen. The dress code is a white, full-length formal gown for the girls, with white comfortable shoes. Complementary long-white satin gloves will be provided. Hair and make-up must be neat and polished. The boys must wear a black tuxedo with a white shirt, black bow-tie, cummerbund and formal, wrist-length, white gloves. Their hair must be trimmed. Unlike debutante balls one hundred years ago, the Viennese Winter Ball is open to all Ottawa youth. For those unable to afford it, financial assistance is available.

Sources:

Montreal Gazette. 1966. “Day of Debutante Ends In Halifax,” 7 March 1966.

Ottawa Citizen, 1863. “Drawing Room Days,” 17 July.

——————, 1870. “Levee & Drawing Room at Parliament House,” 25 February.

——————, 1896. “A Debutante Revolt,” 10 November.

——————, 1957. “Debutante Parties Out,” 19 November.

——————, 1957. “Reaction Is Favorable To Presentation Ban,” 19 November.

——————, 1958. “Debs Storm Palace For Last Party,” 6 January.

——————, 1958. “His Excellency Receives Debutantes At La Ligue’s Annual Charity Ball,” 25 January.

Ottawa Journal, 1887. “Queen’s Drawing Room,” 22 March.

——————-, 1958. “Debutante Ball,” 24 January.

——————, 1958. “Five Debutantes Make Bows to Society Presented to Governor General at Ball,” 25 January.

——————, 1958. “Two at Ball Win Trip to Spain,” 25 January.

——————, 1958. “Annual La Ligue Ball Aids Hundreds of Needy Children,” 25 February.

——————, 1958. “Debs set For Last Royal Fling,” 15 March.

——————, 1958. “Canadian Girl Last of Royal Debutantes,” 18 July.

Viennese Winter Ball, 2019. https://www.viennesewinterball.ca/.

 

The Royal Canadian Mint

2 January 1908

The right to mint coins has long been a jealously-held prerogative of the sovereign. During ancient and medieval times, those that tried to usurp this privilege risked dire punishments if caught, including death by decapitation, or by hanging, drawing and quartering. The severity of the punishment reflected the perceived severity of the crime—treason. A nation’s coinage was an extension of the sovereign whose image those coins carried. The making of money was also a very profitable business that the Crown wanted to protect for itself. The face value of the gold, silver or copper coins was higher than the intrinsic or bullion value of the metal. The difference was profit called “seigniorage,” meaning “belonging to the seigneur (lord).”  The counterfeiting of coins carried the death penalty in Canada well into the nineteenth century.

$newcoins

First series of distinctive Canadian coins, minted in England in 1858. Note the 20 cent piece. Bank of Canada Museum

In 1850, a shortage of coins led the government of the Province of Canada to pass legislation to establish a mint in Canada. Hitherto, all coins in circulation in Canada were minted in other countries, mostly Britain, the United States, Mexico and France. Although the legislation was signed into law by the Governor General, Lord Elgin, the act was “disallowed” by the Imperial government in London on the grounds that it involved “an uncalled for and most objectionable interference with the Prerogative of the ‘Crown.’” It didn’t help that the issue was part of a much broader tussle between the Canadian and British governments on whether Canada’s currency should be consistent with that of the United States, i.e. dollars and cents, or should conform to that used throughout the British Empire, i.e. pounds, shillings and pence.

In the event, the forces in favour of using dollars and cents won the day. In 1858, the first distinctive Canadian coins, denominated in cents, were produced. However, the coins were made in England by the Royal Mint, the principal supplier of Canadian coinage for the next fifty years. Canadian coins were also minted by Ralph Heaton & Sons, a private Birmingham mint, when the Royal Mint was too busy to fill a Canadian coinage order. Such coins are identical to those made at the Royal Mint except for a small letter “H.”

In 1862, a mint was briefly established in New Westminster, British Columbia to convert gold that was being panned or mined along the banks of the Fraser River into useable coins. Hitherto, the gold bullion had to be transported at considerable cost to San Francisco for conversion with the profit going to the San Francisco mint. As James Douglas, the Governor of the colony, was initially supportive of the initiative, minting equipment was purchased from the United States. However, Douglas subsequently changed his mind. Nevertheless, he permitted a very small number of trial gold and silver pieces called patterns to be struck for the London Industrial Exhibition of 1862. Although most of the patterns were melted down after the exhibition, a few, which had been given to senior government officials, survived. These trial coins are among the rarest of Canadian coins. Examples were recently acquired by the Bank of Canada Museum.

Following the establishment of the Dominion of Canada in 1867, Canadian coins continued to be made in England. In the 1890s, Senator Thomas McInnes of British Columbia was the most prominent champion for the establishment of a mint in Canada. He argued that under the British North America Act the Dominion had the authority to establish a mint, and that a Canadian mint could profitably convert Canadian-mined gold, which mostly came from British Columbia, into coins. He added that mints had been established in Australia at both Melbourne and Sydney some thirty years earlier.

The federal government was not enthusiastic. It its judgement, there was not a lot of profit to be had in making gold coins. As well, the government feared that Canadian gold coins would displace Dominion notes that were already in circulation. (U.S. gold eagles and British gold sovereigns, while both legal tender in Canada, were seldom used.) Some also feared that a domestic mint would lead to pressures to make excessive amounts of subsidiary silver coins leading to inflation. Opponents also noted that the Australian examples cited by McInnes were not relevant as Australia used the same currency as Britain. Hence, the sovereigns, which were produced by the Australian mints to the same specifications as British-made sovereigns, could circulate freely in Britain. There were also concerns about the cost of establishing a Canadian mint. Some claimed that the annual demand for Canadian coins could be minted in just one month, leaving a domestic mint idle eleven months out of twelve.

Despite these objections, Senator McInnes introduced resolutions in the Senate in favour of a mint on at least two occasions. Each time, he was asked to withdraw it, something that he reluctantly did. Sitting as an independent, he did not have the backing of any political party. He was also known for championing the quixotic idea of making Gaelic an official language in Canada. Senator McInnes was appointed Lieutenant-Governor of British Columbia in 1897. Out of his depth in his new capacity, he was later fired by Governor General, Lord Minto, at the request of Sir Wilfrid Laurier.

The Canadian banking community was divided over the issue of a Canadian mint. Some saw merit in having one from a nationalistic standpoint. National mints were established in all important countries, including many smaller than Canada. However, others worried that Canadian-minted gold coins would find little acceptance outside of Canada. In transactions with the United States, they feared that U.S. banks would demand U.S. gold coins or bullion. Hence, Canadian gold coins would have to be melted down before the gold could be transferred to U.S. banks. Consequently, Canadian banks would likely continue to hold their reserves in readily usable U.S. gold coins.

But McInnes’ idea for a Canadian mint found supporters. Several Boards of Trade, including that of Ottawa, came out in favour of his plan on both economic and nationalistic grounds. In 1894, John Mara, a Conservative MP also from British Columbia, advocated the establishment of a Canadian mint to make silver coins using metal mined from his province. However, Sir George Eulas Foster, the Conservative Minister of Finance at the time, quashed the idea.

Government attitudes towards the establishment of a mint in Canada began to shift in 1899. In May of that year, the now Liberal Finance Minister William Fielding indicated that steps might be taken to establish a branch of the Royal Mint in Canada. In October 1900, he announced in Montreal that the government had entered negotiations with the British government and that enabling legislation to permit the establishment of a branch of the Royal Mint in Canada would be introduced in the next session of Parliament. He stated that since the new branch would be making British coins when not needed to mint Canadian coins, concerns that a Canadian mint would be underutilized had been addressed.

The Ottawa Mint Act was well received by both sides of the House of Commons, and was given Royal Assent in May 1901. The legislation appropriated up to $75,000 per year to cover salaries, contingencies, other allowances and expenses incurred in operating the branch of the Royal Mint. In return, all fees, duties or charges received or collected by the branch would be paid to the Canadian government. Mr Fielding, the Finance Minister, told the House that the Mint would be under the direction of experts from the Royal Mint in London, and that plans for a building had been submitted to Public Works with the cost of construction estimated at about $259,000. The minting machinery would cost an additional $64,000. While most of the minting equipment were to come from England, the electrical equipment for the facility was to be provided by Ottawa’s own Thomas Ahearn and Warren Soper. Annual maintenance expenses were placed at $65,000 annually. This would be more than covered by the seigniorage profits on the production of silver and copper coins; little profit was expected on the making of gold coins. Profit after expenses were estimated at no less than $20,000 per year. When not producing Canadian coinage, the branch would be making British sovereigns using Canadian gold.

The Minister also assured the House that there would not be a “reckless” coinage of silver coins. The silver issue would only be as large as the Canadian economy could absorb. He stated that no one wanted a “silver question” in this country. This was an allusion to the currency “battles” underway in the United States at that time between those who wanted easy money achieved through the free minting of silver coins, and those who favoured a strict adherence to the gold standard.

Royal Mint, c.1908 Topley Studio Fonds Library and Archives Canada PA-012645

Royal Mint, Sussex Street, Ottawa, circa 1908. The building remains largely unchanged today. Topley Studio Fonds/Library and Archives Canada, PA-012645.

Despite widespread support for the establishment of a branch of the Royal Mint in Canada, it took several years to find an appropriate location for the new mint. One suggestion was to locate it at Nepean Point. This idea was rejected by the militia authorities who owned the land. The government took so long to find a building site that Mr Thomas Birkett, the MP for Ottawa, asked “if it was their [the government’s] intention to erect a mint or just dangle it in front of the electors of Ottawa.”

A site on Sussex Street was finally acquired in 1905 after lengthy negotiations with the Canadian Pacific Railway, the owner of the property. The CPR had initially asked $40,000 but settled for $21,500 after the government moved to expropriate the land that had an assessed value of $19,000. The government also acquired a neighbouring lot for $5,000. The actual building, which was constructed by Sullivan and Langdon of Kingston, Ontario, took two years to erect at an all-in cost (land, building and machinery) of $509,000, far higher than the original estimate. However, the government owned a state-of-the-art facility that was unmatched in the world. While senior officials and experts were brought over from the Royal Mint in London to manage and operate the new branch, most of the 60 plus Mint workers were Canadian, largely from the Ottawa area.

Royal Mint, 1909, Steaming Operation, William James Topley Library and Archives Canada PA-009646

Steaming Operations, Royal Mint, Ottawa, 1909, Topley Studios/Library & Archives, PA-009646.

At 3pm on 2 January 1908, the Governor General, Lord Grey, formally declared the Canadian branch of the Royal Mint open in front of roughly 300 guests, including Cabinet Ministers, Deputy Ministers, MPs, Senators, Supreme Court Justices, managers of all local banks, and other dignitaries, including Sir Sanford Fleming, the man who first proposed worldwide standard time zones. The guests were received by Dr J. Bonar, the head of the Ottawa Mint and his wife Mrs Bonar. Dr Bonar’s official title was Deputy Master since the British Chancellor of the Exchequer was the Master of the Royal Mint. Dr Bonar sent a cablegram to his counterpart at the Royal Mint in London announcing the formal start of Canadian operations. After the typical congratulatory speeches, guests were taken on a tour of the facility by Dr Bonar and Mr A. W. Cleeve, the Superintendent of the Mint.

Royal mint 50 cents

1908 Canadian silver 50 cent piece, the same as the first coin ceremonially struck by Lord Grey.

The highlight of the afternoon was the striking of the first silver coin—a 50 cent piece—by the Governor General. This coin was placed in a small box with a blue satin interior and presented to Lady Grey. After this ceremony, the party moved to a copper stamping machine. There, Lady Grey raised the lever and struck the first copper coin to be minted in Canada. Each guest was presented with a newly-struck copper penny to commemorate the event.

Mint sovereign

Canadian-minted British sovereign, 1908. The small “C” (indicated by red arrrow) above the date indicates its Canadian provenance.

At the start, the new Royal Mint branch focused on making subsidiary, i.e. silver and copper, Canadian coins. Its production of British sovereigns was limited to only 636 during 1908, the Mint’s first year of operation, though production did ramp up to almost 257,000 in 1911. (Given the limited production of the 1908 sovereign, the numismatic value of this coin today is considerable.) The gold sovereigns minted in Ottawa are identified with the letter “C” for Canada just above the date, but are otherwise identical to sovereigns minted in Britain. The Mint didn’t get around to coining Canadian $5 and $10 coins until 1912. Production was discontinued in 1914 at the beginning of World War I. The minting of gold sovereigns was also halted for a time. Production resumed from 1916 to 1919.

Royal Mint $10, J&M

Canadian $10 gold piece, minted in Ottawa, 1914.

In August 1931, the Conservative Government of R.B. Bennett severed the link between the Royal Mint and its Canadian branch. Under new legislation, the Ottawa facility commenced operations as the Royal Canadian Mint reporting to the Minister of Finance. In 1969, the Mint became a Crown Corporation. Today, the Royal Canadian Mint’s Sussex Avenue facility produces Canadian collector and commemorative coins. Circulating Canadian coins are produced at the Mint’s Winnipeg’s facility that was opened in 1976. This facility also produces coins for many other countries. 

Sources:

Berry, Paul, 2017. “New Acquisitions: British Columbia Gold Pieces,” Bank of Canada Museum, 30 May.

Canada, Government of, 1931. An Act respecting the establishment of the Royal Canadian Mint.

Canada, Province of, 1851. Appendix to Journals of the Legislative Assembly, “Message, Dispatch from Her Majesty’s Secretary of State for the Colonies communicating Her Majesty’s disallowance of an Act of last Session, entitled, “An Act to Amend the Currency Act of this Province,” also, of sundry communications in relation to that Act,” 28 July.

Canadian Coin News, 2015. Rare 1862 gilt coins offer glimpse into B.C.’s gold rush, 18 August, http://canadiancoinnews.com/rare-1862-gilt-coins-offer-glimpse-into-b-c-s-gold-rush/.

Chard, 2017. Gold Sovereigns, Branch Mints – Ottawa Canada, https://goldsovereigns.co.uk/ottawamintcanada.html.

Evening Citizen (The), 1907. “Mint Will Open Thursday,” 31 December.

Evening Journal (The), 1890, “The Question Of A Mint For Canada,” 5 May.

————————–, 1894. “Canada’s Native Silver,” 19 July.

————————–, 1897. “Wanted A National Mint,” 18 May.

————————–, 1897. “National Mint Wanted,” 3 June.

————————–, 1899. “Resolution Favoring A Canadian Mint,” 16 May.

————————–, 1900. “A Dominion Gold Coinage,” 24 October.

————————–, 1907. “Money Making Experts Here,” 12 September.

————————–, 1908. “Formal Opening of Royal Mint,” 3 January.

————————–, 1909. “A Gold Coinage,” 20 October.

————————–, 1912. “The Annual Address of the Imperial Bank’s President,” 28 May.

J&M Coin & Jewellery Ltd. 2017. Canadian Gold Sovereigns, 1908-1919, https://www.jandm.com/script/getitem.asp?CID=3&PID=50.

Powell, J. 2005. A History of the Canadian Dollar, Bank of Canada.

Powell, J. & Moxley, J. 2013. Faking It! A History of Counterfeiting in Canada, General Store Publishing House: Renfrew.

Royal Engineer (The), 2017. The Gosset Gold Coin Affair, http://www.royalengineers.ca/GossetGold.html

 

The Bank of Ottawa

20 January 1919

Toronto has its Toronto-Dominion Bank. Montreal has its Bank of Montreal. One hundred years ago, Ottawa had its own Bank of Ottawa too. Of the nineteen Canadian chartered banks at the end of 1918, the Bank of Ottawa ranked in the middle of the pack. Its assets stood at $72.7 million, with paid-in capital and reserves of $8.75 million. In comparison, the Bank of Montreal, Canada’s financial goliath at the time, had assets of $558 million and paid-in capital and reserves of $32 million. Still, the Bank of Ottawa was a well-respected regional bank whose main area of operations were located in the City of Ottawa and in the Ottawa Valley on both sides of the river. One of its directors, Sir George Burn, who had previously been its general manager for most of the bank’s existence, was also president of the prestigious Canadian Bankers’ Association.

Bank of Ottawa, Victoria Chambers, 1902, William James Topley-LACPA-008946

Victoria Chambers, 1902. First home of the Bank of Ottawa’s head office, corner of Wellington and O’Connor Streets, across from Parliament Hill, William James Topley/Library and Archives Canada, PA-008946.

The Bank of Ottawa commenced operations at the beginning of December in 1874 with its head office in the Victoria Chambers at the corner of Wellington and O’Connor Streets across from Parliament Hill. (The location is now the site of the Victoria Building, constructed in 1928.) The new bank had one branch located in Arnprior. Oddly, the Arnprior branch began operations roughly two weeks before the main branch as the bank’s headquarters were not ready on opening day.

The Bank of Ottawa was started by a number of the area’s lumber barons with the express purpose of having a sympathetic financial institution in the region to fund the lumber industry. Widely known as the “lumberman’s bank,” its first president was James Maclaren, a lumberman from Buckingham, Quebec. Other directors included George Bryson, a lumberman who operated out of Fort Coulonge, Quebec, Robert Blackburn, owner of the Hawkesbury Lumber Company, and Allan Gilmour, a pioneering Bytown lumberman who owned one of the largest timber companies in Canada. Other directors, all prominent Ottawa businessmen and suppliers to the timber trade, included Charles Magee, an important wholesale dry goods merchant, C. T. Bate, a wholesale grocer, and George Hay who owned a hardware business. The Bank of Ottawa’s initial paid-in capital was $343,000, and had thirteen employees. After its first year in business, the bank paid a dividend of 7 per cent.

Bank of Ottawa, 1901 William James Topley-LAC-PA-0118221,

Bank of Ottawa, Head Office, Wellington Street, 1901. Decorated for the Royal Visit of the Duke and Duchess of Cornwall and York, the future King George V and Queen Mary, William James Topley/Library and Archives Canada, PA-0118221.

Given the costs of starting a new enterprise, and the weak state of the Canadian economy during the mid-1870s, the profits of the new enterprise might not have justified such a dividend. Indeed, the bank temporarily cut its dividend in half. However, the new financial institution gradually expanded, building itself a profitable niche in eastern Ontario and western Quebec. By 1885, ten years after it started, the bank had a paid-in capital of $1 million, with a steadily expanding branch network in the Ottawa Valley. It opened its second and third branches in Carleton Place and Pembroke. Over time, it increased its annual dividend to 12 per cent (of paid-in capital).

Its first branch outside of the region was in Winnipeg in 1881. As this was before the opening of the trans-continental Canadian Pacific Railway, the bank had difficulties in transporting a large safe to the branch. After being told by the Grand Trunk Railway that it would take up to six weeks to deliver it to Winnipeg, the Toronto, Grey & Bruce Railway agreed to do it in fifteen days via trains to Minneapolis, Minnesota, and then to Emerson, Manitoba, with the last leg to Winnipeg via boat on the Red River. The Bank of Ottawa subsequently opened offices in Toronto and Montreal, Canada’s two financial centres at the time, as well as Vancouver. In 1884, it moved into its new head office building on Wellington Street a short distance from its original offices. (The site is approximately the vacant lot between the former U.S. Embassy building and the former Union Bank building at 128 Wellington Street.)

The salad years for the institution occurred between 1908 and 1913, when the bank experienced rapid growth, with its paid-in capital rising to $4 million. By the end of World War I, the bank had 96 branches, with more than 60 in Ontario and another thirteen in the province of Quebec, mostly in the Outaouais.

Given its years of service and key position in Ottawa economic and financial life, imagine the shock in Ottawa and the Valley when the bank’s directors, many of whom were the sons of the Bank’s founders, announced on 20 January 1919 that they had agreed to merge with the Bank of Nova Scotia. The Bank of Nova Scotia, with its head office in Toronto, was roughly twice the size of the Bank of Ottawa with assets of $149 million in 1918 with capital, reserves of about $18.5 million. It had 194 branches coast to coast. It was a friendly take-over. Apparently, the Bank of Nova Scotia approached the Bank of Ottawa. Under the terms of the deal, shareholders of the Bank of Ottawa received four Bank of Nova Scotia shares for every five shares of the Bank of Ottawa. This was the ratio of their share prices prior to the deal; Bank of Nova Scotia shares were trading at $257 per share on the Montreal Stock Exchange while Bank of Ottawa shares traded at $206.

Bank of Ottawa, Kempville, Dept. of Public Works-LAC- PA-046461

Bank of Ottawa, Kemptville Branch, Department of Public Works/Library and Archives Canada, PA-046461.

The deal had advantages for both banks. For the Bank of Nova Scotia, the merger brought it a thriving business with a solid reputation in areas where it had few branches, both in the Ottawa region as well as in western Canada where the institution was eager to expand. The two banks had competing offices in only eleven locations, most of which were in major cities where there was more than enough business to go around. The merger would also raise the Bank of Nova Scotia to fourth place in the Canadian bank rankings, behind only the Bank of Montreal, the Royal Bank of Canada, and the Bank of Commerce.

For the directors of the Bank of Ottawa, who had brushed off earlier overtures by other banks, an alliance with the Bank of Nova Scotia offered “exceptional advantages.” The merger was a way of entering new more profitable areas at less expense. Alone, the bank had a choice of trying to expand organically in the Ottawa region, or through the expensive route of establishing new branches in unfamiliar areas. But by joining the Bank of Nova Scotia, it could take advantage of the growth potential of a bank that had branches across Canada, Newfoundland, the West Indies as well as operations in the United States. The Bank of Nova Scotia was also better diversified, reducing the consequences of an economic slowdown in the Ottawa region. This was an astute move as Canada experienced a sharp recession in the immediate post-war years.

Despite the many attractions of an alliance, there was one thorny issue to resolve—the name of the new institution. The directors of the Bank of Ottawa were loath to see the venerable name of their institution disappear. The Ottawa Evening Journal reported that for forty-four years, the Bank of Ottawa’s name was “identified with practically all of the best businesses and biggest industrial enterprises in central Canada.”  At the same time, the directors of the Bank of Nova Scotia were equally unwilling to see the end of their bank’s storied name that extended back to 1832. For a time, consideration was given to calling the merged bank “The First National Bank of Canada.” However, in light of the Bank of Nova Scotia’s considerable foreign connections, the Bank of Ottawa’s directors reluctantly concluded that it would be a mistake to change names; a view shared by Sir William White, the Minister of Finance, who gave his blessing to the merger.

Without any forewarning of the pending financial nuptials, the announcement of the merger created a sensation in Canadian financial circles. In Ottawa, there was consternation, especially when it became known that the Bank of Ottawa name was to disappear. One businessman, Mr. N. Poulin, said it was a “murder” not a merger. Another called it a “submerger.” Some worried about their access to credit; the Bank of Ottawa had an uncommonly good reputation for being considerate and liberal in its business decisions. One businessman was concerned that after years of dealing with the Bank of Ottawa he would have to start afresh with the Bank of Nova Scotia. Many regarded the bank as an important city asset. Its loss would be a major blow to the prestige to the nation’s capital.

Bank of Ottawa note

Bank of Ottawa, $5, 2 November 1880, hand-signed by James Maclaren, President, and George Burn, Cashier. Note the lumberjacks in the central vignette. Bank of Canada Museum.

The disappearance of the Bank of Ottawa name would also mean the withdrawal of almost $7 million in Bank of Ottawa banknotes from circulation and their replacement by Bank of Nova Scotia notes. Prior to the formation of the Bank of Canada in 1935, every chartered bank had the right to issue their own distinctive banknotes in the amount of its paid-in capital and reserves. While the circulation of bank notes did not represent a large portion of a bank’s business, it was quite profitable. (A bank earned the difference between the cost of printing and circulating its banknotes, and the interest earned on the assets backing the notes.) It also provided useful advertising for the bank, and in the case of the Bank of Ottawa, for the city as well.  Mr Poulin commented that “with a roll of Bank of Ottawa ten dollar bills in his pocket a man could go to any part of the world and feel comfortable and safe.”

At a hastily-called meeting of Ottawa retail merchants, a resolution was passed citing the merchants’ belief that the departure of the head offices of Ottawa’s only financial institution would have “a decidedly bad effect” on the city. More broadly, they were concerned that the concentration of more financial power and decision-making in Toronto and Montreal would be bad for the country. (There had been a rash of financial takeovers, including the acquisition of the Traders Bank of Canada, the Quebec Bank and the Northern Crown Bank by the Royal Bank of Canada, as well as the acquisition of the Bank of British North America by the Bank of Montreal.) Some thought that a committee should be struck to approach the directors of the Bank of Ottawa to get a better understanding of their decision. Some even pledged money to buy shares in the bank in an effort to stop the merger. Still others wanted to approach the Finance Minister to get him to reverse his decision to permit the merger. They noted that an attempt by the Royal Bank of Canada to acquire the Bank of Hamilton a few years earlier had been stopped by the Minister on the grounds that the merger was against the national interest. Mr A. E. Corrigan, the managing director of the Capital Life Assurance Company likened a bank to a “public utility” that had been given a franchise to serve the people. Consequently, the people had a right to protest if a merger was not in their interest. One person alleged that the reason why the Finance Minister approved the merger was because the Prime Minister, Sir Robert Borden, was a shareholder in the Bank of Nova Scotia.

The general manager of the Bank of Ottawa, Mr. D. M. Finnie, tried to allay people’s concerns. He noted that while he would be retiring following the merger, all Bank of Ottawa staff would be retained with the same seniority and opportunities. Critically for Bank of Ottawa customers, its directors would retain their positions within the amalgamated bank and would pay special attention to former Bank of Ottawa clients. Bank of Ottawa customers would also have complete access to the Bank of Nova Scotia’s branches across the country.

At special shareholder meetings held in early March, the shareholders of the Bank of Ottawa and the Bank of Nova Scotia overwhelmingly approved the merger. Following the declaration of a last dividend (no. 111) of 2 per cent for the two-month period ending 30 April 1919, the Bank of Ottawa disappeared into history with all of its assets and liabilities transferred to the Bank of Nova Scotia as of that day. The next morning, all branches of the Bank of Ottawa re-opened as branches of the Bank of Nova Scotia.

Sources:

Globe (The), 1919. “Bank of Ottawa Absorbed by Bank of Nova Scotia,” 20 January.

Ottawa Evening Journal (The), 1918. “Bank of Ottawa’s Gratifying Year,” 19 December.

————————————-, 1919, “Bank of Ottawa To Be Merger With Bank Of Nova Scotia, Making Fourth Largest Bank,” 20 January.

————————————-, 1919. “Says The Merger Will Result In Advantage To All Canada,” 20 January.

————————————-, 1919. “Evolution Of A Great Bank,” 20 January.

————————————-, 1919. “The Merging Of The Bank Of Ottawa,” 20 January.

————————————-, 1919. “Bank of Ottawa Swallowed Up, Strong Protest,” 20 January.

————————————-, 1919. “Bank of Nova Scotia Stronger Than Ever,” 20 January.

————————————-, 1919. “Strong Opposition To Banks’ Merger From Businessmen,” 21 January.

————————————-, 1919. “Mr. Finnie Tells About The Merger,” 21 January.

————————————, 1919. “Great War Veterans Debate Merger Of Banks Of Ottawa And Nova Scotia At Forum, 25 January.

————————————, 1919. “Bank Of Ottawa Now Disappears,” 30 April.

————————————, 1951. “Bank of Ottawa Developed Lumber Trade,” 31 October.

Outaouais’s Forest History, 2017, “The Bank of Ottawa and the financing of the forest industry,” http://www.histoireforestiereoutaouais.ca/en/c10/#10.

 

The Ottawa Sewer Explosions

29 May 1929 and 28 January 1931

Almost ninety years ago, the City of Ottawa was rocked by two series of sewer explosions that occurred twenty months apart. The first happened on 29 May 1929, and the second on 28 January 1931. Both hit the same areas of town—Sandy Hill, Vanier (then called Eastview) and New Edinburgh—and caused extensive damage. There was also one fatality in the first set of blasts; many were injured. Despite three inquiries, the exact cause of the explosions was never conclusively determined though leaking illuminating gas used for lighting was believed to have been the culprit. However, a lengthy law suit launched by the City against the Ottawa Gas Company to cover the costs of the second explosions failed.

Sewer 1929 29 May OEJournal

Headline, The Ottawa Evening Journal, 29 May 1929

 

The 1929 explosions began shortly before noon on 29 May in the block bounded by Cartier, Frank, Waverely and Elgin Streets in the Golden Triangle neighbourhood of Centre Town, blowing out manhole covers in the area.  The resulting fire ignited gas inside the main sewer line running eastward under the Rideau Canal, causing shaking, rumbling and venting through manholes on Templeton Avenue, Henderson Avenue and Nelson Streets in Sandy Hill, before travelling down St Patrick Street and into New Edinburgh on the other side of the Rideau River along Crichton, MacKay and John Streets to the sewage outlet into the Ottawa River. There were also a number of smaller blasts in the Eastview and Clarkstown areas (Vanier) between Montreal Road and Beechwood Avenue.

At least twenty-eight manhole covers were blown in the air, some thirty to forty feet, before crashing to the ground. Clouds of smoke and vivid tongues of flame were reported emanating from the manholes. Mrs Hannah Henderson, age 73, of 37 Templeton Avenue was killed when flames shot out of her kitchen sinkhole and ignited her clothes. Although she managed to flee her home, she later succumbed to her injuries in hospital. Around the corner at 192 Henderson Avenue, Miss Lilian Pettapiece, age 20, escaped a similar house fire with serious burns. She had been in her cellar choosing potatoes for lunch when she was enveloped by flames that shot out of a sewer connection. Despite choking fumes, she managed to stumble up the stairs to the outside where she was rescued. Many others were injured by flying glass blown from windows. The home of Captain Sam Blackler of the Ottawa Fire Department at 211 Henderson Avenue was rocked from its foundations by the force of a blast and was gutted by fire. Fortunately, nobody was hurt. Mrs Blackler suffered a narrow escape, however. She had just walked out of the kitchen a minute before it was wrecked. An apartment building at the corner of Somerset Street East and Chapel Street, which housed a grocery on the ground floor, also suffered serious structural damage. In New Edinburgh, St Martin’s Anglican Chapel on John Street was destroyed. In total, the sewer explosion caused roughly $40,000 in property damage.

Sewer explosion 30-5-1929 TOJ

The home of Captain Sam Blackler of the  Ottawa Fire Department at 211 Henderson Street after the sewer explosion, 29 May 1929, The Ottawa Evening Journal, 30 May 1929.

Ottawa’s mayor Arthur Ellis was convinced that the explosions were not due either “to defects in the city sewer,” or to sewer gas (a mixture of hydrogen sulphide and other gases). Municipal leaders commissioned John Campbell from the Edison Illuminating Company of Boston to conduct an inquiry into the disaster. Campbell concluded that the exact nature of the gases that exploded might never be known as no tests were performed on gas in the sewers prior to the explosion. However, he pointed to two possibilities: i) gasoline vapours due to the improper disposal of gasoline by homeowners, leakages from the growing number of service stations in the area, and waste from dry-cleaners, or ii) a leak from a gas main. He noted that the Ottawa Gas Company had been digging for leaks prior to and during the day of the explosion. He added that the sewer explosion need not have been the result of a single big leak but could have been due to a number of small ones. While not specifically pointing the finger at illuminating gas, he added that the lack of soot deposits and the nature of the fire suggested a gas lighter than air was responsible; gasoline vapours are three times heavier than air whereas illuminating gas is half as heavy as air. Campbell was of the view that the exact point of ignition was in the Frank-Cartier Streets area. However, what caused the ignition would never be known. He postulated it could have been a lighted match, the backfire of an automobile, or a spark from a trolley wheel.

Rather than lay blame, which he argued was outside of the remit of his report, Campbell made a number of recommendations. These included the prompt investigation of complaints about gas smells (complaints prior to the explosion were apparently not investigate with any degree of diligence), the regulation of the sale of gasoline to homeowners, a prohibition on disposing of volatile fluids in the sewers, and the inspection of gasoline service stations. He also recommended the construction of ventilation stacks with fans to help dissipate volatile vapours in the sewers, and the hiring of additional staff by the City to keep up to date in the matter of inspecting, testing and the keeping of records.

The second series of sewer explosions began at roughly 4.30 pm on 29 January 1931 just two days after the City had made its last payment for damages from the previous explosion to St Martin’s Chapel. As was the case in 1929, it started in the Golden Triangle area of Centre Town, this time at the corner of Lewis and Robert Streets. The explosion was accidently ignited by a plumber’s assistant who was investigating the source of a foul odour in the basement of a home.  Apparently, a spark from a trowel he was using ignited gas emanating from the sewer.

Sewer, 29 May 1931 Journal

Headline, The Ottawa Evening Journal, 29 January 1931

Replicating in many ways the 1929 disaster, the blast rumbled down the main sewer line blowing up manhole covers in Sandy Hill along Templeton Street, Nelson Street and Somerset Street East, through Strathcona Park, before travelling along the east bank of the Rideau River to John Street in New Edinburgh. As in 1929, twenty-eight manholes covers were sent flying, sixteen of which featured in the earlier disaster. The damage sustained to the sewer system was severe. There were at least four breaks. The 78-inch main sewer on the Eastview (Vanier) side of the Cummings Bridge, which carried much of the sewage from the eastern portions of the city to the outfall at John Street into the Ottawa River, was fractured. Another 54-inch sewer running from Ottawa South along the west bank of the Rideau River was also ruptured near the Strathcona Hospital. With these breaks, sewage backed up into Sandy Hill. To prevent the flooding of homes, the City excavated at two points, one on Somerset Street and the other near the Isolation Hospital, and pumped the sewer water into the Rideau River. In total, more than a mile of sewer was wrecked with damage placed at almost $400,000, roughly ten times that of the earlier 1929 sewer explosion.

Fortuitously, this time no lives were lost. There were, however, a number of close calls. Twelve-year old Munroe Dingwall of 138 Goulburn Avenue was skiing on Somerset Street East with friends when a manhole cover blew up beside him. The lad was lifted into the air, skis and all, and deposited stunned but unhurt into a snowbank. Poor Miss Pettapiece, who suffered grievous injuries in the 1929 explosions, was on a bus near home when a manhole exploded. She collapsed and had to be treated for shock. A number of children were skating on the Sandy Hill rink on Nelson Street between Somerset East and Templeton Street when gaping holes appeared in the streets around the rink. The children were unharmed and taken to safety.

The City launched two inquiries. The first by consulting engineers Gore, Naismith and Storrie of Toronto concluded that gasoline and illuminating gas were “reasonably probable” causes. Of the two possibilities, the engineers favoured illuminating gas on the grounds that there was little evidence of flames or black smoke emanating from the explosions that would have been characteristic of a gasoline fire. Also, they viewed it as improbable for a perfect mix of gasoline vapour and air to have occurred. But, in the absence of all data and an analysis of sewer air before the explosions, they refrained from given an opinion regarding the source of the responsible gas.

They did, however, make a number of recommendations. First, they recommended that there be a judicial inquiry under oath so that all relevant records and other information pertinent to an inquiry could be obtained. Second, they argued that Ottawa’s method of ventilating sewers was dangerous and obsolete. They recommended the construction of more ventilating shafts, the opening of manhole covers, and the checking of home drains attached to the sewers. Apparently, many were not properly trapped. Other recommendations included the regulation and supervision of establishments using flammable gases or liquids, a regular inspection of sewers every six months, and the construction of sewage treatment plants.

A second committee chaired by Dr Alfred E. MacIntyre, a retired former chief of the Explosives Branch of the Dominion Government, focused on the causes of the blasts. MacIntyre had also consulted on the Campbell Report into the earlier 1929 explosion. He was of the opinion that illuminating gas had been the cause of both explosions. His report concluded that “gas had adventitiously entered the soil, drainpipes, sewer, etc. from defects within the gas distributing system of the Ottawa Gas Company.” Needless to say, the Gas Company came up with the opposite conclusion averring “that gas is the last thing that could be considered in connection with the recent sewer explosions.”

MacIntyre was pretty damming of the City as well. His report said the City had made no attempt to investigate the 1929 explosion, and that the investigations of complaints about fouls smells from residents were “neither informative nor satisfactory.” He contended that members of the inspectorial staff “had neither developed their powers of observation nor acquired sufficient qualifications and knowledge to discriminate or determine the actual condition of hazards, nor a conception of fitting methods of relief, conditions largely attributable to lack of instruction and direction.” MacIntyre also criticized the City for improper ventilation of the sewers, a charge to which the City responded by saying that it was not responsible for keeping sewers free of volatile gases that enter the sewers through the negligence of another company.

On release of MacIntyre’s report, the Board of Control suspended Mr W. F. M. Bryce, the engineer responsible for Ottawa’s sewers for negligence in not taking adequate measures to ensure that the sewers were kept free from dangerous gases. Bryce subsequently resigned. Earlier in the year, Mr A.F. Macallum, the Commissioner of Works, had also resigned, having been held responsible for not taking sufficient precautionary measures to avoid a repetition of the 1929 blasts.

At City Hall, the two investigations into the 1931 explosions set the proverbial cat among the municipal pigeons. Amidst a rancorous debate, City Council defeated on a split 11-11 decision a motion supported by Mayor Allen for a judicial inquiry into the explosion as recommended by the consulting engineers from Toronto. A motion for an independent inquiry into the conduct of Mr Bryce, the sewer engineer, was also defeated on a close 11-10 decision. Subsequently, however, the City launched a law suit against the Ottawa Gas Company in the amount of $376,000 for damages resulting from the 1931 blasts. Despite the testimony of roughly 100 witnesses, the evidence provided by the two inquiries into the sewer explosions, and an admission of the Ottawa Gas Company that its pipes and gas mains had not been inspected since they were installed, the Court ruled in favour of the gas company owing to lack of evidence. After losing an appeal, the City paid the court cost of both parties.

Following the inquiries, the City took steps to improve ventilation in the sewers, including the establishment of another ventilation shaft in Strathcona Park. Measures were also taken to improve the investigation of complaints of sewer smells by residents through the establishment of a complaints bureau. In the end, only Mr Macallum, the former Commissioner of Works, took the fall for the sewer disaster. Roughly eighteen months after the explosion, the Board of Control unanimously re-appointed Mr W. F. M. Bryce to his old job as sewer engineer on the curious and vague grounds that the Board had earlier requested his resignation not because members felt that he “was not fully competent, but because of the nature of the report dealing with the investigation.”

Sources:

Ottawa Evening Citizen (The), 1931, “May Call Further Expert Advice On Sewer Blasts,” 29 January.

————————————-, 1931. “Experts Differ Upon Cause Of Sewer Blasts,” 10 June.

Ottawa Evening Journal (The), 1929. “City Denies Blame For Explosions, Continues Inquiry,” 30 May 1929.

————————————–, 1929. “Advises Ventilation Of Sewers, Restrictions Of Gasoline Sales And More Vigorous Inspections,” 4 October.

————————————–, 1931. “Discover Sewer Explosion Damage Much Greater,” 29 January.

————————————–, 1931, “Fourth Stack Will Be Built To Air Sewers,” 17 April.

————————————–, 1931. “Judicial Probe Under Oath Is Only Way To Learn cause Of Explosions, Says Report,” 20 April.

————————————–, 1931. “MacIntyre Report Sets It Theory Of Big Explosion,” 4 June.

————————————–, 1931. “Says Lighting Gas The Cause Of Explosions,” 10 June.

————————————–, 1931. “After Long Stormy Debate City Council Rejects More For Probe Of Sewer Blasts,” 18 August.

————————————–, 1931, “Board of Control Endorses Damage Suit For Big Sum Against Ottawa Gas Co.” 30 September.

—————————————, 1931. “Declares Pipes Only Inspected During Repairs,” 1 December.

—————————————, 1932. “Mayor States All Favorable To W.F. M. Bryce,” 17 September.

————————————–, 1932. “Open Type Tops Would Have Cleared Gases,” 25 November.