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The Great Toronto Circus Riot

A clown and a firefighter walk into a brothel and it leads to the reform of the Toronto police force… sort of.


Toronto in 1854. Photo courtesy of Toronto Public Library


The Background


The year was 1855 and Toronto was a far cry from the busy metropolis we know today. Though the expansion of the railway meant that the city was verging on a population explosion, at the time of our tale, Toronto still only had around 40,000 residents, the vast majority of whom were either born in Britain or were second or third generation British immigrants.


It was a city of labourers and pioneers but it was also a city dominated by The Grand Orange Lodge of Canada—the Canadian branch of the Protestant fraternal organization known as the Orange Order that was founded in Armagh, Northern Ireland in 1795. At least half of Toronto’s Police Force at the time were members of the Orange Order along with a good chunk of the city’s firefighters.


Before we go any further, it’s important to note that the fire service worked a little differently in Victorian Toronto than it does today. Instead of one centralized Firefighting Department, there were a series of competing “companies” scattered throughout the city who would frequently turn up at the scene of a fire and fight for the right to put it out (perhaps understandable in a scenario where you were only paid if your company was the one to actually fight the fire). Despite many of these inter-company brawls turning violent, it was rare for anyone to be arrested or prosecuted—when the police showed up they would not only turn a blind eye to the activities of any factions associate with the Orange Order, but sometimes they even joined in the skirmishes themselves. Loyalty to their fellow Orangemen always won out.


Alexander Jacques of the Rescue No.2 engine, Volunteer Fire Dept, Toronto (1858). Courtesy of Toronto Public Library

On to the story:


The Initial Fight


In July of 1855, S.B. Howe’s Star Troupe Menagerie & Circus came to town. The plan was to set up shop in a field next to the St. Lawrence Market for two days before heading on to the next location. On the first night, July 12th, the circus put on only one show meaning that all the clowns, concession workers, and labourers were given the rest of the night off. Since they were only in Toronto for a short time, they seized the opportunity to avail of the local nightlife and headed to Mary-Ann Armstrong’s, an (alleged) bordello near the junction of King St. and Jarvis St. This turned out to be a really unfortunate decision.

King St. E., looking west from east of Jarvis Sts., Toronto (1859). Courtesy of Toronto Public Library

Toronto had a lot of bars and taverns—152 bars and 203 beer shops within the city limits to be exact (and that’s not even counting the brothels), but the one the clowns chose to frequent that evening happened to be the favoured haunt of the local fire brigade known as the Hook & Ladder Company.


Accounts vary as to exactly what happened (most of the witnesses were presumably drunk and/or otherwise engaged—this was a brothel after all), but most people seem to agree that the fists started to fly after a drunk firefighter named Fraser knocked the hat off of the head of a particularly belligerent clown named Meyer and refused to pick it up. We all know that clowns are terrifying enough as it is (that make-up is just plain creepy), but the clowns of S.B. Howe’s were also big, strapping lads who were expected to assist in manual labour, hauling heavy props and machinery around and striking down and building up the circus in each new location. After the fighting died down, it was the firefighters who ended up the worse for wear with at least two of their number seriously injured.


The story might have ended there, just another barroom brawl forgotten to history, but the firefighters were all members of the Orange Order and as we’ve already stated, the Orangemen stuck together.


The Riot


Word spread and the next day, Friday, July 13th, a massive crowd descended on the circus grounds looking for trouble. Stones and insults were thrown and when the boys of the Hook & Ladder Company arrived hellbent on vengeance, it quickly escalated into a full-blown riot. The circus performers, who had managed to hold back the mob for some time, were totally overwhelmed.


Word of the impending riot had allegedly reached the ears of the Chief of Police, Samual Sherwood, early in the day but being an Orangeman himself, he held off as long as he could before dispatching only six constables in the afternoon and another six in the evening. Many accounts claim that the police simply stood by and watched as the Hook & Ladder Company overturned wagons and tried to tear down the big top. Some say they only intervened when the rioters tried to set the animal cages on fire.


Eventually, the mayor of the city arrived on the scene. He called in the militia to resolve the situation but not before he managed to disarm a firefighter who was about to use his axe to murder a clown (mayors were way more badass back in the day).


The Aftermath


After the violence died down and the crowds dispersed, the policemen who had been on the scene suffered an unfortunate bout of memory loss (the Orangemen stuck together, remember?). They claimed that it had been too dark to see anything and that none of the rioters were familiar to them. All in all, only 17 people were even charged for their participation in the riot and of those, only one was ever convicted.


The public and the press were understandably furious at the blatant favouritism and backslapping among public institutions. One newspaper, The Globe (later, The Globe and Mail) wrote:


“There are three classes in the city which thoroughly understand one another as hale fellows well met – the innkeeper, the firemen and the police. These classes are fed by the Orange Lodges.”

This incident (along with the ongoing Protestant vs. Catholic street riots that had been happening around the city for years) highlighted the deep-seated problems within the Toronto police force. The City Council called for an inquest and the findings were damning, shedding light on the corruption and inefficiencies that were rife within the force.


Change didn’t happen overnight, but by 1858 a new policing board of commissioners was approved and plans for a new police force were drawn up. The following year the entire police force was fired (though more than half of them were later rehired) and rebuilt from the ground up. The stranglehold of the Orange Order on public institutions was broken and Toronto took its first step toward the modern police force we all know today (although at the time of writing this, you have to wonder if all that much has really changed...).


In the end, all it took to put a stop to over 100 years of collusion and fraternal gladhanding was one drunk fireman and a pretty pissed off clown…


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