The Great Toronto Circus Riot

- October 27th, 2008

It was clowns versus firefighters. The clowns won the first round, firefighters the second. Here’s the story:


Run, clown, run

The air was hot and heavy in Toronto, that Thursday night, July 12, 1855.

S.B Howes’ “Star Troupe” menagerie and circus had come to town for a two-day stand at the fairgrounds after touring the boonies. It had been several months since the last circus was in Toronto, so excitement was high in a town where novelties were few and far between.


Ad in the Globe for Howes’ Menagerie and Circus

The Howes Star Troupe featured trick riders and acrobats, a giraffe, elephant and other exotic wild animals, … and, of course, clowns. As in most circuses of that time, the roustabouts who put up the circus tents and broke them down later did double duty: some were cashiers, some sold treats and souvenirs, but many made up the corps of clowns who goofed around between main acts.

Afternoon and evening shows had been performed to sellout crowds that day. Since the circus was to be in town the next day as well, the troupe had the rest of the night off to enjoy Toronto.

A group of clowns, led by a roughneck roustabout named Meyers, settled in at a bordello on King Street East near Jarvis, one of many in the neighbourhood, to sample whatever pleasures the city had to offer. You must remember that although Victoria was on the British throne, the strict Victorian era had not yet arrived. Toronto in its early days had a huge number of taverns and quite a few bordellos.

One of the earliest criminal convictions in the Town of York was against a Mrs. Elizabeth Ellis for keeping a bawdy house. She was sentenced to six months in jail and two sessions of two hours each in the town pillory.


King Street looking east from York Street in 1856. In the distance you can see St. James Cathederal (without its spire yet) on the north side and, further on, St. Lawrence Hall on the south. The bordello would have been in the vicinity of St. Lawrence Hall.

Now the bordello chosen by the clowns happened to be the social base of one of Toronto’s leading volunteer fire brigades, the Hook & Ladder Firefighting Company. These volunteer brigades were as much fraternity clubs as service organizations. In a city that was dominated by the ultra-Protestant Orange Order, the fire brigades were bastions of Orange militancy, but a strong rivalry also existed among the five or six different brigades.

Only a few weeks earlier, the Hook & Ladder Firefighting Company brawled with another volunteer company that had tried to pitch in at the scene of a fire where the Hook & Ladder boys were already on the job. When police tried to break up the fight, both groups of firefighters turned on the cops and beat them badly. It didn’t matter that all of the cops were fellow members of the Orange Order.

So, we have a group of rough-and-tumble circus clowns and a group of rowdy firefighters staking their turf in the same bordello.

We all know where that situation ends up and, as I told you earlier, the clowns won the first round. The firefighters fled into the dark city, dragging their broken and wounded with them. The clowns were cocks of the roost that night.

The next day — Friday the 13th, inauspiciously — was a different story.

Word had spread of the beating sustained by the Orange firefighters and revenge was the order of the day.


The Toronto fairgrounds were the open space in the centre foreground of the picture


Toronto waterfront adjacent to the fairgrounds

By noon, crowds of boys and young men had begun moving to the fairgrounds, located on a two-block patch of open ground between Front Street and the Esplanade, from Princes Street (now called Princess) over to Berkley. Fire Station 33 and the Canadian Opera Company rehearsal hall now occupy the area just across the street from the Toronto Sun building.

Local merchants and farmers who had set up stalls around the circus were told to clear out, and an uneasy standoff between the Toronto mob and outnumbered circus folks occurred.

A call went out to Toronto Police Chief Samuel Sherwood that trouble was brewing. Sherwood, a bumbling placeholder who later took most of the blame for what happened, dithered and dallied and finally sent a few men a check out the scene.

The dithering was probably on purpose. Sherwood was a prominent member of the Orange Order, was appointed to his post in 1852 as a reward for loyal service by a largely Orange city council, and had been implicated in an Orange Order-Tory attack on Reform marchers a decade earlier in which one Reformer was shot to death.

By the time the police arrived at the fairgrounds that Friday, stones were flying, mostly thrown by young boys in the crowd. As witnesses and participants later testified, the mob could probably have been broken up by determined police intervention at that point. It didn’t happened.

The police, almost all Orangemen, stood in the street and simply watched as the mob, many of whom were also well-known Orange Order members, built up their courage. More stones flew, axes were waved, small knots of rowdies sallied out to pull down ropes of the big top and scuffle with the circus men.

By the time, Sherwood finally arrived on the scene, the scuffles had grown into a fullblown mob fight. Sections of the big top were torn down, fires were started, wagons were tipped over. About 1,000 people were estimated to be milling around the fairgrounds at that point.

As if on cue, fire alarms were set off and wagonloads of firefighters came charging into the area with their equipment. The Hook & Ladder boys and their allies/rivals had come, not to put out the small fires smouldering, but to set bigger ones if they could.


A later hook and ladder wagon

With axes and pikes, the firefighters charged into the circus tent. They used their hooks to pull down poles, wires and canvas. They tied the main pole to a firewagon and toppled the bigtop. And they chased the roustabouts out of the tent with their axes. Many circus folks were badly beaten by the mob, some dived into Lake Ontario and swam to safety.

The mayor arrived just in time to pull an axe from the hands of a man about to strike a fallen clown. The police chief’s great claim was that he stopped the mob from setting fire to the wagons containing the circus animals.

Throughout the melee, policemen stood by and did nothing.

The rioting continued until the mayor called out the militia to restore order. Although there were many serious injuries, unbelievably nobody died in the riot.

Once a semblance of order was restored by the militia, the circus people returned, quickly packed up what they could and fled Toronto for the relative safety of the countryside that night.


Globe account of city council’s circus riot inquiry

The next week, Toronto council held a lengthy inquiry into the riot. Accusations were hurled hither and yon, but the only consensus seemed to be that Chief Sherwood was a dunderhead and it was all his fault. Maybe so, maybe not. There was a lot of politicking going on.

Charges were laid against 17 rioters. All except one got off: Not a single constable would admit seeing any of the 17 at the circus.

The Toronto Circus Riot eventually led to a provincial (well, Ontario/Canada West wasn’t a province yet, but you know what I mean) inquiry into municipal policing and resulted in some reform. The Orange Lodge continued to exert strong influence over Toronto Police until well into the 20th Century and its power was not fully broken until World War II.

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