Toronto’s first post office, rebellion & a little Upper Canada history

Toronto’s first post office, rebellion & a little Upper Canada history

Trivia time: Where is the first post office in Toronto located?

Toronto's first post office 1833-1839

260 Adelaide Street East.  It’s a small, lovingly restored building across the road from George Brown College.  I’ve passed by it more times than I can count, until this week, never stopped in. A scandalous state of affairs for any stamp collector.  It’s a smart little Georgian building, that doesn’t draw a lot of attention to itself. Built in 1833, and served as the local post office until 1839. The Adelaide address has an added layer to it’s story because it was tied up with the Rebellion of 1837, although it’s resident was an unwilling participant.

York was a muddy blotch of land on the edge of Lake Ontario back in it’s early years. It was pretty much a rural York Survey Mapbackwater – small, provincial and according to visitors horribly backwards. It wasn’t until after the War of 1812 that York was kick started into a new, vibrant town with new wharfs, warehouses, commercial businesses  etc popping up in the next decade.  By the 1830s, the existing system of governing proved to be incapable of taking care of business. York, the provincial capital, was also transforming into a growing commercial hub. Along with the growth came the demand for better roads, sewage, and other services befitting a provincial capital. The old system, geared more towards a small village and rural surroundings was no longer enough. In 1834, the provincial government incorporated the city of Toronto.

There were 4 post offices in York prior to incorporation. The one on Adelaide was the first official Toronto post office. Enter the hero of our story – James Scott Howard  the first Post Master of Toronto.

James Scott Howard

Born in County Cork Ireland 2 Sept. 1798, Howard arrived in Canada in 1819, first settling in New Brunswick and later moving to York. He received an appointment to work in the post office, under York Post Master William Allen. By July 1828, Howard was elevated to Post Master.  All was well for a number of years. The house on Adelaide was built in 1833 and the Howard family lived upstairs with the post office downstairs for a while. When Toronto incorporated, Howard made it to the history books as it’s first official Post Master.

It’s difficult to imagine how important a post office was in the 1800s. It was a major hub of activity, near the financial district, close to the harbours, and of vital importance to people waiting to hear from family back home. Post Masters ran notices in the newspapers, quarterly, listing who had mail waiting for them. Line ups were not uncommon. The post office included a reading room where people would gather to have their letters read to them. This was in an era before public education made basic literacy the norm.  Postal staff would be on hand to read and in some cases write return letters for people.

Adelaide post office reading room

But … things were afoot in Canada, an event that would throw Howard’s comfortable life into turmoil for years. He inadvertently fell out of favour of the ruling Family Compact here in Ontario. For those not steeped in grade school history of Canada, the Family Compact were the ruling class in Ontario. Elitist, Loyalist, Anglican, tight knit family ties and very conservative, the Compact controlled all aspects of Ontario.  A businessman dared not bring down the wrath of the Compact, it could cost them them dearly.

[read more on the Family Compact here http://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.cCa/en/article/family-compact/]

By the 1830s, their power was being challenged.  The harder they tried to maintain control, the more discontent grew. Times were changing, whether they wanted them to or not. By 1837, things came to a head when an armed uprising began against the government.  [Read more on the Rebellion here]. Uprisings occurred in both Upper and Lower Canada. They were all put down within a year and things appeared to settle back into the status quo. However, defeating the Rebellion proved to be the last gasp for the ruling compact. Although the rebels were beaten, in the long run, they won. Within 10 years, the Durham Report [Read more here] drew up the plans for responsible government and laid the groundwork that broke the grip of the Family Compact for good.

James Scott Howard wasn’t part of the Compact – he wasn’t Anglican for starters and not part of the ruling families. Second he seemed to have been pretty fair minded. He had friends from all walks of life, including some who were central players in the Rebellion.   Howard maintained political neutrality and by all accounts, kept himself out of politics. But he was accidently swept up in the Rebellion of 1837 and unfairly accused of siding with the Rebellion. The government of Ontario dismissed him without any formal charges being brought against Howard or proven. The Family Compact viewed his friendship with some of the rebels as guilt. Out he went. The position of Post Master was handed to Albert Berczy, who took up residence in the building for about a year. The post office was moved from Adelaide to Front Street (just west of Yonge Street) in 1839 and the Adelaide ceased functioning as a post office.

Howard fought for years to clear his name.  Lieutenant Governor Francis Bond Head was convinced of Howard’s complicity and refused to budge. Although an inquiry did agree with Howard that he had no part in the rebellion and that he had remained neutral, it didn’t make a difference. He wasn’t rehired as Post Master. He hadn’t shown due loyalty to the ruling class and that was enough to doom his chances. Friends agitated on his behalf in the 1840s, believing a great injustice had been done. Although he was never reappointed to any post office position, he was given the job of treasurer for York and Peel counties   He later took on other government roles but was never again involved in postal matters.

When the post office vacated, the building was rented out to a number of different tenants and businesses. Howard sold the building in 1873.  260 Adelaide changed hands many times over the next 100 years until it was an unrecognisable shell of it’s former self – Toronto isn’t always kind to it’s own history. It wasn’t until a fire nearly destroyed the historic building in 1978 that the city of Toronto finally begin to recognise it’s importance. It was purchased, restored to it’s former simple beauty and is the local post office once again. It was a busy little place when I visited. A steady trail of people coming and going.

The Adelaide post office also serves as a museum.  The main room is a fully functioning post office, complete with a replica of the original post slots. You can potter around looking at the displays in the other rooms, try your hand at using a quill pen (not as easy as it looks) and read a little on the history of the building. Letters mailed from here can be, on request, hand cancelled with a reproduction red ink cancel from the era. If you’re interested in receiving one, drop me a line and I’ll pad down to the post office and send you one.

If you come to Toronto, take a bit of time and visit. A perfect little window on Upper Canada.

Royal Mail Repllica