“The Scythe of the Destroyer”

“The Scythe of the Destroyer” or the Bringer of Change:

The 1832 and 1854 Cholera Epidemics and the Development of the Toronto Port

Jenna Boucher

Toronto - 2023

A pastoral letter written in 1948 reflected on the cholera epidemic of 1832 in Toronto, calling it “the scythe of the destroyer sweeping away our friends and neighbours as the winds scatter the leaves of the forest.”1Another epidemic of cholera broke out in 1854, and lingered up until 1866, the last year it is seen in epidemic form in Canadian history.2 Although both epidemics are marked by terror, loss, and uncertainty, they had indisputably significant effects on the development of the Toronto Port. While cholera had devastated the population during both epidemics, it also revealed critical problems with early Toronto’s weak immigration system and nonexistent water treatment policies. Toronto Port was forced to develop its immigration and water sanitation policies to protect its growing population against the disease, cholera, that ravaged the Port City in 1832 and 1854. The development of emigration sheds, used as quarantine for sick migrants, later the sheds were used as Toronto’s first immigration centre. These developments, despite being made during a time of dread that the “scythe” would return, were undeniably significant to the overall development of the Toronto Port.

Before cholera reached York, present day Toronto, it was the best natural harbour in Ontario as it had a narrow western entrance as pictured in both a map drawn in 1828, figure 1, and stayed ice-free longer in the year than the other harbours.3 For this reason, York and its Port grew exponentially, represented in a painting by John Bainbrigge in 1839 (figure 2), and by 1832, it was a trade centre, serving as a base for importing and exporting goods throughout the western part of Upper Canada.4 York saw a massive spike in population. British citizens flocked to Canada to escape rampant overpopulation on the British Isles, peaking in 1832 with 52,000 immigrants entering Upper Canada. 11,000 of those immigrants arrived in York in the spring/summer of 1832, bringing cholera with them.5

Figure 1: Plan of Toronto Harbour, Lake Ontario/surveyed under the direction of Captain W.F.W. Owens R.N. By Lieutenant Commander H.W. Bayfield R.N.
Figure 2: A painting of the Toronto Pier in and Calcutta created the first reports on the 1839 by Philip John Bainbrigge.

Before 1832, cholera was first described in 1783 when it was discovered on the banks of the Ganges River but not officially documented until 1786 when the medical boards in Madras disease.6 The most common symptoms associated with the disease are vomiting, nausea, and diarrhea.7 However, a more severe case of cholera was present in all worldwide epidemics, including the epidemic that reached Canada in 1832. This form of cholera, referred to as “Blue” or “Asiatic” cholera, involved bowel troubles, violent vomiting, kidney failure, a blue tinge to the skin and spasms that would result in death in a mere 12-24 hours after contracting the disease.8 According to the WHO, cholera has an innate relation to water as it can be contracted after ingesting contaminated food or water. An excerpt from a newspaper dated April 5, 1832, titled “State of York Bay” describes that animal corpses, manure and human waste contaminated the harbour and due to a lack of clean well-water, “the people are obliged to use the Bay supply, however rotten.”9 The environment described is the ideal setting for bacteria to grow and spread, and shows that, although immigration was an important factor in the spread of the disease, the conditions of the water supply in the 19th century ensured that cholera would be introduced to Toronto one way or another.

Although it is highly probable that cholera would have reached Canada without the wave of immigration in 1832, historians like Charles M. Godfrey argue that the outbreak would not have been as pervading nor devastating.10 Cholera easily festered within ships due to the nature of transatlantic transportation and port regulations in the 19th century. The journey from the British Isles to Canada was 36 – 80 days, and the ships were filthy, overcrowded, and under-ventilated. Livestock and food would be kept in the same quarters, allowing easy contamination of edible goods that were shared by all passengers. These conditions made the ships headed for Canada the perfect breeding place for disease. It was common for a ship to set out with healthy passengers, only to have a couple passengers fall ill 24 hours into the journey, contaminate their most feeble shipmates, and reach the port where the disease is spread to the mainland. When they reached the port, the impoverished immigrants were left to fend for themselves on the shore. Considerate Canadians often flocked to the passengers and helped them gather food and clothes, which allowed the bacteria to spread further into the supplies of the city. The combination of these careless immigration policies and York’s filthy water supplies created the perfected conditions for cholera to devastate the port city.11

The first case of cholera reached Canada in Quebec on April 28, 1832, aboard the ship ‘Constantia’ from Ireland. Very little was known about the nature of the disease, making it more difficult to combat. There was a common belief that cholera was not spread through water, but through the air and “surrounding the world, an impure state of the atmosphere exists, tending to produce Cholera.”12 To keep the disease out of the population, Quebec had pre-emptively passed the Quarantine Act of February 25th which transformed Grosse Île, an island above Quebec City, into a quarantine station. York depended fully on the effectiveness of Grosse Île’s quarantine sheds to keep the town uncontaminated, but the screening procedures present on the island only took visibly sick passengers into isolation and let everyone else go ashore.13 Governor Sir John Colborne furthered the spread of the disease across Canada by sending ships carrying sick immigrants into Upper Canada despite the magistrates of Upper Canada protesting and setting up blockades.14 With infected passengers dispersed across the lakes, lenient quarantine procedures, and unsanitary conditions, a cholera epidemic had broken out in York by mid-June of 1832.

On June 20th, the Court of Quarter Sessions passed a series of regulations, the first in a long series of rulings that fought against the cholera threat. The court dictated that all ships had to be inspected by Health Officer Dr. King away from town before given written permission to enter York Harbour.15 This order was met with immediate backlash from boat owners and captains sailing into the harbour due to the massive delays and expenses they suffered while docked for inspection. As the outbreak continued to worsen, a ruling was passed that ships would have to dock at the mouth of the Niagara River for inspection, further away from the York Harbour. The captains refused to follow the regulation, and instead would dock at the wharf within the York Harbour.16 Without the legal power to reprimand the captains, the Board of Health was not able to implement the new port policy and rescinded it on July 25th, allowing the ships to dock near the wharves. Excerpts from James Lesslie’s diary, written between June-August of 1832, narrates the slow spread of cholera into the Port City. On June 19th, Lesslie wrote in his diary that “... Three cases of Cholera announced by the Physicians to be in the Hospital in Town! – Emigrants by the late Steamers.” Two months later on August 1, he wrote in his diary that “this day the mortality by Cholera truly alarming—there being 40 new cases—report says from 14 to 24 deaths!”17 This report from James Lesslie suggests that the lack of power given to the Board of Health to improve port policy worsened their defenses against the spread of the disease, implying the importance of developing the port to fight the epidemic.

The epidemic came to an end in August when immigrants began to flee into the countryside away from the port. York suffered the worst of any Upper Canadian town with 600 of their population of 5,500 dead, not counting immigrants, widows, or orphans.18 Development of York’s Port came to a stall as the population began to return to normal and disregard the sanitary regulations put in place.19 While this does appear to suggest that the 1832 outbreak was unimportant regarding port development, the fear of the outbreak lingered in the minds of York’s population and would finally bring awareness to the need for port development in 1840.

Cholera returned to Toronto in 1854, only this time, it was far less widespread and deadly. Out of a population of 55,000, there were 292 cases and 142 deaths, nearly half of the deaths reported in 1832 with a population 10 times as big.20 When examining such a large difference in death tolls between the two epidemics, it begs the question of what was done differently when addressing the epidemic of 1854 that was not addressed in 1832? The first major difference is the immigration policies at the time of the outbreak. York, now named ‘Toronto’ as of 1834, witnessed another massive wave of immigration in 1840 as passengers fleeing a terrible famine flooded into its harbours. With the memory of the 1832 outbreak fresh in the minds of Torontonians, Toronto immediately prepared for another epidemic of cholera and innovated immigration policies to accommodate the influx of immigrants. The first regulation Toronto brought back was the inspection of ships at one specific wharf along their harbour where all newcomers would be examined. Much like the ruling in 1832, ill passengers would be taken into quarantine at the emigrant sheds (figure 3).21 A key difference that was made was that healthy migrants were permitted to remain in Toronto only if they had family or friends to care for them, thus avoiding the dangers of having impoverished citizens trapped on the port. Those who had no support in Toronto were strongly encouraged to keep moving, for their own sake and the sake of the community. Due to the regulations, Toronto was able to respond to the cholera crisis far better than any other port city in Canada.

Figure 3: A Painting of the quarantine sheds on Grosse Île, Quebec.

These policies carried into 1854, a very possible explanation for why the epidemic was much less severe. Immigration had been a major factor in the spread of cholera in 1832, and it is only reasonable to suggest that more developed immigrant management was an influence on the 1854 epidemic. By 1870, the emigrant sheds were no longer used for disease management, and in fact turned away sick migrants and moved them to hospitals instead. The sheds were instead fully purposed to manage migrants that came into Toronto’s Port and help them integrate into Canada. During the same year, a state-of-the-art immigration centre was constructed, constituting 6 and a half acres of land, seven buildings, and a railway platform dedicated to managing newcomers.22 There is significance in the fact that the cholera sheds erected in 1840 would eventually become Toronto’s major immigration centre in 1870. Through the cholera epidemic of 1832, immigration became a forefront issue due to the fear of letting sick migrants go into the city and spread the disease among the population. The cholera epidemic of 1832 brought attention to the lack of immigration management, Toronto as a port city underwent immense development and saw the improvement of the port itself through the evolution of emigrant sheds to immigration centre.

Another reason that the 1854 epidemic was handled far better than in 1832 was the attention that they paid to improving water supply quality. By the time of the second epidemic, the nature of cholera to spread primarily through contaminated water was well known. Working with this knowledge, the Board of Health in Ontario set up several regulations that would improve the quality of their water supply to stop the outbreak from escalating further. One such act was passed on April 18th that threatened jail time or fines to anyone who did not remove stagnant water within two days of receiving a notice from the Board.23 Despite this, water supply remained a major concern decades after the end of the 1854 epidemic in 1866.

While the quality of the water supply in Toronto did not improve until later in the 19th century. The outbreak of 1854 remained a primary motivation for improving its conditions. Ashbridge Bay, a bay that poured directly into the Toronto Harbour, was blamed for the cholera epidemics by the end of the 19th century. The marshy bay was fouled with human waste and had a major impact on drinking water supply because of its location near the intake pipe in the harbour. The province took ownership of the Bay by 1880, and after many failed attempts at stop gapping and revitalizing the Bay, they were forced to reclaim it for industrial purposes. The intake pipe was relocated to the southern side of Toronto Island and included filter beds. According to Wickson, they also built a steam plant to pump water to the new reservoir.24 These improvements saw huge improvements in the water supply and the number of houses with running water jumped to 16,000, a major improvement since 1874. These improvements were only temporary solutions due to the decay rate of the pipes, but the issue is solved permanently in 1912 with the creation of a filtration plant.25

Much like improvements in Toronto’s immigration policies, the water supply conditions did not improve significantly until decades after the last cholera epidemic in 1854, but this does not downgrade the influence that the outbreaks had on securing clean drinking water from Toronto Harbour. The main motivation for cleaning the water supply was the threat of bacteria entering the drinking water and bringing about another nation-wide epidemic. This once again shows the influence that the cholera epidemics had on the development of Toronto Port as it pushed the City’s officials to make developments to the port in the name of keeping cholera out of their waters.

Over the course of the 19th century, Toronto Port was improved drastically through the creation of an immigration centre in 1870 and filtration plant in 1912. To understand the evolution of Toronto’s Port, it is critical to first understand the circumstances in which the improvements were made. The cholera epidemics of 1832 and 1854 had been so integrally connected to the Toronto Port due to how it arrived on migrant ships and spread into Toronto’s drinking water because of the insanitary conditions of the harbour itself. Considering how closely the disease was related to the port during both epidemics, it is unfathomable to consider that the epidemics had no part in the development of the Toronto Port. The emigrant sheds that would later become Toronto’s first immigration centre started as quarantine houses for migrants sick with cholera, and one of the leading reasons for the City of Toronto to improve water conditions was to prevent the disease from spreading again. The efforts of the city to prevent the return of cholera were successful as once the disease faded in 1866, it never returned in epidemic form in Canada again. While the disease no longer terrorizes the port city of Toronto, its effects linger in the history of the development of Toronto’s Port as both “The Scythe of the Destroyer,” but also a bringer of necessary change.26

  1. John Strachan, Pastoral Letter, to the Clergy and Laity of the Diocese of Toronto, on the Subject of Cholera. Letter. (Toronto: Diocesan Press, 1848), 8. 

  2. Charles M. Godfrey, The Cholera Epidemics in Upper Canada 1832-1866 (Toronto: Seccombe House, 1968), 62. 

  3. Figure 1: Plan of Toronto Harbour. George D. Crandfield, J.C. Walker, William Fitz William, and H.W. Bayfield, Plan of Toronto Harbour, Lake Ontario/Surveyed under the Direction of Captn. W.F.W. Owen R.N. by Lieutenant Commander H.W. Bayfield R.N. Map. London, England: The Admiralty, April 28, 1828. From Library and Archives Canada, Admiralty fonds. Ted Wickson, Reflections of Toronto Harbour. Toronto: Toronto Port Authority (2002), 21. 

  4. Figure 2: A painting of the Toronto Pier in and Calcutta created the first reports on the 1839 by Philip John Bainbrigge. Philip J. Bainbrigge, Fort and Pier, Toronto, August 1839. Photograph. From Library and Archives Canada, Philip John Bainbrigge Collection. ; Godfrey, The Cholera Epidemics, 37. 

  5. Marian A. Patterson, “The Cholera Epidemic of 1832 in York, Upper Canada.” Bulletin of the Medical Library Association 46, no. 2 (1958), 170. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC233409/ 

  6. Godfrey, The Cholera Epidemics, 5. 

  7. World Health Organization, “Cholera,” 2022. https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/cholera 

  8. Godfrey, The Cholera Epidemics, 5-6. 

  9. Canadian Freeman, “State of York Bay” as quoted in Edith G. Finch, The Town of York 1815-1834; A Further Collection of Documents of Early Toronto (Toronto: The Chaplain Society for the Government of Ontario, University of Toronto Press, 1966), 236. 

  10. Godfrey, The Cholera Epidemics, 10. 

  11. Godfrey, The Cholera Epidemics, 13. 

  12. Patterson, “The Cholera Epidemic of 1832 in York,” 170; Elam Stimson, The Cholera Beacon: Being a treatise on the epidemic cholera as it appeared in Upper Canada in 1832-4, with a plain and practical description of the first grade, or premonitory symptoms… designed for popular interest, Monograph. Dundas: G.H. Hackstaff (1835), 5. https://www.canadiana.ca/view/oocihm.63184 

  13. Godfrey, The Cholera Epidemic; Henri Dellatre, Vue de la Station de Quarantaine de Grosse Île, 1850. Photograph. From Library and Archives Canada.  

  14. Geoffrey Bilson, A Darkened House: Cholera in Nineteenth-Century Canada. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1980, 53. 

  15. Patterson, “The Cholera Epidemic of 1832 in York,” 171. 

  16. Bilson, A Darkened House, 53-55. 

  17. James Lesslie, “Extracts from Diary of James Lesslie”; W.W. Baldwin, R. Cathcart, S. Washbrun, and G. Ridout, “Minutes of Board of Health” as quoted in Edith G. Finch, The Town of York 1815-1834, 243, 247. 

  18. Bilson, A Darkened House, 56-60; Godfrey, The Cholera Epidemics, 39-40. 

  19. Bilson, A Darkened House, 61. 

  20. Godfrey, The Cholera Epidemics, 55-58. 

  21. Figure 3: A painting of the quarantine sheds on Grosse Île, Quebec, painted by Henri Dellatre in 1850 (1850. Photograph. From Library and Archives Canada.

  22. Lisa Chilton, “Managing Migrants: Toronto, 1820-1880.” The Canadian Historical Review 92, no. 2 (2011), 242, 245. 

  23. Godfrey, The Cholera Epidemics, 55-57. 

  24. Wickson, Reflections of Toronto Harbour, 30-32. 

  25. Wickson, Reflections of Toronto Harbour, 30-32. 

  26. Strachan, Pastoral Letter, 8.