The 1847 Typhus Epidemic

The 1847 Typhus Epidemic

The Price to Transform the Port of Toronto

Jess March

Toronto - 2023

Typhus, the dreaded scourge known as “ship fever” on the sailing vessels of yesteryear, was believed to be caused by overcrowded conditions but is in fact a bacterial disease acquired from an infected louse bite. Within days, victims suffered from a host of maladies, “severe headache, high fever, rash, severe muscle pain, dysentery, vomiting, confusion, and “fuzzy in thought.”1 Eruptions formed on the skin and the liver and spleen became swollen.2 With no antibiotics in that era, typhus was fatal in fifty to seventy-five percent of victims.3 It had been present in Canada since the seventeenth century, however it did not impact Toronto until 1847 when it arrived with the tens of thousands of Irish immigrants fleeing the Great Irish Potato Famine.4 When these starving, destitute, typhus-infected immigrants staggered onto Toronto’s dock, they had no idea what awaited them; Toronto was an isolated backwoods city lacking infrastructure, road access to more populated settlements like Kingston and Niagara, and most importantly, a labor force. Toronto’s seclusion meant a lack of workers thus its growth and development were retarded. That all changed in 1847 with the influx of Irish immigrants. Suddenly inundated with multitudes of ill immigrants, city leaders were forced to act. In the end, the typhus epidemic was the price to transform the port of Toronto from a remote backwater settlement into a prosperous city.

Since typhus was so instrumental to Toronto’s development, it is key to identify how typhus initially reached Toronto’s shore. By 1847, a potato blight had destroyed the potato crop in the mostly Catholic counties in western Ireland.5 Without food and unable to pay the rent, these tenant farmers were forced off the farmland; wealthy landowners had found sheep farming more lucrative.6 Britain too saw Irish emigration as a way to reduce the economic burden of supporting them, reduce the number of disillusioned citizens who may rebel, and increase the number of British subjects in British North America should the Americans look to expand their territory.7 Being displaced from their land and seeing no alternative, these starving, penniless peasants faced a six to eight-week voyage of unspeakable misery.

These Irish emigrants were transported to British North America on cargo ships that had initially been filled with produce from North America. On the return trip, these cargo ships were now full of people; essentially the passengers were ballast for the ships.8 The cargo ships were deliberately overfilled with destitute emigrants. Once upon these “coffin ships,” the environment became horrendous; polluted water, extremely overcrowded, poor ventilation, minimal provisions, and worst of all, lice. It was these lice that infected these pitiful souls with the typhus bacteria. Stephen DeVeres, an Irish aristocrat, and landowner who made the trip aboard one of these louse-infested ships wrote to the British Parliament describing the ordeal,

“hundreds of poor people of all ages …huddled together without light, without air, wallowing in filth and breathing a fetid atmosphere, sick in body, dispirited in heart, the fevered patients lying between the sound in sleeping places so narrow as to deny them the power of indulging, by a change of position, the natural restlessness of the disease.”9

As these ailing, impoverished souls amassed on the shores of British North America, officials were forced to act.

Figure 1: Location of Grosse Île quarantine station.

Since previous epidemics faced by the Province of Canada had arrived on ships from Europe, officials established a quarantine stop at Grosse Isle, just north of Quebec City (See Figure 1).10 So many ships were lined up for inspection and “couldn’t unload for days at a time, they effectively jailed thousands without food, water or medical attention.”11 Once ashore, overcrowding resulted in healthy and sick passengers being mixed in cramped facilities. Overwhelmed, Grosse Île medical officers sent those appearing healthy to ports west such as Montreal, Kingston, and Toronto, after only a token inspection; they were unaware “healthy” passengers were also infected, their illness was just in the incubation stage. This negligence by the Grosse Île medical officers added to Toronto’s burden along with their strategy of quickly identifying and forwarding penniless immigrants; over ninety-three percent of destitute immigrants were sent to Upper Canada.12 Immigrants would have disembarked from their transatlantic vessels at Grosse Île, boarded steamships to upper St. Lawrence ports like Montreal, then boarded sailing vessels or steamships such as in figures 2 and 3, to Lake Ontario ports like Toronto.13 These vessels arriving at Toronto’s dock were so overcrowded and unsanitary, a Toronto Globe and Mail reporter wrote the conditions “were similar to the conditions aboard slave ships from Africa to the United States.”14 In 1847, the captain of the steamship Princess Royal (see figure 3) was charged with “treating his living cargo of Irish immigrants like cattle.”15 While facing this mass migration and the ineffective medical science of that era, city leaders were, however, fortunate in two ways, they knew what the cities further east had done wrong in dealing with the epidemic, and they had gone through recent cholera epidemics.

Figure 2. Entrance to Toronto as seen from a ship, circa 1840.
Figure 3: Drawing of the Princess Royal steamer carrying immigrants from Montreal to Toronto.

Toronto had battled two cholera epidemics in 1832 and 1834 which had also brought a deluge of Irish immigrants to its shore. Cholera is spread by humans ingesting food or water that is infected with the cholera bacteria. The bacteria creates a toxin resulting in vomiting, spasms, and uncontrollable diarrhea resulting in dehydration and eventual kidney failure.16 The unsanitary conditions on the cross-Atlantic voyages allowed the disease to spread amongst the passengers who were jammed together in cramped, unsanitary, unventilated cargo holds. In Toronto, over 1000 people died from those cholera epidemics.17 What is key, in terms of the 1847 typhus epidemic, was how city leaders responded, they named a Board of Health who directed the construction of fever sheds on Reese’s Wharf, the dock where the passengers disembarked and were assessed.18 They also took over Toronto General Hospital, making it a quarantine hospital. In 1847, when Toronto leaders received word of the impending influx of typhus-stricken immigrants, they incorporated the same quarantine responses.

Just as in the cholera epidemics, once the immigrants arrived in Toronto, they were inspected either right on board or on Reese’s Wharf. They re-built the fever sheds on Reese’s Wharf to quarantine the sick right at the dock. This worked initially until the volume of sick passengers became overwhelming due to United States ports charging additional fees for sick passengers which forced many ships to change destinations and sail to Province of Canada ports.19 As a result, Toronto officials conscripted other facilities as quarantine sites starting with converting Toronto General Hospital into the Emigrant Hospital. When the hospital and the fever sheds on the wharf were overfilled, they built twelve additional fever sheds on the hospital grounds (see figure 4). Each shed was 22 meters by 6 meters.20

Figure 4: Map depicting Toronto Emigrant Hospital and fever sheds.

This time though, they also built a Convalescent Hospital for recovering victims.21 In the end, the price of these U.S. tariffs and Grosse Île medical officers’ negligence was thousands of immigrants arriving in Toronto and exponential population growth. Toronto’s population in 1847 was 20,00021 before 38,560 Irish paupers arrived on its dock between May and October of that year, as they escaped what they called “Gorta Mor” or “The Great Hunger.”22 To put that in perspective, Toronto’s current population is 2.8 million people, meaning it would be like having 5.2 million people arriving in Toronto to be housed, fed, and absorbed into society in one sailing season, without even considering the efforts required to treat the masses suffering from typhus.23 City leaders were forced into action as up to 600 immigrants arrived per day.24 Those that were sick were hospitalized, and those that recovered and stayed in the city settled in the ghetto areas around Cabbagetown and Ashbridge’s Bay.25 Those who arrived healthy were allowed to stay in the immigration sheds for only twenty-four hours after which “they were obliged to move on, their rations were stopped, and if found begging, were imprisoned at once…after which they are taken to the countryside.”26 Healthy immigrants were immediately transported out of the city in hopes that they would settle the lands on the outskirts of Toronto or find employment on existing lands, however, due to several factors (lack of good land, lack of money to purchase land, and bigotry) over eighty-five percent returned to the city.27 By the end of the typhus epidemic, Toronto reported 1,124 deaths with 623 still hospitalized and 89 orphans in the Widows and Orphans Refuge as of February 1848.28 As George explained, “These figures seem insignificant to us whose appreciation of death rates has been revolutionized by the tolls exacted by World Wars and the pandemic of influenza. Be it remembered that they represent catastrophes of proportionate magnitude.”29 Thus, although not astronomical death tolls, the fear of typhus forced city leaders and citizens to respond. Toronto’s religious leaders Catholic Bishop Michael Power and Anglican Bishops Grasset and Strachan led this civic response which ultimately led to Toronto’s social transformation.

Strachan and his Anglican congregation sponsored a medical dispensary and took care of the Protestant sick, burying those that died.30 Bishop Michael Power was especially instrumental in helping to care for these new Torontonians since the overwhelming majority were Irish-Catholic. He led charitable societies, established Catholic schools, helped to organize workhouses, orphanages, a widow house, and adoptions, and most importantly pushed Torontonians “not to abandon these destitute souls but to embrace them.”31 Unfortunately Bishop Power died of typhus while tending to those in quarantine, however, his death became a rallying cry to Torontonians. Both Protestant and Catholic citizens responded to Power’s former pleas and formed the Emigrant Settlement Association to assist the immigrants to find employment and to identify lands that were available for sale or rent.32 They assisted the government with financing the daily rations to the immigrants which included “3/4 lb of bread and meat per adult and ½ lb. of bread and meat per child, for a maximum of six days.33 Despite citizen reluctance and fear, they responded, just as Toronto leaders did when they addressed the need for infrastructure improvement.

Prior to the epidemic, raw sewage flowed in the streets, and industrial waste was simply dumped into the lake; over 80,000 gallons of liquid manure drained directly into Ashbridge’s Bay every day, and it became known as Brown’s Pond; it was “a patchwork of vast open cesspools that crusted over, thick enough for a man could walk on.”34 In another first-person account, a citizen wrote “Mud and catfish spewed out in the water a fire engine was directing at a downtown blaze. That water came from a hydrant at the corner of King and Yonge that was supposed to be drinkable!”35 Also, by 1847, only King Street and Yonge Street had been macadamized using compacted crushed stone; this all changed with the influx of immigrants, a new-found labor force.36

Prior to the epidemics, workers and settlers were in short supply in Toronto, so immigrants were welcomed; the saying “population is wealth” was a widely held belief.37 Upper Canada leaders “believed that the province itself would only prosper through an influx of immigrants, thus Upper Canada was publicly depicting itself abroad as “the poor man's country.”38 Henry Boulton, the Attorney-General for Upper Canada promised, “a million paupers arriving in Canada within a decade would acquire independence and prosperity.”39 His son Harry Boulton Jr., the mayor of Toronto in 1847, felt the same way about immigrants becoming the needed workforce in the city. Thanks to the Irish immigrants, Toronto’s population boomed after 1847, and it came to be dubbed the “Belfast of Canada.”40 By 1848, Toronto’s population had risen to 23,508 of which twenty-five percent were Irish-Catholic, and in the 1851 provincial census, the Irish made up the largest single ethnic group in Toronto; 11,300 of a population of 30,000.41 The majority of the Irish immigrants were not just Irish men, in fact over forty percent of the immigrants settling in Toronto were young, single, Catholic, Irish women mostly working as maids and servants in largely Protestant homes.42 The demographic of Toronto changed too, within four years, the majority was no longer made up of the 450,000 Irish immigrants who immigrated to British North America before the start of the 1845 potato famine (see figure 5).43

Figure 5: Toronto’s Demographic Change 1850-1861.

It must be recognized however that not everyone welcomed the immigrants, there was initial resentment from some Toronto citizens; there was a fear of the epidemics, fear of the immigrants competing for employment, anger at having to support so many destitute immigrants, and disgust at seeing a growing ghetto in the Cabbagetown area.44 There was also bigotry as “Irish Catholic” became synonymous with filthy and poor.45 That being said, it must be acknowledged that the port of Toronto would not have developed so exponentially without the influx of these Irish Catholic immigrants. These immigrants expanded the workforce, working in lumber, fishing, transportation, construction, sewers, railways, on the docks, and created land for the port of Toronto expansion as seen in figure 6.46 The fear of typhus and Toronto’s growing population forced a change in attitude towards public health and sanitation.

Figure 6: Proposed in-fill project for railway lines and shoreline expansion.

Three of Toronto City Council’s first nine bylaws dealt with improving sanitation.47 Port of Toronto also created a Board of Health, and the concept of public hygiene in Toronto was born. The Board of Health hired the Irish to remove garbage from streets, banned hogs and cattle from Toronto streets, and introduced plans to construct proper sewers. The Irish immigrants were the majority of the workforce constructing these sewers as well as most of Toronto’s other infrastructure, including Toronto’s first street lights, and the first telegraph line.48 Mayor Boulton employed healthy immigrants to macadamize Toronto streets and build a railway from Toronto to Weston.49 It was estimated that over ninety percent of these immigrants were unskilled or semi-skilled laborers yet they are credited with building Toronto’s infrastructure including charity and education programs.50 Toronto boomed immediately after 1847 as can be seen in figure 7 which shows Toronto’s expansion four years after the typhus epidemic.51

Figure 7: View of Toronto’s expansion by 1851.

With so many Irish immigrants, Toronto’s Catholic religious orders actively worked to assist these settlers and in doing so these religious groups “were fundamental in constructing a social service infrastructure that is still present today, as they played a large role in establishing education, orphanages, a widow home, and health care systems for the city.”52

Anthony B. Hawke, the Chief Emigrant Agent of Upper Canada, wrote about the 1847 epidemic, “Upon the whole, I am obliged to consider the immigration of this year a calamity to the province.”53 His comments were due to the misery and death he saw. He observed destitute Irish immigrants overcome starvation in Ireland, survive a harrowing, torturous cross-Atlantic voyage in a filthy, overcrowded, lice-infested “coffin ship,” endure the typhus epidemic that killed loved ones and left the survivors penniless and too weak to care for themselves, and then upon arriving in Toronto, face secular tension and bigotry. What Hawke had not considered was the positive impact these immigrants would eventually make upon Toronto. Smith wrote, “unskilled Irish laborers built the city, its infrastructure, and its place in the Canadian landscape.”54 She also wrote,

The arrival of the post-famine Irish coincided with the emergence of Toronto as the commercial and manufacturing center of Southern Ontario. The rapid industrialization of the urban region, coupled with the railway boom of the early 1850s, consolidated Toronto’s position at the helm of Upper Canadian commerce.55

Before the epidemic, Toronto was described as “a little ill-built town on low land near a frozen bay, …the most tasteless, vulgar style …with the dark gloom of the pine forest bounding the prospect.”56 Soon after the epidemic, Toronto began its transformation into a booming metropolis as seen in the 1851 picture (figure 7). The epidemics that the port of Toronto had to endure and overcome were indeed the price to transform it from the isolated, underpopulated outpost into the industrial, economic, social, and political force it is today.

  1. Mark McGowan, “The Typhus Epidemic of 1847,” University of Toronto, Video, 2020. 2:03 

  2. Rainer Baehre, “Pauper Emigration to Upper Canada in the 1830s,” Histoire Sociale/Social History, 342. 

  3. Mark McGowan, Death or Canada: The Irish Famine Migration to Toronto, 1847, (Novalis Publishing, 2009), 19. 

  4. French Geologist Society, “The 1847 Typhus Epidemic in the Province of Canada,” 

  5. Mark McGowan, “ETSF Special Lecture; Death or Canada,” (PowerPoint presentation, for Enoch Turner Schoolhouse Foundation. Toronto, ON. May 31, 2022.) 10:43 

  6. McGowan, Death or Canada, 23. 

  7. Baehre, “Pauper Emigration,” 343. 

  8. McGowan, “The Typhus Epidemic of 1847,” 2:06. 

  9. McGowan, “ETSF Special Lecture,” 18:18. 

  10. Figure 1: Location of Grosse Île quarantine station. “Getting Here: Grosse Île and the Irish Memorial National Historic Site.” (November 19, 2022) 

  11. McGowan, “ETSF Special Lecture,” 1:16:02. 

  12. Baehre, “Pauper Emigration,” 349. 

  13. Figure 2: Entrance to Toronto as seen from a ship, circa 1840. Entrance to Canada. Library and Archives Canada, Government of Canada. Figure 3: Drawing of the Princess Royal steamer carrying immigrants from Montreal to Toronto. McGowan, “Kingston and Toronto’s Famine Orphans”; “Great Famine History,”, 2022.

  14. McGowan, Death or Canada, 58. 

  15. Mark McGowan, “Kingston and Toronto’s Famine Orphans,” Digital Museums Canada, 2022, 

  16. Marian A. Patterson, “The Cholera Epidemic of 1832 in York, Upper Canada” (Academy of Medicine, Toronto, 1958), 167.  

  17. Richard Longley, “Toronto Pandemics Past: Typhoid and a Tale of Death in the Water.” (NowToronto, April 18, 2020). 

  18. Longley, “Toronto Pandemics Past.” 

  19. Cian McEneany, “Changing Attitudes toward Irish Canadians: The Impact of the 1847 Famine Influx in the Province of Canada,” (Bridgewater State University, Undergraduate Review, 2021), 96. 

  20. Figure 4: Map depicting the Toronto Emigrant Hospitals and Fever Sheds. Nancy Mallett and Robert G. Kearns, “Sacrifice: Toronto’s Dr. George Robert Grassett.”; McGowan, Death or Canada, 85. 

  21. McGowan, “ETSF Special Lecture,” 39:19. 

  22. Mark McGowan and Michael Chard, “Great Famine History.” (St. Michael’s College Press, University of Toronto, 2022); McGowan, Death or Canada, 18. 

  23. Toronto Population, 

  24. McGowan, Death or Canada, 76. 

  25. McGowan and Chard, “Great Famine History.” 

  26. McGowan, Death or Canada, 76. 

  27. McGowan, “ESTF Special Lecture,” 30:38. 

  28. McGowan, Death or Canada, 77. 

  29. Ruggles George, “When Typhus Raged in Canada,” (Public Health Journal, 1920), 548. 

  30. McGowan and Chard, “Great Famine History.” 

  31. McGowan, Death or Canada, 101. 

  32. McGowan, Death or Canada, 62. 

  33. McGowan, Death or Canada, 72. 

  34. Longley, “Toronto Pandemics Past.” 

  35. Risa Barkin and Ian Gentles, “Death in Victorian Toronto.” (Urban History Review, June 1990), 19. 

  36. McGowan, Death or Canada, 65. 

  37. Baehre, “Pauper Emigration,” 342. 

  38. Baehre, “Pauper Emigration,” 341. 

  39. Baehre, “Pauper Emigration,” 366. 

  40. Angele Smith, “Fitting into a New Place: Irish Immigrant Experiences in Shaping Canadian Landscape.” (International Journal of Historical Archaeology, September 2004), 223. 

  41. McGowan, Death or Canada, 76; Michael McAteer, “Courage and Grief of Irish Immigrants Remembered: The Famine of 1847.” (Catholic New Times, June 1997), 7. 

  42. Smith, “Fitting into a New Place,” 219. 

  43. Figure 5: Toronto’s Demographic Change 1850-1861. Barkin and Gentles, “Death in Victorian Toronto,” 18; Barkin and Gentles, “Death in Victorian Toronto,” 19. 

  44. McGowan, Death or Canada, 17. 

  45. McGowan, Death or Canada, 121. 

  46. Figure 6: Proposed in-fill project for railway lines and shoreline expansion. Jane E. MacNamara, Samuel Wedge: A Life on the Wharf, OGS Toronto Branch Projects. 

  47. McGowan, Death or Canada, 6. 

  48. Carl Benn, “The History of Toronto: An 11,000-Year Journey.” (City of Toronto Archives, 2023). 

  49. McGowan, Death or Canada, 94. 

  50. Smith, “Fitting into a New Place,” 220. 

  51. Figure 7: View of Toronto’s Expansion by 1851. McGowan, Death or Canada, 68. 

  52. Baehre, “Pauper Emigration,” 366. 

  53. McGowan, Death or Canada, 6. 

  54. Smith, “Fitting into a New Place,” 221. 

  55. Smith, “Fitting into a New Place,” 221. 

  56. F.H. Armstrong, “Toronto in 1834.” (The Canadian Geographer, 1966), 175.