A Place for National Shipbuilding

A Place for National Shipbuilding:

Developments at Toronto During the First World War

Victoria Slykhuis

Toronto - 2023

Canada played an important role during World War I. The nation was at war during the years 1914 to 1918 due to its legal obligation to Great Britain, even without these obligations many Canadians were willing to join the war efforts because of their feelings of kinship to those in Britain. As Canada was a Dominion in the British empire they were automatically involved in the First World War against Germany however, the degree to which Canada was involved was up to its own government. Toronto was converted into a hub for the British military.1 Toronto was chosen as headquarters for the British Army as it was English-Canada’s largest city with a largely British population, Toronto was eager to mobilize for war.2 Toronto was an ideal place for troops due to its many rivers, parks, and trails. For example, the Canadian National Exhibition (CNE) was used as a military training and internment camp, housing 10,000 troops.3 A pilot training school opened in 1915 called the Long Branch Aerodrome and the existing Curtis Flying school, both were used by the Royal Canadian Air Force. The Curtis Flying school was the largest pilot school in Canada and was located in Toronto.4 During World War I cycle corps were present in Toronto to send messages and survey areas. Cycle corps were mounted soldiers trained in mobile warfare, as bicycles allowed soldiers to travel long distances and were quieter than using horses.5 Many Toronto parks were used as training grounds for cavalry, artillery, and military drills.

In addition to training, Toronto’s infrastructure made it an ideal place for other wartime necessities. For example, one of the largest distilleries in Canada, Gooderham and Worts, was located in Toronto and was used by the British Government to create acetone and cordite ketone, which was utilized in gunpowder. Union Station, which was built in 1914, was used to send soldiers and nurses to Halifax and Quebec where they would board ships to England.6 Even the Port of Toronto was contracted into building wartime ships. There are many important aspects to consider when trying to understand what was going on at the Port of Toronto during World War I. This paper will focus on the City of Toronto’s waterfront during World War I, particularly the wartime ships and shipbuilding, labour and material shortages that affected the economic stability of Toronto.

<img src="Slykhuis_2F00_Final/media/image1.png" style="width:7.62292in;height:2.72917in" alt="Figure 1: Shipbuilding history of minesweepers built during WWI" /> Wartime shipbuilding at Toronto focused primarily on the construction of minesweepers (see figure 1).7 Although a variety of ships were built in Canada during World War I such as Naval, Coast Guard/Royal Canadian Mounted Police, and Commercial vessels, including warships, troop transports, and supply ships, the majority of these contracts were given to Halifax.8 Toronto had a smaller role in shipbuilding during World War I due to its focus on building war supplies, (for example munitions) and training troops. Toronto’s shipping registrar from 1874 to 1958 highlights that the majority of ships built were minesweepers.9 Companies along the Port of Toronto built these minesweepers in contracts with the Royal Canadian Navy and the Royal Navy.10 The majority of Toronto’s waterfront during World War I was owned by private companies. The companies in Toronto during this time were Polson Iron Works, Toronto Dry Dock and Ship Building Company Limited, Dominion Ship Building, Thor Iron Works, etc. Taking a focus on Polson Iron Works, this company was instructed to build six 40-metre, 320-tonne Battle-class steam trawlers for the Canadian Naval Service.11

Figure 1: Shipbuilding history of minesweepers built during WWI.

One of these six trawlers was called the HMCS Ypres and can be seen in an image located in the George Metcalf Archival Collection (see figure 2).12 The HMCS Ypres was built during World War I for defence and minesweeping. The Ypres was kept after the war ended in 1918 while others were passed throughout government departments.13 Minesweepers were used to clear mines along sea routes and destroy enemy mine-laying submarines.14 They were small warships that used various mechanisms to remove or detonate naval mines. The Royal Navy operated multiple classes of minesweepers which include Bay-class, Flower-class, CD-class, P.V type, TR series, and Castle-class.15 Minesweepers were also called trawlers, fishing vessels, because much of the designs of minesweepers were similar to fishing vessels in the expectation that they would be used for fishing when the war ended.16 Additional Naval trawlers were also created by converting fishing boats to military assets such as minesweepers. These ships were built using steel and contributed to a large number of contracts from the Royal Navy and Royal Canadian Navy to the companies along the Port of Toronto. Minesweepers would make significant advancements during World War II, beyond the ability to detect and remove mines.17

Figure 2: HMCS Ypres.

Next, another aspect that describes shipbuilding in Toronto during World War I was the labour and material shortages. The City of Toronto became the site of building supplies for the war and therefore, Toronto experienced labour and material shortages. The Globe reported on October 28th, 1916, that a new contract for four ships from Polson Iron and Shipbuilding yards was made and will bring in more jobs and materials, such as steel, to the Port of Toronto.18 The shipyard already possessed two-thirds of the steel required which meant the vessels could be completed ahead of the contract timeline. The President of Polson Iron Works, Col. John B. Miller stated, “While it is a big undertaking to guarantee the delivery of two new vessels with the existing scarcity of labour, within nine months, still we will do it…When the contracts for the two additional freighters are closed there will be sufficient work to keep the shipbuilding department...going for the next two years.”19 These contracts were very important for the shipbuilding companies in Toronto during World War I. Shipbuilding contracts meant there would be a need of men for work and due to labour shortages, women filled some of these positions.20 There was a huge increase in need for skilled workers and materials to fulfill the contracts for the Royal Navy and Canadian Royal Navy. However, after World War I it resulted in a drop in employment and money as these contracts ended. In addition, Toronto had become the site of the world’s largest electrical steel plant which was created in hope of ending delays in production.21

Due to Toronto’s constant use of steel for ships, there was a chronic shortage that only got worse after the United States joined the war in 1917.22 The United States’ involvement made the situation worse because Great Britain lost the Canadian sheet steel and tin plate market to the United States.23 With this shortage of steel, the Imperial Munitions Board wanted to build ships from wood and struggled to find shipyards that would do the work.24 For example, two cargo ships built in Toronto during World War I were the War Toronto and War Ontario by a shipping company called Toronto Dry Dock (See figure 3).25 The War Toronto and War Ontario were significant because “In spite of the troubling shortages of trained men and sufficient quantities of British Columbia fir, the War Ontario finally slid down the ways on 29 June 1918 - not without a certain amount of excitement - and her sister ship, the War Toronto, followed some four months later.”26 A photographer named Arthur Beales captured photos of the War Ontario and War Toronto in the Keating Channel on June 24th, 1918.27 Arthur Beales was hired in 1914 and took photos for 35 years of the Toronto waterfront development.28 To conclude during World War I there were many contracts made for ships which Toronto struggled to maintain and produce on time due to labour and steel shortages.

Figure 3: War Ontario and War Toronto under construction in the Keating Channel.

Another key element in establishing Toronto as a wartime shipbuilding center during World War I was economic stability. Prior to World War I the Port of Toronto was undergoing large-scale plans of development. In 1912 a conceptual plan for the development of the city of Toronto’s waterfront was designed.29 This commission outlined the industrial changes that would be made such as turning the 1300-acre marsh known as Ashbridge’s Bay into the harbour industrial district.30 The commissions development plan also involved turning water into land along the central waterfront, western beaches, and Toronto islands.31

Figure 4: The development proposed changes.

However, these changes were stunted by the First World War and the need to build ships and other wartime necessities. The Toronto Waterfront Development plan created by the Toronto Harbor Commissioners shows photos and maps of the Toronto Harbour before and after all intended changes were to be made (see figure 4).32 Additional images included show new buildings and areas of development that were intended to bring a better quality of life for Torontonians, areas include the eastern section, central section, western section, and the overall waterfront development.33 The City of Toronto’s economy was impacted tremendously during World War I, as businesses, parks, and tourist attractions were closed to fulfil the Dominion Governments’ obligation to Great Britain.34 The Globe reported on May 10th, 1917 that a national shipbuilding yard for Toronto was proposed to the Government by the Board of Control. The board identified Toronto as a suitable location “in view of the establishment of large steel and smelting works [in Toronto] by the Imperial Munitions Board, the deepening of the Welland Canal for accommodation of deep-draught vessels, the development of Ashbridge’s Bay district and the extension of wharfage facilities along the waterfront, coupled with the fact that the necessary raw materials in abundant quantities can be obtained in the province.”35 The Dominion Government urged the establishment, to support the establishment of a national shipbuilding plant in Toronto, to which the motion was carried. Figure 5 illustrates the industrial changes along the Keating Channel, Ship Channel, and Turning Basin.36 These photos are mostly of “hulking engines of industry” which symbolized the city’s aspirations of economic prosperity.37

Figure 5: A pile driver working on the retaining wall of the Keating Channel, and a hydraulic suction dredge pumping fill onto Ashbridge’s Bay. December 8, 1914.

In addition, it is important to understand how the Port of Toronto changed during WWI. There are two important aspects of Toronto’s economic mobilization to consider such as, the Toronto Harbour Commission’s role as landlord and liaison between various levels of government.38 During the First World War, the Toronto Harbour Commission had a lot of vacant property that was valuable to the government to establish war-related undertakings such as shipyards.39 These shipbuilding yards brought in jobs but when the war ended it put thousands of people out of work. It is important to note that there was a huge economic stimulation during the war years in Toronto that did not last long following the war.40 The second important aspect was the Toronto Harbours’ role as liaison between levels of government. Toronto Commissions Board was known for being the force behind the development of the waterfront. When conflict arose the federal government often looked to those of the Toronto Harbour Commission to assist in wartime prompt actions. The government did this because the majority of the members on the commission were appointed by members of the City Council.41 Overall, prior to the war the Port of Toronto was undergoing large developmental changes, during the war these plans were halted due to shipbuilding demands, and following the war the Port of Toronto had many shipyard closures due to the loss of contracts.

To conclude, Canada played a critical role during World War I and this can be seen through Toronto’s waterfront and harbour development post World War I. Toronto faced many challenges during this time and was in the middle of large economic advancements to the Port of Toronto when it was called to action in 1914. Toronto was chosen as a hub for the British Army due to it being the largest city in English Canada with a majority of citizens from British origins.42 The harbour itself became a site for vital wartime ships and shipbuilding such as minesweepers, used to aid the Royal Navy and Royal Canadian Navy. Toronto endured labour and material shortages due to the need of able men and steel in the production of ships at the Port of Toronto. Additionally, the overall economic stability of Toronto was at an increase during World War I that did not last following the war. World War I brought an abundance of contracts to the companies located at the Port of Toronto however, when the war ended these contracts ended as well leaving many workers without employment.

  1. City of Toronto. “WWI Commemoration,” Toronto History Museums. 2023. https://www.toronto.ca/explore-enjoy/history-art-culture/museums/virtual-exhibits/wwi- commemoration/ 

  2. City of Toronto. “WWI Commemoration.” 

  3. City of Toronto. “WWI Commemoration.” 

  4. Canadian War Museum. “Air Training in Canada” Canada and the First World War. https://www.warmuseum.ca/firstworldwar/history/battles-and-fighting/air-war/ 

  5. The National WWI Museum and Memorial. “Bicycle Battalions.” Date Accessed March 18, 2023). https://www.theworldwar.org/learn/about-wwi/spotlight-bicycle-battalions 

  6. City of Toronto. “WWI Commemoration.” 

  7. Figure 1: Shipbuilding history of minesweepers built during WWI. “Minesweepers (CD, TR) Built During WWI (or earlier),” Shipbuilding History. 

  8. “Canadian-Built Ships and Boats by Type,” Ship Building History; “Emergency Shipbuilders of World War I,” Ship Building History, July 21, 2021, http://shipbuildinghistory.com/canadayards/wwone.htm 

  9. Public Archives, “Toronto Registrar of Shipping, 1874-1958: C-3192,” 1958, https://heritage.canadiana.ca/view/oocihm.lac_reel_c3192/1 

  10. “Polson Iron Works,” Ship Building History, February 19, 2015, http://shipbuildinghistory.com/canadayards/polson.htm 

  11. “Polson Iron Works,” Ship Building History. 

  12. Figure 2: HMCS Ypres. Canada War Museum, “Battle-Class Trawler HMCS Ypres,” Canada’s Naval History, 

  13. Canada War Museum, “Battle-Class Trawler HMCS Ypres.” 

  14. Government of Canada. “The Royal Canadian Navy and the First World War.” 2020. 

  15. Canada War Museum, “Battle-Class Trawler HMCS Ypres.” 

  16. “Polson Iron Works,” Ship Building History. 

  17. Canada War Museum, “Battle-Class Trawler HMCS Ypres.” 

  18. The Globe. “Norway Builds to Replace the Lost: Four Big Freighters on Order in Toronto”. October 28, 1916. 

  19. The Globe, “Norway Builds to Replace the Lost: Four Big Freighters on Order in Toronto”. 

  20. Michael Moir, “Toronto’s Waterfront at War, 1914–1918.” Archivaria Vol. 280 (January 1989): 126. 

  21. Moir, “Toronto’s Waterfront at War,” 126. 

  22. Moir, “Toronto’s Waterfront at War,” 126. 

  23. Moir, “Toronto’s Waterfront at War,” 126. 

  24. Moir, “Toronto’s Waterfront at War,” 126. 

  25. Figure 3: War Ontario and War Toronto under construction in the Keating Channel. Arthur Beales, “View looking east from Cherry Street, showing dredge at work in Keating Channel and freighters War Ontario and War Toronto under construction at yard of the Toronto Shipbuilding Company, June 24, 1918,” Toronto Port Authority Archives, PC 1/1/3041A; “Emergency Shipbuilders of World War I,” Ship Building History, July 21, 2021. 

  26. Moir, “Toronto’s Waterfront at War,” 126. 

  27. Kevin Plummer, “Historicist: On the Waterfront.” Web log. Torontoist (blog), 2011. 

  28. Michael Moir, “The Toronto Harbour Commission Archives.” Urban history review 17, no. 2 (1988): 112. 

  29. J.H. Jones, “A Conceptual Plan for the Development of the City of Toronto Waterfront,” Toronto Harbour Commissioners, 1968. 

  30. Plummer, “Historicist: On the Waterfront.” 

  31. Moir, “The Toronto Harbour Commission Archives,” 112. 

  32. Figure 4: The development proposed changes.; Clarke Lionel. “Toronto Waterfront Development, 1912-1920.” Canadiana, 1997. https://www.canadiana.ca/view/oocihm.85036 

  33. Lionel, “Toronto Waterfront Development, 1912-1920.” 

  34. City of Toronto. “WWI Commemoration.” 

  35. The Globe, “Toronto the Place for National Shipbuilding”. May 10, 1917. 

  36. Figure 5: A pile driver working on the retaining wall of the Keating Channel, and a hydraulic suction dredge pumping fill onto Ashbridge’s Bay. December 8, 1914. Moir, “The Toronto Harbour Commission Archives,” 115; 112. 

  37. Plummer, “Historicist: On the Waterfront.” 

  38. Moir, “Toronto’s Waterfront at War,” 126. 

  39. Moir, “Toronto’s Waterfront at War,” 126. 

  40. Moir, “Toronto’s Waterfront at War,” 126. 

  41. Moir, “Toronto’s Waterfront at War,” 126. 

  42. City of Toronto. “WWI Commemoration.”