See the post, Influenza 1918, for more on the topic of the influenza pandemic on McRoberts Avenue.
Having been through waves of deadly influenza in 1918 and 1919, Toronto was more prepared for the 1920 flu season. In Earlscourt, the epidemic had been very hard on the neighbourhood and the Earlscourt Women’s Workers and the Ladies’ Auxiliary of the Earlscourt Great War Veterans’ Association (GWVA) had learned many lessons about how to best organize and what was most needed.
It can be a particular challenge to research married women’s lives from this period and so many of the women who served the community at this time are very hard to positively identify. Newspaper articles typically mention them only by their husbands’ names, often without even a full name — just an initial, or none at all! Unless there are other clues to their identity like an address or a unique name, or they suffered some other kind of triumph or tragedy, it can be hard to know much about them at all. Yet they were all incredibly giving and brave in the time that they gave to their sick and bereaved neighbours, at a time when they knew that they could be at risk of losing their own lives. I have spent weeks researching some of the work done during the flu epidemic, and there are many mysteries and gaps in the volunteers’ identities and lives that I hope will continue to come to light.
The first wave of the flu hit in October 1918. Cases and deaths then tapered off by Christmas, but then rebounded in early 1919. For Christmas 1918, the Star Santa Claus Fund — which had been established by Toronto Star founder Joseph Atkinson and Earlscourt Methodist Church minister Rev. Peter Bryce and still operates today — made a special plan for those impacted by the flu. In the December 26, 1918 Toronto Daily Star, a report on Earlscourt said, “every widow who had lost her husband from influenza was placed on the list to receive a box.” Mrs. Alex Johnson was in charge of the distribution that year, covering the area from Weston Road east to Avenue Road, and from Davenport Road north to the Fairbank district. The Star reported that over 100 homes in the area received this special box of “food and other comforts.”
During this first wave of flu, the Ladies’ Auxiliary of the GWVA was led by president Mrs. Cohen (she is one of the women I would dearly love to learn more about. In the Star, she is variously mentioned as Mrs. H., Mrs. A., or Mrs. J. Cohen.) The Secretary was a Mrs. Barker. This group of women met and made decisions independent of the male GWVA executive. This was probably fortunate for the Auxiliary, as the GWVA proper had a number of leadership upsets in the period immediately following the war, starting with the February 1919 resignation of McRoberts Avenue resident Staff Sergeant-Major T.H. Barclay as President.
The mission of the Auxiliary was focused first on taking local action. The February 25, 1918 Toronto Daily Star reported that for the first time, all districts of Toronto with an active GWVA branch had also completed the formation of an Auxiliary. (This article notes that the final group to be formed was the Central Division, where the Sir Henry Pellatt Chapter of the I.O.D.E. was invited to form the first Auxiliary. As a result, Mrs. Ambrose Small became President, a year before her husband became “The Missing Millionaire,” as he is described in Katie Daubs’ new book on the disappearance of Ambrose Small.)
Membership in the Auxiliary was open to any woman interested in the welfare of soldiers. The Star article listed five aims for the new Central Division Auxiliary:
- “To work in conjunction with the local bodies of the Great War Veterans’ Association.
- “To assist in providing for the dependants of the soldiers now overseas.
- “To endeavor to promote the welfare and comfort of the men who return to Canada and their dependants.
- “To assist from time to time in raising funds for a clubhouse for the men of the central division.
- “To assist in arranging entertainments and functions for the local branch and in providing funds for the necessary work of relief.”
In Earlscourt, the Auxiliary carried out all of these types of activities which suggests a similar set of aims. Both the men’s and women’s branches of the Earlscourt GWVA used Belmont Hall at 1217 St. Clair West as the base for their activities. This is now the Consiglio Building and has been remodelled, but it was first constructed in about 1914 as a theatre and assembly hall. Toronto historian Doug Taylor writes more about its later history as a movie theatre called the Royal George, with some great local pictures, on his website Historic Toronto.
The Earlscourt Auxiliary was constantly busy. In 1918 and 1919 it hosted popular weekly euchre parties and dances as well as monthly “masquerade ball” fundraisers at Belmont Hall. There were also work parties for soldiers’ comforts, planning meetings and subcommittees, special dinners, individual relief cases, and other activities that arose in cooperation with other neighbourhood efforts like patriotic rallies, bond drives, and parades. It’s no wonder that there was regular turnover in the leadership, although there were no public controversies reported as there were for the men’s branch.
An example of groups working together was reported in the July 11, 1918 edition of the Toronto Daily Star. GWVA Auxiliary president Mrs. H. Cohen (sic.) was organizing an impromptu work party at Belmont Hall to help the Earlscourt Women’s Workers fundraising idea to make and sell French flags for the upcoming “French Flag Day” celebrations to be held in the city. Earlscourt had just gone crazy for a group of visiting French “Blue Devils,” who paraded on July 2 in front of a Sunday morning crowd of 20,000 people at St. Clair and Dufferin. The July 2, 1918 edition of the Toronto Daily Star described the enthusiasm that met the event. Mrs. Cohen and Earlscourt Women’s Workers president Mrs. Gavin Segar (who was, I believe, Annie Segar who lived at 137 Greenlaw Avenue) were mentioned among those who greeted and presented bouquets to the visiting French soldiers. Annie Segar’s idea to make and sell flags was inspired by the parade and it seems that the women just kicked into action.
Despite all they had been through and the ravages of flu and war and economic depression, the spirit of hard work and cooperation was still alive in Earlscourt in 1920. On February 10, 1920, a city-wide call went out in the Toronto Daily Star, as the flu pandemic had ramped up again. “Still Need Workers and Supplies Also,” read the headline. The Neighbourhood Workers Association had opened 14 depots across Toronto to supply those struck with the flu and needed more help urgently. “They are handling around 120 families, representing 300 patients, and more calls are being registered daily. Yesterday the ladies at the various depots send out some 550 quarts of liquid nourishment beside quantities of other stuff.”
In Earlscourt, the main depot was opened at Timothy Eaton Memorial Church, but the organization also joined forces with Earlscourt Methodist Church on Ascot Avenue to create a second Earlscourt centre. Many other women’s organizations were also offering services and assistance to the sick, from the Catholic Women’s League to the Liberal Woman’s Association. The Ladies’ Auxiliary of the Earlscourt GWVA stepped up to do its bit.
Mrs. H. J. MacDonald had taken over the presidency of the organization from Mrs. Cohen in 1919, and was assisted by Secretary Mrs. H. Smith in the fight against the flu in early 1920. On February 26, the Toronto Daily Star wrote, “The Ladies’ Auxiliary of the Earlscourt branch GWVA have performed excellent service in fighting the “flu” epidemic throughout the district. The president, Mrs. H.J. MacDonald, and Mrs. H. Smith have given particular attention to this work and every veteran’s case throughout the district has received some attention. The auxiliary have put up custards, jellies, soups and broths for the various flu patients, a number of pneumonia jackets have also been distributed. Although they were unable to supply nurses, many of the members of the auxiliary took the places of nurses. Mrs. MacDonald told The Star today that the epidemic seemed to be abating. “For the first time in weeks,” said she, “we have had no requests for assistance.”
Like so many of the women who volunteered, I have not been able to positively identify who Mrs. H. Smith was. It is a shame, because her work was so appreciated by the Auxiliary that she was recognized with a special gift of a dozen silver spoons at the group’s February meeting (Daily Star, February 27, 1920). However, because Mrs. H.J. MacDonald hosted a meeting at her home and the Daily Star advertised her address, I was able to learn something more about her.
First of all, her name was Florence and she was born Harriet Florence Chubbuck at 88 Kent Street, Ottawa, on October 10, 1885, according to a Statement of Birth she filed in Ontario in 1952. When Florence MacDonald was fighting the flu epidemic in Earlscourt she would have been 34 years old. She grew up in Ottawa, where her father Charles Edmond Dixon Chubbuck was a successful civil servant in the Railways and Canals Department. Florence’s mother, Harriet Burrows Chubbuck, had died very soon after her baby daughter was born. The Chubbucks had maritime roots and were a close-knit family. It seems that Florence had a strong relationship with her aunt, Amelie J. Chubbuck. Amelie Chubbuck later lived with the MacDonalds in Toronto, until her death on July 4, 1914.
Known as Flossie as a child according to Census records, Florence Chubbuck had a privileged upbringing. While the Chubbucks were from a Nova Scotia Methodist family of United Empire Loyalists, several family members had relocated to Ontario and were prominent in the Ottawa bureaucracy. Florence was sent to the Methodist Mount Allison Ladies’ College in Sackville, New Brunswick, where, according to the Mount Allison archives, she graduated in 1907. Mount Allison was the first institution in the British Empire to grant a Bachelors degree to a woman, when Grace Annie Lockhart earned a B.Sc in 1875. John G. Reid, in his essay “The Education of Women at Mount Allison, 1854 – 1914,” (Acadiensis, Vol. 12, No. 2, SPRING 1983, pp. 3-33) points out that the institution was founded on principles of academic rigour and intellectual development, contrary to what its founder Mary Electa Adams called “ordinary modes of female education.”
At the time Florence Chubbuck attended, the College was led by Mary Mellish Archibald and Vice-Principal Dr. Emma Baker. Dr. Baker had been, in 1902, one of the first two women to successfully defend a PhD in Philosophy at the University of Toronto. When she took on her leadership role at Mount Allison, Reid notes, Dr. Baker was one of only two faculty in the entire university to hold a doctorate. The other PhD at Mount Allison was also on the faculty of the Ladies’ College.
After graduation, Florence Chubbuck returned home to Ottawa and appeared in the local newspapers as a charming debutante, primarily as the wearer of pretty dresses at nice parties. The Ottawa Citizen reporter on December 7, 1907 wrote in the “Dresses in the Drawing Room” column that she “looked sweet,” at a state function attended by Lady Laurier, among others.
Just a few days later, on Thursday, December 12, 1907, a very brief announcement appeared in the Ottawa Citizen: “Mr. and Mrs. C.E.D. Chubbuck announce the engagement of their daughter Miss Florence Chubbuck to Mr. Hugh J. MacDonald of Toronto.” I would have expected a little bit more fanfare for an engaged debutante, but there was none that I could find. I wonder if her parents were against the match.
For one thing, Florence’s suitor was a Roman Catholic, from one of Prince Edward Island’s leading Roman Catholic families. Son of an educator and farmer, Hugh John MacDonald had attended the Catholic St. Dunstan’s University (now part of U.P.E.I. in Charlottetown) and had become a teacher before deciding to pursue his education at the University of Ottawa, which was founded by the Oblates of Mary Immaculate. A 1923 biography of MacDonald published in volume 3 of The Municipality of Toronto : A History by Jesse Edgar Middleton (Dominion Publishing Company, pp. 174-175), says Hugh earned two degrees there, in 1903 and 1904. According to his biography he then briefly became an English and Economics professor at the university before leaving in 1905 to pursue law studies at Osgoode Hall in Toronto.
If her parents were disapproving (Hugh’s parents had both passed away by this time), Florence Chubbuck was not going to be swayed. She was clearly a person who knew her own mind. One example of this is preserved in a news story published on Tuesday, June 23, 1908. This time she was front-page news in The Ottawa Journal.
“Brave Young Lady Recited During a Fire Panic at Carp and Averted Tragedy,” read the headline. Florence had been on stage as a featured “artiste” during a church event when an oil lamp crashed to the floor, spreading lamp oil and flames everywhere. Assessing that the fire situation was under control, she continued her performance in a successful effort to keep the audience from panicking. The Journal and the Ottawa Citizen hailed her as a hero — the latter newspaper noting that she had done something similarly brave while at Mount Allison.
In 1908 Hugh John MacDonald completed his legal studies and started practicing law in Toronto. After a long engagement, Florence Chubbuck and Hugh John MacDonald were married in Ottawa on September 14, 1909 by Methodist minister Rev. James Henderson. Florence’s younger half-sister Madge and Hugh’s roommate, named Hugh C. Macdonald (and also a barrister), were the witnesses. He was 28 and she was 23, and they were ready to start their life together in Toronto.
Ten years later, when Florence MacDonald started volunteering for the Earlscourt Great War Veteran’s Association, the couple had lived a remarkable unsettled life. While Hugh John MacDonald maintained a fairly consistent downtown address for his law office, the couple moved house constantly. Hugh John’s residence changed almost every year in the city directory listings. For the later years of the First World War, Hugh John MacDonald was listed living in residential hotels downtown, including the St. Regis on Sherbourne where not-yet-famous Amelia Earhart was also living while she volunteered as a wartime nurse. It’s impossible to know why the MacDonald’s moved so often, but it was unusual behaviour (by contrast, Hugh John’s old roommate and best man Hugh C. MacDonald didn’t move at all in this time period). The variety of homes listed, from boarding houses to more elegant addresses like Austin Terrace near Casa Loma, do suggest a certain amount of financial volatility.
The couple had lived at 42 Ascot Avenue with Florence’s aunt Amelie Chubbuck at the start of the war, and they returned to Earlscourt in 1919, renting a flat behind Garnet Hardy’s grocery store which was at 1151 St. Clair Avenue West, at the corner of Westmount. The MacDonalds’ address was 142 Westmount Avenue. The couple had one living child at this time, a pre-schooler named Hugh Jr., who had been born in May 1916. They had lost at least one child in infancy, a son who was named Ronald, in memory of Hugh John MacDonald’s father.
With Florence MacDonald leading the group in the winter of 1919 and 1920, 142 Westmount became an occasional second meeting place for the Ladies’ Auxiliary of the GWVA. For one thing, it was conveniently close to Belmont Hall, as well as to the local churches. It was a very busy season. In addition to regular dances and card parties to raise funds, the team took on several additional projects. For one, there was the important “Christmas Tree,” an event held in the January Christmas season to entertain and give cheer and gifts to the children of local veterans. The Auxiliary met at 142 Westmount on January 9, 1920, to make arrangements for the Christmas dinner for all local soldiers’ children under the age of 12, to be held at Belmont Hall on January 20.
No sooner had their Christmas activities been completed, then the deadly strain of the flu broke out again and consumed much of the group’s attention and resources throughout February. However, work to help those suffering with the flu did not stop other major events organized by Florence MacDonald, her new Vice-President Mrs. Scrivens (despite her appearing in the newspaper as Mrs. J. Scrivens, I believe this was Emily Scrivens, of 145 Day Avenue, who was married to war veteran Albert Scrivens), and their team of volunteers.
The February 6, 1920 Daily Star carried a compliment made to Florence MacDonald by the auxiliary members regarding a large “Memorial Matinee” entertainment that was planned for injured and convalescing veterans, organized at the Allen Theatre. Many of those attending were transported from the Christie Hospital. The event was ambitious and featured opening remarks from the Lieutenant Governor of Ontario. It was a big success.
Later that month, on February 24, 1920, the Daily Star reported that the Earlscourt GWVA was hosting a 6 p.m. dinner that night for members of all the Toronto GWVA Auxiliaries. This initial report said the dinner would be at Belmont Hall, but a subsequent article said it was held at Earlscourt Central Methodist Church and was hosted by both Mr. and Mrs. Hugh J. MacDonald. Mrs. Campbell McIvor — a leader in the Canadian suffrage movement fighting for votes for women — was the dinner speaker, on the topic of the importance of social work.
Just reading what the volunteers accomplished in this time is exhausting, and the pace does seem to have slowed a bit in March (for one thing, Florence MacDonald was reported by the Star as being sick in bed with a bad cold that month). But the Auxiliary continued to hold events, and also do some planning. On April 24, 1920, the Daily Star noted that, “Mrs. H.J. MacDonald, president of the Ladies’ Auxiliary Earlscourt GWVA, announces that the junior branch of the auxiliary has been organized with a nucleus of close to 100 children, all of them having relatives who served overseas.” Florence MacDonald’s final success was to get approval from the Police Commission on behalf of the Great War Veterans’ Association Auxiliaries to hold a city-wide June 10 Tag Day fundraiser.
By early July 1920, Florence MacDonald’s presidency came to an end. She formally resigned, along with the secretary (Emily Scrivens had apparently already stepped aside and a Mrs. McCann had taken over) at a meeting held July 3, 1920. Their replacements were not immediately named, but work certainly continued with a new crew of hard-working women leaders.
When she resigned, Florence MacDonald would have been in the early stages of her pregnancy with her son Neil Inglis MacDonald, who was born the following March, according to the couple’s 1923 biography. It also seems that the MacDonalds were on the move again. The Might’s Directory for 1921 lists a new person resident at 142 Westmount and no home address is given for Hugh J. MacDonald, although his downtown law office is still in place. The MacDonalds continued to change homes regularly in the years that followed, and I also haven’t located them in the 1921 Census of Canada, which again seems unusual compared to their peers.
Hugh John MacDonald continued to practice law until retiring in the mid-1930s. Four sons were listed in Hugh John MacDonald’s January 18, 1967 Globe and Mail obituary: Hugh J., Scott N. (I wonder if this was Neil Inglis, mentioned above), Kenneth C., and Vincent W. MacDonald. Florence survived her husband and lived ten more years, dying at the age of 99. I didn’t find an obituary for Florence MacDonald, but she is buried with her husband in Mount Pleasant Cemetery.
It is another curious thing to me that several of the statements in Hugh John MacDonald’s obituary do not necessarily match with other facts I have found about his life. One that does check out — although the case seems to be confused with another similar trial — is his successful defence of a group of Communists who were on trial in the 1930s for demonstrating in support of their political beliefs. MacDonald was a lifelong Conservative and was proud of his defence of civil liberties in this case. One thing the MacDonalds sure seem to have had in common was their willingness to take on a tough challenge and face it bravely, head-on.