Excerpt: Modest Hopes by Don Loucks and Leslie Valpy - Dundurn
Oct 14, 2021

Excerpt: Modest Hopes by Don Loucks and Leslie Valpy

Modest Hopes by Don Loucks and Leslie Valpy celebrates Toronto’s built heritage of row houses, semis, and cottages and the people who lived in them. Through the stories of eight families who lived in these “Modest Hopes,” authors Don Loucks and Leslie Valpy bring an important but forgotten part of the Toronto narrative to life. They illuminate the development of Toronto’s working-class neighbourhoods, such as Leslieville, Corktown, and others, and explain the designs and architectural antecedents of these undervalued heritage properties.


88½ Victoria Street, 78 Richmond Street East, 36 Bond Street, 70 Richmond Street West, 27 Widmer Street, 69 Cameron Street

Bridget Ann Treacy McTague was born in Ireland and once lived in many workers’ cottages and Modest Hopes throughout Toronto. The homes she lived in offer insight into hopes once realized, that once sheltered, nurtured, and supported an incredible journey to a life and future in Canada.

From the 1790s to the mid-1800s, upward of 450,000 Irish immigrants had already arrived in British North America. They “settled Upper Canada’s rich farmland, built canals, established businesses in cities, and helped create the social and economic foundations of everyday life.” Before 1846, although it varied from region to region, often Protestant Irish migrants outnumbered Irish Catholics by a ratio of two to one.

As we have seen, 1847 “marked an extraordinary moment in both Irish and Canadian history.” In Ireland, years of an outmoded landholding system, falling agricultural prices, an unprecedented population explosion, and a catastrophic failure of the potato crop from 1845 to 1849 culminated in disastrous, unprecedented poverty among the Irish. The poorest in the country died of starvation, while those who could fled to England, Scotland, or farther afield to Canada, the United States, or Australia.

As mentioned previously in Chapter Four, in 1847, in particular, Toronto witnessed one of the greatest human tragedies in the history of the city. “The sight of haggard, vermin-infested, and diseased travellers disembarking after their harrowing trans-Atlantic voyage undertaken in sub-human conditions left indelible images on the society that hesitatingly received them.” For Torontonians, the massive flood of Irish Famine refugees that year in which three in every four were Roman Catholic challenged their collective Protestant identity, haunted public officials, and strained local resources, becoming the greatest civic crisis in the young city’s history.

Bridget Ann Treacy was one of these famine refugees. Born in Ireland in Newry, County Wicklow, on February 2, 1840, to parents, Martin Tracy and Honora (Norry) Ryan, Bridget Ann and her siblings had become orphans by 1847. Forced to leave Ireland, Bridget (age about seven) and Thomas (age about five) accompanied their aunt, Peggy Ryan Clancy, to Liverpool, England, to board the infamous Jane Black, one of the first ships with Irish immigrants to leave that port for Canada. However, in the chaos of boarding, Thomas was separated from his family. Bridget Ann and her aunt were forced to get on the ship without him. It is not known what became of Thomas.

The passage across the Atlantic Ocean on the Jane Black was perilous and horrific. With little food or water, sickness soon became rampant. The “coffin ship,” as these vessels were soon called, became a nightmare of death, disease, and starvation. Bridget’s hunger became so intense that she chewed on her leather laces for comfort. As the ship made its way to Canada, Bridget Ann clutched a treasure from her homeland: a small gold-painted creamer jug, which travelled with her to Toronto. Their ship was one of the first to enter Toronto’s waterfront, with many more to follow. Numerous immigrants survived the passage but just barely, and some succumbed to sickness upon arrival as typhus became epidemic in Toronto. As soon as they landed, the sick were triaged to fever sheds to contain the diseases, while the healthy without family connections in Toronto were sent out of the city. As mentioned earlier in Chapter Four, of the almost 40,000 immigrants, 1,186 died and were buried in Toronto by the end of 1847.

Bridget Ann and her aunt Peggy settled in Whitby, Ontario. Peggy found work as a cook, and Bridget Ann grew into a beautiful young woman who earned the title “The Belle of Whitby” one year. Bridget Ann met a fellow Irish immigrant named Michael John McTague, a shoemaker, whom she married on November 14, 1865. Less than a year later, their first child, Edward James McTague, was born in Whitby on July 1, 1866.

In 1867, the young family moved to Toronto, where they settled at 88½ Victoria Street amid a row of workers’ cottages (80–90 Victoria Street) between Queen and Shuter Streets. Insurance maps suggest that 88½ was likely a one-storey Modest Hope (see Chapter Two), the ½ hinting it was either an upper floor of the house or a rear apartment. They shared the residence with another shoemaker named David Strachan and likely others. This row eventually became a neighbour of Massey Music Hall, which opened in 1894, but 80–90 Victoria Street was demolished in 1913 for the construction of Loew’s Theatre, now the Elgin and Winter Garden Theatre.

Bridget Ann and Michael had their second child, Annie, in 1879. Likely timed with Annie’s birth, the growing family moved to 78 Richmond Street East between Church and Jarvis Streets amid a row of six workers’ townhouses, 68–78 Richmond East, which were later renumbered 76–86 Richmond East. The McTague family shared this rowhouse with fellow shoemaker Vincent Cozens and his family. By 1912, only numbers 82–84 (formerly 74–76) Richmond East continued to survive, and still does. Bridget Ann’s house was just to the right (east) of the remaining rowhouse.

In 1882, the family relocated with Vincent Cozens to 36 Bond Street (see Fig. 6.1c), just north of Queen Street, amid a row of seven two-and-half-storey brick workers’ cottages, numbered 34–46 Bond. Across the street from their home was the majestic Metropolitan Methodist Church (now the Metropolitan United Church), while next to their row to the south was Notre-Dame-des-Anges, a refuge for girls run by the Sisters of St. Joseph. In 1892, the sisters turned part of their property into a hospital to treat patients during a diphtheria outbreak. That institution became St. Michael’s Hospital, which soon expanded to encompass the entire city block, resulting in the demolition of 34–46 Bond.

From 1884 to 1887, the family resided at 70 Richmond Street West between Yonge and York Streets, likely a small frame house. It has since been torn down to make way for more towers in the financial district. They also lived at 27 Widmer Street (1887–1890), where their third child, Norah Matilda, was born. That house has long since been razed for condominiums. In 1890, the family of five, Bridget Ann (age 49), Michael (age 49), Edward (age 23), Annie (age 11), and Norah (age 3) moved to 69 Cameron Street near Queen Street and Spadina Avenue, a modest house on the end of a long row of workers’ cottages. Having moved so frequently, sharing households often with other families, the McTagues likely owned and lived in 69 Cameron Street as their sole residence, their first true Modest Hope.

Their household grew again as the McTagues’ son, Edward, married Alice and started their own family in 1892, with the birth of their first child, Bridget, and then Mary Ida Madelaine. Eventually, Edward and Alice had two more children.

In 1895, Michael John McTague, who had spent his entire working life as a shoemaker, died. Bridget Ann’s son, Edward, became the principal breadwinner, making $600 per year as a varnisher, while her daughter Annie worked as a hairdresser, earning $225 per year.

Widowed Bridget Ann Treacy McTague continued to live at 69 Cameron Street until 1910, at which time she moved to Port Credit. In 1967, Cameron Street in its entirety, including 69, was demolished for the Alexandra Park Public Housing complex. Bridget Ann died in Port Credit in 1924, age 84. Her aunt Peggy lived to age 103.

Bridget’s youngest daughter, Norah, got married and had nine children. Norah’s granddaughter, Terry Smith, is a former Ontario deputy minister of culture who now runs a Toronto-based company called Philanthropic Partnerships, which matches donors with charities. Terry has traced more than 200 of her great-grandmother Bridget Ann’s descendants in Canada and the United States, and she is the only famine descendant sitting on the board of the Ireland Park Foundation. Terry’s older sister has inherited the small gold creamer from their great-grandmother Bridget, which she keeps in the china cabinet of Norah, her grandmother.

Every single Toronto home that Bridget Ann Treacy McTague lived in has been demolished, replaced by theatres, hospitals, financial district office buildings, housing complexes, and condominiums. For this long and important piece of Canadian and Irish history, there are few Modest Hope houses that exist today to remind us of Bridget Ann’s remarkable immigration journey to Toronto. We only have the stories of her hopes and a creamer jug. The workers’ homes that once contained her and her family’s lives have been torn down, but their history has been reconstructed.

Don Loucks is an architect, urban designer, and cultural heritage planner, with forty years of project experience. He is committed to environmental, economic, and cultural sustainability, and to preserving the variety of rich urban forms that contain the stories of our communities’ history. He lives in Toronto.

Leslie Valpy is a conservation practitioner, researcher, and writer, with a passion for built heritage, history, architecture, and conservation. Working with both intangible and tangible dimensions of heritage, she has participated in a range of projects throughout Ontario. She lives in Toronto.