When Toronto renamed a street – twice

As Toronto City Council looks at renaming Dundas Street over its namesake’s support of slavery within the British empire, it is a reminder that it is not the first time the city has grappled with such an exercise.

Asquith Avenue runs about 350 metres east from Yonge Street just north of Bloor Street in Yorkville. Today, it is most known for being the home of the Toronto Reference Library. Hidden within its history is Asquith is not its original name; in fact, it was renamed twice before.

Asquith Avenue in 2021. Source: Google Maps.

Annexation & Duplication

The origins of Asquith Avenue lay in the 1830s with the independent village of Yorkville. The street was originally known as Jarvis Street, named after one of the village’s builders Sheriff William Botsford Jarvis.

Map of The Incorporated Village of Yorkville in the County of York and Province of Canada, 1852. Source: Historic Maps of Toronto.

When Yorkville was absorbed into the larger City of Toronto in 1883, the annexation created duplication in some street names between the two entities. There was already a Jarvis Street in Toronto (ironically, it is a candidate for renaming today for its own slave-owning connections). Named for Samuel P. Jarvis, it ran from the lake to its head at Bloor Street – and was only short distance away from the Jarvis Street in Yorkville. To avoid confusion, the smaller street was renamed.

“The names of the following streets in St. Paul’s Ward, which conflicted with the names of other streets in Toronto were changed: – William-street to Hawthorn-avenue, Jarvis-street to Bismarck-avenue, Sydenham-street to Cumberland-street, York-street to McMurrich-street, Beverley-street to Boswell-street, Grange-street to Baker-street, Emma-street to Baxter-street, John-street to Roden-place, Balwin-street to Crown-street, Dufferin-street to Bernard-avenue, Victoria-avenue to Dobson-avenue, and Chestnut-avenue to Turner-avenue. The accounts were passed, and the meeting adjourned.”

“Civic Committees”, The Globe, March 7, 1883, pg. 3
Plan of the city of Toronto, 1882: Source: Historic Maps of Toronto

The new name chosen for the former Jarvis Street was Bismarck Avenue. It was named for Otto von Bismarck, the Prussian statesman and later German chancellor who was best known for unifying Germany in the 1870s. The change was proposed by German-born Alderman Newman Leopold Steiner, Toronto’s first Jewish Alderman. In May 1883, Steiner read a communication from Prince Bismarck thanking Council for the naming honour.

Source: Robertson’s Landmarks of Toronto, 1894
22-24 Bismarck (Asquith) Avenue, 1890. Source: Toronto Public Library.
16-20 Bismarck (Asquith) Avenue, Parker’s Dye Works, side entrance, 1910. Source: Toronto Public Library.

“Lose all traces of Prussian Plutocracy”

Bismarck Avenue remained for another thirty years until World War I. Canada joined Great Britain in the Great War against Germany. As result, in 1915, the street name’s relevance came into question.

Alderman J. George Ramsden — the local representative of St. Paul’s Ward where Bismarck Avenue was located and the individual for which Ramsden Park is named for today — was an adamant champion for the street’s renaming. In May 1915, Ramsden presented a petition of 400 signatures of local residents around Bismarck and moved to approve the change. Among the signatories was the Central Methodist Church on Bloor Street, which backed onto Bismarck. According to the Toronto Daily Star, the site of the church was given by the grandfather of one of the victims of the sinking of the Lusitania – an event that stirred great resentment against Germany and its people, even at home. The council meeting went as follows:

“For that reason it was the desire of the petitioners that Bismarck avenue should lose all trace of the German Chancellor and of Prussian plutocracy. (Applause).”

“Refuse to appoint Smith as Head of Fire Department”, Toronto Daily Star, May 18, 1915, pg. 2

The Toronto Daily Star noted the Street Naming Committee normally only met in the fall, but given the circumstances, greater haste was needed. North Toronto previously had a street named for Kaiser Wilhelm, which was renamed by the the committee. Among the new possibilities for Bismarck were “Asquith”, “Kitchener”, and WWI battles in which Canadians prevailed such as “Ypres” and “Neuve Chapelle” (although newspaper also noted Torontonians may have trouble with their pronunciations).

Toronto City Council in its inaugural meeting of 1915. Alderman Ramsden is numbered 14. Source: Toronto Public Library.
Controller Ramsden in 1934. He retired from politics a few years later. Source: Toronto Archives.

At risk of change was more than just Bismarck Avenue, however. “If we change one or two German names, we might as well change all of them,” Alderman Ramsden commented. There were 16 “Teuton” names across the city of Toronto and the goal was to erase any reference to Germany in the city.

An interesting exchange during a Board of Works meeting. “Strachan Ave. Bridge is all a Bungle”, The Globe, July 31, 1915. Source: Globe & Mail Archives

Finally, in August 1915, along with a collection of German-origin names, Bismarck Avenue was formally changed to Asquith Avenue. The Globe explained the move in strong terms:

“No longer will the memory of Bismarck be perpepuated by the nameplate of a Toronto thoroughfare. The memory of the man of iron will be replaced by that of Great Britain’s incomparable statesman, Premier Asquith.”

“Bismarck gives way to British Premier,” The Globe, August 11, 1915, pg. 7
Asquith Avenue’s two former names are noted in the Goad’s Atlas of the City of Toronto, 1924. Source: Goad’s Toronto.

The Power of Names

The history of Asquith Avenue is a great summary of how and why streets are named and/or renamed. In many cases, it is out of necessity to avoid duplication and confusion, often following municipal consolidation. In other situations, they are motivated by the idea of elimination an undesired connotation surrounding that street – that is, either as a re-branding or as a politically-motivated exercise.

In the 1880s, the idea of honouring a German statesman may have made sense. Toronto had a historic community of German settlers and at least one decision-maker of German descent. During World War I, with Toronto and Canada in a conflict with universal ramifications, honouring German ties was perhaps not as obvious. Strengthening the British character of the city — as Toronto often did in other ways, sometimes to very racist outcomes — became a priority. It turned into a deliberate attempt to “erase” all German connections in the city (at least, on the surface).

Names, statues, and monuments reflect the dominant values of the society and people who at the time have the power — both socially and politically — to make those commemorations. The kinds of places that are marked change or should change as that society evolves – or, at least, be afforded the opportunity to hold fair and serious discourse on the possibility of doing so.

Names do not necessarily create, ‘erase’, or ‘sterilize‘ history. They do, however, emphasize and prioritize the types of stories that are told or not told. The history of the naming of Asquith Avenue certainly shows that.

Asquith Avenue in 2019. Source: Google Maps.

Further Reading

“Bismarck Avenue Entrance of Parker’s Dye Works. 791 Yonge Street, Toronto.” Toronto Public Library. Accessed July 12, 2021. https://www.torontopubliclibrary.ca/detail.jsp?Entt=RDMDC-PCR-2140&R=DC-PCR-2140

“Bismarck Gives Way To British Premier.” The Globe, August 11, 1915.

“City Council.” The Globe, May 22, 1883.

“City Fathers Favor Fire Commissioner.” The Globe, May 18, 1915.

“Civic Committees.” The Globe, March 7, 1883.

“German Names for 16 Toronto Streets.” The Toronto Daily Star, May 19, 1915.

Lorinc, | By John. “LORINC: What’s in a Street Name? Dundas and Other Uncomfortable Truths about Our City.” Spacing Toronto, June 12, 2020. http://spacing.ca/toronto/2020/06/12/lorinc-whats-in-a-street-name-dundas-and-other-uncomfortable-truths-about-our-city/

“Refuse to Appoint Smith Head of Fire Department.” The Toronto Daily Star, May 18, 1915.

“Strachan Ave. Bridge Is Still A Bungle.” The Globe, July 31, 1915.

“Toronto Reference Library at 40: The Evolution of Its Site. Part 1. Site and Street Name Changes.” Toronto Reference Library Blog. Accessed July 12, 2021. https://torontopubliclibrary.typepad.com/trl/2017/10/toronto-reference-library-at-40-the-evolution-of-its-site-part-1-site-and-street-name-changes.html