Join Heritage Toronto and the Queen City Yacht Club on June 7 for a plaque presentation and celebration of the Queen City Yacht Club’s 125th anniversary!
By Jamie Bradburn
For an organization with long ties to the Toronto Islands, it seems ironic that one of the motivations behind the formation of the Queen City Yacht Club (QCYC) was to run a mainland-based sailing group. Its birth marked the end of a decade of rifts within the city’s yachting community which arose when the Royal Canadian Yacht Club (RCYC) relocated to the Islands in 1880. For the next nine years a breakaway group, the Toronto Yacht Club, based themselves on the waterfront. By 1889, most of the dissenters rejoined the RCYC, but a few still preferred to base their sailing and socializing from the north side of the harbour.
Twenty-one sailors showed up for a meeting on July 17, 1889 to establish the Queen City Yacht Club. Among the new organization’s driving forces was Tommy World, a young insurance broker and veteran of the Northwest Rebellion. Named the QCYC’s first commodore, World was the club’s guiding light for decades, filling numerous official and honorary positions until his death in 1947.
Initially based along Clendenning Row, owned by the Toronto Canoe Club—a section of the shoreline between York and Simcoe Streets east of Queen’s Wharf—the QCYC launched a weekly racing series. Within a month of its formation, the club had grown to around 60 members and 20 vessels, and it soon joined the Lake Yachting Racing Association.
The club’s mainland location allowed it to offer a year-round slate of activities, including monthly dances, movie nights, orchestral performances, smoking concerts, and weekly card games. The entertainment committee worked hard to build attendance, enticing members with programs like free dance classes for those cursed with two left feet. Starting in 1902, many of these activities were held in a three-storey clubhouse at the foot of York Street designed by one of the club’s members, architect E.J. Lennox.
The club’s growth was aided by the proletarian image it cultivated as a “cooperatively-run club accessible to ordinary men.” Though some prominent Toronto family names like Gooderham and Jarvis drifted through the club toward the end of its first decade, the membership ledger lacked bluebloods. A good sense of who the QCYC attracted resides in a January 1924 applicant list—professions include carpenters, clerks, department store carpet layers, dress cutters, janitors, opticians, students, telephone installers, and various tradesmen. Members were expected to pitch in with maintaining the club’s facilities, creating a co-operative spirit which QCYC has developed into one of its main selling points.
Women experienced a long, bumpy road to full membership. When the new clubhouse opened, women who were “introduced to the club by members” could access the balcony but only on Saturdays or during competitions. They had those privileges reduced by 1909, but were still allowed into dances and ladies nights. Not until 1923 were women allowed as full members for social gatherings, and not until sisters Naomi and Vivienne Trudeau joined in the early 1950s would they officially operate boats. The first female board member, Jean Grice, was elected in 1979.
In April 1911, a proposed policy change to limit membership based on race and nationality was overwhelmingly opposed by existing members. The amendment would have seen “that in future all Jews, negroes and people of other undesirable nationalities be refused membership in this club.” The Toronto Star attacked the proposal as “a piece of snobbery which should not be allowed to pass unnoticed” which “comes with ill grace from such a progressive club as the QCYC.” Commodore Mervin Armstrong expressed his displeasure to the paper:
“It never should have come up. The mover brought it before the board in a flash, but he had the right to put it on the order sheet and did so. The publicity has raised a storm of objection, and I think he will drop it. If he doesn’t he will get a scorching at tonight’s meeting. Why, the club has several Jewish members and all of them have proven fine fellows. To my idea every man, be he Jew or Gentile, Italian or Canadian, must stand on his own merits. If he is a decent fellow we want him; if he isn’t, we don’t.”
As Armstrong predicted, the motion was opposed by all of the club’s officers and 99% of members attending the meeting.
The club’s early resistance to the Toronto Islands withered when the Toronto Harbour Commission undertook dredging near the shore to increase shipping. As early as 1907 Tommy World looked into a site across the harbour and the city extended the promise of a site when one became available. By 1920, that site was found on the west side of Sunfish Island, recently created from dredged materials.
The site was secured just in time, as club officials grew alarmed over the clubhouse’s stability. As dredging neared York Street, they noticed the building was settling into the harbour. As the summer of 1920 arrived, the club’s piano and trophies were removed from the premises. Around 2:30 a.m. on July 7, everyone’s worst fears came true. “The whole east side of the building collapsed with a tremendous crash,” the Globe reported, “and the noise of the crashing timbers attracted the attention of tugs on the harbour and the crew of the Life-Saving Station, who rushed to the scene.” The site briefly became a popular shoreline tourist attraction.
The “hall accident,” as the club’s official minutes termed it, netted QCYC $15,000 in damages from the Toronto Harbour Commission. The money funded construction of the current clubhouse on Sunfish Island, which opened in 1921. The club eventually switched to seasonal operation after the move, though it continued to offer winter activities on the mainland. When Sunfish Island was renamed Algonquin Island in 1938 and cottages were moved there from other parts of the islands, the club had a new residential base to build upon. Until the Algonquin Island bridge was built in 1938, members had to hail a club member to row over to the Ward’s Island dock to bring them to the club. It seems that there were occasionally long waits to reach the club due to rowers who chose to ignore the whistles and yells.
Though the Second World War deeply impacted membership, the club kept going. Events during this era included a heavily-promoted “Beer & Eats” stag night at the Carls-Rite Hotel at Front and Simcoe in January 1944. A hand-stenciled headline in the club’s Red Ensign newsletter screamed “YA GOTTA COME.” As editor Ken Purchase noted:
“Take my advice, be there for a real party has been arranged. We can just about guarantee everybody all the beer they can drink (no coupons either), some good skits, MORE BEER, cards, MORE BEER, and OH Yes that ancient and honourable game of African Dominoes [craps]—MORE BEER. All that gentlemen for the trivial sum of $1.50 plus that inestimable quality that goes with a gang of right guys.”
At its clubhouse, QCYC has long offered members and their guests a range of dining options, including in its dining room, which opened in 1964. A sample menu from 1969 offered comfort foods like liver and onions, Salisbury steak, and meat pie with gravy. The priciest platter, at the wallet-busting price of $1.70, was a breaded veal cutlet with barbecue sauce, served with bread, potato, and vegetables. Promotional material from the late 1970s indicated that the dining room provided “an ambitious menu at reasonable cost, with no extra charge for one of the most spectacular views in Toronto. Here members can enjoy a full course meal with their favourite wine while watching the sun set behind Toronto’s dramatic skyline. Every minute the vista changes as the sky blends from gold to blue and the lights of the city stand out against the darkening sky.”
Membership numbers have varied over the years, averaging around 185-220, with nearly 300 during the early 1970s. QCYC membership fees tended to be lower than the other island yacht clubs, reflecting its co-operative nature. Since 1998, members are mandated to work a set number of hours for the club, whether it’s sitting on a committee, maintaining the grounds, or participating in major renovation projects.
The city’s second-oldest yacht club, the QCYC will celebrate its 125th anniversary this year with its traditions of informality, hospitality, and co-operative spirit.
Additional material from Queen City Yacht Club 1889-1989 by Wayne Lilley (Toronto: Queen City Yacht Club, 1991), the January 15, 1944 edition of The Red Ensign, the April 14, 1911 and July 9, 1920 editions of the Globe, and the April 7, 1911 and April 11, 1911 editions of the Toronto Star.