The Story of Toronto’s “Gypsies”

By David Wencer, originally published June 15, 2011

Immigrants experienced prejudice and myths about their lifestyle

Read Part 1 in the series on Bears in Toronto

Girls on a road near a gypsy camp (Library and Archives Canada)

On February 6, 1911, the Toronto Daily Star reported the eviction of a group of “gypsies” who had been living in a camp near Yonge and Eglinton. The relocated people were now living near Mimico, their animals and goods temporarily stored at a livery in downtown Toronto. The Star’s small, three-paragraph article hints at the complicated relationship between the established residents of the community and one of the Toronto area’s first camps of “gypsies.”

 

Gypsy camp on the Humber River, 1918 (Library and Archives Canada)

The term “gypsy” is disused today, but for many years described a person from one of the many nomadic groups of Europe and western Asia. People from these groups often identify today as “Roma,” but it is important to note that not all groups previously thought of as “gypsies” are ethnically Romani, and that people in historic “gypsy” camps could be members of another ethnic group such as the Dom, the Yeniche, the Irish Travellers, or a number of other nomadic peoples. For the average person in 1911 Toronto these distinctions were rarely, if ever, made. For them, the term “gypsy” could connote a lifestyle as much as it did an ethnicity.

 

Rosie, a 14-year-old Gypsy bride. Gypsy camp, Peterboro, Ontario (Library and Archives Canada)

Nomadic peoples have long been established in the old world, where “gypsy” camps sometimes set up on the outskirts of cities. Living quite literally on the fringes of society, people in these camps frequently experienced extreme prejudice, which manifested itself in the form of myths and rumours about the “gypsy” lifestyle. In some parts of the world this prejudice still exists today. In the late nineteenth century, members of the Roma and other so-called “gypsy” groups started immigrating to North America, where they established camps outside North American cities. The October/November 1998 issue of The Beaver features an article by John Tylor Lyon called “‘A Picturesque Lot’: The Gypsies in Peterborough” which describes the curious and at times hostile reactions exhibited by the citizens of Peterborough and Ottawa to a Roma camp in 1909. “Wherever they travelled,” Lyon writes, “rumours and accusations accompanied them, and more often preceded them”. In that particular case, rumours led to charges of loitering, theft and kidnapping.

 

Gypsy camp, Peterboro, Ontario (Library and Archives Canada)

The first report of the camp near Yonge and Eglinton comes from an article in the November 5, 1910 Toronto Daily Star, which describes the camp’s location as being “at the end of Soudan Avenue, a mile and a half from the tracks on Yonge Street.” If correct, this would put it near Bayview, probably just beyond the limits of the Town of North Toronto, in what was then York Township. It was not uncommon in North America for such camps to be just outside the limits of cities, where the occupants could be free from civic authority and still have access to shelter, water, and an established population who could serve as the consumer base for a variety of services.

This group reportedly consisted of four men, three women, three children, two bears (later articles indicate as many as four bears) and a baboon, as well as some horses and hens. In 1910, keeping farm animals was not unheard of in Toronto’s outlying areas, but bears and a baboon were novel. The latter were described as “giving exhibitions on the street,” and were likely employed as an attraction.

The November 5 article suggests that the established residents of the nearby community were giving the camp’s inhabitants money for both the animal shows and for fortune readings. Fortune-telling was commonly associated with “gypsy”culture at the time, and fairs and fundraisers in Toronto often advertised “gypsy fortune-tellers,” although it seems this was often a white person in a costume. The Star article both plays up the romantic element associated with “gypsy” culture while also reinforcing period prejudices about “gypsies” being dirty and about their supposed penchant for kidnapping white children: “[T]he children of North Toronto are never tired of looking at the camp, and weaving weird tales of kidnapped and immature heiresses to be returned some day… On warm days they play around the outskirts of the camp running away in childish terror when a swarthy face appears from the doorway of a tent. The bolder approach quite close, not a bit afraid, but always with a good running space at their backs. They love the mystery and the glamour of the strange, but they take no chance of being mistaken for heiresses.” These rumours may have been fed by those spread in through a case in Ottawa the year before; Lyon writes in his Beaver article that “the Ottawa Children’s Aid Society was summoned when someone thought two of the children in the camp had skin too fair for Gypsies,” prompting accusations that they had been kidnapped from white families.

The arrival of “gypsies” at a community sometimes provoked fears of theft or more serious crimes, as it had in Peterborough and Ottawa the year before. Writing in 2000 in his book Memories of Lambton Park, John Gell describes the reaction of the Lambton Park community to the presence of a camp in the 1930s: “The prejudice against the gypsies was that they were thieves and the men were rogues. As soon as word spread that the gypsies had camped in the area, everyone took in their laundry… As soon as the milkman delivered milk, you had to take in the bottles. It was said that they followed the milkman and picked up the milk.” During the few months that the camp remained near North Toronto, however, no specific complaints against the group are reported, the Globe simply writing the day after their departure that the camp was “a general nuisance. Among other habits their persistent begging was a matter of objection.”

Initially, the people at the Yonge and Eglinton camp squatted on the site they had selected. After the established North Toronto residents reportedly “tried to show them that there were other parts more favourable to their race,” the group apparently managed to purchase the property where they were camped, giving them a legal right to remain there. “Perfectly peaceful,” the November 5 article continues, “they have shown themselves to be law-abiding citizens and people of wealth. They are no longer suspected of anything other than a too-vivid imagination when they tell fortunes, and as far as the neighbours are concerned they may stay there forever.”

Nevertheless, it appears that the authorities were intent on breaking up the camp; whether this initiative was spurred by a community request is not known, as no government documents or correspondence have yet been identified connected to this matter. Although the camp’s inhabitants had the right to stay on the property, concerns next emerged over their living conditions. The minimal accommodations are described in the Star as “four little white tents” with “leaf shelters over the doorways of the tents.” Somebody made the decision to summon the Children’s Aid Society, either out of legitimate concern or in the hopes of finding an excuse to evict the residents; the visit by the Children’s Aid Society reportedly revealed children running shoeless in the snow.

In early February of 1911, Dominion immigration officers arrived at the North Toronto camp and broke it up. On the evening of February 3 the group was sent downtown where they were temporarily housed at Cross’ Livery at 77 King Street West, between York and Bay, while the federal government looked into the matter to determine what should be done with the “gypsies.” The leader of the camp, described in one article as being considerably older than the others and fluent in twelve languages including English, told the Star that the group had emigrated from England (although whether this was their country of origin is unknown) via New York, and that they hoped to move to Montreal. Both the Star and the Globe reported, however, that the group would be deported to the United States.

Gypsy children washing at a camp on the Humber River, 1918 (Library and Archives Canada)

While the government reviewed the matter, the camp’s animals were kept at the livery while the people themselves lived with another “gypsy” group, encamped west of the Humber River near Mimico, and apparently living there without complaint from the community. (One of the difficulties in researching these camps is that records of early “gypsy” camps generally only exist when the camps had a conflict with other local residents, so amiable relations tend to go unreported.) More specific details as to the Humber River camp’s precise location are not given, but the Star played up the juxtaposition of the rough camp lifestyle with that of nearby Mimico, writing “little dissatisfaction seems to exist among these nomads, with their caravans drawn up alongside victorias and coupes worth hundreds of dollars.”

A few days later, it was reported that a relative of the now-displaced people had been found in Chicago, prompting speculation that they would be sent to live with him. This might well have been their fate, as no specific mention of the final decision has yet been found. Following some excitement surrounding the disposition of some of their property which had been left behind, several newspapers referred to the “gypsies” as having been recently deported, but no further details are given.

References to other “gypsies” appear in the Toronto newspapers in 1911 and throughout the subsequent years, freely advertising palm-reading and fortune-telling in the classifieds, but it is impossible to know which of these “gypsies” are members of specific ethnic groups, and which are simply people using the term “gypsy” to promote an event or business.

Following their owners’ departure, many of the animals of the dispersed North Toronto people (and possibly other possessions) were reportedly sold to a group located on Queen Street, known as the Royal English Gypsies. The nature of the Royal English Gypsies is not known, but in Immigrants: A Portrait of the Urban Experience, 1890-1930, Robert Harney and Harold Troper write that some gypsies “rented dilapidated store-fronts on York Street and around the City Hall area, where they ran illicit palmistry and fortune-telling shops or bought and sold cut-rate goods.” The Royal English Gypsies may have been such an occurrence, as they do not appear in the city directories.

Gypsy woman and automobile near Fort York, July 6, 1923 (Library and Archives Canada)

In subsequent years, reports of other “gypsy camps” near Toronto are intermittent, often existing in the form of oral histories rather than in newspapers reports or documentation. In June of 1920 the Star reported on a camp of “Serbian gypsies” near York Mills, noting that “these people have forsaken horse-trading, now travelling in motor cars.”

For more on”gypsy” immigrants in Canada, see their entry from The Encyclopaedia of Canada’s Peoples and the official website of the Roma Community Centre.

Sources

“Gypsy’s Camp in North Toronto,” Toronto Daily Star, November 5, 1910.
“Band of Gypsies to be Deported,” The Globe, February 4, 1911.
“Gypsies in Livery Stable with Horses and Bears,” Toronto Daily Star, February 4, 1911.
“The Gypsies are Allowed Liberty,” Toronto Daily Star, February 6, 1911.
“Big Brown Bear at King and Bay,” Toronto Daily Star, February 16, 1911.
“Olde English Fayre,” Toronto Daily Star, February 18, 1911.
“Gypsies at York Mills,” Toronto Daily Star, June 2, 1920.
Gell, John. Memories of Lambton Park. J. Gell, Toronto: 2000.
Harney, Robert F. & Harold Martin Troper. Immigrants: A Portrait of the Urban Experience, 1890-1930. Van Nostrand Reinhold, Toronto: 1975.
Lyon, John Tylor. “‘A Picturesque Lot’: The Gypsies in Peterborough” in The Beaver, Oct/Nov 98, Vol. 78, Issue 5, p. 25.

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