Peterborough on the Eve of War


From the Peterborough Morning Times, August 5th 1914.

You probably do not need to be told what was dominating the headlines in Peterborough in late July and early August of 1914, one hundred years ago.  The First World War, which Canada officially entered on August 4th of that year, would cost the lives of more than 600 Peterborians by the time it was finished.  You can read the stories of Peterborough’s contribution to the conflict at this excellent blog, and I also encourage you to check out Elwood Jones’s writing on the subject at the Peterborough Examiner.

It is also interesting, however, to look at what else was going on around Peterborough, and in Canada, as the dark clouds gathered overseas.  In the country in general there was an infamous incident in Vancouver, and an oft-forgotten oil boom in Alberta.  Closer to home, we find women’s issues among the matters up for debate, alongside an exciting development for Peterborian movie aficionados.  Click on to read about these, and other things of interest to residents of Peterborough in the Summer of 1914.

The “infamous incident” that I mentioned was the sad story of the S.S. Komagata Maru, a Japanese ship which had arrived in Vancouver in late May of 1914 carrying several hundred would-be immigrants, mostly Sikhs, from India.  Unfortunately, both the British and Canadian governments were not at all in favour of intra-Empire migration to Canada from Asia, and the ship was refused permission to disembark her passengers.  In the end, having been cooped up on the Komagata Maru as she lay in harbour for two months, and after a brief riot on July 19th, they turned back, and returned to India.  The reception there was not a kind one — several of the ship’s passengers were killed when the British authorities in India tried to arrest them, and a number of others were imprisoned.  I think we are entitled to view as appalling the Peterborough Daily Review‘s description of the scene at the Vancouver waterfront on July 22nd, as the passengers frantically engaged in last-minute negotiations to stay in Canada:

“There was all the excitement of war, mixed with the humor of a comic opera.”

I doubt that those aboard the Komagata Maru found very much at all to laugh at.

Dingman Well #1, in Turner Valley, Alberta, c. 1914 (photo via the Calgary Herald)

The other big Canadian news story that summer involved the oil well pictured above, which had struck paydirt in a big, big, way.  On July 22nd, the Peterborough Morning Times described the scene at the well as follows:

“It seems evident that the Dingman well is developing into a real gusher.  When it was uncapped yesterday it shot a continuous stream of oil four inches in diameter over the top of the crown block of the derrick, and ceased only when the well was capped again.”

People were not slow to realize what this development meant, and the Peterborough papers were already full of ads from a slew of newly-minted oil companies (there were, reportedly, more than 500 such companies, many of them deeply unscrupulous, founded in one day early in the boom).  These new outfits were on the hunt for investors, salesmen, geologists, and just about anybody else who could be of aid to the industry.  The Turner Valley boom was of short duration  — by 1917, the wells in that area were largely viewed as disappointing, although they experienced a resurgence in the mid-1930s.

Locally, in Peterborough itself, infrastructure was very much in the news, as is often the case today as well.  The Peterborough Morning Times, on July 31st, ran a brief article, headlined “Contractors Notified to Get Busy, ” mentioning that there were 29,000 yards of city streets to be paved before winter set in, and indicating that city council was getting a bit anxious!  There was better news on the subject of city infrastructure in other regards.  On August 4th, the day that war was declared, the Peterborough Examiner announced:

“A motion has been launched in the County Court for the possession of the property of the Peterborough Light and Power Company by the City of Peterborough.”

The city paid $100,000 dollars to the company to take over the supplying of hydroelectric power to its residents.

Women’s suffrage was a much-debated topic in Canada at the outset of the Great War, and the issue crops up in Peterborough newspapers at the time.  The July 24th, 1914, Peterborough Examiner records a debate held by the St. John’s Church Adult Bible class, with a Miss Hawkins arguing in favour of women having the right to vote, and Mrs. Tooms arguing against.  The “Nay” side won that particular contest, 14 votes to 8, but full women’s suffrage would be enacted by 1918 in all parts of Canada except Quebec, which followed suit in 1940.  On a different but related issue, women were also taking up driving in large numbers, a development that prompted some comment from the Peterborough Morning Times on July 31st:

“It is not an uncommon thing nowadays to see a woman, in many cases slips of girls, manoeuvring big machines through the downtown section during the business traffic hours.”

The Times went on to name the invention of the automobile self-starter as the major reason why so many more women were getting behind the wheel.


The Empire Theatre, Peterborough, in 1919 (Image from Hutchison House Museum, via the Virtual Museum of Canada)

The summer of 1914 was an exciting time for cinematic entertainment in Peterborough, as the Empire Theatre, on Charlotte Street, opened its doors for the first time in late July.  The theatre sat 500 patrons, and was equipped with all the mod cons for early 20th-century movie-watching, including a large space to accomodate the orchestra (this was, of course, long before movies came with sound).  Unfortunately, I was unable to determine what film, exactly, the theatre showed on its debut, but we can make some guesses.  The big money-maker for that year was a 22-part serial entitled The Million Dollar Mystery, which starred Florence la Badie and James Cruze.  Charlie Chaplin also made his on-screen debut in 1914, in the film Making a Living, and the Italian movie Cabiria, set during the Second Punic War, was major hit that year as well.

If movies were not to one’s taste, there was also sporting excitement to be had.  The Peterborough Petes baseball team was in the midst of a campaign in the Class B Canadian League.  The team was struggling, sitting sixth in the eight-team league, but did boast one genuine star in pitcher Lou Schettler.  Schettler, a native of Pennsylvania who had played briefly for the Philadelphia Phillies in 1910, led the Canadian League in the 1914 season in both wins (20) and strikeouts (174).  Sadly, that season was to be the last for the Petes — the league returned in 1915, but without a Peterborough representative.

That, then, is a brief look at what was going on in Peterborough in the days leading up to the opening salvos of the First World War.  All of these stories, of course, were to be swept to the back pages of the newspapers as August rolled along, and I will close here by leaving you with the Examiner’s terse, one-sentence editorial from the day after the country found itself formally at war:


From the Peterborough Examiner, August 5th 1914.

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One Response to Peterborough on the Eve of War

  1. Pingback: This Week in Peterborough: 1914 (A Brief Post) | Peterboriana

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