This Week in Peterborough: 1920


The Hunter Street Bridge (and the Quaker Oats Plant) in the inter-war years. (Image Source)

For some in Peterborough, it was a grim time, as the September 4th, 1920, Peterborough Examiner described:

“From summer resort and playground, backyard and alley, the hungry maw of the monster ‘Public School’ will gather in twenty-eight hundred reluctant little school children on Tuesday…”

But the fearsome cry of “back to school” was not the only bit of news in Peterborough as autumn approached.  Read on, for conflict overseas (as usual), a scandal in the Peterborough Fire Department (not usual at all), and other things including a historic bridge!

On the international scene, most of the reports coming into Peterborough newspapers had to do with Ireland, and the conflict that would later be known as the Irish War of Independence.  The Emerald Isle was in the throes of severe sectarian violence between Unionists (primarily Protestants who wished Ireland to remain part of the British Empire) backed by the British Army, and the Roman Catholic, independence-desiring, Irish Republican Army.  The September 1st Examiner reported that “[t]he total number of serious fires in Belfast since Wednesday [five days earlier] reached 214 this morning.”  The previous day, the newspaper had noted ominously that in Belfast “groups of men are collected at many corners, giving unmistakable indications that trouble might come.”


Street-fighting in Belfast in 1920. (Image Source)

The violence in Ireland would steadily worsen through 1920 and into the following year, before a shaky truce was arranged in the summer of 1921.  In early 1922, the Anglo-Irish Treaty was signed, creating the Irish Free State, but there was great deal more upheaval yet to come.

And the Russian Civil War was heading rapidly towards its conclusion — anyone reading the Peterborough papers in late summer of 1920 could see how it was going to end.  On August 31st, the Examiner reported that the anti-Bolshevik White Army of Gen. Pyotr Wrangel had been all but wiped out, with its remnants now confined to the Crimea.  A general evacuation of White forces and supporters would follow later in the year.  In eastern Russia, said the newspaper, Cossack leader and White Army general Grigory Semyonov had “applied to Leon Trotsky for permission to join the Russian Soviet Army.”  This last turned out to be untrue, but the White resistance was doomed by the withdrawal of Japanese support, and Semyonov ended up in exile.


Statue of Sir Wilfrid Laurier, Ottawa. (Image Source)

As far as Canadian news was concerned, there was little of it, at least to judge from the newspapers.  This general lack of news can be viewed as somewhat odd, given that Prime Minister Robert Borden had resigned only a couple of months, to be replaced by fellow-Conservative Arthur Meighen.  A federal election would come along in late 1921, but we will look at that campaign in next week’s post!

One little note: The Examiner was soliciting funds from Peterborians for the construction of a monument in memory of former Prime Minister Sir Wilfrid Laurier, who had died early in 1919.  It was to be a populist fund-raising movement, with no donation larger than five dollars accepted, and the September 3rd Examiner expressed the hope that “[m]any Peterborough people, no matter what their political opinions may be, will doubtless be glad to assist…”  Work would begin on the Parliament Hill statue of Laurier in 1922.

In terms of local matters, the eyes of Peterborians this week in 1920 were focused firmly on the alarming revelations emerging about the city’s fire department.  On August 30th, there occurred a special meeting of City Council, at which a number of firemen gave testimony about the deplorable state of firefighting in Peterborough.  They spoke of avoidable errors made while attending fires, poor morale (up to and including fist-fights among the men), badly-trained horses, capricious discipline from officers, and even of firemen being deputized to work in the Chief’s garden.  It was clear that the situation was very dire.

However, the over-riding theme of the complaints was the lack of training for the firemen themselves, and more specifically the almost complete absence of ladder drills (“We’ve had none in my time, some two years,” lamented one fireman giving evidence).  Part of the problem was practical; with Peterborough’s automobile traffic growing, it was no longer very feasible for fireman to train in downtown streets, and City Council was unwilling to shell out the money to build them a proper training facility.  This prompted a memorable exchange at the meeting between fireman Victor Lebarr and a couple of Aldermen, as reported in the August 31st Examiner:

“Mr. Lebarr: …We’ve had no drill in Chief Grange’s time.

Ald. Crowe: What should training consist of?

Mr. Lebarr: Scaling roofs, climbing ladders, jumping into nets, coupling hose to hydrants.

Ald. Morrison: You get training at fires.

Mr. Lebarr: Huh!”

I think we can read quite a lot into Mr. Lebarr’s “Huh!”  On September 1st, the Examiner opined that Morrison’s suggestion was “a theory that fails to carry conviction — a method that resembles the heroic plan of teaching a person to swim by throwing him into deep water.”

Horse Drawn Pump

Horse-drawn pump, Peterborough, 1915. (Image Source)

After the meeting ending, at 3:30 a.m. on August 31st, City Council took a couple of days to think things over before releasing some recommendations.  Among them were that the firemen should indeed carry out training drills on the city streets (“it educates the public to keep out of the way” reported the September 3rd Examiner), but that land for a proper training centre would also be sought.  It was felt that regular drills would, in addition, help solve the problems of low morale and indiscipline, since those were seen as being mostly rooted in boredom.

The controversy over the fire department was not, happily, the only thing going on in Peterborough in early September of 1920, as progress was being made on a major city landmark.  Per the Examiner on August 31st, “Work on the Hunter Street Bridge is progressing satisfactorily… It is expected that the falsework for the long span across the river will be completed this week, and the pouring of the cement in the span will commence next week.”  The Hunter Street Bridge was a remarkable engineering feat in its time, rumoured to have been the longest unreinforced concrete span in the world when it was built.  Its decorations included 88 terracotta shamrocks inset in the railings.  The bridge, and its shamrocks, would be completed in 1921, and underwent a full restoration in 2012.


Peterborough Review, May 27th, 1920.

With a noted local landmark coming into being in 1920, we will close off here with a note about another one riding into the sunset, even though this had actually occurred a couple of months before our particular time period.  In late May, the Peterborough Review newspaper, provider of many useful items to this blog, had ceased publication under an agreement with the rival Examiner.  The latter would do the daily newspapering, while the Review Printing Company would have all the job-printing.  Given that the two newspapers had been fierce political rivals, I look forward to seeing how the new arrangement worked in subsequent years, and how the Examiner dealt with being the lone daily newspaper in Peterborough!

And on that note, next week we will look at early September of 1921.  In the meantime, you can read about this time period back in 1868 right here!

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