This Week in Peterborough: 1937


Young patients on polio frames at the Toronto Hospital for Sick Children, 1937.  (Image Source)

As we saw from the cartoon posted here a couple of days ago, 1937 was not viewed as kind to the people of Peterborough, or indeed of very many places at all.  And as the year drew towards its end, the bad news kept on coming.  Thus forewarned, read on for dread disease outbreaks, looming global war, drunk driving, and the like…

“Second only to cancer, infantile paralysis presents a problem which the Canadian Medical Association proposes to attack through nation-wide, long-range research.  More than 4,000 Canadians were afflicted in a five-months epidemic late this year.”

So wrote the Peterborough Examiner on December 29th, 1037.  The 1937 outbreak of infantile paralysis, better known as polio, raged from June to October.  The 4,000 cases, nation-wide, would later be surpassed by the 1952 and 1953 epidemics, but 1937 remains the worst year for polio in the history of Ontario; the province suffered 2500 cases, and 119 deaths.  During the height of the epidemic, workers at Toronto’s Hospital for Sick Children scrambled to build temporary wooden respirators to accommodate the number of cases flooding in.

Prior to the introduction of a vaccine in the 1950s, polio was a truly terrifying thing.  It attacked, primarily, the very young, leaving them paralyzed, encased in iron lungs to help them breathe, and facing a lifetime of walking only with the aid of splints and braces.  It is small wonder that, as the Examiner reported, the Canadian Medical Association rated polio a menace second only to cancer.

Polio, however, was not the only health worry for the people of Peterborough as 1937 drew to a close.  The December 31st Examiner reported 52 cases of scarlet fever in the city, 12 of those requiring hospitalization.  Fortunately, it was a mild strain of the disease, but the newspaper still recommended that any child showing symptoms “should be placed in bed… and isolated from others in the home.”


The Panay sinks in the Yangtze after the attack on December 12th. (Image Source)

Those Peterborians looking for solace in events abroad would not have found it.  On December 12th, Japanese aircraft attacked and sank an American naval vessel, the U.S.S. Panay, in the Yangtze River as it helped to evacuate Westerners from the besieged Chinese city of Nanking (Japan had invaded China a few months previously).  The attack also damaged two Royal Navy vessels taking part in the evacuation.  An early outbreak of World War II was avoided when the Japanese government apologized, and paid an indemnity, for the incident.

On December 13th, the Japanese army took Nanking (now known as Nanjing), and began an appalling six-week campaign of atrocities, including sexual violence, against the inhabitants.  The episode, often referred to as the “Rape of Nanking,” resulted in a death toll of about 300,000.  It does not appear that news of the massacre had reached Canadian newspapers by the end of the month; in any case, there is no mention of it in the late December issues of the Examiner.


Peterborough Examiner, December 31st, 1937.

In Europe, meanwhile, the Spanish Civil War was raging on, with Nationalist forces of Gen. Francisco Franco making significant gains throughout the year.  The “Greatest Struggle” mentioned in the headline above was the fight for the eastern Spanish city of Teruel, which would change hands at least a couple of times in the coming months.  That battle, however, did not decide the war, which would continue until Franco’s eventual victory in 1939.

And in Romania, a far-right government took power on December 28th, bringing that country — and its oil — into the sphere of influence of Adolf Hitler’s Germany, and leading almost immediately to the imposition of some extremely nasty anti-Semitic laws.  “Rumania has been headed towards Fascism of the Nazi brand for a long time,” was the glum assessment in the December 30th Examiner.

Back to Peterborough, and more blessedly mundane matters;  a heated civic debate was underway in the city on the subject of Daylight Saving Time.  Hitherto, the issue of whether to set the clocks ahead in the summer had been left to individual municipalities to determine for themselves.  That meant that some places — large cities and industrial centres, mostly — did use DST, while smaller, more rural communities did not.  Chaos, as you can imagine, was the result.  Peterborough, as a factory town, had adopted the practice in 1937, but it was still up in the air as to whether that situation would continue.

The Peterborough Examiner was quite insistent that it should.  In a rare front-page editorial on December 30th, the newspaper wrote:

“Peterborough is the most important manufacturing centre between Toronto and Montreal.  Why shouldn’t we all be proud that we have to keep in step with the big cities instead of imagining ourselves as willing to trail along on ‘slow time.'”

The Examiner went on to point out the additional pleasant benefits of an extra hour of evening sunlight during the peak season for cottage-dwellers as part of its argument.

There were, however, dissenting opinions.  “Why should a couple of big cities rule the majority against their will?” exclaimed “a Rubidge Street resident” quoted in the Examiner’s New Year’s Eve edition.  The paper dismissed him fairly brusquely, stating: “…that was about as close to an argument as he was able to give.”


Fleming in his later years. (Image Source)

The Examiner did concede that Peterborough had an interesting, sentimental, wrinkle to consider in debating the issue: Standard Time, which Daylight Saving Time would replace for a few months each year, was the work of Sir Sandford Fleming, whom we have met before in this series.  While Fleming was not a Peterborough native (he was born in Scotland), he had arrived in the town in the mid-1840s, lived here for a number of years, and married a Peterborough girl.  And so he could be considered “local” in every meaningful sense of the term, and Peterborians could be allowed a certain amount of pride in his famous accomplishments.  This added a level of difficulty to the debate as a January 1st referendum on the matter approached.


Before that there was New Year’s Eve to be enjoyed, but there was even some gloom to be found regarding that festive occasion. drunk driving was becoming a serious problem in urban areas, and the city of Hamilton was considering a complete ban on non-essential automobile use on December 31st.  While the Examiner‘s editorialists thought this was going a bit far, they did, on December 29th, call for stricter punishment of tipsy drivers.  “Appealing to courtesy should place the situation in hand,” wrote the newspaper, “but the trouble seems to be [that] the supply of courtesy has run low in this country as it has the world over.”

A bright spot in all of this?  Well, the Ontario Hockey Association season was underway, and the Senior ‘B’ Peterborough Hockey Club — the Petes — had opened the 1937-28 campaign with a 4-3 overtime victory in Belleville on December 26th.  The next day’s Examiner pronounced the game “a lively opener on a good sheet of ice with plenty of speed and action shown by the oldtime puck rivals.”

And so it was that Peterborians were finally able to say “good-bye” to 1937, hoping for better in the year to come.  And we are at the curious point in this series where we get to look at two consecutive historical weeks; this time we had the last week of 1937, and on Wednesday we will consider the first days of 1938.  Among other things, we will learn what came of the big Daylight Saving Time vote.  But in the meantime, I invite you to read up on what was happening in Peterborough back in the waning days of 1885!


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