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Sacrifice: Toronto's Dr. George Robert Grasett

The Sacrifice: Toronto's Dr Grasett section tells the story of Canadian caregivers such as Toronto physician Dr. George Robert Grasett, Emigration Agent Edward McElderry, and Toronto Bishop Michael Power who gave their lives caring for Irish emigrants in the summer and autumn of 1847. It also provides access to the unpublished diary of John Young who accompanied Famine emigrants from Grosse Isle to Montreal, Kingston, Toronto, and Hamilton, as well as newpaper accounts from The Church - a weekly paper devoted to the interests of the United Church of England and Ireland in the Province of Canada. Several of these records have been digitized from the Nancy Mallett Archive in Toronto’s St. James’ Cathedral.

Archivist Nancy Mallett and Robert G. Kearns on the sacrifice of Dr. George Robert Grasett

Toronto’s Emigrant Hospital

During the summer of 1847, almost forty thousand Irish emigrants travelled on steam boats down the St Lawrence River and across Lake Ontario from Kingston to Toronto, which had a population of less than twenty thousand at that time. They were often desperately overcrowded on board these vessels and stricken with typhus fever. From this mass of suffering migrants, order needed to be restored. Toronto Emigration Agent, Edward McElderry, and his men worked tirelessly day after day to help care for the sick and assist arriving migrants to reach their destinations. Those who were healthy and had sufficient funds were given free passage out of the city to more rural locations in Ontario or down into the United States. Those showing signs of the dreaded “ships fever” were put under the care of Dr. George Robert Grasett and his staff at the Toronto Emigrant Hospital. Women who were left destitute and orphaned children were sent to the Widows and Orphans’ Asylum.

The Toronto Emigrant Hospital was located near King and John streets. It was a place of compassion and great suffering. The hospital was quickly at capacity and simple pitched roof fever sheds, with no walls, were constructed on the grounds. In order to offer protection from the mosquitoes, the staff hung cheese cloth for makeshift walls, allowing for fresh air. There were at least 12 sheds, 22 meters long by 7.5 meters wide. By year’s end, 1,816 emigrants had died and were buried in Toronto. They were laid to rest in the plots set aside by St. James Cemetery or the Anglican Cathedral on Parliament Street, south of Bloor; others were buried in the graveyard adjoining St. Paul’s Roman Catholic Parish Church on Queen Street East. Their Canadian caregivers are commemorated in Dr George Robert Grasett Park on the original site of the Toronto Emigrant Hospital. Its glass sculptural works resembling fever sheds is one of the park’s defining features.

The Death of Dr. Grasett

On the 16th of July, 1847, Dr. George Robert Grasett died caring for fever stricken Famine Irish emigrants in Toronto’s Emigrant Hospital. During that summer, 38,650 Irish migrants had landed on the Toronto waterfront at Rees's Pier and were transported to the Emigrant Hospital at King and John Streets. The city at the time had an approximate population of a mere 20,000.

Dr. Grasett strived to save Irish Famine emigrants at great risk to himself. On 22nd June, 1847, he was informed by the Chairman of Toronto’s Board of Health, George Gurnett, that he was likely to be appointed as Medical Supervisor of the city’s Emigrant Hospital. On 2 July 1847, Gurnett wrote to Grasett instructing him to send health officers to visit all steamers arriving at Ree’s wharf on Toronto’s waterfront. They sought to prevent Irish emigrants from spreading infectious diseases such as typhus to the city’s inhabitants.

Within two weeks, Dr Grasett himself fell ill and died of “ship fever”. His correspondence, funeral, card, and letters for condolence from the House of Industry and Bishop Strachan (John Toronto) to Grasett’s brother, Rev. Henry Grasett, can be found in the Nancy Mallett Archive and Museum in St. James Cathedral.

Press Coverage of Dr. Grasett’s Death

The death of Dr. Grasett was also recorded in The Church newspaper on 16 July and 23 July, 1847.

“We stop the press to announce the melancholy intelligence that Dr. Grasett expired this morning, at 7 o’clock, at the house of his brother, the Rev. H.J. Grasett,” the paper reported on 16 July.

“During his short residence in our city,” it added on 23 July, “he acquired for himself a high and well-deserved reputation, by his unwearied and disinterested labours among the poor and destitute – among those who had nothing to give in return for his offices of love, save the tears and prayers of affectionate gratitude”.

“Since his appointment as hospital superintendent,” recorded the British Colonist newspaper (20 July, 1847), “he knew no other duty than that of staying disease and alleviating the sufferings of those who, driven from their own land by famine and pestilence, sought a refuge among us, their brethren in Canada”.

The Paper Paid Grasett Tribute:
To this duty faithfully – too faithfully – performed he has fallen a victim, and it remains only for us to record how well his amenities in life were appreciated – his medical services and exertions acknowledged, adding our fervent prayer that, as he “died the death of the righteous,” so may our “last end be like his”.

Newspaper column, one paragraph.
The Church, July 16, 1847, announcing the death of
Dr George Robert Grasett.
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Newspaper column, one paragraph.
The Church, July 23, 1847.
"The Death of Dr Grasett"
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Newspaper column, six paragraphs.
Obituary for Dr Grasett in British Colonist, 20 July, 1847.
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John Young's Famine Diary

The horrendous conditions on board steamers transporting the Famine Irish to Toronto were also recorded in an eyewitness account by John Young. Young was an emigrant Glasgow who sailed to Ancaster, Ontario, between July and August 1847. His unpublished hand written diary is held in the Nancy Mallett Archive and Museum. It is named after archivist Nancy Mallett, who is a descendant of John Young.

Black and white image of bald middle aged man with white beard, facial profile and upper body.
Portrait of John Young.
Brown diary with fraying green binding, lying on white paper, on brown table with scuffed surface.
John Young Diary in Nancy Mallett Archive and Museum, St James Cathedral, Toronto.
Handwritten page of diary. Surface of brown table visible in top and bottom of image.
John Young Diary handwritten first page. Glasgow. Wednesday. 23 June, 1847.
diary with fraying green binding, lying diagonally on brown table with scuffed surface.
2nd image of John Young Diary in Nancy Mallett Archive and Museum, St James Cathedral, Toronto.
Smiling woman in glassed holding open brown diary, seated at brown table. Numerous grey archive folders shelved in background.
Nancy Mallett holding her ancestor John Young’s diary in archive named after her in St James Cathedral, Toronto.

Archivist Nancy Mallett & Shannon Quigley read from John Young’s diary about John’s 1847 arrival in Canada.

Nancy Mallett & Shannon Quigley read from John Young’s diary about his 1847 arrival in Toronto

John Young
“Treated Like Cattle”

On 12th August, Young made note of the cramped conditions on the Princess Royal steamer which he had boarded in Kingston.

"We had not to land at all but just went alongside the steamer for Toronto the Princess Royal which was lying at a wharf, and transferred ourselves to it. It soon pushed out and we thought we were off but it went again to another wharf where there were some thousands of Irish emigrants and proceeded to pack them on board. We were rather alarmed at this as many of them were sick and so many were packed that we had not room to stir. Father complained to the Captain and offered to pay cabin fare to get out of such a squad but got nothing but impudence from him, Captain Twohey. We had all to squat down in a corner keeping back from the rest as well as we could."

The next day, 13th August, the steamer arrived in Toronto where Young observed that the emigrants were met with further harsh treatment:

"We here got rid of the most of our living cargo, whom they treated just like cattle driving them about, and tried to do the same with us, but we rebelled. They were all turned out and kept back with sticks till their luggage would be tumbled out after them."

The Famine Irish in Hamilton’s Burlington Heights Burial Ground

Beyond Toronto, Irish emigrants also perished in Hamilton. The most destitute there were buried in the old cholera cemetery at Burlington Heights. Decades later, it was recalled in the Hamilton Spectator (6 August, 1890) that the Famine dead “were hastily coffined and driven in a cart, often six or seven at a load to the Burlington Heights north of the canal, where they were “interred without any much useless formality”. The paper also noted that the “old fellow” who was contracted to bury the emigrants “invented a coffin the end of which opened on a hinge and that when he reached the grave he tilted his cart and let the body slide out of the coffin – swoosh! Into the soft sandy couch prepared for its permanent rest”. The burial ground at Burlington Heights was unconsecrated. It was a particularly desolate final resting place for Famine Irish emigrants.

Engraved rectangular green plaque mounted on large grey stone. Green grass in background.
Burlington Heights, Hamilton Plaque: "Guard this Resting Place Of These Unknown Soldiers, Immigrants and Citizens. War of 1812-1814. Ship Fever 1847-1848. Cholera 1854-1855."

Dr. Laura Smith on the significance of Burlington Heights

Irish Famine Migration Routes In Ontario

John Tallis Map of West Canada or Ontario, 1850.
Map of Irish Famine Migration Routes in Ontario

Route 1:

  1. Montreal
  2. Ottawa
  3. Eganville

Route 2:

  1. Montreal
  2. Kingston
  3. Toronto
  4. Hamilton

Route 2A:

  1. London

Route 2B:

  1. Niagara

Route 3:

  1. Cobourg
  2. Peterborough

Route 4:

  1. Kingston
  2. Ottawa

Canadian Caregivers’ Sacrifice: Emigration Agent Edward McElderry

Several Canadian caregivers in addition to Dr. Grasett were stricken with typhus and perished in Toronto. The city’s Emigration Agent Edward McElderry died on the 29th of October, 1847. Stephen De Vere noted in his diary (November 6th) that “I regret to hear of poor McElderry’s death of fever at Toronto”.

McElderry’s superior, Chief Emigration Agent for Upper Canada Anthony Bowden Hawke, paid tribute in a letter written on 9 November. Hawke lamented that McElderry “has left a widow and eight children – the oldest under thirteen – completely destitute. I never saw a more afflicted family. He was a good man in every relation of life and has certainly fallen a victim to his duty. Had he less zeal he would have given himself time to recover from the effects of the fever, but he persisted in working beyond his strength, and the dysentery set in fatally.”

The McElderry family tomb can be found in St. Joseph’s Catholic Cemetery in Guelph. He is also commemorated in a stained glass window in Guelph’s Basilica of our Lady Immaculate.

McElderry was not the only Canadian caregiver to have “fallen a victim to his duty”. Toronto Emigrant Hospital orderlies John McNabb and Richard Jones died on the 25th and 24th of August, 1847. Head Nurse Susan Bailey died on the 30th of August; Nurse Sarah Duggan, 18 years old, perished on September 8th. Dr. Joseph Hamilton died on the 15th of November. McElderry’s successor, Dr. Denis Robert Bradley, was appointed Emigration Agent in Toronto in 1848. He contracted cholera the following year, dying from its complications on 13 January, 1850.

Professor Mark McGowan on Emigration Officer Edward McElderry

Canadian Caregivers’ Sacrifice
Toronto’s Bishop Michael Power

Toronto’s Bishop Michael Power also died from typhus after caring for Irish emigrants on 1st October, 1847.

His illness and death were recorded by Stephen De Vere in his journal. On 29th September, De Vere noted that Bishop Power "very ill of typhus fever". On 1st October, De Vere added a very moving private obituary:

"Rev. Michael Power Cath bishop of Toronto died this morning. He was a man of great generosity and nobleness, most kindly and charitable in a true and most extended kindly sense, an humble Christian. By his example, his justice, his unfailing attention to the duties of his high station, & the strictness of his discipline, he brought into perfect order a diocese which he found almost in anarchy. His death is attributable, under providence, to the noble and devoted zeal with which, since the illness of so many of his clergy, he has visited the beds of every sick and dying emigrant. He did not spare himself, but God has spared him a longer sojourn on earth. He was a man of no political party, of no religious bigotry. He was too strong-minded to be a bigot, & too wise to be a partisan. He was therefore respected and beloved by men of all creeds and parties. May Almighty God have Mercy on his soul."

The sacrifice of Toronto’s medical professional and religious leaders who gave their lives caring for Famine Irish emigrants is commemorated by Canada Ireland Foundation and the Famine Irish Migrant Stories in Ontario digital exhibit.

Portrait of Toronto Bishop Michael Power face and upper body, brown hair, wearing red robe.
Portrait of Toronto Bishop Michael Power, who died caring for Irish emigrants in Toronto on 1 October, 1847.
Sculpture of woman holding dying man lying in her arms, mounted on grey plinth with plaque. Front facade of church in background.
Monument to Bishop Michael Power. St. Paul’s Basilica, Toronto.
Brown plague mounted on grey plinth, with facial and upper body bust of man in religious garb above.
Plaque at Bishop Michael Power monument, St. Paul’s Basilica, Toronto.

Professor Mark McGowan on Bishop Micheal Power’s sacrifice.