Remembering John Ross Robertson and the Telegram: April 18: Snapshots in History
On April 18 and beyond, those interested in Toronto history are invited to take a moment to remember journalist and philanthropist John Ross Robertson (Born: December 28, 1841 in Toronto; Died: May 31, 1918 in Toronto) who founded the Toronto Telegram newspaper on April 18, 1876. The Telegram ceased publication on October 30, 1971 but the phoenix that rose out of the Telegram’s ashes gave life to the Toronto Sun newspaper which began publication on November 1, 1971 with many former Telegram staff on board.
Those interested in collections and materials at Toronto Public Library may know that what became known as the J. Ross Robertson Historical Collection (now part of the Canadian Documentary Art Collection) was donated by Mr. Robertson to Toronto Public Library in 1910. Mr. Robertson donated over four thousand pictures and pictorial material that helped to illustrate Canada’s history. However, Mr. Robertson’s accomplishments as a journalist, publisher, historian, philanthropist and sportsman gave him a prominent place in Toronto’s historical fabric.
Robertson first displayed his penchant for writing and publishing at Upper Canada College where he published a school newspaper College Times that underwent name changes to Monthly Times and Boy’s Times respectively. When Robertson went to the Model Grammar School in 1860, he started a school newspaper called Young Canada. Leaving school in 1861, Robertson engaged in a mixture of journalism, printing, and publishing. In 1865, George Brown of The Globe hired Robertson as city editor with responsibility for city hall and court news. Robertson honed his skill of finding and reporting on local news stories. However, Robertson disliked the overly political bent of The Globe and its publisher, George Brown. At the invitation of James Beaty Cook, Robertson joined Toronto’s first evening newspaper, The Daily Telegraph, in 1866, which emphasized current news over lengthy editorials, although it tended to support a Conservative viewpoint in contrast to The Globe’s Liberal/Reform bent.
The Daily Telegraph was ultimately unsuccessful as Robertson criticized Canada’s first national government under Sir John A. Macdonald for the government’s handling of the 1869-1870 Riel Rebellion and its support for railway subsidies. Conservative Party support was withdrawn from the newspaper which ceased publication in May 1872. Surprisingly, George Brown overlooked personal and political differences with John Ross Robertson and employed the latter at The Globe as the resident correspondent and business representative in London, England. Robertson remained in this position until 1875 when he returned to Toronto as the business manager of the weekly periodical Nation. His success at this publication paved the way for Robertson to become the publisher of a new daily, the Evening Telegram, as a challenger to The Globe. However, he alienated Goldwyn Smith, a Conservative Party supporter, for not wishing to overtly support the Conservatives in the 1878 federal election campaign or their policy of relations towards the United States. Nonetheless, Robertson contributed to the Telegram’s success by cut advertising rates and by keeping labour costs down. Staunchly anti-union, Robertson had prosecuted one of his employees in the 1872 printers’ strike who had been advocating for a nine-hour work day.
Despite the failed boycott of the Telegram by the International Typographical Union (ITU) from 1882-1884, ultimately all Toronto newspapers, including the Telegram, were unionized by 1891. All the while, the Telegram was making inroads into Toronto society with its ability not just in reporting the news but also in making the news with its criticism of questionable spending by elected political representatives as well as contributing to local culture by sponsoring band music in local parks. Those with an interest in Toronto’s history today will look back to John Ross Robertson’s ongoing column on Toronto’s landmarks in the Evening Telegram that was ultimately published into six volumes of Robertson’s Landmarks of Toronto. Despite containing errors, the influence of this trailblazing work cannot be underestimated.
John Ross Robertson was a strong supporter of the Hospital for Sick Children, donating around $500,000 over his lifetime. Additionally, he supported the building of a convalescent retreat on Toronto Island, the construction of a new hospital building on College Street, the addition of a nurses’ college and residence in 1905, and the creation of a milk pasteurization plant in 1909. He served as a hospital trustee from 1885 onward and chairman of the board from 1891 onward. At Christmastime, he served as the hospital’s Santa Claus.
A major proponent of sporting activity, John Ross Robertson also served as president of the Ontario Hockey Association (OHA) from 1899 to 1905 during which time he sought to protect amateur hockey from professional encroachment. Following his tenure as OHA president, the OHA established rules defining professionalism in hockey and professionalism increased sharply in the game after 1910 which restricted the scope of amateur hockey to the middle class. Nonetheless, Robertson fought against violence on and off the ice and donated silver trophies to hockey, cricket, and bowling.
Here is a sampling of titles available for perusal from Toronto Public Library collections:
John Ross Robertson, 1910
Engraving of John Ross Robertson. Caption (cropped from original): Past Grand Master of the Grand Lodge of Canada in Ontario. P. Gd. First Principal, Gd. Chapt. of R. A. Masons of Canada. P. Gd. M. Gd. Council Royal Select Masters, Ontario. John C. Yorsten Publishing Company. Public domain image in Canada.