The Red Triangle Club: A Refuge in Toronto for First World War Soldiers
The Young Men's Christian Association, now known simply as the YMCA, has a long history in Canada. Its first North American location opened in Montreal in 1851. Early services extended to Canada's military, including support for men recruited during the First World War.
In Toronto in 1917, the Y.M.C.A. opened a recreational club specifically for First World War soldiers: The Red Triangle Club. Read on to learn more about this little-known building — and see rare views of the club from TPL's Digital Archive.
Y.M.C.A. and the Canadian military
The Y.M.C.A. War Service worked with the Canadian military from 1866 to 1946. Early on, it provided services to the camps of men fighting against the Fenian Raids following the American Civil War. In 1871, the Y.M.C.A. began to service militia training camps, providing letter writing supplies, reading rooms, general entertainment, lectures, sports equipment, providing canteens and facilitating religious meetings. Y.M.C.A. staff went overseas in 1899 to support Canadian soldiers involved in the Boer War. By the First World War (1914–1918) the Y.M.C.A.'s military effort was worldwide in scope.
Y.M.C.A. helped soldiers not only in the camps at home and overseas, but in the discharge depots and hospitals. But there was still an unmet need — a place downtown in large cities for soldiers who were facing a crisis in their careers. This led to the establishment of Y.M.C.A. Red Triangle Clubs or as they were sometimes known, “huts.”
The need in Toronto
During the First World War, Toronto was one of the largest military centres in Canada. Soldiers from all parts of the country could be seen on its streets. Many troops on their way to war or camp passed through the city. Several large military hospitals were in Toronto. It was one of the few places where returned soldiers could get artificial limbs; more amputation cases were seen in Toronto than any other city in Canada.
On Toronto's streets, it was common to see soldiers with arms missing or painfully bobbing on crutches. A brochure published by the Y.M.C.A. in 1917 speaks of soldiers' thoughts turning to the “temptations that are strongest at the heart of a city.” The Y.M.C.A. recognized that the soldiers longed for a club of their own, with an attractive lunchroom, billiards, pianos, books, magazines, writing tables, shower baths and clean beds.
Setting up the building
The Y.M.C.A. Military Services Committee chose a building located at 105 Victoria Street (at Queen Street). Formerly known as the McCarron House (a hotel), it was conveniently situated one block away from the crossroads of one of Toronto’s main traffic areas.
In a short time, the committee led a transformation of the whole premises. The barroom that had once been known as the second largest in Toronto was turned into a lunchroom. The guest rooms were repainted and repapered.
The Ladies Auxiliary of the West End Y.M.C.A. donated two billiard tables. The Broadview Y.M.C.A. ladies provided a piano. Chairs and tables for the writing rooms came from Chapter 16 of the Imperial Order Daughters of the Empire (I.O.D.E.). All the bedrooms were furnished by the Ladies’ Auxiliary of Central Y.M.C.A.. A dozen hot and cold shower baths were also installed.
Help from Toronto women would extend to a big lunchroom downstairs. Behind the counter, women in white uniforms would serve refreshments. They were so generous with their time that a committee was formed to make selections from the many offers that poured in. On most days, the lunchroom would run to capacity.
A homey atmosphere
For the opening of the club on April 16, 1917 by Mayor Thomas Langdon Church, many invitations were sent out and proud Torontonians came to view the club.
Visitors saw a bright rotunda with big windows letting in floods of sunshine. Off the rotunda was the Social Hall (or Lounge Room or "fun department" as the lads called it). The men could enjoy themselves here with a piano, a cheery song, a game of checkers or a lively contest of billiards.
There was a big writing room upstairs. The soldiers posted 100 to 300 letters a day. A large mail delivery was received daily in return. A typical Red Triangle deed was to forward letters on to soldiers fighting at the Front.
The sleeping rooms were available to the soldiers for 40 cents a night (a soldier got paid $1.10 a day in those times). After the club opened, the number of beds had to increase from 56 to 92. Still, many men had to be sent elsewhere. So great was the demand for beds that a planned rooftop garden had to be scrapped so extra cots could be put in the space.
What happened to the Red Triangle Club?
There is not much information about the Red Triangle Club after the war ended. On December 24, 1919 the Globe and Mail newspaper had a small story about officials at the Red Triangle Club organizing Christmas festivities for their members. Almost 500 of Toronto’s citizens offered to entertain Toronto’s returned soldiers for Christmas and New Year’s Day.
The next and last reference to the Red Triangle club in the Globe and Mail is on June 1, 1920. A deputation was made to Toronto’s acting mayor, C. A. Maguire along with a petition containing 1,400 signatures asking that the Red Triangle Club not be closed. A representative of the Y.M.C.A. indicated that the club was being run at a $5,000 per month deficit and had already continued on a month longer than had been intended, at the request of the City Board of Control.
For further research
Books about Toronto and the First World War
- Our Glory and Our Grief: Torontonians and the Great War (2002)
- Vignettes of the Beach & East Toronto (2014)
- Some Young Immortals (1920)
Publications on the history of the Y.M.C.A. and the Red Triangle Clubs
- On Leave; How the Red Triangle Club, Toronto, Provides for the Soldier While Off Duty (1917); also available online
- The Canadian Y.M.C.A. in the Great War: The Official Record of the Activities of the Canadian Y.M.C.A. in Connection with the Great War of 1914-1918 (1924)
- A Century with Youth, a History of the Y.M.C.A. from 1844 to 1944 (1944)
- The Romance of the Red Triangle; The Story of the Coming of the Red triangle and the Service Rendered by the Y.M.C.A. to the Sailors and Soldiers of the British Empire
- The Father of the Red Triangle: The Life of Sir George Williams, Founder of the Y.M.C.A. (1918)