The Red Triangle Club: A Refuge in Toronto for First World War Soldiers

November 9, 2022 | Pamela

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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.

Vintage view of three story corner building with sign Red Triangle YMCA Club
Red Triangle Club Toronto, approximately 1917. View on 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.”

Two side by side images one with Portrait of around twenty uniformed officers in front of sign on tent reading Recruiting Office 74 an 75 overseas battalions join here pay and allowance start at once and the image image is wrinkled vintage paper that is blank with header reading On Active Service with the British Expeditionary Force YMCA Adress Reply to (1)
Left: Recruitment station outside of Toronto's Old City Hall, 1915 (view on Digital Archive). Right: Paper with the Y.M.C.A. letterhead intended for use by "British Expeditionary Force" during the First World War, 1915 (view on Digital Archive).

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.

Poster showing soldier with what looks like glove operating machine in front of union jack flag with caption reading Learning to Use an Artificial Hand
Poster by the Military Hospitals Commission in Canada, approximately 1914 to 1918. Transcription: "Learning to use an artificial hand. Once a soldier always a man. The Wounded Soldier's Return. Come and see how your disabled defenders get back their strength and skill."  View on Digital Archive.

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.

Vintage postcard reading A Cosy corner of Red Triangle Club Toronto Ontario showing an ornate room with piano flags and chairs and tables
"A cosy corner" inside the Red Triangle Club, approximately 1918. View on Digital Archive.

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.

Old postcard of many men in uniforms posing by pool tables and text that is obscured by wear and tear
Billiard Room of the Red Triangle Club, approximately 1918. View on Digital Archive.
Vintage image of crowded room with men in uniforms sitting around table and women in white uniforms standing along walls and text reading Cafe Red Triangle Club Toronto
Café in the Red Triangle Club, approximately 1918. View on Digital Archive.

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.

Many uniformed men sitting on chairs inside room with drapped flags
Rotunda in the Red Triangle Club, approximately 1918. View on Digital Archive.
Many soldiers lining a recreational room in vintage postcard reading Lounding Room The Red Triangle Club
Lounging Room in the Red Triangle Club, approximately 1917. View on Digital Archive.

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.

Vintage postcard of line of desks with young men sitting and writing letters and there is text is bottom of image reading Writing Room Red Triangle Club Toronto Ontario
Writing Room in the Red Triangle Club, 1918. View on Digital Archive.
Many uniformed men including man with crutches and missing leg in small room and text on postcard reading Writing Room Red Triangle Club Toronto Ontario
Writing Room in the Red Triangle Club, approximately 1918. View on Digital Archive.

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.

Invitation for Tea and concernt given by soldier patrons of The Rad Triangle Club Xmas 1919 for auld lang syne in commemoration of services rendered by the ladies' auxiliary YMCA Red Triangle Club to the Military and naval forces of Canada
Invitation for tea and concert during Christmas for "Soldier Patrons" of the Red Triangle Club, 1919. View on Digital Archive.

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.

Vintage postcard showing larger corner building with YMCA logos on windows
Exterior of the Red Triangle Club, 1917. View on Digital Archive.

For further research

Books about Toronto and the First World War

Publications on the history of the Y.M.C.A. and the Red Triangle Clubs