A trip back in time: Visit WW I and WW II Toronto


Plunk today's average Torontonian down in the city in the middle of wartime, and they might find themselves staring at a place that's almost unrecognizable.

As combat raged overseas in both the First and Second World Wars, Toronto became one of the most important mobilization centres in the country — and with a population largely of British descent, the area quickly mobilized to fight for the empire.

"The city was a real patriotic hub," said Wayne Reeves, chief curator for Toronto museums.

Many parts of the city were drastically different all those years ago. Here's a look at wartime Toronto during the First and Second World Wars.

The Toronto that existed when war was declared in the summer of 1914 was much smaller than today's bustling metropolis. City stats from 2018 put Toronto's population at just over 2.9 million. But at the start of the war, the city's population topped out at around 470,000 people.

That number started to rise as people started coming to Toronto for work.

"So many war workers streamed into Toronto that there was an acute housing shortage," Reeves said.

Outside the central downtown business areas, the city was a very low-rise environment. Row houses dominated, with only a smattering of apartment buildings — a far cry from Toronto's current skyline.

Some areas around the city weren't yet developed at all. Scarborough, for instance, would have been all farm fields back then.

At the time, the area around old city hall was the most densely populated neighbourhood in all of Canada, Reeves said. It was decidedly working class, and an area referred to by some as a slum.

"There was a lot of pressure on trying to find housing," said University of Toronto history professor Steve Penfold. "You saw a big influx of people in both wars."