Nasmith Avenue


Nasmith Avenue History
Who was Nasmith?


Published April 22, 2015 - this date is important later on, so keep it in mind as you read along

Before we get to the mystery of the street's name, how about a bit of background and history for those of you who like a good story?

Cabbagetown / Don Vale

Nasmith Avenue is a relatively "new" street in the Cabbagetown / Don Vale neighbourhood of Toronto. Before Europeans arrived in the area, the Anishnabai (Ojibwa), Haudenosaune (Iroquois), Huron, Eries, Petuns and Neutrals met in this region to trade, hold councils and to conduct ceremonies. Once Fort Toronto / Fort Rouillé was founded, the migration of europeans to Toronto (renamed to York and then back again) began.

The area now known as Cabbagetown, once considered to be the outskirts of the city, started to be settled in larger numbers during the 1800s and local lore has it that Irish immigrants, escaping famines and poverty in Ireland, grew cabbages and other vegetables in their front gardens which certainly makes sense from a practical perspective.

Many of the homes in Cabbagetown were built during the reign of Queen Victoria (1837 - 1901), however Nasmith Avenue saw its first homes occupied in 1926 (you can read the exact year and learn about the original occupants using the Cabbagetown Heritage Conservation District's excellent searchable database). Therefore, Nasmith Avenue could be considered a "new block on the block".

Area Of Cabbagetown Where Nasmith Avenue Lies Now (where the hospital is situated on the map below) - 1893

Goad Atlas 1893 showing hospital grounds

The definition of the area called "Cabbagetown" has changed many times over the years, and even today many people disagree as to what the boundaries were and are. At various times, it has included neighbourhoods such as Moss Park, Trefann Court, Regent Park, the Garden District, St. Jamestown and the area in which Nasmith Avenue lies...Don Vale. I like to think that if you think you live in Cabbagetown and you'd like to be a Cabbagetowner...then you're welcome.

More about Cabbagetown (wikipedia.org)
More about Don Vale (cabbagetowner.com)


Toronto General Hospital (1856 to 1913 version)

Nasmith Avenue (and Gifford St.) are located entirely on the grounds of the former Toronto General Hospital which occupied the location from 1856 to 1913 before it moved to its College St. location (interesting fact: the building the hospital occupied in 1913 is now known as the MARS building). The hospital had 250 beds and was considered very modern for its time. In the immediate area were three medical schools including the Ontario Medical College for Women.

Picture of Toronto General Hospital - Taken From Gerrard St. East and Sackville St. (facing North East)

Picture of Toronto General Hospital - Taken From Gerrard St. East and Sackville St. (facing North East)

Although the hospital's closure and move had been planned for some time, the building was not immediately torn down. The final years of the building saw soldiers from the 48th Highlanders and Queen's Own Rifles returning from the First World War, quartered and trained there and local residents had to become accustomed to the sound of bugles and marching.

As late as June of 1920, a bill was being considered to turn the empty building into an isolation hospital. The city's Local Board Of Health had campaigned to have the city repair or replace the existing structures and convert them to a hospital for contagious diseases (Measles, Diphtheria, Scarlet Fever, Chicken Pox and ahem...sexually transmitted infections as they are now called). However, by September of 1920, the building had been found to be unsuitable for continued use as a hospital and the council and Medical Officer of Health (Charles Hastings...more on him later...) decided to sell the property for residential development. The hospital buildings were torn down in 1922.

An interesting note - early plans had only one street bisecting the former hospital property, and an alternate plan had three streets running through the hospital grounds, but in the end it was decided that two streets would be appropriate and those streets were Nasmith Avenue and Gifford Street. Another interesting fact is that Gifford St. - although now located south of Spruce St., at one time was located *north* of Spruce St. where the driveway in to Sprucecourt Public School is now (click on the map above to zoom in and you'll see it there in 1893).

More about the Toronto General Hospital (wikipedia.org)


Nasmith Avenue

Ah yes...back to the lead actor in our story.

Many residents and locals had thought it likely that the street was named after the famous sports educator, basketball inventor and Ontarian, James Naismith . The first game of "basket ball" was played in 1891 and was already popular by the time Nasmith Ave. was being planned, however the spelling isn't correct and unlike horseshoes - but very like basketball - close doesn't count in the street-naming game.

This leaves two known contenders behind the naming of Nasmith Avenue and there's a connection:
- Nasmith Bakery - John Nasmith and Son J.D. Nasmith
- Doctor, Colonel George Gallie Nasmith C.M.G.

A Partial Nasmith Family Tree

Partial Nasmith Family Tree

Nasmith Bakery - John Nasmith and J.D. Nasmith

This bakery, originally located at the corner of Adelaide and Jarvis streets was well known for some time before the creation of Nasmith Avenue. John Nasmith, the owner, was from a family of bakers and the brother of David Nasmith, a Scottish philanthropist who is credited with founding a precursor of the YMCA, the London City Missions. John Nasmith had come to Canada from Greenock, Scotland in 1844 to restore his lost fortune caused by the repeal of the Corn Laws. By 1849, he had lost everything but through some pluck and help from others he started again and this time was successful. He also served as a city councillor. By the time of his death in 1874, one of his sons - J.D. Nasmith - had grown the business further and owned one of the largest baking establishments with a number of locations in the city. John Nasmith is buried in the Necropolis cemetery in Cabbagetown. J.D. Nasmith's family lived in a large house at Bloor St. E. and Sherbourne St. which is still standing but altered from the time it was used as a home. J.D. Nasmith died in 1912 and is buried at Mt. Pleasant Cemetery. He is also the great-grandfather of noted Toronto architect Catherine Nasmith.

Nasmith Bakery circa 1850

Nasmith Bakery 1850s

Records of the early part of the century show that the bread was popular locally. City council archives show that Nasmiths Ltd. was contracted to provide bread for Riverdale Zoo at 6 cents per pound for a year. Notable was Nasmith's use of machinery in the baking process which allowed for a more productive bakery at a time when many bakers were still using ancient techniques. In 1912, Nasmith Bakery was taken over by the now-famous Weston Bakery although the Nasmith name was still being used as late as 1926 when retailers such as Murray's Sandwich Shops were advertising in the Globe newspaper that they used "Nasmith's Bread exclusively!".

Nasmiths Bakery Wagon - possibly circa 1908

Nasmith Bakery Wagon


Doctor, Colonel George Gallie Nasmith C.M.G.

George Gallie Nasmith was born at Toronto 31 December 1877 to mother Jane (neé Morrow) of England and father Mungo Nasmith (born in Greenock, Scotland). Mungo Nasmith was a tax collector, property developer and one of the sons of John Nasmith, the baker mentioned earlier, which meant that John Nasmith the baker was George Gallie Nasmith's grandfather. Mungo Nasmith is buried at Mt. Pleasant Cemetery.

George had achondroplasia , a common cause of dwarfism and in adulthood stood four-foot-six, although his family at one time believed he had drunk tubercular milk when a small child and that this was the cause of his stunted growth. He graduated from the University of Toronto in 1903 with a degree in philosophy but obtained honours studying Geology and Organic Chemistry there also. He lived at 14 Maitland Street in Toronto in 1911 and worked for the city's health dept. where he was Deputy Health Officer, Acting Medical Health Officer and Director of Civic Laboratories at various times. He was described at the time as being "Canada's most noted bacteriologist". He was the Chief Assistant to Dr. Charles Hastings (remember him from the story about the hospital earlier?) and Dr. Nasmith was in charge of the city's water supply during the period where the death toll from typhoid fever was reduced from 41 citizens per hundred to 2. He was also instrumental in the programme that ensured the quality control of milk in the city.

George Gallie (G.G.) Nasmith

Colonel Doctor George Gallie Nasmith

On 22 September 1914, at the age of 36, Dr. Nasmith joined the First World War by enlisting in the Canadian Army. Due to his experience, he was given command of the Canadian Mobile Laboratory with reponsibility to ensure troops were provided with purified water and proper sanitation which was not easy to come by in the fields of Salisbury Plain, England and the muddy trenches of France and Belgium.

One of Dr. Nasmith's most recognized contributions came during the 2nd Battle of Ypres on 22 April 1915 (100 years ago today). Ypres is a Flemish town in western Belgium famous for its Cloth Hall and for the battles there. The 2nd Battle of Ypres was the first time that a former colonial force (1st Canadian Division) defeated that of a European power (Germany) and was a significant battle in the larger scope of the war. The famous poem "In Flanders Fields" by Canadian Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae was written at the 2nd Battle of Ypres on 3 May 1915 less than two weeks after the incident described below.

On 22 April 2015, Dr. Nasmith was travelling near Ypres and saw the first mass use of poison gas on the Western Front. An attempt by the Germans a few months earlier had failed, but on this occasion thousands of allied soldiers were killed and injured within minutes. Dr. Nasmith was acquainted with chlorine due to his work on water purification and immediately identified chlorine as the main ingredient, and surmised that it also contained bromine and other elements.

It is thought that either Dr. Nasmith, or Dr. Capt. Francis Scrimger (V.C.) of the 2nd Canadian Field Ambulance first passed orders informing soldiers that soaking cloth in urine and breathing through it would counteract the gas. In my reading of these men and others, it seems that allowing others to take credit for one's actions was a commonplace occurrence so it's possible that one or both Doctors came upon the same solution at the same time. What isn't disputed however, is that after the battle Dr. Nasmith determined that by saturating a small cotton pad with hypo-sulphite of soda and placing it over the mouth and nose, the effects of the gas could be reduced and thus he had created the first gas mask of the war. The lab that Dr. Nasmith had set up for sanitation was later used for a number of experiments with hopes of protecting soldiers from poison gas attacks and for his work, he was mentioned in dispatches and made a Companion of St. Michael and St. George (C.M.G.) by King George V.

Belgian Troops Wearing Early Gas Masks

Belgian Troops With Early Gas Masks

Read Dr. Nasmith's full account of what happened 22 April 1915, taken from his book Canada's Sons and Great Britain In The World War - with introduction by General Sir Arthur Currie.

Somehow, amongst the chaos of the war, Dr. Nasmith found his way home to Toronto at the end of 1915 for 6 weeks leave and on 20 January 1916, he married Mrs. Emma Scott-Raff at St. Paul's Church on Bloor St. East.

Mrs. Scott-Raff, through Mrs. Timothy Eaton, was the principal at Margaret Eaton School of Literature and Expression (from 1907 - 1925), had trained as an artist and was also described as an "elocutionist". She had been born in Owen Sound, had taught painting and married her first husband in Colorado, U.S.A.. After his death, she had returned to Toronto where she had met Dr. Nasmith. Within an hour of the end of the ceremony, the happy couple were on a train to New York where he would embark for France for the remainder of the war. The wedding was noteworthy enough to be featured along with a photo, on the front page of the next day's Toronto Daily Star.

Wedding Notice for George Gallie Nasmith and Mrs. Scott-Raff - from 21 January 1916

After returning to Canada after the war, he rejoined the city's health dept. but in 1918 and 1919 he had month-long sick leaves due to illness which were suspected to be related to the effects of the gas attack he experienced in 1915 and other injuries (he had hurt his knee in one instance).

Dr. Nasmith wrote a number of books: On the Fringe of the Great Fight (1917), Canada's Sons and Great Britain in the World War (1919), Timothy Eaton (1923) and Smiths of a Better Quality (1925), The Chemistry of Wheat Gluten (1903) - U of T Theses as well as numerous papers and books on food, water and other scientific topics. It's interesting to note that while he was writing his biography of Timothy Eaton, Mrs. Nasmith was frequently mentioned in newspaper reports of the time as accompanying Mrs. Eaton to society events. In 1919, Mrs. Nasmith gave a talk on literature to nurses at the Toronto General Hospital (the one where Nasmith Avenue now stands).

The 13 October 1920 Toronto Daily Star had an intriguing item regarding Dr. Nasmith "Safety week in Toronto has been marked by one tragedy, Col. Nasmith having been seriously wounded in the ambition by a bullet from a Lewis gun". Around the same time, Dr. Nasmith left the employ of the city and after an unsuccesful attempt to become a candidate for the Conservative Party of Ontario, he became part of the engineering firm: Gore, Nasmith and Storrie. This firm was often engaged by the famed R.C. Harris to work on notable infrastructure projects of the time including the R.C. Harris Water Filtration Plant (more on R.C. Harris and George Nasmith). During the 1920s at least, the Nasmiths lived at Oriole Rd. near Upper Canada College.

On 16 February 1940, Mrs. Nasmith died at the age of 69, at their residence on Avenue Rd. Three weeks later, Dr. Nasmith who had been involved with the Red Cross for many years, was asked to travel to London to become the Deputy National Commissioner of the Canadian Red Cross Society in aid of the effort in the 2nd World War. He gave his services without salary. In November of that year, he resigned his post after friction with other members of the committee relative to who had authority in certain matters and returned to Canada.

At some point after 1940, Dr. Nasmith married Luella Victoria Hawkey. In 1955, Dr. Nasmith suffered a stroke that resulted in him spending the final 10 years of his life bed-ridden. He died on 28 November 1965 at Sunnybrook Hospital, aged 87 years. He is buried at Mt. Pleasant Cemetery Plot L, Lot 6.


All very interesting, but who is Nasmith Avenue named after?

The first mention of Nasmith Ave. in city council records is for cost of sewer (fitting...) in a contract awarded to the J.H. McKnight Company in May 1921. The cost to build the sewer for the entire street...? $1894.00. The cost to build the original water main with one fire hydrant...? $2033.47. My plumber wouldn't rouse himself from bed for that kind of money. Houses on the street were first occupied in 1925/1926.

Despite searching through the Toronto Reference Library, City of Toronto Archives (incl. council records of the time), Toronto General Hospital Corporate Archives - I was unable to find definitive proof of who the street was named after.

The long history and prominence of the Nasmith Bakery in the city, the fact that John Nasmith was a city councillor, that J.D. Nasmith had grown the bakery business into the largest in the city would all lead to a reasonable conclusion that this is a very likely candidate. The fact the bakery wasn't directly connected to this part of the city would be one reason to doubt this connection however.

The intriguing story of Dr. Nasmith also has a number of connections - the old hospital which tied in with his medical background, his success in ensuring clean water for residents, that returning troops were quartered in the same hospital after the war and the connection between Mrs. Nasmith and the well-known Eaton family could all mean that the street was named in his or even their honour. Dr. Nasmith was a long time member of the city's Arts and Letters Club from 1916 onward (and was made an honorary life member in 1958) and that Gen. Sir Arthur Currie wrote the introduction to one of his books, also shows some of the the esteem in which he was held. However, naming a street after someone who at that time had just left the city's employ to work in his own firm and without any kind of public ceremony or recognition might seem unlikely.

Council records of the time deal with the *renaming* of existing streets, but are silent on the naming of new streets which at a time of large growth is not unexpected.

So...the answer is that I don't know for certain. I tend to believe that the street was named after Dr. Nasmith because by all accounts, he was a very influential figure in our history but I've also read that he was very humble and self-effacing and those qualities don't usually result in grand gestures such as a street named after oneself. Perhaps a city official somewhere, or someone involved in the development of the former hospital grounds was there in Ypres or in a battle shortly afterwards and recognized that Dr. Nasmith might have saved his life and with a few strokes of the pen, made a gesture of honour to a unique man. Alternatively, someone involved might have had a particularly fresh and tasty breakfast one morning from Nasmith's bakery and believed some serious recognition was in order. A third option is that the street might have been named after the family in general, since they obviously played a significant role in the city in a number of ways.

If I find out more...I'll let you know. Thanks for reading


With thanks for their encouragement, guidance and time:
Joice Guspie
Therese Sabourin
Catherine Nasmith
George Rust-D'eye
Sally Gibson
Carol Moore-Ede
Scott James - Arts and Letters Club
Staff of Toronto Reference Library
Toronto Star (and predecessors)
Lost Toronto
Globe and Mail (and predecessors)
City of Toronto Archives
Toronto General Hospital Corporate Archives