The Toronto Telegram or “The Tely” newspaper was in operation for 95 years, from 1876 until 1971. It was founded on a rule of “no patron but the public” by J Ross Robertson and was to be a newspaper for the masses. With that crusading spirit in mind, the Conservative newspaper looked for the truth in government and public bodies.
Simply reporting the news was not enough for Mr Robertson. He fought for what he believed in, relished the rough and tumble of party politics, dug deep behind the news and did in-depth reporting.
The Evening Telegram – The Early Decades
In 1876, J Ross Robertson established the Evening Telegram in a building once at 67 Yonge St. On its first day, 3,480 copies were printed. Early on, the newspaper sold for 2¢; however, it was later dropped to a penny. Just four years later, The Tely moved to its brand new building on the southwest corner of King St W and Bay St.
In 1888, John “Black Jack” Robinson was hired. Mr Robinson began his three-decade reign as The Tely’s hardest-hitting editor with powerful editorials.
In 1899 and with circulation at about 25,000, the Evening Telegram was ready for its next move. Just 70 m away on the southeast corner of Melinda St and Bay St, what became known as “The Grand Old Lady of Melinda Street” was constructed.
The Great Fire of Toronto 1904
If it were not for the efforts of its dedicated employees, The Great Fire of Toronto 1904 probably would have destroyed the Evening Telegram building. The fire razed many downtown buildings, including the building directly south of the Telegram. The newspaper’s employees prevented the blaze from spreading by spraying water from The Tely’s windows and rooftop hydrant. They were rewarded with substantial bonuses from Mr Robertson.
The Newspaper After the Passing of Mr Robertson
In 1918, the Evening Telegram’s publisher and proprietor, J Ross Robertson, passed away.
With trustees at the newspaper’s helm, it remained strong and held the first position into the late 1920s. In 1928, J Ross Robertson’s last surviving son, Irving, was appointed the newspaper’s editor until 1932. That same year, the Evening Telegram’s afternoon and Liberal rival, the Toronto Daily Star, took the number one spot.
When the widow of J Ross Robertson, Jessie Elizabeth, passed away in 1947, the newspaper was sold.
The Telegram during the McCullagh Years – 1948 to 1952
In 1948, George McCullagh, who owned The Globe and Mail, purchased the Evening Telegram for $3.6 million. In a speech to employees, he said that the newspaper “would remain free of prejudice or partisanship, yet vigorous and fearless in its espousal of what is believed to be right.”
In the first year with Mr McCullagh as the owner, the word “Evening” was dropped from the newspaper’s name. Four years later, George McCullagh suddenly passed away at age 47. The Telegram was on the market once again.
The Toronto Telegram during the Bassett Years – 1952 to 1971
John Bassett purchased the Telegram for a reported $4.2 million with the financial support of department store magnate John David Eaton. A few other parties were interested in buying the newspaper, including Roy Thomson and Jack Kent Clark, a magazine publisher and owner of Maple Leaf Stadium.
For decades, the Telegram and the Star battled in a circulation war armed with contests, giveaways, the latest scoops, features, colour photography (which meant the end of the pink newsprint the paper was printed on) and more. The Telegram also tried publishing a Sunday newspaper; however, it did not work.
In 1963, the Telegram moved from the historic office at Melinda St and Bay St to its brand new location at 440 Front St W. Before leaving the Melinda St building, a compositor played The Last Post on a beat-up trumpet as a farewell to “The Old Lady of Melinda Street.”
The Fall of the Toronto Telegram and the Rise of The Sun
In the late 1960s, the newspaper was in financial trouble. Because of increasing production costs, the price of a newspaper increased from 15¢ to 20¢ in 1969; however, this caused a drop in circulation. Along with labour strife and a lack of advertisers, it spelled the end of the Telegram. They even tried changing the name to the Toronto Telegram in 1970.
On October 30, 1971, The Tely published its last paper. The headline was “THIS IS IT – Our last day.” There was also a photo on the front page with a pink “30” in it. The number 30 is used by journalists to mark the end of an article.
In the Death Notices section of the newspaper, a black-box notice said, “Melinda, the old lady of, mourned by 1,200 next of kin, died in her 96th year at her home, 440 Front St W., Toronto.”
The 96-page final paper was filled with farewells and remembrances. There were 337,000 copies pressed that day, and demand for souvenir copies was high. The 25¢ paper was going for as high as $5 on the streets of Toronto that day. The Telegram’s newspaper journalists headed to the Toronto Men’s Press Club on Richmond St W for a last get-together. Musicians there played the New Orleans jazz funeral.
The Tely had approximately 1,200 employees. Several of them, including Peter Worthington (co-founder of The Sun) and Ben Wicks (whose cartoons were picked up by the Toronto Star), went on to work at other newspapers in the City.
The Globe and Mail purchased 440 Front St W and the paper’s other assets for a reported $7 million. However, they could not take over the building for two years because it and its equipment had been leased out to the Toronto Star. The Toronto Telegram’s subscription lists were sold to the Star for $10 million.
On November 1, 1971, The Toronto Sun published its first newspaper. It also took over The Tely’s newspaper boxes.
Who was J Ross Robertson?
Born in Toronto in 1841, John Ross Roberston was a publisher, journalist, historian, politician and philanthropist. Along with founding the Daily Telegram in 1866 and the Evening Telegram in 1876, he was also the Grand Master of the Masonic Temple and became a Member of Parliament in 1896.
Mr Robertson and his wife were great humanitarians. Through their generosity and kindness, The Lakeside Home for Little Children on Toronto Island was established in 1883, and the Victorian Hospital for Sick Children (which later became The Hospital for Sick Children), the first hospital in Canada dedicated exclusively to pediatrics, was built in 1892. Its original building is located on the southeast corner of College St and Elizabeth St.
Through the decades, the family supported the hospital and many charities. When Jessie Elizabeth passed away in 1947, the proceeds from the sale of the Evening Telegram went to Toronto’s Hospital for Sick Children. Jessie Elizabeth was Mr Robertson’s second wife. They were married in 1888. His first wife, Maria Louisa, passed away in 1886. John Ross and Maria Louisa had three children together.
A sports and hockey fan, Mr Robertson was appointed President of the Ontario Hockey Association in the late 1890s. Known as the “Father of Amateur Hockey in Ontario,” he worked hard to preserve amateur hockey from being professionalized. In 1947, J Ross Robertson was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame.
Upon his death in 1918, his estate was worth over $1.85 million. His vast book collection was bequeathed to the Toronto Public Library. J Ross Robertson is buried at the Toronto Necropolis.
Mr Robertson was also a noted historian writing several books, including the excellent series Landmarks of Toronto – an invaluable resource for writing this and many other articles on this website.
Before The Telegram was The Daily Telegraph
While the Evening Telegram began in 1876, its predecessor was the Daily Telegraph. In 1867, J Ross Robertson and James B Cook rented space in a little building once at 96 Bay St south of and directly next to the original building of the Evening Telegram, which was once at King St W and Bay St on the southwest corner.
Over its five-year existence, the newspaper employed 150 people in the composing, printing, and counting rooms. Along with publishing the newspaper, they also did many other print jobs, including the City Directory. Ten Gordon presses ran day and night for months on end. In 1872, the newspaper was forced out of business for political reasons.
Did You Know?
- Before the Telegram’s first building was constructed on the southwest corner of King and Bay, the corner was home to Robert Davis & Co grocers from about 1840 until 1880. For several years, Mr Davis and his family lived above the grocery store of the two-story brick building. From 1825 to about 1840, the corner was occupied by a two-story frame structure that housed the French & Wyman chair factory. Before this, the area was so thick with trees that you could hardly walk.
- In 1876, J Ross Robertson borrowed $10,000 from Goldwin Smith to purchase the assets of a defunct newspaper called the Liberal that had operated out of 67 Yonge St. From that same address, Mr Robertson founded the Evening Telegram.
- The Tely was a broadsheet format newspaper with long, vertical pages.
- In 1917, the price of the Evening Telegram increased to 2¢.
- A year before J Ross Robertson passed away in 1918, he declined a knighthood and a senatorship on the same day.
- Opened in 1921, the John Ross Robertson Junior Public School is located on Glengrove Ave W.
- The Telegram building at Melinda St and Bay St was demolished in the mid-1960s to make way for Commerce Court West. Its construction eliminated the west half of Melinda St, and it no longer intersects with Bay St. What’s left of two of Toronto’s oldest streets, Melinda and Jordan, are hardly noticeable today. They were named after Jordan Post and his wife, Melinda. In 1802, Mr Post arrived from Connecticut. The town of York’s first watch and clockmaker, Mr Post, also did well in real estate, purchasing land on King St W, between Yonge St and Bay St.
- The Telegram printed Tely Fun Cheques in the newspaper. Kids saved the “cheques” and cashed them in for rides on the CNE midway.
- York University holds many photos and negatives that the Telegram’s photographers took.
- One of the last remaining signs of The Telegram, pictured below, is located in the Long Branch neighbourhood. It’s on the Thomas Variety & Confectionery store at 3581 Lake Shore Blvd W, near Long Branch Ave.
- In 2017, 440 Front St W, the last home of the Toronto Telegram and later The Globe and Mail, was demolished for The Well – a mixed-use residential, retail and commercial area.
Toronto Telegram Photos
- Landmarks of Toronto: Volumes 1 & 5 by J Ross Robertson
- Toronto Street Names: An Illustrated Guide to Their Origins by Leonard Wise & Allan Gould
- The Globe Newspaper Archives: Feb 14, 1917, 1909, pg 6
- The Toronto Daily Star Newspaper Archives: Jul 12, 1947, pg 12
- The Toronto Daily Star Newspaper Archives: Oct 23, 1952, pg 1 & 2
- The Globe and Mail Newspaper Archives: Aug 6, 1952, pg 1
- The Toronto Daily Star Newspaper Archives: Nov 19, 1952, pg 1 & 2
- The Globe and Mail Newspaper Archives: Sep 22, 1970, pg B12
- The Globe and Mail Newspaper Archives: Sep 20, 1971, pg 8
- The Globe and Mail Newspaper Archives: Oct 20, 1971, pg 8
- The Globe and Mail Newspaper Archives: Oct 30, 1971, pg 5
- The Globe and Mail Newspaper Archives: Nov 1, 1971, pg 4
- Heritage Toronto
- Ontario Heritage Trust: John Ross Robertson
- Dictionary of Canadian Biography: John Ross Robertson
- York University: Toronto Telegram Fonds
- Grand Lodge Library, Museum & Archives
- Vintage Photos: City of Toronto Archives, Toronto Public Library & Landmarks of Toronto: Volume 1 by J Ross Robertson
- Street Photo: Google Maps
- Vintage Map: Atlas of the City of Toronto 1910 by Chas E Goad from the Toronto Public Library