Introduction of prohibition in 1916 caught many by surprise

The liquor question was perhaps the most controversial and divisive one in Ontario in the late 19th and early  20th centuries.

There was a constant stream of efforts to restrict the sale of alcoholic beverages, or to ban them completely. There was a religious element as well: in general, Methodists and Baptists were the strongest opponents of strong drink, Presbyterians had mixed sentiments, and Anglicans and Catholics were mostly pro-alcohol.

There were also ethnic divisions, and a socio-economic element. Wealthier people thought that prohibition would end alcohol consumption among the working classes, especially in bars and saloons, while not interfering with their own consumption.

As a consequence, temperance proponents made careers out of campaigning against booze and the bar room, linking alcohol with family breakdown and violence, and political corruption. They agitated for plebiscites on the question. Some municipalities banned alcohol as a result of the votes. Those efforts led to province-wide votes in 1894 and 1902. Neither showed a majority in favour of a provincial ban on liquor.

The outbreak of World War I gave a new argument to the anti-liquor forces. The making of liquor squandered valuable resources, and its consumption undermined the war effort. Those were hard points to refute.

Ontario Premier William Hearst was sympathetic. He advocated a province-wide ban in late 1914, and two years later succeeded in having the measure passed through the Ontario legislature with little public discussion and the opposition of many in his own Conservative party. Suddenly, after more than 50 years of acrimonious debate, Ontario was dry.

At first, many people did not take the measure seriously. Many bars continued to serve liquor, though publicans were careful not to serve strangers, who might be “spotters.” In many municipalities the new law made no difference. They had already gone dry in local referenda. In Wellington, Peel, Maryborough and Nichol were in that group.

Though prohibition was a provincial law, there was virtually nothing in the way of provincial enforcement. The Ontario Provincial Police had been established in 1909, but that force was small and largely confined to northern Ontario. The OPP would not be specifically authorized to enforce the Ontario Temperance Act until 1921.

The consequence, especially in the later war years, was that enforcement was sporadic, and those few who were caught in the legal net often suffered serious consequences. One of the unfortunate few was a young fellow named Bill Iles of Mount Forest. He owned a motor car, and on a fine spring day in late April of 1918 he and a friend picked up a couple of young women and set out for Guelph.

They arrived in the Royal City without incident, but they were very thirsty. Iles went into one of the hotels on Carden Street, and though a stranger there, had no difficulty purchasing two bottles of whisky. With those in hand, the foursome strolled up Wyndham Street, taking occasional swigs from the bottle.

Eventually they came to Trafalgar Park, near the Canadian Pacific station. They spent most of the afternoon there, finishing off their purchases. Iles had more than his share. By early evening he was roaring drunk. He staggered back to his motor car, and managed to drive it up Wyndham Street to pick up the other three. He was foiled in that plan. When he parked the car and got out he was arrested by a constable, who took him to a jail cell for the night.

Police interviewed the other three, who were in much better condition, and released them on the promise to appear in court the following morning. Police also seized the motor car.

Nursing a splitting headache, Iles faced the magistrate the next morning to face the charges. The first was having the charge of a motor vehicle while intoxicated. He pled guilty, and the magistrate set the fine at $50 plus costs.

The next charge was being in an intoxicated state on Wyndham Street. The accused did not deny that either. That brought a further fine of $10 and costs.

Police Chief Randall questioned Iles closely. He admitted buying the liquor at a Carden Street hotel for three dollars per bottle, and recalled putting an almost-empty bottle in the tool box of his car. He recalled little else of the escapade.

The final charge was having liquor in a place other than a house. He pled guilty to that one also, and the magistrate set the fine at $200 plus costs, and remarked that by that point the accused should realize that “it did not pay to tamper with the Ontario Temperance Act.”

The fines and costs totalled close to $300, equal to the best part of a year’s wages for a typical working man.

Some three months later there was a further incident at Guelph. Two strangers, one who passed himself as a returned soldier, and the other a blowhard who claimed he was a businessman starting a new business near the Wellington Hotel, called daily at the Canadian Pacific freight house, inquiring about the arrival of a carload of machinery.

A boxcar arrived on July 25, consigned to the Imperial Mattress Company. The strangers claimed the car, and paid the freight on it from Montreal. The waybill said the car contained hay, but on one of the copies a clerk somewhere had added the word “wool.”

Freight agent Brown was already suspicious of the pair, and he thought there was something about the deal that was not on the level. He had also received circulars from head office to check carefully all shipments from Quebec. That province had not passed a temperance law, and it had become the headquarters of the illicit liquor business.

The following morning the two strangers rented a truck and hauled away the hay in the car. It had hidden some 40 barrels, supposedly containing either wool or machinery. The pair hauled these away as well. When only a couple remained in the car, Brown stuck his head through the door and asked, “What’s in here, boys?” He popped the end off a barrel and stuck his hand into the packing material. When he pulled it out he was holding a quart bottle of Gooderham and Worts best quality whisky.

As the pair looked on Brown pulled out more and more of the bottles. The two men, realizing that their scheme had been uncovered, tried to make a dash from the car. The effort was futile. Brown had rounded up other railwaymen, and they soon collared the men outside the car. Police were soon on the scene and hauled them away. Their day in court resulted in heavy fines.

The authorities claimed that this was easily the largest seizure of liquor in Wellington County since the Canada Temperance Act had come into force, and one of the largest in Ontario.

It was also an inept operation. Everything about the men aroused suspicion, and the scheme was so obvious that anyone could see it was not a legitimate shipment of freight.

There were many successful attempts to distribute liquor to thirsty Ontario residents. But those efforts had to be more and more sophisticated to outwit the authorities. It was a battle that police could not win.

Though intended as only a war measure, Ontario voters, to the surprise of many, confirmed the Ontario Temperance Act in a plebiscite in 1919. There was another vote in 1921, with a smaller margin in favour of prohibition. On both occasions there were regional splits in support for prohibition, and more support in rural areas than in the cities.

Premier Howard Ferguson, never a supporter of the measure, began taking steps to relax the laws in 1924, a few months after his election.

Three years later the government authorized the sale of beer, and later took other steps to end Ontario’s wartime prohibition.


Stephen Thorning