Celebrating the little-known Kew Beach Athletic Club
At the bottom of Lee Avenue stands a forlorn-looking building that looks like it has seen better days – and it has. This is the Kew Beach Boathouse, built around 1932-33.
At one time it housed canoes, and it really was an architectural marvel. We will try to restore it to its once great place on the Beach with the Leuty Lifeguard Station.
This story, however, is not about the present boathouse, but an institution that was there many years before. The Kew Beach Athletic Club is a story about an older building, and the men and women who made the name Kew Beach synonymous with athletics – in this case, the Kew Beach women, who dominated the sports world of war canoes.
The Kew Beach Club is senior to the much esteemed Balmy Beach Club, which is in a class by itself. Kew Beach, however, had its roots in the 1880s and 1890s on the east side of Lee Avenue, where Alfresco Lawn is now. The club was composed of social and athletic activities, including dancing, hops, lawn bowling, tennis, baseball, ice hockey, swimming and track and field events. Many of those involved in these sports went their own way eventually, for example the Kew Beach Lawn Bowling Club, the Kew Beach Tennis Club and Kew Beach Baseball. Others, like the aquatic, swimming and track and field clubs disappeared.
However, one group of Kew Beach beauties is enshrined in water sports history – the Kew Beach Ladies War Canoe Champions are pictured above. From left, they are M. Smith, D. Smith, M. Thompson, C. Lynn, M. Berton, P. Stratton, I. Learmouth, M. Kane, E-S. Stewart, B. King, G. Kane, E. Rouselle, R. Ohalloran, Capt. M. Wase, M. Ochs and M. Cox. These are just a few of the athletic gals who made Kew Beach the talk of Toronto over 90 years ago.
The club’s athletic activities began prior to radio, television or motion pictures. Many races and regattas were held in Toronto, including at the Woodbine Yacht Club (now known as Ashbridges Bay Yacht Club), Centre Island, Scarboro Beach, the Canadian National Exhibition waterfront, the Balmy Beach Club and other spaces.
The club’s aquatic activities started small, but reached a peak after the First World War. By 1919, the Kew Beach women were on a tear. The team beat Balmy Beach, Parkdale, and even took on teams from Buffalo, NY. On one occasion 15,000 people crowded Kew, Scarboro, Balmy and Woodbine Beaches to watch the races.
One of the papers read, “Kew Beach Ladies’ War Canoe crew again defeated Balmy Beach and in so doing won the Griff Clarke Trophy, the chief cup competed for during the afternoon. The Kew Beach Ladies led all the way, but never by more than a few yards. Little more than a yard and a half separated Kew from Balmy but Kew won the event.”
Mayor McGuire and MPP Joseph Harris congratulated the team; 20,000 people lined Queen Street for a ‘Calithumpian parade’, circling from Kew Beach up Woodbine, east on Queen to Kippendavie and right on to Scarboro Beach, then back to Woodbine.
Of course War Canoe was not the only event on the beach. Other events included mens’ four single blade, 100 yards swim for girls 14 and up, 100 yards swim for boys 14 and up, mixed double blade tandem, ladies double blade single, mens’ war canoe, mens’ crab race, high school boys sculling fours, mens’ tilting race, ladies’ crab race and more.
These were day-long events, including hundreds of athletes, and thousands cheering on the great athletes, professional and amateur alike.
There were also sad events in those days. Helen Murray, a Waverley Road resident, was a popular and active figure in the Beach and captain of the Kew Beach war canoe team. She was a lover of bowling, swimming and paddling, and a member of Corpus Christi Church. Her death inspired the team to their great victory.
There has not been such a group of athletes since, and I hope they will not be forgotten, because they are what history is made of. Any readers who knows any of the women in the photograph, please contact me through Beach Metro News.
Historically and athletically yours,