He lived an extraordinary life, if evidenced only by a few defining moments, such as when a stranger bought him a pair of skates in his youth, or when he turned down the title of baron in his middle age. He hobnobbed with prime ministers and Canada’s business elite, but never forgot what it was like to be poor as a youngster in Newcastle.
An historical plaque by the government of Canada commemorates the life of Joseph E. Atkinson. It is installed just outside the downtown headquarters of the Toronto Star, the newspaper Atkinson ran for nearly 50 years. It makes no mention of Atkinson’s Newcastle roots. And yet those roots helped to shape the man and his legacy.
But if the Newcastle Village and District Historical Society (NVDHS) gets it way, the name of one of the area’s most influential sons will soon be given more local prominence – with a park and a new home for another plaque, a provincial one that mentions his birth place.
Last month, the society made a presentation to Clarington Council, requesting that Memorial Park be renamed in honour of Atkinson. Best known as the publisher of the Toronto Star newspaper from 1899 to 1948, Atkinson helped to shape the social policy of this country through his editorial advocacy for the poor and the disadvantaged.
Myno Van Dyke, a NVDHS member, says the society came up with the idea to name the park in honour of the publisher after its initial plan to name a Clarington street after Atkinson was rejected by Durham Region. The Region turned down the request on the grounds that there already was a street in Ajax, Atkinson Court, with that name.
Currently, there is only a provincial heritage plaque — installed on the northwest corner of the Mill Street and King Avenue, on the property of the Newcastle Community Hall on August 5, 1973 — to commemorate the fact that Atkinson was from the Newcastle area.
Happily for the historical society, the Newcastle Horticultural Society has plans to reconstruct the gardens at the community hall, and was looking for a new location for the Atkinson plaque. Van Dyke says the NVDHS has spoken with the horticultural society, which has agreed to move the plaque to the park if it is renamed for Atkinson.
Van Dyke says the current location of the plaque has no specific ties to Atkinson, who was born on Dec. 23, 1865 in a rented house by a millstream in Clarke Township, where the 11th hole of the Newcastle Golf Course now stands.
When Atkinson was only five-years old, his father was killed by a train while walking home from town. Atkinson’s mother moved to a house at 44 King Ave. East — now known as the home of Jack and Peggy Pruner — where she opened a boarding house.
The heritage plaque doesn’t refer to a specific location in Newcastle, says Van Dyke. “The plaque information is generic enough that it can be moved to the park. If we put it in front of the Pruner House, then it should really reflect the fact that Atkinson lived there,” he says, noting it would cost about $18,000 to replace the plaque in order to add such information.
Just up the road from that house is Memorial Park, at the site of the new Newcastle branch of the Clarington Library. Van Dyke says this park, situated by the library and a children’s playground, is an appropriate site to honour a man who worked tirelessly to improve the lives of children both here in town, and across Canada.
“Rather than as a wealthy newspaper man, Atkinson is remembered here for his charitable work,” says Van Dyke. “During the Great Depression of the 1930s, he sent money to help the children of the unemployed in Newcastle.”
According to the Atkinson Charitable Foundation, it was an incident in Atkinson’s youth that may explain why he remembered his hometown during those hard times, and why he believed so strongly in charitable causes. It is said he often recalled one Christmas when he spent countless hours at the side of a frozen pond, watching other children skate. A woman came by and asked him why he wasn’t skating too. When Atkinson told her that his family couldn’t afford skates, the woman promptly took him to a local store and bought a pair for him. The generous act of that anonymous woman had a profound effect on Atkinson’s life.
The youngest of eight children, Atkinson grew up watching his widowed mother struggle to provide for her family. Then, just before his 14th birthday, his mother died. Atkinson believed her death was caused by overwork, and that it could have been prevented had she simply been shown some kindness by a few of those more fortunate.
It was likely his bitter and impoverished childhood experiences, coupled with the “social gospel” teachings of his Methodist upbringing, which spurred him on to spend the greater part of his life speaking up for, “the widowed, the orphaned, the sick, the old, the unemployed, the forsaken – all those who fell by the wayside through no fault of their own,” states Michael W. Pieri, biographer and filmmaker of the hour-long documentary Fighting Words: The Social Crusades of Joseph E. Atkinson.
Soon after his mother’s death, Atkinson left school to work at the local mill. When he was 16, the mill burned down and he found work at the Newcastle post office. According to his first biographer, Ross Harkness, it was while at the post office that Atkinson added the fictitious “E” to his name. Perhaps he felt a middle initial would lend him some stature, as Harkness noted the slightly built Atkinson needed to stand on a wooden box in order to serve customers at the post office wicket.
At the age of 18, he got a job at the weekly Port Hope Times, collecting accounts. But when the newspaper started publishing daily, Atkinson became a reporter, and a career was born. By the age of 22, he moved to Toronto to work for the Toronto World and then the Globe. Two years later, he became the Globe’s Ottawa correspondent, a position he held for seven years.
While at the Globe, Atkinson met three people who shared his social concerns. One was Prime Minister Wilfred Laurier, with whom Atkinson bonded while writing the occasional speech for him. Another was fellow Globe reporter John J. Kelso who, alarmed by Toronto’s “gutter children,” created the Children’s Aid Society. The third was the Globe’s “girl reporter,” Elmina Elliott, a liberal reformer and early feminist, writing under the pen name Madge Merton, whom Atkinson married in 1892.
In 1897, Atkinson became the managing editor of the Montreal Herald. And then, in 1899, he was asked to become the managing editor of the Montreal Star, the country’s largest English-language newspaper. This paper’s conservative stance conflicted with Atkinson’s liberal views. While he was mulling over the offer, he was asked by a group of Laurier’s supporters if he would like to take over the ailing Toronto Evening Star.
The group, including Timothy Eaton and Senator George Cox, wanted Atkinson to be the voice for the ruling Liberal Party. But Atkinson insisted on having complete control of editorial policy, and further demanded that part of his salary be paid in stock, with the opportunity for him to become majority owner. A private meeting with Laurier sealed the deal.
On Dec. 13, 1899, the group took ownership of the paper, and Atkinson took the helm. Despite the competition from five other daily papers, Atkinson turned the fortunes of the renamed Toronto Daily Star around. Along the way, a young Winston Churchill, William Lyon Mackenzie King, and later, a young Ernest Hemingway would be among the group of dedicated writers employed by the Star.
In 1901, following a fresh air cruise for the city’s poor children organized by Kelso, and movingly documented by Elmina in a column for the Star, Atkinson took over Kelso’s fund to start The Star Fresh Air Fund. The Santa Claus Fund followed in 1906. Over one hundred years later, these two charitable organizations still live on.
By 1913, the Star had the largest circulation of any Toronto newspaper, and Atkinson was the majority shareholder. Not only was the paper prosperous and debt-free, but Atkinson had, as biographer Pieri says, “ironically…become rich fighting on behalf of the poor and less fortunate.”
Atkinson never learned to like rich men, even when he became one himself, and so he stepped up his crusades, writes Harkness, with the guiding principle of “humanity, above all.” He took up many causes considered radical at the time, but now considered dear to most Canadians, including an eight-hour workday, women’s suffrage, the right of workers to organize and strike, Mother’s Allowance, Old Age Pensions, disability pensions, workmen’s compensation, urban planning, and publicly funded health care.
Whether it was at the local or the national level, Atkinson insisted that the truest measure of a society was how it treated its most vulnerable members. When Atkinson died on May 8, 1948 at the age of 82, Prime Minister Mackenzie King, once his desk-mate at the Star, called him “a great journalist, a zealous reformer and a true Canadian.” In his will, Atkinson left the bulk of his fortune — including The Star — to a charitable trust in his name, to continue his work of promoting social and economic justice.
Van Dyke says the historical society expects to be given the go-ahead to rename the park soon, and plans to invite members of the Atkinson family to Newcastle for a commemoration ceremony.