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1855's Toronto Circus Riot being brought to life in our area

'The story ... is easily one of the strangest I’ve ever come across: a riot at a circus sparked by a brawl between clowns and firefighters at a Victorian brothel,' says Adam Bunch
Canadian storyteller Adam Bunch.

Adam Bunch, Canadian storyteller and recipient of the 2023 Governor General’s History Award for Popular Media: the Pierre Berton Award, will use his unique approach to history to engage members of the Tecumseth and West Gwillimbury Historical Society (TWGHS) and the public 7:30 p.m. on April 15 at the Tec-We-Gwill Women’s Institute Hall in Newton Robinson.

The TWGHS encourages the public to take the opportunity to experience Canadian history in an inspired and creative way.

“Adam is an award-winning storyteller with a knack of engaging, entertaining and informing his audience of lesser-known although equally important events in Canadian history. We are very fortunate to have a Governor General Award winner speak to us in our small community hall,” said TWGHS president Mark Burchell.

The title of Bunch’s presentation is The Toronto Circus Riot of 1855.

“The story of the Toronto Circus Riot is easily one of the strangest I’ve ever come across: a riot at a circus sparked by a brawl between clowns and firefighters at a Victorian brothel,” Bunch said. “It’s deeply weird and entertaining but also has a lot to teach us about how Toronto worked back then.

"That’s my favourite kind of story: a surprising anecdote about a particular person or event that’s wildly interesting in its own right but also illuminates the bigger historical forces at play in our history," he added. 

Bunch teaches at George Brown College. He is also the author of The Toronto Book of the Dead and The Toronto Book of Love, the host of the Canadiana documentary series, and the creator of the Toronto History Weekly newsletter, the Festival of Bizarre Toronto History, and the Toronto Dreams Project.

His presentation of history takes many creative forms. For example, he works with a small team to create the Canadiana documentary series.

“Mostly, it’s just the three of us who are all co-creators: Kyle Cucco, Ashley Brook and me,” he said. “We all come up with the story ideas and write the scripts together, (and) then travel across the country filming the episodes. But they’re the ones who do nearly all the post-production themselves. They’re incredibly talented filmmakers, animators and editors.”

In presenting stories, he said, he tries to let his own curiosity and enthusiasm shine through.

“Hopefully, if I find something particularly fascinating or strange or funny or unexpected, other people will, too,” he said. “We’re so often taught history as dry lists of dates and events, but I was lucky enough to have history teachers who focused on storytelling — and I try to do the same.”

He said receiving the 2023 Governor General’s History Award was energizing — “in part, because it’s a big boost and a vote of confidence — it’s wonderful to know that my work is being noticed and that people enjoy what I do — but also because the list of previous winners is filled with historians who’ve done such incredible and inspiring work. It’s a lot to live up to.

"So, I’m determined to keep trying to learn and improve and make sure that I do my best to deserve that vote of confidence.”

Bunch is a busy person with a lot of projects. When asked by Village Media about taking the time to take the GO train up from Toronto to speak to the historical society, he said, “it’s a joy to do.”

“My favourite thing in the world is to share stories I find interesting with other people, so getting to do it live and in-person is a privilege. It’s wonderful that there are so many local history organizations across the country — like the Tecumseth and West Gwillimbury Historical Society — doing such great work to share stories about their own communities while organizing events like this that support authors and other speakers, giving them a chance to share their work.”

In keeping with this idea, TWGHS invited Abiishan Nanthakumar, a Bradford District High School Grade 11 student, to read his essay, The Transformation and Modernization of Québec. It placed first in the Simcoe County Historical Association’s (SCHA) Andrew Hunter Award competition in November 2023. There will, therefore, be two award winners presenting Canadian history in their own way on April 15.

The TWGHS meetings are held in the Tec-We-Gwill Women’s Institute Hall in Newton Robinson, 4380 Line 10, Bradford West Gwillimbury, at 7:30 p.m.

Meetings are free to attend for members and $5 for guests. All are welcome. No reservations are required.

Memberships cost $35 for families and $20 for individuals.

More information is available by contacting Mark Burchell at [email protected] or 705-458-8964.

More about Nanthakumar and the SCHA award can be found here.