Building a Working-Class Community: From Wartime Housing to Schools in Kingscourt

In the early 1940s the Canadian federal government partnered with Wartime Housing Ltd. to construct 250 houses for war workers and their families, setting the foundation for a neighbourhood that would eventually become Kingscourt. The history of Kingscourt shows us the importance of government support and community organizing to ensure adequate housing and community services during times of crisis.

Construction Begins

In the early 1940s, the Canadian federal government partnered with a company called Wartime Housing Ltd. to build 250 houses on 40 acres of land in Kingston Township, just northwest of what was then the City of Kingston. The acreage was previously owned by four different parties but was purchased by the federal government for the housing project. Wartime Housing Ltd. was sponsored by the Department of Munitions and Supply as a way to provide more appropriate housing for people working in war industries. Construction started in November of 1941 and families began to move into the homes in 1942. By April of 1942, plans showed 13 houses on North Albert, 13 on North Frontenac, 18 on Tenth St., 43 on North Alfred, 39 on Eleventh St., 27 on 12th St., 11 on First Ave., 22 on Dunkirk, 18 on Second Ave., 14 on Fourth Ave., 10 on Fifth Ave. 8 on Sixth Ave., and 14 on Seventh Ave., with a total of 250 houses.

War workers previously rented rooms in Kingston, which were expensive at the time. The Office of Wartime Housing received 380 applications from war workers to rent the houses, showing considerable demand for the new homes. The Kingston Whig-Standard wrote on April 30, 1942,

“…new tenants report that they have been called upon to pay very high rents for the limited accommodation they have been able to obtain. One family had two rooms for which they paid $3.50 per week; another worker reported he had three rooms and paid $20 per month, but there was no bath. A third tenant said he had two rooms which were heated, for which he paid $30 per month. A man and his wife paid $15 per month for two rooms, while a fifth war worker had two rooms with a private bath and heated, for this he paid $35 per month.”

For context, at the Kingston Shipbuilding Company where business was booming in 1941, mechanics were making $0.70/hour, helpers $0.45/hour, and labourers $0.42/hour. There existed a minimum 48-hour work week. Workers could gross anywhere from $20.16 to $33.60 per week. If they were paying between $20 to $25 per month for accommodations, that constituted about 1/4 of the workers’ gross monthly income for just a couple rooms.

The new houses came with strict lease agreements between the workers and Wartime Housing Ltd. who acted as landlords and set the rental rates. Wartime Housing Ltd. could revoke or cancel the leases at any time without penalty or liability. There were three classes of rent: $22/month (four rooms: sitting room, kitchen, 2 bedrooms, bath), $25/month (same but slightly larger), and $30/month (considerably larger with 2 more bedrooms on second floor). The houses were heated by stoves and had electric lighting. Families were excited to be able to shift from renting rooms to the larger houses. As one woman noted: “I am so thrilled I don’t know what to do; just think of being able to get a nice house like this after living in two rooms as we did.” After the houses were built, the City agreed to provide access to water, electricity, sewers, and education for the new community.

Houses in the Wartime Housing Area. Kingston Whig Standard. Oct. 15, 1943

A Neighbourhood is Born

As workers and their families moved into the houses, the neighbourhood began to grow. The area was initially referred to as the “Wartime Housing Area” but was re-named to Kingston Heights after a naming contest in 1943. Kirk Coward of the Kingston Horticultural Society presented awards to Kingston Heights tenants who had grown the best flowers and vegetables. Coward noted: “It is marvelous what a change has taken place in one year. From pastureland this area has been converted to homes, not houses. You may well be proud.” Tenants came together to build communication and community networks, and they created the Kingston Heights Community Council in 1943 “to further the interests of the citizens of Kingston Heights in all matters pertaining to public welfare, group projects, social activities and to promote better conditions for the area as a whole.” Shortly after forming the Council, a community newspaper called “The Kingston Heights Observer” was born. The early years of the neighbourhood included about 1200 tenants who worked to establish a community hall, a cooperative nursery, a church, and eventually a school. Mary McCleod, a local community counsellor, noted that “the whole system of the community council was based on co-operation.” A city bus route was added to the neighbourhood in 1950.

The Community Council’s Constitution outlined the zones of the neighbourhood, which were as follows:

Constitution of the Kingston Heights Community Council, 1943.
Map from 1950 showing parts of the neighbourhood.

Note that some street names have changed, and some streets had yet to be built. It appears that in Zone 1, North Frontenac Street is present-day Fergus Street while North Albert Street is present-day Kingscourt Avenue. It appears that Frontenac and Albert streets used to continue north of the Memorial Centre/Fair Grounds and into the Wartime Housing area. In Zone 2, the Constitution notes 10th Street, but it alludes us so far. We have not seen a map that mentions it, but the newspaper and archival data mentions it often. Based on the location of Zone 2, we might assume 10th Street is present-day Grey Street, but we have no evidence of this. You will see that Eleventh Street is now Carleton Street, and some other street names have changed.

Post-War Home Ownership

In 1949 the Central Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC), which now owned the houses, made an agreement with the Township of Kingston and the City of Kingston to offer the wartime houses for sale to the tenants. The terms of sale required 10% of the purchase price in cash with a mortgage. Prices of the houses ranged from $2,775 to $3,650 depending on the size of the house (four-room to six-room houses). Sale included the installation of permanent foundations and other improvements. Tenants were concerned not only with the foundations, but about roofs leaking. The CMHC agreed to re-roof 249 of the houses as they dug the foundations.

The CMHC contracted a building company to lift the houses with jacks, supporting them on steel girders, then excavated under the homes for basements and crawl spaces. During the construction, one local woman noted: “You would think the whole place was falling in when they turn those jacks. You don’t notice anything underneath the floor but the ceilings and walls crack and squeak so much it scares you.” In 1949 there were 325 wartime houses built in the area, with 260 eventually purchased by the tenants.

Kingston Whig Standard. Sept. 3, 1949

A Defining Moment: The Kingscourt School

One of the most persistent tenant struggles in the Wartime Housing/Kingston Heights area was the long-term effort to pressure governments and landlord companies to build a school for the local children. The movement to build the school brought the community together and further encouraged the addition of new bus routes to connect Kingscourt with other parts of the city. The “Kingscourt” name was born out of the school construction movement and the modern-day street layout appears around the time the school was built in 1950. This movement really solidified the neighbourhood as Kingscourt.

The need for a school was immediate, as hundreds of children came to the Wartime Housing area with their families between 1942 and 1943. Many children were out of school at the time of the move, as there was no facility in the area. In April of 1944, 275 Kingston Heights tenants signed a petition requesting a school for their community. A representative from Wartime Housing Ltd., who owned the houses, argued that the children in the community were being adequately schooled, as they were being educated in two rooms in the basement of Frontenac School and two in the basement of Macdonald School.

Tenants continued to put pressure on local governments and the housing company. In June of 1944 residents held a conference including members of the neighbourhood committees, representatives from the Municipal Board of Education, and representatives from Wartime Housing Ltd. to deal with overcrowding at Kingston public schools and accommodations for additional pupils from Kingston Heights. Wartime Housing continued to argue that the two-room temporary school was sufficient for the Kingston Heights pupils. Members of the tenants’ property committee insisted on a four-room school paid for by Wartime Housing. G. T. Permenter, assistant to President of Wartime Housing was willing to construct a four-room school but argued it was the responsibility of the citizens of Kingston to pay the cost of the additional two rooms.

A previous agreement between Wartime Housing Ltd. and the Municipal Board of Education at the beginning of the war stipulated that by the time the first 250 houses were built, the Board agreed to pay the cost of furniture and teachers’ salaries if Wartime Housing paid the cost of making alterations to existing school rooms to make them useable for Kingston Heights pupils. The Board received $12-15 per house, with 325 houses in Kingston Heights, toward the cost of educating pupils in the area (there were 220 pupils at that time). Wartime Housing Ltd. had already paid for alterations to other schools to make the rooms open to the Kingston Heights pupils. The Board cancelled that initial agreement in 1948.

The CMHC took ownership over the houses from Wartime Housing Ltd., and representatives from Toronto argued that, under the terms of a new agreement CMHC would be taxed for the 325 Kingston Heights houses, but the Kingston Township Council must also pay for education costs and other services that CMHC currently pays for. A survey showed 75 more Kingston Heights pupils were ready to enter school in the fall, but there was not enough space. Another 45-50 students would be ready for school in the proceeding fall. Schools were overcrowding, with entrance classes above recommended numbers.

With a stalemate between the CMHC and the Municipal Board of Education, tenants continued to organize. In September of 1948 a Kingston Heights Tenants’ Committee formed to investigate the schooling problem, electing representatives at a meeting of 400 tenants. That same month, a temporary agreement was signed between the Municipal Board of Education and CMHC which would allow more than 300 Kingston Heights pupils to be admitted to Kingston schools. The agreement included CMHC paying the Board $50 a month per house in lieu of taxes, but the situation was an “emergency measure” and CMHC noted that if the Board or government wasted more money they would have to raise rents on the houses. Debate continued about long-term solutions to the problem, as tenants held several meetings and the CMHC and Board did not offer any adequate solutions.

In 1949, the CMHC agreed to provide a grant of $100,000 toward building a new school in the neighbourhood, with the Ontario Municipal Board chipping in additional funds. The construction contract to build the school was given to the same company that built the foundations on the wartime houses in the neighbourhood. In March of 1950, after much debate and political wrangling, the Board announced that a new Kingscourt School would be ready to accept pupils in September. The 250 Kingston Heights pupils could relocate from other schools and move into the new building in their own community. The school was built in the summer of 1950 and cost over $300,000.

Kingston Whig Standard. Oct. 5, 1950

Kingston Heights to Kingscourt

Kingston Heights became known as Kingscourt at some point, gradually, from 1950 onwards. As previously noted, the new school that opened in 1950 was called the Kingscourt School and The Kingston Whig-Standard reported that school inspector H. Cleve Hunter “invented the name Kingscourt for a new school, from the names of the two areas it would serve, Kingston Heights (the old war-time housing) and a section around the traffic circle (present-day Kingston Centre) called Dovercourt.” Also, Kingscourt United Church began service in December of 1950, so the new name was catching-on.

An article in The Kingston Whig-Standard from October 18, 1957 about planning decisions in the neighbourhood, specifically the construction of Sir John A. Macdonald Boulevard and expanding industrial operations in the area, refers to the area exclusively as Kingscourt, not Kingston Heights. The article notes that Kingscourt was “bounded by Division street, the extension of Elliot avenue, the proposed Sir John A. Boulevard and Concession street” (note that Sir John A. Macdonald Boulevard was originally proposed to be built where present-day Leroy Grant Dr. is, but that plan obviously changed). This is basically the modern boundaries of the Kingscourt neighbourhood. By this time in late 1957, the neighbourhood included Kingscourt school, a high school, retirement home, new churches, and additional housing.

Building Communities in Times of Crisis

The history of the Kingscourt neighbourhood offers us a few lessons about community support. During the war, people were often working 9-hour days and through weekends to afford to live. It was a unique moment because there was a feeling that everyone must contribute to the war effort, but working conditions were often difficult and housing was limited. The intervention of the government to help ensure people had adequate housing, and a more comfortable livelihood, was an important moment. In times of crisis, economic and social burdens are often downloaded on workers. Government intervention can and does (as we see through history) provide important services, helps ensure safe and comfortable livelihoods, and helps build communities.

Sources

  • The Kingston Whig Standard. 1942 to 1986
  • Queen’s Archives. Kingston Heights Community Council Fonds. 1943-1950. F2919. Shelf: 2284.9 SE.
  • Thanks to the staff at the Queen’s University Map and Air Photo Collection in Stauffer Library.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *