Archival citationFonds 1244

TitleWilliam James family fonds

Date(s) of creation of record(s)1900-1970, predominant 1906 - 1939

Physical description of record(s)10,109 photographs
 .5 cm of textual records

Form of material Photographs - streetscapes
 Photographs - portraits
 Textual records

Scope and content Fonds consists of photographs taken by members of the William James family, including William James, Sr. (1866-1948),and sons William James, Jr. and Norman James (1907-1992). The fonds has been arranged into four series, and includes nearly 5,000 negatives and prints, which were acquired from Norman James in 1976. Fonds also includes over 5,000 glass lantern slides acquired from the estate of William Victor Fraser (grandson of William James Sr.) in 1978 and from Norman James in 1991. Additionally, the fonds includes include a scrapbook documenting the life and career of Norman James, and a small series of photographs documenting the James and Rygate families.

 Although the work of three photographers is known to exist in this fonds, the majority of the photographs were taken by William James, Sr. During his long career, William James documented the life and times of his adopted home Toronto, covering all types of people, from newly arrived immigrants and impoverished residents of "the Ward" to visiting members of the Royal family; a wide spectrum of workers, from grocers and textile workers to bank messengers and construction workers; and a great diversity of locations, from Toronto Island to City Hall, the Bloor Street Viaduct, and the top of the Canada Life Building. He also shot innumerable events which occurred all over the city.

 Celebrities of all sorts were captured by James' camera, as well as anonymous players in the city's on-going daily dramas. In fact, as an early practitioner of human interest, candid photography, James' focus tended to be on people rather than settings, although James' settings have now attained considerable historic importance. For James, mud, water, steam, and smoke were part of his photographic palette, as were striking patterns, unusual angles, and dramatic light effects - even moonlight and an eclipse of the sun featured in his work. The Archives also has about 5,400 glass lantern slides, most of which feature Toronto, while about one fifth show other Canadian locations.

 Most of Norman James' photographs are held by the Toronto Star photographic archives, however this fonds includes such striking images as a 1941 double portrait of prime ministers Mackenzie King and Winston Churchill emerging from 10 Downing Street, and a 1949 shot of the passenger ship Noronic ablaze on Toronto Bay. The Archives also has photographs by Norman James of such well-known Toronto Star personalities as one-time Star reporter Ernest Hemingway, Joseph E. Atkinson, H.C. Hindmarsh, Greg Clark, and Gordon Sinclair.

SubjectsJames, Norman, 1907-1992
Casa Loma (Toronto, Ont.)
Eaton (family)
World War, 1914-1918
Toronto Star
Halifax Explosion, 1917
Noronic (passenger ship)
Toronto Island (Ont.)
Hanlan's Point (Toronto, Ont.)
Sunnyside Ave (Toronto, Ont.)
High Park (Toronto, Ont.)
The Ward (Toronto, Ont. : Neighbourhood)
Chorley Park (Toronto, Ont.)
University of Toronto
Canadian National Exhibition
City Hall (Toronto, Ont., 1899-1965)
Ontario Jockey Club
photography industry
fashion photography

Administrative history or biographical sketchAccording to a tribute run by the Toronto Star shortly after William James' death in November 1948, James delighted in taking photos that he felt would have historic interest. The contents of this fonds indicate that he succeeded in this aim: not only did he take photographs that now have tremendous historic interest, but he also made photographic history. He became Toronto's, and possibly Canada's, first press photographer, as well as the first person to take moving pictures from an airplane. He also fathered three sons who became professional photographers for at least part of their working lives. Most notable was Norman James, a Toronto Star photographer for 40 years, who maintained his father's collection and ensured that it was transferred to the Archives along with some of his own work.

Born in Walsall, England on February 10, 1866, William James attended local schools, apprenticed for seven years in a leather-working shop, and acted briefly as an insurance agent. According to family history, James became restless and spent about three years in New Jersey around the time of the Great Blizzard of 1888. Shortly after returning to England, he married Clara Woolaston, spent a few years in London, and returned to Walsall for about twelve years where four of his children attended local schools. Although little is known about this early period, James appears to have become a dedicated amateur photographer and established contact with other local photographers. The contents of this fonds include lantern slides of English locations that appear to pre-date his emigration; a portrait of James in hiking attire, ca. 1900; and a copy of a 1903 postcard that James sent to another local photographer, William Meikle. This postcard displays a photograph of their Photographers Group on one side; and James' note to Meikle that he would make all the lantern slides for a project Meikle was working on. In 1906, at the age of forty, William James emigrated to Canada on the Empress of Britain. (#3568 is the last photo of the James family in England prior to emigrating.)

James landed at Quebec on November 10, 1906, accompanied by his wife and five children. They took a train to Toronto, arriving at Union Station like thousands of other immigrants of that era. (#3577 is the first photo of the family in Toronto.) After staying for a brief time in a crowded room on King Street West, the James family moved into the first of their four Toronto homes, 39 Huron Street (ca.1907-1909). The others were: 19 Leonard Avenue (ca. 1910-1913); 250 Major Street (ca. 1913- 1921); and 440 Manning Avenue (ca. 1921-1948). Initially, James worked at a variety of jobs, including insurance agent and manager of the National Club. But he always continued taking photographs, like #12 which shows James inspecting the ruins of a November 1906 fire that destroyed the Grand Stand at the CNE. This may be the earliest surviving "Toronto" picture taken by James. According to an annotation by Norman James, "Dad always tried to get figure in pic" - perhaps more for human interest than vanity, since James became an early exponent of human interest photography. He also probably used a long cable release to trigger the shutter, a technique he used in many other photographs.

Much of James' early work in Toronto involved stereoscopic views, which he sold to local dealers (#3521 shows James with a stereoscope ca. 1906). Around 1909, James decided to become a full-time, professional photographer. William James established the first of his several photographic businesses, "W. James, Photographer", at 19 Leonard Avenue where he had a darkroom in the basement. Thereafter, he spent his days lugging heavy camera equipment around Toronto taking potentially newsworthy photographs, which he developed later in the day and sold to one or more of the local newspapers for $1 or $2 per print. In the days before newspapers had their own staff photographers, James was able to make an adequate income to support his growing family, which now had two new members: Norman, who was born in 1907, and Winnifred. Over the years, James' photographs appeared in such periodicals as the Toronto World, Mayfair, Canadian Horseman, Chatelaine, Hunting in Canada, and the Toronto Daily Star which proved to be his best customer until the late 1930s. (He retired around 1940.) From the beginning, James' energy (he enjoyed walking from Toronto to Hamilton, taking photographs along the route), dedication, eye for the decisive moment, and keen sense of composition marked his work. So did his personal interests, such as the British Welcome League, which enabled him to both welcome other British immigrants to Toronto and take their photographs as they arrived; and the Canadian Press Association, whose 1916 Great Lakes cruise he both joined and photographed. According to Norman James, his father was a severe and stubborn man who did not have many close friends; however, he knew all the other photographers and taught photography to "the Turofsky boys", who later became well-known sports photographers. James' interest in technology took him to a Weston field in 1910 to photograph the first airplane flights in Canada, and to the air himself in December 1916 to take the first moving pictures, begoggled and lashed to the open bi-plane. By this time, he had been taking moving pictures of both civilian and, after August 1914, military life. These included footage for the Pathescope Company of Toronto and the Ontario Government. While his son William H. was in the service and overseas (where he fought at Vimy Ridge), James senior dedicated himself to photographing and filming activities on the homefront: recruiting, training, fund-raising, ship-building, and munitions-manufacturing.

After the Great War, William Sr. took both Joseph and William Jr. into what then became "James & Sons" at 250 Major Street from 1918 to 1921. In 1922, Joseph departed for the United States and William Jr. established his own photography studio under the name "H. James". (At least one photograph in this fonds, #1030, a 1935 shot of Premier Mitch Hepburn, is stamped with the younger William's photographic stamp.) Among the photographers who worked for William Horace James was Strathy Smith, who later became a well-known Toronto news photographer. The elder William James continued to work on his own as "W. James Sr.", until about 1929 when Norman joined his father and they became "James & Son" at 440 Manning Avenue. According to an advertising card for "James & Son", ca. 1933, the business provided a full range of services, including air views, news events, sports, and weddings. According to the material in this fonds, William James' photographic output slowed down during the 1930s and virtually stopped at the end of the decade. One of the last major events he covered was the 1939 Royal Tour, which netted one of his favourite photographs: a shot of George VI and Queen Elizabeth standing on the steps of Toronto's City Hall. William James died on November 18, 1948, at the age of 82.

Source: James, William, 1866-1948

Record consists of4626 [browse]

Finding aidsThere is a printed finding aid for this fonds, comprising an item listing and reference prints, available in the Research Hall. The listing provides the number and a description based mostly on information provided by the creator and/or other James family members. The binders containing reference prints offer general subject headings (e.g., streets, horses, cars, aviation, workers, waterfront, CNE, WWI, fashions, winter sports, etc.), but subject matter is widely dispersed and not always captured under these headings. Also available is a listing of the lantern slides and reference prints on microfilm. For assistance ask staff at the Reference Desk.

Access conditionsOPEN - No restrictions on these non-government records.

Copyright conditionsCopyright may or may not be held by the City of Toronto...more
Any photograph taken on or before 31 Dec. 1948, which constitutes the majority of images in this fonds, is considered to be in the public domain.

To request records at the archivesPlease fill out the Records Request Form available at the Reference Desk, indicating:

Searchable form of the Creator(s) nameJames, William, 1866-1948

Note about date(s) of creationCaptions appear on the verso of many prints and are cited in the descriptions. Many of these captions were appended by descendants of the photographer before the collection was transferred to the CTA, and are not necessarily accurate. In addition, many prints are stamped with the name of one or more photographer. Sometimes photographs taken by William James Sr. were stamped also by Norman James. Additionally, photographs taken by William James were occasionally reprinted at a later date by Norman James.

Notes about physical descriptionPhotographic records include negatives, vintage prints and lantern slides.

Numbers or letters borne by the recordsFormerly cited as: City of Toronto Archives SC 244.

Custodial history
1990 - S - 37

Anticipated additions to the recordsNo further accruals are expected.

Other relevant informationThe Library and Archives Canada has the originals for the moving pictures taken by William James. Images in this fonds are available on microfilm, located in the Research Hall microfilm cabinets at the City of Toronto Archives. A total of 4617 images in this fonds have also been digitized and can be viewed online (see the item-level descriptions).

General note(s)Photographs from this fonds have appeared in many publications and a variety of Market Gallery Exhibitions. The fonds itself was the focus of a 1981-1982 exhibition entitled "William James: Pioneer Press Photographer".

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