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Exhibition at the City of Toronto Archives

September - December 2017  |  March - August 2018

J.J. Kelso, a children's reformer with a photographic eye

 J. J. Kelso (1864-1935 ), was a relentless advocate and social reformer, a major figure in Canadian ‘child saving’. Some of the key accomplishments of Kelso’s career include being involved in the founding of the Toronto Children’s Aid Society (1891), and was appointed first superintendent of neglected and dependent children in Ontario in 1893, a position he kept until his retirement in 1934.  Kelso was involved in promoting legislation including the Juvenile Offenders Act, and the establishment of Mothers Allowance in Ontario. He was an organizer of the Toronto Playground Association, and a key contributor to the settlement movement, supporting the opening of both the University Settlement House and Central Neighbourhood House in Toronto.

Kelso made deliberate use of photography for child reform, showing and circulating photographs alongside his many publications and public speeches. An avid collector of visual material (cartoons, postcards, paintings and photographs), Kelso selected and staged photographs with a deliberate communicative intent. He was not above tailoring photos to convey the political message he desired.  He opted for striking postures and dramatic composition, cropping, framing, and removing contextual detail to make his point.

"The presence of large numbers of neglected children in every centre of population is a satire on our civilization and a sure indication of a selfish and predatory social system."

- J.J. Kelso, c. 1900 - 20 

"Invoking fears about children provides a powerful means of commanding public attention and support."

- Buckingham, 2000






1864 – 1935


1864 March 31 - born in Dundalk, Ireland


1874 Immigrates to Canada from Ireland with his parents and eight siblings


1884 Briefly attends Toronto’s Jarvis Collegiate


1884 - 1887 Works as an apprentice, then proofer, then police reporter for The World newspaper


1887 - 1902 Employed as a police reporter and writer for municipal affairs at The Globe newspaper


1887 Founded the Toronto Humane Society


1888 Advocated for the passing of the Children’s Protection Act


1888 Co-organized the Fresh Air Fund and Santa Claus Fund


1889 First attempt at establishing public playgrounds 


1891 Inspired the vision of Children’s Aid Society


1893 - 1900 Promoted foster care over the use of industrial schools and reformatories


1893 - 1934 Appointed Superintendent of Neglected and Dependent Children in Ontario 


1894 Youthful Offenders Act established


1897 Appointed Inspector of Juvenile Immigration


1900 - 1914 Major role in Toronto’s urban reform movement


1906 Spokesman with Theodore Roosevelt at the Child Welfare Conference in Washington D.C 


1906 - 1908 Key contributor to the Toronto playground movement


1908 Juvenile Delinquents Act established


1908 Created the broadside Neglected to highlight the experiences of street children


1908 - 1917 Major figure in Toronto Settlement House movement


1909 Toronto’s first municipal playground – St. Andrew’s Square Playground


1910 University Settlement House Committee member


1910 Published Can slums be abolished or must we pay the penalty?


1911 Attended the preliminary planning meeting for the Ward Settlement House


1911 Co-founded Toronto’s Central Neighbourhood House


1912 - 1917 Board of Directors for the Central Neighbourhood House


1914 UK trip to meet child welfare workers, view settlement homes and evaluate social institutions


1916 Created the broadside Manufacturing Criminals


1920 Mothers Allowance established in Ontario


1921 Adoption Act passed – Kelso was the first administrator of this act


1921 Children of Unmarried Parents Act passed


1935 September 30 – died in Toronto



Jones, A., & Rutman, L. (1981) 

In the children’s aid: JJ Kelso and child welfare in Ontario University of Toronto Press

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