The land that Ajax sits on today was the home of several Indigenous nations long before Europeans arrived in the area. The Haudenosaunee, Anishinaabe, Mississauga and the Huron-Wendat all occupied the territory at different times over the centuries.
When Europeans arrived in the area, the Mississauga were occupying the land that Ajax would eventually be built upon.
In 1788, the Mississauga would sign the Gunshot Treaty and the Williams Treaty in 1923, ceding land to Europeans and settlers as the decades went on.
The earliest settlers in the area would settle in 1802, in places such as Pickering Village.
Ajax would take a bit longer to be established and it would become a community thanks to the Second World War.
In 1941, Ajax was established to service the workers of the munitions plant that was built on a 1,200 hectare site. The community name did not come from the cleaning product, as some might think, but from a British cruiser. The HMS Ajax, itself named for Ajax the Great, the mythological hero, took part in the Battle of the River Plate, the Battle of Crete and the Battle of Malta. In 1939, the ship took part in the hunt for the German raider the Admiral Graf Spee and engaged the ship on Dec. 13. Despite the German ship’s greater firepower, and being hit seven times by the German guns, the Ajax was able to corner the Graf Spee, which was scuttled by her crew.
The Defence Industries Limited Plant would become incredibly busy during the war, producing 40 million shells in 1945 alone, while employing 9,000 people. The factory had its own water and sewage treatment plant, and the school population of Ajax was over 600. People from across Canada came out to work at the plant, which eventually occupied an area of 12 square kilometres. Around the plant, there was 30 miles of roads and 30 railroad.
When the war ended, the University of Toronto leased most of the plant in order to handle the flood of discharged soldiers who had enrolled as engineering students. The machines of war were moved out of the site, and the buildings were converted into classrooms and laboratories. The school was highly successful for its first few years, with 7,000 engineering students receiving their basic training by 1949. That would be the last year for the University of Toronto, Ajax Division.
Macleans would write about the campus quote:
“This is Ajax, U of T’s answer to the biggest boom in higher learning in the history of Canadian universities, created by a mass migration of Canadian servicemen out of uniform into cap and gown.”
Macleans would go on to describe the community, which was popular since the former servicemen could bring their families while they studied, stating quote:
“The 600-house village is filled with families whose breadwinners commute daily to Whitby, Oshawa and Toronto due to housing shortages in those centres. Across the tracks, the 1,306 bachelor students are as comfortably, if less romantically situated, two to a room, in 40-room double-winged residences.”
Roy Gilley, a veteran and director of the Ajax campus stated quote:
“We’re doing all we can to establish the university atmosphere and help the lads to overlook Ajax’s superficial resemblance to an Army camp.”
A bookstore was built, a laundry that handled 100,000 pieces a day was established, as was a movie theatre showing two shows a week.
From 1949 to 1953, the plant would serve as a Displaced Persons Camp as thousands of refugees from post-war Europe came to the area on their way to settle elsewhere in Canada.
After the war ended, and the plant had closed, the community had no industry but that wouldn’t stop it. Rather than let itself become a ghost town, the community got to work bringing in new industries to keep Ajax alive. In 1949, Dowty Aerospace started operating in Ajax and by 1969, Volkswagen Canada, Dupont, Ajax Textile and other companies were operating in the community.
A person who could be considered as the person who saved the community was George Finley, who worked with the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation. His vision was to make Ajax a modern planned community using the wartime base as its post-war foundation.
From 1941 to 1950, Ajax was a Crown Colony as it had no municipal government. Finally, in 1950, the citizens petitioned to create the Corporation of the Improvement District of Ajax. Three trustees were appointed and they acted as the council, school board, library board and anything else that Ajax required.
In 1953, there was an effort to have more participation of citizens in the council and school board. As a result of this, the Improvement District became the Town of Ajax and on Dec. 13, 1954, the people elected the first town council and school board for the community. Benjamin de Forest Bayly would be the first mayor of Ajax.
From the 1950s, Ajax would continue to grow and become a prosperous community in Ontario that was defying the odds as it adapted to changing times and changing industries. By the 1960s, the town had a bustling population of 8,000 people with 60 industries producing a wide array of products.
In 1954, the Ajax and Pickering General Hospital opened with 38 adult and children’s beds. That would expand to 50 beds in 1958, and then 127 beds in 1964.
In August 1962, Ajax made national news when it began to mint its own money to commemorate the 1962 Canadian National Exhibition. The aluminum coins, which were larger than the Canadian 50 cent pieces, were printed in the thousands and then distributed in Toronto at the CNE International Building.
The coins resembled actual money and featured a warrior’s helmet on the front with the words “The Town Of Ajax, Ontario, Canada – Canadian National Exhibition.” On the back, there was a picture of a factory and the words “Planned for Industry and Living”
The Industrial Commission of the town had produced the coins as a way to gain attention from businessmen around the world, many of whom were coin collectors. The hope was that the businessmen would locate to Ajax if they decide to build or rent a factory.
On March 28, 1965, a child named Jeff Beukeboom was born in Ajax. He would play his minor hockey in the area and in Lindsay until he left to play junior hockey with the Sault Ste Marie Greyhounds from 1982 to 1985. He would be drafted by the Edmonton Oilers in the 1983 NHL Entry Draft and was called up to the team in 1985. Joining one of the greatest teams in NHL history was fortunate for Beukeboom, who won three Stanley Cups with the team. He would become known for his hard-hitting play as a defenceman. In 1991, he was traded to the New York Rangers with Mark Messier. It was there he won his fourth Stanley Cup in 1994. Unfortunately, due to his physical play he suffered several concussions and would eventually retire in July 1999. Over the course of his 804 games, he had 1,890 penalty minutes and is second all-time in penalty minutes with the New York Rangers. He also registered 159 points during his time in the NHL. In 2009, he ranked 50th among the top 100 greatest players to ever play for the New York Rangers during the team’s first 82 seasons.
It was a momentous day on June 22, 1973 when the Ontario Legislature passed Bill 162, which amalgamated the Village of Pickering and the Town of Ajax into one community, retaining the name of Ajax. This was part of the creation of the new Durham Region. The new mayor for this new community would be Clark Mason.
By August 1976, Ajax had a population of 20,000 people on 16,000 acres of land. It was a thriving community and that on Aug. 25, 1976, the community was visited by a special guest, the HMS Ajax. This was the eighth ship of that name and it had been launched in 1962 to serve as an anti-submarine vessel. Carrying 259 crew, it was one of the most advanced ships afloat with computers that provided up-to-the-minute tactical pictures.
Upon arrival in Ajax, the ship was presented with the Freedom of the City award, which is a custom that dates back to the Middle Ages when people who lived in walled cities allowed others to come in because they were trusted.
The invitation to visit had been started in 1963 but it was not until 1976 that it finally happened.
The crew paraded down the street with swords raised, bayonets fixed and colours flying. Today, the ship bell from that eighth version of the ship, which retired in 1985, is in the town council chambers and it is used to call meetings to order. The anchor from the ship was brought to Ajax in 1987 and now sits at the Royal Canadian Legion.
A lovely aspect of Ajax is that many of its street names are named for soldiers who served on the ship and lost their lives in service.
By 1979, Ajax was home to 196 industries, a number that would expand to 217 by 1991. One interesting aspect of the community is that it did not have any sort of shopping for the first few years of its existence. It was not until 1970 that the community had various shopping centres, and by the 1980s, malls would be popping up all over the community.