An ongoing research project of the Ontario Genealogical Society, Toronto Branch

King’s College University

An unfulfilled dream

by Jeanine Cameron Avigdor

In 1827, John Strachan, Bishop of York in Upper Canada, returned home from England, having obtained the first part of a long-held dream: a Royal Charter by Letters Patent granted by King George IV, which “established at or near our town of York… one College with the style and privileges of an University… for the education and instruction of youth and students in arts and faculties… to be called King’s College.”[1] All was in place: the Charter provided for funding for the University; land was available in York; Strachan had the political support of men of consequence. By 1849, however, the College which occupied Park Lots 11, 12 and 13 had been replaced by what Strachan described as “a Godless University”[2], and King’s College was no more.

From the outset, nothing went smoothly. Strachan had planned well. Always deeply concerned about education, he saw the need for a fine university in Upper Canada; and had prepared a budget and a suggested curriculum which included classical studies, theology, sciences, and law. The flaw appears in his appeal for funding addressed to the Friends of Religion and Literature:

“It is chiefly on religious grounds that this Appeal for the University of Upper Canada is made, which, while it offers its benefits to the population… will… be essentially a Missionary College.”[3]

The Charter contained the provision that all students and professors must subscribe to the “39 Articles of Religion as set out in the Book of Common Prayer”.[4] In other words, only members of the Church of England need apply.

The south-east wing of King's College, designed by Thomas Young, completed in 1845, and demolished in 1886. The site is now occupied by the easy wing of the Legislative Assembly. E 3-5c, TEC 654 Toronto Reference Library Canadian Historical Picture Collection.

The King’s College Council was organized in 1827. The chancellor (the position always to be filled by the current governor) was Lieutenant-Governor Sir Peregrine Maitland; the president ex officio, Bishop John Strachan. Council members were: Chief Justice Sir William Campbell, Surveyor-General Thomas Ridout; Attorney General John Beverly Robinson, Solicitor General John Boulton; Reverend Thomas Phillips, the headmaster of the Home District Grammar School; Grant Powell, the son of Justice William Dummer Powell. The bursar was Lieutenant-Colonel Joseph Wells, who was also treasurer of the General Board of Education. All were members of what would soon be called the Family Compact.

In accordance with the Royal Charter, funding for the new college was to be in the form of an endowment of 225,944 acres of Crown land, as well as a 16-year grant of £1000 per annum from moneys received from the Canada Company. Problems arose immediately. Other denominations in the province openly resented the use of public moneys to fund a clearly denominational college. The controversy resulted in the grant being paid for only four and a half years, from January 1828 to July 1832.

A site by the Humber River was at first suggested for the new college. By December 1829, however, 150 acres of Park Lot lands had been purchased, at £25 per acre, from D’Arcy Boulton (Lot 13 north half) William Dummer Powell (Lot 12 north half) Mary Elmsley, widow of Hon. John Elmsley (Lot 11 north half) Arrangements were made to clear trees, and to macadamize the roadway linking the site to Yonge Street. This would become College Street. Trees were purchased for £94.12.7 from William Prince, perhaps to line the road. By this time, a sizeable endowment had been created by the sale of the aforementioned lands. Everything augured well for the future.

A new lieutenant-governor, Sir John Colborne, appointed in 1828, had different educational priorities from his predecessor. Believing that secondary education should be improved, he wanted a preparatory, “Minor College”[5] to be developed at once, and opposed any further steps towards completing King’s College. All efforts and funds were thus devoted to this new institution, which soon was named Upper Canada College. By 1835, King’s had still not been established, but a new and enlarged council appointed in 1837 began to formulate plans. By this time, Strachan had been successful in removing from the Charter the contentious clauses that restricted involvement in the college to Church of England adherents. Thomas Young, the ornamental drawing master at UCC, was hired as architect. He requested bids for tender for a south-east building containing students’ apartments; a south side quadrangle containing chapel, library, museum, lecture rooms etc. and a south-west building containing “the hall (pro. tem.)”,[6] Proctors’ apartments, stewards’ rooms, etc. On February 2, 1839, Young chose John Ritchey’s tender of £45,120, using “Kingston stone”.[7]

In 1839 Sir George Arthur, the new lieutenant-governor, found financial irregularities, especially that 2/3 of the large endowment for the University had already been spent, mostly on Upper Canada College. He declared that it would not be advisable to commence building the University, and Thomas Young was discharged. A committee under Captain John Simcoe Macaulay was appointed to enquire into the bursar’s accounts, as many of the transactions regarding the sale of lands were highly questionable. Bursar Wells was replaced by Dr. Henry W. Boys, MD, and all those in charge, especially Strachan, were discredited.

By 1842, the atmosphere had changed considerably. Regiopolis College, in Kingston, had been founded in 1837 by the Roman Catholics. By 1841, the Methodists had obtained the Royal Charter for the non-sectarian Victoria University in Cobourg, and the Presbyterians were about to open Queen’s University, also in Kingston. Sir Charles Bagot, governor-general of the new, united Canada, was thus strongly in favour of proceeding as quickly as possible with a Church of England university.

Finally King’s College was really under way. Permission was granted to use the Front Street Parliament Buildings for three years, as, since the union of Upper and Lower Canada, they were no longer needed by the government, £4000 was allocated for a library, and for “philosophical and chemical apparatus, and a Museum and Botanical garden”.[8] Architect Young was re-hired, and John Ritchey was again selected to begin the south-east wing on the southern portion of the combined Park Lots, at an estimated £16,238, this time using less expensive “Hamilton stone”.[9]

A faculty was engaged. The professors and their disciplines paralleled Strachan’s pre-1827 proposal, and were unquestionably well-educated and talented men:

  • Reverend John McCaul (Trinity College Dublin, ‘28), principal of UCC and a pillar of the Family Compact, was vice-Principal and professor of “Classical literature, belles lettres, Rhetoric and Logic”.[10]
  • Rev. James Beaven (Oxon ‘24. DD ‘42), taught Divinity.
  • Richard Potter was professor of mathematics. He resigned at the end of the first session.
  • Henry Holmes Croft (University of Berlin), although only 23 when he arrived to teach chemistry, had been highly recommended by Faraday. He was a strong opponent of the Family Compact’s influence at the college.
  • Dr. Henry Sullivan (Dublin and London), Fellow, Royal College of Surgeons, at first was demonstrator of anatomy and curator of the anatomical and pathological museum, later professor of practical anatomy. He did not have a practice in Toronto, but taught only, the first example of a “whole time appointment”[11] in medicine at an Ontario university. He was a cousin of Robert Baldwin. (In 1844, he asked to leave his free apartment, and to be granted a house allowance, as he was “being subjected to many annoyances by living in the same house as Mrs. Powell”[12]. Only Vice-President Croft knew the details, but the request was granted.)
  • William Hume Blake (TCD ‘30), a leading Toronto barrister, taught common and civil law.
  • Rev. R. Murray, a Presbyterian from Oakville, was in 1842 assistant-superintendent of education in Canada West. He was asked to leave this post and accept the professorship of mathematics and natural philosophy, in order to allow Egerton Ryerson to succeed him.
  • Dr. W. C. Gwynne (TCD ‘31), professor of anatomy and physiology, was married to the grand-daughter of William Dummer Powell, but did not really belong to the Family Compact. Along with Croft, he advocated liberalizing the College.
  • Dr. R. Beaumont (London and Paris, RCS), professor of surgery, invented a variety of surgical devices. It was said that one worked on the principle of the modern sewing machine.
  • Dr. John King (TCD, Edin ‘30), theory and practice of medicine, was the only Roman Catholic on the faculty.
  • Dr. G. Herrick (Dublin and Edinburgh), taught midwifery and the diseases of women and children.
  • Dr. W B Nicol (Camb), teacher of materia medica, pharmacy and biology, had practiced in Bowmanville between 1836 and 1842. He was the son-in-law of Bursar Boys.
  • To this group were added Dr. Lucius James (Edin, RCS), in 1845, to teach medical jurisprudence, and in 1848, J. M. Hirschfelder, a tutor in Hebrew. Also in 1848, Blake resigned and was replaced by his law partner, George Skeffington Conner (TCD), who later became a judge of the Queen’s Bench and a chancellor of the University of Toronto.

The foundation stone of the King’s College was laid April 26, 1842, by Governor- General Bagot. It was a grand ceremony, which began at St. James’ Cathedral with an address by Rev. Henry Scadding. A large procession then moved to Upper Canada College, walking behind the Dragoons. It included the Home District Grammar School students and their two teachers, the University Council, city dignitaries, fire hook and ladder companies, the “Gentry”[13] and everyone else involved with the College. The speech of welcome to the governor-general, and his reply, were both in Latin. The UCC bell tolled to move the guests to the building site, and they passed between the 93rd Highland and the 43rd Regiments whose members lined the route. (Later the registrar was asked to thank Lieutenant-Colonel Sparks and Lieutenant-Colonel Furlong for their assistance.) A glass bottle was filled with coins, charts and papers including Hebrew, Greek and English testaments; the bottle was corked, tied down and covered with wax and foil before being deposited in a hollow in the foundation stone. Governor-General Bagot used a silver trowel, with an ivory handle tipped with a silver acorn and oak leaf, supplied by Mr. Stennetts for £46.19.0. Now work could commence on the south-east wing of King’s College.

But first the Parliament Buildings had to be re-fitted to accommodate students. A sizeable portion of the £624.9.7 expended went towards converting the Legislative Chamber into an elaborate chapel with oiled walnut stalls for the professors. The official opening of King’s College University was celebrated on June 8, 1843, in the renovated buildings. In a ceremony which included a solemn procession of the Council and faculty, and the inevitable speeches of exhortation, the following 23 students were “matriculated”[14] (i.e. enrolled) wearing the King’s College gown, copied from the Pensioners of Clare College Cambridge:

Frederick W. Barron, Edmund Baldwin, Norman Bethune, George Crookshank, W. G. Draper, Elliot Grassett, James T. Hagerman, John Helliwell, William P. Jarvis, Henry P. Jessop, Edward C. Jones, William M. Lyons, John J. Macaulay, Samuel S. Macdonell, Thomas A. McLean, Arthur D. Maule, James Patton, John Roaf, Christopher Robinson, Alfred Sharpe, Larratt W. Smith, James Stanton, and Walter Stennett.

Academic standards for the University were high. Admission requirements included selections from Homer, Xenophon, Lucian, Virgil, and Ovid, leading to the complaint that only UCC graduates could qualify. Scholarship examinations included even more Latin and Greek selections, as well as algebra “to Quadratic Equations inclusive.” The curriculum was largely borrowed from Trinity College Dublin (not surprising, considering the number of TCD alumni on the faculty) with three years of study to graduate. Experimental science was important, and the first year chemistry course was considered “a novelty at that time”.[15]

As well as fees, students were required to pay the following officials for matriculation and graduation: officer conferring degree, 6sh/20; proctor, 8sh/20; presenter, 3sh/20; registrar, 2sh/20; and beadle, 1sh/20. Their fees also contributed to the annual salaries of Daniel Orris, the beadle’s butler (£60/10 per annum) and D. King, the bell ringer (£40. per ann.) The cook received £18.

Undergraduate life was formal, yet filled with student high jinks. According to the bursar’s son, William F. A. Boys, who had been a King’s student, dinner began with the entrance of one capped, gowned, and hooded professor, who paced to a solitary setting at a high table while students stood. After a Latin grace all sat and dined. At the end of the meal, the professor made a formal recession. At this time, benches might be upset as “an accident done on purpose”[16] and there would be much “suppressed merriment” as the professor tried to keep his toes out of the way. The menu became monotonous, especially during the winter, “when the same old pies and puddings made their appearance.” Once an uneaten apple pie was sent back with a stick holding a note: “This table don’t eat apple pie.”[17]

The south-east wing of the King’s College was completed in 1845, and opened as a residence, with Rev. Beavan as dean. Its site is now occupied by the east wing of the Legislative Assembly Building. Thomas Young’s design was neo-classical, with a three-storey façade fronted with four Doric columns, a simple triglyph entablature, and a pediment. A genuine college spirit began to develop in the residence; songs and cheers were composed. All that survives is this snippet from a song about Professor Murray:

“Here’s to the professor of dull mathematics,
He knows more about steaks than he does about statics.”[18]

Should this have been “stakes” as in gambling? We’ll never know.

Discussion began in 1846 about building the south-west wing, as £18,000 of the endowment had not yet been spent. Thomas Young estimated a total expense of £8,000, of which £2,576 had already been spent on building material now on site and “ready to be used”.[19] The Bursar discovered, however, that funds were not presently available, as he could account for only £5,300 left of the endowment. However, more than sufficient money could probably be raised by the sale of additional crown lands.

Since its inception, King’s College had been openly criticized. The majority of the population of Upper Canada/Canada West was not Church of England. Although that fatal flaw regarding the 39 Articles of Religion had been dropped in 1837, little had really changed. Chapel services were Church of England. The president was still the bishop, and most of the faculty and the College Council were Church of England. As the greatest source of anger, King’s College continued to be publicly funded, unlike the Presbyterian Queen’s University, and the Methodist Victoria. The criticism developed into a widely and hotly debated political issue. Finally, in 1847, Robert Baldwin’s reform administration declared that King’s College University had to be totally secularized.

This was the end of King’s College. Its endowments were passed to the new entity, which was to have no faculty of divinity, and no denominational worship. Control was to be governmental rather than ecclesiastical. The Royal Charter was cancelled in 1849, and in 1850, King’s College University officially became the University of Toronto—the “Godless University”. To add ignominy to the end of Strachan’s dream, Baldwin created a Royal Commission of Inquiry into the Affairs of King’s College University and Upper Canada College, composed of Chairman John Wetenhall, Judge Robert Easton Burns, and Dr. Joseph Workman, MD. The Commission concluded that all along there had been laxity of administration, extravagance, inefficiency, and lack of experience.[20] Expenses exceeded revenue, and even Dean Beavan was unaware of the deficit in the residence under his jurisdiction.

Between 1849 and 1854, classes moved back and forth between the King’s College building and the Parliament Buildings, depending on the needs of the government. Finally, in 1856, the King’s College building became the University Lunatic Asylum for female patients. It reverted briefly to education from 1869 to 1871, serving as a temporary home for the Toronto High School, until its premises on Jarvis Street were ready. The end came for Thomas Young’s attractive neo-classical building in 1886, when it was razed to make way for the romanesque Legislative Assembly building. Today, little remains of King’s College except a faint echo from two thoroughfares on the university campus, and the four great ledgers prepared by the Royal Commission.


[1] Charter of the University of King’s College, folio 1, digitally reproduced at: <http://utarms.library.utoronto.ca/researchers/the-universitys-original-charter>. The original charter is at the University of Toronto Archives, Accession A1988-0044.

[2] Boys, Wm. F. H., Early days of the University. Supplement to the University of Toronto Monthly, Dec 1901, vol ii, no 3. Toronto: University of Toronto, p 3 (also available at <http://www.archive.org/details/universityoftoro02univuoft>)

[3] Hodgins, John George. Documentary History of Education in Upper Canada. vol 1. Toronto, Education Department, Ontario, 1894, p 27, from:  Strachan, John. An appeal to the friends of religion and literature in behalf of the University of Upper Canada. London: R. Gilbert, 1827. (also available at <http://www.archive.org/details/documentaryhisto01ontauoft>)

[4] Boys, p 4

[5] ibid., p 5

[6] Joseph Workman papers, Accession B1965-0040, University of Toronto Archives: Commission of Enquiry into the Affairs of King’s College University and Upper Canada College. (4 folio-bound handwritten manuscript vols, 1848–1851) vol 1, p 42.

[7] ibid., p 44

[8] Wallace, W. S. A History of the University of Toronto, 1827-1927. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1927, p 38

[9] Joseph Workman papers, vol 1, p 62

[10] Wallace, p 42

[11] ibid., p 45

[12] Joseph Workman papers, vol 1, p 169

[13] Boys, p 7

[14] ibid., p 11

[15] Wallace, p 49

[16] Boys, p 34

[17] ibid

[18] ibid

[19] Joseph Workman papers. vol 1, p 56

[20] Legislative Assembly of the Province of Canada. Final report of the commissioners of inquiry into the affairs of King’s College University, and Upper Canada College. Quebec, 1852. (Available at <http://www.canadiana.org/view/9_00955_10_4/0034> as part of: Appendix to the tenth volume of the journals of the Legislative Assembly of the Province of Canada… Quebec: R. Campbell, [1851])