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Discovering the Duchess Street Burial Ground

by Jane E. MacNamara

In the last couple of weeks, indexing volunteers working on the records of the Toronto Necropolis have come across the re-burial in 1911 of remains from a nearly forgotten downtown Toronto cemetery.

The small cemetery was located on the north side of Duchess Street (now called Richmond Street East) roughly bounded on the east by Stonecutter’s Lane, and on the north by Britain Street. The west boundary was a third of the way to George Street, at about today’s 260 Richmond Street East. It was about a half acre in size. The boundaries of the graveyard were reportedly somewhat undefined as bodies were unearthed when both Caroline (now Sherbourne) and Britain streets were built.

The property lay directly south of William Allan’s 100-acre Park Lot 5. The Park Lot started at Queen Street and ran north all the way to Bloor Street. Allan also owned an extension of his Park Lot south of Queen Street known as the “meadow” which included the lot on Sherbourne east of Stonecutter’s Lane. The meadow had a stream running through it. The angled path of today’s Britain Street echoes the path of the stream, and seems to be the dividing line between the burial ground and Allan’s meadow. You can read more about William Allan and his family in our Simcoe’s Gentry project.

Detail of Town of York patent plan showing the lots on Duchess Street between George Street and Caroline (later Sherbourne) Street. The burial ground was just above the double “ss” of Duchess. (Archives of Ontario RG 1-100 Patent Plans)

The 1834 directory of the Town of York[1] tells us that the cemetery belonged to “the Presbyterian Church in Hospital-street, Rev. Mr. Harris, Minister”. (Hospital Street is now part of Richmond Street.) Rev. James Harris was the son-in-law of prominent Torontonian Jesse Ketchum who donated land at Yonge and Richmond streets in 1821 to build a church for the Presbyterian congregation of York. Harris was the first minister, staying until about 1844.[2] The church was named Knox in July 1844 after the Disruption within the Church of Scotland.

But the Duchess Street burial ground dates back to long before 1834—and was not always Presbyterian.

A petition to the Executive Council of Upper Canada in 1824[3] from three trustees, Colin Drummond, Jesse Ketchum, and John Ross, representing the Presbyterian Congregation of York sheds considerable light on the subject. On September 14, 1824, the trustees requested that the “Gore between Lots Number Four and Five on the North side of Duchess Street containing about half an acre of land” be granted to them. They stated that the land had been used as a burying ground “upwards of twenty years” and that the Presbyterians had been burying their dead there for the latter part of that period. The trustees had investigated and found out that the property was not owned by anyone and therefore grantable. They wished to enclose and secure it and continue to use it as a burying ground.

A report from the Surveyor General’s Office[4] supporting the petition summarizes correspondence from February and March 1797, which orders that four acres be set aside for burials “including the present burial ground”. It is not clear whether “the present burial ground” was on Duchess Street or on the land set aside for the Anglican congregation at King and Church streets (where the Cathedral Church of St. James is today.)

So the burial ground on Duchess Street dates back at least 214 years, and perhaps a little longer!

A second document supporting the 1824 petition states that York’s Anglican minister acknowledged that the Duchess Street burial ground had earlier been used for “general interments” but was “by common assent of the Inhabitants allotted to the Presbyterian Church”[5]. An Order in Council on December 1, 1824, granted the land to the Presbyterians, and the transfer was completed in March 1825 when the survey fees were paid.[6]

The adjacent Lot 5 on Duchess Street was sold by Alexander Macdonell to William Jarvis in 1807 and recorded June 26, 1817. A copy of the legal description and a sketch of the property are pasted into the Knox Church minute book[7] and dated March 3, 1849. The documents show that the burial ground had mistakenly enclosed a strip of Lot 5 within the fence. This strip of land came into question again in 1858 and 1859, when a grandson of William Jarvis, George Murray Jarvis, tried to reclaim the 26-foot-wide strip and sell it to the trustees.[8] Legal opinions recorded in Knox’s minutes said that George Jarvis was out of luck. The fence had been up and the burial ground used without objection for much too long, and the most recent date on a tombstone, within the strip in question, was 1841.

Sketch of lots 5 and 4 on the north side of Duchess Street and the gore between the lots that was the burial ground. The encroachment by the cemetery on Lot 5 is shown with a dotted line. (Congregational minutes of Knox Church, page 105, March 3, 1849, Archives of Ontario, microfilm GS 6334)

An 1868 article in the Globe[9], describes the burial ground as “a romantic little nook” with “about a dozen moss-grown stones”. “A solitary cow crops the grass which covers the still visible mounds”. It claims that no burials had taken place for 20 years and many bodies had been moved to other cemeteries. Apparently the map of the cemetery had “got all into confusion” so that families who wished to move loved ones could no longer do so.

A 1904 article in Landmarks of Toronto,[10] claims that the burial ground was used until the establishment of the Necropolis in 1850, but the Globe article mentioned previously would indicate that burials in the later period were likely few and far between. The 1904 article states that the grave markers were buried, the ground leveled, and from the mid 1830s, part of the land used for a carpenter’s shop and cottages.

In about 1886, the Duchess Street Presbyterian Mission Chapel (associated with Knox Church) was built on the property, and according to Landmarks, when a cavity was dug to accommodate a furnace, a quantity of human bones were found and carefully reburied.[11]

In mid-March 1911, articles from the Toronto Star[12] give us a graphic report of gravestones and 19 bodies found during excavations around the “old Duchess Street Mission”. One large gravestone unearthed apparently bore the inscription: “Sacred to the memory of Eggleson McDonald who misfortunately was drowned July 12, 1835, age 24.” The articles also describe the nearly indecipherable coffin plates that were mainly painted rather than engraved. Only one name from a coffin plate, “Powell”, is mentioned, with the date “May 1, 1828.” The reporter notes that a stone used as a step into the Mission building was “sacred to the memory of someone whose first name was Duncan”. He also notes that all the bones were to be reburied at the Necropolis.

The Toronto Necropolis register shows “59 remains removed from the Duchess St. Presbyterian Church Burying Ground” reburied on April 6, 1911, in Plot L 106. The plot owner is the “Moderator Knox Church Sessions”. There are also two re-interments with names: Anne Drummond Kennedy, age 10 who died 12 March 1834, and Duncan Kennedy, age 45 who died 31 March 1834.[13]

An entry on July 21, 1911, shows the burial of another “19 unknown remains from Duchess St. Presbyterian Cemetery” in plot L 106.[14] On December 21, 1911, another 75 remains were buried; on June 5, 1912,[15] 64 remains; and a single burial on October 25, 1912[16]—all in the same plot.

The removal of remains from the Duchess Street burial ground was apparently done to allow the sale of the property. Our Places of Worship Committee’s files show that part of the proceeds of the sale in April 1911 was distributed among four churches—Dufferin Street, Riverdale, Rhodes, and South Side.

Unfortunately, no burial register for the Duchess Street Presbyterian Burial Ground seems to have survived. A fire that destroyed Knox Church in 1847 may explain this, but the map described in the 1868 Globe article mentioned above makes me wonder if the records were saved from the fire. The records of baptisms and marriages from Knox begin in 1823 and have been transcribed by Toronto Branch.

A plaque on Plot L 106 in the Toronto Necropolis reads as follows:

The resting place of early Presbyterian settlers
They were originally buried in the Presbyterian Burying Ground at Duchess (Richmond) and Caroline (Sherbourne) Streets, between 1818 and 1841. Due to steady expansion of the city, the cemetery was closed, and the remains of 263 persons were removed to this location in 1911 and 1912. Although few of those buried here are identified, family records indicate that several members of William Lyon Mackenzie’s family, including three of his children, are interred in this lot. Requiescat in pace.

As we continue to index the Necropolis burial registers, we’ll watch for more of the burials from the Duchess Street graveyard. If you can shed more light on this bit of Toronto’s history, please get in touch.

1. York Commercial Directory, street guide, and register, 1833–4. page 9.

2. Robertson, John Ross. Landmarks of Toronto… 1834 to 1893. J. Ross Robertson: Toronto, 1894, pages 510 and 511.

3. Upper Canada Land Petition, 1824, Volume 550, Bundle Y14, Petition 7 (Library and Archives Canada microfilm C-2980)

4. ibid. page 7a

5. ibid. page 7b

6. ibid. page 7c

7. Congregational minutes of Knox Church, page 105, March 3, 1849 (Archives of Ontario, microfilm GS 6334)

8. ibid. pages 9, 13, 16–18, 20, August 14, 1858 to March 16, 1859.

9. “The Cemeteries” article in the Globe, 21 Nov 1868, page 1, col 8-9.

10. Robertson, John Ross. Landmarks of Toronto… 1834 to 1904. J. Ross Robertson: Toronto, 1904, pages 223 and 224.

11. ibid.

12. Toronto Star, 14 March 1911, page 1, col 8 and 15 March 1911, page 7, col 7-8.

13. Necropolis Register for 1911, entries 31466, 31467, 31468

14. Necropolis Register for 1911, entry 31546.

15. Necropolis Register for 1912, entry 31817.

16. Necropolis Register for 1912, entry 31888.

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