Thursday, June 14, 2007

It's June 14th, a warm sunny day, and this morning I was helping to take a group of students around historic Saint Lawrence Market. It's the time of year that I'm always surprised to see what I think will be one last school group until the Summer starts ... the field trips seem to be coming out every week and the clock is ticking 'til school's out for summer!

So maybe this is a good time to think about how public education got started in this city, anyhow. Free, public education in Toronto really owes its origins to a man named Enoch Turner. Enoch was born around 1790, in England and his exact arrival in the Town of York (as Toronto was then called) is not known. He started up his own brewery on the south side of Palace Street - better known to today's city residents as Front Street. The location was around Front and Parliament Streets, not too far from the windmill that once existed near the present day Distillery District. Enoch Turner lived on the same site that he established his business - commuting in early 19th-century Toronto must have been a lot easier than today!

Brewing seems to have been the cornerstorne of many York family fortunes. It brought Enoch Turner fortune and wealth, but he gave at least some of it back to the community. In 1848, he established a "free school" for the education of children living in the nearby working class district.

These immigrant families, by the way, were mostly of Irish descent. Many of the families were from the city of Cork, in southern Ireland, so the area became known as "Corktown". The school was established by Enoch Turner around 1848 and was in use for about a decade, until 1859. In the first part of the 19th century, the children of poorer families just did not get an education. They were too busy working six days a week, side by side with their families. But the mid~1800s started to see a change in social perception, thanks in large to philanthropists like Enoch Turner. For the next few decades, other social reformers would pick up the cause of public education, and as the 19th-century drew to a close, mandatory school attendance was finally being discussed and legislated in the provincial parliament.

The school building itself, pictured above, is thought to have been designed by a prominent architect of that period named Henry Bowyer Lane. He was an English architect who worked in Canada from 1841 to 1847. He was also responsible for the nearby Little Trinity Church. Perhaps one of his most well known buildings today is what remains of the front facade of Saint Lawrence Market.

The school was closed in 1859, but the building has been in regular use ever since. It was here that soldiers who would go off to fight in the Boer War (South African War) were recruited in 1899. Soldiers also knew it as a servicemen's club during both world wars. During the Great Depression it was a soup kitchen, and it has also been used for various purposes by Little Trinity Church. By the 1960s, Toronto had entered into that great devastating era of demolition, when so many heritage wonders were lost. The Enoch Turner Schoolhouse was at risk, but plenty of local residents and an architect named Eric Arthur ultimately saved the building. Governor General Roland Michener opened it as an historic site in 1972.

For thirty-five years, the Enoch Turner Schoolhouse as operated as a historical site and venue for lectures, community events and even weddings! You can visit them on the internet at

So, if you're still stuck in class, raise a cheer when the bells ring out signalling the last day of school!! If you're a parent, though, you might try to get through the summer by silently thanking Enoch Turner, the man who helped bring the idea of free public education to Toronto.

One tour that isn't listed on my site (yet) is one through historic Cabbagetown, Corktown and down to the Distillery District. Aside from residential communities, we visit Riverdale Zoo and talk about the history of the Necropolis Cemetery and overlook a sweeping vista of the Don River. Give me a call or send me an email to find out more

Richard (Fiennes-Clinton)
Muddy York Walking Tours
telephone (416) 487-9017


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