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University of Toronto
U of T Great Past

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What university was founded 175 years ago?

Answer King's College, precursor to the University of Toronto, was granted its royal charter on March 15, 1827. Happy Birthday, U of T.

On March 15, 1827, King's College - the precursor to the University of Toronto - was granted its royal charter by King George IV. Throughout 2002, U of T celebrated 175 years of Great Minds. As part of the celebration, the U of T website featured excerpts from The University of Toronto: A History, written by Martin Friedland, University Professor and Professor Emeritus of Law at U of T.

On March 15, 1827, the charter was issued under the Great Seal for the "establishment of a College… for the education of youth in the principles of the Christian Religion, and for their instruction in the various branches of Science and Literature… at or near our town of York… to continue forever, to be called 'King's College.'"

The university was to be run by members of the Church of England. Students, however, could be of any faith.

The university was to be run by members of the Church of England. The president, the charter stated, would for "all times" be the archdeacon of York, who at that time was John Strachan. The governing council would be made up of seven professors, along with a chancellor and a president. All members of the council would have to "sign and subscribe" to the Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion of the Church of England. Students, however, could be of any faith.

The Charter

This last provision was more liberal than at Oxford or Cambridge and the King's Colleges in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick. Strachan later said that it was "the most open charter for a University that had ever been granted." The charter, however, was in fact less liberal than the one granted to McGill College earlier in the decade, which, being in a largely Catholic province, did not restrict either students or professors to the Church of England.

It is true that Strachan did not want the presidency to be necessarily restricted to the archdeacon of York, but he certainly wanted the holder to be a Church of England clergyman. Indeed, he probably wanted the president to be a Church of England cleric from England so that the institution would have a strong English flavour.

Although a large tract of 150 acres - between St George Street and Spadina Avenue - was offered (for the college) by the wealthy Baldwin family for £3,750, this offer was rejected, and instead the council chose the present site. It consisted of 150 acres of vacant forest land: 50 acres from Chief Justice Dummer Powell, 50 acres from D'Arcy Boulton (the owner of the "Grange"residence, now part of the Art Gallery of Ontario), and 50 acres from the Elmsley family.

The present site of the St. George campus was purchased for a sum of £3,750.

All three properties were obtained for £25 an acre for a total of £3,750, a sum about equal to the cost of John Strachan's home. Had the university also purchased and kept the Baldwin property and the remaining Elmsley property, all of which, including the site actually purchased, could have been obtained for a little over £10,000, the University of Toronto's financial future would have been considerably more secure - perhaps even today.

In 1829, plans were completed in England by the eminent architect Thomas Fowler, who was then designing Covent Garden Market. A model showing a Greek revival design resembling Thomas Jefferson's University of Virginia was sent to Upper Canada. The plans met with the approval of the colonial secretary in London.

Original Design
The Original Fowler design for King's College (1829)

Some of the land was cleared, and stone for the building selected. Title to a grand avenue 132 feet wide (now University Avenue) leading from Queen Street to the site where the Parliament Buildings of Ontario now stand was purchased, and, in addition, a route along the present College Street was obtained and cleared from Yonge Street to the new site. Strachan wrote to a friend in Scotland in October 1829, "We have procured plans - purchased a good site for the building, garden, and pleasure grounds three quarter of a mile from my house; and we are fencing, clearing, and planting and shall next summer, I think, commence to put up a portion of the general design."

On Sir Peregrine Maitland's departure from Upper Canada as lieutenant governor in the fall of 1828, Strachan reported that King's College was about to open its doors.

Strachan was mistaken, of course. The Anglican underpinnings of King's College would become a heated political issue in early Canadian politics: controversy delayed construction. The first students, studying in an unused legislative building, would not be enrolled until 1842. Strachan's college" limped along" until 1849, writes Friedland, until new legislation created a new, more secular university for Toronto.

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