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University of Toronto
U of T Great Past

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How does history remember the 1849 conversion of King's College to the University of Toronto?

Answer "An entire victory for the forces of secularisation and centralism in Upper Canadian higher education."

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.

The future of the University of Toronto was a major Canadian political issue in the 1840s, Friedland writes, as Reformers like Robert Baldwin tried to wrest control of the colony's institutions from the Tory "Family Compact" and the Anglican Church, during a period of unprecedented political upheaval in the colony. Meanwhile, the original (and Anglican) King's College struggled on:

On April 3rd, 1849, Robert Baldwin introduced a bill into the parliament of the province of Canada to convert King's College into the University of Toronto. It would completely secularize the university, eliminating any publicly funded chairs of divinity and all religious tests for any member of the university, whether student or professor.

Before Baldwin's bill passed, only Upper Canada College graduates had much chance of admission.

Queen's and Victoria and other denominational colleges could affiliate with the university "with some vague status, perhaps as divinity halls," without assured government funding or the power to grant degrees, except in divinity. If passed, the bill would represent, in the words of historian J.M.S. Careless, "an entire victory for the forces of secularisation and centralism in Upper Canadian higher education."

Kings College
The "temporary" location of King's College, on Front Street between Simcoe and John. The building was demolished in 1903.

In the meantime, King's College had been limping along in the unused red-brick legislative building on Front Street. The south-east wing of its own building had been completed in 1845 and turned into a residence, with the Reverend James Beaven in charge. Residence rules were established, such as one requiring students to be back in the residence before the gates were closed at 9:30 in the evening during the winter, and others requiring students to attend a certain number of chapel services. Not surprisingly, the students complained about the food, one later reminiscing that "day after day the same pies and puddings made their appearance."

Kings Residence
The former King's College residence, where the Ontario Legislature now stands (1886). Before any other of its buildings could be completed, this first university site was repossessed by the province after the Baldwin Bill passed, and construction started anew with the building of University College to its west.

The curriculum borrowed heavily from that of Trinity College, Dublin, the school from which the Reverend John McCaul and several others had graduated. A number of scholarships were established, including one from the Duke of Wellington, who donated £500 worth of shares in the Welland Canal Company for that purpose. The students were overwhelmingly Anglicans - 22 of the first 26 students - and entrance examinations to the college were so demanding that only graduates of Upper Canada College had much chance of admission. In order to gain admission, it was said, students would have had to know "nearly all the chief classics of ancient times."

Second reading of Baldwin's university bill had to be postponed when a mob burned down the assembly building.

The 1849 Bill creating the University of Toronto was introduced into the assembly, then meeting in the long, plain St. Anne's Market building in Montreal. Baldwin said the bill would ensure "the abolishment of every religious observance which could possibly prove offensive to any portion of the students attending the University." Before the bill could reach second reading, however, the market was deliberately burned down by a Tory mob angered by Lord Elgin's signing of the contentious Rebellion Losses Bill (designed to compensate those whose property was damaged in the revolt in Lower Canada) and the apparent rise of French power over the British minority in Canada East. Elgin reported to the Colonial Secretary about "this thin crust of order which... covers the anarchical elements that boil and toss beneath our feet."

The bill finally passed by a vote of 44 to 14 and became law on May 30, 1849. The University of Toronto came into existence on January 1, 1850. The 1906 Royal Commission on the University would call the legislation the "real charter of the institution." Along with the 1853 amendments, it formed the foundation for the governing of the University for more than fifty years. King's College ceased to exist.

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