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University of Toronto
U of T Great Past

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Question When U of T's Trinity College opened its doors on Jan. 15, 1852, how many students walked through?
Answer Thirty students began their studies at Trinity in a half-completed building on Queen Street West.

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 University of Toronto had come into existence, and its predecessor, the Anglican King's College, had ceased to exist, on Jan. 1, 1850. Within days, the man who had secured Toronto's first university charter 23 years before, the now 71-year-old Bishop John Strachan, started organizing a campaign for funds for his proposed new Church of England institution, Trinity College.

The Trinity Crest

Strachan, who had also been president of Toronto's sole university up until 1848, had given the idea considerable thought over the previous decade, as he saw the prospects for King's College rise and fall. (He had always opposed the secularization of education, once calling the non-denominational University of London an "infidel attempt" and a "godless imitation of Babel.") Indeed, in as early as 1842 he had written to the brother of the Duke of Northumberland, proposing to call a new college "Percy College" if the Percy family would put up the money. They declined. Several years later, the attorney general, Henry Sherwood, had offered to introduce a bill to incorporate the Anglican seminary in Cobourg as a college or university, "say, Trinity College." Again, nothing came of the offer. Moreover, Strachan was looking into the possibility that the British government would disallow the 1849 legislation that created the University of Toronto, an unrealistic prospect given the new spirit of responsible government.

Toronto's first university had been "destroyed... as a Christian institution," Strachan believed.

In February, 1850, Strachan sent a letter to members of the Church of England in Upper Canada, seeking their financial support before he travelled to England for further support and a royal charter. "On the 1st day of January, 1850," he wrote, "the destruction of King's College as a Christian Institution was accomplished… To see it destroyed by stolid ignorance and presumption, and the voice of prayer and praise banished from its halls, is a calamity not easy to bear."

He himself pledged £1,000 to the cause. Other substantial pledges followed, and on April 10, 1850 a large crowd led by Chief Justice John Beverley Robinson saw him depart for New York to take the steamer Europa to England. He returned in the autumn of 1850 with considerable private financial support, but this time without a royal charter. Neither the government of the colony nor the University of Toronto wanted a second university in Toronto. A strictly theological college might have been tolerated, but a university was a different matter.

The First Trinity College
The First Trinity College, on Queen Street

Strachan had wanted more than a divinity school because he saw Trinity College as the pinnacle of a system of Church of England education, comparable to the emerging Roman Catholic system of education in the province. Encouraged by Robinson, who would become Trinity's first chancellor, Strachan proceeded with plans to open the college, even though it could not yet grant degrees.

Trinity today
Trinity College today

Twenty acres of land were purchased in early 1851 on the north side of Queen Street - now the Trinity Bellwoods Park - for £2,000. Queen Street was a fashionable street at the time, with many fine estates along it. Moreover, it offered a splendid view of the lake and the harbour. Today, the inelegant Strachan Avenue leads from the property to the lake.

A college council was formed at about the same time. The architect Kivas Tully was selected over Frederic Cumberland's firm, which would later build University College. Tully's previous major work was the Bank of Montreal - now the Hockey Hall of Fame - at the corner of Yonge and Front streets. Sod was turned in the spring of 1851, and within two months Bishop Strachan, as president of the new university, took part in the laying of another cornerstone. Trinity College opened its doors in a half-completed building to 30 students on January 15, 1852, about two years after the closing of King's.

In the summer of 1851, the government of the United Province of Canada had incorporated Trinity College, but it was not until July 1852 that it received a charter from London, permitting it to grant degrees. By that time, it was clear that neither Queen's (the Presbyterian institution, in Kingston) nor Victoria (the Methodist university in Cobourg) would give up its charter and join the University of Toronto. In these circumstances, as Strachan forcefully argued, it was hard to deny the Church of England the similar privilege of a charter. The institution would now be known formally as the University of Trinity College.

The story that Strachan insisted Trinity's professors stay celibate appears to be a myth.

In order to receive their degrees, Trinity College students had to declare allegiance to the Church of England. Clergymen from Oxford or Cambridge were hired as professors. It appears to be a myth that Bishop Strachan insisted, at least in the early periods, that the professors be celibate. In his opening lecture, Provost George Whitaker, who would be Provost for another 30 years, told the students, "The foundation of this College is a solemn protest against the separation of religion from education; we have joined together what others had put asunder."

Trinity College would eventually rejoin U of T, in 1904, Friedland explains later, but it would be another 20 years after that before it moved onto campus, to its current home on Hoskin Avenue. Trinity is celebrating its 150th anniversary this week, with a special Founder's Day service at St. James' Cathedral this Sunday.

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