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.
evening, February 14, 1890 - Valentine's Day - much of University College
was destroyed by fire. The news was immediately telegraphed to Edward
Blake, the University's chancellor, in Ottawa.
the report while addressing parliament. "The great institution,"
he interrupted his speech to tell the House, "the crown and glory,
I may be permitted to say, of the educational institutions of our country
is at the moment in flames; and ... is now, so far as its material fabric
goes, a ruin tottering to the ground."
Wilson wrote in his diary the next day: "A frightful calamity.
Last evening I looked on while our beautiful university building was
helplessly devoured by the flames. It is terrible. Thirty-three thousand
carefully selected volumes have vanished. The work of a lifetime is
swept away in a single night."
from the night of the fire
Friday evening, at 8 o'clock, around 3,000 people were to take part
in the annual conversazione, organized by the University College Literary
and Scientific Society. There were to be concerts and literary readings,
scientific exhibits, and demonstrations - one display was to show the
embryonic development of the chick - and "promenading" to
two bands. Shortly before 7 o'clock, two college servants were carrying
a tray of lit kerosene lamps from the basement to the upper floors to
illuminate the rooms and the exhibits. Electricity was not then used
for lighting in University College.
Toronto's entire fire
brigade responded -- the city had only two engines at the time.
were climbing the staircase at the south-east end of the building, the
tray fell. Burning kerosene soon ignited the wooden staircase and spread
to the upper library in the east wing of the building. The city's entire
fire brigade responded to the alarm - the city had only two engines
at the time - but could do little. There was only one hydrant, and the
water pressure was insufficient to send water to the upper storeys.
The brisk wind from the north-west would have made it difficult to stop
the fire even if there had been adequate pressure. But the wind also
prevented the fire from damaging most of the west part of the college.
By 10 o'clock the fire was under control, and by 11 o'clock it was largely
out. Fortunately, there were no casualties.
eastern section of the building was gutted. The interior of the central
tower had collapsed, and the great bell had plunged to the ground and
shattered. The massive oak doors to the college were destroyed. All
the books in the library, with the exception of about a hundred that
had been saved, were burned, including Audubon's Birds of America,
a good copy of which is now worth about $10 million.
in Ruins," headlined the Globe. The board of trustees, a
university body responsible for financial matters, met on Saturday to
assess the situation. "The walls are sound," they reported,
"and admit of roofing in and restoring." A week after the
fire, Wilson was feeling reasonably confident, and wrote in his diary
that the college would be returned to "its old beauty and [would
be] internally vastly more convenient and suitable than before."
Almost no classes were cancelled.
architect David Dick was commissioned to prepare plans for the rebuilding.
New decorative features were added, including the amusing round gargoyles
in what is now known as West Hall and the well-known dragon on the newel
post on the east staircase. A plea for books was sent to potential donors
around the world. Tennyson presented a set of his work in eleven volumes.
Queen Victoria donated a book on royal residences. The University of
Marburg alone gave more than 1,000 volumes. By the end of 1892, more
than 40,000 volumes had been received. "We are on the whole gainers,"
Wilson noted in his diary on Feb. 14, 1892, exactly two years after
would not be U of T's last February fire, however. Engineering's Sir
Sandford Fleming Building was gutted 25 years ago this week, on Feb.