Remembering the 1890 Fire at the University of Toronto: February 14: Snapshots in History

February 16, 2017 | John P.

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University College; Interior, Convocation Hall pictures-r-2533

University College; Interior, Convocation Hall. [1890?] (Credit: Toronto Reference Library, Baldwin Collection E 3-17a; Rights and Licenses: Public Domain)

University College at the University of Toronto was designed by architects Frederic Cumberland and William Storm. Using Cambridge and Oxford Universities in England as an inspiration, the building was designed in the Romanesque-Revival style. Construction began on October 4, 1856 and the building opened on October 4, 1859, six years after having been established by the University of Toronto Act as a non-sectarian, higher learning institution.

Toronto’s Globe newspaper carried the following article on page 16 of the February 15, 1890 issue entitled “Burning of the University”. The article began as follows: “The public loss by the burning of the University buildings cannot be estimated in terms of money. In some important respects, the misfortune is irreparable. Art, Literature and Science suffer by the destruction of an architectural pile of remarkable beauty, a library containing numerous books and documents that cannot be replaced, and a museum rich in many unique specimens…” (To view the full article online, please log-in at the Globe and Mail Historical Newspaper Archive database with a valid Toronto Public Library card and your PIN number.)

On February 14 and beyond, take a moment to delve back into history on February 14, 1890. The setting is University College on the University of Toronto’s (now downtown) campus. The context was the evening of the annual student ball, in fact, the Literary and Scientific Society’s annual Conversazione Ball. Concerts, literary readings, scientific exhibits and demonstrations were all part of the evening’s program. On display amongst other scientific wonders were some “bacteriological and other microscopic slides” that necessitated the use of kerosene lamps to light the areas of the exhibits. Two college staff were carrying a tray of kerosene lamps up the staircase at the southeast end of the building when, unfortunately, the tray fell and burning kerosene was released and soon set the wooden staircase aflame and further spread to the library in the east end of the building.

Professor Emeritus Martin Friedland, writing in his book, The University of Toronto: a History, noted that the City of Toronto’s fire brigade responded to the fire with its entire fleet of two fire engines. However, other complications hampered the extinguishing of the fire including only one fire hydrant, insufficient water pressure to reach the higher levels of the building, and a sharp, northwest wind that would have it made it difficult to fight the fire even with sufficient water pressure. The wind direction provided a silver lining in that most of the western section of University College was undamaged by the fire. Nonetheless, the fire was under control by 10:00 pm and largely extinguished by 11:00 pm with no loss of life. Sir Daniel Wilson, president of the University of Toronto, a witness to the fire himself on the university’s grounds, succumbed to exhaustion upon assessing the damage and went home with assistance to rest. Edward Blake, then-Chancellor of the University of Toronto, former Premier of Ontario and Liberal Member of Parliament in the House of Commons in Ottawa, was speaking during a debate when he received word of the University of Toronto’s fire, leading him to remark: “The great institution, the crown and glory… of the educational institutions in our country is at this moment in flames…So far as its material fabric goes, a ruin tottering to the ground.”

The main tower and east wing of the building had been eviscerated by the fire. Most of the library’s 30,000-book collection, save a hundred or so books, had been lost including a valuable copy of Audubon’s Birds of America and a 1491 edition of Dante’s Divine Comedy. The on-site museum had been destroyed as well as the administrative offices of the university.


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University College: after the fire of 1890, 1890.

(Credit: City of Toronto Archives, Fond 1478 (F.W. Micklethwaite Fonds), Item 37. Copyright is in the public domain)

Toronto’s Globe newspaper carried the following article on page 13 (continued on page 15) of the February 15, 1890 issue entitled “VARSITY IN RUINS: Ontario's Noblest Building Destroyed by Fire RAGGED AND BLACKENED WALLS LEFT Nothing of the Main Portion of the Building Saved THE GRAND OLD LIBRARY UTTERLY GONE…” offered the reader almost two full pages of coverage on the University College fire. The article began with these sombre words: “Toronto suffered last night the cruelest loss in its history. The destruction by fire of its noble University is a terrible blow to the Province…” The article offered painstaking detail on the fire and its aftermath. The article also made reference on page 15 that: “…Mr. J. Brebner, Assistant Librarian, was in the building when the fire started, and did all that was possible to get the fire apparatus at work. It was he who gave the alarm…” (To view this article online, please log-in at the Globe and Mail Historical Newspaper Archive database with a valid Toronto Public Library card and PIN number.)

Donations from university alumni and others, donations from other post-secondary institutions, grants from different levels of government all helped University College, established as a non-denominational component of the University of Toronto in 1853, to re-open rebuilt within two years. Architect DB Dick and engineer Casimir Gzowski had examined the building following the fire and determined that the structure was strong enough that the building could be restored rather than being torn down complete and rebuilt from scratch. Despite the logistical challenges resulting from the fire, University president Wilson and other university officials were determined to resume classes the following Monday by using unaffected lecture halls in University College, and space in other campus buildings as well as at Knox and Wycliffe Colleges.


University College University of Toronto 1917 f1231_it0306

University College, University of Toronto, 1917. (Credit: City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1231 (James Salmon Collection), Item 306 – Copyright is in the public domain.)

Consider the following titles for borrowing from Toronto Public Library collections:


University of Toronto the campus guide an architectural tour   The University of Toronto a history

   A not unsightly building University College and its history