T.O. History Revisited – The St. Lawrence Market (1)

By Bruce Bell

Bruce Bell is the history columnist for the Bulletin, Canada’s largest community newspaper. He sits on the board of the Town of York Historical Society and is the author of two books ‘Amazing Tales of St. Lawrence Neighbourhood’ and ‘TORONTO: A Pictorial Celebration’. He is also the Official Tour Guide of St Lawrence Market. For more info visit brucebelltours.com

It must have been quite a sight and sound on August 26, 1793 for a family of Mississauga First Nations as they went about their daily chores on the banks of the great lake, for out on the waters a huge British sailing ship fired a massive cannon.

With that loud pop the area, which for generations had always been a good place to fish, known to them as to’ron’to (where the waters converge), was now to be called York.

The men firing the cannon under the leadership of the new Governor named Simcoe who, despising all things ‘Indian sounding’, proclaimed the name change and set out to build a new capital of Upper Canada.


The third St. Lawrence Market Building ‘The Victorian Market’
North West corner of Front and Jarvis Streets 1851-1904

The Mississauga family who for a thousand years previous had called the area home stayed on for while, teaching their time honoured traditions to the new settlers, but soon discovered they were no longer needed (or wanted) and left.

As the old ways were being surrendered to the new, two enterprising colonial entrepreneurs bought their wagons together, one selling fish the other vegetables. With that simple move the first European style public market in the area was born.

Ten years later, on November 5, 1803, with the recently arrived British now fully settled in, the next Lieutenant Governor, Peter Hunter, proclaimed that same land now overrun with a mish mash of wagons bearing fruit and vegetables and barrels overflowing of fish be set aside for an official Public Market with its own fishing wharf to follow.

That new Public Market beside a place where the citizens could buy, haggle and barter for their food was also to be where the town crier would announce the news of the day, where the stocks and pillories holding thieving men and women would stand, where slaves and indentured servants would be tied to the whipping post and publicly flogged for trying to escape their harsh existence and where the town’s folk would gather around the well and gossip on the days events.

All this daily life would be surrounded by the sounds of chickens clucking, cows mooing and pigs squealing while being slaughtered where they stood.

That same land, now the site of St. Lawrence Hall on King St. and the Farmers Market on the NW corner of Front and Jarvis with the wharf once the fishing grounds of that First Nations family, now the site of the South St. Lawrence Market, is about to celebrate its 200th year since Governor Peter Hunter’s proclamation.

As the town grew so did the Market area. In 1824 the market, to hold all the open corrals of cattle, fish barrels and carts laden with crops, was closed in on the east, west and south sides with an oak ribbon fence with three small openings on each side. That rudimentary first Market was torn down in 1831 and a larger one made of red brick with arched gateway entrances on Front and King Street was opened on the site the following year.

That second market of which a beautiful scale model can be seen in the Citizens for the Old Town at 159 King Street E in St. Lawrence Hall was an open air public market surrounded by a two story enclosed walkway to protect the butcher stalls below. It had at its southern end facing Front Street a small Inn named the Market Arms and at its northern end above its King Street entrance York’s Council Chambers.

After it was resolved to incorporate the Town of York into the City of Toronto in 1834, William Lyon Mackenzie was appointed our city’s first mayor in a room that once stood facing King Street.

That market was also the scene of one of Toronto’s most gruesome and bizarre accidents. If you’re queasy about such things read no further.

In 1834 a week before the vote was to be cast on our city’s future, a group of people were standing on the second level being addressed on the fundamentals of the upcoming election. A creak was heard coming from the floorboards followed by a huge snapping sound when the entire western portion of the public gallery collapsed. 24 people were critically injured and 3 others, including the nephew of Colonel James FitzGibbon (the officer Laura Secord informed of an American attack during the War of 1812) died after they were impaled on the butcher hooks below.

In that same year of incorporation we now had a population of 9,000 and 10 years later in 1844 it grew to over 24,000. With this new expansion came fresh cash and a decision to construct a new City Hall to replace the old above the King Street entrance to the Market where Mackenzie was sworn into office. A competition was held, as was the custom when public buildings were constructed and the winner was Henry Bowyer Joseph Lane. Lane was only in Toronto 4 years (1843-1847) but in that time managed to build Little Trinity Church on King E, additions to Osgoode Hall and The Holy Trinity Church behind the Eaton Center.

So in 1844, on land where the Home District Farmer’s Storehouse once stood on the SW corner of Front and Jarvis Streets, work began on the new and desperately needed City Hall and building it on the then waterfront would give the new Hall an impressive appearance as ships rounded the bay.

‘There, in all its splendor, the new City of Toronto and it’s center, its grand City Hall’.

That City Hall, Toronto’s second, still stands in part surrounded by the South St. Lawrence Market. Where the main entrance to the south Market is today, there was a foyer, spiral staircase and the Police Office. The staircase led up to the 2nd floor where, facing Front St., the Mayor had his new digs. At the rear, overlooking the Harbour on the 2nd floor, was the Council Chamber and the third Floor held the Public Gallery that looked down over the Chambers. The two arches (the present red doors were added in 1876) that flank the main entrance led to the Market stalls. The basement was the domain of Police Station No. 1 and its infamous jails.

Being situated so close to the waterfront would also produce one of our neighbourhood’s greatest urban legends. The horrors of the Dungeon.

Before the days of prison reform and common sense justice, people were thrown into that jail, chained to the wall (where Dominos coffee grinder is) and later executed if so deemed, for as little as stealing a piece of candy.

During a storm the creeks that at one time started their journey above Davenport Hill and flowed down into Lake Ontario would swell, flood the jail, and the helpless people shackled to the wall would drown or at the very least, hang knee deep in all the contaminated debris washing up from the open sewer that was backwashing in from Lake Ontario. If those walls could talk, they’d scream.

So there it was, that new center of town, just as Governor Hunter had envisioned less than 50 ago Jarvis (then Nelson) and Front Streets, the Bloor and Yonge of its day with a new City Hall across from an impressive Market.

But all this would change on the morning of April 7, 1849 when Toronto awoke to a blaze that nearly destroyed the entire city. What once was an agriculturally based city of about 35,000, was quickly being consumed in a rage of fire.

The center of town bounded by King, Adelaide, George and Church Streets was to change forever and along with it, the entire future of the City of Toronto. The fire started about one in the morning in a stable behind a then popular drinking establishment called Covey’s Inn on the north side of King Street, just east of Jarvis where Harvest House now stands.

The flames leapt from floorboards to tin roofs to wooden sidewalks, gathering fuel along the way. Taverns, inns, book stores, clothing outlets, homes, newspaper offices, hardware stores, dry-good emporiums, liquor shops and the Market all gone in one night of unbelievable terror.

Toronto changed forever that night, but in the aftermath of the destruction a new city was to be born and at its heart were to be built two new magnificent structures (one of them St. Lawrence Hall, still standing today) to replace the second market building.

The third Market building that was to occupy the NW corner of Front and Jarvis had it survived, would be as revered and as photographed as the Gooderham building is today.

Architect William Thomas completed Toronto’s third market building and it’s companion St. Lawrence Hall in 1851. St. Lawrence Hall still stands of course, but sadly it’s companion market is long gone.

When first constructed the main door to St. Lawrence Hall was the main entrance to the Market itself.

In 1884 C.P. Mulvany wrote in his book Toronto: Past and Present about Christmas at that wondrous market whose entrance was a passageway through St. Lawrence Hall…

“There is a central arcade, the first half of which, opening on King Street, is occupied by stalls teeming with children’s toys, nick-knacks, cheap jewelry, perfume and second-hand books. After this come the butchers’ stalls, opening into the arcade and each of them opening also into the east and west sides of the market square where are ranged the farmers carts laden with dairy produce, meat and vegetables. The show of meat in the market is worth a visit and nothing equals it in any other Canadian City. But the best time to visit St. Lawrence Market is at Christmas time when the huge beef-carcasses, rich with fat, hang side by side some of the finest labeled with the name of some hotel proprietor or prominent citizen who may have purchased that splendid provision for the Christmas feast.

Huge deer suspended from the rafters, antlers still attached, next to a black bear in plump condition. Pigs, wild turkey, swan, prairie chicken, grouse, and partridge all await the Christmas feast. Brilliantly illuminated and brightly decorated The St. Lawrence Market is undeniably one of the things worthy of being seen in Toronto during the Christmas Holidays”

For the first 25 years of its life the St. Lawrence Hall was the pre-emanate concert hall in Toronto and ranked amongst the greatest performance venues in North America.

The mid 19th century were the hall’s golden years. But the end was it sight. In 1874 the Grand Opera House, a brand spanking new state-of-the-art 1700 seat theater on Adelaide, just west of Yonge, opened and immediately stole the crown and the thunder from St. Lawrence Hall.

A few years later the Hall started its decline into oblivion. By the late 1890’s, Toronto was booming, its population was almost 200,000, and it was time to build yet another City Hall.

The question was what to do with the old one?

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