Hidden Toronto: Osgoode Hall

Declared a National Historic Site in 1979, the neoclassical landmark is also the home of the most infamous slavery case in Canadian history

Nick Lachance


Osgoode Hall


130 Queen West

Why you should check it out

Most Torontonians have heard the story about the wrought-iron gates surrounding Osgoode Hall. Legend has it that they were built to keep cattle from grazing on the front lawn of the original home of the Law Society of Upper Canada.

Turns out that take, based on the musings of an Irish immigrant in his memoir Yellow Briar: A Story Of The Irish On The Canadian Countryside, may be more myth than reality. 

As a prank, students did try to push a cow through one of the revolving entranceways of the gates to test the theory back in the 1950s. The attempt proved unsuccessful and the story was born. It seems the “cattle guards” were designed to keep the lawyers in more than the livestock out.

The three-hectare property was bought by the Law Society in 1828. By the time it was completed in 1832, the two-and-a-half-story Palladian-style building built to house the governing body of lawyers formed part of a dusty stretch of the old Town of York, sitting on its northwestern-most corner at Lot (current day Queen) and College (current day University Avenue). 

It was designed by John Ewart and William Warren Baldwin, who were architects of the time. They were also involved in the design of the Bank of Upper Canada building on Adelaide. Ewart added the distinguished Middlesex County courthouse in London, Ontario, to his resume some years later.

But Ewart was primarily a builder and businessman. Baldwin was also a businessman, but he was more notably a reform politician. He was elected to the 8th Parliament of Upper Canada and served as a judge for a time. His son Robert Baldwin is credited with developing the notions of “responsible government” which ultimately led to the demise of the Family Compact.

Baldwin, the elder, was an outspoken critic of the compact. But he stopped short of endorsing the Rebellion of 1837 and 1838, the armed uprisings that would ultimately lead to political reform in Upper and Lower Canada. Osgoode Hall, in fact, would be used as a barracks for troops loyal to the Crown.

Still, Baldwin’s political views were radical enough that Lieutenant Governor Sir Francis Bond Head removed him from the bench in 1836 after Baldwin became part of the Constitutional Reform Society, the group agitating for political reform that was headed by William Lyon Mackenzie – the man who would lead rebels from Montgomery Tavern a year later against militias loyal to the Family Compact. The Rebellion of 1837, as it was called, would end in confusion, but sow the seeds of democratic reform.

Osgoode Hall’s namesake, William Osgoode, was a rebel in his own right. The first Chief Justice of Upper Canada –he would also serve as a Chief Justice of Lower Canada – was a member of John Graves Simcoe’s executive council and speaker of the Legislative Assembly of Upper Canada. It was during his tenure that legislation to abolish slavery was introduced. But he would resign his position on the bench in 1801 after conflicts with successive governors, including over the dispersal of land grants in the colony. He would return to England in 1801 where he died in 1824.

While Osgoode’s legal legacy was modest compared to some of his contemporaries, he is credited with establishing the system of district courts. Osgoode Hall today houses the Ontario Court of Appeal, the Divisional Court of the Superior Court of Justice.

The building named after him has also become one of the country’s most noted landmarks.

The original building that housed the Law Society has undergone a number of transformations, but the neoclassical design would be continued over three separate expansions. In 1846, the Great Library was added. In 1856, courtrooms were incorporated. In 1890, a law school that would become associated with York University was built. 

The building is an architectural marvel. The Convocation Hall’s stained-glass windows tell the story of 4,000 years of law. The arched rotunda with its pillars, includes the original tiling on the floor. The building was declared a national historic site in 1979 for its “architectural and historical treasures,” but also for the role the institution played “in protecting Underground Railroad refugees from extradition.”

Nick Lachance

In 1861, the highly publicized case of John Anderson was heard at Osgoode Hall.

Anderson was a slave from Missouri. He had killed a man in self-defence while escaping slavery in the United States. He had decided to flee (as his father had done before him) after he was sold and separated from his wife and family in 1853.

On the third day of his escape, he ran into Seneca Digges, a farmer and slave owner. Anderson ran. Digges pursued him with his slaves believing there would be a bounty on his head. Anderson stabbed Digges with a knife after he was cornered and convinced Digges’s slaves to let him go. Digges would die two weeks later.

Anderson journeyed through Illinois and Michigan crossing into Canada at Windsor in November 1853. A slave catcher from Detroit caught up with Anderson in 1860 after a “friend” Anderson had told his story to betrayed him to authorities.

Anderson was arrested and sent to jail in Brantford. He would be released and jailed again before being ordered to appear at Osgoode Hall in December 1860 for an extradition hearing. His fate seemed sealed.

But public meetings were organized to prevent the extradition. His case would turn into a national sensation to the point that legislators feared angry mobs would try to break Anderson out of jail. Slavery had been outlawed in Canada.

But the Court of Queen’s bench, as it was known at the time, ruled 2 to 1 to extradite Anderson. In January 1861, Anderson’s supporters successfully appealed the decision amid mounting public pressure to the Court of Queen’s Bench at Westminster in London. The court ordered Anderson released. But the decision was academic as Anderson’s lawyers had already successfully appealed the decision to extradite Anderson to the Court of Common Pleas in Toronto. That decision would set a precedent not only on the extradition of slaves to the U.S. but the continued role of the Crown in the legal matters of Upper Canada.

Anderson’s lawyers successfully argued that the death of Digges was not murder but manslaughter. Anderson would go on to become an abolitionist giving speeches around the world. On Christmas Eve 1862, Anderson departed from Liverpool to Liberia. According to the Canadian Encyclopedia, “there are no known records of his life after that point.”

Nick Lachance
Read all of NOW’s Hidden Toronto stories here

Hidden Toronto is a weekly feature exploring the city’s alternative history through contemporary landmarks.


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