Toronto's first free school served as a school for only a decade before going on to write a checkered history in Corktown
By Enzo DiMatteo
May 9, 2021
Enoch Turner Schoolhouse
Why you should check it out
Toronto’s first free school is not only the oldest still standing in the city, it’s also one of the most distinctive. Its church-like exterior is one of the earliest examples of Gothic Revival architecture in the city.
Part of the reason for this is that its original designer, Henry Bowyer Lane, was an important 19th century architect versed in early Gothic Revival architecture whose works include St. Lawrence Market and Osgoode Hall. The other reason has to do with the school’s namesake.
Enoch Turner was a wealthy brewer originally from Staffordshire, England, known for his generosity of spirit and feeding his horses beer after a hard day of work. He was also a very influential businessman.
When his brewery on Taddle Creek at Front and Parliament was destroyed by fire in 1832, the York Circus performed at a benefit held to raise money to rebuild. Turner contributed to many worthy causes, including the original endowment fund created to establish the University of Toronto as a non-denominational school.
His financing of the construction of the school that would be named after him was as much the product of politics as it was philanthropy.
When city officials refused to use powers given to them by the province in 1847 to raise taxes to establish public schools, Turner reached into his own pocket to provide a school for the children of poor Irish Protestant immigrants from Cork who made up a majority of the inhabitants that came to be known as Corktown.
Established in 1848 for some 240 pupils, the school, which was also known as the Ward School, offered a Victorian-era experience: wooden desks, slates and discipline. The building itself would go on to write an up-and-down history in Corktown. Turner financed the school’s operations for three years. But it would only serve as a school until 1859. By then, other publicly funded schools had opened.
By the late 1890s, Enoch Turner Schoolhouse was a recruitment centre for those who would serve in the Boer War, a soup kitchen serving 1,500 people a day during the Great Depression and a home for servicemen during both World Wars.
A fire at the adjacent Little Trinity Anglican Church in the 1960s saw the building fall into disrepair. Concerts and community and arts events continued at the facility into the 1960s, but demolition seemed inevitable until a not-for-profit charitable foundation was established to save the building.
Some $250,000 was raised and architect Eric Arthur was commissioned to lead the restoration effort that saw Enoch Turner Schoolhouse reopened as a museum in 1972.
Designated as a heritage building in 2000, today the schoolhouse continues to form an important enclave in the city with programs for school children.
Enzo was born in Belgium and emigrated with his family to Canada in the heat of Trudeaumania. He is a winner of numerous writing awards and the only (alleged) Commie banned from entering Cuba. It’s complicated. Claims to fame: champion wood-chopper.