Hidden Toronto: Necropolis Cemetery

Cabbagetown’s Necropolis Cemetery makes a ghostly wandering ground for a treacherous time in Victorian Toronto’s history


What

Necropolis Cemetery

Where

20 Winchester

Why you should check it out

The gravestones of the more than 50,000 people buried at Necropolis Cemetery are literally everywhere – scattered in tiny vales here and there, hidden behind trees and perched precariously on what were once the banks of the Don. 

Row upon haphazard row, they occupy corners overgrown with grass. Visitors must watch their step lest they inadvertently trip over the markers and stir the souls of the dead.

Toronto’s second non-sectarian cemetery, which takes its name from the Greek meaning “city of the dead”, also rates as the city’s spookiest resting place for those no longer with us, which makes it a favourite wandering ground for historians and for haunted Halloween walks.

The Gothic Revival archway makes for a foreboding entrance into a treacherous time in Victorian Toronto history when mortality among infants under the age of one accounted for 40 per cent of all deaths in the city. Poor nutrition, sanitation and the absence of immunization from childhood diseases like diphtheria, whooping cough, polio and scarlet fever were among the leading causes.

To be sure, at the Necropolis the gravestones of children who died too young lie alongside the resting places of Toronto’s most famous citizenry: world-champion rower Ed Hanlan; Anderson Ruffin Abbott, the first Black surgeon born in Canada; and Peter Matthews and Samuel Lount, the rebels hanged for their part in the Mackenzie rebellion of 1837. The bodies of those used in research at the University of Toronto are also kept here. More recent additions include the headstone of former NDP leader Jack Layton and a scattering area featuring a sculpture of Depression-era Cabbagetown by Canadian artist Juliet Jancso.

When it was opened in 1850, 984 of Toronto’s earliest settlers were moved from Potter’s Field at Bay and Bloor to Necropolis. At the time, the 15-acre site was on the outskirts of a growing city. The area surrounding the site east of Sumach was largely undeveloped. Only a few houses existed on the west side of the nearby Don River. A “plank road” led to a crossing over the river where John Scadding’s farm occupied the east bank between Danforth and Queen. Care was taken to preserve the area’s natural surroundings when Necropolis was laid out.

Gravestones against blue sky in Toronto's Necropolis Cemetery
Samuel Engelking

 The first person to be buried there was Andrew Porteous. The cemetery’s registry says that his body was stored in the “Dead House” until it was buried on May 22, 1850, in Section R, Lot 20. 

Unlike the famous inhabitants that would later take up residence at Necropolis, Porteous, who was “likely” born in Montreal in 1781, was said to have had his share of “financial difficulties” as a trader in “spirits, wine, gunpowder, wax and glass.”

But he would eventually rise to the position of post master before he died in 1849 “by the bursting of one of the great arteries of the heart.” He was 69. Only the base is what’s left of his gravestone at a spot overlooking the Bayview Extension. Erosion has claimed the rest on what used to be the bank of Castle Frank Brook.

The chapel at the entrance to the cemetery was erected in 1872 and designed by Henry Langley, the first chair of the department of architecture at the University of Toronto and an architect known for his Gothic Revival churches – among them St. Stephen-in-the-Fields and St. Michael’s Cathedral. He was interred at Necropolis in 1907.

In 1888, the Riverdale Zoo was built immediately to the south. It is said that visitors to the cemetery back then could sometimes hear the roar of lions and screeching of monkeys, which would eventually be closed and replaced by Riverdale Farm in 1974. Now visitors to Necropolis are more likely to hear the chirping of birds and hum of traffic from the nearby Don Valley Parkway.

Check out a video about the Necropolis Cemetery below:

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Hidden Toronto is a weekly feature exploring the city’s alternative history through contemporary landmarks. Read it online each Sunday or in print every Thursday.

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