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Lot 11, 1st Concession from the Bay - Osgoode Hall

by Elise Brunet, Curator

The Act that created the Law Society of Upper Canada in 1797 authorized lawyers to regulate themselves. The proponents of the Society wanted to protect the turf of local practitioners and ensure that the people of Upper Canada (now Ontario) would be served by a “learned and honourable body” of lawyers.1 By creating the Law Society the provincial government was delegating a responsibility that usually laid with the Chief Justice, at least in the British colonies. Members of the bar regulated themselves in England through the Inns of Court, but their authority to train prospective lawyers, call them to the bar and discipline them had evolved over centuries. To legislate such an organization into existence was unheard of and the Law Society of Upper Canada stood alone until the mid-nineteenth century.2  

oh1868Despite its unconventional beginnings the Law Society strove to emulate its British counterparts. Not only was it to perform similar functions but it adopted a number of the traditions of the Inns. In the fall of 1820, the Law Society resolved to build its own “Inn.” It too would accommodate the offices of the organization, house its library and provide chambers for law students and lawyers. It would give respectability to the profession. The Law Society’s inn, at the corner of King and Church street in Toronto,3 would be named Osgoode Hall.

The sum of £500 was allocated for the project. Attorney General and Law Society Bencher John Beverley Robinson and Treasurer William Warren Baldwin were to procure plans and estimates for the building.4 Nothing much seems to have come out of this initiative. In July 1825 a new committee regarding the accommodation of the Society was created. This committee was to apply to the government for a grant of land or, if the Society was turned down, to receive offers of sale from private individuals.5 On November 18th of that year, Treasurer Baldwin was asked by Convocation to draft a statement to be sent to the judges of the Court of King’s Bench. The document was to inform them of the Society’s intention of appropriating £2000 for Osgoode Hall and “its disposition to accommodate the Court of Kings [sic] Bench with all necessary appointments according with the importance and dignity of its functions.” The Law Society was inviting the Courts to move in with the hope that the government would contribute to the cost of construction. The combined funds would afford the erection of a building worthy of the capital of the province.6  

The Court must have endorsed the proposal: the Law Society forwarded its request to Lieutenant Governor Maitland in April 1826. The government had announced its decision to abandon the site of the old parliament building and the Law Society suggested the plot as an appropriate location for its Inn. In June, the Lieutenant Governor, favourable to the plan, forwarded both the application of the Law Society and a petition from the judges to the Executive Council. The Council proposed to grant the Law Society six acres on the late Legislative Buildings site with an additional three acres to be set aside for the Court of King’s Bench.7  

The Law Society seemed satisfied with the grant8 and proceeded to study plans of the proposed building. Curiously, in January 1827, the Law Society recanted and rejected the grant on grounds that it was insufficient for their needs. Perhaps they hoped to take advantage of the positive disposition towards their request to increase their demands. The Executive Council denied the petition.9 Apparently unaware of the rejection, the Law Society grew impatient. In November, it suspended its application and looked into requesting land at Russell Square near the proposed site of the new parliament buildings. The original application was renewed in January 1828 but on April 30 the Law Society started looking at private land.10 Had they given up hope of receiving a positive answer from the government or did they reconsider building in an unfashionable part of town?11 Perhaps the benchers of the Society, many of whom were also members of the government, preferred a location closer to the future Parliament buildings at Simcoe Place?12  

Within two days the Law Society considered property offered by one Andrew Mercer but elected to purchase six acres from Attorney General Robinson for the sum of £1000. The deed, dated June 17, says nothing of the £1000. Instead, the contract mentions a “consideration” of five shillings and a one year rent of “one ear of Indian corn.” The five shillings were obviously symbolic and were put in to validate the contract. Presumably both parties wanted to keep silent about the deal. Robinson sold other portions of the lot to King’s College the next year and he may have wanted the details of the sale to the Society to remain confidential. The one year rental of the property is puzzling. There is no mention of it in the Minutes. Possibly the Law Society needed time to assemble the funds for the purchase.13  

Robinson’s role in the whole transaction is intriguing. Since he made a handsome profit on the sale some argue that he capitalized on his privileged position.14 As Attorney General and a Bencher of the Law Society, he had a foot in both camps. He was the one who moved that the Law Society turn down the Executive Council’s original grant of 6 acres, only to sell them the same acreage (less if one counts the three acres allotted to the courts).15 On the other hand, even if Robinson was a political adversary of Treasurer Baldwin, he shared with him the vision of the Law Society as the cradle of future lawyers. Robinson was extremely active in Law Society affairs and he was on virtually every committee dealing with the construction of Osgoode Hall. He was the one who suggested that the Law Society apply to the government for land in the first place. He was probably counting on his influence on the Lieutenant Governor when he made the suggestion.16 Granted that he benefited from the sale. However, when the benchers of Law Society unanimously decided to purchase the plot they would have been aware of land values in Toronto, which were climbing quickly. Between 1827 and 1830, York’s population had grown by 58%.17 In addition, the Society was getting a choice portion of the lot, fronting Lot Street which was rapidly being developed.

It is possible that the Benchers had a less prosaic reason for wanting that particular piece of land. Archdeacon Strachan had obtained the Charter for King’s College in 1827. One of his ambitions for the College was the creation of a law school. The building of Osgoode Hall, whose main purpose was the accommodation of students, strengthened the Law Society’s claim for the control of legal education.18 The irony of having Osgoode Hall at the foot of the property sold to the College a few months later may not have been lost on the Law Society.19 Construction of Osgoode Hall started in the summer of 1829. The building proved a drain on the Society’s finances. In 1830 rumbles about disposing of Osgoode Hall compelled the Society’s board of directors to pass a rule declaring of the yet unfinished building the permanent seat of the organization.20  

The Court of King’s Bench, headed by now Chief Justice John Beverley Robinson, was still eager to share accommodation with the Law Society. The judges moved in temporarily but were ordered into the new Parliament buildings by the Governor. The superior courts finally joined the Law Society on lot 11 in 1846, first as tenants then, starting in 1874, as owners of the western portion of the building. Since then, Osgoode Hall has been expanding periodically to meet the needs of its owners. Set in its broad, inviting lawns, surrounded by its remarkable fence, this architectural gem, the hub of legal life in Ontario, provides an oasis in modern downtown Toronto.

Notes  

1. Many early lawyers in the province had limited legal education. They feared that an influx of better trained barristers from England may threaten their livelihood. See Moore, Christopher. The Law Society of Upper Canada and Ontario's Lawyers, 1797-1997. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1997, 30. for more on the subject.

2. ibid, 16.

3. In 1820 the Law Society owned land at the corner of King and Church streets and was planning on building Osgoode Hall at that location. There is no record of the purchase or the sale of this property in the Minutes of the Law Society’s board of governors meetings. Since the Law Society was only incorporated in 1822, the deed would not have been in its name.

4. The Law Society of Upper Canada Archives, Series 1-01, Convocation, Minutes of Convocation, First day of Michaelmas Term, 1 Geo. IV.

5. ibid, July 1st, 1825.

6. ibid, November 18th, 1825.

7. ibid, April 29, 1826. Minutes of the Executive Council for June 8, 1826.

8. The Minutes of Convocation do not specify the date at which the decision was communicated to the Law Society. However, at least one member of the Council was also a Law Society Bencher. One would expect that the Society would have been apprised of the Council’s decision soon after it was made.

9. The Law Society of Upper Canada Archives, Series 1-01, Convocation, Minutes of Convocation, January 9, 1827. Minutes of the Executive Council, June 7, 1827.

10. ibid, April 30, 1828.

11. “...the Legislature in selecting Simcoe Place for the scite [sic] of a Parliament House were doubtless influenced by the inconvenience and unhealthiness of the former situation.” Petition of Inhabitants of York 1830 [PAC, Upper Canada Sundries, v.98] quoted in Firth, Edith G. The Town of York, 1815-1834. Toronto: The University of Toronto Press, 1966, 30.

12. There is at least one example of the benchers’ meeting being moved to the Chambers of the House of Assembly to accommodate “... those Gentlemen Benchers whose public duty compels their attendance there.” The Law Society of Upper Canada Archives, Series 1-01, Convocation, Minutes of Convocation, November 12, 1825.

13. I could not have understood the intricacies of the transaction without the great knowledge of law and of the Society’s history of John D. Honsberger QC, LSM.

14. Robinson purchased 50 acres of Lot 11 for £1000 four months after the Law Society started looking for land. The price of £1000 for six acres represents a 800% increase in value in less than 3 years.

15. Brode, Patrick. Sir John Beverley Robinson: Bone and Sinew of the Compact. Toronto: The Osgoode Society, 1984, 166-167.

16. Dictionary of Canadian Biography. vol. IX. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1976, 672.

17. Armstrong, Frederick, H. Handbook of Canadian Chronology. Revised edition. Toronto and London: Dundurn Press, 1985, 275.

18. Moore, Christopher. The Law Society of Upper Canada and Ontario's Lawyers, 1797-1997. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1997, 79.

19. John D. Honsberger QC, LSM brought this hypothesis to my attention.

20. The Law Society of Upper Canada Archives, Series 1-01, Convocation, Minutes of Convocation, November 8, 1830.