Toronto General Hospital

Archaeological Services Inc. conducted archaeological investigations at the site of Toronto’s first General Hospital between 2006 and 2010. The hospital was situated on the Town of York Hospital Reserve, as illustrated on maps of the day. Our work began at 326-358 King Street West in downtown Toronto, now home to the TIFF Bell Lightbox. Excavations were required to determine if remains of the hospital had survived. During our investigations, a number of long trenches were excavated, revealing robbed out foundations of the old hospital and six post-demolition leveling fills in the formal grounds that fronted it.

Later excavations on adjacent properties to the north revealed a portion of the stone foundation and two interior plank floor surfaces of the main two-storey hospital building, robbed out exterior foundations of the hospital’s brick rear wing, exterior plank walkways, portions of a stone shale footing for the wood frame building to the north of the hospital’s brick rear wing, and a very complex drainage system featuring, brick, wood, and stone drains as well as a rectangular wood frame cess pit and a stone-lined privy. Tens of thousands of artifacts were recovered in the process.

The stone-lined box drain fully exposed at the east end of the trench

Looking west within the stone-lined box drain

The stone-lined privy within the east wing of the wood frame hospital building abutting the remnant shale footing and stone lined box drain

A portion of the north limestone foundation of the main 1819-1820 two-storey hospital building facing southeast

The two-storey hospital opened in June of 1829, and soon afterward, other buildings were constructed nearby, including a hospital for cholera patients, an “Emigrant Building” and numerous structures to care for typhus, or “ship fever,” patients. The latter was a result of a spike in Irish immigration after the potato famine in the 1840s. During the summer of 1847, the Hospital Reserve buildings held over a thousand patients struck down by the disease, and over three hundred patients died in a matter of three months. By the end of the outbreak, approximately 1,200 people had lost their lives, including Toronto Hospital doctor, George Robert Grasett, and Bishop Michael Power. (Firth 1966; Globe, July 17, September 1, 1847).

A new hospital was constructed on Gerrard Street in 1854 and the old building was used by the provincial government until 1858. It was demolished in 1862 and the hospital grounds remained vacant until the late 1860s.

Toronto Archives – Toronto Hospital Sketches

The Toronto Hospital artifacts shed light on Irish politics at this point in history. Some of the most telling of the finds are pipe fragments. Made of white ball clay, those that feature both the Prince of Wales feathers and the Irish harp demonstrate that the owner accepted the idea of Ireland joining the United Kingdom.

Similarly, a copper-alloy brooch was discovered with an Irish Lady Harp, surrounded by an English Rose and a Scottish Thistle. This unison also symbolizes a belief in Ireland belonging to a UK - one with England and Scotland. “Friendly societies” produced items like this so that members could display their support for such a movement.

Irish Harp Brooch

Excavations in 2009 yielded a pipe bowl fragment that demonstrated the exact opposite political view, with the word “REPEAL” printed on the bowl. This is in reference to an Irish movement, created by barrister Daniel O’Connell to repeal the union between Ireland and the UK (Kee 2000).

“Turks’ Head” motif – human face effigy pipe bowl. Non-symmetrical.

An early 19th century brass button was also uncovered in a builder’s trench. The Latin phrase “In Deo est omnis mihi fides,” which translates to “In God is all my trust,” was printed around the button and accompanied by the Palmer family crest (a family from Co. Mayo, Ireland) (Fairborn 2011; Nichols 1853:141). On the back of the button are the words JONES, CORK, HILL, and DUBLIN, indicating that the button was produced by Edward Jones, an early 19th century button manufacturer, located at 2 Cork Hill in Dublin, Ireland (Watson 1815:63).

Brass button with Palmer family crest, pre-1830s

The site yielded many other artifacts relating to the hospital, including chamber pots, dishes, brushes, and other personal items. The location of the old Toronto Hospital is now partly develoed by the TIFF Bell Lightbox and Festival Tower. There is an exhibition dedicated to the hospital in the fourth floor library.

Photograph of the exhibition at the TIFF Bell Lightbox


Fairbairn, James
2011 Fairbairn's Book of Crests of the Families of Great Britain and Ireland. BiblioBazaar, Charleston, South Carolina

Firth, Edith
1966 The Town of York 1815-1834. A Further Collection of Documents of Early Toronto (Ontario Series VIII). University of Toronto Press for the Champlain Society, Toronto.

Kee, Robert
2000 The Green Flag: A History of Irish Nationalism. Penguin Books Limited, London.

Nichols, John Gough (editor)
1853 The Topographer and Genealogist, volume 2. John Bowyer Nichols and Sons, London.

Watson, John
1815 The Gentleman and Citizen's Almanack for the Year of our Lord, 1815. John Watson Stewart, Dublin