Toronto’s First General Hospital and the Irish Famine of 1847

By Ron Williamson, originally published March 11, 2009

A few years back, Archaeological Services Inc. was retained to undertake an archaeological assessment of the Toronto International Film Festival Tower redevelopment site on the northwest corner of King and John Streets in downtown Toronto. Detailed archival research undertaken by Brian Narhi and David Robertson revealed that a portion of Toronto’s first general hospital was preserved under the parking lot at that location. While the majority of the Festival property encompassed the formal front grounds of the hospital, the south wall of the hospital appears to extend across the north boundary of the property. Its alignment oriented to magnetic north stood out in contrast to the present-day street grid which is not on true north.

The Toronto General Hospital was constructed within a larger Hospital Reserve in 1819 and was in operation at that location until 1854. The impetus for its construction was the significant influx of emigrants who arrived at the conclusion of the War of 1812. Many of them were destitute and sick after their long sea voyages and the leading citizens of Toronto were aware of the need for a proper hospital to accommodate those who did not have the resources to look after themselves. The construction of a permanent hospital for these people, who lacked family homes where most medical care took place in the early-to-mid nineteenth century, was a significant step in Toronto’s development as a modern city within the British Empire. Perhaps the most dramatic events in the hospital’s history occurred in 1847 during the height of the Irish Potato Famine. Between 1,200 and 1,400 patients were treated in the hospital during the typhus epidemic, which lasted roughly from June until November 1847.

In our initial investigations, one trench revealed a shallow, L-shaped feature containing large quantities of mortar. This deposit, which was excavated into natural subsoil, followed an alignment consistent with the hospital’s layout, and corresponded with the mapping of the southwest corner of the building. During subsequent investigations, we found that the foundation had been robbed out and largely removed by later leveling activities although a much more massive deposit was also encountered that proved to be the basement backfilled with clean clay fill.

We were surprised and delighted, however, to find artifact deposits containing ceramics, container glass, personal items and butchered animal bones. As the preparation of food and beverages for patients was an important part of daily operations at the hospital, it was not surprising that there were many domestic artifacts recovered. Since spirits such as brandy were widely prescribed by doctors during the operation of the hospital, liquor bottles were a common find in the deposit.

The dark green colour and form of these container fragments indicate that they are from a liquor bottle.

These partially reconstructed creamware pots would have held fruit preserves. The grooves below the rim helped to secure a cloth or paper covering with string.

Human effigy pipes were popular with smokers in the nineteenth century. This pipe is well-made and the facial details on this clean-shaven man are easy to see. The rim of the bowl forms a cap while rouletting between the stem and bowl suggests the high collar of a military uniform.

Not surprisingly, the archaeological work generated a lot of interest in the Irish community, who have not forgotten this tragic story and who have been working to commemorate the events of 1847. Indeed, our investigations have been featured in a film, entitled Death or Canada, which will be aired on History Channel on the evening of March 16. The film, produced by Ballinran Productions of Toronto along with Tile Films of Ireland, follows the journey of the Willis family, a family of six who left Ireland in the worst year of the famine and came to the new world in search of a better life. If one artifact from the dig embodies the significance of the excavation in telling the story of the Irish immigrants, it would have to be the copper badge embossed with the Lady Harp symbol. Although the film depicts the “life” of this artifact, it is not actually known how this object came to be lost at the hospital. It nevertheless is a potent symbol of Irish culture, and its presence on the Toronto Hospital site connects us to the story of the immigrants who were treated there.

The Lady Harp embossed on this copper cap badge denotes an Irish regiment in the British Army. It is not known how this object came to be lost at the Hospital. Nevertheless, the image of the harp is a potent symbol of Irish culture, and its presence on this artifact connects us to the story of the Irish immigrants who arrived in Toronto in the nineteenth century.

The form of this double-edged bone comb remained unchanged throughout the seventeenth, eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The fine teeth are effective for dislodging lice eggs. The transmission of typhus is enabled by the movement of infected body lice.

Dr. Ron Williamson is Managing Partner and Chief Archaeologist at Archaeological Services Inc. and is the Director of the Archaeological Master Plan of Toronto. He served on the Board of Heritage Toronto from 1999 to 2006. 

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