Established and funded in 1848 by local brewer Enoch Turner, Toronto’s first free school educated the children of the area’s many poor immigrants from 1849-1859. Because the families were often from Cork in what is now Eire (Southern Ireland), the neighbourhood became known as Corktown.
Historians believe that Henry Bowyer Lane (1817-1878), an English architect who worked in Canada from about 1841 to 1847 designed both the schoolhouse and Little Trinity Church at the same time. He was also responsible for several other important Toronto buildings including the City Hall and St. Lawrence Market.
Closed as a school in 1859, Enoch Turner Schoolhouse has had a chequered history remaining in continuous use through the years. Until the 1960s it was a Sunday school and Parish hall for nearby Little Trinity Church which, in 1869, added the West Hall. It became a Boer War recruitment centre in 1899, a serviceman’s home away from home during two World Wars, a soup kitchen serving 1500 people a week in the”Dirty Thirties”, a Little Trinity Church Neighbourhood youth clubhouse in the 1950s and a temporary meeting place after the church’s fire. In the 1960s, it was home to concerts, community youth programs and performing and visual arts events. Then, in a sad state of disrepair, the building was in danger of being torn down.
Enter architect Eric Arthur and local citizens who lovingly saved and restored it for Governor General Roland Michener to open as an historic site and museum in 1972. Now one of the oldest, continuously operated buildings in Toronto, Mr. Turner’s schoolhouse remains a unique architectural and historical treasure.
Designated a heritage building, important for its history and architecture under the Ontario Heritage Act in 2000, the Enoch Turner Schoolhouse is the city’s oldest surviving such building. The Ontario Heritage Trust owns and operates it and runs several school children’s and citizens’ programs here. Through role playing with.”Mrs. Henderson” at the blackboard, students experience first hand what a Victorian school was like with its wooden desks, slate writing boards, discipline and the starched collars and pinafores. (The children love it.) Its program includes lectures, walking tours, and special events. A heritage resource and a living history museum, it is also available for rental. Businessman Enoch Turner would approve.
From Staffordshire, England, Enoch Turner (1792-1866) came to Toronto in 1830 or 1831 and established a brewery on Taddle Creek at Front and Parliament Streets. (He housed and may have employed fleeing slaves from the United States). In 1832, he had to rebuild after a disastrous fire, helped financially by the York Circus that gave a benefit performance for him. As a successful businessman, Turner helped many worthy causes. In 1849, he contributed generously to an endowment fund establishing, as a non-denominational institution, what later became the University of Toronto. Besides this and building the Enoch Turner Schoolhouse, he gave generously to many other institutions, including Little Trinity Church.
As an individual, Enoch Turner must have been a very likeable fellow. For example, his brother’s descendants remember him as the great uncle who gave his horses beer to drink after a hard day’s work! By 1854, Enoch Turner was listed as a gentleman. He had earned it.
Thanks to former ETS Curator Jane Macauley Sutton and her article Enoch Turner, the Benevolent Brewer written for the journal, The York Pioneer (vol. 88), A Glimpse of Toronto’s History, MPLS#183 and other sources for some of the above information.