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The Benefactors of the Great Fire

A devastating fire in 1890 left much of University College in ruins. Just two years later, a massive restoration effort enlisting donors from around the world brought the U of T landmark back to its former glory.

Shortly before 7 p.m. on Valentine’s Day, 1890, two servants dropped a tray of lit kerosene lamps on a staircase in University College. The entire eastern half of the building was soon engulfed in flames, including the library and its prized 33,000 volumes. Chancellor Edward Blake was addressing Parliament when he heard the news. He interrupted his speech to inform the assembly that, “the crown and glory, I may be permitted to say, of our educational institutions is at the moment in flames.”

The estimated cost to repair the building was $260,000 in 1890 dollars. However, the University only had $90,000 in insurance. The Province of Ontario acted swiftly to give the University $160,000 and the Province of Quebec added another $10,000 to cover the gap. Additional support from private donors included $10,000 each from George Gooderham, president of the Gooderham & Worts distillery, and E.B. Osler, president of the Dominion Bank. By January of 1892, University College was restored with Sir Daniel Wilson, U of T’s president, exulting that the University had come out ahead and that the “abominable engine-house and chimney stalk” were gone.

The destruction of the library’s treasured collection was arguably an even greater loss. Its volumes had included John James Audubon’s Birds of America, a good copy of which today is valued as high as US$12 million. In replenishing its stacks, U of T benefited from Canada’s privileged place within the British Empire. A high-powered committee formed in London to help U of T included the British prime minister, Lord Salisbury, the archbishop of Canterbury, the vice-chancellors of Oxford and Cambridge and literary luminaries such as Lord Tennyson. Altogether, British donors including Queen Victoria, Tennyson and Robert Barrett Browning, who donated works from his famous poet parents, sent 20,000 volumes. Donors in Germany and the United States supplied another 10,000 each and by the time a new library building opened at U of T in 1893, there were 55,000 items on its shelves.

The story of the benefactors of the great fire is inspiring both in itself and as a precursor of the philanthropic and volunteer support that buoys the University of Toronto to this day. Nearly 130 years later, U of T’s ranking as one of the world’s great universities is an expression of the generosity and support of the entire community and its belief in higher education.