Toronto Urban Legends: The Mad Cows of Osgoode Hall

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Toronto Urban Legends: The Mad Cows of Osgoode Hall

Legal myth has it that the unique gates of Osgoode Hall aren't meant just to keep lawyers in, but cattle out.

The truth behind the tales people tell about Toronto.

Osgoode Hall, at Queen Street West and University Avenue, is an edifice of distinction. Home to the highest courts in Ontario and to the Law Society of Upper Canada, it’s one of a few rare old Toronto buildings that have staved off the lapping tides of urban uglification. The plaque out front describes it accurately, if immodestly, as “one of the finest examples of Victorian Classical architecture in Canada.”

Like any historical building, Osgoode Hall has its myths. Part of its stately charm is the cast-iron fence that surrounds it and the unusual “kissing gates,” which mimic rural gateways designed to keep livestock from wandering. Long-standing tradition has it that the entrances were installed for just that purpose: to keep itinerant 19th-century cattle from gumming up the wheels of justice.

Is the legend true? Architectural drawings by William Storm, who supervised the 1860 expansion that included the fence, actually referred to the gates as “cattle guards.” And they work: in 1950 a group of students attempted unsuccessfully to bring a cow through one of the entrances, which is the kind of thing students did before sex and the internet were invented.

Photo courtesy of the Archives of Ontario.

Consider also the classic Canadian memoir Yellow Briar: A Story of the Irish on the Canadian Countryside, which purports to be the reminisces of one Patrick Slater, boy émigré from famine-racked 1840’s Ireland. The book claims outright that the fence and its curious entryways were put in place to discourage intrusive livestock being kept behind a nearby tavern.

Cue scratching record sound.

It turns out that Yellow Briar isn’t a reliable source. After the book was published to considerable acclaim in 1933, it was revealed that the author was no exiled Hibernian, but an Anglo-Torontonian lawyer named John Mitchell, who wasn’t even born until 20 years after the fence went up.

Moreover, the area around Queen and University was near the centre of our nascent metropoplis by 1860, and should have been relatively livestock-free. And pre-1860 Osgoode Hall already boasted a picket fence, which if not as grand as the iron version should still have served as a sufficient obstacle to the average, non-opposable-thumbed bovine without sophisticated gate-opening skills.

Why the gates, then?

Mid-19th-century Toronto was a dangerous and unpredictable place, and even if cattle stampedes weren’t a risk, the unusual design would also have made it harder for herds of humans to storm the grounds. It had only been 22 years since the failed Upper Canada Rebellion, and a subsequent influx of poor, Catholic, and vehemently anti-Imperial Irish was shaking up the staunchly Protestant establishment. Brawls and full-on riots sparked by conflict between the new arrivals and Orange gangs weren’t uncommon.

Given that there are few things more likely to unite opposing mobs than a mutual contempt for the legal profession, it might have seemed wise to install gates at Osgoode Hall that would allow passage to only one rioter at a time, the easier to club and stack the miscreants in neat rows by religious denomination.

But the most likely reason for the unique entryways was simple architectural whimsey. The Victorians worshiped what they called progress; they were a society for whom the greatest expression of the common good was the razing of forest and field down to the bedrock, for replacement with mines and textile mills.

Nevertheless, they retained a nostalgia for the pastoral world they were so enthusiastically destroying, which manifested itself in wistful poetry, misty landscape paintings, and the occasional rural flourish on a building. The cow gates of Osgoode Hall were in all likelihood no more than an ornament to be contemplated by busy barristers dreaming of simpler times and greener places.

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