Historicist: In Potter's Field

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Historicist: In Potter’s Field

Toronto's first non-denominational cemetery.

Plaque on 2 Bloor Street West commemorating Potter's Field.

Bloor and Yonge: subway junction, pedestrian scramble, long-term construction hoarding, gateway to Yorkville’s high-end shopping. While waiting on the northwest corner for the traffic light to turn, you may notice a silver plaque on the side of 2 Bloor West. Long before the beautiful people entered the neighbourhood, this was a site where the city’s pioneering outcasts received a respectful final rest. As the first cemetery in Toronto that wasn’t tied to a particular religious faith, it set the course for future burial grounds where almost anyone could be buried.

By the mid-1820s, burying the dead was becoming an issue in “Muddy York.” As people moved into small dwellings, graves on personal property grew rare. Cemeteries existed, but only for particular faiths. If you were a good Anglican, Methodist, Presbyterian or Roman Catholic, there wasn’t a problem. But if you didn’t subscribe to those branches of Christianity, suffered from mental illness, embraced a dissipated lifestyle, or had committed murder, your remains were bound for rejection out of fear they would foul consecrated ground.

This raised the ire of prominent local figures like the ever-fiery William Lyon Mackenzie. “We think that to perpetuate sectarianism even beyond the grave,” Mackenzie wrote in a December 1825 edition of the Colonial Advocate, “is very preposterous in a Christian country, and are sure that the majority of the liberal and well-informed throughout the earth, think as we do on this subject.” Mackenzie urged the government of Upper Canada to create legislation so that in “some convenient part of each township” of the colony, land would be set aside for a publicly operated non-denominational burial ground.

Grave of Thomas Carfrae Jr. in the Necropolis.

Mackenzie was among those present at a meeting held the previous month for “inhabitants of York friendly to the purchasing of a public burial place for all classes and sects.” Another attendee was merchant Thomas Carfrae Jr., who shared Mackenzie’s Scottish background but not his radical politics. Carfrae’s campaigning for a petition to support an open cemetery resulted in a parliamentary act approving the creation of such a site in January 1826. Five months later, six acres were purchased for 75 pounds by Carfrae and four other men, all of whom served as the new cemetery’s first trustees.

Sadly, the first burial was Carfrae’s infant daughter Mary, who was laid to rest on July 18, 1826. Four more members of his family joined Mary in the cemetery over the next seven years. Despite these many causes for grief, Carfrae was a busy man—besides his role in establishing Potter’s Field, he was also involved in the founding of the York Fire Company, St. Andrew’s Church, and the York Mechanics institute (the forerunner of the Toronto Public Library). He served as an alderman on Toronto’s first city council in 1834, was appointed customs collector in 1835, and was named harbour master in 1838. He reunited with his family in Potter’s Field following his death from a stroke in June 1841 at the age of 44.

One of the surviving Potter's Field tombstones at Mount Pleasant Cemetery.

Throughout its existence, the cemetery was known by a variety of names. The official name was the York General Burying Ground (which was changed to Toronto after the city renamed itself in 1834), but was alternately known as the Strangers’ Burying Ground, as those tended to be the types who made up the early burials. The name that caught on, Potter’s Field, was a biblical reference to the fate of Judas and his blood money in Matthew 27:7, which was used to buy a “potter’s field, to bury strangers in.”

Burials were light during the early years, until a cholera epidemic hit during the summer of 1832. Besides the heavy toll that disease claimed, burials increased as the new village of Yorkville grew around the cemetery. When compiling the causes of death for those buried in Potter’s Field, genealogist Elizabeth Hancocks was struck by “the nature of the bare-fact entries, many of which seem to possess an eloquence that carries well beyond the grave.” Among the frequent forms of death that caught her attention: “felled by tree.”

The original tombstone for hanged rebels Samuel Lount and Peter Matthews. A larger memorial was built beside it in the Necropolis in 1893.

By the end of the 1840s, the cemetery neared capacity. As the population grew in Toronto and Yorkville, there was concern that Potter’s Field would run out of space for future burials. The trustees successfully lobbied the colonial government for legislation that widened their ranks and allowed the purchase of more land. The Necropolis, which had been established independently of the trust in 1850, relieved the pressure on Potter’s Field, but not enough for the residents of Yorkville. Just as bohemians and hippies were redeveloped out of the neighbourhood a century later, the dead were given the boot in 1855 after the government honoured a petition to close the cemetery.

The trustees were given the power to sell the land once all 6,685 people buried there were moved elsewhere. Families of the deceased were offered the choice of moving their loved ones’ remains themselves or having the remains transplanted to new plots in the Necropolis. Among those moved east were the Carfrae family and 1837 rebellion martyrs Samuel Lount and Peter Matthews.

Plaque at the corner of Sumach Street and Winchester Street noting the move of remains from Potter's Field to the Necropolis.

One problem: there were plenty of remains that nobody claimed. To the consternation of Yorkville residents, and presumably those eager to redevelop the land, the cemetery sat for two more decades. By 1874 everyone’s patience had run out, so the Ontario government gave the trustees the right to remove any remains that were still in Potter’s Field 20 years after it had officially closed. When the anniversary passed, the unclaimed were moved to both the Necropolis and the new Mount Pleasant Cemetery. As the Globe noted when Mount Pleasant officially opened in 1876, “In a mound here lie the bones of about 3,000 persons which could not be identified. The remains of old and young persons of every Christian denomination, coloured and white people alike, here rest together in one common grave.”

By 1881, moving was finished and the site was soon built over. “Where the marble columns once stood, and the house to receive the departed was once erected,” wrote the anonymous scribe of an early 20th century guide to Toronto’s cemeteries, “now stand the splendid villas of the living.” Though the silver plaque is the only reminder of Potter’s Field’s existence within Yorkville, grave markers survive in Mount Pleasant Cemetery and the Necropolis. The trust that operated the cemetery went through numerous name changes before adopting its current identity as the Mount Pleasant Group. Some graveyards that had been strictly denominational, like the Anglican-run St. James, gradually began permitting burials of those who didn’t subscribe to the operator’s faith. Though sectarian cemeteries continue to exist, the inclusive visions of Thomas Carfrae Jr. and William Lyon Mackenzie that created Potter’s Field were realized throughout Ontario.

Photos by Jamie Bradburn/Torontoist

Additional material from Historical Sketch Toronto, Canada 1826-1905 (Toronto: Toronto General Burying Grounds Trust, 1905), Potter’s Field Cemetery 1826-1855 otherwise called The Strangers’ Burying Ground compiled by Elizabeth Hancock (Toronto: Generation Press, 1983), the December 8, 1825 edition of the Colonial Advocate, and the November 6, 1876 edition of the Globe.

Every Saturday, Historicist looks back at the events, places, and characters that have shaped Toronto into the city we know today.

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