The Blockhouses of Toronto: A Material History Study
by Carl Benn, Toronto Historical Board
Between the 1790s and the 1830s, the British army built 13 blockhouses in Toronto and planned, but did not construct, a number of others. These buildings represented most of the typical blockhouse types common to North America and thus form a good study collection of this architectural feature. This paper utilizes primary and secondary literature; primary plans, maps and illustrations; archaeological data; and two surviving 1813 blockhouses to explore the different uses and forms of Toronto blockhouses within a broader North American context. One main conclusion is that blockhouses varied tremendously, depending on function, construction, siting and armament. Researchers therefore ought to be aware of these variables when they assess the particular blockhouses they encounter. Click here to read the complete article.
An American Spy's Report on Fort York, 1840
Edited by Carl Benn
This article first appeared in The York Pioneer, 2003 (Vol. 98) and is reproduced on the Fort York website courtesy of the York Pioneer and Historical Society.
The following text on Toronto's defences in 1840 is an excerpt from an American intelligence report about Canadian fortifications during the latter stages of the Rebellion Crisis. There was a worrisome deterioration in Anglo-American relations at the time, and presumably the US army prepared the study as a contingency measure. The document as a whole described topography, defences, and related themes, but also included a small amount of data on other topics, such as British military equipment, some of which the report recommended the Americans adopt as being superior to their own.(1) In addition to the text, the report included some sketch maps but they are not very accurate and do not include any data that does not appear on British army plans of Toronto's military works.(2)
The author was Lieutenant Minor Knowlton of the First United States Artillery Regiment, who worked as the Instructor of Cavalry and Artillery at West Point. He prepared his study for Colonel J.G. Totten, Chief Engineer, on 3 December 1840. It is titled, 'Copy of a Report on the Military Establishments of the British Provinces.' It is located in the Special Collections and Archives of the United States Military Academy in West Point, New York. (Minor changes have been made to modernize and regularize spelling, punctuation, and numbering, and some paragraph breaks have been adjusted to improve the clarity of the text; otherwise no words have been changed and editorial comments within the text are enclosed in square brackets.)
General Topographical Information From The East And West Of Use To An Attacker
At Toronto, the preparations for defence are of considerable importance, consisting of an old field work, recently repaired, and extensive barracks of stone, now constructing.(3) … Between these two works are the ruins of a redoubt battery intended apparently for one or two guns.(4) A short distance west of the barracks are to be seen the traces of the old French fort Toronto.(5)
The bay or harbour of Toronto is sheltered from the storms of the lake by a low and narrow sandbar extending to the southwest from the mainland east of the city.(6) The entrance to the harbour is by a channel, which lies near the northern shore and under the guns of the fort.(7)
The approach to the city from the east would be difficult. It would be necessary to land beyond the sandbar and pass around the head of the bay, which is itself three miles from the city, and afterwards to cross the Don River, which is bordered by broad marshes almost or quite impassable.(8) The country on this route is broken by creek gullies; and the wooden bridge by which the Don must be passed could be easily destroyed.
The approach to the city, from the west for a distance of at least three or four miles would be very easy (and perhaps even from a much greater distance, but want of time prevented me from ascertaining the fact by examination). The country from the distance mentioned is open and nearly level, but not very favourable for landing from the lake on account of the high steep bank, which extends the whole distance. This bank is of clay, from twelve to fifteen feet high, and nearly perpendicular. The landing upon the narrow beach at its base would be perfectly easy throughout, but scaling ladders would be necessary to ascend it, except in a few places where one or two men might mount abreast.(9) It would be necessary, therefore, especially if opposition were expected, to seek a landing farther west, where from the nature of the country, there is no doubt a good one may be found.
About a mile west of the town is Fort Toronto,(10) situated upon the shore, and commanding the channel at the entrance of the harbour.(11) It is an irregular field work, which has been recently repaired and strengthened by nearly surrounding it with rows of fraises and palisades. The fraises project nearly horizontally from the parapet, just below the exterior crest, and the palisades are planted at the foot of the scarp.(12) … In the interior of the fort are a good many buildings of wood and a few of brick, none of them strong enough to add much to the defence.(13) The palisades around the work are slight, and planted with small intervals between them.(14) The fraises are of the same character.
The stockade, which encloses the stables, etc. in the [Garrison Creek] ravine [just north of the fort], is strong. It is composed of one row of pickets, closely set, and furnished with loopholes.(15) The stables, storehouses, etc. in the ravine are of wood. The officers quarters at the angles of the stockade are of brick.(16)
The fort has no embrasure batteries except upon the front [south side], which commands the entrance of the harbour.(17) In the half-moon at the centre of this front is an embrasure battery of three eighteen or twenty-four pounder guns and two small howitzers. The guns command the channel and the howitzers flank the faces of the right and left.(18) The entrance to the fort from the west, which is through a gate in the centre of the curtain, is covered by a stockade redan. The ditch is crossed by a bridge.(19) The [Garrison Creek] ravine, which serves as a ditch for a large part of the work [on the north and east sides], is neither very deep nor difficult to pass. It furnishes but a partial shelter for the buildings it contains. The small stream running through it is fed merely by the surplus waters of the rainy season, and is of no importance as an obstacle.
About half [a] mile west of Fort Toronto are extensive barracks of stone, not yet entirely completed. They will be large enough for one regiment; and from their position and arrangement they will be capable of considerable defence. …
The officers quarters are three stories in height, and the other buildings two.(20) The walls of all are of excellent masonry, three feet in thickness. The outside fronts of all the buildings have windows grated with strong iron bars to overlook the country. The enclosure of the barrack yard on all sides (except that of the lake) is a strong stockade composed of a double row of pickets, closely set and breaking joints. The pickets are each nine inches or a foot in diameter; and they are secured by iron bolts to a square timber let in between the rows near the top. The stockade has loopholes throughout, but no ditch. Its gates are of oak, about six inches thick, with loopholes.(21)
[Northerly approaches to Toronto]
The entrance to the city of Toronto from the rear appears to be entirely open. It seems never to have been obstructed either by nature or art.(22)
Dr Carl Benn is the Chief Curator of the City of Toronto Museums and Heritage Services. His many publications include Historic Fort York, 1793–1993 (Toronto: Natural Heritage, 1993), The Iroquois in the War of 1812 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1998), and The War of 1812 (Oxford: Osprey, 2002). Currently he is editing a collection of First Nations memoirs from 1812 for publication.
Notes to Text
- The text on equipment is printed in James S. Hutchins, ed., ‘British cavalry, artillery, and infantry observed in Canada by Lt Minor Kowlton, 1st US Artillery, 1840,’ Military Collector and Historian 51/3 (1999), 122-25.
- For maps, illustrations, and information on Toronto’s defences at this period, see Carl Benn, Historic Fort York, 1793-1993 (Toronto 1993), 93-115.
- Fort York often is referred to as a field work, presumably in reference to the characteristics of its earthen ramparts. The New Fort of 1840-41, located towards the east end of Exhibition Place, became ‘Stanley Barracks’ in 1893.
- The redoubt was the Western Battery located near today’s Princes’ Gates at the CNE, built before the War of 1812, destroyed in the battle of York in 1813, rebuilt shortly afterwards as a substantial work, then left to deteriorate, but re-constructed on a smaller scale during the Trent Affair of the 1860s. A plan of it can be seen in Benn, Historic Fort York, 72. That plan, from 1816, shows three guns in place.
- The ruins of Fort Rouillé (1750-59) were visible until the site was graded in 1878. The main monument that commemorates the site today dates to the 1880s. The site is located roughly between today’s CNE Bandshell and Scadding Cabin.
- Now the Toronto Islands, then the ‘Peninsula,’ which was attached to the mainland in the days before the Eastern Gap was cut and dredged.
- Although the mouth of Toronto Bay was large, a great sandbar on the south side forced ships to enter within point blank range of Fort York’s guns. Fears that the growing sandbar would plug up the harbour completely contributed to the decision to build the Queen’s Wharf just southeast of Fort York in 1833 which, aside from its wharf functions, was designed to increase the strength of the current to prevent the sandbar from spreading. British defence planners assumed that the wharf would be armed during a war with the United States to supplement Fort York’s capabilities.
- As well, an attacker coming from the east would have to operate without naval support. The comparative security of the eastern approach to Toronto allowed the British to maintain only modest defences at the Don and concentrated their efforts in and around Fort York in the west where an attacker would have the benefit of naval support.
- American forces found this bank to be a problem when they attacked York in April 1813, although they did not need ladders to reach the plain above the beach in what today is Parkdale.
- The original document contains a footnote that reads: ‘I am not very certain that this is the true name.’ The author’s confusion was not unreasonable. The name ‘Fort York’ rarely was used before the beginning of the fort’s museum era. In its military period, it normally was called ‘the garrison,’ ‘the old fort’, ‘the fort at York,’ and other imprecise names.
- The hundreds of metres of land between the fort and channel today is fill, dating between the 1850s and the 1920s.
- The palisades and fraises (horizontal palisades) were designed to slow or stop an attacker during an assault. They were integrated into the permanent earthworks of the fort, with the fraising installed near the top of the earthworks and the palisades on the outside walls near their base.
- One wonders why he did not value the defensive capabilities of the blockhouses, which had been strengthened as a result of the Rebellion Crisis. Perhaps he did not get inside the fort to look around.
- The small intervals between the logs were about the width of someone’s hand, and were intended to prevent an attacker from using the palisades for cover because the defenders could fire through the gaps. The local militia installed the palisades and fraises during the winter of 1837-38. Afterwards, regular army officers criticized the new defences for not being as strong as they should have been.
- The ravine area or ‘Artillery Square’ housed stables and other service buildings in the Garrison Creek valley. A stockade differed from a palisade in that the logs did not have spaces between them, and defenders stood immediately on the inside of them to fire at an enemy through loopholes cut into the logs. In contrast, palisades usually were located at a bit of a distance in front of the defenders’ line, such as around the main part of Fort York, where defenders would have stood behind the artillery-proof earthworks a few metres away from the palisades, with the palisades being intended to prevent attackers from storming the earthworks. The net effect of stockading the Artillery Square was to make it defensible in its own right. For the location of the palisades and stockade, see an 1842 map of the fort in Benn, Historic Fort York, 106. The ravine stockade was largely destroyed during a spring flood in 1852 (memorandum, 1852, National Archives of Canada, RG8, C Series, vol. 1417, pp. 229-30).
- There were two brick buildings located on high ground north of the ravine used for officers’ quarters that could have served as bastions for the stockaded work. See the 1842 map mentioned above. They probably had bulletproof screens that could have been used to block up their windows during an attack, as did some buildings within the fort during the Rebellion Crisis.
- Today’s restored north bastion with its two embrasures represents the 1815 state of the wall. However, these embrasures were filled in later, probably early in the Rebellion Crisis, and do not appear on the 1842 map noted above. (Embrasures were holes in the wall through which cannon could be fired at an enemy. As well, artillery could be mounted on traversing carriages to fire over the top of walls, such as exists on Fort York’s west face today.)
- This bastion was pierced for two guns originally, but as enlarged to hold five guns during the Rebellion Crisis. Today it is restored to its smaller 1815 configuration.
- The gate was in the same location as Fort York’s current west gate, in a curtain wall that connected the two bastions on the west side of the fort. The redan was a small wooden defence on the west side of the moat that protected the gate from direct fire. Further research is needed to determine if the author meant a real bridge or used that term for a causeway such as exists at present at the site.
- The only building of the New Fort that still stands is the officers’ quarters.
- The information on the stockade demonstrates that the New Fort’s defences were much stronger than previously thought because the stockade was made of such thick logs and, unusually, was two logs thick. (The term ‘breaking joints’ likely meant that the second row of logs was offset from the first row so that the thickest part of the second row covered the thinnest part of the first.) Not only would this impressive stockade have been bullet proof, but it probably could have stood up to a fair amount of canister and exploding shot, and even held up for some time against smaller calibre round shot of the type that a field force likely would have used. From British documents we know the stockade was 2.4 metres high. (The army had intended to build more impressive landward defence for the New Fort as well as a large shore battery to guard the harbour, but a combination of the passing of the Rebellion Crisis and budget over-runs on the construction of the Rideau Canal and other projects led the army to abandon the heavier works, thus leaving Fort York as the main harbour defence for Toronto.
- The author seems to have missed the Bathurst Street Barracks (at Queen and Bathurst) as well as the Spadina, Yonge, and Sherbourne blockhouses and the fortification of the Don River bridge. As with the east, an attacker coming from the north would have had to have operated without naval support, but would have been additionally vulnerable because the defenders could have cut off the attacking army’s retreat back to its naval force.
On The Many Sketches Of Toronto Blockhouses
by Stephen A. Otto, 30 June 2001
This essay was first published as an appendix to a catalogue, Sir Daniel Wilson (1816–1992): Ambidextrous Polymath (Toronto, 2001), prepared by Robert Stacey for an exhibition at the University of Toronto Art Centre. See www.toronto.ca/artcentre for more publishing details.
Fears of civil insurrection in Upper Canada lasted for some time after the rebellion of 1837 had been put down. Evidence of the military authorities' continuing concern for maintaining order is found in a trio of blockhouses built in 1838–39. They were intended to guard the roads to Toronto from the north, rather than "for defence against hostile Indians who might be approaching Toronto from the Don Valley," as was asserted in 1929 by H. H. Langton, the biographer of Sir Daniel Wilson.(1) Approval for their construction, estimated to cost about £330 in total, was given in November, 1838, by Sir George Arthur, the lieutenant-governor and commander of forces in the province.(2) Work went ahead so quickly that by the end of the year half the estimate had been spent.(3) One of the structures was located within the road allowance for Spadina Avenue between College Street and the nearby circle known as Crescent Gardens, later the site of Knox College; the second in the village of Yorkville on the east side of Yonge Street near Belmont Street; and the third in the centre of the intersection of Sherbourne Street and Bloor Street East. (fig. 1)
Writing in 1841, Capt. Thomas Glegg, a Royal Engineer employed on the construction of the New Fort [Stanley Barracks], described the blockhouses as being, "of two stories and made of square logs about 12" thick - A Guard bed is provided for 24 men on the lower Story - trestle bedsteads for 20 men on the Upper - & the usual Barrack fitments. Stoves on the lower floor answer the purposes of warmth & cooking - they are lighted and aired by 3 windows on each story, and loop-holed blocks are ready to fill in the openings when required for defence."(4)
Glegg sketched the Yonge Street structure - the other two were identical - with its pyramidal roof surmounted by a single chimney. The upper storey sat diagonally on the lower one, a variation in design that allowed better surveillance in all directions but restricted the range of downward (or machicoulis) fire that could be aimed at attackers.
By the 1850s, when the threat of a rebel invasion of Toronto had long disappeared, the blockhouses ceased to be manned by the military and were occupied instead by discharged soldiers acting as caretakers.(5) Additional windows were cut in the log walls to make the buildings more habitable, rendering them slightly different in appearance and easier to distinguish one from another. Little or no maintenance was carried out. An Inspectional report by the military in 1854 described the condition of the Yonge and Sherbourne structures as indifferent.(6) "It was curious to observe," Henry Scadding remarked in the early 1870s, "how rapidly these two relics acquired the character and even the look, grey and dilapidated, of age."(7) By then, the Spadina blockhouse had almost been forgotten, having been taken down before 1854.(8) According to John Ross Robertson, the Yonge Street building was demolished about 1865.(9) The one at Sherbourne and Bloor stood a while longer; Elmes Henderson recalled that it was pulled down by Sam Blake, its last owner.(10)
Apart from an awkward sketch of the Yonge Street blockhouse by F.H. Granger in 1849, artists did not rediscover these unusual buildings as subjects, particularly the Sherbourne Street one, until perhaps the early 1860s. Then, within a very short period of time, several drawings were made. Some of the views are signed and dated. R.J. Brough's drawing of the Sherbourne blockhouse (known only through a photograph) is inscribed October, 1862 (fig. 2), while a newly discovered watercolour from the same vantage point by Richard Baigent is dated 1863. (fig. 3) Other views of the Sherbourne structure are unsigned and undated. They include one nearly identical to the preceding pair (fig. 4) which may have been the basis for a pen-and-ink sketch by William J. Thomson (1858-1927) reproduced in John Ross Robertson's Landmarks of Toronto;(11) four watercolours (one of which is lost save for a photograph) attributed on good authority to Daniel Wilson (figs. 5-8); and a ghostly sketch on the back of a work by Henri Perré (1828-1890).(12)
This last-mentioned work by Perré, a watercolour dated 1863, shows the Yonge (sometimes called Yorkville) blockhouse. (fig. 9) This drawing may have been the inspiration for an engraved view of the building published in the Canadian Illustrated News in October, 1863. (fig. 10) Many years later this engraving was used to illustrate John Ross Robertson's Landmarks of Toronto.(13) For the sake of completeness, mention must be made also of an undated watercolour by an anonymous copyist showing the Sherbourne blockhouse in a landscape closely resembling the one in Perré's drawing of the Yonge Street structure, noted above.(14)
From this brief enumeration, two questions emerge: why were so many of drawings of blockhouses done concurrently, and why were Brough's and Baigent's views so similar?
The remarkable number of drawings done circa 1860 is not likely coincidental. One explanation for it may be the wave of nostalgia for log or timber buildings that gathered force as they began to disappear from the landscape in the U.S. and Canada. Baigent and Perré, both newly arrived in Canada, were likely fascinated by the romantic appearance and defensive role of the blockhouses. The beguiling appearance of antiquity of the Sherbourne Street building could have stirred in Daniel Wilson the same feelings that had given rise to his Memorials of Edinburgh in the olden time. Besides, since 1854 he had lived on the corner of Bloor Street and Huntley, only a short block away. Of his four sketches, three are much alike and were done from a position south of the blockhouse in front of the home of Prof. Jacob Hirschfelder, his neighbour and colleague at the University of Toronto. The fourth sketch shows the building from below, perched high above the Rosedale Valley.
Another reason for the rash of interest in blockhouses may have been the anxiety felt in Canada following an incident in late 1861 when two Confederate diplomats were forcibly removed from the English mail packet Trent by the captain of an American warship, giving rise to considerable tension between Britain and the U.S. Although the blockhouses were poorly located in the event of an American attack, their existence may have been comforting as sabres were rattled, the militia were drilled and Fort York was strengthened. Or perhaps a straightforward explanation is more accurate: people in the city had warning of the impending demolition of the last two blockhouses and simply wanted to record them while it was still possible.
None of this speaks, however, to the remarkable resemblance between the views of the Sherbourne blockhouse by Brough and Baigent. Of the two artists, the latter was the more prominent. Richard Augustin Baigent (1828-1890) had been an assistant drawing master at Winchester College in England before he emigrated to Canada in mid-1862. Shortly after his arrival he announced to "the gentry of the city of Toronto and its vicinity" that he would give private lessons in "Drawing, Painting in Oil, Water Colours, Crayons, and Sketching from Nature."(15) This brought attention to his work, and less than a year later he was chosen by a selection committee (of which Daniel Wilson was a member) to replace Stewart Westmacott as drawing master at Upper Canada College.(16) Besides teaching privately and at UCC, Baigent gave drawing classes at the Toronto Grammar School and under the auspices of the Toronto Mechanics' Institute. Elected a founding member of the Ontario Society of Artists in 1872, he was named an associate of the Royal Canadian Academy in 1880.
By comparison, Redmond John Brough (1846-1883) is unknown as an artist apart from his view of the blockhouse.(17) The eldest son of a leading lawyer in Toronto, he attended the Model Grammar School, was enrolled at UCC for the Fall term, 1863, and a few years later graduated from the University of Toronto.(18) At the time of his early death following a buggy accident, he was employed as City Engineer for Toronto.
There is no doubt that Brough had remarkable talent for one so young - barely sixteen when he sketched the blockhouse - although he was probably not self-taught in developing his gift. His watercolour is dated October, 1862, when he could have been taking lessons with Baigent and made the sketch under his supervision. This being the case, why is Baigent's view dated 1863, so similar? Coincidence is ruled out. It is possible - though unlikely - that the master copied the pupil's work. Or it may have been that Baigent had many of his pupils draw the blockhouse and he sketched alongside them. This suggestion is given some weight by the existence of the third, undated view of the building by a less-skilled, anonymous artist. (fig. 4) Worth considering too is that the date on either Brough's drawing or Baigent's may have been applied years later, perhaps by someone other than the artist, and was out by a year.
The actual circumstances may have been obvious in November, 1863, when "some excellent specimens executed in water colours, by Mr. Richard Baigent and his pupils" were exhibited in the window of a store on King Street, Toronto.(19) This display prompted The Globe to observe that these "original drawings executed solely by the hands of his pupils . . . furnish the most satisfactory proof of the ability and success of Mr. Baigent as a teacher." Regrettably, a fuller description of the exhibit was not given.
- W. S. & H. C. Boulton, Map of the City of Toronto, . Detail showing blockhouse at Sherbourne Street and Bloor. (Toronto Reference Library)
- R. J. Brough, [Sherbourne Street Blockhouse], October, 1862, photograph. (Toronto Reference Library, E 4-82a.)
- Richard Baigent, "[Sherbourne Street] Blockhouse, 1863," watercolour. (Private Collection; photo courtesy of Toronto Reference Library)
- Anon., "Old Block House on the East Side of Sherbourne Street . . ." n.d., watercolour. (NAC, C-1097)
- "From a sketch of the old Yorkville [Sherbourne Street] Blockhouse/By the late Sir Daniel Wilson/C. H. C. Wright," n.d., photograph. (Toronto Reference Library, E 7-30)
- Daniel Wilson (attr.), "Blockhouse, [Sherbourne Street], Yorkville," n.d., watercolour. (University of Toronto Archives, B73-0043/002(01))
- Daniel Wilson (attr.), [Sherbourne Street Blockhouse], n.d., watercolour. (Private Collection; photo courtesy of Toronto Reference Library)
- Daniel Wilson (attr.), [Blockhouse, Sherbourne Street, Toronto], c. 1860?, watercolour over pencil. (Toronto Reference Library, 953-1-1)
- Henri Perré, [Yonge Street Blockhouse], 1863, watercolour. (Toronto Reference Library, JRR 333)
- Anon., "The 'Old Block Fort,' near Yorkville, C.W.," Canadian Illustrated News [Hamilton], 17 Oct. 1863, 273. (Toronto Reference Library)
- H. H. Langton, Sir Daniel Wilson, A Memoir (Toronto: Thomas Nelson & Sons, 1929), p. 68.
- Toronto Reference Library (hereafter TRL), Sir George Arthur Papers, LB 4, p. 29
- National Archives of Canada (hereafter NAC), RG8, vol. 447, ------
- Ontario Archives, MU 854, Glegg Diaries
- NAC, RG8, v. 1635, pp. 1-9.
- Henry Scadding, Toronto of Old, ed. F. H. Armstrong (Toronto: Dundurn Press, 1987), p. 301.
- NAC, RG8, v. 1635, pp. 1-9.
- J. Ross Robertson, Landmarks of Toronto, v. 5 (Toronto: J. Ross Robertson, 1908), p. 336.
- Elmes Henderson, "Bloor Street, Toronto, and the Village of Yorkville in 1849," Ontario Historical Society Papers and Records (1930) p. 446.
- J. Ross Robertson, Landmarks of Toronto, v. 3 (Toronto: J. Ross Robertson,1898), p. 293.
- TRL, John Ross Robertson collection, 333 verso.
- J. Ross Robertson, Landmarks of Toronto, v. 5 (Toronto: J. Ross Robertson, 1908), p. 335.
- NAC, acc. 1989-514-115. Unknown copyist, Old Block House. Corner of Bloor and Sherbourne St. Toronto from a sketch by H. Perré 1863. Watercolour over pencil with pen and brown ink, 18.8 x 24.7 cm.
- The Globe [Toronto], 16 August 1862, 1.
- University of Toronto Archives, A74-018/6, pp. 68-9, Minutes of Committee on Upper Canada College, 1859-75.
- The Globe, 22 July 1883, 2.
- A. H. Young, ed., The Roll of Pupils of Upper Canada College, Toronto, January 1830 to June 1916 (Kingston: Hanson, Crozier and Edgar, 1917).
- The Globe, 17 Nov. 1863, 2.