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The Reform movement in Upper Canada is usually described in terms of personalities – that of William Lyon Mackenzie, but also of John Rolph or Robert Baldwin. Less attention has been paid to the institutions that they built and which forwarded their cause. One such project – disparagingly called “Radical Hall” by the Tories – came to house the three main protagonists in a single home: the Canadian Alliance Society, the Mechanics Institute, and the Children of Peace. “Radical Hall” ironically stood where the Toronto Stock Exchange towers now rise, explaining in large part why this Reform establishment has been lost to sight.

The plan for the Hall was hatched in 1833. Electoral violence by the Orange Order and draconian laws against free speech in public meetings led the Reformers to propose a building – a club house of sorts – where they could meet in safety to discuss the political issues of the day

in which those who are, in truth and sincerity, the friends of civil and religious liberty, may meet and consult together, and inform each other upon matters of general interest. If following the example of Christian churches, those only were asked or admitted into a political association who professed to agree with it on fundamental principles of government, such disturbances as once disgraced York could never again occur.

This step away from general mixed public meetings to private partisan gatherings gave the reformers greater scope to hammer out a consistent district, and province wide political platform against which candidates could be evaluated.

While their Hall was being built (by city councilman Robert Turton) the Reformers rented the “old Court House.” They named it Shepard’s Hall, after Joseph Shepard, the president of the Farmers’ Storehouse Company. A small notice in the Advocate of Oct. 17th, announced that the Old Court House, the temporary “Shepard’s hall,” could now comfortably seat 400 people. And in the same issue, the Children of Peace announced they would hold a meeting for worship there the next Sunday. The Children of Peace collectively declared in the Advocate soon thereafter, that “we are ever ready to stand forth for our constitutional rights as having part in the care of the province, and to use our humble exertions to appoint just men to government, and without an influenced vote choose for ourselves who shall rule over us.”[1]

The Children of Peace continued to share the old Court House with the Toronto reformers for the rest of 1834. It was here that David Wilkie, a British traveler, came across them: “the place was nearly filled when I entered, apparently with servant-girls, working-lads, and apprentice-boys about town.” Wilkie found little to laud in Willson’s sermon: “the burden of his discourse seemed to be the injustice practised towards the world by all those who possess an abundant share of the good things of life. That they are all usurpers and tyrants; that there ought neither to be masters nor servants; that all mankind are equal; and that it is the duty of the poor to pull down the rich.”[2] Wilkie was dismissive of the message: the “rambling rhapsody… could not have drawn its perverted spirit from any part of the apostle’s inspired writings.” But he was not far off in his description of the content. Willson was, at this time, composing a book, “A Friend to Britain,” and in an entry dated December 12th, he wrote: “The poor are rising and the mountains will do well to bend, or be assured they will be overthrown, not by revolt, but by the power of reason, the principles of truth and justice – the issues of an understanding mind.”[3]

In a meeting in the Old Court House on 6 October, 1833, over $1,000 was subscribed, and a site selected for the building of “Radical Hall”.[4]  By November, Mackenzie announced that $1,500 had been subscribed but that the proposed building would not be started until the following spring.[5]  The builder of the Hall was undoubtedly Joseph Turton, a vice president of the Central Political Union and a city councilman, who advertized the construction of a building, 40 by 60  feet, on the north east corner of King and York Street at this time.[6] Given the shortage of labour that resulted from a cholera outbreak, the completion of the hall was postponed; it was eventually completed in early January, 1835.

In the meantime, however, the reformers took advantage of the completion of the new market buildings. When Mackenzie became Toronto’s first mayor in early 1834, he made the market building his city hall. The Advocate, and the reform movement, moved into a temporary “Shepard’s Hall” in the south wing. Looking out of their windows south across Palace Street, the reformers would see the Farmers’ Storehouse. The disappearance of the Advocate left the large room on the second floor of the south building empty. The old Court House was leased out, and the reformers – still only loosely organized as the Central Committee – took over the room.[7] It was only now that they reorganized as the Canadian Alliance Society, with James Lesslie, a city Alderman, as interim president. By January, 1835 the Children of Peace were preaching in the same room every other Sunday.[8] And by the end of February, the Mechanics Institute had also moved into the same space;[9] Lesslie was treasurer of the Institute, and Timothy Parsons, the Canadian Alliance Society’s secretary, was also the secretary of the Institute. The Mechanics Institute was part of the common school movement, which sought to provide education for the working classes of the city. The old office of the Advocate in the market buildings thus became the second temporary home for “Shepard’s Hall,” finally providing a space for the three legs of the reform movement, as called for in their prospectus; what the Courier scathingly called the “Holy Alliance Hay Loft.”[10]

By late 1834, their proposed hall, now called “Turton’s Building,” was taking physical shape: a building with two similar sized stores, and an additional “large room, 60 by 20 feet, for Public purposes, for which it will be kept” above.[11] The stores were eventually occupied by the printing establishments of the reform newspapers, the Correspondent and Advocate, and W.L. Mackenzie’s Constitution. The public hall was used for the meetings of the Canadian Alliance Society and by groups of religious dissenters such as the Children of Peace, Methodists, Irvingites, and the Mormons.[12] The buildings were constructed on land belonging to Dr. William Warren Baldwin, who was to become the president of the Canadian Alliance Society in May 1836. Once the Alliance and reform newspapers moved in, it clearly fulfilled the Society’s original vision:

Our proposition is by no means new. The lawyers have combined and built their Hall; the Legislative Council have theirs; the governor and his executive council theirs; the district magistracy theirs; the pensioned priesthood theirs; the bank monopolists theirs; the college council theirs; and the House of Assembly theirs. All these “political unions” are upheld at the proper cost and charges of the good people of Upper Canada – the people it was who paid for all these halls. But what have they gained by them? Are these political bodies, as now constituted, or are they not, so many organized combinations carried on for the private advantage of their several members, at the continual sacrifice of the public good? Are they, or are they not?

Is it not time that the people should come forward and subscribe their money, materials, and labor, to build THEIR HALL, a place in which they, for whom alone governments are, or ought to be established, may quietly and peaceably assemble and meet together to concert measures in favor of cheap law, cheap religion, cheap government, and encouragement and spread of all useful knowledge throughout Upper Canada?

The prospectus for Shepard’s Hall draws clear parallels between “combinations”, such as the Law Society, the Court of Quarter Sessions, and the Executive Council, each of which, like their “political union,” had their own hall. Whereas the “combinations” of the Family Compact were closed corporations with legislated monopolies over law, government and banking, the reformers proposed an alternate open model, a democratic “people’s corporation.” It takes little to appreciate the irony of the site of “Radical Hall” currently being the home to the Toronto Stock Exchange Towers.

[1]Advocate 5 Dec. 1833

[2] D. Wilkie, Sketches of a Summer Trip to New York and the Canadas (Edinburgh, 1837), p. 203-5.

[3] David Willson, Impressions of the Mind (Toronto, 1835), 290.

[4] Colonial Advocate 10 Oct. 1833

[5] Advocate 7 Nov. 1833

[6] Patriot 8 Nov. 1833

[7] Correspondent & Advocate 24 Dec. 1834; 8, 15 Jan. 1835.

[8] Correspondent & Advocate 15 Jan. 1835.

[9] Patriot 10 March 1835.

[10] Patriot, 13 Jan. 1835

[11] Correspondant & Advocate 18 Dec. 1834.

[12] Constitution, 7 Sept 1836; the Methodists were led by dissidents to Ryerson’s union with the Wesleyan Methodists, including the Rev. James Richardson, and the Rev. Mr Turner.