The building’s famous fence has had some mighty opponents, but cows were never among them.
When Osgoode Hall curator Elise Brunet walks into work, she often hears myths about the 144-year-old fence along Queen Street West that make her flinch like a copy editor seeing the word “anyways.” So Brunet, who has worked at Osgoode for 23 years, resolved to separate fact from fiction, and came up with the free exhibit currently showing there. Here are some points to help sort out what to believe.
Myth: The fence was built to keep out cows.
Brunet calls this the most pervasive myth about the fence. While it’s tempting to think of 19th-century Toronto as a developing South Park, by this time roaming cows had ceased to be a threat. The myth seems to come from the 1933 book The Yellow Briar. “If you ask any cab driver why the fence is there, they’ll talk about cows,” says Brunet. “They’re wrong.”
Fact: Cars have had a tendency to drive into the fence.
In her research, Brunet found that the last instance of a car driving into the fence was in 2002, but as many as three have crashed into it in a single year. (That year? 1935.) Cars can whip along University or Queen or make sharp turns and suddenly become perfect fodder for a CityNews-style local story.
Myth: The fence is a wrought-iron one.
“Many people assume that since it’s a fancy fence, it’s wrought iron, but that’s not true,” says Brunet. She explains that 19th-century technology made cast iron much more affordable, and this was the best option for Osgoode. At the opening of the building in 1832, a wooden picket fence was built. But when they added the current centre block in the 1860s, Osgoode raised money to build a stronger fence in what they then saw as their permanent location. The fence isn’t just decorative either; at the time tensions with the U.S. were high enough that it was felt the courts needed more protection. The harder (albeit more brittle) material cast iron provided did the trick.
Fact: The fence has faced opposition throughout the years.
While fences used to be commonplace for demarcating property lines, the early 20th century saw a move to open spaces. By mid-century, as Toronto looked at proposals for New City Hall, a more car-centric way of thinking had emerged, and Fred Gardiner and Allan Lamport, two of the most powerful Toronto politicians of the 1950s and 1960s, wanted to widen Queen Street by taking out the then-derelict fence. Local preservationists and Osgoode put up a fight and the fence remained (as did nearby Campbell House’s). Brunet feels as though the fence accomplishes something else: while it decreases accessibility, it also acts as a physical barrier to encroachment—of advertising, say, or tourist-targeting vendors—on public space.
Myth: George Theodore Berthon designed the fence.
Berthon, a famous portrait artist of the day, had a connection to the law society that no doubt contributed to this myth. But in the late 1970s, old minutes of the Law Society resurfaced, and pointed to someone else: William Storm, famous for University College, St. Andrew’s Church, and Osgoode Hall’s western wing expansions in 1880 and 1890.
You can see the exhibit for free from Monday to Friday, 9 a.m.–5 p.m., on Osgoode Hall’s first-floor and mezzanine level.