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Watch where you walk: Key Toronto areas built on cemeteries

Last Updated Apr 13, 2016 at 2:09 pm EDT

A government ad appeared in the newspaper last week, looking for the relatives of the deceased found during construction at a building south of Britain Street. At the start of February, plumbing work in the basement uncovered three coffins and human remains, and it’s standard procedure for officials to reach out to surviving family members before taking a next step.

Although it came as a shock to some residents in the area, a quick look at local history shows it’s not so surprising. In the 19th century the area had been home to a Presbyterian cemetery called the Duchess Street Burial Ground, which was later moved to the Toronto Necropolis in 1911. The remains were likely missed during the move, or they’d been buried just outside the cemetery’s borders.

Without even realizing it, the residents of Britain Street and the surrounding area have been living on a piece of Toronto’s history. But it makes you wonder, how many people are left behind and forgotten, resting beneath our feet as we commute to work or school and go about our daily lives? After all, it isn’t uncommon for remains to be left behind when cemeteries are closed down and moved to other locations.

“In every case we’ve been involved in – where people have said that a cemetery has been moved – we’ve always found bodies,” said Ron Williamson, the Chief Archaeologist with Archaeological Services Inc.

Williamson’s firm has been called to assess discoveries of human remains in Toronto on numerous occasions. He’s written a book about Moatfield Ossuary, when a soccer field expansion uncovered at least 87 Iroquois peoples and artifacts in a pit in North York, and he was called to the Don Jail when bodies of 15 men who had been sent to the gallows were found beneath a parking lot.

Unbeknownst to probably most of the people who commute through the Yonge and Bloor intersection every day, Yorkville actually used to be home to the York General Burying Ground, colloquially referred to by residents as Potter’s Field.

Plaque in Yorkville, describing Potter's Field. PHOTO: Liny Lamberink
Plaque in Yorkville, describing Potter’s Field. PHOTO: Liny Lamberink


The cemetery opened up in 1825 as the area’s first non-sectarian cemetery. It started out as 2.4 hectares of land west of Yonge St. and north of Bloor, purchased by subscriptions for a whopping total of $300.

“[It] was kind of a catch-all for people who didn’t belong anywhere else,” said Jane Beecroft, a local history buff who has headed research in Toronto for a local history group.

“The Catholics had their own burial grounds, some churches had their own burial ground. But people who arrived on route to [somewhere else] and didn’t survive past the landing sometimes would be buried there. Sometimes there were murderers or prisoners buried there.”

Within 30 years, Potter’s Field became the resting place for over 6,000 people who didn’t have religious burials. By 1855 it had its last interment, its closure a result of rapid municipal growth. On the corner of the building which stands on Yonge and Bloor now, a plaque says the 6685 people buried in Potter’s Field had been moved either to the Toronto Necropolis or Mount Pleasant Cemetery between 1851 and 1881.

But a close reading of plaques at these sites is cause for curiosity and speculation.

At the Toronto Necropolis, a memorial sign says the remains of 984 people were removed from Potter’s field and reinterred in a section named “The Resting Place of Pioneers”.

Plaque at the Necropolis, describing the moving of remains to a section designated "The Resting Place of Pioneers."
Plaque at the Necropolis, describing the moving of remains to a section designated “The Resting Place of Pioneers.” PHOTO: Liny Lamberink


A similar plaque at Mount Pleasant Cemetery accounts for another 364 people.

So where did the remains of the other 5,337 people go?

Williamson attributes the gap in information to unreliable documents, which are apparently a hallmark of historic cemeteries.

“The archival record is rarely precise about how many people are buried in these places before they’re closed,” Williamson said.

He reflected on a time his firm closed a cemetery at Pearson Airport, where there had once stood a small country parish named Elmbank.

“All of the genealogical records suggested there were 311 people in the cemetery. And it turned out there were exactly double. There were 622.”

While Williamson said the state of development at Yonge and Bloor likely indicates there are no more human remains to be found in the area, he also said someone is usually left behind when a cemetery is moved.

Beecroft, on the other hand, offered a different answer.

“When the subway was put through, all that cemetery was dug up and carted out, and dumped on the Leslie Street Spit,” she said. “So there are several thousand burials, burial parts, body parts, disturbed graves, [and] disturbed bodies in the Leslie Street Spit.”

It’s hard to say for sure where the remains of the 5,337 corpses ended up. Archival records may be inaccurate, and development in the area could be a sign that at some point the remains were moved. An administrator at the Toronto Necropolis pointed out that when officials put out calls to relatives of the deceased lying in Potter’s Field back in the 1800s, it’s possible they focused only on those with headstones. As a resting place for what seemed to be people who didn’t belong in society, perhaps many of the dead didn’t have grave markers to ensure their move.

Perhaps they’ve found rest alongside the harbour overlooking Lake Ontario. Or maybe they still lie somewhere deep in the foundation of development of Yorkville, more or less forgotten by the thousands of people above who pass through the area everyday.