Bishop’s Block

ASI was retained to complete a Stage 4 mitigative excavation of the Bishop’s Block site, located on the north side of Adelaide Street West, between Simcoe Street and University Avenue in downtown Toronto. The excavation involved digging six trenches to expose the foundations and backyard features of four townhouses – three of the houses were constructed in 1832, whilst the fourth was constructed in 1860.

Bishops Block 4 (1024x649)
A historical image of the Bishop’s Block (Copyright City of Toronto Archives)

According to the City of Toronto Commercial Directory (Walton 1837:3, 8, 23, 39) some of the first tenants living in the Bishop’s buildings included “Miss Ross, ladies school,” “G. A. Barber, Writing-master, U. C. College,” “R. S. Jameson, Attorney General,” “Colonel Cameron,” “Dr. Bartley, Surgeon 15th Regt.”, “Aeneas Bell, yeoman,” and “A. Rennie, gentleman,” to name a few. Later occupants included “David Fleming, contractor” circa 1862-65 (Hutchinson 1862:139; Mitchell 1864:190), “Joab Scales, tobacconist” in 1866 (Mitchell 1866:3) and “S. H. James, dry goods” between 1868 and 1872. By the time of the 1873 Toronto City Directory (Irwin), one of the townhouses at Bishop’s Block was cited as being a boarding house and it remained so for a number of years. Late nineteenth-century assessment rolls show that certain houses had up to 22 boarders living there at one time.

Writer Anna Jameson left a famous account of her first impression of Toronto in December 1838, saying it was “a little ill-built town on low land, at the bottom of a frozen bay” (Jameson 1838). Her impression of living in Bishop’s Block was no better, saying:

The house-only a temporary residence while another is building, is ill provided with defenses against the cold, and altogether comfortless…I see nothing but snow heaped up against my windows, not only without but within; I hear no sound but the tinkling of sleigh-bells and the occasional lowing of a poor half-starved cow” (Jameson 1838, 20-21)

One of the most interesting features of the Bishop’s Block site was a privy vault. It’s beautiful masonry construction was in contrast to the other townhouse privies that were wood-lined. Measuring 150 cm wide and 220 cm long, it was lined with dry-laid boulders interspersed with shale and limestone slabs. After analyzing the 2,500 artifacts from Privy 4, it is most likely that the structure was abandoned sometime after 1859.

At the end of the excavations in October 2007, almost 70,000 artifacts were recovered. Together, the archaeological evidence and the historical written records demonstrate a changing landscape on Adelaide Street from a semi rural, upper middle class range of single family homes to a fully urban, working class enclave of boarding houses and commercial businesses by the early twentieth century.

The site is now home to the Shangri-La Hotel, which has plans to showcase some of the artifacts from the site in a display within.

For more information, download the full Bishop’s Block report from the Site Reports section of our website.


Hutchinson, Thomas
1862 Hutchinson’s Toronto Directory 1862-63. Lovell & Gibson, Toronto.

Irwin, W. H.
1873 Toronto City Directory May 1873 to May 1874. Hunter Rose & Co., Toronto.

Jameson, Anna
1838 Winter Studies and Summer Rambles in Canada. Saunders and Ottley, London.

Mitchell & Co.
1866 General Directory for the City of Toronto, 1866. Mitchell & Co, Toronto.

Walton, George
1837 The City of Toronto and the Home District Commercial Directory and Register with Almanack and Calendar for 1837. T. Dalton and W.J. Coates, Toronto