From then to now

Imagining Queen's campus 175 years ago

The first building used by Queen's for teaching

Imagine studying in Stauffer Library, sleeping in residence or dancing to ‘Stacey’s Mom’ on Thursday at The Underground. Not too hard to picture, right?

Now close your eyes, really tight, and imagine all the buildings and all the people we find so familiar on campus disappearing.

You’re sitting in a little house, surrounded by 14 other men and two Presbyterian ministers at 67 Colbourne Street. Are you picturing it? Now you’re experiencing what Queen’s first students experienced.

That’s right, when Queen’s started classes for the first time on March 7, 1842, there were 15 male students enrolled and two professors, one of whom was the president of the University.

Compared to the 22,630 students and over 90 buildings currently on main campus alone, it’s hard to imagine our humble beginnings.

Royal beginnings

Queen’s was established after an Imperial Royal Charter was signed on October 16, 1841 by Queens Victoria, making Queen’s the second university in Ontario — Upper Canada at the time.  The first was King’s College in Toronto. The schools were rivals due to the fact that King’s College was founded with Anglican values and Queen’s had a Presbyterian basis, one of the reasons why Queen’s was even established.

When Queen’s was founded, Kingston was the newly-named capital of Canada and held the position from 1841 to 1844. Upper and Lower Canada had just merged because of orders from Parliament in Britain following rebellions in Montreal and Toronto.

Because of the discontent Britain had towards the two cities, they named Kingston the capital of the United Province of Canada. This was in part due to the central location between the two former capitols of Lower and Upper Canada respectively and because at the time it was the second biggest city in Ontario.

A hay bale throwing Ontarian student body

At the time of founding, Queen’s was considered a regional institution and to this day is known to have mostly Ontario students. After all, according to Queen’s Enrollment Reports, 90.7 per cent of students come from Canada, and the statistic for students from Ontario specifically is approximately 78 per cent.

In 1842, all 15 students came from Eastern Ontario and were from middle-class families. According to Duncan McDowall, Queen’s historian, the measure of whether students were well off was whether their families could spare a son from working on the farm. Queen’s didn’t have the academic rigor associated with it that it does today.

McDowall also cites the student’s farming backgrounds as a reason for our football past. “They were big hulking boys who could throw a hay bale around,” he said.

The first graduate of Queen’s was from Perth, Ontario.

In 1854, Queen’s began slowly morphing into the campus we know today. The University bought Summerhill and began construction on what is now known as the Old Medical School Building.

A university with a view

Have you ever gotten a coffee and slice of cake at Sipps or skated in Springer Market Square with the perfect view of City Hall by the lake?

Well, minus all the surrounding coffee shops, restaurants and boutiques, a student in 1842 wouldn’t have had much of a different view than we have today.

Due to the excitement locals had over the establishment of Queen’s and the new status of Kingston, city officials called for new construction of buildings, which included City Hall and the Frontenac Courthouse that stands behind the Biosciences Complex.

A fire that broke out on the waterfront a few years’ prior had destroyed all the wooden buildings and therefore Kingston started working with limestone for all the buildings, hence why Kingston is now known as the Limestone City.

The construction and optimism that was booming throughout the city is in part a result of Queen’s first year. Local Presbyterian clerks and business men in Kingston, including future prime minister John A. MacDonald who’d lobbied for the Charter establishing Queen’s, had high hopes for Kingston to become the hub of Canada, according to McDowall.

What the Scottish Enlightenment gave to Queen’s

Remember when you came to move into residence and there was somebody standing on the corner of University and Union playing bagpipes? Or when we all stand together and sing the Oil Thigh, which mostly contains words that no one knows how to pronounce or what they mean? That’s because of our Scottish and Presbyterian roots.

Currently at Queen’s, it’d be easy to find access to any of the myriad of religious and cultural clubs catering to many different groups. It wouldn’t have been easy to find during Queen’s first year. Queen’s was established on the basis of Presbyterian beliefs, ideas tied largely to Scotland and the Scottish Enlightenment.

In the 18th century, Scotland experienced an Enlightenment. The Scottish Enlightenment produced many new ideas, most emphasizing the importance of reason and logic in intellectual pursuits, but one that bore the greatest impact for Queen’s was the concept that school shouldn’t just be for learning arts. The translated ideology held that students should also be taught concepts useful in life.

Because of this, Queen’s has always been known for it’s public and social services, which can be seen to this day through the over 270 clubs founded at Queen’s.

Additionally, some of Queen’s institutions are borrowed directly from the University of Edinburg in Scotland. Queen’ has a chancellor and rector, roles established and based off the idea that a successful government was an inclusive one and these positions were a way to maintain that.

Queen’s Presbyterian roots also run deep. A majority of the first 15 students were studying at the School of Theology to become Presbyterian ministers. It wasn’t until 1912, when the Ontario government decided they wouldn’t provide funding for Queen’s unless it secularized, that the university began to widen its religious horizons.

Even with the secularization, the School of Theology still existed up until 2015 when it was closed.

‘To the taverns’

When we think of socializing at Queen’s today, many of us may think of meeting up with our friends, grabbing sangria and nachos at Queen’s Pub, or going to the different clubs and bars downtown. In Queen’s first year, it wasn’t all too different.

“In some ways they were no different then students these days, they would go uptown to go to the taverns,” McDowall said.

One of the first main established social conventions recorded in Queen’s history was the debating society. This wasn’t the type of the debating club we might think of today, but was purposed to bring students together for evening lectures and socializing. The debating society may in fact have contributed in large part to the sense of community on the tiny campus, a sense of community that continues to this day.

This debating society was soon after named the Alma Mater Society, making it the oldest student government in Canada. A few years later, the society established yours truly, The Queen’s Journal, one of the oldest student-run newspapers in North America, founded the same year as The Harvard Crimson.

The early establishment of the AMS is an example of the ideals of public service that Queen’s was in part founded on.

Today when we are running to class, meetings or spending 12 hours straight in the library, it’s easy to pass by the traditions around campus that were integral to the first year of Queen’s, 175 years ago.

They remain important to our school to this day. Sometimes, if you hear the sound of bagpipes playing through a room in the JDUC or have a meeting in the AMS offices, you’re walking on ground shaped by those students who’ve come before. 

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