Forgotten Histories: Liberty Village, Convicts and “Crazed” Women

From convicts to condos

Most Torontonians know Liberty Village used to be an industrial area before condo development began a few years ago. But there is more to it than that. Toronto’s pinnacle of condo development has a much darker past. It was once a notoriously brutal prison and a women’s mental institution.
 
Men Behind Bars: Toronto Central Prison (1873-1915)

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(Toronto Central Prison: By JeffJ at en.wikipedia [Public domain], from Wikimedia Commons)

The less celebrated aspect of the area’s history is the connection to the institutional past of this city. Before the factories, Liberty Village was a penal district. There were two prisons on the site; one for men and one for women. Toronto Central Prison housed 336 beds for male prisoners between 1873 and 1915. The facilities were not known for their best practices. They were known for extreme brutality, denying medical treatment, and the creepiest of all: nighttime burials on the prison grounds. So sleep well haunted Liberty Villagers!

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(Prison Chapel: By Diosnoche at en.wikipedia [Public domain], from Wikimedia Commons)

Most of the prison buildings were destroyed in the early twentieth century. There are two buildings that still stand in Liberty Village today. One is the original prison chapel. This small structure has been abandoned since it’s first use but it is currently stated for restoration when it will potentially become the newest Miller Tavern. The other building is the paint shop, which became one of the city’s heritage properties in 1985.
 
Wild Women: Andrew Mercer Reformatory for Women (1872-1969)

The other Liberty Village institution was the Andrew Mercer Reformatory for Women. Between 1872 and 1969, provincial law carried out an Ontario Female Refuge Act. If parents and/or guardians were having difficulty with daughters under the age of twenty-one years old, they could bring them to the courts to have a judge help determine correctional measures. “Difficult” was a broad term back then. It could cover everything from non-conformists to unwed mothers. This decision-making process resulted in creating large numbers of institutionalized women and many of them ended up at the Andrew Mercer Reformatory for Women at King and Fraser.

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(Mercer Reformatory: Frank William Micklethwaite [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

The reformatory opened in 1872 and for most of its tenure, patients were “reformed” into proper Victorian women – obedience and subservience were the ideals instilled between these walls. As the twentieth century neared it’s midpoint, rumours began to surface about mistreatment and even medical experimentation at Mercer. Eugenics was still all the rage back then and some doctors used the female patients in their research into what makes a “bad” woman. The government began investigating the institution in the 1960s and found they couldn’t turn a blind-eye to the mistreatment and dungeon-like conditions. The hospital was shut down and now Allan Lamport Stadium sits on the former site. The only remaining structure is the superintendent’s house, at King Street West and Fraser Avenue. And of course “Liberty Street”, for which Liberty Village was named, was the first street the men and women walked down once they were freed.

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(Mercer Superintendent’s House: By GTD Aquitaine (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

 
Manufacturing (1880s-1980s)

As the horrid institutions shuttered their doors, manufacturers slowly moved into Liberty Village. The Irwin Toy Company set up shop in 1881 and the Toronto Carpet Factory opened its doors in 1920. By the early twentieth century it was truly was a booming manufacturing sector of the city. The area was so popular with manufacturers because of it’s proximity to the railroad, which made shipping the products made in the downtown factories quite simple. Being close to Parkdale didn’t hurt either. Parkdale was a more residential neighbourhood at this time and so it was from this area that people came to Liberty Village to find work.

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(Manufacturing During The War: William James [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

 
Artist Enclave (1980s-2000s)

But the manufacturing industry did not last long in this city. Nearly 100 years later, most business owners in the manufacturing business started to leave town and Liberty Village was almost abandoned in the process. But where there is cheap real estate, artists are usually not far away. While Queen Street became known for its art galleries, it was Liberty Village where many of those artists slept. Somewhere In Heaven is an NFB-supported documentary about the artists who made Liberty Village home. It was produced in 2006, while the condo towers were going up so it really captures a neighbourhood in transition.


 
Condoland (1990s-Present)

Developers sunk their teeth into the semi-abandoned area in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Artists were paid to evacuate their bohemian warehouse digs and the bulldozers moved in. Some of the buildings have been saved and reused as loft-style condos but many have been razed to the ground to make room for shiny, new towers. Liberty Village is one of the biggest construction booms in the city. These growing pains have brought more than their fair share of trouble to the surrounding neighbourhoods. The swelling population has caused massive transportation issues and many bemoan the big corporations that have opened up shop in the village. On the other hand, it’s the pinnacle of convenience and a great place for single thirty-somethings!

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(Density: By Mary Crandall via Flickr)