Kingston in the mid-nineteenth century was quite a place. Between the soldiers, the sailors, the prostitutes, and the taverns, there was plenty for an upright citizen to complain about. But one of the biggest problems faced by Kingstonians actually lay just outside the city limits, in a village – really a slum – known as Stuartsville. At this time Kingston had several satellite villages besides Stuartsville, such as Williamsville, Charlesville, Picardville (a.k.a. The French Village, which rivalled Stuartsville for poverty and vice – but that’s another blog post), not to mention Barriefield and Portsmouth. However, Stuartsville arguably attracted the most attention and notoriety.
Stuartsville was comprised of land originally part of Lot 24, which was the 200 acres given to United Empire Loyalist Reverend John Stuart in the late eighteenth century. It was his son, Archdeacon George Okill Stuart, who had the idea of essentially parcelling off this land to immigrants who were unable to find a home in the city or pay city taxes.
This development had a few reasons: after Kingston’s May 1840 fire, companies would no longer insure wooden structures in the city, which had provided inexpensive accommodation for travellers. As a result, wooden structures were instead built in Stuartsville, providing cheap but dangerous housing for new residents. George Okill Stuart apparently also needed money to pay off his expensive and largely unused home, Summerhill.
As planned, Lot 24/Stuartsville began to be populated by poor Irish immigrants, mostly labourers and mechanics.
Stuartsville was described with all manner of colourful language by the Kingston papers. As Brian Osborne and Donald Swainson write,
It was considered unsanitary, crowded, “copiously dotted with hog-pens and slaughter houses and consequent accumulations of feculent matter,” and “chiefly inhabited by working classes.” Other complaints were the distress, poverty, and alleged drinking habits of the population who were served by the excessive number of Stuartsville taverns. Stuartsville was referred to variously as a “crying evil,” an “overgrown and populous suburb,” and a “millstone around the neck of Kingston.” It was argued that “Kingston, call it what you will, never can be anything more than a miserable village while Lot No. 24 operates against it like its nightmare.” At best, it was viewed as a working-class suburb; at worst, as Archdeacon Stuart’s slum.
Another problem appears to have been cholera, no doubt among other diseases. The same column in the May 28, 1850 edition of the Daily British Whig that Osborne and Swainson cite (“accumulations of feculent matter” etc.) has this to say:
Disease swept through the small village due to its bad drainage, lack of waste disposal, and crowded streets and alleys. 156 structures were built on only 60 small lots in Stuartsville; in one area 32 structures were built on only two lots. Almost all of them were wooden and prone to fire.
Despite loud opposition from Stuartsville residents who wished to retain their separate status and low taxes, the town was annexed to Kingston in 1850 under the Municipal Act of 1849, which required cities to annex outlying wards when they became “as populous and wealthy as the least-populous and least-wealthy of the original wards [of the city].” Now called “Victoria Ward” under the City of Kingston, Stuartsville was technically no more, although its working-class character would persist until the late nineteenth century. In the 1870’s and 1880’s, property owners in the area began to subdivide their land to developers. Particularly in 1886, the east block of University Avenue between Clergy and Earl Streets was divided, and from 1888 to 1892 the current set of large, red brick houses were built that cemented the area’s new middle-class identity.
Is there anything left of old Stuartsville today? You may be surprised to learn that there is. Although most of the area has been rebuilt from the late nineteenth century onward, a few telltale signs remain…
Dating houses can be tricky, but if you’re in the old Stuartsville area, small, squat houses that front closely or directly on the street, (usually) not built of brick, with a more or less symmetrical look, may date from the Stuartsville era of 1840s-1850s.
One of the most fascinating things about Kingston is the way layers upon layers of history can be found even in the smallest areas – so next time you’re heading towards Queen’s campus or driving up Division Street, cast your mind back 165 years or so and give a thought to the way this “crying evil” of a village eked out its days alongside Kingston, its inhabitants struggling through poverty and disease, trying to do the best for themselves.
All photos are my own.
Osborne, Brian S. and Donald Swainson. Kingston: Building on the Past. Westport, ON: Butternut Press, Inc. 1988.
1998 Queen’s University Heritage Study (historical background from “History,” information on historic buildings in Stuartsville area from “Residential Buildings” and Appendix A, “Residential Buildings Not Owned by Queen’s University”)
*The above source includes a significant quote from Patricia Malcolmson’s paper “The Poor in Kingston, 1815-1850” which can be found in To Preserve and Defend: Essays on Kingston in the Nineteenth Century, edited by Gerald Tulchinsky.
Page 2 of May 28, 1850 edition of the Daily British Whig.
I should also include Thomas McIlwraith’s book Looking for Old Ontario (Toronto, Buffalo, and London: University of Toronto Press, 1997) whose information about dating buildings I’ve basically just absorbed over the years. (recommended!)