Old Don Jail – Toronto’s Intimidating & Imposing Prison on the Hill

The Old Don Jail is located at ‪550 Gerrard St E‬ (at Broadview Ave) in the Riverdale neighbourhood of Toronto.

Scadding Family Homestead

In 1856, the City of Toronto purchased the northern half of the Scadding family property. The 119 acres of land were bounded by Gerrard St E, the Don River, a line south of Danforth Ave and Broadview Ave. Then just beyond the City limits, the property was purchased to establish a hospice, industrial farm and a jail.

Construction Delays

Taking 5 years to build, the Don Jail opened in 1864. Construction was delayed due to the death of head architect William Thomas in 1860 and a major fire in 1862. The imposing structure was, at the time, located on a hill just outside of the City limits. The Renaissance Revival style building was designed to look intimidating. Mr Thomas also designed other Toronto landmarks including St Michael’s Cathedral Basilica and St Lawrence Hall.

The Architecture and Life at the Old Don Jail

The 4-storey centre block is flanked by 3.5-storey east and west wings. Some of the features of the brick and stone structure include iron, wood and stone trim, a hipped roof, gables and an arched entrance flanked by banded columns. The tall entrance doors with Father Time above, casts its gaze down daunting those that passed beneath.

The jail, Toronto’s fourth, attempted to provide an appropriate setting that embodied the progressive ideas of prison reform. Some of the original 180 cells only measured 1×3 m or 3×10 ft and since the cells had no plumbing, a bucket was supplied for bathroom use. The governor’s quarters were later converted to cells bringing the total cells to 220. Overcrowding was often an issue at the jail.

The walls around the yard were a towering 5.5 m or 18 ft high. Inmates worked a farm behind the prison which is now Riverdale Park East. Two 20-minute visits were permitted each week. The last execution took place in 1962 however there were over 30 executions at its gallows.

The Addition of the Metropolitan Toronto Jail

In 1958, an east wing was added. In 1973, the older portion of the Don Jail received heritage status and was closed 4 years later. There was a list of prisoners who were believed to have been sent to the jail’s gallows, interred in the yard. In 2007, the remains of those 15 people were unearthed there. In 2013, the newer east wing was closed and is now a parking lot.

Bridgepoint Active Healthcare

Today, the administrative offices for Bridgepoint Active Healthcare now occupy the space of the historic Old Don Jail. When walking around the significant property, visitors can find many plaques detailing the history of the site.

Did You Know?

  • York’s first jail was located on the south side of King St E, between Toronto and Victoria St from 1798 to 1824. It’s on the site of the present-day King Edward Hotel.
  • From 1824 until 1840, the second jail was located on the northeast corner of King St E and Toronto St.
  • Toronto’s third jail was on the south side of Front St E between Berkeley and Parliament Sts from 1840 to 1860’s.
  • The 19th century, the word “jail” was spelled the British way “gaol”. They are both pronounced “jail”.
  • The Scadding family were early settlers of York. The Scadding Cabin is the oldest known structure in Toronto.
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