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#UofTGrad17: Catcalls and pranks, a look back at U of T’s first convocations

A photo of University College taken in 1868 by Octavius Thompson for Toronto in The Camera (photo courtesy of Fisher Library via Flickr)

For a tradition steeped in formality, it’s hard to believe that convocation at University of Toronto was once a little rowdy.

Ceremonies in the 1870s and 1880s were so disruptive that The Varsity newspaper in 1884 went so far as to write: “We fear that few of the friends of the College will endure the torture of being present.”

“Before, during and after proceedings of convocation,” The Varsity wrote, the audience would break out into song. “Some, however, disgraced themselves by continuous howling, horn-blowing and catcalling.”

One of the earliest photos taken of a U of T convocation procession – in 1917 (photo by James & Sons Photographs via U of T Archives)

This forced Daniel Wilson, the president of the university, in 1888 – back then, it was just University College – to write in his diary about his attempt to control the students “who have shown a growing tendency to disorder on such occasions” and were “disposed to intrude college songs at inopportune times.”

His solution? To make music a part of the ceremony – handing over those duties to U of T’s glee club.

“The result proved in all ways satisfactory,” Wilson wrote.

Convocation in 1925 with grads lined up along King's College Circle (photo courtesy of U of T Archives)

There are also accounts of students throwing chestnuts and bags of flour on their classmates.

“What they tended to do is position themselves – especially if convocation wasn't taking place at Convocation Hall – up on a balcony and throw it down on people below,” says Harold Averill, assistant university archivist at U of T Libraries.

“It was just letting off steam – it was students being students,” he says.

“There tended to be a lot more pranks than there are now. We are very staid compared to them.”

Early convocations were not all pranks and howling. They were often opportunities to address important historic accomplishments.

The graduating class of 1885 was the first to include women – there were five for them, including the two daughters of the owner of the Globe, which later became The Globe and Mail

Three of the women are pictured below – Margaret LangleyMay Bell Bald and Ella Gardiner.

(Photo courtesy of U of T Archives)

In the early 1850s, Alexander T. Augusta – the first black medical student in Canada West – completed his medical degree at Trinity Medical College.

And this year, U of T will be hosting its first-ever Black Graduation celebration, a student-led effort to celebrate the achievements of Black students across the three campuses. The celebration on June 22 at Hart House will include speakers from the Black academic community, awards presentations, a DJ and artists who will perform live painting during the event.

Grads today are finding other ways to have fun, using Instagram, Facebook and Snapchat to share their moments.

(Photo by Krista Boniface) 

June 09, 2017

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