In 1820 the first Presbyterian congregation in Toronto (then the Town of York) was formed, and after the donation of land from Jessie Ketchum, built a church on Richmond Street. This church was known as First Presbyterian Congregation of York, Upper Canada, and James Harris [see photo] (later to be Ketchum's son in law) became minister. The building above was completed in 1821.

Later a schoolhouse was added adjoining the church.


Artist conception of Knox's Church, 1847 – In 1820 the first Presbyterian congregation in Toronto (then the Town of York) was formed. They erected a church building on Richmond Street on a parcel of land donated by Jessie Ketchum. This church was known as First Presbyterian Congregation of York, Upper Canada, and the Rev James Harris (later to be Jessie Ketchum's son-in-law) became minister.

In 1843, the Church of Scotland split when many of the evangelicals, led by Thomas Chalmers, withdrew to form the Free Church of Scotland. This “disruption” in the Church of Scotland affected congregations in Canada. In Toronto, St. Andrew's (King Street) remained in the “Auld Kirk.” As a result, a group of the more evangelical Presbyterians left St. Andrew's and joined with First Presbyterian to form a new congregation named Knox's Church (named after Scottish Church reformer John Knox). For their first minister, they called the Rev Dr. Robert Burns from Paisley, Scotland. Dr. Burns also served as lecturer and professor at the nearby Knox Free Church Theological College. (For an interesting reference to Dr. Burns and his bearskin coat, see this article.)

In 1847 the old York Church was destroyed by fire. The congregation built a new larger church on the same lot, this time facing Queen Street West between Yonge and Bay (see artist's conception above). One of the most prominent members of this church was George Brown, founder of the Toronto Globe and Mail and a member of the Fathers of Confederation who negotiated the formation of the Dominion of Canada in 1867.


Inside the sanctuary on Queen Street West in 1847 [between Yonge and Bay]

Taken at the corner of Yonge and Queen street, looking east. The spire of Knox pierces the sky.


Knox's Church (predecessor of Knox Presbyterian Church), constructed in 1847, can be seen on the far right in this 1894 photo of The Robert Simpson Company department store at the corner of Queen and Yonge. In 1894 the church was extensively damaged in a fire that began next door in the Simpson building. This fire destroyed the steeple, which was never fully rebuilt. Overtime Knox's location became more commercial with fewer residents in the area. At that time Toronto had strict Lord's Day laws that prevented public transit from running on Sundays, making it imperative that churches be located near to the population. As well, the Robert Simpson Company wanted to expand and offered a financial incentive. These and other factors played a role in the decision to move the church to the ‘suburbs'; and in January 1906, the church officially moved into its present location at 630 Spadina Avenue. The present sanctuary was completed in 1909.

Alexander Topp

Topp received a call to Knox Church, Toronto, and on 16 Sept. 1858 he was inducted its minister. He remained at Knox Church until his death, and his congregation became, under his able leadership, one of the largest Presbyterian churches in Canada. An outstanding Presbyterian leader in Canada, Topp held many high offices in the church. He was elected moderator of the Canada Presbyterian Church in 1868 by unanimous vote. Convener of the committee on union of the Canada Presbyterian Church from 1871 to 1875, he was also secretary of the joint union committee of the four churches which united in 1875 to form the Presbyterian Church in Canada. In 1876 he was elected moderator of the general assembly of the Presbyterian Church in Canada. He was also a member of the general assembly committees on French Canadian evangelization, the Home and Foreign Record of the Presbyterian Church (Toronto), and foreign missions. Credit: Dictionary of Canadian Biography.



The Robert Simpson Co., department store is shown after the great fire of 1894. Knox [at the right] received damage but remained in this location until 1905.

From the corner of Yonge and Richmond Streets April 4, 1897. South elevation of Knox Church on right.


1890 Fire Insurance map shows the layout of the downtown.


Knox on Queen street prior to 1905.


In 1911 steetcar tracks are repaired near the corner of Spadina and Harbord.


In 1923 Knox was the location of a clinic to offer health counselling to new mothers.


1961 Sketch

These photos were taken in the early 60’s. The Harbord streetcar route ended February 25, 1966 when the Bloor subway opened. [John Hutchinson]

Knox House in 1972 and 2017

North West corner of Spadina and Harbord in 1972 and in 2017 [now Royal Bank and food shops]



South East corner of Spadina and Harbord in 1972 and in 2017 [now U of T sports complex]



North East corner of Spadina and Harbord in 1972 and in 2017 [now U fo T grad residence]


Sanctuary in 2016

Knox Bell and inscription

Knox Senior Ministers

Photos courtesy Toronto archives

Description by Al Clarkson and Mary Beth McLean