Egerton Ryerson’s Desk

Ryerson Desk in University Archives, 2006 (Courtesy Charlotte Broome, Ryerson Library)

Twenty-six years after it left the University Archives, the historic desk used by Egerton Ryerson during his years as Chief Superintendent and architect of Ontario’s school system, has returned.

Originally donated to the University in 1971 by the Government of Ontario, along with its companion swivel chair, two filing cabinets and a wood and glass bookcase, the Ryerson desk was borrowed and fittingly used by President Brian Segal from 1980 to 1988. It was then moved to the Dean of Continuing Education’s Office where it resided from 1989 to 2005. After a brief return to the President’s Office, it found its way back to the Archives in 2006, where it is now on display.

The Egerton Ryerson desk has been described as,

“a mid-19th Century large walnut, lift-top twin pedestal writing desk, fitted with a hinged slant-topped leather writing surface and two pedestals with paneled doors enclosing shelved cupboards, with a central drawer to the apron.” (Appraisal Report, 1981).

The original pigeon-hole back section was removed at a later date. The desk was built by the firm of Jacques and Hay, renowned Toronto furniture and cabinet makers of that period.

President Brian Segal using Egerton Ryerson’s Desk, 1980 (Collection Record 76-10/80-071)

Jacques and Hay were called upon to furnish the former Government House at King and Simcoe streets in Toronto, the very first location (1847-1849) of the Upper Canada Normal School, established by Egerton Ryerson for the training of teachers after the passage of the School act in 1846. It is possible that the desk was part of the Jacques and Hay original furnishings for Government House, but one unofficial source dates the Ryerson desk as having been built in 1853.

At least two restorations of the desk were undertaken over the years. One was done in 1980 when the old finish was stripped off, a new stain applied and two original locks replaced because of lost keys. A second restoration took place probably sometime in the 1990s.The historic desk at which one of our most illustrious public figures drew the blueprint for Ontario’s educational future has finally come back to its most appropriate location within our institution – the Ryerson University Archives. What better place to house an artifact which former Archivist Jim Peters deservedly christened, “the cradle of education in Ontario.”