A brief history of Traill College

TUA photo by Parks

Peterborough, the Rome of the Kawarthas, was built atop seven hills. Traill College is fortuitously perched upon one of these iconic, glacial drumlins. From Kerr House (1853) to Bagnani Hall (2010), there are over three centuries of built heritage at the College.

Yet, the history of human occupation of the area extends beyond the memory of the Anishinabe whose ancestors used the nearby great portage from Chemong Lake. In 1818, immigrants from the Cumberland region of England formed the Smith Town settlement nearby.

After the arrival of 2500 Irish in 1825, ushered by Peter Robinson, his eponymous borough grew quickly and the region’s wealthy soon made the drumlin their home. Yet for Traill College, history started with Scott House.

Originally built in 1882, the Victorian structure has seen many inhabitants, including the Peterborough industrialist, mayor, and Senator George Cox. By the mid-20th century, the once stately manor at 300 London Street had been converted into apartments and was starting to look its age. It was this building that Trent’s founders chose for the site of the university’s first women’s college.

Master planning architect Ron Thom, leading a talented group that included young architect Bill Lett Sr. and others, set to work designing mid-century modern additions and furniture for the College. In September 1964, following a thorough renovation, the well-appointed residence building opened, with a seminar room, dining hall, an apartment for principal Fry, and room for 20 students.

Traill, along with Peter Robinson, formed the backbone of

Trent’s college system downtown. While Trent is often called the “Oxford on the Otonabee,” founding president Tom
Symons actually had England’s Durham University more in mind for the planning of the university.

Durham University’s colleges can be found both in the city centre and on the outskirts of the medieval English city. Like Durham (and unlike Cambridge and Oxford’s system of autonomous, affiliated colleges), Trent’s colleges were federated with the larger university. As such, many functions were administered centrally, such as the hiring of faculty or the granting of degrees.
Following the collegiate model, Traill had its own principal, dons, senior tutor, dining hall, library, junior common room for students, and senior common room for faculty. This helped form a (very Canadian) dual identity, where students could feel an affinity for both their college community and for Trent University.

Today, people often forget that Traill College was originally intended for women only. Its namesake, Catharine Parr Traill (1802-1899) was a 19th-century author and early naturalist who lived in the Peterborough region. Traill was the perfect example of someone who bridged the gap between the arts and sciences and of an articulate, intelligent woman who lived in an era dominated by masculine words and actions.

TUA photo by Parks Studio
A Park’s Studio Photo

Indeed, as a press release from 1966 announced, all of the College’s original buildings were named after prominent women “of the Peterborough and Trent Valley who are noted for historic, artistic, or literary reasons.” As the College expanded, the original Traill House was renamed after Jeanette Scott and was soon accompanied by Isabella Valancy Crawford House (300 London Street), Anne
Langton House (554 Reid Street), and Frances Stewart House (292 London Street).

In mid-20th century Canada, higher education had been a masculine domain. The founders of Trent purposefully wanted to encourage women to become part of the university; not by creating a spaces of isolation, but rather by fostering a place where an alternative, feminine voice could be nurtured.

Although Traill has been fully co-education since the early 1970s, it remains a space for alternative discourse. Today, it is often seen as a counter-space, familiarly Trent, yet different. It is a place that values scholarship, but also offers a safe refuge or oasis from the tribulations of academic life.
During the first decade of its existence, the student population at Trent doubled each year. At the same time that an ambitious construction project was undertaken at the Nassau Mills campus, Traill College was also rapidly expanding along London Street.

By the end of 1965, additions had been completed that would allow for 93 students to live in residence, facilitate dining for 175 people, and offer new offices for 11 Fellows of the College. Members of the College that could not live in residence were nonetheless expected to eat their meals in the dining hall and attend all collegiate events and functions. And why wouldn’t they? The College offered a unique and dynamic learning space that women at Trent could call their own.

By the end of 1968, Rubidge Street (that had originally cut through the middle of the College) was closed which allowed for the completion of Katherine Wallis Hall (Ron Thom’s only brick structure at the university). With the opening of Wallis Hall, the College now had even more classrooms, offices, an additional 100 residential spaces for students, and its iconic student hangout, The Trend.

Upon her death, Lillian Pearce Kerr’s property at 299 Dublin Street became part of the College and was officially named Kerr House in 1971. Built in 1853, it is the oldest structure at Traill. Beneath its golden bricks (part of an 1870 extension) can be found the original and unique stacked-plank structure. The ground floor of the building became the College library (that moved from its original location in Langton House).

In 1972, Thomas Nind, the second president of the university, moved his office into the second floor of Kerr House. Nind believed in the importance of the downtown colleges and the physical link they forged with the Peterborough community. Several works of art created by his wife, Jean, still hang in the college that, for a time, was at the nerve center for the university.

It would not be an exaggeration to say that Traill College has witnessed more change than any of the remaining Trent colleges. In 1983, the university started leasing Bradburn House, a former private residence, orphanage, and nursing home. The building was purchased by the university in 1991 and it was used as residence, for academic skills and counseling, and has a maintenance shop.

TUA photo by Roy Nicholls5
Traill College in the Winter

In 2008, it was announced that the College would become dedicated to the university’s growing number of graduate students. As part of this new chapter, the university sold off Bradburn and Langton houses and the parking lot south of London Street.

Wallis Hall underwent a major transformation, adding a central elevator and converting the majority of its residence rooms into graduate student offices. Funds from the bequest of the beloved Gilbert and Stewart Bagnani led to the construction of the College’s premier lecture space, Bagnani Hall, and its memorial Bagnani Room that opened in 2010.

Many students hold a deep love for Traill and, while proud to have gone to Trent, consider themselves Traillites first. This list includes screenwriters, politicians, scientists, professors, and a Nobel Prize laureate, Dr. James Orbinski.

Currently, there are 575 graduate students affiliated with the College and an additional 30 upper-year undergraduates who have decided to join the Traill community. In many ways, Traill is a microcosm of the entire university. Its successes are shared by Trent, as are its shortcomings.
This winter, President Leo Groarke will ask for an external review of the College where the Trent community can voice their opinions about the role that the Traill should have in the university’s future.

In just 50 years, the College has amassed a rich history of scholarship, community engagement, and student activism. If Traill is special to you, this is the year to make your sentiments known. If you have yet to experience Traill, then there is no time like the present to see it for yourself!