Historical vignette: The Committee of Oeconomy

Researched and Written by: Roy Schaeffer

 

 

In 1833, by executive order of Convocation, the Law Society created its first standing committee, the Committee of Oeconomy. The Society had proudly opened its new quarters at Osgoode Hall and decided that a committee, chaired by the Treasurer was required for its "oeconomical household and domestic arrangements". The Hall was intended, at that time, to mirror in its operation the British Inns of Court. It was to provide offices and meeting facilities for the Society, chambers for its members, and living quarters for 24 law students in town to attend the sessions of the court.

 

The Committee established highly detailed rules for the dining room, that "Breakfast, Dinner and Teas shall be regularly served up at the following hours: Breakfast at 8 o'clock, A.M.; Dinner at 5:00 o'clock P.M.; and Tea at 8 o'clock P.M." Breakfast was to be charged at one shilling, twopence, luncheon and tea at one shilling, dinner at one shilling, sixpence - and "any and every member being a Barrister may call for a bottle of wine at a charge of five shillings or a pint at 2 shillings sixpence". Bedrooms would be furnished with "one bedstead, one table, two chairs, one wash hand stand, one water pitcher, one basin, one water pot, one candlestick and snuffers" and - as an example of gratuitous detail "no bed curtains be allowed but woollen ones".

 

Anticipating problems with a large group of teenage boarders, the committee ordered that "Cards shall not be played within the Hall; and that Gambling shall be deemed an offence so serious that those offending against this Order shall be excluded from the Hall ... that the House be closed and doors locked at half past ten o'clock P.M.. And if any Students, who are boarding, absent themselves at night from the Hall, it shall be the bounden duty of the Steward to report it once a fortnight to the Committee ... who are authorized to act thereon as they may judge fitting."

 

The Benchers, despite this meticulous preparation, lived to regret their decision to make Osgoode Hall a residence. The very first entry for the minutes of the Committee of Oeconomy, 22 April 1833, is as follows: "Mr. Hill, the Steward, Reports that Mr. Meyers, Mr. Covert, Mr. Wells and one of the Mr. Hewards came home on Friday Night last at 2 o'clock, apparently drunk or so noisy that they could not be in their senses, they hallooed & shouted & played music - he could not say what instrument - very harsh - there are flutes & a clarinet in the house, but this seemed to be somewhat of organ - or mouth organ."

 

What follows for four full years is a litany of woes. On a regular basis the steward reported disorderly students having liquor delivered to their rooms, demands for meals at all hours, verbal abuse of the staff, the theft of furniture from the library, theft of the keys to the library, theft of books from the library, and disruptive activities of an informal fife and drum corps during meals and after hours. For their part, the students petitioned regarding the quality of the meals: "Your memorialists beg leave to represent that the meat provided for them is almost uniformly of the coarsest kind & the bread sour and indigestible. The Tea & Coffee also are usually of a decidedly inferior quality and the Boarder in short is frequently compelled to seek a better meal elsewhere." In response for a student demand for eggs, fish and vegetables, the Benchers replied: "these being luxuries they cannot be expected - and the Steward's duty is to forbear expense of this kind - Should the funds of the establishment enable the Society to employ a gardener the supply of vegetables will assuredly become a most desirable arrangement."

 

The Committee of Oeconomy, beset by complaints and demands, engaged in investigations and hearings regarding the misconduct of students. They were compelled on occasion to use force to eject students - one student rather stylishly refused an expulsion order in the following form: "Without the slightest disrespect or spirit of contumacy towards the Committee I am induced by a sense of duty to myself to decline complying with your request - A voluntary compliance would in the World's opinion convict me of some mysterious & flagrant offence & I should therefor seal my own condemnation." The Society began gradually to cut back on meals and services and it was ultimately with some relief that the building was turned over to the British army in the aftermath of the Rebellion of 1837. When the Society reoccupied Osgoode Hall five years later they converted the students quarters to a library and offices and so ended Osgoode Hall's brief career as a genuine "Inn of Court".