The Palace and the Pub

This 1853 article in a Canadian engineering journal states that the party held that year for British engineer Robert Stephenson (see my earlier post, here) took place in the building that previously housed the legislature of the United Province of Canada. Just a year earlier, 1852, the Assembly moved from Toronto to another place in Ontario. It frequently changed locations until Queen Victoria fixed it in By-town, now known as Ottawa, where it remains.

The writer described the dinner as a public one although whether a charge was exacted to attend is not known. I’d think the affair was by invitation only, for grandees of the young city.

The account makes clear that the event was of the highest order socially. Both in provisions and decorations the Colony did everything it could for a first-class affair. The hall was decorated with symbols and insignia of the young Canadian engineering profession. Stephenson and some of his hosts made speeches carefully noted by attending journalists.

Stephenson was also fêted in Montreal on his Canadian visit, such was his importance as one planning a vital transportation link on which the colony’s future development depended.

The assembly complex was on Front Street near Simcoe Street just a mile or so from where I write. The buildings have long disappeared. Ontario’s legislature now meets in a different part of the city, not too far north at Queen’s Park.

Within close view of the Stephenson reception was a resort where the more usual preoccupations of Beeretseq were addressed: the Greenland Fisheries tavern. It was owned by a citizen named Wright who was also an alderman. The tavern hosted municipal elections, as customary at the time. Wright got himself elected in his own saloon, a neat arrangement.

The pub’s interesting name derives from a sign in the premises depicting a scene in Greenland and hunters snagging a whale. One account states it was painted by a sailor with some artistic skill to pay his “reckoning”.

Lake Ontario was nearby, indeed it was even closer than it is now as at the time the water lapped the southern fringe of Front Street. Later, part of the waterfront was filled in for industrial and commercial space. The Greenland Fisheries motif would have attracted sailors or at least suited the maritime atmosphere and port facilities.

And so as the poobahs of Toronto society sipped Champagne and old sherry and picked at lobster salad and Scotch salmon to fete Stephenson the hoi polloi were hoisting pots of ale and porter, maybe with a whisky or two, across the street. As for the food at the Greenland Fisheries, it would have been decidedly plainer than the engineers and their guests enjoyed.

The tavern had existed for 20 years before Toronto held its dinner for Stephenson, and continued in business for decades longer. A good image of it appears in this Toronto history. Very few 19th century taverns still stand but the Wheatsheaf Tavern on King Street downtown is an example. The latter wears its history lightly and draft beer, wings, and burgers are where it’s at – as perhaps it should be since the first duty of a public house is to refresh. (History, if it comes at all, is a last course, eh?).

Below you see a handsome colour image of the Ontario Legislative Assembly from government archives, as it was in 1834. The tavern was very likely in the white building at the far left, it had been built only a year before. You see also below a sketch from City of Toronto archives showing the two structures in propinquity, c.1850.

Let’s compare palace and pub. One, a handsome set of buildings ringed by a fence and a ground. The other, a modest two-story building in whitewash. The first, a place where lawyers, politicians and civil servants worked and occasionally played. The other, a respite for lower orders in society – artisans, labourers, small tradesmen – who nonetheless had good things to drink and eat too.

The rich and less-well-off lived and frolicked side by side, one in view of the other. So it was in society, and so it is today.

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