The Palace and the Pub

This article from an 1853 Canadian engineering journal indicates that the party held that year for Robert Stephenson took place in buildings that formerly housed the Legislative Assembly of the United Province of Canada. Formerly, because in 1852 the Assembly had moved from Toronto to another city – it frequently moved until fixed by Queen Victoria in By-town, now called Ottawa.

The writer describes the dinner as a public one, although whether a charge was exacted to attend is not stated. 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. In provisions and decorations, the Colony did everything it could muster. The rooms featured numerous symbols and insignia of the young Canadian engineering profession. Both Stephenson and some of his hosts made speeches that were carefully noted by attending journalists.

Stephenson was also fêted in Montreal on his Canadian visit, such was his importance as one on whom a vital transportation link planned for the colony depended.

The assembly met on Front Street near Simcoe Street, a mile or so from where I write. The building has long disappeared and Ontario’s current legislature meets is in a different part of town, further north at Queen’s Park.

Within close view of where the gala reception and dinner for Stephenson were held 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 was customary in this time. Wright got himself elected in his own saloon.

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

Lake Ontario was nearby, indeed even closer than now since the water then lapped the southern fringe of Front Street. The Greenland Fisheries motif would have attracted sailors or at least suited the atmosphere of boats and fishing on the nearby water.

And so as the poobahs of society sipped Champagne and old sherry, and picked at lobster salad and Scotch salmon, the hoi polloi of town were hoisting the good ales of the burg and a whisky or two across the street, with rather plainer food.

The Greenland Fisheries tavern had existed for 20 years before Toronto gave that dinner for Stephenson, and continued for decades longer. A good image of it appears in this Toronto history. Very few of these old houses exist in Toronto but the Wheatsheaf Tavern downtown, of which I’ve written earlier, is an example. The latter wears its history lightly, and draft beer, wings, and burgers are where it’s at today: as perhaps it should be, since the first duty of a hostelry is to refresh.

Below, you see a handsome colour image of the Legislative Assembly from Ontario government archives, in 1834. The tavern was very likely the white building to the far left, it had been built the 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 is a handsome set of buildings ringed by a fence and a ground. The other, a modest two-story building in whitewash. One, a place where lawyers, politicians and civil servants worked and occasionally played. The other, a respite for lower orders who nonetheless had good things to drink and eat in their way.

The rich and poor lived and frolicked side by side, one in view of the other. So it was in society, and remains.

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