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 the importance of one planning a vital transportation link on which the colony’s 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 since 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 Beer et seq 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 of some artistic skill to pay his “reckoning”.

Lake Ontario was nearby, indeed closer than it is today as, at the time, the lake lapped the southern fringe of Front Street. Later, part of the waterfront was filled in for industrial and commercial space. The Greenland Fisheries motif probably attracted sailors and, at the least, suited the atmosphere influenced by the adjacent port facilities.

And so, while the leaders of Toronto society sipped Champagne and sherry, and picked at lobster salad and Scotch salmon to fete Stephenson, the hoi polloi was hoisting pots of ale and porter, maybe with a whisky or rum, 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 in Toronto but the Wheatsheaf Tavern on King Street downtown is an example. The latter wears its history lightly and draft beer, chicken wings, and burgers are the stuff of the menu. 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 the white building at the far left, 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, soldiers – 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 remains today.