Historicist: To the Spirit of Children at Play
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Historicist: To the Spirit of Children at Play

Every Saturday morning Historicist looks back at the events, places, and characters—good and bad—that have shaped Toronto into the city we know today.
Photo of Toronto’s Peter Pan Statue, City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1231, Item 716.
Those words are inscribed at the base of the Peter Pan statue that stands in the square, now known as Glenn Gould Park, at Avenue Road and St. Clair Avenue. When, in the 1920s, city officials decided to turn two lots they’d acquired at that intersection into public parks, local residents asked that part be set aside as a children’s garden. So determined was the College Heights Association of Rate Payers that the organization offered to raise all the funds necessary to erect an exact replica of the fourteen-foot bronze statue of Peter Pan from Kensington Gardens in London. Playing the flute atop a tree stump adorned with fairies, rabbits and squirrels, James M. Barrie’s mischievous literary character was the perfect symbol of the vivaciousness of youth to encourage imaginative play in the city’s parks.

2008_06_21Wendy1.jpgBy this time, Peter Pan had long been a popular attraction at Kensington Gardens. It was in that park that author Barrie, as recounted in the less than historically accurate Finding Neverland, had first met and drawn inspiration to create his character from the Llelewyn Davies children. With a hit West End theatrical production and numerous books about his adventures, Peter Pan became so popular that whenever Barrie strolled through Kensington Gardens he was constantly besieged by children asking where they could find the boy who wouldn’t grow up. In 1906, Barrie hatched plans to place a Peter Pan statue in the park and commissioned Sir George Frampton as sculptor. It took years for Barrie to be completely satisfied with the statue’s design. Finally, without publicity or announcement, Barrie placed the statue in the park under cover of the night so that it seemed to have magically appeared one May morning in 1912.
The erection of Toronto’s replica—which features Barrie’s signature—didn’t involve the same level of secrecy when it was unveiled on September 14, 1929, but it was still a big event. While the park’s fountain—a replica of the fountain at The Hague’s Peace Palace donated by prominent realtor H.H. Williams—was also dedicated that Saturday morning, the crowd was clearly more excited about the unveiling of the Peter Pan statue.
The day’s festivities featured children dressed as pirates and fairies mingling with Mayor Samuel McBride and Premier George Howard Ferguson amid the fanfare of regimental music. By the time of its Toronto unveiling, the style of the statue itself had actually fallen out of favour among England’s modernists—one newspaper had recently described it as a “wedding cake sculpture fit only for the mid-Victorians.” But that did nothing to dampen the enthusiasm of the Toronto crowd.
To coincide with the unveiling, Barrie published this whimsical message in the Globe newspaper: “I am proud to hear of the honor Toronto is doing to Peter Pan by erecting the statue, and am sure he himself is so swollen with elation thereby that his only regret is my having a share in the glory. It is melancholy to reflect that if he had been less cocky he would have had fewer statues.” The comment was in reference to the six other replicas of the Kensington Gardens statue that had been erected in Brussels (1924), St. John’s (1925), Camden, New Jersey (1926), Perth, Australia (1927), and Liverpool (1928). In each case, the symbol of everlasting youth has attracted generations of children in the spirit of play, just as Peter Pan’s adventures have enchanted generations of readers.
Photo by ChrisJackson from the Torontoist Flickr Pool.