For more than 100 years, a modest hotel graced the northeast corner of King and York Streets.
First as a modest wooden-frame structure—two-storeys and painted white—and later as a handsome red-brick building, the Shakespeare Hotel graced the northeast corner of King and York Streets for more than 100 years, playing host to countless visitors and serving as backdrop to drama.
It would prove to be an enduringly prosperous location for a hotel as the nascent city of Toronto developed. The intersection was a short walk away from the railway station, steamers on the lake and, as Toronto grew, theatres and other amusements. King Street developed into the community’s foremost shopping thoroughfare and centre of social life.
On the south side of the intersection would stand the John Howard–designed Chewett Building, the city’s first business block, containing offices and stores and the British Coffee House. Upper Canada College and Government House were just down the street. And once public transit was introduced, passing streetcars could carry hotel guests to all corners of the city.
The building that would become the Shakespeare Hotel was built in about 1831, on the site where Louis Bright and his brother James had operated a blacksmith shop. The two-storey frame structure had a gable overlooking the York Street side, atop what would become the main hotel entrance. It originally housed a Mechanics’ Boarding House, operated first by J. Robinette Garside, and then, from 1835, by J. Jamieson. By 1843, an Englishman, James Mirfield, and his family repainted it, added a saloon, and converted it into a hotel.
The Shakespeare was patronized in particular by actors, stage performers, and touring companies—which was natural because at its rear stood one of Toronto’s earliest theatres. The Theatre Royal, opened in mid-1830s, was located in an old cabinet or carpenter workshop. Now the theatre was, Jessie MacTaggart wrote in the Globe and Mail of May 7, 1938, “the most pretentious the town [had] ever had” and could accommodate three hundred spectators in tiered seats.
Set back from King Street by one hundred feet, the theatre was accessed by a narrow lane that ran along the east side of the Shakespeare Hotel. Its facilities were modest, but hosted a variety of popular tragedies and comedies like Dion Boucicault’s London Assurance.
The boys at the nearby Upper Canada College were known to sneak out at night to take in a show at the Theatre Royal. On one such occasion, Graeme Mercer Adam writes in A History of Upper Canada College, 1829-1892 (Rowsell & Hutchison, 1893), a school master spotted some students at a performance of The Taming of the Shrew and followed them home, watching them shimmy over the school grounds fence and through their dormitory window. The next day, the master called upon the boys and “said that as they had seen the players give the Taming of a Shrew, he would entertain them with a new play called the ‘Taming of a Boy,’ and that they could individually star in the title-role by each writing one of the four Gospels.”
The district surrounding the Shakespeare Hotel, from King to Pearl and from York to Bay, consisted mostly of working-class houses crowded very closely together. A fire on August 21, 1843, all but wiped out these wooden-frame buildings, devastating the inhabitants and their families. The alarm was sounded at ten-thirty in the morning, but the voluntary fire department had only small, goose-neck hand-pump fire engines, manned by groups of sixteen men. “These engines,” John Ross Robertson wrote in Landmarks of Toronto, Volume 1 (1894), “threw only a five-eighth or three-quarter inch stream about 140 feet.” The volunteer corps were no match for the conflagration which, within an hour, stretched its intense heat westward along King and back to the Broad Lane.
The best approach the volunteer firemen—and the gathered crowd of workers from the wharves and the nearby Jacques & Hay factory—could devise for handling the situation was to minimize the fire’s property damage by emptying the contents of buildings into the street.
As the flames approached the Shakespeare Hotel, people rushed in and began hucking beds, bureaus, and other furniture down the stairs or out the windows—to Mirfield’s great chagrin. From the doorway, he loudly admonished Fire Chief T.D. Harris and his mob, certain that his building would be safe from the fire. As Mirfield’s bewildered theatrical guests looked on, their belongings landed in the street. Much was damaged, and some was carried off by thieves into the safe anonymity of the crowd.
“One fellow in his anxiety to make himself useful was carrying away a cloak to some place of safety no doubt,” Robertson wrote. “Another had commenced to bundle everything into the street, and it was only by very rough measures that the house was freed from them.” Mirfield grasped the cloak from the would-be rescuer’s clutches and returned it to its proper place.
By the time the fire was out, it was estimated that thirty to forty houses had been destroyed. While the Theatre Royal was damaged, the Shakespeare Hotel was largely untouched.
After the crowd helped carry the furniture and belongings piled in the street back into the hotel, Mirfield opened the bar and served everyone drinks on the house. One person in the crowd, moved by events, took up a collection for the newly homeless families of the district. In the wake of the fiasco, Fire Chief Harris resigned his post.
In the 1840s, the notorious Markham Gang—a wide, highly organized criminal network, with its roots in the 1837 Rebellion—terrorized Canada West with crimes ranging from horse rustling to counterfeiting, armed robbery, and general thuggery. Among the gang’s members was Stephen Turney, a former member of the British Army who had served two years at Kingston Penitentiary for robbery. By 1846, the Irishman was working as a tailor’s apprentice in Markham, but was a frequent guest at the Shakespeare Hotel, where his wife was employed.
It was during one of his trips to Toronto that people noticed Turney buying jewellery and expensive clothes for his wife—as well as some fine gentleman’s wares for himself. When he couldn’t explain his sudden wealth, he was linked to the robbery and murder of William McPhillips, a clerk in Francis Logan’s general store in Markham. McPhillips had been fatally struck over the head with a hammer in the midst of a robbery on November 12, 1846.
Turney was arrested in Markham by J.B. Townsend, who had served in the same regimental unit that helped fuel the British Colonist newspaper’s highly sensationalist reports of Turney’s arrest and trial. He claimed innocence, and that he was merely an accomplice to the crime.
But his wife, utterly convinced of his innocence, inadvertently helped convict him according to MacTaggart in the Globe and Mail on May 7, 1938: “Then came the letter from the jail. She knew it was from him, though she couldn’t read. How was she to know that in it he told her where he had hidden the stolen money so that she might use it in his defense? She had gone to a neighbor with it, and now they say that had hanged him.”
Turney was found guilty—one in a series of 1846 convictions that succeeded in breaking up the Markham Gang. In the same article, MacTaggart speculates what Mrs. Turney must have felt—at work in the Shakespeare Hotel—as thousands of Torontonians rushed past outside, on their way to the old jail on Berkeley Street to see Turney hanged on June 23, 1847.
Additional Image: Advertisement from The Globe, March 8. 1877.