Historicist: The Red Lion Inn
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Historicist: The Red Lion Inn

The tavern's role in trade, rebellion, and the foundation of Yorkville.

Red Lion Inn from John Ross Robertson's Landmarks of Toronto, Volume 1 (1894).

In the 1890s, journalist and historian John Ross Robertson visited the long-neglected premises of the former Red Lion Inn. Although “[t]he most famous hostelry in the Annals of York,” he wrote in Landmarks of Toronto, Volume 1 (1894), it had lately been largely abandoned, with one section reduced to being a feed-and-provisions store. As he moved through the dusty and decrepit barroom and second-floor ballroom, he imagined them “thronged with the ghosts of bearded, bronzed farmers, patriotic reformers, intriguing politicians, bright eyed girls and spruce young men—all classes that made up the society of York and its environs. Its walls echo with strains of music and the merry flick-flack of dancing feet, with fierce political harangues, noisy disputes and wine-provoked laughter.” With his evocative imagery, Robertson illustrates the Red Lion’s role, like many taverns in pioneer days Ontario, in forging a community out of the wilderness.

Red Lion Inn, ca. 1886, from the {a href="http://www.torontopubliclibrary.ca/detail.jsp?Entt=RDMDC-PICTURES-R-1852&R=DC-PICTURES-R-1852"}Toronto Public Library{/a}.

Of Pennsylvania German extraction, Daniel Tiers put down roots in the German settlement at Markham in about 1794. A chairmaker by trade, he advertised his wares—”armed chairs, Sittees, and dinning ditto, fan-back and brace-back Chairs” [sic], all built to order and painted to the consumer’s satisfaction—in the Upper Canada Gazette (January 23, 1802). But furniture making proved less than lucrative, and Tiers changed lines of work. By 1808, he’d opened a “Beefsteak and Beer House in York, “a house of entertainment,” according to a notice in the Gazette (January 12, 1808), “where his friends will be served with victualing in good order, on the shortest notice, and at a cheap rate.”

Next, in 1809 or 1810, he acquired a property on the northeast corner of Yonge Street and Concession One (today’s Bloor Street)—deepest wilderness in those days—and hired a contractor named Sanders to build a wooden-frame building. The non-descript, clapboard result featured the front door centred between two ground-floor windows and directly beneath the centre window of the second floor. Above the door, Tiers hung a huge sign painted with a lion rampant, announcing the establishment as the Red Lion Inn.

View of the yard at the Red Lion Inn from John Ross Robertson's Landmarks of Toronto, Volume 1 (1894).

The Red Lion’s location proved to be opportune, as Bloor and Yonge (and Davenport nearby) emerged as important transit routes between the bustling city of York and the agrarian hinterland. The Red Lion Inn provided well-earned refuge for travellers (and their horses) making the difficult journey along the hazardous, stump-strewn country trails.

The Blue Hill Ravine (near present-day Rosedale subway station), with winding wagon tracks cut into the steep hillsides, proved particularly strenuous for farmers hauling loads. Until Yonge was macadamized as far as Holland Landing in the 1850s, passage during the spring thaw and rainy periods was exceedingly difficult, when the softened roadway “was indescribably bad” in Robertson’s characterization. The tavern was also a regular stop for the stagecoach trade, allowing locals to learn news from travellers and stage drivers as they sought refreshment.

Located just north of the despised Bloor Street toll gate, which had opened in the 1830s to raise funds for road improvements, the Red Lion Inn frequently provided lodgings for farmers from the districts north of the city on the way to market in Toronto. By staying overnight at the Red Lion and proceeding to market first thing in the morning, farmers could return the same day to avoid paying a double toll.

Ballroom at the Red Lion Inn from John Ross Robertson's Landmarks of Toronto, Volume 1 (1894).

The hostelry served a broader clientele than local farmers, acting as a waypoint for winter sleighing parties (then popular with Toronto’s citizens), and its second-floor ballroom was frequently used by area residents for social events. Robertson paints a picture of candlelit revelry taking place under the ballroom’s 18-foot arched ceiling. “How many a couple, whose voices are now hushed in the tombs, have whispered soft words in this room?” he asks. “Perhaps here many a maiden has breathed that wonderful ‘Yes.’ Many an officer from the Garrison or half-pay officers settled in the neighbourhood frequented these social gatherings and lent to them something like an air of aristocracy.”

As one of the earliest establishments in the Yorkville area, the Red Lion naturally served as the public building and polling station during elections, and as the scene of court sessions and town meetings. Tiers, who worked as constable for the Town of York and keeper of the Court of Quarter Sessions and the Home District Court at various points in time, expanded his entrepreneurial activities on the Red Lion site to include storekeeping in 1811. He bought produce from local farmers, according to W. John McIntyre in the Material History Review (Spring 1984) [PDF]. And he made arrangements, in 1812, with the editor of the York Gazette to accept produce the newspaper sometimes received as payment from subscribers. He was actively involved in local business and improvement associations.

Tavern keepers, Margaret McBurney and Mary Byers write in Tavern in the Town: Early Inns and Taverns of Ontario (University of Toronto Press, 1987), were often among the most respected and important citizens in pioneer communities. Tiers seems to have fit this profile. Robertson notes Tiers was remembered as being “pleasant and affable and much inclined to give oracular opinions on every question that might arise.”

Barroom at the Red Lion Inn from John Ross Robertson's Landmarks of Toronto, Volume 1 (1894).

By the 1830s, the Red Lion Inn was crowded nightly, especially by farmers, who heatedly discussed the political issues of the day and the reformers’ solutions over pints of ale. As tensions grew in that tumultuous decade, Robertson notes, this hostelry became “the most important political centre in the district.” During elections, when voting might take days, the tavern was a boisterous scene.

After William Lyon Mackenzie’s expulsion from the Legislature on December 12, 1831—after being accused of printing false and scandalous defamation in his Colonial Advocate newspaper—a by-election was held at the Red Lion on January 2, 1832.

When the town clerk called for nominations from the crowd, Mackenzie’s name was proposed, and nearly all of the 2,000 locals assembled shot up their hands in agreement. When a Mr. Street was proposed to stand as opponent, a single hand was raised. Nevertheless, Street demanded that a ballot be held. Over the course of two hours of polling, there was still only one vote in favour of Street. Perhaps fearing the fisticuffs and violence that typified elections of the time, and as the day grew long and the electors continued to imbibe, Street withdrew from the contest. An overflowing crowd cheered Mackenzie in the ballroom—where the rabble-rouser was awarded a gold medal and gave a speech—before proceeding outside to their sleighs.

A triumphal procession of 134 sleighs wound its way into town, with pipers playing and banners unfurled, past the Governor’s residence and the Legislature. One sleigh even carried a portable printing press, printing and distributing a proclamation to passersby.

(Red Lion Inn, ca. 1886, from WikiMedia Commons.)

In Toronto of Old (Willing & Williamson, 1878), Henry Scadding compared the Red Lion’s instrumental role in the formation of Yorkville to that of a monastery or castle in forming the nucleus of communities in Europe. By 1834, the neighbourhood adjacent to the Red Lion included a tailor, a butcher, a brewery, and the residences of prominent citizens like W.B. Jarvis and retired colonel Joseph Wells.

The Red Lion evolved to accommodate the emerging community, enlarged with additions built onto the building’s original centre structure. The building, originally clapboard, was stuccoed and painted white, and occupied a 100-foot-long frontage on Yonge Street. Writing in the late 1870s, Scadding argued that the Red Lion could not “be characterized as picturesque,” but admitted that its seemingly Flemish-inspired style was unique, if not “in harmony with its surroundings.” By this time, the barroom included a large coat of arms carved in stone—with a beer barrel, brick mould, anvil, jackplane, and sheep’s head—to commemorate the occupations of the first aldermen of the incorporated village of Yorkville.

As Yorkville had grown, it became a popular (and cheaper) place to live for those who worked downtown. As it evolved into a suburb, the stagecoach trade along Yonge Street likewise evolved into the city’s earliest mass-transportation line. In 1849, cabinetmaker Burt Williams established a horse-drawn omnibus line. For sixpence, the regular omnibus service carried passengers between St. Lawrence Market and the Red Lion Inn. The service proved popular, eventually leading to the establishment of a horse-drawn streetcar line along the same route operated by the Toronto Street Railways in the 1860s.

In its nearly 80 years of operation, the Red Lion passed through the hands of many proprietors. According to George Walton’s York Commercial Directory, Street Guide and Register, 1833–4 (Thomas Dalton, 1834), the Red Lion was by then operated by J. Price. Thomas Young operated the establishment in 1846–47, and William Trueman in 1850. It passed to George Davis, although, by 1857, his widow is listed as the sole proprietress in The Canada Directory (Lovell, 1857). William Kirk owned the Red Lion in 1869 (according to The Province of Ontario Gazetteer and Directory, Robertson & Cook, 1869) and, after a series of additional proprietors, Justice William Glenholme Falconbridge was attempting the sell the property by the time of Robertson’s writing.

In 1880, the Red Lion Inn fell victim to Temperance Society fervour and lost its liquor license, F.R. Berchem writes in Opportunity Road: Yonge Street 1860–1939 (Natural Heritage/Natural History Inc., 1996). Its barroom was converted into a feed store, and another portion was put to use as a fruit store. Its former patrons moved on to other taverns, like Mike O’Halloran’s, a little further north where Yonge intersected St. Clair. The Red Lion was eventually torn down. Its location became that of Albert Britnell’s long-standing bookstore, which is today a Starbucks located just south of the Toronto Reference Library.

Additional sources consulted: Eric Arthur, No Mean City, 3rd Edition (University of Toronto Press, 1986 [1964]); F.R. Berchem, The Yonge Street Story: 1793–1860 (Dundurn, 1996); Dorothy Duncan, Hoping for the Best, Preparing for the Worst (Dundurn, 2012); E.C. Guillet, Pioneer Inns and Taverns, Volume 1 (1954); Ralph Magel, ed., 200 Years Yonge: A History (Dundurn, 1999); Shawn Micallef, Stroll: Psychogeographic Walking Tours of Toronto (Coach House Books, 2010).

Every Saturday, Historicist looks back at the events, places, and characters that have shaped Toronto into the city we know today.