The roar of a Victorian-era retail giant.
During the late 19th century, several downtown Toronto dry-goods merchants developed the potential to grow into major department stores. While Eaton’s and Simpsons evolved into national retailers, their competitors either couldn’t tackle the two giants or fell by the wayside for other reasons. One could-have-been-a-contender was Robert Walker and Sons, a.k.a. the Golden Lion, which was considered the largest retail business in Ontario in the late 1860s.
A native of Brampton, England, Robert Walker moved to Toronto in 1829, where he quickly entered the local clothing business. Around 1836, he formed a partnership with Thomas Hutchinson and operated a store on King Street east of Yonge. Around 1847, Walker opened up his wallet and spent a spectacular amount for the time period ($30,000) to build a stone structure at 33-37 King Street East to house his business. Two years later, the store adopted a golden lion as its symbol.
The intense competition between dry-goods sellers led to bloodthirsty ad copy. Take the following spot Walker prepared in January 1858:
of the late stocks of
CLOTHING & DRY GOODS
The Golden Lion became a key component of one of the city’s most fashionable shopping blocks. Its success prompted a major expansion built in 1866-67 which utilized cast iron columns to free up floor space previously occupied by thick masonry. The new four-storey front on King Street included a 30-foot-high glass window, while a two-storey back section stretching to Colborne Street utilized a 12-foot-wide glass dome for improved natural lighting. Topping the store was a 12-foot-high stone lion. The result, the Globe declared, excelled “anything before seen in this city, or perhaps any other part of Canada.”
Walker was active in the community, serving as a firefighter and on the board of the Necropolis cemetery. He was a devout Methodist who acted as a Sunday school superintendent and donated the land to build the Parliament Street Methodist Church (later demolished to build the Regent Park housing project). Walker retired from the business in 1870; when he died in 1885, the Globe called him “an energetic and upright merchant, a Christian who lived up to his creed and was not afraid to be known as a Christian—Mr. Walker was one of whom Toronto was, and had a right to be, proud.”
Though the store doubled in size again in 1892, by 1898 no one was left in the Walker family to run it. Unlike its competitor Simpsons, where founder Robert Simpson’s sudden death in December 1897 prompted his survivors to sell out, the Golden Lion closed its doors. Subsequent occupants included another short-lived department store and a Liberal campaign office during the 1900 federal election.
After the stone lion was removed on April 6, 1901, the store was demolished to make way for a prominent new development. “In Toronto,” the Hamilton Herald observed, “they are pulling down the old Golden Lion to make room for a new White Elephant in the form of a palace.” The store’s replacement has stood the test of time as a downtown landmark—the King Edward Hotel [PDF].
Additional material from Lost Toronto by William Dendy (Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1978); the January 19, 1858, February 23, 1867, and October 6, 1885 editions of the Globe; and the April 12, 1901 edition of the Toronto Star.