February 2019 Update: The rare and exceptional golden lion sculpture, belonging to the North York Historical Society and on long-term loan to Toronto Public Library at the North York Central Library branch, is currently off view as the library completes renovations.
If you’ve been on the sixth floor Canadiana department at the North York Central Library you will have seen a life-size golden lion in a glass case near the elevator. You probably wondered how the lion came to be there. The lion is also the emblem of the North York Historical Society.
The story starts in 1824 when Thomas Sheppard bought property at the southwest corner of what was then Lansing and is now the intersection of Yonge Street and Sheppard Avenue. He built an inn the following year, calling it the Golden Lion. Over the main doorway stood a life-size lion carved out of a pine stump, the work of Paul Sheppard, who twenty years later, after the first one had been stolen, carved another from oak, using plaster to fashion a mane.
There were extensive stables and barns to the south and sheds that could accommodate a dozen horses and vehicles to the north. The hotel was a large, square, frame building accommodating a score of people with verandahs on its east and south sides. The kitchen constructed of mud blocks may have been the home of the previous owner Thomas Hill.
In September 1833 Sheppard held a pigeon shooting match at the inn. About three hundred passenger or wild pigeons were provided for the occasion and three prizes were given: £10 for the best shot, £5 for the second best and a rifle for third place.
The hotel was a popular site. A dance hall was built over the driving sheds and parties of young people came from Toronto to the inn for dances. Cheese and crackers were served free in the bar and the following ditty was sung:
On my way to Zion
I find my sons
In the Golden Lion.Patricia Hart, Pioneering in North York, 1968, p. 86
It served for a time as the location of a Sunday School and a meeting place for William Lyon Mackenzie and his supporters called the Reform Party. Its 1834 convention was held there. The Golden Lion played a part in the 1837 Rebellion. Mackenzie obtained a horse there in order to escape government forces following the burning of Montgomery’s Tavern on December 7, 1837. Dick Frizell, who had ridden into Toronto from Thornhill to give the alarm of the uprising to the government, stopped for dinner with friends on his way home on December 7.
A later proprietor considered himself a crack shot with a rifle and was also the proud possessor of a fine gold watch, according to a June 30, 1960 story by Ted Chirnside in the Willowdale Enterprise. A wager would be made with one of the inebriated customers regarding their accuracy with a rifle. The targets were the proprietor’s and the customer’s watches hung upon the fence across Yonge Street opposite the Golden Lion. Each man was to fire at the other’s watch. “The confident proprietor allowed the customer the first shot which was always missed and the next shot by the proprietor of course smashed the other timepiece to smithereens.”
“Inevitably one of those contests had to backfire as it did the day the proprietor met his match in a customer who could shoot straight drunk or sober. On this occasion the first shot by the customer completely unsprung the fine gold watch of the innkeeper who naturally decided to hold no further contests of this kind. The battered timepeice hung for many years over the bar as a grim reminder of that black day the crackshot was outshot by the halfshot patron.”
After the turn of the nineteenth century the hotel became the residence of the Rev. T. W. Pickett, a retired Methodist minister. A Sunday School conducted in connection with the Willowdale Episcopal Methodist Church was held in the former bar. This became the nucleus of the Lansing United Church. Pickett gave his daughter, Mrs. George S. Henry, the second golden lion carving and in 1955 it was presented to York Pioneers for the Sharon Temple Museum. The second lion came to be housed in the Novotel Hotel at the North York City Centre, moving in 1997 to the nearby North York Central Library.
In 1922 when North York became a township, the hotel was used to house the municipal offices for a short time. It was torn down in 1928.
References: North York Historical Society archives, book 2, p. 326, 341; book 15, p. 2135-36; 2143, 2145
By Susan Goldenberg, Director, North York Historical Society
For further information:
- “North York’s Golden Lion,” by Brenda Dougall Merriman, April 18 2014 (online)
- “The Golden Lion of North York,” by Glenn Bonnetta and Jeanne Hopkins, The York Pioneer, 2008, pp. 35-36
- “He Put the Lion in Rebellion,” by Peter Kuitenbrouwer, The National Post, June 18 2008, p. A16
- “Lost Sites: Golden Lion Inn / Hotel,” Toronto Historical Association, August 2000 (online)