The handsome life-size golden lion sculpture (c. 1834) from the landmark Golden Lion Hotel, soon to be back on display at North York Central Library, is the emblem of the North York Historical Society.
He’s seen and heard a lot in his 185+ years! Back in 1960, when he lived at Sharon Temple north of Toronto, his future was uncertain. What might have been on his mind? The York Pioneer and Historical Society published this fanciful and historic account.
Republished with permission from The York Pioneer, 1960, pages 52-56, York Pioneer and Historical Society, Toronto, with warm thanks of the NYHS.
The Golden Lion: His Own Tale
The other day I heard something that disturbed me very much. Some of the York Pioneers were here in the Temple at Sharon and happened to mention that they are thinking of getting rid of me. That I take up too much space. I was downcast to think that they could regard me as so much old lumber. But if they are determined that I must go, I shall go with my head high.
Someone told me a long time ago that I have royal blood in my veins, so I always try to behave as a royal lion should. Numberless children have sat on my back and pulled my mane and tail, but I have never been known to snap at one.
When I lived at the Golden Lion Hotel, I liked that best of all because there was so much company. We had visitors every day and sometimes a dance in the evening. My master, Mr. Shephard, used to try his hand at playing several instruments, particularly the bassoon. Sometimes in the winter, merry sleighing parties of young people would come up from the city.
Then the stage-coaches would stop at the Golden Lion Hotel almost every day and I became acquainted with the drivers and some of the passengers. The first stage-coaches that I remember were run by George Playter and his sons. Later William Weller ran the line, and then there was Charles Thompson of Summerhill.
The farmers used to team their grain and other produce down Yonge Street to the city, as they said this was the best road. Often on the way home the farmers would stop at the Golden Lion Hotel to get warmed up, as they said it was a cold drive from the St. Lawrence Market. I used to hear them talking about prices and the poor weather for crops.
Several times I heard my master Mr. Thomas Shephard talking about the rising cost of everything. He said that when he took out his tavern license the first time in December, 1822, it was £6. In January 1831, he had to pay £7.10. I was sorry to think he was disturbed.
Every farmer had a dog of some description, so that in time I came to know all the farm dogs for miles around. Often I wished to meet another lion, and although I heard there were two or three in Toronto, and sometimes a visiting circus lion, I never met one of them.
One day I heard there was a lot of trouble, someone called William Lyon Mackenzie was dissatisfied with the government and was called a rebel.
Be that as it may, some of our neighbours joined with him, so I felt obliged to adopt a sympathetic attitude. One neighbour was Mr. Gibson. Another Shepard family had a farm nearby but were not related to my master. Some of these Shepard boys joined the radicals and were captured after the trouble at Montgomery’s Tavern. Thomas and Michael Shepard were sentenced to transportation for life but escaped from Kingston along with John Montgomery and several others. I heard them talk about it after they came back from the United States. They said Mr. Montgomery broke his leg when escaping over the wall at the jail, that a heavy rainstorm in the night helped to hide their escape.
Just when I thought things would quiet down, we had one of the worst times of my life. It started as a political meeting by several hundred Reformers at the Golden Lion Hotel. Robert Baldwin was chairman. When the meeting was nicely started, Sheriff Jarvis came with a crowd of men, attacked the Reformers, chased them through the fields and of course broke up the meeting. Mr. Price and Mr. Hincks had to run for their lives, so the men said later in talking about it. I don’t want to see another night such as that one in 1840. I heard that some of the men were tried later at the Home District Assizes on charges of riot and assault.
Some time later there was plenty of talk about a wood-burning invention that would run on tracks without any horses or oxen to pull it. Some even called it an iron horse. Of course I had to take this on faith, as I never saw the engine. Then the day came when this engine made its first trip from Toronto to Machell’s Corners in 1853. After that there were not so many stage-coaches on Yonge Street, and they finally disappeared from the Street altogether. I missed my old friends the stage-drivers and horses.
One sad day I heard that my master had died. I felt disconsolate wondering what would happen to me, but my new master I liked very much. He was Rev. T. W. Pickett and on Sundays held Sunday School in the bar-room. On their way to Sunday School the children would sit on my back and pretend to ride all over the world. Sometimes in the warm weather I found this very trying, but I always tried to behave as a royal lion should.
Rev. T. W. Pickett was a Liberal in politics and used to say that at the time of the trouble, William Lyon Mackenzie slept at the Golden Lion Hotel. I did not like to tell my new master that many people claimed Mr. Mackenzie had slept at their homes during his escape. We should be careful about such claims. But we are certain that after that dreadful engagement at Montgomery’s Tavern many of the old neighbours had to run for their lives. Mr. Mackenzie escaped up Yonge Street, overtook Colonel Van Egmond and some others below the Golden Lion Hotel and turned westward. In his flight that night, Mr. Mackenzie passed our place but did not stop in, as Colonel Fitzgibbon and other military were searching for him.
Then one day I heard that my kind master, Rev. T. W. Pickett, had died, but I soon found that my new master was his son-in-law, Mr. Henry. Some people called him George S. Henry. Mr. Henry decided to take me to his place to live and so I stayed on the back verandah of the Henry home for many years. Of course I missed my old friends from the Golden Lion Hotel but I enjoyed the company of the four Henry children. One day there was a storm with great gusts of wind that blew me off the verandah and broke my leg. My kind master had it fixed but on damp days I feel a touch of rheumatism there. After my leg was mended, my master decided to have me gone over. My coat was beige and the man touched up my mane with orange colour so that I can’t say I liked the effect altogether.
Sometimes some farm dogs would come around and tell me the news. They said there were new things on the roads called automobiles and that my master was called the father of good roads in Ontario. These automobiles run so fast the farm dogs complain they can’t always keep up with them, so at times the dogs take a ride inside. The dogs tell me they feel this is beneath the dignity of a real dog.
One day I found that my master Mr. Henry was a Conservative in politics, opposite to his father-in-law, Rev. T. W. Pickett, so now I met entirely different people. Then one day I heard my master say that he had decided to give me to some people called the York Pioneers. I was very sad, wondering how I had offended him, as I never mentioned politics. Perhaps it was my orange coloured mane he didn’t like.
My new home surprised me very much. It was called a Temple but reminded me of a wedding-cake, the kind I saw sometimes at the Golden Lion Hotel when we had a wedding. The people did not look like pioneers I used to know, who wore bulky home-spun clothes and in the winter buffalo and coon-skin coats. Someone said these York Pioneers came up from Toronto to run the Temple, not as a temple but as a museum. This was very puzzling, but they put me inside the front door and said they would have to clean me up. Someone did me over gold colour, so now I feel better without my mane being that orange colour. This is the first time I have lived indoors and while I don’t mind the summers and all the visitors asking silly questions, I miss my old friends from the Golden Lion Hotel and the Henry children. One day some retired farmers visited the Temple to see the pioneer farm implements and said they were surprised to see me there. One farmer told another that when he used to stop in at the Golden Lion Hotel on his way up Yonge Street from the St. Lawrence Market, I used to wave good-bye. Be that as it may, I always conduct myself in a dignified manner in the Temple.
In the autumn, these York Pioneers lock the front door of the Temple, and I do not see one of them until spring. Someone said they live in comfortable houses in Toronto for the winter. There is no one to tell me the news and I am lonely for the first time. I miss the rumbling of the wagons and the teamsters cracking their whips. In the winter I used to enjoy hearing the sleigh-runners squeaking on the snow on a frosty day and the sound of sleigh-bells. All that is changed now and some York Pioneers hung some sleigh-bells in the Temple. The bells are antiques now, so they say, but sometime in the winter, when I am alone, I reach up and shake the bells to hear their gay tinkle again.
One spring three of these so-called Pioneers came and said the window-sashes would have to be painted, that the wood was shrunken and was letting in the rain. I could have told them that, but they didn’t ask me. These Pioneers were called McFall, Storey and Scott, and often came fussing around the Temple, once the weather was warm.
This brings me back to where I started, that the York Pioneers said they will have to get rid of me. The York Pioneers even said they might send me to a place called the North York Public Library. I hope it will be livelier than the Temple. But wherever I go, I shall go with my head held high, in a manner befitting a royal lion.
Editor’s note: The original proprietor of the Golden Lion Hotel is thought to have made the lion from oak and the mane from putty. Machell’s Corners is now known as Aurora. On the exterior wall of the Union Station, Front Street, Toronto, is a bronze plaque with the inscription:
“At this place on May 16, 1853 the first train in Ontario hauled by a steam locomotive started and ran to Aurora.” For details of the Rebellion of 1837, see Charles Lindsey’s “Life and Times of William Lyon Mackenzie,” also histories by J. C. Dent and E. C. Guillet. The annual tavern licenses were taken from “General Quarter Sessions of the Peace, Home District.”
Thomas Shephard, proprietor of the Golden Lion Hotel, was not related to the Shepard family who farmed nearby. Sheppard Avenue is named after the latter family, although the spelling is different. This information was supplied by Mrs. Edna Hearts, a member of the second family. The Sunday School classes held by the Rev. T. W. Pickett grew into the Lansing United Church. For some of the information regarding the Golden Lion, the editor is indebted to Mrs. Clark Locke, daughter of the Hon. George S. Henry and grand-daughter of Rev. T. W. Pickett.