The Red Lion Inn: An Early Local Pub


Welcome, beer-lovers! This week at the Black Creek Growler, we’re delving into another chapter of Toronto’s beer history: the Red Lion Inn!

You can’t get very far into researching Toronto taverns without running across the Red Lion. It was built somewhere between 1808-1810 by Daniel Thiers. Like Black Creek Pioneer Village’s Stong family, Thiers was of Pennsylvania German origin, settling in Upper Canada in the late 1700s.

The Red Lion, ca. 1888. (courtesy Toronto Public Library)

The Red Lion sat on Yonge St, just north of modern-day Bloor (near the Toronto Reference Library today). When Thiers built the Red Lion, the area was still quite undeveloped—Toronto grew largely northward and westward from the lake. However, it was already an important crossroads: Davenport, Yonge, and Bloor were all established travel routes, and seemed likely to become even more heavily-travelled as the young city grew.

The inn itself was always large: its façade was about 100 feet along Yonge St. As wings and extensions were added, it eventually encompassed a two-acre site—including its outbuildings and yards. And of course, it had a sign emblazoned with a red lion rampant.

The bar area: 1912 painting based on an 1888 sketch. (Courtesy Toronto Public Library)

In the early days, the Red Lion served as a stopping point for travellers, particularly for farmers taking their goods from Holland Landing to York. An 1808 advertisement states Thier’s intention to open a public house, selling, “…[the] best strong beer at 8d, New York currency, per gallon, if drank in his house, and 2s 6d New York currency if taken out.”

(A few things to note about this: first, we can see the absolute mishmash of currency that pervaded the colony during this period. Second, takeaway beer is more expensive than beer drunk in-house—perhaps a tactic to get patrons to settle in, order more pints, and eventually take a room for the night?)

In his Landmarks of Toronto (1894), publisher-politician John Ross Robertson imagines what the Red Lion Inn might have been like: “…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.” Contemplating the ballroom, he writes, “Perhaps here many a maiden breathed that wonderful ‘Yes.’”

The ballroom, ca. 1888. (Courtesy Toronto Public Library)

While his tone is a touch sentimental—even by Victorian standards—it’s clear that he considered the Red Lion Inn a focal point for the community. Indeed, it proved to be the nucleus around which Yorkville developed (ably assisted by Joseph Bloor, as we learned here).

In addition to facilitating socialization, the Red Lion also played an important role in civic life. It was used for polling and political debates, and Reformers met there frequently through the 1830s—including William Lyon Mackenzie itself. After his expulsion from the legislature in 1831, a by-election was held at the Red Lion Inn. Following the vote, a triumphant Mackenzie greeted his supporters in the ballroom, receiving a medal and making a speech before leading a procession into town.

But alas, the good times could not last forever. The Temperance movement did not treat the Red Lion Inn kindly. After a series of struggles, it closed in 1892. Two years later, Robertson wrote, “Most of the characters who figured in the Red Lion’s history have gone over to the great majority, and soon the old inn will follow the course of all mundane things.”

The Red Lion Inn, ca. 1885. (Courtesy Toronto Public Library)

Sadly, he was right, for no trace of the Red Lion remains today. Yet it remains in memory, “The Most Famous Hostelry in the Annals of York.”

To Queen and Country!

Katie

PS. Keen for more? You can read a digitized version of John Ross Robertson’s Landmarks of Toronto here!

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