18 April 2014

North York's Golden Lion

This display case fascinates me every time I go to the North York Central Library (home of the Ontario Genealogical Society Library, among other genealogical collections and resources) in Toronto. Meet the "Golden Lion" created in the 1820s:
North York's Golden Lion concerns an inn, an innkeeper's family, and a skilled woodworker. The site was Yonge Street at the southwest corner of what became Sheppard Avenue. Thomas Hill had a tavern there, selling it in 1805.[1] On the same site, Thomas Shepard (the surname spelling varies) built the Golden Lion Inn by 1825 or perhaps had expanded it from the previous owner. It was a large building for accommodating twenty guests and the enterprise included stables, barns, and driving sheds.

But its most visible claim to fame was over the main entrance: the "life-size lion carved out of a pine stump."[2] A man from Scarborough called Paul Sheppard was the craftsman. Historian Patricia Hart makes no mention of a relationship or the coincidence of the two men's names. Earlier writers have referred to Paul as Thomas Shepard's son.[3] Apparently Paul Sheppard also carved wooden adornments for area churches, including St. James in York.

The inn not only hosted travellers: it became a destination for entertainment because Thomas Shepard and his sons were lively musicians. A hall was built above the capacious driving shed, becoming a popular venue for all-night dances; groups of young party-goers would regularly come north from the town. The Shepard family were also known for their doggerel verse. Their Reform political associations during the 1837 Rebellion led to the arrest of four Shepard brothers along with many others and a sentence of transportation to Van Dieman's Land.[4] Before that happened, Michael and Thomas Shepard Jr. escaped from interim incarceration at Fort Henry in Kingston. Those who took refuge in the United States were later pardoned.

Some twenty years after the original work was installed, the carver made another life-sized lion sculpted from oak, using putty to create the lion's mane.[5] Perhaps the pine lion was deteriorating. On what did Paul Sheppard base his design? We will never know the answer, but curiosity made me wonder if his lion resembled that of the Upper Canada legislature, the carving plundered in 1812 (we don't know who carved this one):
Canadian War Museum
Resemble? Not so much after all!


The lion, of course, is a British heraldic symbol and because it's so greatly admired, variations have been imitated every-where.












Often they guard a prominent public building or a grand estate (Royal York Hotel, Toronto):









So how did the Golden Lion come to the North York Library? And yes, it is the original oak lion, now at least 150 years old.[6] Although the carving had numerous homes over the years, and at one point acquired the nickname "Henry," the re-gilded king of beasts is being treated royally now.


Long may he reign!


[1] Patricia W. Hart, Pioneering in North York (Toronto: General Publishing Company Limited, 1968), 86. Many details are from Hart's well-researched book.
[2] Hart, ibid.
[3] Catherine, Canadiana Department, North York Central Library, to Brenda Dougall Merriman, e-mail, 28 February 2014, "Golden Lion statue." Catherine cites articles by Jeanne Hopkins in York Pioneer and old newspapers.
[4] Hart, 161-2. Hart cites John Ross Robertson, Old Toronto, 120-121.
[5] Hart, 86.
[6] Catherine, North York Library, e-mail, 28 February 2014.

© 2014 Brenda Dougall Merriman


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