Mackenzie House gives a glimpse of Toronto’s political past
KJ Mullins-Toronto: Toronto’s first Mayor William Lyon Mackenzie was a journalistic rebel who believed in social reform. He was also behind a revolt that would leave him exiled for 12 years and two of his closest friends hanged. That history comes alive at Mackenzie House located at 82 Bond Street.
When young William Lyon Mackenzie crossed the Atlantic Ocean traveling to Canada he had no idea what an adventure he would be getting himself into. Born in Scotland Mackenzie was raised by his widowed mother who installed the belief of separation of church and state in her son from an early age. He started school at the age of 5 where his love of language began. By the age of 15 he was a journalist in his home of Dundee. At the age of 19 he became a father although he was not married. His mother raised the boy while Mackenzie started his early employment ventures.
When he was 25 Mackenzie and his friend John Lesslie took off for the new world of British North America.
Mackenzie started out in Lower Canada in 1820 writing for the Montreal Herald while Lesslie settled in what is now Toronto. Mackenzie fell in love with the area while visiting his friend and started writing for the York Observer. Two years later his mother and son came to Canada along with Isabel Baxter who has been a friend of the family’s. Three weeks after her arrival she was Mrs. Mackenzie.
One year later Mackenzie and Lesslie’s friendship had ended. Moving to Queenston he set up a business and befriended Robert Randal, one of the Lincoln Country’s reps in the Legislative Assembly of Upper Canada.
In 1824 Mackenzie established the Colonial Advocate, which was like an early version of today’s Globe and Mail. The main goal of the paper was influencing voters. He moved the paper to York in the fall of the same year advocating for the Reform cause. He was outspoken about the ‘Family Compact’, the upper crust of Canada’s government. He was in competition though in the news business causing debts to mount. In 1825 he took a year away from the paper before buying a new printing press. In 1826 the paper was back and so were the debts. Escaping creditors he fled to New York. While in New York a group of Tories trashed his printing press. The magistrates allowed it to happen so Mackenzie took them to court. He refused the first settlement of £200 that was the value of the damage and won £625 from the jury. That win was the beginning of his rise.
At the time Toronto was a city of ‘have’ and ‘have nots’. The ‘haves’ (Tories) were in control of the government and Mackenzie’s pen attacked the Tories. Those printed attacks helped him and Jesse Ketchum win seats in their ridings. The Reform Movement had the majority of the seats in 1829 when Mackenzie’s political career started. He worked for the farmers, the bankers and the common man. He traveled to the US to study President Andrew Jackson, which he admired.
A year later George IV was dead and a new election took place. Mackenzie was reelected but the Reform Movement was not doing as well. A new wave of immigrants were very loyal to the Crown and didn’t understand the ideals of a rebel. Using his newspaper Mackenzie was indeed a rebel. He stirred up the emotions with articles on the Bank of Upper Canada, revenues and the like. The Legislative Assembly fought back and Mackenzie was expelled.
That expulsion worked in Mackenzie’s favour. He was now seen as a martyr for Upper Canada. A new election was demanded with Mackenzie winning by a vote of 119 to 1. A parade took place on Yonge Street with sleighs and bagpipes to celebrate.
In 1834 Toronto became incorporated. That year Mackenzie was elected as an alderman and the City Council decided that he would be the first mayor of Toronto. It was not a peaceful time at City Hall and in 1835 Robert Baldwin Sullivan became mayor. He lost his seat to Edward William Thomson the following year.
During this time cholera was an epidemic in the city. The poor were hit hard from the disease. It was not yet known that water was the source of the disease but Mackenzie saw that the rich were not sick while the poor in his city were dying. He called for bylaws to clean the water supply and pick up trash in the city. Mackenzie didn’t just talk about making changes, he took ill himself after helping the sick at night get to the only hospital in Toronto. He recovered but an infant daughter died within days of her birth.
At this time the Reform Movement was trying to change Toronto. They were calling for reforms that would benefit the common man, not those who had money and power. They also wanted Canada to be independent.
The stage was set for rebellion. With support from local farmers the Battle of Montgomery’s Tavern took place. Under armed the Reform Movement marched down Yonge Street to fight. It was short lived. The Tory burnt the homes and farms of Reform supporters while the leaders fled to Navy island in Niagara River. Much like last year’s Occupy Toronto movement the weather played a factor. When winter came on full force the rebels started to disband. Mackenzie fled to New York in exile. Samuel Lount, and Peter Matthews were not as lucky. Captured they were tried and hanged in Toronto.
It would be 12 years before Mackenzie would be pardoned and return to Toronto in 1849. In New York he published The Volunteer and The Examiner.
In 1850 Mackenzie was back in Toronto writing for the Tribune, the Toronto Examiner and the Niagara Mail. He also returned to politics winning the seat of Haldimand County in the 3rd Parliament of the Province of Canada when he beat George Brown. For seven years Mackenzie was a voice for true reform in the government. He spoke out against over spending and the need for railway aid.
Mackenzie was never rich. In fact his final home, Mackenzie House was a gift from his friends for his work for the city of Toronto. It was where he spent his final years before dying in 1861. At the time it was thought he was getting ‘soft in the head’ but from accounts of his final years it is now thought that he had suffered a series of mini strokes because one fatal stroke during the last year of his life. He is buried at Toronto Necropolis.
Today the Mackenzie House is a living museum celebrating the life of William Lyon Mackenzie. Guides lead visitors on tours around the home showing a part of the city’s past with love. Also on the property is a print shop with a functioning 1845 Washington flatbed printing press.
Mark Ian Stephenson-Jackman runs the press. He was trained by one the oldest printers in Toronto on the Washington press. It’s a skill that is making a come back in Canada while being the basics of printing around the world.
The home itself shows how people lived around 1850 in Toronto. There was gas lighting in the downtown area of Toronto at the time. Today those lights still work with an open fire illuminating the dining room, parlour and kitchen.
Mackenzie’s family lived in the house after his death to 1877. Since that time it had several other owners before T. Wilbur Best purchased Mackenzie House, saving the home from demolish in the 1930s. In 1960 the Toronto Historical Board took over the administration of the home restoring it to its former state. It was opened as a museum, gallery, gift shop and print shop in 1967.
Seniors (65 +): $3.54
Youth (13-18 yrs.): $2.62
Children (5-12 yrs.): $2.65
Children (4 and under): Free
Holiday season admission (mid-November – early January)Adults: $7.08
Seniors (65 +): $4.52
Youth (13-18 yrs.): $4.42
Children (5-12 yrs.): $4.42
Children (4 and under): Free
It is open daily January through April from noon to 5 p.m.
May through Labour Day Tuesday-Sunday from noon to 5 p.m.
September through December Tuesday-Friday from noon to 4 p.m. and Saturday and Sunday from noon to 5 p.m.
Mackenzie House is closed on Good Friday, Christmas, Boxing Day and New Year’s Day.