Happy 250th Birthday Robbie Burns!

By Nancy Luno, originally published January 22, 2009

How Toronto residents have celebrated the Scottish poet

January 25th is Robbie Burns Day, the birthday of Scotland’s national poet. This weekend, in certain circles, dinners will be eaten, glasses raised and songs sung, in honour of the “peasant bard.”

The tradition of honouring Robert Burns is a long one. Burns, who was born in 1759, lived only 38 years, and published relatively few works during his lifetime, yet his influence was far-reaching. Shortly after his death, the first biographies were begun. By the early 1800s, tourists were making pilgrimages to his birthplace. The first Burns Club was formed in 1801, and at least as early as 1834, some Torontonians celebrated his birthday with a “Grand Dinner.”

This year, festivities take on extra meaning, as 2009 is the 250th anniversary of his birth. No doubt the toasts will be drunk with added vigour at Burns’ suppers around the world. The Scottish Government has even used the anniversary to launch the first ever ‘Homecoming Scotland,’ encouraging ex-Scots and tourists alike to visit the country for festivities throughout the year. However, try as they might, it is doubtful that today’s Scottish societies could ever surpass the outpouring of enthusiasm that marked the hundredth anniversary of Burns’ birth in 1859. Nor, in our era of the 500-channel universe and a wealth of multicultural entertainment choices, are events in honour of the Scottish poet likely to have the same high profile as they did 150 years ago.

A record of the 1859 celebration was published under the title Chronicle of the Hundredth Birth Day of Robert Burns. The editor, James Ballatine, gathered a grand total of 872 reports on events ranging from private parties and public balls to lectures. Reports were received from throughout Scotland (676 events) England and Ireland, of course, but also from such seemingly unlikely locales as Bombay, India, and Copenhagen. It was, according to Mr. Ballantine, “a spectacle unprecedented in the history of the world.”

Enthusiasm for the centenary ran particularly high in the “Colonies,” home to so many expatriate Scots. Canada sent reports from seven Maritime centres, as well as Montreal and Quebec. The largest number of events, however took place in Canada West (now Ontario), with 25 places listed in Mr. Ballantine’s book.

Details about the Toronto celebrations have survived in the Archives of Ontario in the papers of William Lyon Mackenzie. As a politician (famous as Toronto’s first mayor, and a leader of the 1837 Rebellion), and the proprietor and chief writer of seven weekly newspapers over the course of his career, Mackenzie kept extensive files on just about every imaginable subject. He also happened to be a fan of Robbie Burns – albeit with some reservations. In an article “On Scottish Songs,” published in the October 28, 1824 edition of the Colonial Advocate, Mackenzie noted that should he ever publish an American edition of Burns, he “would leave his songs in praise of Highland whiskey out” because they had “done much harm” in Scotland, and spreading them in Canada “would be like firing a match.” Mackenzie spoke, no doubt, from first-hand experience, having had his own spell of “reckless, wild…and somewhat dissipated” behaviour in his late teens.

Mackenzie’s clipping file on Burns includes programmes, advertisements, and accounts of the centenary from the Toronto Globe (the forerunner of today’s Globe & Mail), Daily Colonist, and Leader newspapers. The story that emerges provides interesting insight not only into the Burns’ festivities, but also about the winter social season in the still small city of 50,000.

The Rossin House Hotel – The large light-coloured building in the background of this picture is the Rossin House. The hotel was built in 1856-57 at the corner of King St. West and York St. It was one of Toronto’s fashionable luxury hotels until the King Edward Hotel (1903) eclipsed it. The Rossin House was demolished in 1969 and the site eventually occupied by an office building.
Photo credit – Armstrong, Beere & Hime, 1856. City of Toronto Archives SC 498 – 12

The Burns Centenary was marked by two major events in Toronto – a dinner at the Rossin House hotel, at the corner of King and York Streets, and a ball and banquet at St. Lawrence Hall, also on King Street at Jarvis. The Rossin House supper was planned first, but at some point, a second group, under the auspices of the year-old Toronto Burns Club, decided to get into the act, and a “friendly rivalry” ensued between the two committees. Both groups published advertisements for several weeks in advance, listing the names of the gentlemen who “have agreed to propose toasts.”

About 120 diners sat down at the Rossin House, where “dinner was supplied in Mr. Joslin’s best style.” The room was decorated only at the front, with a “trophy of flags [which] enclosed several implements of husbandry, and the compass, square, and other masonic emblems, representing the avocations of the poet in his early life…” (Robbie Burns was a farmer, as well as a member of the Masonic lodge.)

Daniel Wilson, professor and future president of University College, chaired the meeting, and after proposing the usual toasts to various members of the Royal Family, and Burns, turned the meeting over to a string of distinguished speakers. Among them were Chief Justice Sir John Beverley Robinson; former mayor George William Allan; first president of the University of Toronto Dr. John McCaul; and several members of parliament, including George Brown, proprietor of the Globe, and Oliver Mowat, lawyer and future premier of Ontario. Not surprisingly, all the speeches were reported, seemingly verbatim, in the next day’s Globe.

Speeches were interspersed with songs ranging from favourites by Burns, such as “A Man’s a man for ‘a that,” to “Rule Britannia” and the “Canadian Boat Song.” The musical interludes were provided by a Mr. Clark at the piano and various “volunteer” singers.

According to the Leader, the crowd at the Rossin House contained a “large number of the upper ten-dom,” while the banquet and ball at St. Lawrence Hall attracted “the less aristocratic admirers of the poet.” It may have had something to do with the price of admission. Tickets to the dinner cost $5.00, a week’s wages for some. On the other hand, a gentleman could gain admission to St. Lawrence Hall for 7 shillings, 6 pence (about $1.50). The event at the Hall was more democratic in another way as well. At the Rossin House, the diners were all male, though “several ladies entered the room and smiled their approval on the interesting proceedings which followed” – after the dinner. The Burns’ Club, on the other hand, clearly intended to include women from the start. A gentleman escorting a lady paid $2 admission, while a gentleman with two ladies on his arm paid only fifty cents more.

St. Lawrence Hall – From 1850, when this building was erected, until the 1870s, King Street was Toronto’s main commercial street and St. Lawrence Hall (on the southwest corner of King and Jarvis Streets) was the place to come for political and social events. The building housed a mixture of commerce and culture, with shops on the street floors and the Great Hall and meeting rooms on the third floor. The centre archway on King St. (now enclosed by blue doors) was open and led through to the north St. Lawrence Market which was immediately south of the Hall.
Photo credit – Octavius Thompson, Toronto in the Camera. Toronto, 1868. Toronto Public Library T 12101

Whereas the Rossin House event was an intimate affair, the ballroom, or Great Hall, on the third floor of St. Lawrence Hall was reportedly packed with almost two thousand people. As the Globe recorded:

Down the aisle and surrounding each doorway were heaps of compressed crinoline and broadcloth, rendering ingress and egress equally impossible. It was no use pushing, and looking sulky, and grumbling, the walls would not expand, neither would the seats… those so inconvenienced deriving much comfort from the knowledge that they would be the first in at the supper.

The decorations in the Great Hall were extensive. At the south end, over the platform, was a painting of Robbie Burns at the plough, flanked by Union Jacks. Above the painting, “the three national emblems, thistle, rose and shamrock were prettily executed in jets of gas.” At the other end, on the gallery, was a painting of a thatched cottage. The Crown of Great Britain, supported by the letters “V.R. [Victoria Regina] shed a flood of light over the gallery.” The rest of the room was festooned with “evergreens, interlaced with red, white, and blue drapery” and shields bearing the names of Burns’ songs. All this in a room illuminated by gaslight.

The program began shortly after 6 p.m. with speeches, followed by supper at 10, and finally a dance, which broke up at 6 in the morning. Music was provided by professional singers, pipers, and the band of the Royal Canadian Rifles.

The supper, prepared by caterer Mr. Webb, received considerable attention in the press – and no wonder. As the Globe reported:

Castles of sugar, surmounted by the crosses of St. George and St. Andrew were everywhere seen. There were lions rampant made of cake, and lions couchant made of jelly. Bonbons and turkeys, ices and salmon, hams real, and hams unreal, the latter resembling “Everton Taffy” to the taste.

On the other hand, the report on the speakers was not as detailed as that from Rossin House. It is not clear for example, whether John A. MacDonald, M.P. and future prime minister, or William Lyon Mackenzie, actually attended, though both were listed on the printed programme. Mackenzie’s newspaper, the Toronto Weekly Message, had apparently temporarily ceased publication, either due to his declining health, or his declining finances, so his opinion on the event has regrettably been lost. Interestingly, several gentleman – Oliver Mowatt, George Brown and John McCaul – were scheduled to appear at both events, and the latter two managed to get their names in the press for both.

It is clear from all accounts that interest in the centenary was widespread in Toronto, including, as the Leader noted, among “Englishmen, Irishman and Canadians as well as their Scottish brethren…” And why such enthusiasm for a mere poet? The London Illustrated News suggested in an article on December 11, 1858 that it was not that Robbie Burns was the greatest poet or writer of songs, but because (in an era of strong class divisions) he taught other “peasants to hold up their heads and stand erect in the presence of all men…” and to value honest, hard labour over unfair trade, or cruelty to the poor. The News also pointedly noted that aristocrats and politicians, who would have had nothing to do with Burns were he still alive, eagerly jumped on the centenary bandwagon, something clearly demonstrated by the Toronto events. In the end though, in this part of the British Empire at least, perhaps it simply came down to a perfect excuse for a party to help liven the long Canadian winter. The telegram received from the Hamilton Burns Club on the special wires installed at St. Lawrence Hall for the occasion sums it up best:

Banquet going on finely. “How’s a’ wi ye?”

Nancy Luno is the Program Coordinator for Heritage Toronto. She uncovered information about the Burns’ Centenary celebrations while researching and writing a history of the William Lyon Mackenzie family entitled A Genteel Exterior: The Domestic Life of William Lyon Mackenzie and His Family (Toronto Historical Board, 1990).

For more information about Mackenzie, visit Mackenzie House (his last Toronto home) on Bond St. just south of Dundas (City of Toronto Culture Division, Email:www.toronto.ca/culture    Tel: 416-392-6915).

Additional Reading

Newspapers – The Toronto Public Library has published a helpful guide on period newspapers called Early Toronto Newspapers, 1793 – 1867 (Toronto, 1961, editor Edith Firth). Copies of most of the newspapers cited in this article may be read on microfilm at the Toronto Reference Library.

Dendy, William. Lost Toronto: Images of the City’s Past. McClelland & Stewart, 1993. Dendy provides a detailed description of the Rossin House, along with an 1868 photo.

St. Lawrence Hall. Toronto: Thos. Nelson & Sons, 1969. This collection of articles was produced shortly after St. Lawrence Hall was ‘restored’ by the City to celebrate Canada’s Centennial Year. It includes an interesting chapter on other events held at the Hall in the 19th century.

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