Toronto back then had a population of about 30,000 people.
Here’s what Charles Dickens wrote about that visit which started at Niagara-on-the-Lake: “Our steamboat came up directly and soon bore us to the mouth of the Niagara; where the stars and stripes of America flutter on one side and the Union Jack of England on the other.”
“Thence we emerged on Lake Ontario, an inland sea; and by half-past six o’clock were at Toronto. The streets are well paved, and lighted with gas; the houses are large and good; the shops excellent.”
“There is a good stone prison here; and there are, besides, a handsome church, a court-house, public offices and many spacious private residences.”
In 1842, the commercial centre of Toronto was at King and Yonge and the grandest store at that time was Michie’s, opened a few years before by George Michie (pronounced Mickey) at 5 King West.
Michie offered his customers a varied list of products including silk stockings, original art, exotic bamboo furniture, rare oranges, French wines, imported liquor and spirits from his native Scotland.
Just down the street from Michie’s were two immense shopping emporiums – the Golden Lion and Golden Griffin – topped off with a monumental lion and a griffin respectively on their roofs high above King Street.
These stores, founded the year Charles Dickens arrived would become a mainstay for smart Victorians wanting the latest European fashions and home wares. Both of the stores were demolished in 1902 to make way for the building of the King Edward Hotel.
Michie’s lasted until 1947, and by the 1970’s, the original Michie’s store became home to the Nag’s Head Pub and is now the site of One King West.
We don’t know if Dickens himself ever ventured into these wondrous new stores that once lined King Street. But a year after his visit, on December 19th, 1843, Dickens published, A Christmas Carol.
I often wonder whether Dickens was inspired by anything he saw while in Toronto. And did it somehow make its way into his famous Christmas story?
(Many, of course, have recently seen the popular film The Man Who Invented Christmas. Based on the best selling book by Les Standiford the 2017 biographical drama film directed by Bharat Nalluri captures Dickens’ panic as he desperately attempts to revive his flagging career by writing a Christmas best seller. The films stars Dan Stevens of Downton Abbey fame as Dickens and Toronto native and Academy Award winner Christopher Plummer as Dickens’ Scrooge muse)
For all of Toronto’s fancy new stores back then, we also had a dark side, much like in Dickens’s books of horrendous workhouses, dreadful prisons and orphaned children living on the streets.
But like ‘ol Ebenezer Scrooge in A Christmas Carol, Toronto too changed for the better, becoming a city of compassion, benevolence and tolerance to all.