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The Canadian Club of Toronto Plaques, 1898-190?: A First in Marking Toronto’s Historic Sites

Dr. Gary Miedema


As Stephen Otto has already noted, the “St. John’s Square” plaque which was found at the base of the Allward monument in Victoria Square and which commemorates the first military burial ground in York may itself be worthy of commemoration. While scant information survives about its production or sponsorship due to the loss of Canadian Club records, a partial story of the plaque can be recovered from articles from the Globe, the Toronto Daily Star, and Saturday Night, as well as from some surviving papers of the organizer behind the plaque, Frank Yeigh, (Archives of Ontario). The latter sources indicate that this plaque was a part of Toronto’s first series of historical tablets created to mark historic sites in this city.Frank Darling was one of the three judges on an international panel which selected Allward for the Vimy Memorial project.

Historical Context

An interest in marking and preserving historic sites in Ontario rose and fell in waves in the nineteenth century. Early monuments were erected to military heros like Sir Isaac Brock, for example, while the Canadian Institute (1849) took an active interest in the study of Canadian history. That said, a broader interest in historic sites began to grow in the 1860s, evidenced by the formation of the Historical Society of Upper Canada in 1861, and the York Pioneer and Historical Society (led by Henry Scadding) in 1869. Though such societies struggled through the 1870s, they took firm hold and even multiplied beginning in the late 1880s. The Lundy’s Lane Historical Society was formed in 1887, for example, and the Wentworth Historical Society in 1888. A whole rash of others followed, including the Pioneer Association of Ontario (forerunner of the Ontario Historical Society) in 1888 and the Women’s Canadian Historical Society in Toronto in 1896.

In his history of the Ontario Historical Society, Gerald Killan notes a few reasons for this rapid development of interest in Ontario’s history. The 1880s and 1890s were decades riddled with debates over Canadian national culture. Some twenty to thirty years after Confederation, the high hopes for the building of a Canadian nation were running aground on the rocks of the Riel rebellion in the west, the Jesuits Estates Act controversy, and the battles raging over the Manitoba school crisis, all which fanned the flames of tension between French and English Canadians. Furthermore, debates over free trade and the future relationship of Canada with the United States and Britain contributed to the questioning of the future of the country.

Into the breach of the controversy in Ontario, Killan suggests, ran historical societies, determined to help form Canada in their own image. That image was overwhelmingly informed by British Imperialism, as distinctly opposed to visions of the nation in Roman Catholic Quebec. Largely populated by middle-class Ontarians, the societies also provided opportunities for like-minded people to gather, gain social recognition, and perhaps participate in what Killan calls “ancestor worship.” As others have emphasized, the fascination with the past at the heart of the historical societies might have also been informed by an anti-modernist attempt to prevent the erosion of a presumably simpler, more glorious past. As immigration, industrialization, and urbanization dramatically transformed Ontario at the end of the nineteenth century, those anxious about the changes may have also found comfort in the past, and hope in trying to preserve it.

One more worthwhile note might be added. As always, Ontarians were influenced by movements abroad in this period. In Europe and in the United States, monument building and historical reenactments were popular tools in the rabid nationalism and nation-building of the period. In particular, historical societies formed earlier in the United States and in Quebec served as models for the historically-minded in Ontario. In the United States, they tended to focus on the collection and publication of primary source historical material. As we will see, in Quebec, plaques and markers were erected on historic sites in Montreal prior to 1898.

The Canadian Club and Frank Yeigh

Into this cauldron of historical interest and nationalist anxiety came the Canadian Club, born in Hamilton in 1892. The Club’s purpose was well-stated in its founding resolution:

It is, in the opinion of this meeting, a fit and proper time to take definitive steps, however humble, to deepen and widen the regard of Canadians for their land of birth or adoption and to increase their interest in matters affecting the welfare of their country.

Be it therefore resolved that this meeting proceed to the organizing of a society to be known as The Canadian Club, having for its objects the encouragement of the study of the history, literature, and resources of Canada, the recognition of native worth and talent, and the fostering of a patriotic Canadian sentiment.

Enjoying their new “literary, debating, and social society for men” , members of the Hamilton club quickly took the idea to other centres. John Cooper, for example, moved to Toronto, and became the first president of the Canadian Club of Toronto in 1897. While the Toronto club would later become famous for its series of luncheon speakers, early on it was clearly interested in local history as well. A committee had been struck by late 1898 to investigate the possibility of marking local historic sites.

Frank Yeigh, the chairman of the committee, appears to have been the driving force in the development of the Canadian Club plaque series. Born in Burford, Ontario, on July 21, 1861, Yeigh grew up on a farm in the area. His father became a prominent public figure as a Justice of the Peace before eventually becoming a successful businessman with the Globe in Toronto. Frank was educated in local schools in Burford, and was fortunate enough to become a civil servant in Ontario as clerk in the Registrar-General’s office in the 1880s. He went on to eventually become Registrar of the Crown Lands Department, retiring from that post in 1916.

A capable organizer and a man interested in literary affairs, it was Frank Yeigh who, as poet Pauline Johnson’s first manager, arranged for her first public recital in 1892. Active in the Young Men’s Liberal Club of Toronto, he taught for many years the Men’s Bible Class at Bloor Street Presbyterian Church, and was a director of the YMCA. He also served as secretary of the Canadian Committee of the British Save the Children Fund.
All of that information serves to present Yeigh as a capable, determined, solidly middle-class man of ability committed to shaping the life of his surrounding community. More importantly for our concerns, Yeigh was particularly fascinated by history, and was a very popular and effective communicator of that history to others. Through his association either with the Men’s Bible Class or the YMCA, Yeigh began leading annual “historical pilgrimages” in the Toronto region in the 1890s, including later bike excursions to the city’s historic sites. More significantly, Yeigh became himself a very well known writer and lecturer on historical topics, as well as on topics related to his extensive travels through Canada, the United States and Europe. He authored Ontario’s Parliament Buildings or a Century of Legislation (Toronto, 1893) and Through the Heart of Canada (Toronto, 1910). A fastidious collector of information, he kept scrapbooks filled with clippings of his articles and notices of his lectures, and edited the annual volume, Five Thousand Facts about Canada, for over 25 years. Characteristically, when the third Parliament buildings on Front Street were slated for demolition, Yeigh arranged a last tour of the site. The tour ended in the legislative chambers where Yeigh himself recounted the illustrious history of the men and events who had marked that place.

With Yeigh’s interest in Canada and his public prominence as a lecturer and historian, it is not surprising that he found his way into the Canadian Club of Toronto, or that he quickly became chairman of the club’s historical committee. That committee’s primary goal, it seems, was the marking of key historical sites in Toronto.

The Canadian Club of Toronto Plaque Program

The Canadian Club plaque series containing the St. John’s Square tablet seems to have been initiated in late 1898 by Frank Yeigh on behalf of the Canadian Club of Toronto’s Sub-committee on Marking Historical Sites. In November of that year, Yeigh wrote to W.D. Lighthall of Montreal, evidently a leader in a plaque program in that city, for advice about initiating a similar program in Toronto. Lighthall was encouraging. Sometime in the surrounding months, the Historical Committee approved a program which would use white wooden sign boards with black lettering (to cost $3.00 each) to mark 16 sites. The initial list of sites read:

  • Old Fort Western Entrance
  • Old Fort Eastern Entrance
  • Old Fort Military Burying Ground
  • Block House, Hanlan’s Point
  • Block House, Sherbourne St.
  • Block House, Yonge St.
  • Block House, Gore Vale
  • Site of first Parliament Buildings
  • Front Street Parliament Buildings
  • Castle Frank
  • The Grange
  • Holland House, Wellington Street West
  • Beverley House
  • Bishop Strachan Palace
  • Canada Company Building
  • Old Court House and Gaol

By April, 1899, Yeigh had sent letters requesting financial support and permission to place a plaque on the respective properties. By this time, white marble with incised lettering infilled with black paint was the medium of choice (perhaps at the recommendation of Lighthall in Montreal), with wood as a back up. By February 1901, nine tablets had been installed, including two identical plaques at the western and eastern entrances of Fort York, and the St. John’s Square tablet. Further plaques were planned, but whether they were completed can only be confirmed by further research on specific locations. In 1903, the text of at least two of the original marble tablets were sent for quotes to a bronze manufacturer for casting. There is no record to explain why.
Individual plaques seemed to have been funded in individual ways. To the Canadian Club’s dismay, several members of City Council’s Property Committee apparently laughed when it proposed placing tablets on the civic buildings. That said, plaques commemorating the first legislative buildings and the third legislative buildings (on Front Street) were funded by the Provincial Government, as was a planned plaque to commemorate the old King’s College site at Queen’s Park. The “bankers section of the Board of Trade” was planning to fund a plaque for the first Bank of Upper Canada building on Adelaide. The Globe also noted that the Canadian Club had used some of its own funds, and personal subscriptions, to pay for others. The Old Fort York plaques were funded by the Minister of Militia. Though no record for the St. John’s Square plaque survives, it may have been funded by the same.

Though it is difficult to definitively state if the Canadian Club program was the first of its kind in Toronto, strong evidence points in that direction. While many memorial plaques commemorating lost soldiers or people of prominence had been erected around the city in churches and in public buildings, prior to the Canadian Club’s plaque program, no one seems to have set out to mark multiple historic sites. Significantly, no reference is made anywhere to any possible previous plaques on the historical sites marked by the Canadian Club (arguably the most prominent sites in the city). It is also noteworthy that, in a letter to Yeigh in April of 1898, John Ross Robertson offered his congratulations on the project, including the following note: “I made a similar suggestion [for a plaquing program] years ago, and the Globe some years later urged me personally to look into the matter.” He did not follow through, however, due to restraints on his time. He was now happy that the Canadian Club was putting the idea into action. If anyone might have known of previous attempts to mark Toronto’s historic sites, it surely would have been Robertson.

At present, the “St. John’s Square” plaque is one of two known original plaques, erected by the Canadian Club at the turn of this century, to have survived to the present. The other, one of the two erected at Fort York, is in a City of Toronto storage facility.


Although further research in other newspapers of the period may turn-up new sources, the loss of the Canadian Club papers and a survey of the Frank Yeigh papers makes it unlikely that any more substantial information might be found on the Canadian Club series of tablets installed after 1899. What we do know, however, is significant. The Canadian Club’s marking of some of Toronto’s historic sites is almost certainly the first such effort of its kind in the city. Equally important, through the story of Yeigh and the Canadian Club, the St. John’s Square tablet allows for a brief comment on the beginnings of heritage marking in the city, and a comment on the issues and causes which gave it birth. In other words, the tablet is likely one of the best resources in Toronto through which we might address the political, social, and cultural issues involved in historical interpretation itself.

"The first military burial ground in Toronto. Set apart in 1794 by Lieut.-Governor Simcoe and used for sixty years."
Erected by the Canadian Club, 1899.