Newspapers, even this one, love a juicy scandal. But how often do they surface in your own backyard?
Make that resurface. An archeological dig on the site of The Globe and Mail’s new headquarters in the oldest part of Toronto has revealed the remains of Berkeley House – home to a man who killed the attorney-general of Upper Canada in a duel fought over gossip his wife slept around.
“It’s a miracle that these foundations exist,” said archeologist Keith Powers as he surveyed the newly uncovered walls and beams that have somehow survived Toronto’s transformation from muddy colonial capital to development-hungry metropolis.
But the past has ways of persisting, thanks to city planning laws that require developers to undertake archeological assessments in heritage areas before they get to build our glass towers. The regeneration of the east-of-Jarvis neighbourhood that formed the original town of York is now laying bare 200-year-old rivalries and innuendos that were rife in an overly intimate government town of 400 people where everyone was jockeying for position.
The 17-storey Globe and Mail Centre, due to be completed in 2016, will occupy the site of a house owned by John Small, the clerk of Upper Canada’s executive council and a well-connected man who couldn’t resist putting himself at the centre of things. Not content with playing host to government meetings while the nearby Parliament was being constructed, he used to stand in his doorway on King St. E., west of present-day Berkeley St., and shout at passers-by to join him for a good dinner.
The hoarding around the building site, for years a parking lot and urban wasteland after Berkeley House was demolished in 1925, bears marketing slogans that are curiously evocative of Mr. Small’s intense 24/7 political society: The Future Works Here/The Future Plays Here.
“It’s not so different now from what was happening back then,” said Don Manlapaz, director of planning for First Gulf, the Globe Centre’s developer, as he walked among the heaped stones, loose brick, and excavated backyard privy that manage to evoke a time when the country’s founders promenaded beside asparagus beds and children hunted wild quail.
But there’s at least one major difference between then and now, apart from the improved access to Frappuccinos: The shame of sexual tittle-tattle is no longer resolved by pistols at dawn.
John Small should have had it made. He was supported by friends in high places back in England, married a woman from a wealthy family, didn’t have to work very hard to maintain his status, and had access to the inside knowledge of government that helped him expand his landholdings.
But he hadn’t counted on the pettiness and vindictiveness of the colonial culture he joined in 1793. His wife, Elizabeth, rubbed some of the other wives the wrong way, and when she failed to give due attention to the wife of attorney-general John White at a ball in 1799, the sense of dishonour was overwhelming.
Mr. White told an indiscreet colleague, who happened to be the province’s surveyor-general, that he’d had an affair with Mrs. Small, but broke it off “from fear of injury to his health from the variety and frequency of her amours with others.”
John Small didn’t take kindly to his wife’s reputation being besmirched, and in the honour culture of Muddy York, a duel was the best recourse. On January 3, 1800, he shot and mortally wounded Mr. White.
“It’s an incident that shows you what a tempest-in-a-teapot society this was,” says Ross Fair of Ryerson University. “A woman thinks she’s not acknowledged properly at a soirée and a death ensues.”
Mr. Small was acquitted at his trial for murder a few weeks later – apparently no one had seen him fire the deadly shot. It didn’t hurt that his second at the duel was the district sheriff. But the propriety-loving moralizers of York still ostracized his wife: They spread the rumour that she’d previously been the mistress of an English aristocrat who had paid Mr. Small to take her off his hands.
Whatever grief that kind of small-town shunning generated, it didn’t seem to affect the fortunes of the Smalls or of Berkeley House. The log house that John Small had purchased in 1795, built initially as a fishing lodge to take advantage of the nearby streams and lake, was remade into a fashionable manor house and social hub as Toronto expanded and diversified.
Little of the house’s material culture remains. Keith Powers and his team have unearthed inkwells, an 1880 gravy boat, an 1882 plate pilfered from the Albany Club and an evocative Bank of Montreal penny decorated with an English rose, a Scottish thistle and an Irish shamrock.
“It grounds you to the family who lived here,” he said as he turned the oversized coin in the morning light. “This was dropped by one of the Smalls and no one has held it for more than a hundred years.”
The plan is for some artifacts and foundation materials to be placed in a public exhibit space that will run the length of the new Globe building, retracing the original street grid of the colonial capital. Although the remains of Berkeley House will be soon bulldozed to make way for the future of work and play, the next inhabitants of the site now know they have some history to live up to.