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Canadian Urbanism Uncovered

The guy Toronto was originally named after — and his big sex scandal

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This column towers above the city of London, England in one of the prominent spots in town. It’s at the top of some stairs just down the street from Buckingham Palace, about a block from Trafalgar Square, a couple of blocks from Downing Street and the Houses of Parliament. And it’s really big. More than 40 meters tall. That’s about 12 storeys high. The statue on top weighs more than 16,000 pounds. Inside, there’s even a staircase leading to an observation deck — although they closed it to the public more than 100 years ago. It’s all in honour of the Duke of York — the very same guy who Toronto was originally named after, and whose name is still plastered all over our city: from York to North York to East York to Fort York to York Street to York University to York Mills to the York Club to Royal York Road.

So. Who was he?

His real name was Frederick. Prince Frederick. He was born just around the corner from where his column stands today, at St. James’s Palace. His dad was King George III, who you probably know because he was the king who went “mad” and had a movie made about him. He was in charge back in the late 1700s and early 1800s: reigning over the battle at the Plains of Abraham, the American Revolution, the wars with Napoleon, and the War of 1812.

So, it’s probably not surprising that the young Duke of York grew up in the army. And by the time he was 26, he was already a General, fighting on the edge of France against Robespierre’s revolutionaries. They’d beheaded their own king a few months earlier and were at war with pretty much all the other monarchies in Europe — England included. Now those monarchies were invading France in an attempt to end the French Revolution once and for all. In early 1793, the invasion was going pretty well. And that’s when the Duke of York led his troops in a victory over the French in the Battle of Famars. Before long, some people in France were hailing him as a liberator, declaring him to be their true King.

This, of course, was in days before Twitter and CNN — or even steamships and telegraphs. So word of the Duke’s victory took a lonnnnnng time to cross the Atlantic and head up the St. Lawrence to reach the brand new frontier province of Upper Canada. It took three whole months. But by the end of August an official British government report was finally delivered to John Graves Simcoe, the Lieutenant Governor. At that point, he was living with his family in an elaborate tent pitched on the northern shore of Lake Ontario. This was the place where, just a few weeks earlier, he had started to build a new capital for his new province. And he was still looking for a name.

This place did already have a name: Toronto. It was derived from a Mohawk word, which meant “where there are trees standing in the water.” It originally referred to a fishing spot on the northern end of Lake Simcoe, but it was eventually used as a name for the portage route between Lake Simcoe and Lake Ontario, and then, finally, to the spot on Lake Ontario where the portage route started. That’s where Simcoe was building his town.

But Simcoe didn’t like the word Toronto. He thought First Nations words were weird and ugly and “uncivilized”. Everywhere he went, he was renaming things in honour of the British Empire instead. And he was pretty excited about the Duke of York’s latest victory.

So Simcoe announced that he was naming his new town in honour of the Prince. It would now be known as York. To commemorate the occasion, he ordered a Royal salute: all the canons on the shore, all the guns on all the ships in the harbour, all the muskets of Simcoe’s soldiers were fired in honour of a man waging a war against French democrats more than 6,000 kilometers away.

That honour might have been a little premature. The invasion of France sputtered, fell apart, and suddenly the French were sweeping across Europe taking over countries. The Duke of York’s next campaign — as the head of the entire British army now — didn’t go very well, either. In fact, it seems that even children started mocking him with his very own nursery rhyme: “The Grand Old Duke of York“. Before long, the French had a new general — Napoleon — and it looked like even England might be in danger of invasion.

And that was only the beginning of the troubles for the Duke. In the early 1800s, right in the middle of leading the war against Napoleon, he was caught up in a big political sex scandal. The Duke’s former mistress claimed that while they’d been together, she was taking bribes in return for convincing him to give people commissions in the army. It was a particularly cutting attack, because his lasting legacy was making reforms to get rid of that kind of thing. His defence wasn’t exactly reassuring: he said he was innocent of corruption because he didn’t understand what was happening. More than 200 years later, The Independent still calls itthe greatest scandal in the history of the British Parliament.”

The House of Commons eventually voted to acquit him, but enough people were questioning his leadership that he was forced to resign in disgrace anyway. A few years later, he was completely cleared of the charges: the mistress published a book revealing that the whole thing had been a conspiracy to discredit the Duke. She said she’d been paid thousands of pounds to make false claims against him. She fled to France and the Duke of York was reinstated as the head of the army. So he was the guy in charge of all the British forces during the years of the War of 1812 and when the Duke of Wellington finally beat Napoleon for good at the Battle of Waterloo.

When the Duke of York died, every single soldier in the British army gave up one day of wages to raise enough money to build a column in his honour. And that’s the one that stands in the heart of London to this day.

By then, though, the bloom was most certainly off the rose. And a few years after the death of the Duke, our little town of York in Upper Canada was going to officially become a city. We chose, as our first mayor, a man who was no great fan of the way the British were treating Canada; William Lyon Mackenzie took much more inspiration from revolutionaries than from monarchists. City Council debated whether to keep the name Simcoe gave us, or to embrace the name this place had when he first arrived. Some argued in favour of keeping “York”, but in the end the majority agreed:

Toronto was more beautiful, more distinctive, more Canadian.


Photo: The Duke of York column in 1837 via Wikimedia Commons

A version of this post originally appeared on the The Toronto Dreams Project Historical Ephemera Blog as part of the Dreams Project’s current tracing the history of Toronto in the UK. You can find more sources, links and related stories there.


One comment

  1. One might suspect a certain grim satisfaction among the First Nationals of the day at hearing of William Lyon McKenzie’s preference. No?