By: Kenneth Kidd Feature reporter, Published on Sun Apr 06 2014
Canada’s Governor General, the Duke of Connaught, arrived promptly at 3:30 p.m.
As The Toronto Daily Star duly noted, the military band of the 48th Highlanders immediately struck up God Save the King, “with the fine old chords greatly enhanced in the high wind of March blowing from the park.”
This was, after all, no small occasion.
Casa Loma’s Sir Henry Pellatt was on hand, as was Toronto’s splendidly named mayor, Horatio Hocken. All along High Park Blvd. the houses were festooned with streamers and Union Jacks.
That windy day a century ago — on March 19, 1914 — would mark the formal unveiling of the elaborate stone and wrought-iron gates dedicated to John G. Howard, High Park’s founder, who had died 24 years before.
But it would also be an event steeped in Downtonesque moments lauding the British Empire’s glorious past and Canada’s cherished role as senior Dominion.
As much as the Edwardians might fear a new century, with all its uncertainty and potential for wrenching change — think The Wind in the Willows — there was still time for fond Imperial remembrance, all of it tinged with the kind of outsized pride that was about to grow bittersweet.
Barely three months later, an assassin would fell Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria on a Sarajevo street, plunging the world into a war that would claim the lives of nine million soldiers — and disillusion a generation.
It naturally fell to Margaret Ross, regent of the local chapter of the Imperial Order Daughters of the Empire, to formally welcome the Duke, who, as the third son of Queen Victoria, was also Prince Arthur.
She was, given the occasion, careful to note how her group was “ever mindful to stimulate and to give expression to those sentiments of patriotism which bind the subjects of the Empire to the Throne.”
The local chapter of the IODE had raised half the $4,500 cost of the Howard Memorial Gates; the city covered the rest.
Looking suitably viceregal in top hat and greatcoat, the Duke thanked Ross “most warmly and sincerely for the patriotic and loyal address which has just been read, in which the inspiring aims of the Imperial Order Daughters of the Empire are so well described.
“The feature of your organization that especially strikes me is that it stands for practical rather than theoretical imperialism.
“Your principle of encouraging the study of history and of thus enabling the present generation to obtain inspiration and encouragement from the records of the men and women who helped to build up the Empire, seems to me to be admirable in every way.”
On either side of him, massive Union Jacks were draped over the gates for a ceremony that, depending on the source, would see the band play Rule Britannia, a local Boy Scout sing O Canada with cornet accompaniment and, according to one report, the 48th’s Pipes and Drums play The Maple Leaf Forever.
“There are about five accounts that we’ve come across,” says Cheryl Hart, museum co-ordinator at Colborne Lodge, Howard’s Regency-style villa at the south end of the park.
The Duke’s final words were, fittingly enough, all about the man being memorialized that day.
“He was a generous, public-spirited man, and by his bequest bestowed a valuable boon upon the City of Toronto, which will increase in value year by year as your prosperous city enlarges its boundaries.”
John George Howard was born in Hertfordshire, England, in 1803, and after boarding school became a carpenter before articling for three years with a London architect who had married his older sister.
Howard was soon sufficiently established to garner his own bride, marrying Jemima Frances Meikle in 1827. But his prospects remained so slight that he resolved to leave London for Canada five years later, arriving in Toronto (then York) after an arduous journey lasting 11 weeks and three days.
Not just his locale changed, however. So did his name.
Born John Corby, he adopted the surname Howard on arrival here and later gave two reasons for the switch, neither of which is completely persuasive. In one version, he claimed he was illegitimate and had adopted the name of Corby after the man his mother later married.
In the other rendition, Howard claimed direct descent from Thomas Howard, the 4th Duke of Norfolk, via a 17th century Howard who had adopted the name of Corby — from family seat, Corby Castle — in the wake of familial squabbles.
The latter connection, even if feigned, would have put Howard on solid footing in a provincial colony, so it’s little wonder that some of his architectural drawings came to the attention of Lieutenant Governor Sir John Colborne.
Howard soon had a job at Upper Canada College teaching geometrical drawing, and by 1839 he’d been appointed drawing master at the school, a post he held until 1856.
It proved more of a sideline, since Howard’s architectural practice was soon blossoming.
Not much of his work remains beyond Colborne Lodge (named after his early patron), Woodlawn and St. John’s York Mills Anglican church. His masterpiece, the Provincial Lunatic Asylum on Queen St. W., was demolished in the mid-1970s.
But Howard was also enthusiastic about public green spaces, hence his elaborately named effort from 1852: “Sketch of a Design for Laying Out the North Shore of the Toronto Harbour in Pleasure Drives, Walks and Shrubbery for the Recreation of the Citizens.”
Bordered to the north by Front St., it would have run from Bathurst St. to York St., its design eerily reminiscent of today’s Music Garden. Taken as a whole, in fact, Howard’s scheme is similar to the narrow necklace of parkland that Waterfront Toronto has lately been creating.
Howard’s plan for High Park was on a much grander scale, centred as it was on his own estate by Lake Ontario. In 1873, he donated 120 acres of it to the city, stipulating that the land forever be used as a park, in return for a pension of $1,200 a year.
On his death, Colborne Lodge and a further 45 acres were similarly transferred to the city, which purchased additional land in 1875 and 1930 to bring High Park to its current 399 acres.
Howard himself oversaw the clearing of brush and designed the park’s early roads and drains, to much local acclaim. By 1885, Toronto alderman Frank Garratt was waxing at length in The Globe:
“High Park has what is very dear to a Briton — a wide stretch of varied surface composed of brooks, rivulets, and streams, landscape and forest, where the Indian trail is still to be seen, and where under the shade of many dells the pure air can be engaged much better than in places farther away.”
The early-afternoon tributes were just as glowing (if less loquacious) on March 23, when local politicians and members of today’s IODE gathered to mark the centenary of the Howard Memorial Gates.
The Pipes and Drums of the 48th Highlanders once again burst into The Maple Leaf Forever, and Boy Scouts sang O Canada, this time a cappella.
Also making an appearance were the Duke and Duchess of Connaught, or at least their latter-day impersonators in period costume — all to honour Howard and his great gift to the city.
Fittingly, it ended in the manner of a parish fête, with tea and Derby cakes.
“We’re getting our inspiration from 1914,” says Hart, “but we’re not following it exactly.”