Thursday, April 3, 2014

UK Tour Preview: Sir John A.'s Posh London Gentlemen's Club

This is The Athenaeum Club. It's right in the very heart of London. The park outside Buckingham Palace is just a block away. So is Trafalgar Square. 10 Downing Street is about 500 meters from the front door. It was founded all the way back in the 1820s as one of the most prestigious gentlemen's clubs in the world. Over the years, its members have included some of the most famous and influential writers, artists, politicians and thinkers on the planet: Charles Darwin, Charles Dickens, Winston Churchill, Rudyard Kipling, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, The Duke of Wellington, T.S. Eliot, W.B. Yeats, Thomas Hardy, Michael Farraday, Sir Walter Scott... the list goes on and on. It's ridiculous. In 2002, they even got around to not being completely patriarchal dicks about everything, finally allowing women to join the club.

During the winter of 1862-63, John A. Macdonald became an honourary member. He had recently stepped down as the premier of the Province of Canada, spending his winter out of power on a trip to England. The first whiffs of Confederation were already in the air, but they would get stronger after his return to Canada. Over the course of the next few months, he won back power, then lost it again, then won it again, then lost it again. The legislature was at a standstill. Something had to change. Meanwhile, the American Civil War was threatening to turn the United States into an aggressive military power and Britain was becoming less and less interested in protecting their North American empire. So Macdonald helped to lead the struggle for a new, bigger nation of Canada. Within a few years, he'd become our first Prime Minister. And on his trips to London, he'd visit the Athenaeum.

By the end of the century, Toronto would get our very own Athenaeum Club. It was built on Church Street just south of Shuter by the firm of Denison & King (Denison was the same architect behind the bank-that's-now-a-Starbucks on the north-east corner of Queen & Bathurst and the little church on the islands, St. Andrew's-by-the-Lake). But Toronto's Athenaeum Club didn't last long. In the very early 1900s, it was turned into pretty much the exact opposite of an exclusive club for rich guys: it became the Labor Temple. For the next six decades, it was at the centre of organized labour in Toronto. Today, the facade is still there — it stands in front of (surprise!) a condo tower.

Another private gentlemen's club in Toronto would play a much bigger role for Sir John A.: the Albany Club on King Street East. In fact, it was founded with the express purpose of winning Torontonian support for Macdonald. I wrote about it in my post "Where Conservatives Have Been Getting Drunk For 130 Years." It's still there today. It's the only pirvate club officially tied to a political party left in all of Canada.

Soon, I'm hoping to visit The Athenaeum Club myself, in order to leave a dream there for Sir John A. Macdonald as part of The Toronto Dreams Project. You can help make it a reality by contributing to my Indiegogo campaign in support of a UK Tour.

You'll find more posts exploring the connections between the history of Toronto and the history of the United Kingdom here.

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