George Crookshank chest donated to City of Toronto

by Robert Bell

Crookshank Chest Tim and Sue WalkerDonors Tim and Sue Walker flank their family heirloom – the George Crookshank chest. (Photo by Robert Bell)The City of Toronto has received a generous donation in the form of a very fine antique chest whose original owner was George Crookshank, a colleague and confidant of John Graves Simcoe, Lieutenant-Governor of Upper Canada. Crookshank arrived in York in 1796 and entered the commissary department supplying Fort York and other garrisons in the area. He went on to serve as Assistant Commissary General at Fort York in 1814, Receiver General in 1819, Legislative Councillor (1821-1841), and Director of the Bank of Upper Canada (1822-1827). The Crookshank house was one of the first in York and was famously commandeered and looted during the American invasion of York in 1813 (see Stephen Otto’s “Art as evidence of history: two paintings by Robert Irvine” F&D, July 2018)

Crookshank Chest 2 in OMEThe Crookshank chest in the dining room of the Officers’ Mess at Fort York. (Toronto History Museums)I was delighted and grateful when Tim and Sue Walker, reached out to me and the Fort York Foundation to express their interest in a possible donation of their treasured heirloom to the City of Toronto. The chest is an oak chest with brass reinforcements designed to hold silverware and two carry handles on the sides. It measures 42 inches L x 28 inches W x 23 ¾ inches H (raised on a 8 ½ inch stand). It dates to 1820-1840 and features an engraved name plate bearing George Crookshank’s name. The reference on the plate identifies Crookshank as “The Hon” and also identifies the location as “Toronto” rather than York.  Crookshank was appointed to the Legislative Council in 1821 which gave him the designation of Honourable. Toronto was named York in 1793 and then re-named Toronto in 1834. If the brass plate was attached at the time the chest was created, the Toronto reference suggests the chest dates to c. 1834.

Tim Walker is a descendant of George Crookshank and he and his wife, Sue, have enjoyed having the chest for many years at their country home (located very appropriately on Lake Simcoe). Tim and Sue reflected on their decision to donate in Tim’s words below:
“The chest always had a special place in my parents’ home and our homes due to our family history, its beautiful period shape and structure and also its special place in Canadian history. We think it is now more appropriate for the chest to be returned to Fort York where its original owner played an active role in the operation of the Fort.”  

Fort York Foundation was pleased to arrange for an appraisal of the chest to facilitate its donation to the City of Toronto in 2021. The chest has undergone conservation and is now proudly on display in the dining room in the Officers’ Mess Establishment at Fort York National Historic Site. 

Robert Bell is Executive Director of The Friends of Fort York and the Fort York Foundation.

Relics of the Rebellion of 1837: the money vaults at Fort York

by Carl Benn

Bank of Upper CanadaThe Bank of Upper Canada on Adelaide St East at George St, circa 1859. (Toronto Public Libraries Digital Archive, Baldwin Collection of Canadiana, PICTURES-R-3103.)Two intriguing architectural relics stand in the Officers’ Brick Barracks and Mess Establishment at Fort York. They are dark, low, cellar rooms that many visitors mistakenly think are dungeons. Instead, they are specie, or money, vaults. They were installed at the end of 1838 to protect bank and army money from guerilla raids on Toronto during the tense aftermath of the Upper Canadian Rebellion.

A year before, in December 1837, William Lyon Mackenzie marshalled supporters at Montgomery’s Tavern on Yonge Street north of today’s Eglinton Avenue. He intended to take the city, overthrow the government, capture Fort York, and set up a provisional government. Before he attacked, minor skirmishing occurred between his followers and government supporters on 4 December.

As Mackenzie prepared to march, loyalists in the city organized Toronto’s defences as best they could. They had little support from the British army because most soldiers in the province had been sent to Lower Canada where the threat of insurrection was worse. One of the major concerns for Toronto’s loyal citizens was the vast quantity of money in the banks. If the rebels robbed the banks, they not only could finance their cause, but they could threaten the province’s economic stability, already strained by the American financial panic of 1837.

The Bank of Upper Canada alone had £138,000 in gold and silver in its vault along with large quantities of negotiable paper. Loyalists, therefore, recruited a corps of “Toronto Bank Guards” and deployed some of them around the hastily-fortified bank on Duke (now Adelaide) Street, and positioned others at the Commercial Bank of the Midland District on King Street.

On 5 December, Mackenzie led 500-700 rebels down Yonge Street. Other rebels waited in the city, ready to join the rising upon their arrival. However, a small government force led by Sheriff William Jarvis ambushed Mackenzie near today’s Yonge and College streets and sent the rebels retreating back to Montgomery’s Tavern (and those in the city quietly stayed home). More skirmishing occurred on the Sixth. On the Seventh, one loyalist force beat off an assault at the Don River bridge while another dispersed the rebels at Montgomery’s Tavern in a short battle.

Mackenzie escaped to the United States where he attracted both Canadian and American supporters to his cause. These people launched a number of raids into Canada in 1838. Some of the attacks were serious, rivalling War of 1812 engagements. The gravity of the raids, combined with the crisis of the Lower Canadian Rebellion, kept Upper Canada on a wartime footing until the end of the decade.

Within days of the Yonge Street skirmishes, hundreds of loyal Canadian militiamen from the surrounding countryside moved into Fort York while others guarded key points around the city and harbour. The government restored the fort’s deteriorating War of 1812 defences, enlarged its harbour battery, and constructed blockhouses and other defences around the city perimeter. Meanwhile the British army reinforced Upper and Lower Canada substantially (and in the early 1840s replaced much of Fort York’s facilities with the “New Fort” in today’s Exhibition Place).

Yet, the security of bank and government money continued to trouble loyalists through 1838. The banks were a political as well as an economic target. Mackenzie had condemned the banks, describing them as “vile associations” controlled by the colony’s elite. In his denunciations, he singled out the Bank of Upper Canada because of its close association with the government. Mackenzie had gone so far as to promise that there would be no banks in his independent Upper Canada.

While loyalists worried, rebels made a dramatic foray into Upper Canada in November 1838. A force of 250 crossed the St. Lawrence River at Prescott. They hoped to capture Fort Wellington, cut communications between Upper and Lower Canada, and inspire a widespread uprising against the Crown. Once ashore, the invaders fortified themselves at a strong stone windmill a short distance from the fort. Hundreds of British regulars, Royal Marines, and Canadian militia – supported by steam-powered gunboats – counterattacked over several days before the invaders surrendered.

At the same time as the Prescott raid occurred, there were political assassinations in the Niagara area and rumours of invasion in southwestern Upper Canada. Fearful of a widespread uprising, the Bank Guards moved back into position after several months of inactivity. Nevertheless, this did not seem to be enough. The banks – and the army’s money at the Commissariat Office on Front Street – still were vulnerable. Therefore, officials decided to build two vaults inside heavily guarded Fort York as quickly as possible. One was constructed new for the banks. The other was dismantled from the Commissariat Office and reassembled in the fort. Both were located in the 1815 Officers’ Mess cellar.Fort York vaultWhile construction went on in November and December 1838, a worried cashier of the Bank of Upper Canada, Thomas Ridout, sat barricaded inside his office, protected by the Bank Guards. If attacked, he hoped he would be able to hold out until troops from the fort came to his rescue. Ridout must have been relieved when the army finished the vaults towards the end of the year and transferred the money to the fort. Fort York vault b
Both vaults were made of thick cut stone and had heavy iron doors to make them fireproof. To improve security, the army constructed a wall between the vaults and a (no-longer-extant) exterior door of the cellar as a second line of defence, and put a heavy lock on an interior door which connected the cellar to the ground floor of the Officers’ Mess. No doubt soldiers were deployed around the building in addition to the force that guarded the fort as a whole.

Eventually, tensions died down and the money vaults fell into disuse in the 1840s. ln the early 1850s, however, the army restored the vaults for the Commissariat, which took over the Officers’ Mess for an office. After the Commissariat left a few years later, the army tore down the security wall in the cellar, but the vaults survived, and may be seen by visitors to the fort today.
While not as romantic as dungeons at first glance, the vaults are fascinating because of their associations with one of the most dramatic periods in the city’s history, and, like many other treasures at Fort York, provide tangible and evocative links to Toronto’s complex past.

This is a revised version of an article Carl Benn wrote in 1995 while Curator of Military History for the Toronto Historical Board. He now is a history professor at Toronto Metropolitan University. We thank Allison Bain, Executive Director of Heritage Toronto, for granting permission to publish this revised version of an article that first appeared in Explore Historic Toronto (issue 8, spring/summer 1995), the newsletter of the Toronto Historical Board (now Heritage Toronto).

Fort York Guard on Pause in 2022

We very much regret to report that The Friends have not been able to obtain support from the City to operate the Fort York Guard this summer. The City has decided to put its relationship with The Friends of Fort York on pause to conduct a review of how closely the values of The Friends currently align with the City’s organizational values and what steps might be required based on the outcomes of the process. The City determined that it was necessary to pause the Guard in the spirit of the review process. A timetable for the process has yet to be announced.

The Guard, consisting of the Squad and the Drums, is a joint and cooperative venture by the City of Toronto in partnership with The Friends of Fort York and has been a popular living history attraction at Fort York. We believe this will be the first time since 1955 that the Guard has not appeared at Fort York in the summer - it will certainly be the first time since The Friends of Fort York took on leadership for mounting the Guard in 1999. 

We strongly believe that there is a place for living history alongside the many contemporary events that take place at the Fort. The Guard has provided a welcome and challenging summer employment opportunity for students which, in turn, has attracted support through federal grants. It has also fostered camaraderie and spirited competition with similar groups hailing from other historic forts in Ontario.

The Friends have always appreciated and recognized the intense loyalty and professionalism of the students who have served in the Fort York Guard. The quality of their music and drill demonstrations is second to none. We will hope to see a return of the Fort York Guard in 2023. 

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New Museum Administrator of Fort York National Historic Site

Shiralee Hudson HillShiralee Hudson Hill is the new Museum Administrator at Fort York National Historic Site.As I write this in mid January the city’s history museums are again closed. Some staff are once again working from home or being redeployed to more urgent roles, if they’re not at home sick with the ubiquitous Omicron or managing the home work and screen time of their offspring. Or, doing all of it at once. We so look forward to spring!

No one more so than Shiralee Hudson Hill, the new Museum Administrator of Fort York National Historic Site. She took up her new job in November just as the Omicron variant was somewhere being born. Shiralee is a museum professional with two decades of experience. She has worked for Lord Cultural Resources, held positions with the Ontario Science Centre and the National Museum of Ireland, and most recently was Lead Interpretive Planner at the AGO. She’s an expert in the crafting of story and artifact labels.

One of the highlights of Shiralee’s time at the AGO was her award-winning podcast “Into the Anthropocene,” done alongside the stunning exhibition of Ed Burtynsky’s newest photographs in 2018. She has also done some guest lecturing – including at Harvard and OCAD – and is a sessional lecturer in the graduate museology program at the U of T, where she earned her own Master’s in Museum Studies. Welcome to the fort, Shiralee, and keep an eye out for the coyotes!
About the material well-being of the fort, there’s a lot of good news. The termites that attacked the hydro bunker have been defeated and there’s new and better switching gear installed. The long-term work to replace the old cedar shingles on the historic buildings continues; this coming summer will see new roofs on the two blockhouses and the Officers’ Mess, completing the project. And, after years of financial scrounging and multi-party negotiation, more of the Corten steel panels envisioned by the architects of the Visitor Centre are falling into place. The dreadful cheap siding on the Bentway’s ice-skating annex is at last disappearing and heavy earth-movers are restoring the eroded embankment behind it.
The long-suffering park planned for the ancient mouth of Garrison Creek (on that low meadow just east of the Brock bridge) has been given a breath of life. In a rare bit of happy news from Metrolinx, the transit monolith declared it no longer wanted the site for long-term construction staging – but in the meantime the City had re-allocated the money for the park’s construction. There’s a beautiful design by Marc Ryan of PUBLIC WORK for the site ready to go, but it’s all now into another budget cycle.

On the meadow’s eastern edge, meanwhile, the City has approved a 29-storey tower that’s an even mix of affordable and market rental units. Just a few steps from the Fort York library branch, Canoe Landing and two elementary schools, it will be the last tower to go up on the former Railway Lands of CityPlace.

Just over the tracks to the north of Fort York, the old Wellington Destructor has been given a glimpse of a promising future. The City has arranged development of the site with TAS Design Build, the same firm that’s developing the large abattoir site (2 Tecumseth) that envelops it. “Mixed use” understates the imagination they’ve applied to the formidable heritage structure; look for a comprehensive account in a coming F&D.

Finally, readers will recall the Liberty Village Timeline and the nonsense engraved in stone and embedded in the two parkettes along Liberty Street. Arranged by the Liberty Village BIA and the City’s liaison office, the historical timeline was thought to have been vetted by the City’s historian … but, no. Of the 19 snippets of history engraved in the stones, about half a dozen are largely imaginary and a few are just wrong: for the First World War, for example, it’s claimed that most of the neighbourhood’s factories were producing “armaments, weapons and bombs” (no, they weren’t). The City’s BIA office is on the hook to fix these but, despite asking, they’ve not been heard from. Nor have we heard from the BIA itself. We’ll keep asking. /bk