The William Lyon Mackenzie House is a living history museum. The home of this famous Canadian rebel and politician tells a turbulent tale of life in Ontario in the late 19th century.
The austere brick townhouse with the black shutters at 82 Bond Street could pass for an ordinary private home, except for the sign on the right hand side saying "Mackenzie House".
Walk past this sign, down a short lane into the back yard and you'll find a modern addition that was built in 1967 as a Canadian Centennial project.
Here is the entrance to a small but interesting house museum that showcases the life of a political rebel and at the same time offers a glimpse into typical middle-class home life, décor and technology in the 1860s.
Who Was Mackenzie?
For those of you who are unfamiliar with William Lyon Mackenzie, let me give you just a short summary before I tell you about his house. Toronto's first mayor, William Lyon Mackenzie, was born in Scotland, but immigrated to Canada a young man.
He was involved in journalism, printing, and politics. Because of his role in a failed rebellion against the reigning government of the time in 1837, Mackenzie had to flee Canada to the United States to escape being hanged as a ringleader.
When the political climate changed a decade later, though, he was granted amnesty and came back to Toronto, where his supporters bought him a townhouse – the one you see here on Bond Street. Unfortunately for William Lyon Mackenzie he only lived in the house for two years (he died, in fact, in the bedroom on the second floor) but his wife and daughters continued to occupy the house for many years after his death.
The townhouse you see here was once surrounded by two other identical ones, which were demolished many years ago. When Mackenzie moved into it in 1859, it was brand new. The style of architecture, which is Greek Revival Style, was very popular at the time.
It's surprisingly modest in size, having only two rooms in the basement, two on the first floor, three on the second, and a third floor occupied by a servant (this floor is not available for viewing). Since it was the middle house of three row houses, there are only windows at the front and back of the building, not the sides.
Entry to Museum
Once you pass through the tiny lobby with its admission desk and shop where you can buy books and gift items like "rebel" t-shirts, you find yourself standing next to a large room full of 19th century printing equipment. Handbills hang from the ceiling illustrating types of work that Mackenzie might have printed when he wasn't working on his newspaper. The newspaper that was the cause of so much political uproar was just a small part of his business; most of Mackenzie's work would have been business forms, handbills, that sort of thing.
To your left is a hallway leading into the back door of the original house. In this hallway you'll find temporary exhibits of an historical nature. When I visited, there were displays related to Christmas – such as the toys, decorations, and winter clothing in these photos.
A guide in period costume greets you at this point, and takes you through the house. The first stop is the entry way, which is covered in wallpaper resembling brick work. (Faux finishes were all the rage at the time.) On one wall is a picture of Bonnie Prince Charles and his followers. Mackenzie's ancestors fought on Charles' side. Mackenzie was proud of the fact that his forefathers were "rebel Scots", and he liked to remind people of it whenever he got the chance.
The rest of the floor consists of two medium-sized rooms. The parlour was the "good room", where the family entertained guests. Not many of the items are original to the house since the building was occupied by other families after the Mackenzies left. The few things that are original were donated later by descendants. These include a chair, the back of which was embroidered by one of Mackenzie's daughters, and a needlework done by his wife when she was a little girl.
There's a lovely piano in one corner, an essential item in any middle-class home of the day.
Apparently the Mackenzies rented their piano, because they were always short of money and couldn't afford to buy it outright.
The ceilings are high and even though the room is quite small compared to the monster homes of today, there's an airy feeling to the space.
A pocket door separates the parlour from the dining room at the back, which could be closed off when Mackenzie was using it to put his paper out. The seats of the chairs around the dining room table are made of horsehair, a popular material at the time. It's long-lasting (practical for the penny-conscious) and has a lovely sheen that looks like silk.
A long narrow staircase painted mustard leads up to the second floor which contains three rooms. The girls' bedroom has two beds for the two Mackenzie daughters who were living there at the time.
The second bedroom, belonging to William Lyon Mackenzie and Isabel, his wife, has a large heater-stove and a low cot in the corner. Notice the bedpan under the bed. Emptying it would have been the job of the servant who lived on the third floor. Like other homes of the era, this one had no indoor plumbing. The toilet was outside in the back yard, probably next to the well. The city suffered from terrible cholera outbreaks at the time.
There's also a small room that might have been used by Mackenzie's teenage son when he visited but most of the time was probably just the storage room. It's currently set up to look like a tiny home office. On the wall is a framed copy of the famous handbill calling for William Lyon Mackenzie's arrest. My guide said that Mackenzie was quite proud of this piece of memoribilia and liked to show it to visitors. When an enemy tried to put him down once by referring to Mackenzie's former status as a wanted man, Mackenzie replied that the man was just jealous that his own head would never be worth 1000 pounds.
The basement is really where the Mackenzies would have spent most of their time. Banked as it was in the earth, it was warmer in winter and cooler in summer. It cost less to heat during the chilly season. This space, which consists of two rooms, the kitchen and dining/family room, is more modestly decorated than the upper rooms which would have been shown off to guests.
An historical food society makes food for the museum and if you're lucky you might be offered freshly baked cookies and apple cider from the kitchen.
Isabel, Mackenzie's wife, would have done most of the cooking here. Her servant Catherine Byrnes would have done the heavier work like cleaning and laundry. The kitchen was also used for bathing and laundry. The family did their grocery-shopping at the St. Lawrence Market, which still operates and is only a 10 minute walk away and well worth a visit.
On your way out of the house, stop for a moment in the backyard, where you'll find a bas-relief of William Lyon Mackenzie. You'll notice that it's chopped up into three parts. The picture was designed by the Toronto painter C.W. Jeffreys and sculpted into stone by the famous Emanuel Hahn. The art work used to be part of a Memorial Arch in Niagara Falls. When the arch was torn down less than 30 years after its erection, the bas-relief was tossed into storage, where it lay for many years before being rediscovered and re-erected here in Mackenzie's back yard.
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Want to know more about William Lyon Mackenzie King, the grandson of William Lyon Mackenzie? check out this article: William Lyon Mackenzie King and Woodside National Historic Site