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Tripping the Light Fantastic: The Social Role of Taverns in Upper Canada

In this blog, we have talked about the hotels and taverns that were in Holland Landing at the end of the 19th century (you can read the previous post here). By 1818, these places were regulated by Justices of the Peace, requiring that innkeepers needed to make provisions for travellers, particularly regarding their horses and baggage. To own a tavern, you needed to apply for a licence given to you by the government of Upper Canada. By 1850, there were over 2,500 taverns across the province, which gives us some insight about the valuable social role that these businesses filled for the inhabitants.

While taverns were first and foremost establishments where people could drink alcohol, colorfully described by travelers and townsfolk alike as ‘stagger-juice’, ‘tangle leg’, ‘nose paint’ or ‘dead-and-gone’, it was not the only activity in which tavern visitors could partake. There were many other communal amusements that gave people more reasons than one to visit their local tavern.

For example, the Royal Hotel in Holland Landing boasted a ballroom on the second floor. Gladys Rolling notes that “here the village tripped the light fantastic to the music of Martin Taylor on the base viola, Washington West on the first violin, and Jack Taylor on the coronet. These were “dress up occasions” and were most enjoyable for the young people and for those who were young at heart.” (Rolling, 1967, 24). Dancing in this context would be a type of dance known as the English country dance, which is a social dance where people execute a certain number of steps, usually in a group of four or more. A modern example of English country dancing that persisted until about 1850 can be found in this CBC documentary video.

Figure 1: An engraving from C.W. Jefferys, drawn 1934, showing a country dance in Canada of the 1840's.

Music was a large part of tavern life as well; tavern-goers would sing together at all hours of the day and night. At Beman’s tavern just outside of York, Eli Playter records that he wrote music and that one evening he sat “singing with Ms. Beman ‘til bedtime; she had borrowed a musick (sic) book of me and I was teaching her till late” (Roberts, 2009, 53). People could go to the barroom and catch up on daily events or gossip, or to hear lively debates from patrons. Another activity which was very popular was playing cards and gambling on the outcome. At one tavern near Kingston in 1841, two men “were playing écarté very furiously for immense sums…and not too sober – what they won or lost remained a mystery particularly to themselves”. (Roberts, 2010, 161). Other large social events could occur within the context of a tavern, such as circuses, tightrope walking performances, or even watching a travelling show.

Of course, not everyone approved of these places where people could congregate. On November 2nd, 1859, a hotel owned by Reuben Lundy on the west side of Leslie Street near the grounds of the Children of Peace was burned by fire. It was operated by Henry Smith; the possibility of arson was clear, and so the Governor General of Canada offered a reward of $100 for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the party who set the fire.

Fire was a common way to destroy buildings, hotels included. In 1872, a stable was also lit on fire next to the house of a local weaver named Mr. Hutchinson. The fire spread to the hotel near his house which was kept up by Patrick Horan. Both the barn and the hotel were destroyed, and the culprit was never found.

We hope you enjoyed reading about other activities people would do in nineteenth century taverns!


Roberts, Julia (2009). In Mixed Company: Taverns and Public Life in Upper Canada. Vancouver: UBC Press.

Roberts, Julia (2010) “The Games People Played: Tavern Amusements and Colonial Social Relations.” Ontario History, Vol. 102, No. 2 (Fall), 154 – 174.

Rolling, Gladys (1967). East Gwillimbury in the Nineteenth Century. Toronto: Ryerson Press.

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