The Bishop’s Block

By Bruce Bell, History Columnist –

Bishop’s Block, on the northeast corner of Simcoe and Adelaide Streets, was considered the fin­est apartment building of its day when it was built in 1829. It had stores on the ground floor and private residences above.

The block was constructed on what was then the outskirts of York with hope that the town would expand past York Street. It’s one of only a handful of buildings remaining that are older than the city itself, for in 1834 the Town of York become the City of Toronto.

John Bishop, a butcher born in 1770 in London, England, who moved to New York before coming to York, developed the apartment. He set up a butcher shop in the St. Lawrence Mar­ket area, and later built a row of houses on what is today Ade­laide Street West.

Originally Bishop built five row homes along Adelaide to where University Avenue is to­day. The block, then the larg­est row of houses in York, was intended to be first-class resi­dences for gentlemen. Bishop expected handsome rents.

Two of the original five re­main standing. York’s 1833 town directory lists their top two floors as J. Morgan Gen­tlemen’s and Families Boarding House. They’re also connect­ed to well-known author Anna Jameson.

Born in Dublin on May 19, 1794, Anna Brownell Murphy was the eldest child of Denis Brownell Murphy, a miniature painter. In London in 1820, Anna was introduced to, and subsequently became engaged to a lawyer, Robert Jameson.

By June 1821 she had broken her engagement and set off for Italy to work as a governess. A year later she returned, and in 1825 finally married Jameson, then a magistrate. The Diary of an Ennuyée, a fictitious account of her travels in Italy, was then published.

In 1833 Robert Jameson be­came Speaker of the House of Upper Canada and took up res­idence in the Bishop’s Block, then just a stone’s throw from the legislature, near present-day Roy Thomson Hall.

In October 1836 Anna finally arrived in Toronto but couldn’t wait to leave. Standing outside Bishop’s Block, she declared to her husband, “I am not living in that!” In reality the only reason she came was to obtain a di­vorce from her spouse, by now attorney general of the province.

The Bishop Block on the northeast corner of Simcoe and Adelaide. Photo: Bruce Bell

Upon her arrival in York Anna wrote of her first impression of the city:

“It is a little, ill-built town, on low land, at the bottom of a frozen bay, with one very ugly church without tower or steeple, some government offices built of staring red brick, in the most tasteless vulgar style imagina­ble with three feet of snow all around, and the grey, sullen, un­inviting lake and the dark gloom of the pine forest bounding the prospect.”

A few years later, in 1842, Charles Dickens wrote the op­posite after visiting Toronto. “The streets are well paved, and lighted with gas; the houses are large and good; the shops excel­lent.”

In the summer of 1837 Anna travelled around Lake Huron and published her impressions in Winter Studies and Summer Rambles in Canada.

Upon returning to Toronto, she finally got her divorce and headed off to New York. Six months later she returned to England.

Robert and Anna never met again.

Despite her misgivings about Toronto, Anna did have a few admirers here. One was Hen­ry Scadding an author and the rector of Holy Trinity Church (still standing behind the Eaton Centre). Scadding wrote of her, “Intellectually she was an en­chantress and her conversation was consequently of the most fascinating kind.”

According to him, Anna Jameson wrote one of the fin­est accounts of the province in Winter Studies.

After her departure Robert maintained his Bishop’s Block residence until his death in 1854. On March 17, 1860, Anna died in London after a brief illness.

As the decades rolled by the once fine Bishop’s Block be­came surrounded by stores, factories, flop houses as Toron­to quickly grew. In 1936 the re­maining block and most of its neighbours lost a good portion of their length in the construc­tion of University Avenue.

In the early 1970s, The Bish­op’s Block became the Pretzel Bell Tavern (where I had my first beer; soon after, it was boarded up and left to rot for decades).

However, during the construc­tion of the Shangri-La Hotel, which opened in 2011, the re­maining portion of the Bishop’s Block was painstakingly disas­sembled and then reassembled. Today it stands as a testament to Toronto’s enduing past while being entirely engulfed by the hotel rising 50 stories above.

The restored Bishop’s Block is now home to the upscale Soho House, a private nightclub. Ac­cording to local legend, Prince Harry took Meghan Markle to it on their first date in July 2016.