Royal history in one of Kingston’s nooks

The Journal takes a tour of one of the city’s oldest watering holes

If you listen closely at the Royal Tavern, you can hear John A. Macdonald delivering one of his political speeches.
If you listen closely at the Royal Tavern, you can hear John A. Macdonald delivering one of his political speeches.
The stove in the Royal Tavern dates back to the 1880s.
The stove in the Royal Tavern dates back to the 1880s.

Saturday night is not the busiest night at the Royal Tavern--especially on a Halloween weekend, where students frequent the more conventional hangouts like Ale House and Stages down the street.

I sip my beer slowly—domestic cream ale, which is somewhat fitting to the tavern’s homey atmosphere—and look around the empty premise. Halloween decorations aside, the tavern is laden with little pieces of history that you might miss if you’re not careful.

A stove from the 1880s sits at the back.

Wheels from ancient wheelbarrows and a 1912 photograph of what the tavern once looked like—slick, wooden bar with upside down liquor bottles—hang on the wall.

And most astonishingly, a facsimile of a business transaction between John A. Macdonald and Henry Grimason, when Macdonald sold the property of 344 Princess St.—where the Tavern stands—to Grimason, hangs tucked away in a corner where there used to be a carriageway.

After all, would anyone have guessed that John A. Macdonald liked spending time in the proximity of MyBar?

It might help that MyBar didn’t exist in Macdonald’s time—Royal Tavern was once a favourite hangout of his, as well as the other Tory elites of his time. Located near Macdonald’s office, the tavern was a “handy spot for political gatherings,” write Margaret McBurney and Mary Byers in their book .

One staunch supporter of John A Macdonald was Henry Grimason’s widow, Eliza. Lena Newman writes in her book : “one of the most devoted followers was Mrs. Grimason, whose Kingston tavern [Grimason House at the time] was for years Macdonald’s local election headquarters.” Eliza’s generosity not only extended to our first prime minister, but to his supporters as well. She often provided free drinks and food to Tory supporters on election nights, hot and fresh out of the very stove that still sits at the tavern.

On election nights, Newman writes—quoting author James Roy—that “‘open house’ was kept for all the faithful.”

Eliza’s support of the Tories ran deep and fierce—she declared that she “hate[s] them damn Grits!” in the presence of William Mulock, a Liberal contemporary to Macdonald—and her relations with Macdonald were intriguingly personal. Although there is no concrete proof of them having an affair, Newman writes that some historians harbour a suspicion.

They might be on to something: Newman writes that supposedly, two rooms were always put aside for Macdonald’s personal use at the Grimason House. Macdonald is also said to have spent more nights at the Grimason House than his own residence—Eliza “awakened him early on Sunday mornings so that he would not be late for church,” Newman writes.

However scandalous—or completely appropriate—her relations to John A. Macdonald may have been, Eliza’s support of Macdonald continued after their deaths—she’s buried beside him at the Cataraqui Cemetery. Curiously enough, her tombstone stands much taller than Macdonald’s grave—perhaps to signify her tireless loyalty behind the scenes.

After her death, 344 Princess St. became the Farmer’s Royal Exchange Inn in 1900, and was then converted to Royal Hotel in 1933 after the end of prohibition in 1927.

The property was then bought by Enid Lavin, the mother of the current owner, Michael Lavin. The premise changed its name to Royal Tavern officially in 1971, when the Ontario government allowed hard liquor, as well as beer, to be served in public places (pubs sell beers only, whereas a “tavern” premise—as well as bars—can sell liquor).

Michael Lavin says today, the tavern usually sells about 60 per cent beer, and 40 per cent liquor.

More history greets me as Michael leads me upstairs to the old extension of Grimason House—where there are now private apartments—and shows me what now functions as a storage room.

A long, antique mirror that once rested in the pub downstairs, back when Eliza was alive, sits with the other dusty furniture.

History, history everywhere—but not without a price. “I like to preserve history,” said Michael, as he shows me the historical nooks of the tavern. But it’s not always easy: “You’d be surprised to see how much it costs…it’s not cheap,” he said. “Even heating is expensive. There is little insulation in the building.”

Michael undid the plasticene that covered the old limestone wall in the carriageway and displayed the facsimile of John A. Macdonald’s transactions for old times’ sake.

But the passage of time is evident in little ways—the former carriageway is now covered by a bead and jewellery shop at the front, and the side corner of the tavern with a second pool table.

The floor is no longer the same wood that Macdonald and his devotees treaded on, and the bar crowd does not retain the political flavour and elitism it once did.

The crowd these days is “mixed,” Lavin says. “A lot of construction people come in after work, around 4:30 to 5:00…We have some students as well.

“Occasionally, we have entertainment at night, but it’s not a huge focus on my part.” Lavin says the number of licensed premises in Kingston has increased dramatically in the last 50 years.

“When I came to Kingston [in 1956], there were only 10 licensed premises … Now there are about 250, I think,” said Lavin.

Also, with many campus bars at Queen’s, attracting students has become difficult.

“There’s competition with the bars at Queen’s … There isn’t much I can do [about that],” Lavin said. My beer is finished, and the bar remains somewhat desolate until closing time on Saturday, with a handful of regulars playing pool and watching the game on the old carriageway side of the tavern.

I wonder how Macdonald and Eliza would feel about the aesthetic changes made to their once-familiar place—then I start wondering how many people are actually aware of this historic gem in the midst of the rowdy Hub.

Instead of walking out with the answers, I leave with a warm beer glow and a slew of obnoxious costumes standing outside.

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