History · Pacific Northwest · Vancouver

A Lion’s Backend…

A change in colour in the granite on a rainy day is a hint to past events…

Lions have been the guardians of choice for numerous courthouses, public buildings and monuments around the world. The most famous of these, in the Commonwealth at least, might be the ones that sit at the base of Nelson’s column in Trafalgar Square.

In Vancouver, the Georgia Street side of the Vancouver Art Gallery (the former courthouse) is overlooked by two rather contented lions gazing out over the plaza and street. Despite some assertions, the pair are not modeled on their London cousins but from photographs and measurements taken of some visiting beasts from a travelling circus that came through town in 1908.

On a recent rain soaked day I photographed the lion on the west side of the entrance staircase because the rain had caused a distinct colour change in the granite with the hind quarter appearing much lighter than the rest of animal. That colour change is the result of the one exciting thing to happen to the pair since they were set on their plinths in 1910 with a 20-ton derrick and steam engine.

Once put in place they sat there peacefully minding their own business until one evening in November 1942 when two small explosive devices were triggered breaking off the hind quarters of the lion on the west side of the entrance. Newspapers reported that the blast shifted the rear of the lion almost eight inches.

There were few witnesses to the incident, though many felt the impact of the explosion as it broke windows in nearby buildings and “knocked a few people backwards.” The Courthouse janitor, Frederick Brown came down stairs after the first explosion to see what was going on, but seeing the broken glass ran back inside just in time before the second blast went off. Sgt. Percy Tomey, RAMC said he witnessed a small man with a felt hat running away just before the detonation.

Damage to the lion from the Vancouver Sun. Sgt. Percy Tomey surveys the damage

The Vancouver Sun reported that the “dynamite “time-bombs” were placed one on each side of the stone lion, in small depressions just below the animal’s flanks. The space would allow insertion of about two half sticks of dynamite on each side. A lengthy piece of fuse and another length of wire both found near the shattered granite lion are to be examined by Inspector J. F. C. B. Vance, city police scientist.” No one was ever caught or claimed responsibility for the incident and it was put down to an “isolated incident of vandalism.”

The discussion then turned to repair and restoration of the beast. During the planning and negotiations for the repair a temporary bandage was wrapped around the damaged hind quarter. While the restoration was generally supported there were letters to the editor questioning the expense and even the appropriateness of what the lions represented.

A Mr MacDonald in North Vancouver objected to an assertion that Mr Leo Poulton had made that “the lion represents a symbol of liberty, freedom and all that we are fighting for” and wondered if “the cruelest member of the animal kingdom can be associated with any of these ideals” He went on to comment that “as a member of the cat tribe, he lives by leaping upon or running down weaker animals unable to escape him. Every day of his life he snuffs out the existence of some unfortunate fellow creature. He represents among animals the Nazi theory of ‘Might is right.’ His proposal was for Beavers to replace the lions.

Other correspondents were concerned about the projected cost of 5000 dollars for the repair and W. R. Jones thought that with a ” world in deadly peril, dwindling food supplies, inflated prices and staggering taxation… we sit and gape while irresponsible incompetents use our money to purchase a tail for a stone lion!” An opinion shared by other letter writers.

However, plans continued to proceed for the restoration and by April 1943 the damaged portion of the lion was hoisted off the plinth and taken to be re-carved by some of the same men who worked on the original. The stone for the new work was quarried from the same Granite Island quarry that supplied the original stone.

Granite Island Quarry where the blocks for the Courthouse lions came from CVA123-1

Located in Jervis Inlet near Nelson Island, Granite Island’s quarries provided building stone for a number of prominent buildings in the city including the former Post Office and Winch building that make up a portion of the Sinclair Centre, and the former Bank of Commerce at Granville and Hastings. The stone was exported to Australia and other places including Seattle where it was used for the Federal Courthouse.

It was a popular material for headstones and over 2000 were commissioned by the Imperial (now Commonwealth) War Graves Commission for the graves of fallen soldiers in British Columbia and Alberta. Included in the contract were the Cross of Sacrifice which was placed in major cities, carved in Vancouver to the designs of British architect Sir Reginald Bloomfield. And its hard wearing qualities made it a popular paving material for streets in cities along the Pacific Coast.

The Lions began as two blocks of stone weighing in at almost 45 tons each, though after workers at the quarry had blocked out the lions the weight was reduced to just 25 tons each. These lighter blocks were put on a scow and towed to the works yard of McDonald, Wilson & Snider at 1571 Main Street where carver John Bruce shaped them into their final form. Bruce was assisted by Alex Fordice, Alex Simpson, Herbert Ede, James Hurry, Timothy Bass and Peter Bisson who according to Foreman John Whitworth came up from Raymond, California to assist in the work.

John Wills Bruce was a Scottish-born carver that did the stone work on B.T. Rogers’ mansion Gabriola, carved the fireplace for the grand Shaughnessy residence, Rosemary on Selkirk Street among other commissions while he was in Vancouver.

The new back end is installed in August 1943

For the new work, John Whitworth, Herbert Ede and James Hurry were hired by the Art Monument Company to do the carving of the new hind quarter. It was estimated to take three to four months. An eight-ton block of granite was used and the carvers declared that “when the new rear end is in place the joint will be so fine that it will take close inspection to locate it.” Well, if you know what to look for it’s reasonably obvious and even more so in the rain.

Side note: One interesting report from the 1930s suggests that both lions still had work to be done on them. The architect S. M. Eveleigh said that the budget was never allocated to complete the carving and that portions of the mane and face are merely roughed in and lacked the intended detail. Eveleigh did confirm that he and his partner W.T. Dalton had rented the animal section of a travelling ‘street show’ one evening to measure and photograph the lions on exhibit.

It’s unclear which show they borrowed the lions from, though in June, 1908, the Norris and Rowe Circus was in town with its menagerie of lions, elephants, ‘trick’ mules, hyenas etc. Barnum and Bailey followed in August though I can’t see them renting their animals for measurement.

A better bet is Pain’s Eruption of Vesuvius, billed as THE FIREWORKS KING’S NEW COLOSSAL SPECTACLE. VESUVIUS AND CARNIVAL OF NAPLES Acres of wonderfully realistic scenery 250 performers, Gigantic outdoor stage. Beautiful ballets and big circus acts. Terrific earthquakes and burning of city. Each night Pain’s $1000 Fireworks. The arrived in town for shows on June 16th, 17th and 18th at Recreation Park, Smithe and Homer and seems like the sort of organization to allow an evening of lion measuring and photos.

2 thoughts on “A Lion’s Backend…

  1. One of your finest posts! Lions! Circus! Explosions in the night! All the best Lorenz Currently at Sea Ranch in CA and the on the road to Fla, NYC and Europe.

    Sent from my iPhone


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