Little Bits Of Canada In London

By Londonist Staff Last edited 40 months ago
Little Bits Of Canada In London
Canada House, by Nick Richards in the Londonist Flickr pool.

As a leading member of the Commonwealth and a staunch ally during both world wars, Canada has always had strong links to London. Today, these links are stronger than ever, with Canadians occupying such positions as Governor of the Bank of England, Chief Executive of the Royal Mail and Chief Operating Officer of Heathrow Airport. The evidence of our city’s Canadian heritage is all around us. It goes back a long way and in many respects it goes right to the heart of London — there are pieces of Canada next to Buckingham Palace, in the House of Commons and, most noticeably, on Trafalgar Square.

Around Trafalgar Square

On the western side of Trafalgar Square, the maple leaf flag flies proudly from Canada House, which boasts one of the most famous diplomatic addresses in the world. When the Canadian government acquired what had previously been the Union Club in 1923, the then Canadian Prime Minister Mackenzie King declared it to be “the finest site in London and, being in London, the finest in the world”. Following a recent refurbishment, Canada House was reopened by the Queen – she’s Queen of Canada, too – earlier this year.

What is perhaps less well known is that back when the Canadians first moved in, the area was known as ‘Little Canada’. Next door to Canada House is 2-4 Cockspur Street, which was built in the 1920s by the Sun Life Assurance Company of Canada, and during the Second World War it served as the Canadian Military Headquarters in Britain. It is now part of the Canadian High Commission.

Just across the street from Canada House, at 62-65 Trafalgar Square, is the Canadian Pacific Building. It now sports a Pret on the ground floor but the name of one of Canada’s two railway companies is clearly visible at the top, next to a clock which is one of just two that looks out onto Trafalgar Square (the other one is on St Martin-in-the-Fields).

The other railway company was originally the Grand Trunk Railway, and later became the Canadian National Railway. It had its headquarters at 17-19 Cockspur Street; although it is now occupied by the London Visitor Centre, the building’s Canadian heritage is clearly evident with the name of the company and the crests of Canada’s provinces set into the stonework.

It hasn’t all been one-way traffic though. When the fountains in Trafalgar Square were replaced in the mid-twentieth century, the originals went to Canada; one is in Ottawa, the capital, while the other is in Regina, Saskatchewan.

Canada in Westminster

Canada in turn supplied some of the furnishings for the House of Commons, to replace what had been destroyed when the chamber was bombed by the Luftwaffe in May 1941. The Table of the House (the big one in the middle) is made of Canadian oak, and visitors to the House can clearly see that it is inscribed “Gift of Canada”.

Canada’s close links with Britain are also in evidence near Buckingham Palace. Facing the Victoria Memorial as the main ceremonial entrance to Green Park is the Canada Gate, a gilded wrought-iron structure presented by Canada in 1905. Not far inside Green Park is the Canada War Memorial, which commemorates the Canadian soldiers, sailors and airmen who served alongside British forces in the First and Second World Wars. Symbolically, the walkway between the two parts points in the direction of Halifax, Nova Scotia – the point from which most Canadian service personnel left their homeland to serve in Europe. The memorial was unveiled by the Queen in 1994.

Beaver shot, by Ken Yau.

Trade links

Evidence of Anglo-Canadian links can also be found in the City. The Hudson’s Bay Company was founded by Royal Charter in 1670 to capitalise on the growing fur trade in North America. It was given a monopoly on the watershed for Hudson Bay, which for a time made it the world’s largest landowner. It is now one of Canada’s largest department stores, but until 1970 it was a London-based company and therefore had its headquarters in the City. The old Hudson’s Bay Building is on Bishopsgate, and evidence of its history can be seen in the beaver weather vane and the company’s coat-of-arms on the underside of the entrance arch.

The fur traders also played a part in the founding of the Canada Club in 1810. This dining society met in the Savoy Hotel for many years and is to this day a major forum for discussing Canadian interests and issues in Britain.

Statue of Franklin by ChrisO in the public domain.

Statues and memorials

British military and naval heroes with close Canadian associations are commemorated across London. James Wolfe, the man whose victory over the French at the Plains of Abraham in 1759 ensured British supremacy in what would later become Canada, lived in Greenwich and his statue stands on the hill next to the Observatory.

Heroic failure is commemorated by the statue of Sir John Franklin, the admiral who disappeared along with his ships while trying to find the elusive North-West Passage in the 1840s. The mystery of what happened to them in the Arctic has long fascinated Canadian historians, and the wreck of his flagship, HMS Erebus, was found by the Royal Canadian Navy last year. Franklin’s statue stands on Waterloo Place (between Pall Mall and The Mall), although it does erroneously credit him with having discovered the passage that he died trying to find.

A plaque to Lieutenant Colonel John By can be found on the Albert Embankment in Lambeth, near where he was born in 1779. John By had a distinguished military career and also found time to build the Rideau Canal and establish the city of Ottawa.

Cups and glasses

Evidence of Canada’s sporting heritage can be found on Regent Street, where number 128 was once occupied by the silversmiths GR Collis. It was here in 1892 that Lord Stanley, the then Governor General who since taking up the post had become an enthusiastic ice hockey fan, purchased a trophy that would be awarded annually to the best team in Canada. A plaque commemorates this. Today, the Stanley Cup is awarded to the winners of the National Hockey League.

After all of this Canadian sightseeing, a drink may be in order. London has its own Canadian pub; the Maple Leaf can be found on Maiden Lane, just south of Covent Garden. Originally opened by the Molson Brewery (Canada’s largest), it has Canadian beer and food as well as cask ale.

By Nick Young

Last Updated 24 August 2015