Toronto Feature: Penny Farthing | The Canadian Encyclopedia


Toronto Feature: Penny Farthing

This article is from our Toronto Feature series. Features from past programs are not updated.

This content is from a series created in partnership with Museum Services of the City of Toronto and Heritage Toronto. We gratefully acknowledge funding from the Ontario Ministry of Tourism, Culture and Sport, and the Department of Canadian Heritage.

Former location of the Penny Farthing on Yorkville in 2012 (photo 2012 by James Marsh).
The Penny Farthing, 1960s
The Penny Farthing sometime after it opened in 1963 (courtesy Nicholas Jennings Collection).
Unusual Coffeehouse Feature
The swimming pool at the Penny Farthing, an unusual feature for a coffee shop (public domain).

Toronto Feature: Penny Farthing

"Joni Mitchell Debuts in the Dungeon"

Tucked inside a grand old Victorian house in the heart of Yorkville, the Penny Farthing possessed eccentric charms--including a swimming pool and bikini-clad waitresses. Owned and operated by John McHugh and his wife, it featured jazz and blues and was the first coffeehouse to feature Joni Mitchell's original songs.

Ex-RAF pilot John McHugh and his wife, Marilyn, opened the Penny Farthing in the spring of 1963, after their initial success with the Half Beat coffeehouse. In an unusual move, the McHughs installed a patio and swimming pool, enabling customers to have a dip while sipping cappuccinos in the backyard. With the Penny, John indulged his taste for the blues and Dixieland jazz, both of which came together on the live recording Stompin' at the Penny, by Jim McHarg's Metro Stompers and legendary American bluesman Lonnie Johnson. Johnson later operated a Yorkville coffeehouse of his own.

With shifting musical styles, the Penny also provided a stage for folk-rockers the Stormy Clovers, who attracted Leonard Cohen when they debuted the Montréal poet's songs. In early 1965, the McHughs featured American folksinger Chuck Mitchell upstairs, while downstairs Saskatchewan-raised Joni Anderson sang in a space ignominiously known as the Dungeon. It proved an auspicious booking: it was where the young prairie girl first got to perform original material, written in her unique open tunings, and where she met the man she briefly married and whose name she ultimately kept.