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Massive James Street North armoury began 160 years ago

Jul 02, 2023

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This past weekend was the re-enactment of the Battle of Stoney Creek that commemorated the famously successful British raid of an American encampment during the War of 1812.

But there is another important event in local military history that has an anniversary date this month that should be remembered as well.

On June 4, 1863 — 50 years after the Battle of Stoney Creek — the first battalion parade was held in the newly built drill shed on James Street North.

That may not sound like much — a bunch of militia soldiers marching around. But that parade by the 13th Battalion — the forerunner of the Royal Hamilton Light Infantry — would be the first of countless military events that would follow. The location would grow to become the largest single military facility in Canada and the base from which thousands of Hamiltonians would march off to war.

Today it is known as the John Weir Foote Armoury National Historic Site of Canada, named after a RHLI chaplain who received the Victoria Cross. He heroically rescued and treated the wounded on the beach of Dieppe in August 1942 during the ill-fated raid that cost the lives of nearly 200 RHLI soldiers.

The armoury was built in three stages:

Building one: Constructed of wood in 1862, the drill shed burned down in 1886 from sparks in a Victoria Day fireworks celebration.

Building two: Constructed 1887-1888, a Romanesque Revival armoury in brick and stone was built to replace the drill shed.

Building three: Constructed in 1903, a massive, medieval fortress-like armoury was built to the south of building two. In 1936, the two armouries were connected on the east and west sides of the property, leaving a courtyard in the middle.

It's been several years since I have been inside the armoury, so I recently arranged a visit. I was especially interested in two small museums there. One is for the Royal Hamilton Light Infantry that has a history going back to 1862. The other is for the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders that formed in 1903 as the 91st Highlanders.

Both museums have recently started allowing public visits by appointment, after a long period of closure because of COVID. And, in the case of the RHLI museum, major construction work had to be done after a flood.

Stan Overy, the curator of the RHLI museum, was a soldier with the regiment in the 1960s, and stumbled into the job a few decades later.

"I came down one Sunday in 1993 and I made the mistake of asking if they could use a hand. They ended up making me the curator," he says.

Thirty years later, and about to celebrate his 80th birthday in August, he is still at it.

Each Monday, he and a few other volunteers get together to work on displays. The museum features all kinds of historical uniforms, weapons, medals and photographs from the regiment's history.

Some notable items in the collection include:

The museum has a pair of shackles that RHLI POWs were forced to wear after being captured by the Germans in the Dieppe raid. Apparently, the handcuffs didn't work very well, and prisoners were able to slip out of them when guards looked the other way.

Dr. Isaac Ryall was a surgeon who travelled with soldiers of the 13th Battalion to the Battle of Ridgeway in 1866. His medical gear, that included a bone saw and amputation knives, is on display. The kit gives a sense of how primitive battlefield first aid was at the time.

A mummified cat found in a wall cavity at the armoury more than a century ago became the unofficial mascot of the RHLI. The remains are kept in a display case.

To arrange a visit of the RHLI Museum call 905-573-2002.

The Argyll museum began in 1980, and a few years later took on a major oral history project to interview the regiment's Second World War veterans. "Guys would come in with all of their stuff and they would say, ‘No, this is for you,’’’ says curator Colin Drake. "That is how the collection really got going."

The interviews were used for the book "Black Yesterdays: The Argylls’ War," by Regiment historian Robert "Doc" Fraser that was published in 1996. More recently, a researcher has been digitizing the recordings for posterity.

Some notable items in the museum collection include:

The original copy of the famous editorial cartoon by Bruce MacKinnon that shows Argyll reservist Corp. Nathan Cirillo in front the National War Memorial in Ottawa is on display.

The cartoon depicts soldiers from the memorial statue coming to Cirillo's aid after he was shot by a gunman in October 2014 while doing ceremonial guard duty.

There is a display for Private Earl McAllister of Hamilton who personally captured more than 160 German prisoners in one day in August, 1944. The incredible feat was featured in a newsreel, Time Magazine, and the New York Times. There was even a comic book about McAllister. The display at the Argyll museum includes a copy of the comic book. Sadly, McAllister never made it home. He was killed by a sniper in Belgium on Oct. 20, 1944. He was only 21 years old.

Another tragic day for the Argylls was Nov. 6, 1948, when six people died on board a chartered bus carrying members of the Argyll pipe and drum band. The bus collided with a streetcar in Toronto while returning to Hamilton after a reunion. Pipe Major Frank Noble was among the dead, along with three others affiliated with the Argyll band and two women passengers. The display at the museum features Noble's bagpipes, the front page from The Spectator about the incident, as well as photographs of the funeral service that took place at the armoury.

Drake says the idea of the museum is to "tell the story of the Argylls, its connection to the community and service to Canada for the last 120 years."

But one of the most interesting Argyll stories is actually documented in the officers’ mess, rather than the museum.

Two brass doorknobs from Adolf Hitler's chancellery at the Reichstag in Berlin were plucked by an Argyll soldier as a souvenir during the liberation of Europe in the Second World War. From there they ended up being mounted near the bar in the officers’ mess and they remain there more than 75 years later.

To arrange a visit of the Argyll Museum call (905) 972-4000 Ext. 4163.

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