National Council of Women of Canada

11 April 1894

The National Council of Women of Canada, an Ottawa-based, women’s advocacy group, celebrates its 125 anniversary in October 2018. It was founded in 1893 in Toronto by Lady Aberdeen, the wife of the then Governor General of Canada, the Earl of Aberdeen. Lady Aberdeen, born Ishbel Marie Marjoribanks (pronounced Marshbanks), was a person of outstanding ability with a strong interest in social reform, an interest shared by her husband. In Scotland, she established, among other things, the Aberdeen Ladies’ Union that helped young girls in cities, and the Onward and Upward Association that provided education to servant girls. She was also head of the Women’s Liberal Federation that advocated for women’s suffrage.

Shortly after her husband took up his post as Governor General, Lady Aberdeen attended the congresses of the National Council of Women of the United States and the Women’s Alliance held at the World Columbian Exposition in Chicago in May 1893. There, she spoke on women as a force in politics. This was, of course, long before women’s suffrage. Canada’s Dr. Emily Howard Stowe also spoke at the same meeting. Stowe was the president of the Women’s Enfranchisement League of Canada. Subsequently, women convened at the Palmer House Hotel in Chicago where it was decided to organize a National Council of Women in every country which in turn would be affiliated with the International Council of Women. Lady Aberdeen was elected as the International Council’s first president. She was to hold this position for three extended terms—1893 to 1899, 1904 to 1920, and 1922 to 1936. May Wright Sewell, an American pioneer for women’s rights, was elected Vice President. Sewell was famous for advocating sensible clothing for women at a time when women’s clothing, which included corsets, bustles, petticoats and floor-length skirts, was anything but sensible.

The small group of Canadian women who attended the meetings in Chicago returned home ready to organize a National Council of Women of Canada. Five months later in late October 1893, hundreds of women assembled in Toronto to launch the new organization under the leadership of Lady Aberdeen. Speaking to the assembly, she remarked on how wonderful it was to look at the advances made in the recognition given to “women’s work, women’s education, women’s influence, and women responsibilities in all directions.” She also commented that women of her day owed much to the heroism of such people as prisoner reformers Elizabeth Fry and Sarah Martin. As well, Lady Aberdeen outlined the plan for the National Council. She envisaged every town having a local council or union of women’s organizations which in turn would send delegates to a National Council so that the “work and thought of women in the Dominion” would be represented from “Halifax to Victoria.” The locals and National Council would be free of religious denomination and open to all. The only requirement would be that the institution or organization have as its objective the good of mankind. Besides sharing information about what each group was doing and identifying gaps, the idea behind a National Council was to draw strength from unity in order to advance nation-wide social objectives. At the meeting, Lady Aberdeen was elected President of the National Council of Women of Canada. She accepted the position on the condition that the women of Canada allowed her to be considered an adopted Canadian.

National Council of Women at Rideau Hall, Oct1898 LAC-PA-028033

Lady and Lord Aberdeen with the National Council of Women at Rideau Hall, shortly before their return to the United kingdom, October 1898, Topley Studios/Library and Archives Canada, PA-029033

After this inaugural conference, major cities in Canada began forming local councils of women’s organizations and associations. Organizations that had both male and female members could also join if the women of those organizations put forward a woman representative to participate in council meetings. Toronto was the first city to establish a local council in early November 1893 with 24 federated societies or associations. This was followed by Hamilton and Montreal later that same month with 25 and 32 member organizations, respectively. Ottawa followed in mid-January 1894 with 27 member organizations. These included: the Children’s Hospital, the Protestant Home for the Aged, the Home for Friendless Women, the Protestant Orphan’s Home, St. Patrick’s Asylum, the Ottawa Humane Society, the Women’s Enfranchisement Association, the Women Christian Temperance Union, and the Ladies’ Auxiliaries of many Protestant churches. There were few Catholic organizations as the Roman Catholic Church had not yet given its blessing to the new Women’s Council. The cost to affiliate with the Ottawa local council was $2.

Lady Ritchie, born Grace Vernon Nicholson, was elected the first President of the Ottawa chapter. She was the wife of Sir William Johnstone Ritchie, who at the time was Canada’s Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. Lady Ritchie had for many years been the president of the Humane Society. She was also the Vice-President of the National Council of Women of Canada.  Other vice-presidents, all women with high-powered connections, included Mrs R.W. Scott (Mary Ann Heron), wife of Mr. Richard W. Scott (later Sir), Leader of the Opposition in the Senate, Madame Taschereau (Marie-Antoinette Harwood), the wife of Supreme Court Justice Henri-Elzéar Taschereau (later Sir), Mrs Erskine Bronson (Ella Webster), the wife of Erskine Henry Bronson, the businessman and philanthropist, and Mrs Gwynne, the wife of another Supreme Court Justice, John Wellington Gwynne.

Normal School Ottawa, Topley-LAC-PA-008857

Ottawa Normal School, James Topley/Library and Archives Canada, PA-008857.

The first Convention of the National Council of Women of Canada took place in Ottawa over a two-day period beginning 11 April 1894 under the direction of Lady Aberdeen. The afternoon prior to the meeting, the Executive Committee of the Council met at Rideau Hall, the home of the Governor General, to finalize last-minute arrangements for the Convention. Around a large table set in the middle of the room sat the presidents of the various local councils and representatives of nationally-organized associations affiliated to the National Council. Lady Aberdeen chaired the meeting.  It was described as a very business-like affair with full regard given to Parliamentary rules. It was also described as “very womanly” as “the meeting did not adjourn without the inevitable cup of tea.” After the meeting, blotters and pens were removed and the table was reset for an Executive Council dinner hosted by Lord and Lady Aberdeen.

The Convention officially began the next morning at 10 a.m. in the convocation hall of the Normal School at Elgin and Lisgar Streets. (Today, this Gothic-revival building erected in 1874 forms part of the Ottawa City Hall.) The hall was decorated with flags and bunting with flower arrangements in the windows and on the platform. For the first session, roughly 120 women were present from all the principal cities of Canada. Lady Aberdeen presided over the proceedings. She began the meeting with a silent prayer after noting that the women present represented “different creeds, different churches, different races (i.e. English and French), have different views but are all children of the same Father.”

In her opening address, Lady Aberdeen provided a traditional assessment of woman’s place in society. She described the movement as “mothering.” While not everybody had children, all women were called upon to “mother” in some way, she said. As well, it was the responsibility of women to be the “true homemaker”—“her husband’s companion, her children’s guide” who “should always understand the changes that take place in the everyday world.” She hoped that the Council would be able “to forge a grand band of union between the members as homemakers and home builders.” Later in the conference, she noted that some thought that the Woman’s Council was only a cover for a campaign for women’s rights. She assured people that the women’s movement was “not seeking to agitate for rights or to glorify their own sex at the expense of the other.” Women’s duties rather than women’s rights were their watchwords. Such duties were to the poor, to the fallen and to the ill. Moreover, as well as finding cures, it was important to get to the root causes of the evils.

National Council ExCommitee Oct1898, Topley-LAC PA-028035

Executive Committee of the National Council of Women of Canada, October 1898, Topley Studio/Library and Archives Canada, PA-028035.

Lady Aberdeen’s description of women in their traditional roles as nurturers and caregivers may have in part been directed at disarming potential critics rather than being indicative of her own beliefs. Her position as the Governor General’s wife also limited her to what she could say or do. When approached by women’s suffrage supporters for her support, she refused to comment noting that the subject was politically too controversial.

Over the two-day convention, papers were presented and discussed covering three broad topics—co-operation in the workplace, women’s clubs and their advantages, and the relation of parents and children and their responsibilities—with three to four papers presented in each section. When the presenter on “co-operation of working women for protective purposes” was unable to speak, Lady Aberdeen stepped in and took her place. Lady Aberdeen spoke of women employed in Toronto factories and workshops earning as little as $2-3 per week, with the women’s pay docked for the slightest excuse. She also spoke about the impact of women who worked for pocket money on the wages of those who worked for a living. When buying cheap items in a bargain store, she thought that the purchaser needed to reflect upon the lives of those women who made those goods. Lady Aberdeen opined that a union was necessary—a radical position for somebody in her position at this time.

Also discussed was the issue of domestic service. While not a subject that resonates today, it was a major topic back in the late nineteenth century. Papers were provided from the mistress’s point of view, the servant’s point of view, and on possible solutions. While the report on the discussion was very limited, it would appear at issue was the difference between a mistress’s expectations and a servant’s rights. One suggestion to improve the lot of servants was for families to be content with cold dinners on Sundays.

The Ottawa author and poet Annie Howell Fréchette spoke on raising difficult children. In a very well received lecture, she told the audience that “no child should be asked to submit to a rule that will not permit the search-light of wisdom and right.” She added that “the rod of correction cannot be the diving road that searches the pure waters in the child’s soul.” In other words, corporal punishment doesn’t work—a very modern concept, and one that did not jibe with the biblically-derived proverb of “spare the rod, spoil the child” that many took literally at the time.

At the conclusion of the first day’s business, the Aberdeens hosted a huge reception for delegates and guests at Rideau Hall, opening up the entire ground floor of their home. More than one thousand people showed up despite a conflicting ball being held on the same night at the Russell House Hotel for the wives of members of parliament and senators. Many people attended both functions. Lady Aberdeen wore black with diamonds ornaments as she was in mourning for the death of her father the previous month. In the ballroom, amateur musicians and vocalists played and sang. Refreshments were served in the winter tennis court under a red and white marquee that was lowered from the roof.

The highlight of the second day’s afternoon session, which was open to the public, both men and women, was the appearance of Lord Aberdeen, the Governor General, and Sir John Thompson, the Prime Minister. Lord Aberdeen heartedly endorsed the formation of the National Council of Women of Canada, saying that it would promote “greater unity of heart, sympathy, and purpose among the women workers of all sections and classes of the people.” He also thought that it was no longer “a strange or fantastic thing that a body of ladies should be gathered together with the serious and definite purpose of promoting the public welfare.” Lord Aberdeen became the Council’s first patron, donating $100.

Sir John Thompson seconded the motion and congratulated himself that the National Council had been established during his premiership. He promised that “the sympathy of Parliament would be extended to the movement in any practical form.” This, of course, did not extend so far as supporting women’s suffrage though Lady Aberdeen was the first woman to address the House of Commons in 1898 immediately prior her departure from Canada.

At its first Convention, the National Council of Women of Canada approved a number of resolutions. It urged provincial governments to appoint women inspectors for factories and workshops that employed women. Another resolution advised provincial departments of education to supply schools with an improved history of Canada, with decent maps, that skillfully blended the “whole record of ‘Indian Romance,’ ‘French Chivalry,’ and British Endeavour.’” Governments were also called upon to use international arbitration to settle international disputes peacefully. As well, the National Council asked local councils to co-operate with the Children’s Aid Society to try to secure separate prisons and trials for young offenders, especially first-time offenders.

National Council of Women Lady Aberdeen Lady Taylor Mrs. John H. AchesonLACPA-057319

Lady Aberdeen (right) with Mrs John H. Acheson, 2nd President of the National Council of Women, October 1898, Topley Studio/Library and Archives Canada, PA-O57319.

Following the conclusion of the Convention, a number of affiliated associations held their own meetings at the Normal School. These included the Dominion Women’s Enfranchisement Association, the Dominion Girls’ Friendly Society, the Montreal Hebrew Sewing Society, the Montreal Ladies Morning Musical, the King’s Daughters, and the Temperance Workers of Hamilton.

From this auspicious beginning, the National Council of Women of Canada grew and prospered. During the late 1890s, it was active in bringing free public libraries to Canadian cities, including Ottawa in 1906. It was also active in the development of the Victorian Order of Nurses formed in 1897 with Lady Aberdeen as its first president. In the early twentieth century, it came more involved in the women’s suffrage movement. The National Council also supported the “famous five” Alberta women, all of who were Council members, in their fight in 1930 for women to become eligible persons to sit in the Senate of Canada. Other work over the years included efforts related to public health, equal pay for equal value, rights of children, and consumer protection. These and other initiatives have improved the lives of countless Canadians.

The Council’s work continues today educating the public and working with governments on a host of issues including human rights, reproductive technologies, violence against women, development assistance and disarmament.



Evening Journal (The), 1893. “The Divided Skirt At The World’s Fair,” 17 May.

—————————, 1893. “Lady Aberdeen Elected,” 20 May.

—————————, 1893. “The National Council of Women of Canada,” 2 December.

————————–, 1894. “Women For Women,” 17 January.

—————————, 1894. “Twenty-Five In Affiliation,” 8 February.

—————————, 1894. “Women’s Field,” 11 April.

—————————, 1894. “National Enthusiasm,” 12 April.

—————————, 1894. “Bargains and Sweating,” 12 April.

—————————, 1894. “Notes,” 12 April.

—————————, 1894. “It Has The Sympathy Of The House,” 13 April.

Globe (The), 1893. “Where Women Held Sway: National Council For Canada,” 28 October.

————–, 1893. “Women Of Canada,” 10 April.

————-, 1893. “The Women’s Council,” 13 April.

————-, 1893. “From A Woman’s Standpoint,” 21 April.

Harris, Carolyn, 2016, “Lady Aberdeen,” in Historica Canada,

National Council of Women of Canada, 2018.

Ottawa Citizen (The), 2017. “The Capital Builders: Lady Aberdeen, a feminist for Canada,” 25 June.


The Old Supreme Court Building

11 September 1956

Few Canadians are likely to be aware that there used to be another major building on Parliament Hill besides the Centre Block, home of the House of Commons and the Senate, and the East and West Blocks. (Starting in the Fall of 2018, the West Block will become the temporary home of the House of Commons while the Centre Block is restored and renovated, a process that is expected to take ten years.) That other structure was the old Supreme Court building located just inside the western gates of the Parliamentary Precinct, with its entrance on Bank Street. Bizarre and horrific as it might sound to history and architecture buffs, the building was torn down in the mid-1950s and replaced by a parking lot.

The story begins back before Confederation. During the early 1860s, the three iconic Parliamentary Buildings were constructed on what was then called Barracks Hill in the neo-Gothic style popular at that time. By 1865, the construction of the East and West Blocks were sufficiently advanced to permit civil servants to finally decamp from Quebec City to Ottawa, the new capital of the then Province of Canada. The following year, the Centre Block was ready for the opening of Parliament in June, though work on the Victoria Tower and the Library continued until 1873 and 1877, respectively.

Supreme Court-Topley StudioLAC-PA-008389

Old Supreme Court Building, with the West Block in the background,  late 19th century, Topley Studio/Library and Archives Canada, PA-008389.

The same year the Tower was finished, work began on a two-story structure constructed of the same stone as that used to build the Parliament buildings at the base of the western side of Parliament Hill. Designed by the Chief Dominion Architect, Thomas Seaton Scott, the building was erected to house government workshops whose purpose was to construct and repair government furnishings, such as bookcases and cabinets. Previously, such work had been conducted in the basement of the West Block but the rooms used were too cramped and too dark. The new workshops were completed in 1874. It’s likely that the interior fittings for the Parliamentary Library were made there. Contrary to later folklore, there is little evidence to suggest that the workshops building was ever used as a stable.

An 1875 article entitled “The Workshops of the Board of Works” in the Ottawa Citizen gives a fascinating account of the building shortly after its opening.  Although the Citizen’s reporter didn’t care for the building’s architecture, claiming that it didn’t present “any great claims to beauty of style” and looked “unfinished,” he highly recommended tourists visiting the two-storey, mansard-roofed structure. Apparently, its director, Mr. Pruneau, proud of his domain, was ever ready to provide tours to visitors. The journalist opined that the workshops’ interior was “admirably arranged” with a 25-horse power engine in the basement that powered the machinery located above, and a boiler. He was also impressed that the building was heated by steam, and was consequently very comfortable to work in.

On the workshops’ ground floor were offices, including that of Mr. Pruneau, and storerooms filled with cupboards and drawers. There were also a machine shop and a turning shop used for making furniture. A variety of specialist wood-working tools were on hand, including a morticing machine, and lathes used to make table and chair legs. All were driven by steam. Upstairs was the carpenters’ shop containing twelve double benches, circular saws, and other tools. Next door was the cabinet makers’ shop. At the time of the visit from the Citizen’s journalist, a handsome black walnut bookcase was being readied to go to the finishing room for its final varnishing and polishing. The journalist’s opinion was the workshops were among the finest in the Dominion, and were a credit to all who worked in them.

But the government workshops were not to last. In July 1881, their fittings, tools and stock were sold off at auction. Either there was insufficient work to keep them fully employed following the completion of the Parliamentary Library, or in-house production of furnishing was not cost-effective. Instead, the building was renovated to house the new Supreme and Exchequer Courts of Canada. (The Exchequer Court became the Federal Court of Canada in 1971.)

The Supreme and Exchequer Courts came into existence in early January 1876. There were initially six Supreme Court Justices who at that time also sat on the Exchequer Court bench. The Justices were temporarily allocated four rooms in the Centre Block on Parliament Hill close to the House of Commons chamber. A reading room was used as a court room, while three nearby offices were used for the judges’ consulting room, office space for staff, and a room for counsel. No space was allocated for offices for the six Justices.

Plans were drawn up to build an extension onto the West Block to permanently house the two courts but with an economic recession underway in 1876, the $120,000 price tag was too much for the Liberal Government of Alexander Mackenzie. It didn’t help that the Supreme Court did not have the prestige that it has today. It wasn’t even the highest court of the land. That honour went to the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council in London. So, the Justices had to make do with their temporary offices in the Centre Block until the government workshops building was fitted out for them. They moved in during the spring of 1882.

$12,500 was allocated to convert the workshops into a court room and suitable offices. The outside of the building was improved and made more elaborate. Gabled windows were added to provide better lighting into the upstairs courtroom. On the ground floor were offices of the registrar and his clerks, and the précis writer. Upstairs, in addition to the courtroom, were six private rooms for the Justices, a conference room, a barristers’ room, a consulting room and a waiting room. The only thing the building lacked was a law library. The Justices and staff had to go to the Parliamentary Library at the top of Parliament Hill if they wanted to consult a legal tome. The National Gallery was also given space in the renovated building, occupying part of the ground floor to the rear with a staircase to another room on the second floor. This led to a lot of grumbling from the Justices who wanted that space for their Library.

Supreme Court 1890 interior James Topley-LAC-PA-027195

Interior of the old Supreme Court, 1890, James Topley/Library and Archives Canada, PA-027195.

In 1887, a report was compiled listing the complaints of the building’s occupants. In addition to the lack of a library, there was a bad smell, the roof leaked, and there was insufficient storage space. The Justices also complained about a lack of privacy owing to the public going to and fro in front of their offices to look at the paintings in the National Gallery. To ease the congestion and address some of the concerns, the Gallery moved out later that year. But the freed-up space was needed for the Exchequer Court that had been split off from the Supreme Court and consequently needed its own staff and accommodations. The building was finally extended to the north in 1890, nearly doubling its size, at a cost of $30,457. The Justices moved into the new wing with their old offices converted into a law library. A private entrance was also built for senators. No longer did they have to mix with the general public when going to and leaving work. Most complaints ended.

By the late 1930s, the Supreme Court building was showing its age. In May 1939, during the Royal Visit just before the outbreak of World War II, Queen Elizabeth, the wife of King George VI, laid the cornerstone of a new Supreme Court building on Wellington Street. It would be seven years, however, before the Supreme Court Justices managed to move into their new quarters. Their building, once finished, was temporarily used to house civil servants required to operate the bureaucratic war machine. It wasn’t until the end of 1945 did the Income Tax and National War Services Departments moved out to allow the Justices to move in.

For the next few years, the increasingly dilapidated old Supreme Court building continued to be used for government offices, first for Government Economy Control, then for the Government Travel Bureau. In 1954, it was briefly the stage for a television movie being made by CBC starring Lloyd Bridges, directed by the Hollywood director Victor Stoloff. (The film, to be one of a series of thirteen shows based on real life RCMP cases, subsequently disappeared off of the radar screen though a similar series was made for CBC television in 1959 by Ottawa’s Crawley Films.)

In the spring of 1956, the word came that the old building was to be demolished in phase one of a plan by the Federal District Commission (FDC), the forerunner of the National Capital Commission, to build a grand mall from the West Block on Parliament Hill to the new National Library. The plan called for the western slope of Parliament Hill to be terraced with the mall running from that point, behind the Confederation and Justice buildings where Vittoria Street is located, and in front of the new Supreme Court building. (Earlier plans had also called for the demolition of the West Block and its replacement with a modern concrete building. Thankfully, this idea was dropped.) The site of the old Supreme Court would be used temporarily as a parking lot to relieve parking congestion on the Hill until work started on later phases of the plan.

In the House of Commons, Conservative opposition leader John G. Diefenbaker and George Nowlan, another senior Conservative, were appalled. They pleaded with the Liberal government of Louis St. Laurent to save the old building, the home of more than fifty years of Canadian judicial history. Ottawa’s mayor Charlotte Whitton launched a “Save-the-Old-Supreme-Court” campaign. She also tried to put forward a motion at a meeting of the FDC to find other possibilities for the area that didn’t involve tearing down the old building. All was for naught. On 11 September 1956, workmen started stripping off the slate roof as the first step in demolishing the old building.

Supreme Court site Googe streetview august 2017

Site of old Supreme Court, Google Streetview, August 2017

Within a few short weeks the building was gone—“an act of engineering barbarism by the utilitarians” according to R. A. “Dick” Bell, later the Conservative Member of Parliament for Carleton. On the other hand, the Ottawa Journal opined that the old building was “not an embellishment to Parliament Hill from a landscaping or architectural standpoint.” It thought that the “national capital must grow even though among the growing pains are regrets that some of the old must necessarily be replaced.” In 1958, a commemorative plaque was affixed to a low wall made of salvaged stone that separates the parking lot from the sidewalk. Some of the stones from the building were also used to make a pond on the 14th hole of the Rivermead Golf Club in Gatineau, Quebec.

The public outcry from the demolition of the building apparently rattled the government. Future plans for the area were put on the backburner, and were shelved for good with the election of Diefenbaker’s conservatives in 1957.

The site of the old Supreme Court remains a parking lot.



Globe (The), 1881. “Dominion Estimates: The Proposed Expenditures for the Year 1881-82,” 16 February.

—————, 1881. “Notes From the Capital,” 28 July.

Nowlan, George, 1956. House of Commons Debates, 22nd Parliament, 3rd Session, Vol. 4, p. 3377.

Ottawa Citizen (The), 1875. “The Workshops of The Board of Works,” 23 March.

Ottawa Journal (The), 1946. “Eminent Judges Move Into Wellington Street Building,” 3 January.

———————–, 1949. “Diefenbaker Both Right and Wrong About Old Supreme Court history,” 24 December.

————————, 1954. “Ottawa Actors Face Camera, Start Shooting Mountie Film,” 25 January.

————————, 1955. “Build Sweeping Mall From Hill To New National Library Site,” 30 December.

————————, 1956. “Fails to Get Fate of Old Supreme Court Building Before House,” 4 May.

————————, 1956. ‘Mayor Unable to Save Old Supreme Court.” 7 July.

————————, 1956. “Old Supreme Court Being Demolished,” 11 September.

————————, 1956. “West Block Reconstruction Shelved,” 15 October.

————————, 1956. “Built Pond on 14th Hole at Rivermead,” 8 November.

————————, 1958. “A Plaque for the Old Court,” 29 March.

————————, 1958. “Bell Expects Early Action on Capital,” 23 May.

————————, 1979. “Gov’t studying future of ‘parliamentary precinct,’ 17 September.

Snell, James G. and Vaughan, Frederick, The Supreme Court of Canada: History of the Institution, Toronto: The Osgoode Society, 1985.

Urbsite, 2013. Workshops, The Old Supreme Court, 24 June,


Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee

22 June 1897

Queen Victoria was our longest reigning monarch until her record of 63 years, seven months was eclipsed by that of Queen Elizabeth II in 2015. When Victoria celebrated her Diamond Jubilee, marking 60 years on the throne in 1897, the British went wild with joy. They had lots to celebrate. During her reign, Britain had been transformed. The nation had undergone an industrial revolution that had sharply raised national income. Electricity illuminated city streets and was beginning to light British homes. The telephone and the telegraph provided rapid communications, while railways and fast steamships moved people and goods effectively and efficiently around a British Empire that covered a sixth of the globe. This is not to say Victoria had anything to do with all this, but she was the symbol of British achievement. There were clouds on the horizon, however. Germany and the United States were both challenging Britain on multiple fronts. And trouble was brewing in South Africa with the Boers. But in that glorious summer of 1897, Britain was on top of the world, economically, militarily, and politically. The Queen’s 60th anniversary on the throne was a good opportunity to celebrate. Although the actual anniversary date of her accession was Sunday, 20th June 1897, the official celebrations took place on Tuesday, 22nd June—declared an Empire-wide holiday.

QueenVictoriaCelebrationPH1897-William James TopleyLAC-PA-009636

Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee Celebration, Parliament Hill, 22 June 1897, Topley Studio/Library and Archives Canada, PA-009636.

In Ottawa, preparations for the celebrations began weeks before the big day. The Capital bedecked itself in festoons of red, white and blue bunting and flags. For the patriotically minded, John Murphy & Co. sold bunting at 5 1/2 cents per yard. Large flags went for 15 cents, while a bust of the Queen could be had for 39 cents, marked down from 75 cents. For those who could afford it and were connect to the grid, electric lights were the way to go. Thousands of electric lights were strung along streets, and on store fronts at a cost of 10 cents per light, and 25 cents per light installation. So many were the lights, they strained the capacity of the Ottawa Electric Company. On Parliament Hill, the Centre Block was completely illuminated. Above the main entranceway into the Victoria Tower was a massive circle of lights surmounted by a crown, enclosing the letters “V.R.I.” for Victoria Regina Imperatrix. On the top floor of the far western tower was a crown surrounded by a circle of lights. In the three small windows beneath was “1837.” This was matched by a circle of lights around a star with “1897” in the three small windows in the second western tower. Between the two dates were the words “Dieu sauve la Reine.” This decorative motif was repeated on the eastern side of the building but with the words “God save the Queen.”

Queen Victoria Jubilee Topley StudioLAC-PA-027878CAR SE corner of Sparks and Elgin

Front entrance of the office of the Canada Atlantic Railway Company at the south-east corner of Sparks and Elgin Streets, June 1897, Topley Studio-Library and Archives Canada, PA-027878. Note the newly-asphalted roadway.

City streets were also illuminated. According to the Journal newspaper, “Sparks Street never looked gayer.” Flags lined both sides of the thoroughfare. Coloured streamers crossed the street from Sappers’ bridge to the Upper Town market (Lyon Street).” A “myriad” of lights lit up the street “like stars along the milky way.” The best display was reportedly at the office of the Canada Atlantic Railway at the corner of Sparks and Elgin Streets. Picked out in red, white and blue lights was a Union Jack over the front door, with the figures “37” and “97” on either side. The lights switched on and off giving the impression that the flag was waving. The words “Victoria” and “Regina” were written in electric lights at the top of the store windows on either side of the main door. In the Sparks Street window was the front of a railway engine, its cowcatcher covered with lights. On the front of the boiler were the dates 1837 and 1897 below the letters “V.R.” Next to the engine was the Queen’s portrait in a diamond-shaped frame surrounded by lights.

Dimboola, What we have we'll hod, Maud Earl Cdn War museum

Dimboola, the mastiff, by Maud Earl, “What we have we’ll hold,” 1896, Canadian War Museum.

Wilson & Sons Art Store on Sparks Street displayed a striking patriotic print of a painting by Maud Earl of the mastiff champion “Dimboola” standing defiantly on a Union Jack with war ships in the background. The inspiration for the painting was a speech by Joseph Chamberlain, a popular British imperialist, in the House of Common in London who said “What we have we’ll hold.” The print was later purchased by Colonel Sherwood and given to the officers’ mess of the 43rd Battalion stationed in Ottawa.

The bank buildings that lined the south side of Wellington Street were also decorated in electric lights. Most chose variants of “V.R.I.,” crowns, or stars. The Union Bank had both, adding the words “The Queen God Bless Her” for good measure. The Quebec Bank was a bit more original opting for a diamond surrounding the figure “60.” The American Bank Note Company was decorated by two large flags, one British and one America on either side of an electrically-lit crown. On Elgin Street, Ottawa’s city hall was decorated with a large crown inside a circle of electric lights as well as “chromos” (colour prints) of the Queen and various British emblems, with flags, colourful bunting and festoons of lights.

Queen Victoria Jubilee American Bank Note Co Topley StudioLAC-PA-027912

British American Bank Note Company, Wellington Street, decorated for Queen Victoria’s Jubilee, June 1897. Note that the street is not asphalted. Topley Studio, Library and Archives Canada, PA-027912.

Jubilee celebrations began on the Saturday with the release of Canada’s first issue of commemorative stamps–two portraits of the Queen, one as a teenager on her accession and the other as an elderly woman. There was a huge crush of people at the Ottawa post office all trying to buy stamps as souvenirs. Many went home disappointed as the supply was very limited, especially of the one half and six cent stamps. All were gone within an hour of the post office’s opening. Reportedly, premiums were being paid by people to acquire them.

On the Sunday, the actual anniversary of Queen Victoria’s accession, churches across the city held Thanksgiving Services. That afternoon at 4pm, the Sons of the Empire sang God Save the Queen. Orders had gone out to all the lodges around the Empire to sing at that hour, starting in Fiji, “the exact antipodes to England.” Afterwards, the Sons of the Empire and other societies, including the Caledonian Society and the Boys’ Brigade, marched in a parade through Ottawa streets.

Queen Victoria 1-2 cent

½cent Canadian postage stamp, Canadian Commemorative Issue for Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee, 1897.

On that Sunday, the Evening Journal ran a fascinating story on the reminiscences of old timers looking back at Queen Victoria’s accession to the Crown in 1837. Captain Thomas Jones, who arrived in Bytown in 1827 as a young boy, recounted that the news reach the community six or seven weeks after the event. At that time, Bytown boasted a population of just 2,000 souls—300-400 in Upper Town and 1,600-1,800 in Lower Town—apart from the “canallers” who lived in mud and wooden shanties along the canal. Jones recalled that some soldiers would have preferred her uncle, the Duke of Cumberland, to have become the Sovereign. They expressed “strong feelings against a woman, especially a young one,” assuming the Crown. Paradoxically, he added that “loyalty was always prominent.” Rev. John Gourley of Nepean Street said Bytown residents were “reaping the wheat and saving the last of the hay” when the news finally reached them. In church, people were still praying for health of the old king, and the royal family, including Princess Victoria.  The news, when it finally came, was, however, overshadowed by the Rebellion of 1836-37. But “there was not a man in the land so rebellious as not to pray sincerely for the best health, longest peaceful reign, and the greatest prosperity.”  He added that in 1837 the city centre was a duck pond, Bank Street was a cedar and ash swale, and the garrison just a few stone huts. Another senior citizen, John Joyce of Henry Street, recalled that a celebratory bonfire had been lit at the corner of Nicholas and Rideau Streets, and everybody was there. “Cheer after cheer went up in honour of the youthful Queen.”

Tuesday, 22 June 1897 dawned to perfect weather—bright sunshine, warm and a refreshing breeze, though later there were some complaints of dust kicked up from unwatered city streets. (Most streets were still unasphalted.) At 7.59am, the bells at St. Patrick’s church began ringing, followed by those at St. George’s, and the Basilica. Within moments, thirty churches had joined in the peel. The whistle at E.B. Eddy’s then began to blow, and was shortly joined by factory and shop whistles across the city, followed locomotive horns at the train depots. The church bells continued at intervals for the next half hour, while the E.B. Eddy whistle went continuous for nine minutes. Adding to the cacophony was the barking of dogs and the shouting and cheering of Ottawa residents standing in front of their homes waving flags.

At 9am, a 1,000-man parade of the St. Jean Baptiste Society set out on a procession through the streets of Ottawa after a celebratory Mass at the Basilica to demonstrate “what loyalty exists in the hearts of French Canadians towards Her Majesty the Queen.” At the head of the procession was Monsieur F. Laroque, the grand marshal of the Society as well as the grand marshals of the Artisans. The Saint Anne band played marching tunes while various other societies that had joined the parade carried banners and flags.

Later in the day, 8,000 children—6,000 from Ottawa and 2,000 from Hull—dressed in white or pale blue with red, white and blue trimmings, waving tiny Union Jacks assembled on Parliament Hill. The Upper Town children had walked from Central West School with each class headed by their teacher, and each school headed by their principal. Lower Town children began their march to the Hill from the Byward Market. Separate school children were led by grey-gowned nuns. The children took their position on either side of the central walkway in front of the Centre Block where a large decorated stage had been erected. The dignitaries present for the event included the Governor General, Lord Aberdeen and senior Cabinet ministers, and civic leaders. Wilfrid Laurier, the Prime Minister, was absent. He was in London participating in the Queen’s parade as a guest of honour. He was knighted the same day.

Lord Aberdeen, wearing the uniform of a Lord Lieutenant with the star of a baronet of Nova Scotia and other honours pinned to his chest, spoke to the children and a crowd of 25,000 people about the Queen’s life of service, her dedication to duty, and the example she set for others. He also read out loud the Queen’s blessings and thanks to “my beloved people” in Canada, that he had received earlier that morning. Following a tremendous cheer from the crowd, he read out his response saying that Her Majesty’s “most gracious and touching message” will “stir afresh hearts already full.” To provide a lasting tribute to the Queen, Lord Aberdeen announced the establishment of the Victorian Order of Nurses to be dedicated to help and relief of the sick and lonely.

Following other speeches, Professor Birch of the College of Music stood on a chair and raised his baton—the signal for the Bandmaster McGillicuddy of the 43rd Battalion to sound the key for the National Anthem. Upon the third beat, the massed choir of children from Ottawa and Hull began to sing “God Save the Queen.” After singing the anthem twice through, “three cheers” were given to the Queen and Lord Aberdeen.

Later at Cartier Square by the Drill Hall, the 43rd Battalion held an inspection and completed complicated military practices, including sword drill, pursuit exercises on horseback, and independent firing drill. The battalion, accompanied by a company of Fenian Raid veterans, also did a “march past.” Crowds of onlookers stood five and six persons deep around the Square to witness the military manoeuvres. The Journal commented that “the main part of the rising generation occupied reserved seats on the trees and telephone poles.” Lord Aberdeen presented the Royal Humane Society medal to Pte Douglas Lyon of the 43rd Battalion for bravery in attempting to save the lives of two young boys who drowned after falling through the ice while skating on the Rideau Canal at the end of November the previous year. This was followed by a 21-gun Royal Salute by the Ottawa Field Battery from Nepean Point.

The afternoon of Jubilee Day was taken up by sporting events at Lansdowne Park, including a lacrosse match between the Capitals and the Shamrocks. The Capitals emerged victorious 6-1. After sundown, Ottawa residents and visitors strolled around downtown streets to admire the illuminated buildings. There was, however, a lighting glitch on Parliament Hill. When the lights were switched on shortly before 9pm, a portion stayed dim. Fortunately, the problem was quickly rectified. Musical entertainment was provided on the big stage in front of the Centre Block. Madame Arcand opened, singing a solo of The Land of the Maple. She was joined by a 300-voice choir. Other patriotic songs sung by other vocalists included: Hearts of Oak, British Tailors’ Toast and, of course, Rule Britannia. Mr. Choquette MP followed with Dieu Brigadier in French. A Highland Pipes band also played a number of tunes, followed by Scottish dances.

At 10pm, the fireworks began at Cartier Square. Paper balloons were sent up into the sky with multi-coloured lights attached to them. In addition to the usual rockets, and “whiz bang bombs” that exploded in red, white, blue and green stars, there were a number of set pieces on the ground. This included a triple wheel that changed colour, Prince of Wales feathers with red fire coming out of the top of each feather, and a diamond jewel. The piece de resistance was a double head of Queen Victoria thirty feet long and 20 feet high with the motto “Our Queen of 60 years, 1837-1897” at the base. The double head, which constantly changed colour, remained lit for five minutes as the band struck up God Save the Queen. For the grand finale, the words “Good night” were spelt out while sky fifty rockets exploded overhead.

That lasting tribute to Queen Victoria—the Victorian Order of Nurses—announced that day by Lord Aberdeen flourished in the years that followed. Recently, however, it was forced to retrench owing to a lack of funding. Despite shutting down operations outside of Ontario and Nova Scotia in late 2015, the Order has 5,000 employees and 9,000 volunteers, and provides 75 home care, support and community services in more than 1,200 Canadian communities.


Evening Journal, 1896. “Sank To Death Together,” 1 December.

——————–, 1897, “John Murphy & Co.” 18 June.

——————–, 1897. “Will Follow The Beat of The Drum,” 19 June.

——————–, 1897. “Oh! Did You Get One?” 19 June.

——————–, 1897. “With United Vocies,” 19 June.

———————-, 1897. “Remember the Day the Queen Was Crowned,” 21 June.

———————-, 1897. “Pulpit Tributes to the Queen,” 21 June.

———————-, 1897. “The Jubilee Has Begun,” 21 June.

———————-, 1897. “The Capital Celebrates,” 23 June.

———————-, 1897. “City Illuminations,” 23 June.

———————-, 1897. “The Fireworks,” 23 June.

———————-, 1897. “Ten Thousand Lights,” 24 June.

———————-, 1897. “An Impressive Potrait,” 24 June.

Ottawa Citizen, 1897. “A Striking Picture,” 22 June.

——————, 1897. “god Save The Queen,” 22 June.

VON Canada, 2018, About VON,



The Return of Halley’s Comet

18 May 1910

Years before the return of Halley’s Comet, astronomers around the world including at the Dominion Observatory at the Experimental Farm began to prepare for its arrival. The comet was scheduled to return in the spring of 1910, seventy-five years after its previous brush with Earth in 1835. Unlike that earlier year, astronomers now had the instruments to track, conduct spectroscopic research, and photograph this celestial visitor. Beyond knowing that its trajectory would take the comet between the Earth and the Sun, a scant 14 million miles from our planet, they were largely ignorant about it. Experts estimated that the head of the comet was as big as 42 Earths with a tail 62 million miles long and 600,000 miles wide. So close was it to come, astronomers expected that the Earth would pass through the comet’s tail. This was enough to send a frisson of alarm through the general public. Doom-laden views of certain observers, combined with long-standing superstitions that comets were portents of disaster, meant that there was a genuine fear that the end of the world was nigh.

Halley's Comet Yerkes, 29-5-1910 Prof Edward Barnard NYT 3-7-10

Halley’s Comet 29 May 1910, taken by Professor Edward Barnard, Yerkes Observatory, appearing in New York Times, 3 July 1910.

Newspaper coverage was also unhelpful. Although the vast majority of astronomers viewed the return of Halley’s Comet with delight, seeing it as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to view close-up a celestial event of remarkable beauty, considerable column inches were given over to the apocalyptical views of the few. This was an early example of seemingly balanced coverage providing a decidedly unbalanced view of what was likely to transpire. Of course, articles portending disaster sold papers, a phenomenon noted by the Ottawa Evening Citizen. In a swipe of its competitors, most likely the Ottawa Evening Journal, the Citizen remarked after the Comet’s safe passage “There was no collision, as the superstitious and the ignorant feared, and, if truth must be told, some newspapers unfortunately traded in those fears by more or less veiled stories and hints.”

Halley’s Comet was named after Edmond Halley, an English astronomer and friend of Sir Isaac Newton, who was the first to describe the periodic nature of the comet in 1705, and predicted its return in 1758. Sadly, Halley, who died in 1742, was not alive to witness the event. However, the return of his comet, visible to the naked eye on Christmas Day 1758, immortalized him. Looking at historical records from China, historians have dated the first known recorded appearance of Halley’s Comet to 240BC.

We now know Halley’s Comet has a peanut-shaped nucleus roughly 15 kilometres long with a diameter of 8 kilometres, considerably smaller than the late 19th century estimates. Nonetheless, a collision with Earth would have been disastrous. The Chicxulub asteroid that likely led to the extinction of the dinosaurs sixty-five million years ago is believed to have been smaller. Halley’s Comet, a remnant from the formation of our solar system 4.6 billion years ago, consists of dust, rock and ice. Its tail is made up of dust and sublimated gases that spew off as it approaches the Sun. The comet spends much of its time in the Kuiper Belt that circles the Solar System.

By 1909, the world’s telescopes were trained to the western sky shortly after sunset to watch for the comet’s return. When it was first spotted by telescope is a bit murky. The Ottawa Evening Journal reported that the Dominion Observatory in Ottawa received a telegram that a German astronomer had seen Halley’s Comet as early as mid-September 1909. The first Canadian spotting apparently occurred mid-January 1910 in British Columbia. At this point, the comet was hurtling towards the Sun reaching its perihelion (closest approach) on 20 April before commencing its return to the outer Solar System, but not before brushing close to the Earth. It was not yet visible to the naked eye.

With the return of Halley Comet, many newspapers, including the Ottawa Evening Journal, ran articles linking previous appearances of the comet to wars, plagues and other disasters of the past. One story managed to ascribe the biblical Deluge, dated to 2349 BC, to the comet as well as the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah in 1900 BC. Other world-changing events linked to the comet included the sack of Jerusalem by the Romans in 70 AD, the sack of Rome by Attila the Hun in 451 AD, the Norman Conquest of England in 1066, the War of the Roses in 1456, and Wolfe’s Conquest of New France in 1759. For 1910, the article noted the return of the comet coincided with threatened war in the Balkans and labour unrest and socialist demonstrations in America and Europe. Coincidentally, King Edward VII died on May 6th, another apparent “victim” of the comet.

Halley' Comet Fight 13-4-10 OEJ

Cartoon, The Ottawa Evening Journal, 13 April, 1910.

Halley’s Comet’s appearance in the night sky allowed astronomers to use state-of-the art equipment to photograph it and to conduct spectroscopic analyses. In February 1910, the Yerkes Observatory in Wisconsin announced the discovery of cyanogen gas, a chemical compound related to cyanide, in the comet’s tail. This stoked comet fears to new heights, especially when a French astronomer, Camille Flammarion, opined that all of the earth’s inhabitants would suffocate owing to the gas when the earth passed through the comet’s tail. He reportedly added that if there was also a “diminution of nitrogen and an excess of oxygen,” “the human race would perish in a paroxysm of joy and delirium, probably delighted at their fate.”  Professor Pickering of Harvard University suggested that Flammarion could be right. “The consequences of a collision of the earth with the comet’s tail may mean destruction to us,” he said. Another French astronomer, M. Deslandres of the Paris Observatory thought that the comet’s tail crossing the Earth’s atmosphere would led to an incalculable number of X-rays that would cause the water vapour in the atmosphere to condense leading to rains not “seen since the days of Noah’s great deluge.”

These were minority views within the astronomical profession. The famed American astronomer, Percy Lowell, said “Nothing can occur to the earth in consequence of its passing through the tail of the comet. The consistency of the tail is probably less than any vacuum procurable on earth.” (Mind you, Lowell also spotted “canals” on Mars that supposedly were a desperate attempt by Martians to tap water at the dying planet’s poles.) A similar sanguine view was expressed by Sir Robert Ball of Cambridge University. A Columbia University professor argued “the Maker of the universe” would not allow any harm to come to “the home of the highest form of life that He has fashioned.” Astronomers at the Dominion Observatory patiently addressed the questions of concerned Ottawa citizens. They also lectured at the Y.M.C.A. and other locales about the harmlessness of the comet’s return. At St Mathias Church, Dominion astronomer John Plaskett in a lecture titled “Wonders of Creation” rejected Flammarion’s thesis, echoing Lowell and Ball that there was no danger from the cyanogen gas as it was too rarefied to have any impact.

Halley's Comet Mary Proctor, San Fran Sunday Call

Mary Proctor, astronomer and author, member of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and Fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society, 1862-1957, San Francisco Sunday Call. University of California, Riverside.

One of the most reasoned, scientific assessments of the return of Halley’s Comet that appeared in the popular North American press was by a respected amateur astronomer, Mary Proctor. In an October 1909 Ottawa Journal article, Proctor said that “the fulfillment of the [Halley’s] prediction may be awaited serenely.” She added “Woe betide it, however, should it come too near to Jupiter, which has the reputation of being the greatest comet capturer of the skies.” (In 1994, this prophetic comment was captured on film when astronomers observed the tidal forces of Jupiter pulling apart the Shoemaker-Levy comet, causing it to plunge into the planet.) Later, after Flammarion’s dire prediction of the end of all life, she reiterated her views even more forcefully, adding “Astronomers are being suspected as conspiring together to keep the uninitiated in ignorance of the true fate awaiting our planet.” Instead of believing in conspiracy theories, she urged people to enjoy the comet’s approach, and “experience a spectacular display of cometary glory.”

After been lost in the light of the Sun for a couple of weeks, Halley’s Comet reappeared in the morning sky shortly before dawn in mid-April, 1910. Its reappearance was noted by Mr Robert Motherwell at the Dominion Observatory on 13 April using the observatory’s 15-inch aperture telescope. Owing to intense sunlight, it was not visible to the naked eye, and wouldn’t be for some days. Motherwell discredited reports from around Canada that the comet had been spoted. He ascribed such sightings to confusion with Venus.

Halley's Comet OEJ 16-4-1910

Illustration for serial on a comet striking the Earth, The Ottawa Evening Journal, 16 April 1910.

The Journal took this opportunity to run a fanciful serialized story that had initially appeared in the Aldine Magazine of New York in the 1870s about a fictitious collision of Plantamour Comet with the Earth. In the story, the collision split the Earth into three pieces, with Asia completely vapourized, leaving America the only habitable part of the globe. When the clouds finally lifted, there were two new moons in the sky—Europa and Africa—that had split away from the Earth complete with their own seas and atmosphere. Now separated forever, the remaining people of America could only communicate with the survivors of Europa and Africa by using ten-foot high letters made of tin.

Halley’s Comet became visible to the naked eye in Ottawa early in the morning of 29 April 1910, when it was spotted by Mr Motherwell at the Dominion Observatory. It was visible in the eastern sky at a declination of eight degrees north of the equator. While the two Ottawa newspapers agreed on the sighting, they agreed on little else. The Journal reported that Motherwell got only a partial view of the comet at shortly after 3am in a break in the clouds that lasted just sixty seconds. The Citizen reported that the comet was located by Motherwell at about 4.20am and that the astronomer had a good view for about 30 minutes before the Sun became too bright. By early May, the comet was visible to all who got up early enough. It was to be seen low on the horizon with its tail pointing nearly upwards.

With the comet visibly bearing down on the Earth, the focus of attention shifted to what might happen when the Earth moved through the Comet’s tail, scheduled to occur sometime around May 20th. In preparation for the event, it was reported that restaurants in New York and Paris were hosting comet parties. Recalling Flammarion’s dire prediction, one enterprising restauranteur advertised that pure oxygen would be blown into the dining room to counteract the effects of cyanogen gas. More seriously, Dr Koltz at the Dominion Observatory said that it would take several hours for the Earth to pass through the tail. He rejected any concerns that this transit would have on the Earth, though there may be some magnetic effects. He warned of the possibility that telephone and telegraph service might be adversely affected. Dr King, the chief of the Dominion Observatory, thought there might be a “sort of aurora borealis, but nothing outside of that.” Parliament Hill was deemed a good vantage point to see the comet at its best.

Halley's Coment OEJ 19-5-10

Cartoon, The Ottawa Evening Journal, 19 May 1910

In the event, both the Ottawa Evening Journal and the Ottawa Evening Citizen reported that Ottawa was in the comet’s tail for several hours during the night of May 18th. As expected, the Earth’s passage through the tail was uneventful. There was no cyanogen gas, and there was no deluge of biblical proportions, though cloudy skies and rain made comet watching in Ottawa difficult. Telecommunications were unaffected. Dr Kloz said that instruments at the Dominion Observatory detected some slight magnetic effects, but that was all. Newspaper accounts again differed on whether the comet sparked a viewing of the Northern Lights. According to the Journal, shortly after midnight the clouds broke and there was “a magnificent display of the Aurora” that spread across the “entire dome of heaven” before disappearing again as the clouds returned. The newspaper added that the aurora was most brilliant in Toronto and contained “all the colours of the rainbow.” Contrarily, the Citizen reported that “there was none of the auroral effects some had predicted.” There was also no mention of an aurora borealis in Toronto’s Globe newspaper.

Halley’s Comet got progressively fainter during the following days as it continued its journey back out the Kuiper Belt. It returned to the inner Solar System in 1986. This time, however, the comet’s reappearance was unremarkable as it and the Earth were on opposite sides of the Sun when it occurred. For those who missed Halley’s Comet, you’re next opportunity will be July 2061. The showing is expected to be better this time.


Astronomical Society of the Pacific, 1986. What have we learnt about Halley’s Comet?,

Curran, Kevin, 2012. Halley’s Comet,

Globe (The) 1910. “Through A Comet’s Tail,” 19 May.

Ottawa Evening Citizen (The), 1910. “Halley’s Comet Has Been Discovered,” 17 January.

————————————, 1910.  “Halley’s Comet Is Located By Dominion Observatory,” 13 April.

————————————, 1910. “The Earth Takes Its Bath In the Comets Tail Tonight,” 18 May.

———————————–, 1910. “Ottawa Thro’ Comet’s Tail From 8.30 Last Night to 12.30,” 19 May.

Ottawa Evening Journal (The), 1906. “The Star of Bethlehem,” 29 December.

————————————-, 1909. “More About Halley’s Comet,” 19 March.

————————————-, 1909. “Astronomers Preparing For The Return of Halley’s Comet,” 30 April.

————————————, 1910. “Halley’s Comet Said To Be Full Of Cyanogen Gas,” 8 February.

————————————, 1910. “Gas From Halley’s Comet Could Not Affect Earth,” 10 February.

————————————, 1910. “Lectures on Halley’s Comet,” 18 February.

————————————, 1910. “Ottawa and District Will Soon See Halley’s Comet, 14 March.

————————————, 1910. “Harmlessness of Halley’s Comet,” 21 March.

————————————, 1910. “It’s Mighty Little Wisest Men Know About Comets,” 2 April.

————————————, 1910. “Must be Pretty Scrappy Stuff in Halley’ Comet,” 13 April.

————————————-, 1910. “Halley’s Comet Was Seen At the Observatory This Morning, 13 April.

————————————-, 1910. “When the Comet Struck,” by W. T. Alden, 14 April.

————————————-, 1910. “Comet Seen One Minute,” 29 April.

————————————-, 1910. “Comet History, And Why Halley’s Is Harmless,” by Mary Proctor, 14 May.

————————————-, 1910. “Comet Night Preparations,” 17 May.

————————————-, 1910. “Comet Passes Very Quietly,” 19 May.

Simon, Kevin, 2015. Fantastically Wrong: That Time People Thought A Comet Would Gas Us All To Death,

Bob, the Fire Horse: The End of an Era

25 September 1929

On 25 September 1929, The Ottawa Evening Journal reported the death of old “Bob,” a twenty-five year old horse. It was front page news as Bob wasn’t just any horse but was Ottawa’s last fire horse. The red ribbon and cup winner at the Ottawa Horse Parade passed away in pasture, honourably retired for more than a year. He had been purchased by the Ottawa Fire Department (O.F.D.) in 1908 at the age of four from Hugh Coon. Standing 16 hands, 2 inches tall (66 inches) from the ground to the top of his withers, the jet black, 1,300 pound horse served four fire stations during his lifetime, retiring from the No. 11 station at 424 Parkdale Avenue. Old Bob wasn’t the last horse in active service, but was the last owned by the O.F.D. In late 1928, the last two-horse team, also at service at No. 11 station, was displaced when the O.F.D. purchased three motorized combination ladder and hose trucks. When the team was sold, only Bob was left, pensioned off in recognition of his many years of noble service to the City. His retirement to greener pastures was controversial. Ottawa City Controller Tulley opposed Bob’s pensioning. A delegate to the Allied Trades and Labour Association meeting held in Ottawa in the fall of 1928 wanted to know if Tulley thought the old horse deserved to be shot, and whether the councillor favoured the same treatment be given to other old employees.

Fire Station No.2 Ottawa, Topley Studio LAC PA-012920, c. 1880

A Horse-Drawn Hose Reel with 500 feet of hose wrapped around the axle in front of No. 2 Fire Station, 123 Lyon Street at Queen Street, 1880. Left to right: Richard Waggoner, Hugh Latimer, and Thomas Stanford. Topley Studio, Library and Archives Canada, PA-012920.

Bob’s passing marked the end of an era dating back to 1874 when the City purchased the first horses for its fire department. Prior to then, firemen had to pull their fire engines manually to the scene of a fire. The first fire engine in the city dated back to 1830 when the British regiment stationed on Barracks Hills, now called Parliament Hill, acquired the Dominion, a small manually operated machine. A volunteer fire department was formed in 1838. Later, the first fire hall was established on the ground floor of Bytown’s (later Ottawa’s) City Hall on Elgin Street. During these early years, insurance companies played a major role in fire-fighting, even providing the fire equipment. The first fire stations date from 1853 when the Bytown Town Council established three “engine” houses in West, Central and East Wards, each equipped with hand-pulled engines. In 1860, the now City of Ottawa purchased two hook and ladder trucks. As each weighed more than a ton, they were supposed to have been drawn by horses. But the City was too cheap or too poor to provide the funds for horses so the engines had to be manually pulled to fires.

The volunteer fire department was neither well managed, nor very professional in its operations. According to David Fitzsimons and Bernard Matheson who wrote the definitive history of the Ottawa Fire Department, there were complaints in the 1850s of volunteers who were quick to show off their sky-blue and silver laced uniforms in parades, but were no-shows when there was an actual fire. To “secure the utmost promptitude in the attendance of the different [fire] companies and water carriers at fires,” the City began to offer in the mid-1860s significant financial premiums to first responders. “The first engine to arrive in good working order” received $12, the second $8. The first water carrier received $2 and the second $1. Although such financial incentives did indeed encourage prompt service, they also led to fisticuffs between competing firemen with fires sometimes left unattended. Even when fire fighters managed to arrive at a fire without delay, there was the occasional problem. In 1914, Mr. J. Latimer, a fire department veteran, recalled a major fire in the Desbarats building located on the corner of Sparks and O’Connor Streets that occurred in February 1869. When the fire threatened to spread to the neighbouring International Hotel, barrels of liquor were rolled out into the street to keep them safe from the flames. In the process, some were broken open and at least two detachments of firefighters went home “wobbly” and had to be replaced before the fire was extinguished.

The first fire horses arrived in 1874 when the City acquired the Conqueror steam engine with a vertical boiler from the Merryweather Company of Clapham, England for the huge sum at the time of $5,953. Considerably heavier than other fire equipment, Ottawa was obliged to buy horses to pull it—anywhere from three to six depending on weather and road conditions. That same year, Ottawa’s volunteer fire department was replaced by a professional, full time force under the leadership of Chief William Young and Deputy Chief Paul Favreau.

The first motorized fire engines were introduced in North America during the first decade of the twentieth century. In 1906, the Waterous Engine Works Company of Saint Paul, Minnesota and Brantford, Ontario produced the Waterous Steam Pumper. That same year, the Knox Automobile Company of Springfield, Massachusetts produced its motorized fire engine. Such machines quickly became popular with fire departments everywhere. Compared with horse-drawn engines, the new motorized engines were faster and cheaper to operate. Horses needed to be fed 365 days of the year, and required stabling, shoeing, harnesses, and veterinary care. Fire horses also needed to be well trained. They had to be strong, obedient, and willing to stand patiently regardless of weather conditions, noise, and swirling hot embers, flames and smoke. Motorized fire engines didn’t need to be trained, were impervious to weather, and consumed gasoline only when used.

Ottawa purchased its first motorized fire engine in 1911 following pressure from insurance companies that threatened to raise their rates if the City didn’t get into the twentieth century and acquire modern fire-fighting equipment. Chief John Graham was also insistent that the City buy motorized fire equipment for efficiency and effectiveness reasons. Although the initial outlay for a motorized fire truck was higher than that of a traditional horse-drawn vehicle, the operating costs were lower.

Fire engine tender 13-3-1911

Call for Tenders for Ottawa’s first motorized fire engine, 10 March 1911, The Ottawa Evening Journal

Chief Graham had recommended buying a motor fire truck costing $10,450 from the Webb Motor Fire Apparatus Company of St Louis, Missouri. However, City Council chose a vehicle produced by the W.E. Seagrave Fire Apparatus Company of Walkerville, Ontario (now part of Windsor), the Canadian subsidiary of a company of the same name that had been established in Ohio in 1881. The company had previously sold three of its motorized fire engines to Vancouver in 1907 and one to Windsor in 1910. The four-ton, 80 h.p. Seagrave vehicle purchased by Ottawa carried a price tag of $7,850.  It was a combination chemical and hose truck capable of carrying ten firemen, two 35 gallon tanks of fire-suppressing chemicals, 1,000 feet of 2 ½ inch hose, a twelve-foot ladder plus extension, door openers, and three fire extinguishers. Fully loaded, the vehicle could attain a speed of up to 50 miles per hour on flat terrain (typically 35 mph), or 20 mph on a 5-10 per cent incline. The City had initially sought a combination automobile pumper truck with a pumping capacity of 700-800 gallons per minute. However, it opted instead for the chemical and hose truck on the grounds that a pumper truck had not yet been adequately proven though tests were underway in New York City on such vehicles.

Fire Apparatus, Ottawa, 1914 Topley Studio LAC PA-032798

The Seagrave Chemical Hose Combination Truck, Ottawa’s first motorized fire truck, 1914, Topley Studio, Library and Archives Canada, PA-032798.

The new Seagrave truck was shown off to Ottawa residents at the end of May 1911 when it was run out on the road with its siren shrieking for the first time. Chief Graham invited reporters to witness the truck take him, two deputy chiefs and several firemen on a tour of Ottawa along Rideau, Sparks, Bank, Elgin, Laurier and Albert Streets. It visited No. 3, 7, and 2 fire stations before parking at its new home at No. 8 station located to the rear of the Ottawa City Hall on Elgin Street. In town for the event was Mr W.E. Seagrave himself and an instructor, Mr C.E. Fern, who drove the vehicle that first time. Fern taught Fireman James Donaldson of No. 9 station how to drive the newfangled machine.

The Ottawa Evening Journal hoped that the purchase of the Seagrave vehicle marked the start of a complete replacement by Ottawa of its horse-drawn vehicles by motorized fire trucks. (The second motorized vehicle purchased by the O.F.D. was a flash car for Chief Graham who could then retire his horse and buggy.) At that time in 1911, Ottawa’s fire department owned 46 horses, for which the cost of feed alone amounted to $4,600 per year. This was the department’s second largest budgetary item after paying the firemen’s salaries. On top of this were the ancillary costs associated with owning and taking care of horses that needed to be regularly replaced. The newspaper thought that by 1931, the whole O.F.D. might be equipped with motorized vehicles. This was a pretty accurate guess, with the motorization process taking twenty-seven years.

Fire Car Chief Graham William James TopleyLibrary and Archives CanadaPA-010055

Chief Graham & assistants in auto “Fire Brigade”, 1911, William James Topley/Library and Archives Canada/PA-010055.

The last major event that saw horse-drawn engines in action was the fire that consumed the old Russell Hotel in the middle of April 1928. By the end of that year, the entire Ottawa Fire Department had been motorized, leaving only old “Bob” to live out his days in green pastures far from the smoke and flames of his fire-fighting days.

Today, the Ottawa Fire Department has forty-five fire stations strategically positioned to protect close to one million people living in an area of 2,796 square kilometres. Among its equipment are pumper trucks, ladder trucks, rescue trucks, and brush trucks as well as boats, ATVs and other rescue equipment.


Fire-Dex, 2011. The Switch from Horsepower to Motorized Fire Apparatus, September,

Fitzsimons, David R. & Matheson, J. Bernard, 1988. History of the Ottawa Fire Department, 150 Years of Firefighting, 1838-1988, Kanata: J. B. Matheson and D. R. Fitzsimons, publishers.

Morgan, Carl, 2015. “Seagrave: Birthplace of the Modern Firetruck,” Walkerville Times Magazine,

Ottawa, City of, 2017. About Ottawa Fire Services,

Ottawa Evening Journal, 1911. “Fire Chief Wants A Motor Engine,” 26 January.

——————————, 1911. “City Will Purchase An Auto Fire Engine,” 10 February.

——————————, 1911. “Read Tenders For Furniture,” 7 April.

——————————, 1911. “Deputy Chief At Eganville,” 12 May.

——————————, 1911. “Using Automobiles For Fire Purposes,” 29 April.

——————————, 1911. “Shriek of New Engine Was Heard,” 1 June.

——————————, 1914. “With the Ottawa Fire Fighters In Bygone Days,” 7 March.

——————————, 1928. “Labor To Take Keen Interest In Coming Vote,” 22 September.

——————————, 1928. “Only Two Horse In Fire Service,” 9 November 1928.

——————————, 1929. “Last Fire Horse Dies In Pasture,” 25 September.

——————————, 1930. “Chief Burnett Dies At Home Was Long Ill,” 3 November.

Saskatoon, City of, 2000. History of Webb Motor Fire Apparatus,

Wildfire Today, 2016. Horse-drawn fire engines,

The Colonial Conference

9 July 1894

As the nineteenth century drew to a close, the British Empire was reaching its peak. Queen Victoria celebrated her Golden Jubilee in 1887, marking fifty years on the throne. That year, the Imperial Federation League, whose aim was to promote closer ties within the Empire, organized the first Colonial Conference in London. It was hosted by Queen Victoria and Britain’s Prime Minister Lord Salisbury.  The United Kingdom, Canada, Newfoundland, the six Australian colonies, New Zealand and the Natal and Cape Colonies in southern Africa sent representatives. Sir Alexander Campbell, Ontario’s Lieutenant Governor, and Sandford Fleming (later Sir) represented the Dominion of Canada. Fleming was the Scottish-Canadian engineer who helped build the Canadian Pacific Railway and conceived worldwide standard time. He was also an ardent imperialist who lobbied hard for a trans-Pacific telegraph cable linking the British colonies in Australia with Canada. As a trans-Atlantic cable between Newfoundland and Ireland had been laid many years earlier, a trans-Pacific line would fill in a missing piece in a globe-girding communications network that would help unite the Empire. Although the Conference agreed on a number of resolutions, including the approval of a trans-Pacific telegraph cable, agreements reached were non-binding.

Colonial Conference LAC PA-066744 Samuel J. Jarvis

The Participants in the Colonial Conference held in Ottawa, June-July 1894, Library and Archives Canada, Samuel J. Jarvis, Library and Archives Canada, PA-066744.

Seven years later, in 1894, a second colonial conference was organized, this time by the Canadian government of Conservative Sir John Thompson. According to a contemporary report, Mackenzie Bowell (later Sir), who as Minister of Trade and Commerce had the previous year travelled to Australia to promote Australian-Canadian trade relations, found it difficult to negotiate with six different Australian colonies during his short stay in the Antipodes. (The Australian Federation wasn’t formed until 1901.) Consequently, Canada proposed a conference in Ottawa. Five of the six Australian colonies (New South Wales, Queensland, South Australia, Tasmania, Victoria, the only exception being Western Australia) sent representatives.[1] New Zealand and the Cape Colony of South Africa also sent delegates. Britain was represented by the Earl of Jersey, a former governor of New South Wales.  Lord Jersey was given strict instructions that he was only to listen, provide information, and report back to the British government. He did not have the authority to bind the British government to any agreement or even express any views on behalf of the British government. The Canadian delegation consisted of Mackenzie Bowell, Minister of Trade and Commerce, Sir Adolphe Caron, Postmaster-General, George E. Foster, Minister of Finance, and Sandford Fleming.

The Colonial Conference ran over a twelve-day period ending 9 July 1894. Most of the conference was held in the Senate Chamber on Parliament Hill. The debates were not open to the general public or the press. Commenting on its lack of access, The Globe newspaper tartly remarked that “The conference has taken an excellent course to ensure that it will make the least possible impression on the public mind.” While it was generally known that Imperial trading relations was a major focus of the conference, little news filtered out of the deliberations. Consequently, reporters focused on the many peripheral social events. The night before the opening session, the government held a banquet for 300 guests at the Russell Hotel in honour of the delegates. The Ottawa Evening Journal remarked that the banquet was “the talk of the corridors of Parliament” the next day and that “unrestrained enthusiasm and loud cheers” had greeted the “incidental mention of Cecil Rhodes,” the great South African imperialist. More substantively, the newspaper also reported that the Liberal opposition leader Wilfrid Laurier (later Sir) had advised delegates to follow the trading policy of the mother country [Britain], i.e. free trade. At that time, the Liberal Party was a free-trading party, and supported unrestricted trade with the United States. It would attempt to negotiate a reciprocity treaty with the Americans during the early 1900s.

Colonial Conference G.R. Lancefield LAC PA-028845

The Colonial Conference inside the Senate Chamber, Parliament Hill, 28 June 1894, G.R. Lancefield, Library and Archives Canada, PA-028845.

A few days later, the Government held a garden party on Parliament Hill. Over 1,000 incandescent electric lights illuminated the trees and hedges close to the Cartier statue to the west of the central block. Lights and Chinese lanterns lit up “Lovers’ Walk – a secluded, treed pathway around the bluff of Parliament Hill that was long a popular spot for strolling. (Only traces of the trail now remain.) A large arch was erected with an “immense carpet underfoot.” The Journal waxed eloquently about the event. “Guests felt that some invisible genii had transported them for from the heights of Ottawa to some garden in the Orient.” The newspaper focused considerable attention on the ladies’ dresses. Lady Thompson, the Prime Minister’s wife, wore a black silk lace gown with jet trimmings. A band of black velvet with a diamond star in the centre encircled her throat.

After the conference, which concluded with a ball in the Drill Hall, delegates remained tight-lipped, saying little beyond anodyne comments. Lord Jersey remarked he wasn’t able to go into details, but he was “safe in saying that the results will surely prove beneficial, not only to the mother country, but to the various colonies.” William Foster from South Australia thought it “would be difficult to overestimate the importance of the conference in bringing nearer together the people of the distant parts of the empire.” In the absence of hard news, the Journal asked delegates about their opinions of Canada. Simon Fraser, a delegate from Victoria Colony in Australia who was actually a Canadian born in Picton, Nova Scotia, noted great differences between the Canada of his youth some forty years earlier and the Canada of 1894. Then, “it was still the good old days of stage coaches.” Canada was “a kingdom now; it has a place among the nations of the earth,” with a great future. Jan Hafmeyr from the Cape Colony in South Africa honestly replied that he had been ill for much of his brief stay. Consequently, he did “not feel qualified to express an opinion of the Dominion, its peoples and institutions as requested.”

Details of the conference finally came out in August 1894 with the publishing of the conference proceedings. With Mackenzie Bowell, the Canadian Minister of Trade in Commerce in the chair for most of the time, delegates focused their energy on two main issues — the enhancement of intra-Empire trade, and the laying of a trans-Pacific telegraph cable from Australia to Canada. Procedurally, it was one colony, one vote, with resolutions decided on a majority basis.

The first issue became known as the “imperial preference.” It was a policy keenly supported by Canada’s protectionist-minded and imperialist Conservative Party. In 1879, Sir John A. Macdonald’s Conservative government had introduced its “National Policy,” directed at sheltering Canadian manufacturers from foreign, especially American, competition. The Conservatives had won the 1891 General Election under the imperialist banner “The Old Flag [Union Jack], the Old Policy [Protectionism], the Old Leader [Macdonald].” With the opening of western Canada, the Canadian government was eager to increase its share of the large British market for agricultural products and other commodities. With imperial sentiment on the ascendant in Canada, the Conservative Party now under Sir John Thompson supported differential tariffs that favoured British (and British colonial goods) over foreign goods. British goods would still face a tariff, just a smaller one than that imposed on foreign goods. This was seen as a way of broadening and deepening intra-Empire trade while at the same time keeping American producers at a significant disadvantage in Canadian markets. Greater access to Empire markets also became more imperative after the 1890 introduction of the McKinley Tariff in the United States that substantially raised existing barriers to Canadian goods.

However, Britain had pursued a free-trading policy with the world since the repeal of the Corn Laws in 1846. Cheap foreign food fed the growing British urban proletariat. The factories and mills in which they worked depended on the importation of cheap commodities for conversion into textiles and other manufactured goods. Consequently, it sought the lowest world price for imported inputs, and didn’t distinguish between foreign and colonial sources. British trade with non-Empire countries dwarfed its Imperial trade. While some of the Australian colonies supported the Canadian position, they were hampered by constitutional barriers that, while allowing them to favour other Australian colonies, forbade them from discriminating in favour of any country, whether foreign or British. The South African colonies laboured under similar restrictions.  On a 5-3 vote, the delegates passed a resolution, moved by Canada, stating the Conference’s “belief in the advisability of a Customs’ arrangement between Great Britain and her Colonies by which trade within the Empire may be placed on a more favourable footing than that which is carried on with foreign countries.” Recognizing that Great Britain might not be inclined to do this at this point in time, a subsidiary resolution noted the desirability of the Colonies to be given the power to discriminate in favour of each other’s products. Canada, Tasmania, Cape of Good Hope, South Australia and Victoria voted in favour of the resolution. New South Wales, Queensland and New Zealand voted against it. Britain did not vote.

The second important issue – the construction of a trans-Pacific telegraph cable from Australia to Canada – was less contentious. A resolution moved by New South Wales passed unanimously. (Again, Britain did not vote.) The South African delegation urged that eventually the cable should be extended to South Africa. Sandford Fleming presented a lengthy paper examining the delays in laying the cable since the first colonial conference in 1887. Delegates thought it appropriate that Canada, Britain and the Australian colonies each assume a one-third share in a government-owned venture, estimated to cost about £1.8 million. Australians denounced the “grasping monopoly” of the Eastern Extension Telegraph Company that owned the only existing telegraph line to Australia through Asia, and indicated their willingness to assume the entire cost of building the trans-Pacific line if the underwater cable could be protected for at least a week “after a declaration of war by or against England.” Sandford Fleming though that once the line was built, it would cost 2 shillings per word to send a telegram from Australia to Canada, and would lower the per word cost of sending a telegram from Australia to Britain from 4 shillings and 9 pence to 3 shillings and 3 pence. At today’s prices that would be a reduction from about £28 (C$48) per word to a mere £19 (C$26). (With email, Skype, and other forms of electronic communications virtually costless today, one forgets how expensive telecommunications used to be.)

Despite the strong imperial sentiments expressed by all at the Conference and the self-congratulations that followed the resolutions, reality quickly set in. The Globe newspaper wrote a scathing report on the Conference’s trade resolution once news about its deliberations became known. It wrote that “Next, perhaps, to levying taxes on the colonies for old world wars…, there could surely be no swifter way of wrecking the Empire than to compel the forty millions in the United Kingdom to stint their bellies and immensely reduce their opportunities… [G]reater [Imperial] unity cannot be brought about by differential tariffs whose effect would be the speedy impoverishment of the mother country… No sane man can believe that we can find such a policy as a customs union with far distant continents whose population is even smaller than our own and a war of tariffs with our American kinsmen, with whom Providence has decreed that we must live as next-door neighbour to the end of time.”

Although Canada unilaterally introduced imperial preferences during the late 1890s, Britain retained its traditional free trade policies. It wasn’t until another Ottawa conference, this one held in 1932 in the depth of the Great Depression, did Britain break with its long-standing beliefs and introduced an imperial preference system as recommended by Canada.

The trans-Pacific, “all-Red,” British cable was finally laid in 1902, with the first message sent in December of that year. Operated by the British Cable Board, it was owned by Britain (5/18), Canada (5/18), New South Wales (1/9), Victoria (1/9), Queensland (1/9) and New Zealand (1/9). The cable ran from Vancouver to Brisbane, with intermediate connections at various tiny Pacific islands that Britain controlled, with a branch to New Zealand from Norfolk Island. The line was later extended across the Indian Ocean to South Africa.



Devlin, Charles, 1892. Liberal Member for Ottawa County, Quebec, Speech, House of Commons Debates, 7th Parliament, 2nd Session, Vol.1, page 501.

Globe (Toronto), 1894. “Cabled From London, The Intercolonial Conference,” 15 June.

——————-, 1894. “At The Capital, Mr Bowell Elected President of the Conference,” 30 June.

——————-, 1894. “Notes and Comments,” 5 July.

——————-, 1894. “Trade Projects,” 4 August.

——————-, 1894. “Schemes of Empire,” 4 August.

Hopkins, J. Castell, 1894. “Imperialism at the Intercolonial Conference, Toronto,

Huurdeman, Anton. 2003. The Worldwide History of Telecommunications, John Wiley & Sons, Inc.: Hoboken, New Jersey.

Ottawa Evening Journal, 1894. “Sons of the Empire,” 28 June.

—————————–, 1894. “An Imperial Feast,” 29 June.

——————————, 1894. “The Second Day’s Conference,” 30 June.

——————————, 1894. “The Government and the Delegates,” 4 July.

——————————, 1894. “The ‘At Home’ On The Hill,” 6 July.

——————————, 1894. “Ball,” July 9.

——————————, 1894. “Mr. Bowell and the Conference,” 9 July.

——————————, 1894. “Utterances By Colonial Delegates,” 11 July.

——————————, 1894. “The Intercontinental Visitors,” 11 July.

——————————, 1894. “Fruits of the Conference,” 31 July.

Times (London), 1894. “What Colonial Unification May Mean,” 8 July.


[1] New South Wales – F.B. Suttor, Minister of Public Institutions; Queensland – A.J. Thynne, Member of the Executive Council, William Forrest; South Australia – Thomas Playford, Agent General in London, Victoria – Sir Henry Wrixon, Nicholas Fitzgerald, Member of Legislative Council (also represented Tasmania) and Simon Fraser, Member of Legislative Council; New Zealand – Alfred Lee-Smith, Cape of Good Hope – Sir Henry De Villiers, Chief Justice; Sir Charles Mills, Agent General in London, and Jan Hendrick Hafmeyer, Member of Legislative Council.

The Fastest Chicken in the World

16 March 1978

The Americans, the Russians, and now apparently the North Koreans, have their ICBMs, the British their Trident submarines, and the French their force de dissuasion. What does Canada have? We have, or rather had, the chicken cannon. Although fodder for many jokes on the Royal Canadian Air Farce, this piece of Canadian weaponry did more practical good than all the nuclear arsenals of the world. More accurately called the “flight impact simulator,” the chicken cannon, or bird gun, was used at Ottawa’s Macdonald-Cartier Airport from 1968 to 2009 to certify airplane windshields, engines and other aircraft parts against bird strikes.

Chicken Cannon Air Farce

Royal Canadian Air Farce, 2000, “Chicken Cannon,” Air Farce Archives, CBC.

Collisions with birds represent a serious threat to airplanes, particularly during take-offs and landings when planes traverse avian airspace. (Canada geese have, however, been encountered at 30,000 feet.) A bird striking an airplane in flight has what is known as kinetic energy (E) that is directly proportional to its mass (M) and to the square of its velocity (V). (The formula is E=1/2MV².) Consequently, even a small bird, can do significant damage, including shattering an airplane’s windshield and killing the pilot. Flocks of birds can cause multiple strikes, and if they are sucked into an airplane’s turbines, can lead to catastrophic engine failure.

Birds have collided with airplanes since the dawn of aviation. Particularly problematic are gulls, accounting for roughly half of recorded bird incidents. Orville Wright apparently experienced a bird strike in 1905. Aviation pioneer Cal Rodgers was the first person’s whose death was caused by a bird strike when a gull downed his airplane over the Pacific Ocean near the coast of California in 1912. But research into bird strikes on airplanes didn’t really get going until the early 1950s. In part, this reflected the fact that bird strikes were a fairly rare phenomenon during the early years of flying. Airplanes were small and relatively slow. As well, piston-driven airplane engines are less susceptible to damage from bird strikes that turbine engines with axial-flow compressors such as those used by modern jets and turbo-prop airplanes.

Today, global statistics on bird strikes are hard to come by as many countries don’t collect statistics on plane-bird interactions. Also, many strikes are unreported since they either caused no damage or go unnoticed. However, by one estimate, a bird strike occurs once in every 2,000 flights. Consequently, the odds that any particular flight will experience a bird strike are small. But as there are more than 100,000 aircraft flights every day in the world, this means on average there are at least 50 bird strikes per day. According to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), there were 13,688 airplane strikes with wildlife in 2014 in the United States, of which almost 97 per cent were represented by birds, with the remainder accounted for by terrestrial animals, bats, and reptiles. (The terrestrial animals and reptiles were hit while the airplanes were taxiing—no flying pigs or pterodactyls. In Australia, there have been kangaroo strikes.) Fortunately, most collisions with wildlife do not lead to human fatalities. FAA statistics show that in the twenty years to end 2013, only twenty-five people died from aircraft collisions with wildlife in the United States, with another 279 injured. In Canada, there have been only two known airplane crashes due to bird strikes that caused human deaths. In 1971, three people died when a Cessna 180 hit a bald eagle in British Columbia. In 1976, a military training jet, a CT-114 Tutor, was also downed by birds near Regina causing the death of its two crewmen.

Besides the loss of life, bird strikes are costly for airlines. Repairing and replacing damaged equipment is estimated to cost as much as US$1.25 billion per year. Added to these direct costs are the costs of prevention, deterrence, and liability paid for by airlines, airline manufacturers, and airports.

Chicken Cannon, Electra Accident 1960

The Eastern Airlines Lockheed Electra aircraft brought down by a flock of starlings, Boston, 4 October 1960, Aviation Safety Network.

Airplane manufacturers began using gas-operated bird cannons to test aircraft windshields during the 1950s. The earliest-known chicken gun was built by de Havilland in England. Canada got into the business during the 1960s following two serious incidents in the United States. In early October 1960, a Lockheed Electra owned by Eastern Airlines struck a flock of starlings shortly after take-off from Boston Logan Airport to Philadelphia. Birds were ingested in three of its four engines causing engine failure and the aircraft to crash. Sixty-two of the seventy-five people on board perished. Two years later, a Vickers Viscount owned by United Airlines en route from Newark, New Jersey to Washington D.C.’s National Airport met a flock of whistling swans flying at 6,000 feet. One or more birds hit the airplane’s left horizontal stabilizer sending the aircraft out of control. All seventeen people on board died.

In light of these accidents, Transport Canada asked the National Research Council (NRC) to establish a committee to look at the problem. A multi-prong approach was taken—prevention, research and testing, certification of aircraft, and bird-proofing. The committee, called the Associate Committee on Bird Hazards to Aircraft, involved Transport Canada, the Department of National Defence, the Canadian Wildlife Service, the major Canadian airlines, aircraft manufacturers, pilots, and NRC aircraft experts.

As part of its research efforts to certify aircraft against bird strikes, the Committee examined a number of methods of “delivering” a bird to its research target before choosing a cannon powered by compressed gas. Alternatives included a steam catapult like those used to launch V1 (Buzz) bombs during World War II, a gunpowder-powered catapult, and a rocket-powered sled on rails. Another (crazy) suggestion was to mount a test cockpit on top of an operational airplane and crash the test cockpit into a live bird that was suspended upside down from a gantry.

Chicken Cannon diagram

Diagram of the Chicken Cannon, NRC.

The chosen design was based on a six-inch bore, British bird gun built in 1961 at the Royal Aeronautical Establishment at Farnborough, England. The NRC’s ten-inch bore gun with a forty-foot long barrel and an overall length of seventy feet was built by Fairly Aviation of Dartmouth, Nova Scotia in 1967. (The longer the barrel the faster a projectile can be fired.) The device had a 60 cubic foot reservoir that was rated to a maximum pressure of 200 pounds per square inch (psi). With the air inside the barrel evacuated, a projectile could be hurled at speeds above Mach 1 (the speed of sound, or 717 miles per hour or 1,195 kilometres per hour).

The projectiles were chickens that had previously been euthanized and frozen. Defrosted before use, they were precisely weighed. Standardized weights of one, two, four and eight-pound birds were used in tests. The bird packages were then loaded into “sabots,” or metal containers with liners whose thickness depends on the weight of the bird being used. A total projectile weight, including sabot and liner, would range from four pounds (1.81Kg) for a one-pound bird to 10.43lb (4.73Kg) for an eight-pound bird. Upon firing, the sabot was captured by an “arrestor” to stop it from hitting the target after the chicken. Synthetic chickens, made of gelatine and fibrous material were used for calibrating the gun. Real chickens, and other fowl, were, however, used in actual tests as there is no substitute for the real, feathered thing. The tests were recorded using high-speed, colour film.

Chicken Cannon Test, NRC

Aftermath of a test of the Chicken Cannon on an Aircraft Windshield, NRC.

The bird gun was housed in building U-69 at the Ottawa airport. Initially, the idea was to park an airplane in for certification on a concrete apron in front of the gun. However, with tests typically done on aircraft components rather than on an entire aircraft, a test room was built that allowed year-round operations. The cannon could be moved up and down, while a target could be positioned from left to right. An earthen berm surrounded the test area in case of wayward projectiles. The berm itself was later fenced off to stop cross-country skiers from venturing into the operational zone. The Flight Impact Simulator Facility (FISF) received its certification in September 1968.

The airline industry welcomed the new test facility. Instead of each airline manufacturer building, maintaining, and staffing their own bird guns, which they would only use occasionally, it was more cost effective to go to a dedicated facility. Most major aircraft manufacturers had equipment certified at the NRC’s facility at the Ottawa Airport, including Airbus, Boeing, and Bombardier. To receive certification, a tested part had to be sufficiently durable to a bird strike to permit the aircraft to land safely.

Needless to say, firing dead birds at various pieces of aircraft equipment is a messy business. Feather, guts, and flesh can be distributed widely. There is even a word for this gooey mess—“snarge.” One reason for holding the tests inside a test room is to contain the snarge. There is a story that sometime during the 1960s, the U.S. military conducted a chicken gun test outside in front of invited guests. While the test was successful, the guests, along with their cars in the adjacent parking lot, were splattered with chicken debris.

Most commercial aircraft certification tests are performed at under 40 psi, simulating aircraft speeds of up to 350 miles per hour—likely speeds at which aircraft might encounter birds on take-offs and landings. However, tests were also performed on military aircraft that fly at considerable higher speeds. As well, military jets often travel close to the ground where they are more likely than commercial craft to come into contact with birds. On 16 March 1978, the NRC’s 10-inch bore bird cannon fired a 1 kilogram (2.2 pound) chicken projectile at a speed of Mach 1.36, equivalent to 1,040 miles per hour or 1,674 kilometres per hour—as fast as a 7.62mm round of ammunition. This made it the fastest chicken in the world.

Along with the 10-inch bore gun, the FISF had a second, smaller 3.5-inch bore gun used for testing the impact of small birds, hail, 20mm cannon slugs, and other small flying objects. It was even used to test atomic pacemaker battery casings. A five-inch gun was later built in Ottawa to perform tests on the ingestion by engines of birds and ice shed off of the wings and fuselage of airplanes. It was subsequently dismantled. In addition to testing the durability of parts of both fixed-wing and rotary-wing aircraft, as well as the ingestion of birds by engines, the chicken cannons were also used in high impact tests of the durability of aircraft  “black boxes”—the now orange-coloured flight data and cockpit voice recorders.

Over the career of the Flight Impact Simulator Facility more than 3,500 shots were fired, using roughly 3.5 tons of chickens. After long, honourable careers, both the 10 inch and 3.5 inch chicken cannons were retired in 2009. In 2012, the guns were donated to the Canada Aviation and Space Museum.

Despite precautionary efforts at airports to reduce the risk of birds colliding with aircraft during take-offs and landings, including making the airfields less desirable to birds, bird strikes continue to occur. In January 2009, US Airways, flight 1549, an Airbus A320, was famously struck by a flock of Canadian geese at an altitude of close to 3,000 feet on takeoff from New York’s LaGuardia Airport. With both engines stalling, the pilot ditched into the Hudson River. Dubbed the “Miracle on the Hudson,” all passengers and crew were safely rescued. In April, 2016, a Dallas-bound, American Airlines Airbus 321 jet was struck by a bird thirty minutes after takeoff from Seattle, severely denting its nose cone. The pilot safely returned the airplane to Seattle with more than 150 persons on board.

Such occurrences underscore the importance of continued research into deterrence and protection of aircraft from flying objects, including the latest threat in the skies—drones. Canada remains a leader in the field through work conducted by the Bird Strike Association Canada and its Bird Strike Committee which is endorsed by Transport Canada, and is organized according to guidelines issued by the International Civil Aviation Association. Canada is also a member of the World Bird Strike Association that meets regularly to share research and ideas.



Many thanks to Ron Gould who, along with Ron Elmer, told me the story of Canada’s bird gun and the Flight Impact Simulator Facility. Ron Gould was the Technical Officer at the National Research Council who operated the bird guns from 1976 to his retirement in 2010.

ABC News, 2016. American Airlines Aircraft Returns to Seattle Airport After Damaging Bird Strike, 27 April,

Aviation Safety Network, 2017. “Lockheed -188A Electra, Eastern Airlines, 4 October 1960,”

Aviation Stack Exchange, 2017. “How many bird strikes are there per year? Any world-wide statistics?

——————————. 2017. “Vickers 745D Viscount, United Airlines, 23 November 1962,”

Bird Strike Association of Canada, 2017.

Gould, R. W., 2007. “Really Big Guns, The Origins of Compressed Air Cannons and their use at the NRC,” National Research Council of Canada.

Fortier, R. 2012. “Acquisition Proposal, Items linked to bird strike research by the NRC,” Canada Aviation and Space Museum.

McKinnon, Bruce and Searing G, 2016. “History of Bird Strike Committee Canada,” Bird Strike Association of Canada,

National Research Council, 2007. “It’s a Bird, it’s a Plane … It’s a Bird Striking a Plane,” 7 January,