Artifact Spotlight: March 1866 Nominal Roll

QOR museum volunteer Alex Meyers recently graduated from the University of Western Ontario with a Master’s degree in Public History.  He has worked on the City of Toronto’s “Great War Attic” project, researched historical plaques for Heritage Toronto, served as a Curatorial Assistant at London’s Fanshaw Pioneer Village, and a Historical Interpreter at Toronto’s Pioneer Village. With the skills and experience Alex brings, we are very pleased to have him working on our team!


In the early hours of 7 March 1866, the men of the Queen’s Own Rifles were called to arms. They enthusiastically assembled and paraded at the drill shed near Toronto Habour, and remained on active duty for the next few weeks. In winter and spring 1866, Canadians were wary of the threatening Fenian Brotherhood, a group of militant Irish nationalists, who were openly organizing in the United States. The Fenians talked about seizing part of Canada, to be used as a bargaining chip towards Irish independence from the United Kingdom. The QOR were called to active duty in anticipation of trouble around St Patrick’s Day (March 17), which was frequently a day of sectarian conflict between members of Toronto’s Protestant and Catholic Irish communities.

Toronto Globe, 10 march 1866
Toronto Globe, 10 march 1866

One particularly revealing document we have of that period is the regimental nominal rolls, a record of every man and officer in the regiment. The roll was written in a large hardcover book, the black cover is heavily worn. This particular book was used by the Queen’s Own from 1866 to 1882. Inside, there are more than 400 pages, each page number is neatly printed in the top outside corner. The pages are ruled and lined book like a school notebook.

The nominal roll as a physical artifact is quite fragile. It is at least 150 years old and was in active use for 16 years. Fortunately we don’t need to use the artifact to study its contents. The nominal rolls were manually scanned by some anonymous, but much appreciated, archivist. The whole book can be viewed as a PDF through the Archives section of this website. Being able to scroll through the nominal rolls as a PDF on my computer screen is great but to really understand it, I needed to sort and manipulate the data. If the tables of the nominal rolls were typed I could have used an Optical Character Recognition (OCR) program, which interpret scanned text and turn it into machine-readable ones and zeros. But even the best OCR programs have trouble with handwriting, so the next step was to transcribe the data for the whole regiment, nearly 600 men.

Nominal Roll, March 1866
Nominal Roll, No. 3 Company, 20 March 1866

Military clerks would take a record the regiment’s strength at regular intervals during times of peace and active-duty. This task fell to rotating cast of Non Commissioned Officers (NCO). The rolls are not without gaps though. Human error shows up from time to time. A whole page seems to be missing between No. 6 and 7 coys, so the record for both companies is incomplete. There is also a note where No. 10 coy should be, indicating that the roll of that company was never brought to the orderly room, so we lack a record for that company as well.

Each pages neatly drawn into a ledger. The data being collected changes from year to year. We chose to analyze the entry for March 1866 because it is the first entry in the book, it contains the most data, and because it marks the beginning of a particularly active period for the regiment. The nominal roll entry for March 1866 tells us a lot about the regiment at the time. This entry collects the following data: Rank, Name, Date of Service, Country, Religion, Trade or Calling, Age, and Remarks. From this data we can learn about the demographics of the regiment, and draw comparisons to Toronto of 1866 and 2016.

In some ways the QOR represented the demographics of Toronto in 1866, in other ways it did not. Like the general population of Toronto, the members of the regiment were almost exclusively born in Great Britain or a British colony. Fifty five percent of the regiment are listed as born in Canada, but in the year before Confederation that would be the Province of Canada, composed of Canada East (Quebec) and Canada West (Ontario). New Brunswick and Nova Scotia, each represented in the nominal rolls by one individual, were still distinct colonies. Finally, three soldiers were born in the United States. The soldiers born in Canada were patriotic British subjects, but there was an emerging sense of uniquely Canadian identity.

Country of Orgin
Country of Orgin

The regiment was as overwhelmingly Protestant as it was British. More than half the soldiers identified as Episcopal, another name for the Church of England and Ireland. Taken together with the Presbyterians (22%) and the Wesleyan/Methodists (17%), the three dominant Protestant denominations made up 94% of the regiment. British and Protestant identities were central to military service and feelings of loyalty. The proportion of Roman Catholics in Toronto peaked at 27% in 1861, but they are disproportionately underrepresented among the QOR, making up just 2%. Almost all of the Catholics in Toronto at the time were from Ireland. Catholics were considered outsiders by the dominant Protestant culture, but unlike the small numbers of Jews, Germans, and Italians in the city they were not considered ‘foreigners’.

Religious affiliation
Religious affiliation

British Protestants were not the only Torontonians ready to defend Canada from the Fenian menace. The Globe newspaper reported [10 March, 1866] that 120 men of the city’s “coloured population” had assembled in two companies and had offered their services to the government. Toronto had a small population of people of African descent, some of whom had come to the city along the famous Underground Railroad after escaping from slavery in the United States.

By 1866, Toronto was established as a regionally-important commercial, administrative, and educational centre. It was also valuable as a transportation hub for the export of Canadian agricultural products and the import of manufactured goods from Britain. In addition, it was becoming an important centre of industrial manufacturing. The men of the regiment represent 66 different occupations and reflect Toronto’s increasingly diverse economy. The heterogeneous occupational composition of the QOR provides an interesting contrast to its homogenous religious and ethnic origins. Several companies of the regiment were initially affiliated with particular trades or institutions and later became numbered units: Merchant’s Company, No. 5 Coy; Civil Service Company, No. 7 Coy; Trinity and University companies, No. 9 Coy. Students from the city’s colleges, universities and medical schools were the largest occupational group, making up 26% of the total; 8 and 9 coys were almost exclusively composed of students. The students were closely followed by clerks who made up 23% of the regiment, many of them concentrated in the No. 5 coy (Merchant’s Company). No other occupations were nearly as numerous as the students and clerks, but several were well represented, including merchants (17), shoemakers (13), laborers (11), and printers (9). There are also many more niche trades among the regiments, including Private R. Watson, silversmith; Private J.C. Smith, sailmaker; and Corporal J.B. Howe, dentist, age 19.

The nominal rolls for 1866 provide a glimpse into the spiritual and working lives of the Queen’s Own Rifles and of Victorian Toronto. The city retained its British Protestant identity well into the 20th century, even as it became increasingly diverse. The QOR has also evolved to reflect the cosmopolitan city.

See also The Fenian Raid 1866.

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