Belleville Riots 1877

The Belleville Riots of 1877 provided another call to duty. In point of fact, there isn’t anything more distasteful to a Militia unit than to be called out in Aid of the Civil Power. Initially, it is known that a large proportion of the men will be acting because of discipline alone and that their secret sympathies are elsewhere. The point is well illustrated in the Belleville Riots where difficulties were experienced in calling out any local battalions. For the commander, the whole thing is a nightmare. The law governing such matters places the full onus on the officers; the magistrates advise but can make no final decision. Happy is the unit that has never been called on to assist the Civil Power.

The Grand Trunk Railway had apparently laid off a fairly large number of men. These men were doing damage to railway property and, in general, preventing the railroad from functioning properly. As the local Mayor and magistrate had requested troops, it would seem correct that the men should come from Kingston in whose military district Belleville lay. Kingston, however, shifted the responsibility to Toronto and so, at 6.30 p.m., on New Year’s Day, 1877, The Queen’s Own were called on to provide a detachment. The officers and NCO’s worked all night and at 7.30 a.m., on 2 January, the following paraded at the Old Fort: 1 Lieutenant-Colonel: 1 Major: I Adjutant: 1 Surgeon 5 Captains: 5 Lieutenants: 19 Sergeants: 2 Buglers: 132 Rank and File. Among the riflemen was one Henry Mill Pellatt whose name, in the years to come, became practically synonymous with “Queen’s Own”.

The men did not have proper winter clothing and apparently there was none available for immediate issue. The detachment, accompanied by the D[eputy] A[djutant] G[eneral], Lieutenant-Colonel Durie, paraded to Union Station and boarded two special trains. Each train had a pilot engine. Guards were placed in the cabs of all four engines to protect the engineers and firemen. The weather was very cold, with deep snow.

At 10.30 p.m., the trains entered Belleville and were immediately surrounded with a protective cordon of troops. A mob of 600 to 800 started hurling chunks of ice, bricks and bolts at the force. In this situation one can do nothing except stand fast. As noted previously, Aiding the Civil Power is not an enviable commitment. Major A. A. Miller and Rifleman G. Cooper were felled and many men hurt, in varying degree. Soon, one of the trains proceeded to Montreal with a protective party of one company under Captain Buchan. The rioters attacked but the troops beat them off. Later, a man was arrested while he was thrusting a bolt into the mechanism of an engine. The mob attempted his rescue and, during the scuffle, one of their number received a minor sword thrust.

About 12 o’clock, the engines were taken to the round-house. Again the mob attacked. This time one rioter was seriously wounded in the groin. However, thanks to prompt surgical aid by Surgeon Thorburn the man eventually recovered.

Soon after this incident the rioters dispersed and it was possible to get the troops fed. Picquets were maintained during the afternoon and through the night. At 4.00 a.m., 3 January, the Company and the men came to terms. The detachment entrained at 7.00 p.m., 3 January, and arrived home at 2.00 a.m. on 4 January.

The newspapers were bitterly critical of this whole affair. The lack of proper clothing was the cause of many cases of frost-bite. On his own authority Lieutenant-Colonel Durie had Major Arthur purchase and bring to Belleville a woollen muffler for each man. In his official report the D.A.G. duly hoped that Ottawa would approve the purchase and allow the men to keep the mufflers.

After the affair had blown over the G.T.R. officials took a portion of one of the torn-up rails and struck medals from it for the regiment. The obverse bears the title “QOR” and the reverse, “Belleville, 1877”. One of these souvenir medals [was] in the collection of Colonel Reg. Pellatt. It is not known whether any others have survived the years. Quite in keeping with the other legal oddities of this episode, Belleville refused to pay the costs involved in calling out the troops; whereupon the town was promptly sued by the Commanding Officer.

Regimental Orders of 11 July, 1877, contain the following: “The Officer Commanding regrets to inform those who were present at the Belleville Riots on 2 January last, that after repeated fruitless attempts to secure the pay for the service, he has been compelled to enter an action against the municipality, which, however, will not be decided until October next. In the meantime the Militia Department, in recognition of their satisfaction at the manner in which the arduous duty was performed, have authorized the distribution of a woollen muffler to each officer and man as a souvenir of the service.” On 2 October, the Courts ruled in favour of the C.O. – at long last the men were paid.

So the net result for each QOR rifleman was three dollars in pay, a woollen muffler, and a souvenir medal. The C.O. received from Military Headquarters and from the Grand Trunk Railway officials letters of praise for the ready response obtained during the holiday season and for the discipline that expressed itself in the restraint shown under great provocation. As well, the Grand Trunk Railway presented the regiment with a silver cup.

Excerpted from “THE QUEEN’S OWN ,RIFLES OF CANADA 1860-1960; ONE HUNDRED YEARS OF CANADA By Lieutenant Colonel W. T. Barnard E.D. C.D.

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