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Reminders of war once marked end of Main Street

In this week's Remember This?, History Hound Richard MacLeod recalls a monument made in the memory of a soldier and the weapons of war proudly displayed by it for decades.
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Very few of you will have seen in person what was once a mainstay at the end of Main Street beside Fairy Lake — our three cannons. You may have heard the stories about them or perhaps have seen a photograph of them sitting beside the falls on Water Street.

In the aftermath of the Boar War, Newmarket’s only casualty was a Pte. Walsley Haines, who was killed in action in South Africa on June 6, 1900. A committee of Newmarket residents raised funds to erect a monument to his memory. That monument sat at the end of Main on Water, beside the old Hydro Building, for years and years and has now been moved to D’Arcy Street across from St. Paul’s Anglican Church.  

What you may not have known was that while the base and inscription were done locally at Cassidy and Allen (precurser to Luesby Monuments), the bust was sculpted in Toronto by none other than Walter Aylward, creator of the Vimy Monument that commemorates Canada’s sacrifice during the First World War.

It was decided it would be erected on the lawn in front of the water works, the present location of Cachet Restaurant. The monument was made of dark gray granite, with a slight bluish tint. The monument stands 9-½ feet above its foundation and was cut at  Cassidy and Allen, where a young George Luesby, my grandpa, was apprenticing. He spoke of how exciting it was to work on his first major piece. The monument is crowned by a bust of Pte. Haines.

The committee also planned to have a cannon captured during the Boer War mounted in front of the monument. Sir William Mulock, our Member of Parliament, applied to the Ministry of Defence to secure one for us.  

While the town was assured one would be on its way by no less than the Imperial War Department in London, we actually received two old cannons from the military museum at Fort Henry in Kingston. A cannon was placed on either side of the monument to Pte. Haines.  

Each cannon had the date 1812 engraved in its barrel, leading people to believe that they were actual cannons sent to Upper Canada pre-dating the 1812 battle between English Canada and the United States.

These large cannons were approximately five feet in length, with a width of about four feet in places. I am told they actually looked like large ice cream cones with a baseball on the end. A large hub measuring 12 inches long and eight inches in diameter extended from the tail piece, forming a platform for the cannon. The muzzle is said to have been 24 inches wide, with eight-inch thick walls. The bore was also eight inches wide, tapering to a width of one inch. The total length was about three feet and seemed to be at a 30-degree tilt. These cannons were apparently designed to be mounted on top of a rampart of a fort.

I have looked into how these guns would have been used. The gunpowder was kept in a magazine below ground for safety’s sake. Here, the powder was packed into cone-shaped bags, usually of one, three, five and seven-pound weight. The officer in charge would place a bag of powder into a wooden box and hand it to a young boy of 14 or 15 called a powder monkey.

These powder monkeys would then climb a ladder up to the ramparts and give the box to a man with the gun crew, known as a packer. A gun crew, as I understand it, consisted of a plunger, a packer, a rammer, a pricker and chief gunner. The plunger had a mop attached to a short handle and it was his job to splash water into the barrel to quench any live sparks that remained.

The packer would then take the powder from the powder monkey and ram it into the barrel of the cannon, using a wooden stick attached to a handle, sealing it in place with a wad of cotton. The rammer would then pack the shot into the cannon as specified by the chief gunner.  

When ready, a pricker would puncture a hole in the powder bag to release some powder. It was then the chief gunner’s job to pour a small amount of gunpowder from his pouch into the opening and ignite the mixture with flint and steel. The choice of projectile was the chief gunner’s choice.

The type of shot used was dependent upon the chosen target. Round shot was usually round in shape and made of iron, used primarily to punch holes in the wood hulls of enemy ships. Chain shot consisted of two balls of iron connected by a short length of chain, used to destroy masts of ships. Grape shot was made up of many tiny balls in clusters and they were primarily used to rip sails and rigging of enemy ships.

Cannister shot was a mish mash of tiny pieces of shot, designed to cause casualties on deck and decimate the crews of the enemy ship or any band of attacking armies, whether soldiers or natives.

In 1921, we received our third cannon, a field gun captured from the German army during the First World War. It began its life in front of the Post Office, between the two Main Street entrances. It was still painted gray, green, rust and brown, ready to be concealed in a forest or clump of trees. This gun barrel was about six feet in length, with a 75 mm. bore.  

The barrel could be raised or lowered or swung left and right using a turning wheel.  This cannon was designed to be easily moved, having two large steel wheels, and used for long-distance bombardment. Aurora and Richmond Hill also received cannons, but they were not mobile. They were Howitzer types, used to project large calibre shells into trenches.

In the summer of 1922, the cannon was also moved in front of the water works on Water. The breech door was welded shut and the wheels locked so it could not be moved, and the barrel disabled.

All three cannons remained in that location until the spring of 1942, when a scrap dealer removed them all to be melted down for the war effort.

It is unfortunate some of our heritage remains only in the memories of our older citizens, which is why I find it so vital to capture these stories in oral history interviews.   If we had had our museum back then, we could still be playing with these cannons today.

Sources: The Newmarket Era – 1900’s 1921/22 and 1942; The Newmarket Public Library – Newmarket’s Military History; Oral History Interviews with Elman Campbell and Fred Smith; Reminiscences of George W. Luesby Sr.       

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NewmarketToday.ca brings you Remember This?, a weekly feature about our town's history, in partnership with Richard MacLeod, the History Hound, a local historian for more than 40 years. He conducts heritage lectures and walking tours of local interest, as well as leads local oral history interviews. You can contact the History Hound at thehistoryhound@rogers.com.




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About the Author: Richard MacLeod

Newmarket resident Richard MacLeod — the History Hound — has been a local historian for more than 40 years
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