“I wonder how many people driving into downtown Toronto even know that this other universe exists,” I suggest to Louis. “Can you even see it from the Gardiner Expressway?”
He answers, ‘no;’ that high cement barriers on each side keep the driver’s eyes on the road, not on the cannons and stone palisades below.
Indeed Fort York is moons away from the pell-mell and hubbub of the present day city of Toronto that surrounds it.
A recent stop on our National Historic Site adventure took us to “the place where Toronto began.” Built by busy-bee Lieutenant-Governor John Graves Simcoe in 1793, Fort York’s chief purpose was to protect Canada from American invasion. And an honourable job on that task she did!
So travel back in time with me to the early years of the 19th century. No battles fought or strategies uncovered on this trip. We’ll be training our sights on the human factor, on the average soldier at Fort York, Upper Canada.
There’s no better place to begin our voyage of discovery than with a visit to the soldiers’ barracks. Today, only two remain, but in its prime, Fort York housed between 600 and 700 soldiers.
Most were poor and uneducated British men who had signed up for service in the Colonies on home soil. “Limited Service” was 7 years; “Further Service,” lasted another 7 years and “Unlimited Service constituted anything past 14 years.”
While few today would commit to such terms, at the time, there was no end of takers.
A Bed…and Breakfast
A bed for the night and three meals a day was an attractive option—even in the wilds of British North America.
Beds were of the “bunk” style and soldiers slept two to a bed. Mattresses were straw-filled–perfect to harbour insects and mould. Bedding included two coarse linen sheets, a woolen blanket, a knotted bed rug, a pillow and bolster.
The bolster propped up the soldier’s body up while he was sleeping. “It was particularly helpful from a respiratory perspective in an era when pneumonia killed regularly,” says Kevin Hebib, Fort York’s Program Development Officer.
Upon rising, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, soldiers rolled all bedding, then tied it with straps. Not done yet. The slats of the bed were now stacked, so that a sleepy soldier couldn’t sneak off for a few zzzzzzzzssssssss, during the day.
Keeping Busy and Out of Trouble
Soldiers could expect to attend to military duties—marching, on parade and artillery practice–for a minimum of 6 hours a day. And if some poor bloke messed up, 6 hours became 7.
Artillery practice, using the most fearsome weapon the day—the “Brown Bess” Musket was on the daily agenda too. One of the longest military firearms in history, “Brown Bess” measured a prodigious 58 inches (150 cm), and weighed 10 pounds. She was designed for speed in firing over accuracy. A well-trained soldier could fire as many as three shots per minute. A minimum of one in six shots routinely misfired.
And when marching and shooting was done for the day? A rest and hot bath? Soldiers built and graded roads, repaired the fort and polished military hardware.
Beginning in 1811, and with some luck of the draw, soldiers could bring their family along. Before leaving England, men could enter their names into a lottery. Six names per 100 men were pulled. By 1813, that ratio had increased to 12 out of 100 soldiers.
At Fort York, women earned their keep (on half rations) cleaning, as seamstresses or laundresses. Soldiers’ wives were not allowed to cook for the men. The men handled this chore themselves, either in the garrison or in the field.
There were no separate quarters for married soldiers. Women shared the bed—three feet wide—with their husbands. Children slept on the floor.
Curtains might be allowed for marital privacy but when infectious disease was rampant (frequently) the curtains came down.
Fort Commanders determined if schools operated on any military barracks in British North America. Even then education was directed at “implanting in the Children’s minds early Habits of Morality, Obedience, and Industry and to give them that portion of Learning, which may qualify them for Non-Commissioned Officers.” (Circular Memo from Horse-Guards)
If girls were offered any education, it was to learn hand-work and needle-work and other “womanly skills.”
At age 12, soldier’s sons could begin training for military duties. Most started off as lowly drummer-boys, but with hard work and conscientiousness, they could move up the military ladder—to the rank of Sergeant at the highest. Officers invariably came from the ranks of the British upper class.
And what happened to family if a married soldier was killed in battle? Kevin Hebib has the answer. “In that event, the widow had a fairly short period to re-marry within the unit or be put out. Less than week, in most cases.” Hebib adds that the woman “needed to be of good character” before such an arrangement was sanctioned.
And what might a hungry soldier practicing his marching, musket and maneuvering skills expect on the table to fill his tummy? Nothing, unless they cooked it themselves. Soldiers were divided into mess groups and rustled up their grub in the field or in the garrison.
Breakfasts consisted of porridge and split peas. “Peas porridge hot; peas porridge cold; peas porridge in the pot nine days old.” But expect no breakfast until all beds were made and quarters were tidied.
Lunch was stew or mutton; supper was a light one–ale and bread. Spruce beer was the brew of choice. Its high Vitamin C content fought against scurvy.
An Officer’s Life
The complement of Fort York officers depended on the number of rank and file soldiers. One officer was assigned to a company of 100 enlisted men.
And while an officer’s life was not luxurious, it was one of relative comfort. Each man inhabited a comfortable two room apartment. Officers’ wives and families were not welcome.
Food was a step up too. A staff of 8 to 12 cooks, most living outside the Fort, and serving staff catered to Fort York’s officers. Meals were prepared in the kitchen, located in the basement of the Officer’s Quarters. It is the oldest surviving kitchen in Toronto.
As officers needed to pay for their own meals, the more money that changed hands, the better, and more varied was their diet. Heavy on meat, Fort York officers could expect to dine on salmon, “green goose,” chicken, even oysters.
21st Century Night-time Mischief
Given the blood spilled in defense of York—160 Fort York soldiers killed; hundreds wounded or taken as prisoners of war– it’s to no one’s surprise that Fort York is known as a hotbed of paranormal activities. In fact, the grounds and buildings are reputed to carry the distinction of being the most haunted place in Toronto.
Stories abound with spirit sightings both on the grounds and inside the Fort’s buildings. One of the most fanciful come from an employee.
“I was closing up the Fort after an event and saw a light was on and people were moving around in the dining area. I doubled back to see what was happening. I heard what sounded like people talking, plates rattling. People were having a dinner party. But when I got to the place where the noise was coming from, the light had disappeared and the room was empty.”
Doors slamming and soldiers who disappear leaving no footprints have been reported as well.
The City of Toronto purchased Fort York in 1909. The last soldiers left in 1930. Between 1932 and 1934, the Fort was restored and opened as Canada’s first National Historic site.
Today Fort York runs as a museum and houses the largest collection of War of 1812-14 memorabilia in the world.