Take that, you Yankee Landgrabbers! Kingston’s Murney Tower

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We’re headed out on our most ambitious National Historic Site adventure so far. It will take us to Kingston, “the Limestone City.”

As is customary, Louis is the driver/navigator, with Hailey as co-pilot up front. Me? I’m in the back doing research. It’s a jolly band.

Over the course of the next 2 days, we’re aiming to visit all of Kingston’s 21 National Historic Sites. It’s a tall order, but the Sites are in a cluster along the historic waterfront. We should be able to meet our target.
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Truthfully though, I’m carrying less than my usual enthusiasm about our outing. Kingston, strategically located where the St. Lawrence River and the Rideau Canal meet Lake Ontario was a key British military base before and during the War of 1812-14.

But for this blogger, recounting rounds of musket fire and rapacious American invader tactics are not high on her list of historical interests.

I’m making an exception for the curious Murney Tower. Read on to find out why.
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We’ll time-travel first back to 1794, on the Mediterranean island of Corsica, of all places. There the ever-striving British Navy is bombing the be-jeepers out of a squat, round watch tower at Mortella Point on the coast of the island nation.

Over the next several hours, 2 British warships, with 104 guns on board, relentlessly pummel the French-held tower.

Given the strength of the British assault and the diminutive size of the fortification, logic predicts that the building will be soon leveled.

Not so fast.

This is no ordinary 19th century fortification. When the smoke clears, the Mortella Point watch tower remains virtually intact. The British are so impressed with the impregnability of the fortification that they borrow the concept as their own. From now on, they`re called Martello Towers.

Over the coming years, a number of Martellos are constructed along the south coast of England. Try to get through these defenses, Napoleon!

War is also nigh in the Colonies with Americans pounding on the door to British North America. A number of Martello Towers go up –in Quebec City, in Nova Scotia, and in New Brunswick. There will be sixteen in all throughout the colony.

Four rise in Kingston alone. Given the town`s strategic location, the British are taking no chances with the wily Americans.

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Before a musket had even been fired, a brou-ha-ha erupted over the naming of the finest of the Kingston Towers. City fathers had chosen to name it “The Murray Tower” in honour of Sir George Murray, a high-ranking British official living in Kingston.

The man on the street had different ideas. The Tower should be named after sea captain Henry Murney who had once owned the piece of land where the Tower now sat.

To no one`s surprise, the Murray-ites won the day over the Murney-ites. A plaque identifying the Murray Redoubt (Tower) was affixed to the Tower wall to make it official.

But not for long.

And while the culprit was never caught, the second “r” in Sir George’s Murray’s name was indelibly altered. An “n” had replaced it. And so the “Murray Tower” became the Murnay Tower. Not quite right but close enough!

The sign with the artwork remains today.

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Let’s take a closer look at structure of the Murney Tower, considered to be the best surviving example of the fortification in Canada.
Built of Kingston limestone and rising 3 stories, the Murnay Martello Tower boasts walls 3 feet thick on the landside and 5 feet facing the water. No wonder they gained the reputation of being almost impregnable.

A deep, dry ditch surrounds the Tower. Access to the inside is limited to one drawbridge over the ditch. I wonder if the ditch was ever filled with water to become a moat?
But protection of the Kingston harbor was only one of Murney’s assignments. On each of Murney`s 3 levels were 32- pound cannons, capable of doing significant damage to ships entering the Kingston harbour.

But these were no ordinary lumbering cannons. They were portable weapons, able to be moved as need be– either lakeside or landside. On the upper floor the largest cannon could be rolled along an iron track for full 360 degree coverage.
The most ingenious feature of the Murney is the “rapid removal roof.” The panels could be removed to provide a flat surface allowing sharp-shooters to lie prone and fire unseen at enemy ships.
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Despite their inspired design and superior construction, Martello Towers eventually became obsolete. By the turn of the century, they were closed as active defensive structures.

Now what to do with an thick-walled, windowless structure surrounded by a ditch. Some Martello Towers across the country were torn down, but the 4 Kingston towers remained.

Now owned by the City of Kingston and managed by the Kingston Historical Society, only the Murney and the Fort Frederick Tower on the grounds of the Royal Military College are open to the public.
The Murney Tower was designated a National Historic Site in 1930.

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And what would a watch tower be without a ghost? According to paranormal investigators at C.H.A.P.S. (The Canadian Haunting and Paranormal Society), the bottom floor of the Murney is especially rife with spooks.

Investigators wielding night-vision security cameras and magnetic field detectors report hearing the shuffling of feet; an unseen hand touching the arm of an investigator and spirit readings in “the red zone.”

The Murney Tower is open to visitors during the summer months. Check out the rolling cannons and paranormals for yourself.

Fort York: “Peas Porridge Hot; Peas Porridge Cold; Peas Porridge in the Pot…

Soldiers Quarters
Soldiers Quarters–Getting to Know Your Bunkmate
Two Universes Meet
Two Universes Meet

Officers' ApartmentOfficer’s Apartment

Swank Officers' QuartersSwank Officers’ Quarters

The Mighty" Brown Bess" MusketThe Mighty “Brown Bess” Musket

Oven in City's Oldest KitchenOven in City’s Oldest Kitchen

“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.

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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.

Wives—Sometimes

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.

Kids Underfoot

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.

What’s Cooking?

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.

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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.