St. Clair Borderers

St. Clair Borderers

by Glenn Stott


Watford Fair Grounds Crystal Palace
Watford Fair Grounds Crystal Palace: The Warwick Drill Hall was built in Warwick Village in 1837. It was later moved to Watford where it became the Crystal Palace at the Watford Fairgrounds until it was destroyed by fire in 1926. courtesy The Guide-Advocate

Rebellion of 1837

The background of many Warwick settlers was military, as a large portion of them had left the army and received land grants as a reward for their service during the Napoleonic Wars (1796–1815).Their military expertise may have been called on within about five years of the survey of the township, in December, 1837 with the Rebellion of Upper Canada led by William Lyon Mackenzie (1795– 1861). Mackenzie’s revolt focused on the Toronto area, at the site of Montgomery’s Tavern, which is now the site of Postal Station K on Yonge St. near Eglinton. In 1837 this was the rural area of York County. The Rebellion failed miserably and Loyalist troops scoured the area looking for “rebels.”

In the London and Western Districts, of which Warwick was a part, another leader, Dr. Charles Duncombe, led a group of “rebels” to the village of Scotland in Brant County. They were to join with Mackenzie’s group and seize control of Toronto, because all British troops had been dispatched to Lower Canada (Quebec) to put down the violent uprising there, leaving no troops in Toronto or Upper Canada.

Rebellion of 1837

Duncombe assembled the group on December 7, 1837, with the intention of joining Mackenzie in Toronto on December 10. For some reason, Mackenzie decided to make his move to seize the capital of Upper Canada three days earlier. Word reached Duncombe that the rebellion had been defeated, and indeed Loyalists under Sir William McNab were headed to Scotland to arrest and destroy the London District Rebellion. Duncombe, realizing the “jig was up,” urged his men to disperse and go home. Many of the 500 assembled did just that, but several made their way to the United States, where they carried on their activities to overthrow the Government of Upper Canada.

In Warwick Twp. most of the men were busy simply trying to survive. Nevertheless, all males of Warwick between the ages of 16 to 60 were considered as being suitable to serve Queen Victoria and were put on the militia roll. In all the British colonies, June 4, King George III’s birthday, was a traditional militia training day and everyone on the militia muster roll was expected to turn out or be fined. It is safe to say, however, that one day of drill, with or without weapons, would not make the Warwick militia  combat-ready.

With Warwick’s isolated situation it is doubtful if any of the militia were actually called out during the rebellion. There is only one document which records the names of the Warwick militia who were on the muster roll from February 1 to February 28, 1838, a time when the border regions with the United States would have had extra guards.1 Therefore it is possible that the Warwick militia actually did active duty during the month of February 1838, perhaps at Port Sarnia or Errol, to prevent incursions by rebel forces. By the record it appears that Major Freear and Captains Burwell and Joseph Little did the full 28 days of service while the remaining 91 on the list were paid for four days’ duty.

Freear (Freer) medal
Freear (Freer) medal, Colonel Freer served with the Duke of Wellington at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815. His sword, medal and flintlock pistol from that battle are on display at the Strathroy Museum. source Strathroy Museum
Freear (Freer) sword
Freear (Freer) sword, Colonel Freer served with the Duke of Wellington at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815. His sword, medal and flintlock pistol from that battle are on display at the Strathroy Museum. source Strathroy Museum
Freear (Freer) pistol
Freear (Freer) pistol, Colonel Freer served with the Duke of Wellington at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815. His sword, medal and flintlock pistol from that battle are on display at the Strathroy Museum. source Strathroy Museum

The Western District, of which Lambton was a part, was the scene of a raid in Dawn Twp. on June 27, 1838, where Loyalist troops attacked a house. In the incident, a militia officer, Captain Kerry, was shot and killed by a rebel, William Putnam. The Rebellion of Upper Canada lasted until the early 1840s with the Battle of the Windmill near Prescott in November, 1838 and the Battle of Windsor in December, 1838.2 A number of rebels were captured and imprisoned. After these two events and a number of minor incidents along the border, the captured rebels were tried throughout the colony. Several rebels were hanged, including six at London in February, 1839. Others spent months in prison but were pardoned by Lord Durham upon his arrival in Canada in 1839. At least one of the men captured in Dawn Twp. was transported to Van Diemen’s Land, (Tasmania).3 Van Diemen’s Land was used by the British as a penal colony to punish criminals harshly.

Warwick Militia

Warwick’s population, because of its British military background, appears to have consisted mainly of loyal citizens. Thomas Speers, Crown Land Agent for the Western District, noted that Warwick Twp. residents were settlers whose loyalty to the Crown “cannot be surpassed and in few sections of the country can’t be equaled.”4

By 1842 the threat of invasion by the rebels had been diminished in the Western District. The Warwick militia no doubt still met every June 4 for its muster day held at the drill shed in Warwick Village. The parade grounds and target ranges were located to the east of the village on the Bear Creek flats.5

Generally the militia lacked proper uniforms and weapons. Usually only officers had a uniform and sword. The militiamen were expected to bring whatever weapon they owned and suitable clothing to be of service when called upon. During the rebellion, Loyalist troops wore a distinctive armband to identify them as Loyalists. Their weapons would have ranged from rifles, flintlock and percussion muskets to pitchforks, shovels and homemade clubs.

The next incident which focused on the Warwick militia was the military funeral of the Colonel of the Warwick militia, who died after falling off a horse in the spring of 1845. Colonel Arthur William Freear was a Captain under the Duke of Wellington who fought in the Second Battalion, 50th Foot Regiment, at the Battle of Waterloo. Following the war, Colonel Freear was sent to Ireland as part of the Occupational Forces. In 1831, with a grant of land being given by the crown to encourage settlement in Canada, Colonel Freear accepted two hundred acres of land near Warwick Village, where he established a saw and grist mill on Bear Creek.

Military Funeral

American Civil War

The next call for active militia duty was when the American Civil War broke out in 1861. Britain’s role was to supply the Confederate States with munitions and other military equipment. Tension increased between Britain (including all the colonies in North America) and the United States. As a result, additional British troops were dispatched to Canada.6 All males living in each District were classified according to their age for future militia duty if necessary.

Fenian Raids

A group of dissident Irish, called Fenians, had taken form in the United States as early as 1857. They advocated an invasion of Canada to obtain liberty for Ireland from Great Britain. Many of the soldiers who served in the United States were Irish immigrants who favoured such an effort. As a result, American Fenian Brotherhood groups began to form in many of the border cities in the United States, without much interference from the United States government.

Medal Struck for veterans of the Fenian Raids
Medal Struck for veterans of the Fenian Raids: Following the Fenian threat of 1866-1870, soldiers who served in the Canadian militia on active service such as border patrol received this medal. courtesy P Evans

By the spring of 1866, over 30,000 Fenians were gathered in several border towns along the American- Canadian border, threatening to invade Canada. The Government of Canada (Canada East and Canada West) called up 20,000 militiamen to duty.7

There were two major incidents involving the Fenians in Canada. The first was in New Brunswick. It ended with intervention by the British Navy, the militia and American authorities who seized much of the Fenians’ munitions and equipment. The second and most serious invasion occurred in June, 1866 in the Niagara area at the Battle of Ridgeway, where Fenians managed to defeat the Canadian militia but withdrew back to the United States.

Phantom Fenian

Unfortunately there is no written record of a third incident, or even mention in any period resources. Some older residents told of there being an incident in the Aberfeldy (Brooke Twp.) area where a group of Fenians managed to infiltrate. Regardless, the residents of southwestern Canada West, including our area, were stirred up in March 1866 by rumours and speculation about imminent Fenian attacks.

There were a few other incidents, looked upon today as minor, but in the hearts and minds of the citizens living in Warwick, the threat of an invasion by the Fenians was enough to strike fear and dread. One might equate it to the fear of terrorist attacks following September 11, 2001.

There are few records of the service done by the Warwick militia during these times, but Fenian Raid medals were given to some of Warwick’s residents who must have done garrison duty along the border regions throughout the time of threats.

St. Clair Borderers

In 1866 Canada was organized into 18 military districts. Lambton County was responsible for the 27th Lambton Battalion of Infantry, called the St. Clair Borderers.8 The battalion’s headquarters were in Sarnia when it was organized on September 14, 1866. There were a total of eight companies. The Warwick Infantry was Number 5 Company, Number 7 Infantry Company was organized in Watford, and the Artillery Company was the Number 8 Company out of Sarnia. Forest was assigned Number 2 Infantry Company in 1873.9

Dr. Robert Gibson and Major Frank Kenward
Dr. Robert Gibson and Major Frank Kenward: The three companies of the St. Clair Borderers from the Warwick area were part of the 27th Lambton Battalion of Infantry. Dr. Gibson and Major Kenward were officers of the Battalion headquartered at Sarnia. courtesy Forest Museum

The Lambton Battalion carried out regular maneuvers at various locations, including Carling Heights and Wolseley Barracks in London. By 1871 the British army had withdrawn all of its troops from Canada, so the militia battalions had a more active role to play than ever before.

The Northwest Rebellion of 1885, or Riel Rebellion, caused a stir among the militia, but the Lambton Battalion was not called out to active duty. The soldiers still conducted drill parades one day per year. Special training sessions of 10 to 12 days each year were held by the regular officers from the Army base in London, Ont.10 Some of the training areas were located in the former British training area along the Thames River, outside of Komoka. Widder Station in Bosanquet Twp. later became a training centre for militia.

From newspaper articles of the time there appears to have been a continued keen interest in military affairs in Warwick and area. When inspected, the St. Clair Borderers achieved first place among several other battalions in 1898 and Lt. Colonel Maunsell, the Government Inspector, said the 27th was the “best rural battalion he had ever inspected.”11 On May 5, 1900, the name of the Lambton Battalion was simplified to be the “27th Lambton Regiment, St. Clair Borderers.”12

27th Regiment in front of Roche House
27th Regiment in front of Roche House: A small mounted detachment of the militia show the wide variety of uniforms and accoutrements which were distributed to the members. courtesy G Richardson

With the arrival of World War I in 1914 the Lambton Regiment became a supply regiment which sent recruits to serve with 149th Battalion of the Canadian Expeditionary Force (CEF) and later the 70th Battalion of the CEF. Widder Station continued to be a training centre for militia and regulars during World War I and up until the establishment of Ipperwash Military Camp in 1942. Soldiers from Lambton served with others from all over Ontario and Canada throughout the war. As casualties mounted, recruits were sent to whatever battalions required replacement soldiers.

In 1920, the 27th Battalion became simply the Lambton Battalion.13 Just before the outbreak of World War II, on December 15, 1936, the Lambton Battalion was broken into three different groups: the 26th (Lambton) Field Battery of the Royal Canadian Artillery, the 11th (Lambton) Field Company of the Royal Canadian Engineers, and the 1st (Lambton) Field Park Company of the Royal Canadian Engineers.14

Warwick’s military history started with retired military men coming to settle as pioneers with their families. It continued during uprisings in both Canada and the United States. The tradition continued in World Wars I and II when both our men and women served to fight for their country and for freedom. It continues today.

Soldiers in Arkona, 1916
Soldiers in Arkona, 1916: A route march (a specified training route) of the 149th Lambton Battalion through the streets of Arkona from Camp Widder near Thedford was part of the regular military training of World War I. The soldiers in the front column are shouldering the infamous Ross Rifle while the others have not been issued arms. (Although accurate, the Ross Rifle had serious problems, including failures to extract a fired case, constant jamming of the bolt due to field debris, and bolt blowback. Many troops were killed by the enemy while attempting to clear malfunctions. It was withdrawn from service during Word War I.). courtesy R Dunham collection


1. Public Record Office of London, England, MG 13, W.O. 13, Reel B- 3194, Folio 7. This list has been recorded by the Lambton Branch of the OGS. Many of the men on the roll were from Brooke Township.

2. See Colin Read, The Rising in Western Upper Canada, 1837–1838, University of Toronto Press, 1982, and E. C. Guillet, The Lives and Times of the Patriots, University of Toronto Press, 1968.

3. Read, pp. 145–146. See also Guillet, p. 276. There were a total of eleven Western District residents who were arrested during the Rebellion.

4. Thomas Speers, Crown Lands Agents’ Record concerning the settlement of Adelaide, Metcalfe & Warwick Townships, Chatham, June 30, 1840, PAO, RG1-605-0-4, p. 4.

5. The drill shed from Warwick Village was later moved to Watford, where it was located at the Watford Fairgrounds and called the Crystal Palace.

6. J.A. Foster, Muskets to Missiles: A Pictorial History of Canada’s Ground Forces, Methuen, 1987, p. 50. Foster says that in 1862, Britain had a total of 18,000 troops in Canada.

7. Ibid.

8. A battalion was made up of about 1,000 men (maximum enrolment) formed into 10 companies of about 100 men each. “Regiment” was the name given to a particular army unit. A regiment could consist of several battalions. An example would be the Royal Canadian Regiment, which consisted of four battalions. See Foster, p. 49. See also accessed August 14, 2006.

9. See Forest and District Centennial, Forest 100 Years, 1888-1988, “No. 2 Company 27th Lambton Regiment ‘The St. Clair Borderers’”, 1988.

10. Ibid.

11. Forest Free Press, “Volunteers Home Again”, June 23, 1898.

13. Ibid.

14. Ibid.