Montreal’s First Organized High School Militia Cadet Corps In 1864.

SVP: Accounts suggests, pre 1864, high or all-grade school militia cadets were organized, in Montreal and Ontario.

It was while Canada was stirred from one end to the other with military excitement and patriotic fervour, that the first boys’ cadet corps was organized in Montreal. This was in 1864, The St. Albans’ Raid was threatening to precipitate war between Great Britain and the United States. A party of confederate soldiers, using Montreal as a base, had made a descent upon St. Albans, Vermont, raided the banks, and in resisting capture, had killed one man, besides wounding others. On retreating across the lines into Canada, the raiders were promptly arrested and prosecuted, and ample reparation was made by Britain. The raid was planned with the greatest secrecy, and of course no Canadian officials or Canadian subjects could be connected with it. Nevertheless the incident caused great excitement in the United States and Canada, for the bad blood aroused by the Trent affair two years previously had not had time to calm down. The more rabid anti-British element in the United States which providentially has lost strength so markedly within the past few years, did its best, of course, to aggravate matters, but eventually their ravings were quietly suppressed by the sound common sense of the American people, who realized that the Canadian authorities had acted, and were continuing to act, in good faith and in a perfectly neighbourly manner.

As there were reports in circulation of other expeditious similar to the St. Albans Raid being organized in Canada, a military force was enrolled and placed on duty along the frontier. One provisional battalion recruited from the Montreal militia corps was for six months stationed at Sandwich, Ontario. With the war between the North and the South dragging its weary and bloody length along, and with these two threatened ruptures between Britain and the United States within two years, it was an anxious time for patriotic Canadians, boy’s as well as men, and boys as well as men were prepared to do their duty and to prepare themselves to fight to keep the British flag flying over Canada if necessary. so while the recently-organized militia regiments set themselves to work to complete their organization and to perfect themselves in their drill, Canadian boys wanted to do their share. Cadet corps were being organized in connection with the great public schools of England, why should not similar corps be organized in Canada?

The Montreal High School, through its learned and much beloved rector, the late Dr. H. Aspinall Howe, inherited something of the fine traditions and spirit of the great English public schools, and the boys of the fifth and sixth forms decided that they would emulate the example of the English school boys, and form a cadet corps. The subject has been mooted by Major F. S. Barnjum, adjutant and drill instructor of the First Prince of Wales Regiment, and professor of gymnastics and physical training at McGill University and the High School. The organization was soon completed, the boys supplied themselves with neat uniforms of light Halifax tweed, with blue-black facings, and after some trouble the military authorities consented to loan the corps enough muzzle-loading Enfield carbines to arm one company.

The corps was a marked success from the start. The lads entered into their military work with the proper spirit, and Major Barnjum was an exceptionally capable instructor. He was something more than a mere drill sergeant, seizing every opportunity to instil into the boys’ minds the great military virtues of truth, courage, manliness, neatness, loyalty and esprit de corps. The High School boys were very proud of their cadet corps, and well they had reason to be, for it was a very efficient corps as admitted by the officers of the crack regiments of Her Majesty’s army then stationed in Montreal. At the time of the Fenian raids, in 1866 and 1870, the cadets were somewhat disappointed at not being allowed to proceed to the front with the city volunteer brigade, but found some comfort for their injured feelings in being allowed to furnish a guard for their own armoury.


Canada, Quebec, Lady Russell's cadets at Rosemount, Montreal, QC, 1865.

Canada, Quebec, Lady Russell’s cadets at Rosemount, Montreal, QC, 1865.


Major E. L. Bond was captain in command of the company in 1866, and he resigned in time to take a commission in the First Prince of Wales Regiment, and proceed to the front with it. The High School Cadets furnished hundreds of good officers to the militia, and not a few former wearers of the grey and blue are wearers of His Majesty’s uniform to-day.

Upon the occasion of the anticipated disturbances in connection with the celebration of the 12th of July, in 1878, the High School Cadets again turned out as a guard on their armoury which was then in the old High School building, now the Fraser Institute, on Dorchester street. Word had got about that a mob was being organized to raid the armoury, and the boys turned out spontaneously under command of Captain Fred. White, recently of the headquarters staff at Ottawa. Relief’s were told off, sentries posted, and all the duties of a guard regularly performed for the whole of July nth and until early morning of the 12th. In the meantime, troops—regulars as well as volunteers — had been pouring into the city from Kingston, Quebec, Sherbrooke, Huntingdon, Hemmingford, Richmond and Beauharuois. The greatest excitement prevailed. Many nervous people locked up their houses and left the city; some of the banks were barricaded. Major General Sir Selby Smythe, commanding the militia, came down from Ottawa to assume the command of the troops. The fact of the cadets having mounted a guard being reported to him, he expressed his satisfaction at the spirit they had displayed, but gave instructions that the arms be taken in charge by the Fifty-third and Fifty-fourth Battalions then quartered in the old Crystal Palace on St. Catherine street, opposite Victoria street, under command of the Lieutenant-Colonel the Honourable M. Aylmer. This order was received with anything but favour by the boys, but being soldiers they had nothing for it but to obey. As a special mark of his appreciation of their pluck, Lieutenant-Colonel Aylmer allowed them to march with their arms to the Crystal Palace, where they were received with a general salute by his own regiment, the Fifty-fourth. The gallant colonel, moreover, before the lads were dismissed, took occasion to compliment them on their soldierly appearance, and to assure them that they had no occasion to feel hurt at being relieved from their self-imposed guard duties. The writer of this was one of the sergeants of the guard, and he still recalls very distinctly his chagrin on learning that the general had issued orders that the cadets were to be relieved, and their arms entrusted to the care of another corps.


Canadian Group of cadets Montreal QC 1866..

Canadian Group of cadets Montreal QC 1866..


About this time, the High School Cadet Rifles consisted of three smart companies with a fife and drum band, and they retained that organization until 1879. For ten years or so, they had practically received no recognition, and the militia authorities appeared to have lost all track of them. When Lord Dufferin, and later the Marquis of Lome and the Princess Louise, visited the High School, the cadets furnished guards of honour and were put through their drill for the delectation of vice-royalty. But there were no official inspections.

In 1879, a militia general order was issued providing for the establishment of drill companies in connection with educational institutions. Companies were to consist of sixty boys each, and the government agreed to supply them with rifles, bayonets and belts. The High School Cadets always provided themselves with their belts and bayonet frogs. With prospects of rifle practice in view, sixty of the boys of the Cadet Rifles, with the approval of Major Barnjum and the school authorities, promptly filled in one of the blanks provided by the Militia Department, and in due course militia orders announced the establishment of a “drill company” in connection with the Montreal High School, with the following officers: —

  • Captain, E. J. Chambers;
  • 1st lieut., Jos. Fair;
  • Sec. lieut., R. Kirkpatrick.

After a few weeks, the anxiously-awaited arms chests arrived with the rifles, and the lads were doomed to great disappointment, for the new arms, instead of being weapons they could use, were found to be very long and very heavy Peabody rifles, for which no  ammunition could be procured in Canada. This disappointment coming immediately after the enthusiasm aroused by the unexpected recognition of the value of cadet corps, proved a hard blow to the cadet cause for the time being. But there was still some military spirit left. Number One Company, at its own expense, went to Quebec to participate in the big review before the late Duke of Albany, H. R. H. Princess Louise and His Excellency the Marquis of Lome, on May 24th. 1880. The company had worked very hard to perfect itself in its drill for this occasion, but on the eve of departure for the ancient capital, was peremptorily forbidden to take its arms, why has never been explained. The lads at the review, acted as a sort of guard of honour to the marching and steadiness by Their Royal Highnesses.

The further disappointment regarding this review gave the quietus for the time being, to soldiering at the High School. Most of the officers and non-coms of the cadet battalion, withdrew from the school at the end of the school term, and Major Barnjum also relinquished his appointment on the faculty. When the school re-opened after the holidays, none of the old enthusiasts remained to carry the cadet work along, and in view of the two great official discouragements of the previous term, none of the juniors felt encouraged to take it up. A certain amount of drill was still kept up in connection with callisthenics and class discipline, but the cadet corps lay dormant, and it was just ten years later before the officers gazetted in 1879, had the satisfaction of seeing themselves gazetted out and replaced by active cadet officers. Meantime, some of them had been serving in the active militia for years.

Several of the other public schools throughout Canada, followed the example of the High School, and organized cadet corps which had more or less chequered existences. In Montreal, the chief rival of the High School Cadets, was a rifle corps organized in connection with the St. John the Evangelist School, known familiarly as Lady Alexander Russell’s Own, on account of the warm personal interest taken in its interest by the wife of Lord Alexander Russell, the commanding officer of the First Battalion of the Rifle Brigade, while stationed in Montreal. This smart little corps wore a grey uniform very much after the style of that of the High School Cadets, but with red facings. A cadet corps was also organized in connection with the McGill Normal and Model Schools, but it did not make much progress, and was never uniformed.


Main Source: The Montreal Highland Cadets; by Captain Ernest J. Chambers, 1901.






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