16 February 2016

Lett it Snow

With +20 cm of snow in the forecast, perhaps more, perhaps some freezing rain, it's timely to issue a reminder that I will be giving the banquet speech for the Ottawa Branch of the Ontario Genealogical Society Gene-O-Rama on Saturday, 2 April on Ottawa weather events and personalities. Here's an example of material I could draw on that I won't have time to fit in.


by William Pittman Lett

The track was deserted, the Station was bare.
Not even a grumbling Cabby was there;
The shriek of the whistle burst not on the gale
To herald the welcome advance of the Mail.
The snow-banks had risen like mountains on high,
And the power of steam was just “all in my eye”
To force its way on through the mighty blockade
'Till they call'd out the Boys of the Rifle Bri¬gade!

With gay buoyant spirits, with jest and with song
Went forth the Battalion full two hundred strong -
Bold followers who ne’er were by danger dismayed
Well taught every branch of the conquering trade;
Whether mining a rampart, or digging a trench
Or punishing Russians along with the French,
Or bursting the banks which the snow-storm had made,
At home were the Boys of the Rifle Brigade!

Expert with the shovel see with glittering steel,
Before them the barriers were soon made to reel:
To the task with a will their attention they gave
No standing at ease in these ranks of the brave.
To the right about face they pitched over the snow
From their oath as if charging with bayonets a foe,
Eyes front, forward march, on with shovel and spade,
And in went the Boys of the Rifle Brigade!

The blockade was broken, on snorted the train,
Cheers rang for the victors again and again,
As the garrison marched out with the honors of war,
With joyous acclaim in each well laden car;
The heroes presented, the Fire-man threw
In the billets and round the machinery flew,
On, on for the Station, the center of trade,
Success to the Boys of the Rifle Brigade!

In peace or in war, if you want a strong arm,
And a stout heart behind it, for good or for harm,
If you seek for a friend, or desire a foe,
With a smash like the kick of a horse in his blow,
Or a sweetheart through love's winning mazes to roam,
Or a Briton to guard the penates of home,
I’ll tell you the spot where you’ll find that same blade,
He's the trim, tidy Boy of the Rifle Brigade!

Ottawa, 2nd March, 1869

Context, by Bryan Cook, author of a recent book on the poet, a major figure in the City of Ottawa's 19th century history.

The coming of the railways to Ottawa in the mid -19th century enhanced Ottawa’s trading links with the rest of North America and the world, and was necessary for its future function as the capital of Canada. The arrival of the mail by train was eagerly awaited and, much like today, the cabs, albeit horse drawn, competed to collect passengers.
   This dependency on the train was made very evident by a major snowstorm early in March of 1869. The Stanstead Journal reported on March 13th 1869: “Ottawa Isolated. The snowstorm, which delayed the trains for Montreal from one to four Days, completely blocked up the track to Ottawa, and for more than a week that city had no communications with the outside world except by telegraph”. (The weather station at Cornwall reported about 20 cm of snow on March 6-7.)
   Lett waxes eloquent about this occasion and the civic role played by the volunteer “boys” of the Ottawa Rifle Brigade in digging out the railway track.
   On May 19th 1855, Royal Assent was given to the new Militia Act passed by the Legislature of the United Canada’s. Previously, the Province had relied on the uncertain availability of British army for defense, supplemented by untrained, poorly equipped and disorganized militias nominally conscripted from the local populace. The Militia Act provided for the formation of volunteer military companies. These included a Field Battery in Ottawa, now known as the Bytown Gunners, and several Volunteer Militia Rifle Companies. The Volunteer Militias played support roles in civic law and order such as containing tense election situations, suppressing riots and providing emergency responses to fire and natural disaster. They were also prominently on parade during societal celebrations such the Queen’s birthday.
   The 1st Ottawa Rifles later co-existed with an infantry battalion of The Cameron Highlanders of Ottawa formed in 1866 and known locally as the Carleton Blazers.
    The Blazers were disbanded in 1875 after defensive deployment in Prescott alongside the 1st Ottawa Rifles against the anticipated Fenian Invasion of May 1870. Lett exaggerates when inferring that they were engaged in “punishing Russians along with the French”.
   Lett was a strong supporter of militias, having risen through the ranks to captain the 4th Battalion Carleton Militia in 1858.

The poem’s rhyming couplets, rhythm and simple militaristic imagery make it well suited for popular publication and recital.

“Penates” were Roman gods of the household, and more specifically of the larder or provisions. Lett uses the term in reference to guarding the goods and chattels of home.
“the Fire-man threw/ In the billets and round the machinery flew” refers to stoking the locomotive with wood.

The book is available from the Historical Society of Ottawa and today, Tuesday 16 February at Heritage Day at Ottawa City Hall (weather permitting).

No comments: