Brawling Bytown

While privately organized social and community groups helped foster a sense of order and stability in the growing Bytown community, they also reinforced cultural differences between groups. The tension between these groups, who were eager to defend their culture, often led to violent confrontations when jobs or honour were at stake. This tension contributed to making Bytown an extremely dangerous place in its formative years. In a letter, one civil servant noted: “There is not an Evening passes – not even the Sabbath day excepted – wherein there is not a riot and general fighting.” It was the impoverished working-class Irish who were generally held responsible for the disruption of the peace, though it is uncertain whether such accusations were based on fact or on negative cultural stereotypes. As voting rights were extended only to property owners, violence was often the only way that the poorest immigrants and most victimized groups could defend themselves or seek change. Unfortunately, this situation did little to soften stereotypes or promote peace and understanding between warring factions of the community.

Points of Interest

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[Source: Maule Family / Earl of Dalhousie fonds. “36 plans and abstract of the estimate of expenditure of the Rideau Canal”, 1828. National Archives of Scotland. GD45/3/9; [Mrs. Firth’s Tavern, Bytown 1830]. Lt Col John By, Library and Archives Canada published holdings project, Library and Archives Canada, accession number: MIKAN 2837923, C-000226]

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Firth’s Tavern

Firth’s Tavern was a popular pub at Richmond’s Landing, opened in 1819 and owned by longtime resident Isaac Firth. Over the years, Rideau Canal Royal Engineers and labourers spent much time and money there when not at work. During Bytown’s violent years, many fights and riots broke out at the tavern. This watercolour was created by Lt. Col. By in 1830, four years into the construction of the Rideau Canal.

Postal stamp showing a drawing of Jos MonteferrandEnlarge

[Source: Jos Montferrand, lumberjack, 1992 stamp. Canada Post Corporation fonds, National Library and Archives Canada, accession number: MIKAN 2266335]

Big Joe “Mufferaw”

French-Canadian Joseph Montferrand (1802-1846) came to Ottawa from Montreal to make a living as a lumberman. Standing at six feet two inches (1.8 metres), Montferrand was reputed to be both extremely strong and surprisingly agile for a man of his stature. Although outgoing and friendly to all in Bytown, Montferrand was consistently challenged by Bytown’s many brawlers, who would often organize surprise group attacks to battle the giant. As legend has it, it was during a cooperative strike that Montferrand famously grabbed one opponent by his ankles and swung him over his head, taking out every other opponent in the immediate vicinity. Even loggers in neighbouring states told tales of Big Joe “Mufferaw’s” strength and fierceness as a fighter.

Photograph of a Bytown policeman’s billy clubEnlarge

[Source: Bytown Policeman’s Billy Club (Baton), ca. 1847, wood, Bytown Museum, M17.]

Bytown Policeman’s “Billy Club”

This painted wooden police baton, nicknamed a billy club, is from Bytown around 1847. This instrument is likely to have been used by the Royal Engineers assigned by Lt. Col. By to keep law and order on the streets of Bytown.

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