Wednesday, 23 May 2018

McGregor Street Armoury - Standing On Guard for over 100 Years

Written by Natassja Brien for Heritage Winnipeg

McGregor Street Armoury (1915)

The McGregor Street Armoury, a federally designated heritage building, is a returning participant in Doors Open Winnipeg 2018! Visit their page at the Doors Open Winnipeg site here to find out more information on opening hours and tour times. Doors Open Winnipeg runs from May 26 - 27, 2018.


Image result for mcgregor street armoury
McGregor Street Armoury
Source: Manitoba Historical Society
Sitting on the corner of McGregor Street and Machray Avenue, this imposing building dominates the landscape. Although many people may have only noticed it in passing on the way to the ever-popular North Star Drive In, the McGregor Street Armoury has been a mainstay of the North End landscape for more than 100 years.

McGregor Street Armoury shortly after its construction
Source: Fort Garry Horse
"Drill Hall Sam" aka Sir Samuel Hughes
Source: Canadian Encyclopedia
In the early 20th century, before the Great War, a blustering new officer had been appointed to the position of Minister of Militia in 1911 by then-Prime Minister Robert Borden. The influence of Sir Samuel Hughes quickly became apparent - he had convinced Sir Wilfrid Laurier to send troops overseas to the Boer War, and his dream was to see a distinctly Canadian militia in the British Army. One of the plans he supported to achieve this dream was an intensive armoury building program to standard designs. That, combined with Frederick Borden's Militia Engineer Services Branch, resulted in the construction of 59 armories in the years 1911-1914, made to five different standardized designs. In 1913, designs were drafted for McGregor Street Armoury - of "Standard Armoury Design Type D, Alternate Plan with Towers". Sir Hughes would receive recruits from McGregor Street Armoury in 1915 when men came from Winnipeg (and all over Canada) to Hughes' training camp at Valcartier.

Noted architect Herbert Edward Matthews, who also designed Minto Armoury and what is now the West End Cultural Centre, must have wanted the armoury to look imposing, a sign of Canada's military health and strength. The armoury was designed in the Ecole des Beaux-Arts style, modelled on classical antiquities. Although the style is heavily influenced by European and British trends, and following the Type D plan of Sir Hughes, the materials used reflect local character. Yellow clay brick, likely from the now-defunct Snyder Bros. brickyard, is used for the exterior, combined with Tyndall limestone to accent in lighter colours. These same bricks would be used in such familiar structures as the Legislative building, the Law Courts, as well as many of the original buildings at the Forks - and as for Tyndall limestone, it would be easier to say which buildings in Winnipeg don't use it.

Some of the other architectural features which make McGregor Armoury so distinct are the sturdy steel trusses over the drill hall, which allows the hall to be wide and open - and filled with natural light, thanks to the large multipanelled steel windows.

Modern-day photo showing the unchanged interior of the armoury.
Source: Fort Garry Horse Museum and Archives, with thanks to G. Crossley

The original unit housed in McGregor Armoury in 1915 once it was completed was the Winnipeg Light Infantry. This unit earned its stripes in the Great War when, filling the ranks of the 10th Battalion Canadian Expeditionary Force, they held the line during the first large-scale poison gas attack at Ypres in 1915. While the use of chemical weapons was prohibited by article 23 of the Hague Convention of 1899, all major powers began to use poisonous gases after the first attack - these included phosgene, chlorine gas, and mustard gas. At Ypres, the weapon of choice was chlorine gas, which was buried in canisters below the ground and then detonated by the German soldiers, causing upwards of 8000 casualties for Allied soldiers.

A Sherman M4A tank, once used by the Fort Garry Horse, stands in Martin Park, just north of the McGregor Armoury.
A Sherman tank in the north field of the McGregor Street Armoury
Source: Winnipeg Free Press
Returning to McGregor Armoury after the end of the war, the Winnipeg Light Infantry opened the building up to the community - including allowing a nearby school to hold classes in the building after a drastic increase in the number of children was pushing them to capacity.  When WWII broke out, the Winnipeg Light Infantry went on active service, and McGregor Armouries housed new recruits as well as the 17th and 19th Batteries of the Royal Canadian Artillery. McGregor Armoury has an extensive lawn - which was quickly filled with standard issue military tents as recruits showed up and signed up for duty.


Trooper J.L. Dumouchelle and Corporal W.L. Corn cleaning a Sherman tank
of the Fort Garry Horse used as a monument in the Netherlands (22 Nov 1945)
Source: Library and Archives Canada
 After the end of WWII, McGregor Armoury was the home of the Winnipeg Light Infantry for only the next ten years - in 1955 they had merged with the Royal Winnipeg Rifles (based in nearby Minto Armoury). Then, in 1965 they were replaced in the armoury by the Fort Garry Horse. Throughout the post WWII period, the armoury was opened for socials, dances, and bingo nights for the North End community.

Harry Colebourn with Winnipeg the bear in 1914


The "Garrys", as they were known, had gone through some restructuring themselves. Originating as a cavalry regiment in Winnipeg in 1912, they had been converted to an armoured regiment in 1939 like many others before moving into McGregor Armoury.

If the Fort Garry Horse doesn't sound immediately familiar, one of their more notable recruits was the British expat veterinarian Harry Colebourn - famously known as the man who purchased a little black bear on his way from Winnipeg to Hughes' camp at Valcartier, and named it after his adopted city. Lesser known is that after the war Colebourn returned to Winnipeg (sans bear, which lived out the rest of her life at the London Zoo, inspiring A.A. Milne through his son Christopher) and opened up an animal hospital at 600 Corydon Ave.

As of 1978, the McGregor Street Armoury houses the Fort Garry Horse Museum and Archives, which showcases artifacts from the Garrys' long history as a military unit. Visiting the armoury is like taking a step back in time - many features are unchanged and the oaken doors and trim lend a stately feel to this proud armoury. Over the years some things have changed - the walls are painted the blue and gold of Fort Garry Horse, while certain areas are painted with the colours of 31 Engineer Squadron, 38 Combat Engineer Regiment, formed in 2004. In addition to these, McGregor Street Armoury is also home to Air Cadet squadrons No. 6 and 573, and the 1226 Fort Garry Horse Army Cadets.

Due to all this immense history, McGregor Street Armoury was formally recognized as a federally designated historic site on October 17th, 1994.

Don't forget to check out the Doors Open Winnipeg website for more information about the event! 

New for this year, Heritage Winnipeg is also hosting a social media contest where you can win a Downtown Prize Pack! To enter, submit a selfie at one of your favourite venues and tell us why you love Doors Open Winnipeg - entries can be submitted over any of Heritage Winnipeg's social media platforms, including Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram! Tag us and use #doorsopenwinnipeg so we can see your photos!

Sources:

Gordon Crossley, Fort Garry Horse Museum and Archives

http://fortgarryhorse.ca/wp/mcgregor-armoury/

http://fortgarryhorse.ca/wp/winnie-the-bear/

http://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/sir-samuel-hughes/

https://www.sciencehistory.org/distillations/magazine/a-brief-history-of-chemical-war

https://therealwinnie.ryerson.ca/collection/colebourn

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