The Hamilton Naval Company 1862-1869 & The Fenians

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The Hamilton Naval Company 1862-1869

The beginning of the American Civil War in 1861 which led eventually to a Union Army of over two million men on our southern border was a source of grave concern to Canada, then consisting only of Canada East (Quebec) and Canada West (Ontario).

The Trent Affair of November 1861 in which an American warship boarded a Royal Mail Ship on the high seas and removed two confederate ambassadors created even more tension and Britain responded by sending several regiments to Canada to assist in its defence.

The Militia Lists for 1863, 1865 & 1866[i] reflect the creation of Volunteer Marine & Naval Companies in Hamilton as well as Dunnville, Port Stanley, Oakville, Toronto and Kingston.  The Volunteer Militia Act of 1863 provided that “Each company shall consist of one captain and such other officers and seaman not exceeding 75 as may be appointed by the Commander-in-Chief”.[ii]

The Hamilton Naval Company is shown as being established on 31 January 1862 with Thomas Harbottle as Captain and George P. Malcomson as Lieutenant.

Thomas Harbottle was a well known local mariner.  Born in England in 1824, he came to Buffalo as a youth and captained steamboats on the lakes and St. Lawrence River.  From 1854 to 1869 he captained the iron paddlewheel steamer Passport on the Montreal-Hamilton run.  From 1882 till his death in 1897, he was Inspector of Hulls for the Port of Toronto.

Nothing is known of Lt Malcomson except this portrait of him, owned by Mark Draak, Cabinet of Curiosities, 30 Hatt Street, Dundas, ON, whom we thank for permission to reproduce it here.

George P Malcomson - Copy
Lieutenant George P. Malcomson, Hamilton Naval Company circa 1862-1868


The Fenians

Fenian Brotherhood Flag
Fenian Brotherhood Flag

After the Civil War, various Irish-American soldiers joined themselves together with the intent of invading Canada and holding it hostage against the withdrawal of the British from Ireland.  The Toronto, Hamilton and Dunnville Naval Brigades were all placed on active service from 8 March till 26 March and then again on then again in June of 1866, when four Fenian regiments crossed the Niagara River at Buffalo and advanced westwards towards the Welland Canal.  The Canadian response culminated in the Battle of Ridgeway and the subsequent engagement at Fort Erie, which used to be commemorated in Canada by Decoration Day, held on the weekend closest to 2 June, the anniversary of the battle.


Little is known about the activities of the Hamilton Naval Brigade.  One account suggest that Captain Harbottle embarked them on his steamer, Passport, and steamed up Lake Ontario, armed with an Armstrong cannon, fruitlessly searching for Fenians, while another suggests that the Hamiltonians remained on local port defence duties.  A total of fourteen members of the Hamilton Naval Brigade were later issued the Canada General Service Medal with Fenian Raid 1866 bar[iii] but, strangely, neither Captain Harbottle or Lieutenant Malcomson were among them.

Canada General Service Medal with Fenian Raid 1866 bar
Canada General Service Medal with Fenian Raid 1866 bar
  • 2nd Lt John G. Laven.  It is known that he was born in 1840 and so would have been 26 at the time, was a merchant by trade and a Roman Catholic.
  • Gunner Thomas A. Green
  • Gunner Thomas Blythe Spence
  • Seaman Robert Barker
  • Seaman Norman MacLeod Black
  • Seaman William Griffith
  • Seaman James Hughes (first name transcribed in error as Janus)
  • Seaman John Knox
  • Seaman John D. Mills
  • Seaman Charles James Myles
  • Seaman William Peace
  • Private John Sutherland Mcleod
  • Private Daniel Barker
  • Private Robert E. Smith

There is another Hamilton connection with regard to the Fenian Raids.  The Captain of the Toronto Naval Brigade was William Fenton McMaster.  His uncle, Senator William McMaster, is the founder of Hamilton’s McMaster University.

The Militia List dated 1 March 1867 shows only one Naval Company remaining, that in Hamilton with the same two officers.  Following Confederation, the Militia and Defence Act of 1868 provided that existing volunteer units were allowed to continue if they signified the intention to do so prior to February, 1869.  The Hamilton Naval Company apparently failed to do so and was disbanded.[iv]


[i]  Canadian Militia Lists for 30 April 1863, 1 February 1865 & 1 March 1866

[ii] Cdr F.M. McKee, Volunteers for Sea Service – A Brief History of the Royal Canadian Naval Volunteer Reserve, (Toronto, Houstons Standard Publications, 1973), 4

[iii]  Library & Archives Canada / Military Heritage / Medals, Honours & Awards (accessed 18 July 2104)

[iv] Cdr F.M. McKee, 5