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d. 22 Feb. 1927 in Victoria


Responsible Government

Sir John A. Macdonald

From the Red River Settlement to Manitoba (1812–70)

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Sir George-Étienne Cartier


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Introductory Essays of the DCB/DBC

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MERRITT, WILLIAM HAMILTON, mining engineer, teacher, author, and militia officer; b. 8 June 1855 in St Catharines, Upper Canada, only son of William Hamilton Merritt and Janet Lang Morris; m. 10 April 1890 Margaret Simpson, only daughter of Robert Simpson*, in Toronto; they had no children; d. 26 Oct. 1918 in Toronto.

W. Hamilton Merritt came of distinguished stock. His paternal grandfather, William Hamilton Merritt*, had been a prominent politician and promoter of the Welland Canal; his maternal grandfather, James Morris*, had served as an executive councillor for the Province of Canada. Little is known about Merritt’s childhood and adolescence. His father, a barrister, died in 1860. He was educated in Ontario at Trinity College School (Weston) and Upper Canada College (Toronto), and in England at Clifton College (Bristol) and the Royal School of Mines (London), from which he graduated as a mining engineer in 1877. Keenly interested in athletics, he won trophies in running, high-jump, and gymnastics at Clifton, and captained the football and cricket teams at the School of Mines. In 1883 he would be the founding president of the Ontario Rugby Football Union. After his return to Canada, he settled in Toronto, where he would live with his mother until his marriage to the daughter of a major department-store owner.

Although history remembers him chiefly as a soldier and commentator on military affairs, Merritt also had a distinguished career as a mining engineer. He accompanied the Canadian commission to the Paris exposition of 1878. (The Geological Survey of Canada exhibited there, but Merritt’s actual role is not clear.) Between 1879 and the late 1890s he travelled widely throughout Canada as an engineer and wrote many articles and books on mining subjects, most notably about iron. A member of Ontario’s royal commission of 1888–90 on mineral resources, he was deeply disappointed that it failed to advance a policy for the support of smelting in Ontario, a cause that he discussed in speeches and pamphlets in 1891–92. The problem in developing the iron and steel industry was a lack of risk capital, and for that reason he looked to government to provide bonuses or bounties to secure the needed investment. From 1893 to 1897 Merritt lectured at the School of Mining and Agriculture in Kingston, Ont.; during that time he also conducted summer schools in northern Ontario which introduced prospectors and mine personnel to more scientific techniques. He belonged to the Iron and Steel Institute in England, and was vice-president of the Ontario Mining Institute, established in 1894.

In 1882 Merritt’s interests had broadened to include politics and soldiering. He stood as the Conservative candidate in Haldimand in the federal election of that year and in the by-election there in 1886, but was defeated both times. He did poll a majority of the native vote in 1886, the first time the franchise had been extended to Canada’s native peoples. The Cayuga of the Six Nations Reserve further recognized Merritt by making him an honorary chief.

Despite Merritt’s reputation as a mining expert and his bids for election, his first love was soldiering. In 1882 he had joined the Governor General’s Body Guard for Ontario, a Toronto cavalry regiment commanded by ardent imperialist George Taylor Denison*. Promoted lieutenant in 1884, captain in 1889, and major in 1898, Merritt became the unit’s lieutenant-colonel commanding in 1903. He retired from the Body Guard in 1909 but the following year was appointed to command the 1st Cavalry Brigade (later the 1st Mounted Brigade) in the militia’s 2nd Division, a position he held until 1913, when he was placed on reserve.

Merritt was no mere parade-square soldier, and he never turned down the opportunity to see active duty. Indeed, he earnestly sought it. When insurrection broke out in the northwest in 1885, he was part of the force sent to quell the trouble. His enthusiasm and characteristic interest in military preparedness were marked, in April 1885 prior to his leaving, by his petition to Prime Minister Sir John A. Macdonald* for better rifles. Although Merritt and the other members of the contingent from the Body Guard saw no fighting, he commanded the detachment that pursued and then accepted the surrender of Sioux chief Wapahaska (White Cap), who had briefly been a member of Louis Riel*’s council.

A devoted imperialist – he would be a founding member in 1888 of the Toronto branch of the Imperial Federation League – Merritt secured an attachment with the British army’s 20th Hussars at Aldershot, England, following his return from the northwest. In 1899 he obtained permission from the Canadian government and the War Office to serve with a British cavalry regiment in Egypt. When war broke out that year in South Africa, however, he asked to be allowed to see active service with a regiment there. His request was denied, but Merritt was not easily put off. While the debate over Canadian participation in the war raged at home, he proceeded at his own expense to South Africa, where he was given a commission in Brabant’s Horse, one of the corps of irregulars being organized to combat Boer commandos.

In March 1900 Merritt took the field as a squadron commander in the 1st Regiment, Brabant’s Horse, and he later became second in command of the 2nd Regiment. He subsequently served on the personal staffs of Major-General Edward Yewd Brabant, commanding officer of the colonial division of the British forces, and Colonel Edmund Henry Dalgety, who at one point had temporary command of the division. Merritt’s South African diary shows that he took great pleasure in active duty, and it is full of references to the many little battles in which he took part. One, in which his squadron “dashed down the hill, through the town, where people cheered us at their deliverance, across the bridge and took up position under fire in short order,” he describes as “very exhilarating work.”

When the colonial division was disbanded in October 1900, Merritt was left without a position. He sailed for England the next month and then moved to France to recuperate from his year in the field. By that time Canada had long since sent its own contingents to South Africa – the first three were already about to return home – but the war was not yet over. On 29 Dec. 1900, from Nice, Merritt offered to raise a regiment of dominion irregulars (to be called the Canadian Rangers) for service as the British cavalry pursued the Boer commandos deep into the Transvaal and the Orange Free State.

Anxious for men, London immediately accepted his offer, but it was blocked in Ottawa, where private recruiting schemes were no longer in favour. The possibility of mobilizing a regiment through the Department of Militia and Defence was still being considered when, in July 1901, London informed Ottawa that there was no pressing need for more men. In November, however, the British government asked Canada for 600 horsemen and Ottawa agreed to raise a cavalry unit, eventually named the 2nd Regiment, Canadian Mounted Rifles, to serve as a temporary unit in the British army. Merritt, who had returned to Canada in the interim, was made second in command in December, probably to silence his friends and the more vocal Tory imperialists.

Merritt sailed from Halifax with half the regiment on 14 Jan. 1902, and reached Durban on 17 February. He was not a particularly effective commander. His men earned a reputation for drunkenness and disorderly conduct at Durban. Moreover, after the whole regiment had arrived at Newcastle, north of Ladysmith, Merritt proved to be less than completely loyal to his commanding officer, Lieutenant-Colonel Thomas Dixon Byron Evans, as he tried to revive his proposal for forming a battalion of Canadian rangers which would then become his own independent command. Evans, who regarded Merritt as a theorist and a weak officer, was convinced that he would have to do something because of his “utterly subversive” behaviour, but an accident intervened to solve the problem. Merritt was thrown from a mule, required medical assistance, and was transferred to a convalescent camp at Klerksdorp, where he remained until the regiment left for home in June 1902.

Merritt’s days of active service were over, but his interest in military affairs did not wane. Besides rejoining the militia, he became an outspoken commentator who, like a number of Canadians in the decade before 1914, was worried both by increased international tensions and the build-up of arms, which threatened imperial interests, and by what he saw as the unwillingness of the Canadian government, despite its reform of the militia [see Sir Frederick William Borden], to prepare for the titanic struggle that, in his view, was sure to come. Indeed, the campaign for military preparedness came to dominate his life. He was president of the Canadian Military Institute, essentially a social club for martial imperialists, from 1905 to 1914. Merritt does not seem to have commented directly on Borden’s reforms, but in a speech to the institute in 1909 he stated that the Canadian militia was expensive in relation to the results it produced. In that year he was instrumental in the creation of the Canadian Defence League, of which he was president until his death. The league’s chief aim was the promotion of “the principle of patriotic, unpaid, and universal naval or military training.” In addition, he was president in 1912 of the Canadian Cavalry Association, the first military organization in Canada to advocate breaking with the volunteer principle upon which the militia was based and imposing compulsory and universal military service instead.

Because of his age – Merritt was 59 in 1914 – he could not expect to see active duty during World War I, but his devotion to empire and his restless energy had not dissipated one whit. Certain of the loyalty and military enthusiasm of the Six Nations Indians, he made an offer to outfit a unit of their own. Merritt had neglected, however, to consult them and in November 1914 the Six Nations chiefs, who believed that they owed their allegiance directly to the crown and not through the Canadian government, decided not to act on Merritt’s proposal. He also took an active interest in the military potential of the airplane, which he had recognized when he was in Switzerland at the outbreak of the war. In 1915 he established the Canadian Aviation Fund and set out to persuade Ottawa of the need for a school of aviation in Canada. Rebuffed by the government, he made his own gift of two aircraft to Britain and in 1916 founded the Aero Club of Canada.

Still, Merritt’s principal focus remained the promotion of universal military training. To that end he published Canada and national service (Toronto, 1917), in which he advocated adoption of the Swiss model of a national army comprising all able-bodied males between the ages of 20 and 48. Merritt had spent some time in Switzerland in 1905 as well as in 1914, and on both occasions he had been impressed with the patriotism of the people. This, he argued, was one of the chief benefits to be gained from compulsory military service – it infused people with the spirit of service and self-sacrifice for the common good. Just as important, the Swiss system could provide better military protection at less cost than the voluntary system in place in Canada.

Maintaining a strong defence was essential, Merritt argued, because war was inevitable: biology and history had proved that the strong would dominate the weak. Although the United States was temporarily allied with Britain and the empire, for example, American friendship could not be relied upon forever and the law of domination might some day come into play. Accordingly, Merritt believed, Canada could not afford to depend on an ill-paid and poorly trained volunteer militia if it wished to remain free.

Merritt was not an original thinker: Canada and national service was an amalgam of ideas popular in western society before the war – social Darwinism, nationalism, and geopolitics. By 1917, however, these ideas had become increasingly out of tune with developments in Canada. Support for the defence league and Merritt’s plans was largely restricted to Toronto, Canada’s most imperialistic city. The country Merritt envisioned, one ensconced in the empire and forever suspicious of its neighbour to the south, had not materialized. Slowly the United States was replacing Britain as a source of investment capital, and Canada was becoming a North American nation. Moreover, after conscription was adopted in July 1917, the riots in Quebec [see Georges Demeule] and exacerbation of French-English tensions in Canada meant that the idea of compulsory military service in peacetime was unlikely to be acceptable to any political partet, given the era in which Merritt lived – with its seemingly endless series of conflicts – and his own active military service, it is understandable that he saw the world as a dangerous place and gave such priority to effective national defence.

Merritt lived long enough to see the trouble over conscription, but he succumbed to influenza before victory was won in Europe. He was buried with full military honours in Toronto’s Mount Pleasant Cemetery on 29 Oct. 1918. As a mining engineer, Merritt had made a valuable contribution to the development of the profession in Canada. Although his views on empire and military service would not prevail, he and others like him represented a political and cultural outlook that was important and influential in late-Victorian and Edwardian Canada.

Paul Maroney and Stephen John Harris

William Hamilton Merritt’s technical publications include Notes on the possibilities of iron and steel production in Ontario (Toronto, 1892); Economic minerals of the province of Ontario, Canada; a paper read before the Federated Institution of Mining Engineers (London, 1896); Gold and silver ores, what is their value? Simple field tests for prospectors with an inexpensive outfit (Toronto, 1897); and the entry on “Mineral resources and development in Canada,” in Canada, an encyclopædia (Hopkins), 3: 365–85. A detailed listing of his articles on mining and minerals appears in Science and technology biblio. (Richardson and MacDonald). Merritt is also the author of Memoirs of Major Thomas Merritt, U.E.L. . . . (Brampton, Ont., [1909?]) and of a number of pamphlets on militia reform, including Switzerland’s citizen soldiery, a military model for Canada ([Toronto, 1906]); Patriotic military service . . . ([Toronto, 1909]); and The old militia law of Canada, the new militia laws of Australia and New Zealand, and Lord Kitchener’s report . . . (Toronto[1910?]).

AO, F 662: F 1015: RG 22-305, no.36908; RG 80-5-0-183, no.14345. MTRL, SC, W. H. Merritt papers. NA, RG 9. QUA, Queen’s Univ. records, School of Mining and Agriculture fonds. Evening Telegram (Toronto), 28 Oct. 1918. Toronto Daily Star, 28 Oct. 1918. Carl Berger, The sense of power; studies in the ideas of Canadian imperialism, 1867–1914 (Toronto and Buffalo, N.Y., 1970). Can., Dept. of Militia and Defence, Militia list (Ottawa), 1902–14. Canadian Defence League, The Canadian Defence League, organized May 5th. 1909; objects . . . (Toronto, 1913). Canadian men and women of the time (Morgan; 1912). Directory, Toronto, 1881–97. Dominion annual reg., 1883: 155. Carman Miller, Painting the map red: Canada and the South African War, 1899–1902 (Montreal and Kingston, Ont., 1993). Nelles, Politics of development. The official history of the Royal Canadian Air Force (3v. to date, [Toronto and Ottawa], 1980–  ), vol.1 (S. F. Wise, Canadian airmen and the First World War, 1980). Ontario and the First World War, 1914–1918: a collection of documents, ed. and intro. B. M. Wilson (Toronto, 1977). Standard dict. of Canadian biog. (Roberts and Tunnell), vol.2. Telegrams of the North-West campaign, 1885, ed. Desmond Morton and R. H. Roy (Toronto, 1972).

General Bibliography

Cite This Article

Paul Maroney and Stephen John Harris, “MERRITT, WILLIAM HAMILTON (1855-1918),” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 14, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed February 22, 2024, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/merritt_william_hamilton_1855_1918_14E.html.

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Permalink:   http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/merritt_william_hamilton_1855_1918_14E.html
Author of Article:   Paul Maroney and Stephen John Harris
Title of Article:   MERRITT, WILLIAM HAMILTON (1855-1918)
Publication Name:   Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 14
Publisher:   University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication:   1998
Year of revision:   1998
Access Date:   February 22, 2024