Canada in Westminster Abbey: Railways

There’s more of Canada in Westminster Abbey than we might think.

Engineers and builders of Canada in Westminster Abbey

Any visit to Westminster Abbey is a walk through an architectural and historical treasure. The building itself is astounding, so beautiful. The stone columns and gravity-defying ceiling look both delicate and super-strong. And then there are so many things to see inside: statues, chapels, stained glass, brasses, effigies, even the shrine of a saint. I’m always amazed by the array of talented people who are either buried here or have been remembered in some way, not to mention the legions of unnamed artists and craftsmen whose work we are privileged to be able to see.

I keep a lookout for connections to other places in the world, starting with Canada.

Today I’m reporting on my search for people connected to the railroads.

I’ll follow the audioguide trail. It’s the path of least resistance, especially when the Abbey is busy.

When you visit Westminster Abbey as a tourist, you usually come in the Great North Door. On the right is the admission desk. Pay your fee and turn right, but first collect your free audioguide.

Now you are in the north aisle of the nave, walking toward the Great West Door, though you can’t see it yet. Look at the windows to your right. There are tributes to some of Britain’s great engineers, starting with the Stephensons.

Famous inventor of the Rocket has a Canadian connection

1. The window for Robert Stephenson (1803-1859) honours both Robert, who invented the famous “Rocket” steam engine, and his father George Stephenson, called the Father of Railways. There is a picture of the Rocket in the window. Robert Stephenson designed the Victoria Bridge in Montreal, which opened in 1859 and is still in use.

The Victoria Bridge was the first bridge across the St. Lawrence River. It was built to carry trains between Canada and the United States. As with so many other great engineering works, “They said it couldn’t be done”.

I just found a webcam showing the traffic on the bridge in real time. It’s carrying cars these days. I wonder what Stephenson would have made of the webcam.

Victoria Bridge, Montreal, by Conrad Poirier [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons, slightly altered to make image lighter for better view of bridge

Victoria Bridge, Montreal, by Conrad Poirier [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons, slightly altered to make image lighter for better view of bridge

Robert Stephenson is buried in Westminster Abbey, and you will see his grave soon. An engraved brass plate showing Stephenson with his arms crossed marks the spot, in the centre aisle of the nave. First, let’s look at two more windows.

The best engineers couldn’t save it

Sir Benjamin Baker is not a familiar name in Canada but in his time he was famous throughout the British Empire and beyond.

2. The window for Sir Benjamin Baker (1840-1907) honours a legendary engineer whose credits include the Forth Bridge in Scotland, the Metropolitan Railway in London, and the Aswan Dam in Egypt. One of his less famous and less successful projects was in Nova Scotia.

The province of Nova Scotia would be an island if it weren’t for the Chignecto Isthmus. This little stem of land, 17 km (about 10.5 miles) at its narrowest, is the reason ships have to go around Nova Scotia to get from the Bay of Fundy to the Gulf of St. Lawrence.

The Chignecto Ship Railway was meant to pull ships across the narrow isthmus, saving a journey of 930 km (502 nautical miles or 578 miles).  It was a good idea.

Chignecto Ship Railway dock, By reporter 1890 (University of New Brunswick Archives) [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons

Chignecto Ship Railway dock, By reporter 1890 (University of New Brunswick Archives) [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons

Sir Benjamin Baker was one of the Chignecto Marine Transport Railway Company’s three engineers supervising the work, which started in 1888. It’s said there were 4,000 workers or more employed during construction.

Unfortunately, things changed. The Ship Company’s bankers called the Company’s loan. This wasn’t the Company’s fault. The bankers had been hit by a financial calamity in Argentina. Without money, work on the project stopped.

The Company held a meeting of investors while there was still hope of continuing work.  The Railway News for March 5, 1892 reported that £700,000 had been spent on the railway and another £209,000 was needed for completion. Sir Benjamin Baker had “no doubt as to the ultimate success of the Company” but it was all hanging on the support of the Canadian government. Would Canada subsidize the operations for 20 years after the railway opened? The Company could come up with the capital to build the railway but needed that subsidy to make it work.

Despite the benefit it would have brought to Nova Scotia and to shipping on the East Coast, the motion that the Government provide the subsidy failed by one vote. That was the end of the railway.

In 2012, the government of Nova Scotia purchased the land and what is left of the abandoned railway project, to preserve the history and create a public trail.

For its primary promoter, the collapse of Chignecto was personally disastrous. Engineer Henry G. C. Ketchum died in 1896, at the age of 57, and some writers say it was the stress of losing his railway that killed him. Sir Benjamin Baker’s support had been most influential all along, but even he couldn’t move the politicians.

Sir Benjamin Baker is buried in Chipping Norton, Oxfordshire.

Canada’s most famous photograph

Keep looking at the windows as you continue along the nave. The next one to find honours one of the most famous men of his day, a Scottish businessman with a golden touch and a philanthropic heart. I think every Canadian knows his picture, though probably not his name. It might be a question on the citizenship test.

3. The window for Donald Alexander Smith, Lord Strathcona (1820-1914) includes coats of arms and shields representing Canada, Manitoba, Quebec, McGill University, and the Hudson’s Bay Company. There’s also a soldier in khaki from Lord Strathcona’s Horse.

Lord Strathcona in the Last Spike mural at Craigellachie, by Jill Browne. The mural is based on the famous photograph of the event

Lord Strathcona in the Last Spike mural at Craigellachie, B.C., photo by Jill Browne. The mural is based on the famous photograph of the event

Smith’s achievements are numerous. For a record 75 years he worked for the Hudson’s Bay Company. He became Governor of that company, a substantial investor in the Canadian Pacific Railway, a benefactor of McGill University, founder of Victoria Hospital in Montreal, and the list goes on and on in industry, politics, and philanthropy.

In 1899, Lord Strathcona put in motion the creation of what’s now called Lord Strathcona’s Horse (Royal Canadians), a regiment made up of Canadians but originally formed as part of the Imperial Army. Horrified that the British foot soldiers were at the mercy of a mounted enemy in the South African War (Boer War), Smith paid for a regiment to be created, equipped, and sent to South Africa.

Lord Strathcona himself has been widely written about. This blog by Rafe Haydel-Mankoo gives a succinct summary of his achievements.

Strathcona’s funeral was at the Abbey but he wanted to be buried with his wife, Isabella Sophia née Hardisty. The Strathcona Mausoleum is in the most prominent spot in Highgate Cemetery East, just inside the entrance.

There are two more things to look at on this theme of Canadian railways before we leave Westminster Abbey for now. Keep going along the north aisle of the nave and the audioguide will lead you to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. After paying your respects, turn your back and walk toward the door in the ornamental screen.

Before going through, notice the various names and bronzes at your feet. See if you can find Robert Stephenson’s grave. It has a large bronze engraving.

First Prime Minister is another memory of Canada in Westminster Abbey

There’s only one more person to find today, another of the most famous in Canadian history.

4. Sir John A. Macdonald (1815-1891) was Canada’s first Prime Minister when the Dominion of Canada was formed in 1867. In school they taught us that he was a Father of Confederation and that his promotion of the Canadian Pacific Railway brought British Columbia into Confederation in 1871. Sir John A. died in Ottawa and is buried in Kingston, Ontario with his parents.

Sir John A Macdonald on a 1927 stamp, By Canadian Bank Note Company [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Sir John A Macdonald on a 1927 stamp, By Canadian Bank Note Company [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The memorial to Macdonald is an enamelled stall plate in the chapel of the Order of the Bath. In 1884 Queen Victoria made him Knight Grand Cross of the Order of the Bath (KGC).

Near the end of the audioguide tour, you reach the east end of the Abbey. A set of steps rises to the Henry VII Chapel, which is the chapel of the Order of the Bath. The stalls here have multiple plates to record past and present occupants. The variety of heraldic symbols is impressive.

Sir John A. Macdonald’s stall plate is on the end of the northern range of stalls.

“Coward!” “Liar!”

I wouldn’t want to leave the impression that everyone was buddy-buddy in this story.

Although they were on the same side in promoting the railroad across Canada, and Donald Smith, later Lord Strathcona, belonged to Sir John A Macdonald’s Conservative Party, they had some touchy moments, to put it mildly. The 3rd Parliament closed with a vehement attack on Smith by Sir Charles Tupper and Sir John A. Macdonald, ending with Macdonald calling Smith a liar.


That fellow Smith is the biggest liar I ever met. – Sir John A. Macdonald, from Official Reports of the Debates of the House of Commons of the Dominion of Canada

There’s a common legend that the Last Spike was made of gold. Not true. However, what is hardly ever talked about is that when Sir John A. Macdonald drove the last spike of the railway from Esquimalt to Nanaimo on Vancouver Island, he used a silver hammer to drive a golden spike. No doubt there was someone right behind him to snatch back the gold and silver and replace the spike with more durable iron.

This barely scratches the surface of Canada in Westminster Abbey. Please, leave a comment if you know of more. There are about 20 names filed under “Canada” on the Abbey’s database, but within the individual entries in the database there are more clues. Also, there are many whose Abbey biography doesn’t mention their significant connection to the country. Let’s see how many we can ferret out.

If you enjoyed this story, please help me out and share it with your friends on social media. I really appreciate it. Many thanks – Jill

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