In April 2021, the Wingham Armoury, one of the county’s most historically significant buildings, was demolished. Its destruction may have been inevitable but through its gates, Wingham and area men marched off to two world wars. Not only was the armoury a military post, it was also an important hub of the area’s social history as well. Its demise is an incalculable cultural loss.
As the headquarters of the 33rd Huron Regiment, Goderich lobbied hard for an armoury. Yet, in May 1913, for reasons unknown, the controversial and sometimes erratic Minister of Militia, Sir Sam Hughes, favoured the Wingham site. With “much pleasure,” Hughes appointed the Wingham location for the county’s only Crown funded armoury on the condition that the town provide the land free and, that construction “may be proceeded with at the earliest possible convenience.” The town eagerly ceded to the Crown the land behind the town hall fronting on Edward Street.
At a celebratory dinner at the Brunswick Hotel in late May, the officers of B Company, 33rd Huron Regiment celebrated their good fortune and hoped that the armoury would “stimulate recruiting to a large extent.” The Wingham Advance proudly declared that the government “were certainly wise in their choice of” Wingham and declared that having an armoury showed “that the town was of great importance.”
John Mills of Kincardine was awarded the building contract for just over $11,000 and construction began in late 1913. When it was completed in August 1914, the Wingham Times described the “handsome building” as a red brick structure 44 by 90 feet in size. The newspaper said it was “the first of its kind in this section of Ontario.” The interior was “fitted” with hardwood flooring in the drill hall with rooms for stores, rifles and other military equipment. Above the drill floor ran a gallery off of which were rooms for officers’ and NCO messes. The basement held an eight-foot by 60-foot rifle range and furnace room. The whole armoury was trimmed throughout with polished brass fittings and electric lights.
The armoury’s completion in the late summer of 1914 coincided with the outbreak of the Great War on Aug. 4. Before the paint had dried on the walls, the first contingent of Wingham and area soldiers mustered at the armoury and paraded to the Wingham train station bound for Valcartier, Quebec in late August. Other drafts of Huron men would soon depart from the armoury over the course of the war. The armoury soon became the natural centre of North Huron’s war effort. Throughout the Great War, the Red Cross, Patriotic Societies and recruiting leagues held dances, benefits and other rallies to aid in the war effort.
The Wingham Armoury was the birthplace of the 161st Huron Battalion. In November 1915, the officers of the Huron and Bruce regiments met at the Wingham Armoury to organize a recruiting drive for the newly authorized 160th (Bruce) and 161st (Huron) Battalions for service overseas. The local officers told the Times that they did “not anticipate any great difficulty in securing the necessary volunteers” to form their county battalions.
In February 1916, the armoury provided the backdrop to what became known as the “Wingham Spy Caper” when a local constable found Adolfe Schatte in the possession of strange papers written in German and several metal tubes. Schatte, the German-born bandmaster of the Wingham Citizens’ Band, was seized and detained in the Wingham Armoury on the suspicion of espionage. The Dominion Police quickly determined that the papers were musical scores and the tubes were music stands. Schatte was immediately released. In the spring of 1919, when Wingham’s soldier’s returned home, the Wingham Soldiers’ Aid Commission welcomed their “returning heroes” with a banquet in their honour at the armoury.
During the interwar years, the armoury continued to house local militia units. In 1920, the 33rd Regiment was disbanded and the armoury became home to B Company of the Huron Regiment. In December 1920, a squadron of the 9th Greys Horse, a cavalry unit, was headquartered in the armoury. Riders had to provide their own mounts but were given a $2.00 daily allowance for silage. Unfortunately, the government refused to pay the costs of transporting the animals to training camps and so the Wingham cavalry squadron was disbanded in 1925
Yet, more than a military base, the Wingham armoury was one of the town’s most important social centres. Its spacious floors were ideal for church dinners, fraternal functions, veterans reunions and community dances. In 1923, the Wingham Lions’ Club, one of the oldest in Canada, held its inaugural banquet in the armoury. The Wingham Advance called the affair “one of most brilliant social events staged in” town. Lacking a gymnasium, the Wingham High School used the armoury for its games and practices. As early as 1916, school basketball tournaments were held on the drill floor. It was Wingham’s primary indoor sporting venue well into the 1950s. Lacrosse, badminton, and tennis matches were popular sporting activities held in the armoury.
In 1936, after another re-organization of Canada’s militia units, the Wingham Armoury became the home to the 99th Field Battery, Royal Canadian Artillery. In 1938, the battery was equipped with two Great War era 18-pounder field guns. After Canada’s entry into the Second World War in September 1939, the armoury again became the centre of the area’s war effort. In 1940, a 65-foot by nine-foot brick drill shed was added to the armoury’s north side.
In September 1941, a battery of the 99th was mobilized under the command of future Wingham Mayor R. S. Hetherington. The battery was part of the 19th Field Regiment, RCA, and served with distinction from Normandy’s beaches to the end of the European War. At the battery’s return in 1946, the returning veterans were marched from the CNR station to the armoury where they were paid off, reunited with family and treated to speeches and an honorary banquet. The 99th Battery’s war veterans were dismissed from the armoury as a unit for the last time.
In 1946, the armoury was designated as the Regimental Headquarters of the 21st Field Regiment with four batteries located in Goderich, Listowel, Walkerton and the old 99th in Wingham. The 99th battery was designated as an anti-tank unit armed with two 25-pounder anti-tank guns stored in the armoury’s gun shed. In 1954, the armoury was authorized to recruit two Canadian Women’s Army Corps members to manage the Quartermaster stores. Another reorganization in 1957 saw the 99th Battery revert to its role as a field artillery battery and re-equipped with two 105-millimetre howitzers. The howitzers were a common sight outside the armoury on Monday night training exercises.
Reductions in government defence spending forced the disbandment of the 99th Battery in February 1970. When the 99th Battery, the county’s last militia unit, held its final parade in February 1970, it signalled the end of the armoury’s 56 years as a military establishment. The future looked grim for the armoury until 1974 when a Wingham Senior Citizens group was awarded a provincial government grant to convert the armoury into an adult ‘drop-in centre.’ The armoury also became the home of the Wingham Police Force. In 1975, the Crown deeded the armoury back to the town. The Wingham Armoury also housed the Wingham Police Force until it was disbanded in 2019. In 1975, the Crown returned the armoury to the Town of Wingham.
After the Wingham Police Department was amalgamated with the OPP in 2019, the venerable old armoury lacked a purpose and like much of Ontario’s heritage structures, it needed a purpose and money to bring up to code.
In April 2021, the 108-year-old Wingham Armoury was razed. To some, its demolition removed a town eye sore but, for many, Wingham lost one of its most esteemed architectural landmarks which was home to town’s military and social history.