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History and Uniform of the Royal Newfoundland Regiment of Fencible Infantry
by Jack L. Summers and Rene Chartrand

cwm_3.jpg (28641 bytes)
Grenadier Private of the Royal Newfoundland Fencibles
(artist: R.J. Marrion   copyright:Canadian War Museum)

The following is an extract from the book Military Uniforms in Canada, 1665-1970 by Jack L. Summers and Rene Chartrand (Ottawa: Canadian War Museum, 1981) and is reproduced here by the kind permission of the Canadian War Museum.  Reprinting or duplication of the text or illustration without permission from the Canadian War Museum is prohibited. 


War with the new French Republic strained Britain's military resources to the utmost. It was decided, therefore, to raise a body of regular soldiers in Newfoundland to provide for the defence of England's oldest colony. On 25 April 1795, Major Thomas Skinner, R.E. was authorized to raise the Newfoundland Regiment of Fencible Infantry, sometimes called the Royal Newfoundland Regiment (Skinner's Fencibles).

The Royal Newfoundland Regiment was posted to Halifax in July 1800, and was disbanded there on 31 ]uly 1802, when the British Army was reduced according to the terms of the Treaty of Amiens.

With the resumption of hostilities between England and France in 1803, the recently disbanded colonial regiments of fencibles were reactivated. On 7 June 1803, Brigadier-General ]ohn Skerrett was authorized to raise a regiment of fencibles for service in America. It was to consist of one grenadier company, one light company, and eight battalion companies, each composed of five sergeants, five corporals, two drummers, and ninety-five privates. In pay, clothing, arms, and accoutrements the regiment was to be on the same footing as His Majesty's regiments of the line, and was designated the Royal Newfoundland Fencible Infantry.

Through vigorous recruiting, the regiment was 385 strong by Christmas 1803, and by June 1805 it had reached the very respectable figure of 683 men.

On 19 June 1805, the regiment exchanged stations with the Nova Scotia Fencibles, and sailed for Halifax to begin ten years of service in Canada. After spending a year in garrison at Fort Anne, Nova Scotia, the Royal Newfoundland Regiment moved to Halifax in August 1806, and then to Quebec in September 1807 to strengthen the forces in Lower Canada.

As war approached, it became apparent to Major-General Brock and Sir George Prevost that control of the St. Lawrence River and Great Lakes was vital to the security of Upper Canada. However, naval resources were meagre. On 9 May, to help overcome the shortage of manpower, the Royal Newfoundland Fencibles was ordered to form five companies for service as seamen and marines with the naval squadrons on the Great Lakes. Late in May, 360 men left for Kingston, where they were posted in detachments to the ships of the Provincial Marine.

When war against the Americans was formally declared on 18 June 1812, the flank companies were withdrawn from the regiment and, in August, were sent to Kingston under the command of Major Heathcote.

Elements of the Royal Newfoundlanders soon became involved in action around Detroit, as the Americans attempted to mount an attack on Upper Canada. The detachment under Captain Mockler, serving as seamen aboard the General Hunter and the Queen Charlotte, were brought ashore in August to form a core of regulars hr the militia force attacking Detroit. The Newfoundlanders won a special commendation from General Brock on the fall of Detroit.

By the end of 1812, the regiment was scattered in detachments to Quebec, Prescott, Kingston, Fort George, and York. The largest group of the regiment was a detachment of 111 all ranks, which formed part ofthe garrison of Fort George at the mouth of the Niagara River. The Americans attacked the fort on the night of 26-27 May 1813.

The grenadier company of the Royal Newfoundlanders formed part of the small force of 200 defenders at the point of the original assault-landings. Attacked in overwhelming strength, the British force gradually fell back to Fort George; the grenadier company lost twenty-one men killed and twelve wounded, including both its officers.

A further 100 men of the regiment served as marines with the Lake Erie Squadron under the command of Captain Robert Barclay, R.N. These Newfoundlanders suffered fourteen killed and twenty-five wounded - twenty eight per cent of the total British casualties - in the naval Battle of Lake Erie fought on 10 September 1813.

In 1814, a detachment of Newfoundlanders carried out a remarkable operation that demonstrated their capability and determination both ashore and on the water. Two companies were ordered to reinforce the isolated British post of Michilimackinac. This involved building a fleet of small open boats and sailing them from Georgian Bay to the northwestern end of Lake Huron. The Royal Newfoundlanders reached their destination in a month.

Early in August, the post was attacked by troops landed from an American naval squadron. The garrison not only beat off the attack, but the Newfoundlanders and a naval detachment took to the water in four small boats and captured the American ships Tigress and Scorpion in a daring night operation.

In June 1814, the regiment began to return to St. John's by detachments, to be replaced by the Nova Scotia Fencibles. The Royal Newfoundland Fencible Infantry garrisoned St. John's until orders were received for the reduction of all fencible corps in North America. The regiment was formally disbanded on 24 June 1816.


Specific details of dress and equipment of the Royal Newfoundland Fencibles no longer exist. The official letter authorizing the raising of the regiment in 1803 specified only that "in pay, clothing, arms, and accoutrements the new corps was to be on the same footing as His Majesty's Regiments of the Line."'

Between 1790 and 1800 the uniform of the British infantry underwent drastic change. In 1800, the cocked felt hat was replaced by a shako or cap of black lacquered leather 7 in. high with a black leather peak. The front carried a rectangular stamped brass plate, 6 in. x 4 in. which bore the Royal Cypher enclosed in the Garter and surmounted by a Crown. In the centre of the top was a black rosette with a regimental button in front of a white-over-red worsted plume. In 1806, the leather cap was replaced by a felt shako of similar shape and dimensions, with a black lacquered leather peak. This was commonly referred to as the "stove-pipe" shako.

The "Belgic" or "Waterloo" shako was approved for British infantry in November 1811. This was a felt cylindrical cap 6 in. high with a false front 81/2 in. high. It had a black leather peak, a plume and rosette on the left side, cap lines hanging across the front, and a brass cap plate bearing the regimental number. Supplying a regiment that was spread across the entire theatre of operations presented great problems, and it is unlikely that the Royal Newfoundlanders were issued the "Belgic" shako until they returned to St. John's in 1814.

By 1800, the soldier's red coat had developed from a long-skirted garment with wide curved lapels to a single-breasted jacket or coatee, cut square at the waist with the short skirt turned back to show white linings. Its stiff stand-up collar was open at the throat to show the black stock. The jacket front was trimmed with loops of regimental lace, either evenly spaced or in pairs. The small round cuffs in facing colour were trimmed with four buttons set with loops of regimental lace.

Shoulder-straps of facing colour were trimmed with regimental lace. Battalion companies' shoulder-straps ended in white worsted tufts, while those of flank companies had laced wings. The slashed pockets set vertically on the hip were trimmed with four buttons and loops of regimental lace.

The facings of the Royal Newfoundland Fencibles were blue, like those of all Royal regiments; regimental lace was white with a blue line between two red ones. The loops across the breast of the coatee were square ended and evenly spaced.

White woollen knee breeches were worn with black knee-length gaiters. Trousers were worn for fatigues, and gradually replaced breeches for wear on service. Some trousers were white, and buttoned up the outside to the knee like a pair of gaiters. rn some cases they were made up locally of brown or grey homespun, or of striped cotton ticking. As trousers became accepted for campaign dress, grey calf-length gaiters were adopted for wear with ankle boots.

The plate illustrates a grenadier of the Royal Newfoundland Fencibles in frill marching order for the 1813 campaign.

The soldier's equipment consists of a black leather cartridge pouch suspended on the right hip from a white cross-belt. A second cross-belt over the right shoulder supports the black brass-tipped bayonet scabbard. An off-white canvas haversack and blue wooden water-bottle hang on the left side.

The painted canvas knapsack has some form of regimental identification on the outer flap and is held in place with a white breast harness and shoulder-straps.

Throughout the campaign seasons in the harsh Canadian climate, far from a ready source of supplies, the Royal Newfoundlanders would have had anything but a precise uniform appearance. Dress aboard ship must have been casual; but practical. In winter, regular uniform clothing was supplemented with fur caps, mitts, moccasins, and warm leggings. Although the Royal Newfoundland Fencibles' dress is uncertain, there is no doubt about the magnificent contribution of the regiment to Canada's military heritage. 

Copyright: Canadian War Museum

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