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The House of Commons - Heritage Collection

Swords at the Ready

Kerry Barrow, Collection's Cataloguer, Curatorial Services

Many objects comprise the House of Commons Heritage Collection, from fine art and furniture, to sculpture and ceremonial objects. Ceremonial objects can be integral to the function, processes and traditions of the House, such as with the Mace. Whilst other ceremonial objects serve as a reminder of the past and provide continuity between the historical roles once played and the positions as they are today. This is never more apparent than with the ceremonial swords still worn by the officers of the Office of the Sergeant-at-Arms.

When Parliament was in its infancy in the 13th and 14th century in England, the wearing of swords was a part of everyday dress for many of those who attended these gatherings, and so remained up until about the 18th century. Today however, only the officers of the Office of the Sergeant-at-Arms are permitted to carry swords into the Chamber, although the once common practice of MPs wearing swords still resonates. For example, an existing practice in both the Canadian and the British Parliaments of standing for prayers in the Chamber is attributed to the difficulty Members would have faced trying to kneel whilst wearing a sword.

A History Revealed

Through research using historical photographs and documents, Curatorial Services has found that at least thirteen swords have been officially used in the Canadian House of Commons, six of which have been used by successive Sergeants-at-Arms since Confederation in 1867. It is unknown at this time what happened to four of the six swords, as photographic evidence is all that remains of them.

In 1932, two years into H.J. Coghill’s (1930-1934) tenure as Sergeant-at-Arms, the third sword came to be used, first by Coghill and then Sergeant-at-Arms M.F. Gregg (1934-1944). This third sword is still part of the House of Commons Heritage Collection and is a 19th century, cut steel court sword with a trefoil (three-fold) blade. It is stamped with the mark of J.R. Gaunt and Son of London, England and was purchased in January 1932 from their Montreal office. Established in 1750, J.R. Gaunt and Son was a well known and respected supplier of military buttons, swords and accessories.

Sergeant-at-Arms, W.J. Franklin (1945-1960) wearing the fifth sword in 1950.

Sergeant-at-Arms, W.J. Franklin (1945-1960) wearing the fifth sword in 1950.

Sergeant-at-Arms, K. M. Vickers (2006-present) wearing the sword from 1947.

Sergeant-at-Arms, K. M. Vickers (2006-present) wearing the sword from 1978.

The “Gaunt sword” was subsequently replaced for unknown reasons by a fourth and fifth sword which were used intermittently by Sergeant-at-Arms, W.J. Franklin (1945-1960) and Sergeant-at-Arms D.V. Currie (1960-1978), until for unknown reasons, they too were replaced. The replacement sixth sword has been used by successive Sergeants-at-Arms since 1978 and is the sword still used by the Sergeant-at-Arms today. This sword is also a 19th century, cut steel court sword with trefoil blade. The maker is unknown, as there is no maker’s mark, but research has determined that the sword was refurbished and the blade was re-etched by Wilkinson Sword (est. 1772-2005), the pre-eminent British sword maker, as it contains one of their design patterns.

Circa 1990, the seventh sword in the collection was purchased for use by the Deputy Sergeant-at-Arms. This sword is stamped with the maker’s mark of WKC Solingen (est. 1883) and was made in Germany. WKC Solingen is a renowned and traditional sword maker and one of the few remaining in the world.

Circa 1990-1996, three additional swords for use by the three Assistant Deputy Sergeant-at-Arms, were acquired from a Toronto company and were modelled after the “Solingen sword”. Unfortunately due to non-traditional methods of manufacture, these swords are no longer functional and had to be retired. They remain in the Heritage Collection, but now as part of the research collection.

Sword making was and remains a specialized, time consuming and skilled craft undertaken and undertook today, by only a small number of companies in the world. For swords to be worn daily and stand the test of time, traditional methods of manufacture need to be employed. Traditionally, each component of a sword was handmade individually by craftsmen who specialized in that particular part. Once all of the individual parts were ready, they would be assembled by a sword cutler.

In 2008, to replace the three now unusable swords, three new swords were commissioned. As there were no makers of traditional ceremonial swords in Canada, or any to be found in the U.S.A. that could meet the specific needs of the House of Commons, a British firm, Crisp & Sons, Sword Cutlers (est. 1975), was found and duly commissioned.

“Crisp” sword and scabbard.

“Crisp” sword and scabbard.

Continuing Tradition

Crisp & Sons refurbished swords for Wilkinson Sword, until that company’s closure in 2005. Subsequently Crisp & Sons are now the only remaining specialist military sword manufacturing and refurbishment company based in the United Kingdom, that make custom design swords following the traditional sword manufacturing process. The new swords were individually made to meet the specifications and requirements of the House of Commons. Their detailing is unique with the words “Canada”, “House of Commons” and “Chambre des communes” acid etched into the blade and an image of the maple leaf depicted on two components.

“Crisp” sword, stencil detail of custom etching on blade.

“Crisp” sword, stencil detail of custom etching on blade.

Although the swords in the Heritage Collection no longer have an active role in the maintaining of order and security in the Chamber, they remain an important part of the ceremony and uniform of the Sergeant-at-Arms. Customs and traditions that have evolved from their original purposes to their modern day practices, further aid in linking our past with our present, and in turn, our present with our future.

Sergeant-at-Arms and the five swords that have been used since Confederation in 1867:

    

Sergeant-at-Arms

Tenure
 

Sword and Date

D. W. Macdonnell

1867-1892

Sword 1: 1867-1892

H.R. Smith

1892-1917

Sword 2: 1892-1932

H.W. Bowie

1918-1930

H.J. Coghill

1930-1934

Sword 3: 1932-1944*

M.F. Gregg

1934-1944

W.J. Franklin

1945-1960

Sword 4 and 5: 1945-1978

D.V. Currie

1960-1978

M.G. Cloutier

1978-2005

Sword 6: 1978-present*

A.E. O’Brien (Acting)

2005-2006

K.M. Vickers

2006-present

*Sword still in use and a part of the House of Commons Heritage Collection.

 
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Last Update: June 2014