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REMEMBER THIS: The thankless job of being Barrie's nightwatchman (4 photos)

Whenever there was a fire or a crime, the followup question was always, 'Well, where was the nightwatchman?'

In the beginning, the town council of Barrie didn’t want a nightwatchman. Too expensive, they said, and completely unnecessary.

A humorous piece in the Northern Advance of April 19, 1877 seemed to somewhat prove their point.

“Thieves in Orillia climbed up a rope lift at a hardware store, the other night, entered the building, stole revolvers, and other articles, and then got into an adjoining lodge room and had a carouse. The nightwatchman had seen a fellow shinning up the rope, but thinking he belonged to the lodge or an employee of the store, let him shin. This is a good kind of nightwatchman to have – when there are no thieves around.”

About the same time, Barrie’s Mayor Sewrey conducted a secret experiment which also descended into comedy. As the notion of a nightwatchman was almost unanimously unpopular, he went ahead and hired a man to do the job as a string of recent fires had done a great deal of damage to the town.

Very few knew of Mr. Sewrey’s employee and that number did not include any members of the police force. So, when a constable patrolling the darkened streets one night found a suspicious-looking character lurking around the site of a recent blaze, he pounced. He tackled the man who protested and claimed to be just who he was – the nightwatchman.

Nevertheless, he was hauled off to the jailhouse.

There was plenty of embarrassment to go around after somebody was forced to go and wake up the mayor.

By 1880, fires were still a constant problem in the business district of downtown Barrie. A night constable was paid until midnight, but many pointed out that fires frequently started in the wee hours of the morning and most robberies were committed during this time period, too.

John Coleman, who had acted as night constable in Barrie since April 1882, resigned later that year to take the position of chief constable in Trenton, Ont. It was then that an official nightwatchman position came into being.

Daniel Sweeney was hired as nightwatchman. His job consisted mostly of dealing with intoxicated bar patrons, breaking up brawls, checking for unlocked doors, and being ever-vigilant for the threat of fire.

Sweeney’s service was often unappreciated and constantly under scrutiny by those who had opposed creating the nightwatchman position in the first place. If anything happened at all, the question was always the same – 'Well, where was the nightwatchman?'

After a particularly well-publicized incident in late 1884, Daniel Sweeney resigned and his parting words were, “Don’t pity me; I’m glad to be rid of it.”

On an especially dark night, heavy with thunderstorms, a patron of the Wellington Hotel somehow fell from his room window and landed on the sidewalk below. Later testimony by the occupant of the adjoining room reported that a sound like moaning was heard about three o’clock in the morning.

The witness peered out their own window, but saw nothing in the darkness and assumed that someone with too much to drink was likely sheltering in the nearby doorway of Fraser’s saddle shop.

It wasn’t until daybreak that the mortally wounded man, a Wellington Hotel guest, was found in a pool of blood. Well, where was the nightwatchman?

In the end, it was discovered that the gas lamps in the area were not working that night, and that the extreme darkness would make it improbable that the victim would have been found unless someone happened to be almost on top of him.

Even though Police Chief Rogers defended him vigorously, the town and the council had had enough, and so had Daniel Sweeney.

Town council then had a device, coined a nightwatchman detector, demonstrated at a council meeting. It was described as a clock which would be locked and installed somewhere in the downtown area.

As the nightwatchman passed such a device, he would pull a knob, which forced a pin to pierce a strip of paper which would show the time of the watchman’s movements about town.

Despite the insulting nature of this proposed piece of machinery, and all the other indignities that had been heaped onto Daniel Sweeney, he was back applying for his old job within the year.

Each week, the Barrie Historical Archive provides BarrieToday readers with a glimpse of the city’s past. This unique column features photos and stories from years gone by and is sure to appeal to the historian in each of us.

Mary Harris

About the Author: Mary Harris

Mary Harris is the Director of History and Research at the Barrie Historical Archive. The Barrie Historical Archive is a free, online archive that centralizes Barrie's historical content.
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