Story of How Young Matthew Murphy Flirted With Death To Plant British Flag on Top of Bomb Shattered Monument. Scaled Loose Lightning-Rod and Swung by Arms a Hundred and Fifty Feet From Ground.
In verse elsewhere on this page is chronicled the story of a wonderful feat performed by a Bytown youth – Matthew Murphy – in scaling the outer walls of the shattered Brock’s monument on Queenston Heights nearly a hundred years ago to plant the British flag on its topmost pinnacle. Following are further details of Matthew Murphy’s adventures and his amazing performance.
In the summer of 1839, in company with a younger brother, Simon, known in Bytown as the “Iron Man”, Matthew started on a tour through the United States. In the spring of the following year they decided to return to old Bytown. When they reached Lewiston they boarded the ferry to Queenston. Here they shipped aboard a schooner employed in carrying cut stone to Toronto.
About the 24th of June there came on board the schooner a sergeant belonging to a company of volunteers stationed at Queenston to prevent regulars deserting to the American side. The sergeant made mention of the great Brock meeting which was to take place on the 30th, and told the crew that the British flag must wave upon Brock’s monument that day. He explained that the hoisting of the flag would have to be accomplished by means of the lightning-rod on the monument’s side, the circular stairs inside having been entirely destroyed and the monument split in several places at the time of the Canadian Rebellion in ’38, by a blast of powder doubtless intended to demolish the whole monument.
The sergeant remarked that it was a shame, with so many British seamen on the lakes close at hand, that a Yankee should have to be brought from Buffalo to hoist the British colors. His words fell on eager ears. Matthew Murphy stepped from among the crew and enquired if he could visit the monument that night, as the vessel might start ere morning. He was told that the sentries were already on the beat. “But”, asked the sergeant, “have you any notion of trying it?”
“If I could see the monument and the rod,” Matthew answered, “I would tell you whether I would make the attempt or not.”
“Well,” said the sergeant, “I’ll put you past the sentries and show you the monument and rod.”
They thereupon went up the heights together. Mr. Murphy examined the lightning rod which was of five-eighth inch iron, and then climbed it about 40 feet – the monument’s total height was 160 feet. At this point a large loose stone hung out against the rod and he climbed no higher; but on descending he said to the sergeant, “I don’t know how the joints may be, whether they are safe or not… but I’ll put the British flag on top, or die in the attempt, before any foreigner will do it!
Two days later young Murphy returned to Queenston Heights. Multitudes of patriotic Canadians were arriving, and the Niagara river was fairly alive with steamers. At the foot of the monument he noticed a man fitting a pair of hand-wires on to the lightning-rod and he asked him what they were for. The man replied that they would be good things to give a fellow a rest if he got tired on the rod. Then it was evident to young Murphy that this was the man from Buffalo and he asked him to go up the rod a piece without the hand-vice. The fellow made a sort of bungling attempt at climbing and then came down.
Then the young Bytonian went up about thirty feet in lively fashion, and the Yankee said when he came down, “You’re pretty good at climbing.”
The flag was now brought up and placed in young Murphy’s hands and he was asked what he required. He told them he would need 300 or 400 feet of twine sufficiently strong to hoist the flag to the top after getting up. He then stacked his duds on the ground, fastened one end of the twine to his pants, and commenced the ascent with nothing on but pants, shirt and socks while a man below carefully paid out the twine to him.
His hardest and most dangerous part of the task was about 15 feet from the top, where a gallery projected out about six feet. But the difficulty was surmounted. Relating how he did it Mr. Murphy afterwards said:
“I had to swing by my arms, a hundred and fifty feet from the ground, and move hand over hand on the rod till I reached the edge of the gallery. Many of the fastenings pulled out leaving the rod quite loose, but I dragged myself over the side of the gallery the best way I could. Having tied the string to the banister, I slowly hoisted the standard up onto the gallery and then carried it to the top of the monument.
“The staff would not stand erect in the stone socket and I called down for chips to wedge it with, and a small bundle was sent up by the string; with those I made the flag-staff stand upright. On my descent a few more of the fastenings pulled out, but I reached the ground in safety.”
Next day a Niagara, Ontario newspaper published the following commentary on the amazing feat:
“One of the most remarkable and gratifying sights, and in fact the only feat performed at the great Brock meeting on Queenston Heights was the ascension to the top of the monument by the lightning-rod by Matthew Murphy, a jolly tar from Ottawa district. By this hazardous undertaking we are proud to say that the assembled multitudes were gratified by once more beholding the flag that has braved a thousand years in battle and the breeze’s wafting, from yon proud fields, courage to its friends and defiance to its enemies.”
Article by Ottawa Citizen columnist Earl G. Wilson , published in the Stories of Earlier Days section of the Ottawa Citizen, dated Saturday, December 17, 1938.
Poem Ode to a Bytown Youth by J.A. Murphy
Brock’s Monument, Queenston Heights from The Canadian Encyclopedia