John By

Lieutenant-Colonel John By (7 August 1779 – 1 February 1836) was an English military engineer, best remembered for supervising the construction of the Rideau Canal and founding Bytown in the process, which would become the Canadian capital, Ottawa.[1]

John By
Lieutenant-Colonel John By
Born(1779-08-07)7 August 1779
Lambeth, Surrey
Died1 February 1836(1836-02-01) (aged 56)
Frant, Sussex
EducationRoyal Military Academy
Spouse(s)Elizabeth Baines Johnson (1801)
Esther March (1818)
ChildrenHarriet Martha By (1822–1842)
Esther By Ashburnham (1820–1848)
Parent(s)George By and Mary Bryan
Engineering career
Disciplinemilitary engineering
ProjectsRideau Canal
Quebec City fortifications

Life and career

By was born in Lambeth, Surrey, the second of three sons of George By, of the London Customs House, and Mary Bryan. By studied at the Royal Military Academy. He entered Officer Training in the army when he was 18 years old. He was commissioned in the Royal Artillery on 1 August 1799 but transferred to the Royal Engineers on 20 December the same year.[2] In 1802 he was posted to Canada for the first time, where he worked on the fortification of Quebec City and on improving the navigability of the Saint Lawrence River.[2] During the Napoleonic wars he returned to Europe, where he served in Spain under the Duke of Wellington from 1811 until 1815.

With the end of the war By retired from the military, but in 1826 in view of his engineering experience in Canada, he was recalled and returned to Canada to supervise the construction of the Rideau Canal.[3] Since the canal was to begin in the wild and sparsely populated Ottawa River valley, his first task was the construction of a town to house the men who were to work on the canal, and associated services. The resulting settlement, called Bytown in his honour, was later renamed after the river.[4]

The canal was completed in six years, and was acclaimed as an engineering triumph.[5] The huge cost overruns, however, became a political scandal for the Board of Ordnance. Colonel By was recalled to London to face accusations that he had made a number of unauthorised expenditures.[3] The charges were spurious and a parliamentary committee exonerated him. By petitioned Wellington and other military leaders to review his case, but the damage was done and he never received a formal commendation for his work on the canal.[6][7] He died in 1836, and is buried in the village of Frant in Sussex.


By was married three times, first to Elizabeth Baines in 1801, who died in 1814. He remarried in 1818 to Esther March with whom he had two daughters: Harriet Martha By (1822–1842) and Esther By Ashburnham (1820–1848).

By was survived by 2 brothers:[7] The family is buried at St Albans Church in Frant.

  • George By – died in 1840 without children
  • Henry By – b. approx. 1789 and died in 1852 and predeceased by his son in 1847 (who had no children)


John By's name lives on in a number of contexts:[7]

  • The Byward Market area of Ottawa's Lower Town
  • His statue, executed by Joseph-Émile Brunet and unveiled in 1971, stands in nearby Major's Hill Park[8]
  • Ottawa's Colonel By Secondary School
  • The scenic parkway of Colonel By Drive, which follows the first stretch of the canal 8 km through the city from Rideau street in Lower Town to the falls at Hogs Back[9]
  • The engineering building, Col. By Hall, was unveiled in September 2005 at the University of Ottawa: "Colonel By Hall 161 Louis Pasteur – Colonel By Hall, home to the Faculty of Engineering, is named in honour of Lieutenant-Colonel John By of the Royal Engineers, who led the construction of the Rideau Canal. Completed in 1832, the Rideau Canal was a remarkable engineering endeavour at the time, connecting a series of lakes and rivers to provide a secure supply route from Lake Ontario to Bytown, which became the city of Ottawa 150 years ago. September 2005"[10]
  • In 1979, to commemorate the bicentenary of his birth, Canada Post issued a stamp bearing his image
  • In Ottawa, Colonel By Day is the name given to the Ontario August civic holiday
  • Colonel By Lake is an artificial lake on the Rideau Canal


A sundial behind the present-day site of East Block on Parliament Hill and overlooking the set of locks was used on that site by the Royal Sappers and Miners under Lt Colonel John By, RE in 1826–27 and was restored in 1919. During the construction of the Rideau Canal, Barracks Hill was the site of the military barracks and military hospital.[11]


A historical plaque located on the grounds of Colonel By Secondary School states, "Colonel John By (1779–1836) was born and educated in England and first came to Canada in 1802. As a member of the Royal Engineers, he worked on the first small locks on the St. Lawrence River as well as the fortifications of Quebec. He returned to England in 1811 and fought in the Peninsular War, but came back to Canada in 1826 to spend five summers heading the construction of the Rideau Canal, the 200 km long waterway, which now connects Ottawa and Kingston. This formidable task included the building of about 50 dams and 47 locks, without the aid of modern equipment. But the amazing feat was never recognized in Colonel By's own lifetime, and he died three years after its completion, never imagining that many thousands of Canadians would greatly admire and value his achievement in the centuries to come. Colonel By's attributes of courage, determination, and diligence inspire us to emulate him, in the hopes that we too may somehow serve our country in a way which will benefit future generations."[12]

A plaque was erected by the Ontario Archaeological and Historic Sites Board at Jones Falls Lockstation commemorating Lieutenant Colonel John By, Royal Engineers, the superintending engineer in charge of the construction of the Rideau Canal. The plaque notes that the 123-mile long Rideau Canal, built as a military route and incorporating 47 locks, 16 lakes, two rivers, and a 350-foot-long (110 m), 60-foot-high (18 m) dam at Jones Falls, was completed in 1832.

A plaque erected by the Province of Ontario sits in the stairwell of Lambeth Town Hall, in Brixton, London, England, commemorating By's Lambeth origins.[13]


  1. R. F. Legget. "John By, lt-col, Royal Engineers". The Canadian Encyclopedia. Retrieved 20 August 2019.
  2. Lance Day; Ian McNeil (2013). Biographical Dictionary of the History of Technology. Routledge. pp. 210–211. ISBN 978-1-134-65020-0.
  3. Marion Van de Wetering (1997). An Ottawa Album: Glimpses of the Way We Were. Dundurn. p. 105. ISBN 978-1-77070-014-7.
  4. Dave Mullington (2005). Chain of Office: Biographic Sketches of Ottawa's Mayors (1847–1948). GeneralStore PublishingHouse. p. 3. ISBN 978-1-897113-17-2.
  5. Peter Conroy (2002). Our Canal: The Rideau Canal in Ottawa. GeneralStore PublishingHouse. p. 2. ISBN 978-1-894263-63-4.
  6. Legget, Robert (1955). Rideau Waterway. Toronto: University of Toronto Press. p. 64.
  7. "Tales of the Rideau – Bye By – The Story of Lieutenant-Colonel John By, R.E". 27 May 1915. Retrieved 4 September 2013.
  8. "John By statue in Ottawa". Archived from the original on 16 May 2014. Retrieved 18 June 2014.
  9. "Colonel By Drive". National Inventory of Military Memorials. National Defence Canada. 16 April 2008. Archived from the original on 21 May 2014.
  10. "Colonel By Hall, University of Ottawa". National Inventory of Military Memorials. National Defence Canada. 16 April 2008. Archived from the original on 23 May 2014.
  11. "Royal Sappers and Miners sundial". Archived from the original on 17 May 2014. Retrieved 18 June 2014.
  12. "John By plaque". Archived from the original on 2 November 2013. Retrieved 4 September 2013.
  13. "Lieutenant-Colonel John By Historical Plaque".

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