VAVASOUR, HENRY WILLIAM, army officer and military engineer; b. c. 1783 in County Dublin (Republic of Ireland), son of William Vavasour, lld; m. Louisa Dunbar, daughter of Sir George Dunbar, and they had at least five children, including Mervin Vavasour*; d. 4 July 1851 in Montreal.
Henry William Vavasour received his early education from the Reverend Richard Carey and then entered Trinity College, Dublin, in 1799, graduating ba in the summer of 1804. He had received a commission as second lieutenant in the Royal Engineers on 1 Feb. 1804 and was one of the first of this corps to study surveying at the Trigonometrical Survey. Promoted lieutenant on 1 March 1805, he served in the Cape Colony from 7 Jan. 1806 to 11 Feb. 1809 when he became a second captain and was posted to Ireland. On 9 April 1811 he was sent to Gibraltar, and while based there he took part in the Peninsular War and the defence of Tarifa, Spain, receiving a promotion to the position of captain on 21 July 1813. After a brief tour of duty at Chatham, England, he was sent to British North America.
Arriving at Quebec on 1 Oct. 1815, Vavasour was initially stationed there. He then served as senior engineer at Fort George (Niagara-on-the-Lake), Upper Canada, where he was responsible for surveying military reserves and roads, as well as for building and maintaining forts on the Niagara frontier. Vavasour encountered some problems in carrying out his responsibilities, particularly in obtaining requisitions from the commissariat. The Royal Engineers came under the jurisdiction of the Board of Ordnance and Vavasour reported to the commanding engineer at York (Toronto) rather than to the army colonel at Fort George. The latter resented being bypassed and encouraged the commissariat to create difficulties for the engineer.
Vavasour, through his duties at Fort George, was brought into closer contact with the civilian population than were most regular army personnel. As a result, he was aware of the post-war unrest in the area and in 1818 recommended the establishment of a board of inquiry to investigate the claims of civilians who had suffered losses or had not been paid for services rendered. He had applied for land near Niagara (Niagara-on-the-Lake) in the previous year but was rejected under the terms of an order in council of 1797 that denied grants to soldiers on full pay. Lord Dalhousie [Ramsay*] visited the Niagara frontier in July 1819, and although he first commented that Vavasour was “particularly intelligent & entertaining” he later noted in his journal that he found the officer to be “a Bombastic & discontented soldier, constantly speaking without any regard to truth.” Vavasour returned to Quebec in September 1823 and served there until his departure for England on 27 June 1825.
Vavasour was stationed in Scotland from 1826 to 1829. In October of the following year he was promoted lieutenant-colonel and became commanding engineer in Ceylon (Sri Lanka), a post he occupied for almost six years. He held the same post in England, at Chatham from 1837 to 1839 and at Harwich from 1841 to 1845. Promoted colonel on 22 April 1845, he served in Dublin as senior engineer from 1847 to 1849; on 7 July he was again posted to British North America, this time as commanding engineer for the Province of Canada with headquarters in Montreal. In this capacity he was responsible for all military surveying, fortifications, and works, including the maintenance of the canals on the Ottawa and Rideau rivers. He was one of the few British officers to serve as a junior officer on the Canadian frontier and later to hold a commanding position in Canada. Referred to in an obituary as a “gallant and much respected officer,” he died in office and was interred in the military burial ground in Montreal.
Institution of Royal Engineers, Corps Library (Chatham, Eng.), Connolly papers, “Notitia historica of the Corps of Royal Engineers,” comp. T. W. J. Connolly (17v.), 10; “Skelton memoirs of officers,” comp. T. W. J. Connolly. PAC, RG 1, L3, 515: V11/10; RG 8, I (C ser.), 93: 23–24; 401–7. PRO, PROB, 11/2144, 4 Nov. 1846; WO 54/250–59. Montreal Gazette, 9 July 1851. Montreal Herald, 9 July 1851. [George Ramsay, 9th Earl of] Dalhousie, The Dalhousie journals, ed. Marjory Whitelaw (3v., [Toronto], 1978–82), 134, 138. G.B., WO, Army list, 1800–50. Roll of officers of the Corps of Royal Engineers from 1660 to 1898 . . . , ed. R. F. Edwards (Chatham, 1898). E. A. Cruikshank, “Post-war discontent at Niagara in 1818,” OH, 29 (1933): 14–46.