For over two centuries Gibraltar was an important outpost of British defense since its “acquisition” in 1704. The British looked upon Gibraltar as the key area in guarding its trade routes and sea lanes; this may explain the use of a key in Gibraltar’s coat of arms but a passage in the 1944 Canadian Geographic Journal article also offers an insight:
“Not only was Gibraltar christened the ‘Key to the Spanish Dominions’ …. but the Key has been for centuries part of the official Coat of Arms. The ceremony of handing over the keys at the changing of the guard has been carried out by the various (British) regiments since the days of the Great Siege (by the Spanish in 1779-83).”
The choice of the key as a symbol “was a happy one” said the author of the article on the tunnellers in the Canadian Geographic Journal. The author noted that the Gibraltar Key presented to the tunnellers was also Canadian in origin as well as being designed by a Canadian. “Owing to the fact that the presentation of the souvenir fobs was entirely of an unofficial nature the cost of their production was borne by James Y. Murdock, Esq., President of Noranda Mines. The keys were minted in Canada.”
As mentioned in last week’s introductory column, the famous Gibraltar Key has a local connection. As noted in quotes from the Canadian Geographic article and the history of the Royal Canadian Engineers, the designer of the Key was Sapper R. J. Cunningham. Most people know him today as Robert J. Cunningham, a retired engineer and author. Mr. Cunningham has been a Wolfville resident for the past 10 years.
Mr. Cunningham was one of the “hardrock miners” recruited from Quebec and Ontario when the No. 1 and No. 2 Canadian Tunnelling Companies were formed and sent overseas. After his spell with the tunnellers, Cunningham spent five years overseas with various Canadian regiments, retiring from the service at war’s end as a commissioned officer. A draftsman and surveyor during the war, Cunningham then began a career as an engineer, tunnel supervisor and chief draftsman.
When he retired 20 years ago, Cunningham started a second career as a freelance writer. To date he has had six books published and has recently finished two more books that are being considered by publishers. Currently Mr. Cunningham is writing a book about humor.
One of Cunningham’s loves is the bagpipes. While now inactive, he piped for many years and was the founder of one of the leading pipe bands in the Maritimes, the Dartmouth Boys Pipe Band.
For collectors of military badges and military artifacts, Cunningham is best known as the designer of the Gibraltar Key. Cunningham’s name is known across Canada to collectors of military artifacts; a badge collector from British Columbia told me about the Gibraltar Key and its local connection, for example.
As mentioned in the previous column only a few hundred of the award designed by Mr. Cunningham were produced and presented to the Canadian tunnellers of Gibraltar. “The Gibraltar Key is hard to come by,” the British Columbia collector told me; he has spent years attempting to track down copies of the Key and has only located one (which wasn’t for sale). Like many collectors, he’d probably give up half of his military badges to obtain one.
The Gibraltar Key is a uniquely Canadian military award that was originated for a unique Canadian military group, the Canadian Tunnellers. I’m delighted to be able to tell the story of the Gibraltar Key and its Valley connection to readers of this newspaper.