The Steamer Earl Grey – The Canadian Years

APOPKAPCSHOPPE317229The new ship was very stylish  but was a bit of a throwback. With its clipper bow it had something of the appearance of a private yacht rather than the ice fighting ferry connecting Prince Edward Island with the mainland.  To be fair however the vessel came with a long list of requirements. It had to be a mail and passenger steamship capable of carrying more than a hundred passengers as well as several rail cars worth of freight. It also had to be a suitable craft to carry the Governor General on official cruises. Oh, and by the way, it also had to be a powerful ice breaker fighting the jams between Prince Edward Island and Nova Scotia that had played havoc with the Stanley and the Minto and made a mockery of the requirement for “continuous steam communication” referenced in the agreement which brought Prince Edward Island into Canada.

Earl Grey on sea trials 1909

Earl Grey on sea trials 1909 before crossing the Atlantic

Like its immediate predecessors the new ship was named for the Canadian Governor General of the day. The Earl Grey was launched in June 1909 from the Barrow-in-Furness yard of Vickers Sons and Maxim. It had an overall length of 279 feet, was 46 feet wide and drew 18 feet of water.  The steel hull was reinforced for ice. Accommodations included  a first class dining saloon forward on the promenade deck with seating for 60 and first class staterooms amidships. The several staterooms included berths for one, two, or three persons. The aft section of the upper deck held the mail room and storage. The freight was found on the main deck as were the accommodations for second class passengers (sofa seats with folding backs which could form 20 beds), engineers, firemen and trimmers.

The Earl Grey at the Marine and Fisheries Wharf, Charlottetown

The Earl Grey at the Marine and Fisheries Wharf, Charlottetown

The design was the work of Charles Duguid, naval architect for the Dominion Government.  However attractive the vessel may have been it was not at the forefront of icebreaker design which had evolved to produce ships which rode up in the floes and used the weight of the ship to crush the ice.  The Earl Grey was of the older design and relied on her speed and strength to ram and cut the ice. It was later suggested that Duguid had made the design just wide enough so that it would not fit in the St. Lawrence locks so that Canadian shipbuilders on the Great Lakes could not bid for the contract. It also emerged that Duguid had been employed by Vickers-Maxim before taking the Dominion position.

Earl Grey 2

One of a large number of postcards showing the Earl Grey in the ice.

The vessel had a rough trip across the Atlantic. After 20 days she had exhausted her fuel, even burning the planking from the lower deck. Changing course for Newfoundland she neared Baccalieu Island when the fuel gave out completely and members of the crew had to row to shore for help. Prevented from re-fueling because of heavy seas she had to be towed into St. John’s. Transferred from the builders to the Dominion government in 13 October the ship went into service on Northumberland Strait on 30 December 1909.


Earl Grey to the relief of the Minto. The two steamers often worked together.

Islanders were relieved that she  gave satisfactory performance being rarely delayed by ice on her regular trips between the Island and Nova Scotia. In the summer of 1910 the ship was sent to Hudson’s Bay where at Port Nelson it picked up the Governor General and party who had traveled to the Bay from Lake Winnipeg by canoe and returned them to Quebec. The pattern was established with winter service in Northumberland Strait and use by the Governor General for official tours in the summer. In 1911 the ship with the dignitaries aboard went aground in Labrador which resulted in an official inquiry (probably because of the embarrassment).   A more serious event took place in April of 1912 when the ship, traveling  in fog at speed went aground off Toney River, about 5 miles east of Cape John, Nova Scotia.  She was only 400 feet from the shore and at low tide the tips of her propellers were two feet out of the water.  It was not until her cargo and most of her coal were offloaded that she was able to be hauled off. A commission of inquiry found Capt. Brown at fault for the grounding and his masters ticket was suspended.

Later that year the ship was brought to Quebec for repairs from the grounding damage and to outfit the ship for use of a new Governor General in a Maritime tour.  New quarters for the Governor General were constructed and the officers rooms on the upper deck were converted to a Royal saloon. For the tour the vessel, commissioned as the HMCS Earl Grey, was manned by a special crew of naval officers and men.

Earl Grey at Marine Wharf Charlottetown ca. 1912. S>S Brant (1) ahead of her.

Earl Grey at Marine Wharf Charlottetown ca. 1912. S>S Brant (1) ahead of her. Photo PARO

The ship continued to serve in maritime waters, visiting Charlottetown a number of times in addition to her winter service. However she was not destined to remain much longer in Canada. The Dominion government  was committed (again) to solving the transportation issue once and for all. Instead of the succession of seasonal ice-breaking steamers dispatched to other duties in the summer a huge new railcar ferry, the S.S. Prince Edward Island, coupled with the widening of the Island rails to standard gauge was in the works.  The Earl Grey, as well as the Stanley and the Minto  would be made redundant with the launch of the S.S. Prince Edward Island in the spring of 1914.  But for other circumstances the Earl Grey might be expected to be transferred to other Dominion Government duties.

PANS Accession 1983-310 #20947

HMCS Earl Grey, most likely in Halifax 1914 prior to her journey to Russia. Note the White Ensign on the stern. Photo – PANS Notman Collection Accession 1983-310 #20947

The other circumstances included the outbreak of the Great War. Cut off from the rest of the allied forces by the German army the Russian government relied more and more on the northern ports to bring in war supplies. The Russians went on a spending spree purchasing steamers and icebreakers capable of keeping the supply route to the White Sea port of Arkhangelsk open.  One of the purchases was the Earl Grey. The four-year old ship had cost Canada about $500,000 and was sold to the Russians for $494,000.  On 1 August she came under control of the Canadian Navy and on 4 August Capt. Murchison transferred command to Capt. Trowsdale of the Royal Navy. An offer was made to the crew to proceed with the vessel to Russia but as the offer was not made to the deck officers the crew declined and the ship was manned by sailors from HMCS Niobe. She left Halifax by 12 October and was reported in Arkhangelsk by 24 October when she was turned over to the Russians. She had been a Canadian ship for less than five years.

The transfer was not the end of the ship but was a new beginning and her subsequent adventures over more than fifty years of service eclipsed anything that has happened in Canadian waters. They will be the subject of a later posting which can be found by clicking here.

[In spite of being a Canadian ship for only a little more than four years there are a large number of photos of the vessel. One of the best sources of these is the Vintage Canadian Coast Guard Facebook site album found at their Facebook album page . The site also has a wealth of photos of other Coast Guard ships and is well worth a visit]


9 thoughts on “The Steamer Earl Grey – The Canadian Years

  1. PTMRouting

    Harry I’ve become an avid reader…keep it comin! Saturday’s are a meeting time at my shop, Kinlock Yacht Club south

    , around 1500 hrs …usually short lived…come and enjoy let Al know!

  2. Pingback: I’ll take the North-East Passage: Earl Grey – the Russian Years | Sailstrait

  3. Pingback: The Southport Marine Slip: Infrastructure that never happened | Sailstrait

  4. Pingback: From Fine Scotch to Ice-cold Vodka – the Several Lives of the S.S. Minto | Sailstrait

    1. sailstrait Post author

      There are two likely sailing vessels which match to the the name:
      Earl Grey -schooner – built Parrsboro NS 1906. Official # 116906
      Earl Grey – schooner- built Lunenburg NS 1907. Official #122009.
      There are a couple of other vessels with the same name on the British registry but unlikely to be in Carbonear in 1914.

  5. Pingback: A Rare Real Photo Postcard: Commissioning the Earl Grey – STRAITPOST

  6. Ron Harris

    I recently was able to run off a picture of the ss earl grey-the ship that saved my father’s life in Feb 1910. I note there is a picture of the ship caught in the ice and wonder if by chance that would be picking up my father…Louis Henry David Harris? I have corresponded before and you have kindly replied and if you could let me know I would very much appreciate it. My father (1893-1966) has almost 200 descendants which I am fond of reminding any of them that humanly speaking none of us would be here without the Earl Grey. Thank you, Ron Harris

    1. sailstrait Post author

      While there are a large number of photos of the Earl Grey in the ice I think it extremely unlikely that any of them were taken at the time of the rescue off Cape Bear. Most of the images come from postcards which would have been taken by professional or semi-professional photographers such as W.S. Louson. There is no mention of any photographs in the newspaper coverage . Moreover I suspect if there had been photos taken at the time they would have featured the rescued boys or the ship’s captain. However as you are no doubt aware the third boy on the ice, Eliot Lumsden, had an interest in photography and took many photos of the Murray Harbour area. I am not aware of any of his surviving photos which show either the Earl Grey or L.H.D. Harris.


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