Category Archives: History

The Whole Story of a Half-Company: The Navy on PEI in the 20s and 30s

Sims Building at corner of Kent and Hillsborough Streets. Headquarters for the RCNVR Charlottetown Half company beginning in 1935. Undated photo: P.E.I. Regiment Museum

Several histories of Charlottetown date the beginning of a Canadian naval presence in the Island’s capital as the establishment of H.M.C.S. Queen Charlotte in 1942. In fact it began almost two decades earlier.

The Royal Canadian Navy was in a poor state after the end of the Great War. Its fleet, which had included civilian ships drafted for the duration as well as well-used cast-offs from the Royal Navy had been gradually reduced as naval spending diminished. By 1923 there were only two active warships; one on each coast. In 1922 the entire navy had only 402 officers and men.

However, in 1923 the Dominion Government, in spite of its reduced budget decided to strengthen its defence capacity by establishing two reserve organizations.  The first of these, the Royal Canadian Naval Reserve (RCNR) recruited experienced men who worked on the sea in their civilian occupations such as merchant mariners and fishermen. Charlottetown was one of the port divisions established. The RCNR replaced the Royal Navy Canadian Volunteer Reserve (RNCVR) which had come into being in 1914. The other component of the reserve was the Royal Canadian Naval Volunteer Reserve (RCNVR) and originally consisted of fourteen naval reserve companies (later known as “divisions”) across the country. Three of these were in the Maritimes with a full company in Saint John, a half company in Charlottetown and another half company in Halifax. A half company consisted of about fifty seamen, three lieutenants or sub-lieutenants and a medical officer.  In March 1923 the lieutenant commanding the Halifax half-company visited Charlottetown to begin setting up the new unit which was to be entirely manned by volunteers. Recruits signed up for three year’s service which included two weeks each year aboard one of the navy ships or at a land-based training base such as Halifax, and thirty drills of one hour at the company headquarters in Charlottetown. Recruits were paid 25 cents per drill while officers served without remuneration.  However during the annual two-week training both officers and men received the normal regular navy pay for their rank.

The similarity of the names of the several organizations resulted in considerable confusion on the part of the public and of the media and it is often difficult to completely separate the activities of the groups.

HMCS Patriot ca. 1922.  This ship was one of those on which Charlottetown Naval Reserve crews received training.

By the end of April 1923 George Hedley Buntain had been gazetted as Acting Lieutenant and officer commanding the Royal Canadian Naval Reserve Charlottetown Half Company. Early in May recruiting began and training commenced soon afterwards. In June the following year two members of the half company, Wilfred Cullen and Willard Locke, were chosen to join the crew of H.M.S. Hood and H.M.S. Repulse on a training cruise from Esquimalt to Halifax via the Panama Canal. When H.M.C.S. Patriot visited the city in July 1924 the officers and crew of the half company marched with the crew of the visiting vessel in a church parade. In later years the training in Halifax often coincided with naval visits to the West Indies.   

HMCS Champlain ca. 1932  which replaced the Patriot and was used as the east coast training vessel for both the regular navy and the RCNVR

It appears that not all the activity of the volunteers centred around training as there is a report of a social at the Navy League Club in May 1925 which saw a concert with songs, recitations, and musical numbers followed by a dance by the Brighton Club Orchestra.  Later that year a re-organization meeting of the half company concluded with a card party and led to the establishment of a RCNVR bowling league at the League of the Cross Alleys. The reserve also had a very successful hockey team and in the 1930s it fielded a basketball team.  The RCNVR had regular use of the gyms at the Holy Name Club and the YMCA.

While the local press was fulsome in its praise of the RCNVR half company in Charlottetown the reputation of all of the maritime units was not the highest at naval headquarters.  After three years of operation the director of naval reserves found “… the units very similar in a general way, and not up to the standard desired or required…Halifax and Charlottetown require shaking.” Part of the problem was the quality of the petty officer instructors but the availability of suitable quarters was a contributing factor.

John Ings House, Dundas Esplanade. Headquarters of the Charlottetown Half Company RCNVR 1929-1935.

When founded, the half company was headquartered and trained in the Charlottetown armories on Kent street near West Kent School where they had use of a room and the drill hall. In 1929 the Department of Naval Defence leased the Navy League Building on Dundas Esplanade and converted it to company headquarters for the RCNVR, equipping the facility for both training and leisure activity. Drill nights were Mondays and Thursdays.  The building proved to be unsatisfactory after a number of years and in 1935 the Sims building on the corner of Kent and Hillsborough Streets was leased from the province and renovated for use of the RCNVR.  Originally built as a furniture factory the building had been used as a cold storage and pork packing plant and most recently been used as quarters for the male residents of Falconwood Hospital after that structure  was destroyed by fire in 1931. The renovations saw the third floor converted for caretaker’s quarters and the first two floors fitted for use of the naval reserve with club rooms provided for the Army and Navy Club which had been founded as an officers club in 1932. The RCNVR moved into the building in the summer of 1935.

George Buntain had been promoted to Lieutenant Commander in 1931 and served as commanding officer until 1935 when Lieutenant Commander John Joseph Connolly, who had been an officer in the half company for a number of years succeeded him.  He, in turn was succeeded by Lieutenant Commander Ken Birtwistle in 1940.

The status of the half company changed in 1941. Previous to that time it was not considered a formal “vessel” of the Royal Canadian Navy but with the commissioning of H.M.C.S. Queen Charlotte in that year a new chapter in the history of the unit opened. That story will be told in a future posting on this site.



The Spaniel that went to Sea – And the Captain that went to Court


Harry Brown’s Queen Hotel, home of the stowaway spaniel, ca. 1920.

In 1935 Harry C. Brown and his wife were proprietors of the Queen Hotel on Water Street which they had taken over after fire destroyed the nearby Victoria Hotel in 1929.  They had a little dog, a brown and white Springer Spaniel that apparently had the run of the hotel and of the neighbourhood. The dog was often seen on the busy wharves including the one where the steamer to Pictou, the Hochelaga, docked on the Charlottetown end of its regular daily passage across the strait.

On the 14th of August 1935, a few minutes before the ship sailed, the little dog walked aboard but was apparently not noticed until the ship was on its way to the mouth of the harbour. As no passenger claimed the dog, the Hochelaga’s captain, Ernest Wells, ordered that it be put overboard. The engines were stopped and the dog lowered over the stern into the water between the Blockhouse and the Range Lights. The dog swam around in a confused manner and was last seen striking out for shore about 250 yards to the west.

S.S. Hochelaga, Charlottetown to Pictou Steamer ca. 1935.

An American tourist wrote to the Guardian expressing concern about the incident. A Guardian report two days later is a splendid example of the quality of reportage of the period. The accurate report from the tourist became a sensationally garbled story with the animal being thrown from the stern of the moving vessel two miles off Pictou, barely missing the thrashing propeller.

The story was noticed by the SPCA and after a meeting between the Captain and the Society’s officers, an action was filed in the Stipendiary Magistrate’s Court by the Society’s agent. Captain  Wells could not resist responding to the Guardian news story with the justification that importation of dogs had been prohibited by the government. The previous year an Order in Council had, in fact, been passed for the purpose of controlling rabies which had earlier caused significant losses in the fox farming industry.  However Wells’ letter did little to gain support for his action.  “It would appear,” he wrote, “that the dog is not satisfied at home.”  He also dismissed the complaint from the visitor claiming that writer “did not care anything about the dog, only wanted to hear themselves talk.” He didn’t need to go to Detroit to hear people talk.

Wells’ letter to the editor became one of the pieces of evidence entered when the matter was heard at the end of August. The events themselves were not contested. Wells claimed that he put the dog over the stern so it could return home, as he believed if he took it all the way to Pictou it could not be returned to the Island.  “There was nothing that could happen to the dog. I could swim the distance myself.” he asserted.

It was about 2 weeks later that Magistrate K.M. Martin handed down his verdict. Wells was convicted of wantonly and unnecessarily ill-treating a dog and was fined ten dollars or ten days. Martin noted that placing an animal in a position of possible hazard, as well as the harm of straying through countryside or distress in the water certainly constituted wanton ill-treatment.  He dismissed the claim of necessity through the ban on importation of dogs as well as Wells’ belief that the dog had the ability to escape harm.

And what of the dog?  It apparently was little concerned by the incident as the following day the animal had taken a late afternoon ferry from Rocky Point back to Charlottetown and was re-united with its master.  It had, however developed a taste for ocean travel and in Wells trial it was noted that the Spaniel had, in the days following its swim in the channel, twice more unsuccessfully attempted to stow away on the Hochelaga.   One suspects that as a result of its adventure it may have been kept on a short leash thereafter.

The ban on the importation of dogs was lifted early the following year as it had prevented tourists with dogs from visiting the province.