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.
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.
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.
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.