Category Archives: History

The First Canadian Naval Visit to Charlottetown

On 11 June 1911 Charlottetown welcomed a type of vessel that had never visited the port before.  In the years before the Great War the city was certainly familiar with the periodic visits from vessels of the leading naval powers. Ships from France, Germany and the United Kingdom had all been in the harbour but the 1911 visit was different.

H.M.C.S. Niobe as she appeared around the time of her transfer to the Canadian Naval Service in 1911.

It was the first visit to Charlottetown of a ship from Canada’s Naval Service. The force had been created only one year earlier and was not to become the Royal Canadian Navy until it received Royal sanction in August 1911. The decision to create a separate navy rather than simply contributing to the cost of the Royal Navy was a controversial one and was one of the many small steps to establishing Canadian sovereignty. The Navy League of Canada had been much involved in the discussions leading to the decision of SIr Wilfrid Laurier’s Liberal government to introduce the Naval Service Bill in the Canadian Parliament.

The infant navy was hardly distinguishable from the Royal Navy most of its officers and men had seen British naval experience and the ranks, uniforms and traditions were those of the Senior Service.  Even the vessels were British.

The first two ships were cast-offs from the Royal Navy which was constantly building larger, more powerful and faster ships as it was in an arms race with Germany. H.M.S Rainbow and H.M.S. Niobe became H.M.C.S. Rainbow and H.M.C.S. Niobe. The Rainbow  was destined for the West Coast while the Niobe came to Halifax as the first ship in Canada’s Atlantic Navy.

Idealized view of HMS Niobe from a Raphael Tuck & Sons postcard ca. 1908.

The Niobe had been built by Vickers in England in 1897 and commissioned a year later as one of a number of Diadem class of protected cruisers.  The 11,000 ton warship was over 460 feet long and 69 feet wide. With a four-cylinder triple-expansion engine she could generate over 16,000 horsepower  Her top speed when launched was 20 knots. The vessel mounted a total of sixteen 6-inch guns, four on the upper decks and six on each side of the ship.  She carried a crew of 760 men. The Niobe saw service in the Boer War as an escort vessel and was refitted in 1908. The Canadian government had requested destroyers with which to start their navy but the cruiser was what was available at the time.

Victoria Park001

Although distant from the camera and not identified on the card this is almost certainly the Niobe as seen from Victoria Park in 1911. R.F. Maddigan postcard. 

On her Sunday arrival in Charlottetown which followed a visit to Quebec the Niobe anchored off Rocky Point, offering, as the Guardian stated  “a good but distant view” of the “trim dog of war”. Unlike other naval visits this was very much a working voyage.  She was not initially open to visitors and the usual ceremonial aspects of her time in Charlottetown were postponed.  Early on Monday morning the men of the Niobe began the dirty work of transferring and trimming 1,000 tons of coal from the collier S.S. Morien  to the cruiser. Buntain, Bell & Co. of Charlottetown had won the contract for supplying the ship with coal.  Following a day of washing up the Niobe left Charlottetown for a planned two or three days of gun practise in Northumberland Strait and in the Gulf.  The ship returned to Charlottetown late on Friday and anchored off the Marine Wharf.  Saturday afternoon saw a close competition at the rifle range between the visitors and a Charlottetown team won by the sailors. Visitors to the ship were received on Sunday and she sailed for gun practise again on Monday, Returning to Charlottetown later in the week she finally left Island waters after spending another weekend in the harbour.  It was her first and only call at Charlottetown.

Niobe as a depot ship in Halifax ca. 1916. Note the permanent additions to the superstructure and the reduction in the number of funnel;. This was clearly not a sea-going ship.

Niobe’s later experiences in Canadian waters were not happy ones. At the end of July 1911 she ran up on a reef near Cape Sable Nova Scotia and was very nearly lost.  She spent the next six months in dry-dock in Halifax and was then laid up, effectively rotting at her berth when her crew were transferred to the Rainbow in the Pacific naval base at Esquimalt in 1913. On the outbreak of war in 1914 she was ordered back into service. After being engaged in escort voyages she returned to Halifax where she was found to be  in serious disrepair. She was paid off in September 1915 and never put to sea again,  becoming a stationary depot ship. She was damaged in the Halifax explosion. In 1920 the Niobe was sold for scrap and was dismantled in Philadelphia two years later.

This was not the last time that the Canadian navy consisted of only two ships.  For a later chapter of the story click here.

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The Navy League and the Boys Naval Brigade

In September 1919 one of the finest houses on the Charlottetown waterfront took on a new role. The Colonel A.E. Ings house on Dundas Esplanade, facing west with a splendid view of the harbour and Victoria Park, was renovated as a Sailors Institute.  It was to be the home of the P.E.I. branch of the Navy League of Canada.

Early flag used by the Navy League of Canada

The Navy League’s existence in the province was somewhat of an on again – off again schedule. The organization had been around since 1895 as a Canadian organization involved in naval policy and supporting the Royal Navy while also promoting a separate Canadian navy. In the years before the Great War success was achieved with the creation of the Canadian Navy in 1910.  On Prince Edward Island Frederick Hyndman, who had had Royal Navy Service was an early advocate for the League but it failed to gain much success in the province.

Immediately following the War the contribution of the Navy League continued and the national group was incorporated in 1918. P.E. I. was represented at the first general meeting a year later by Chief Justice John Mathieson who spearheaded the development of support on P.E.I.   A major fund-raising campaign across the country had brought in $1.7 million ($2,495 from P.E.I.) and the province was allocated $25,000 to set up a Sailors Institute.  The sum would be the equivalent of almost $400,000 today.  It enabled the group to purchase and renovate the landmark property, hire staff and still have $10,000 for an endowment to handle future maintenance.

The spacious rooms of the house lost their domestic appearance. On the ground floor there was an office for the organization and  a large class room. At the rear was a suite with reading room, lounge, games room, and facilities for visiting sailors and a separate caretaker’s apartment. Upstairs was a room for the Boy’s Brigade, storage, Board room and a large room (reported as the best room in the house)  for the use of the Imperial Order of the Daughters of the Empire.

The Boy’s Naval Brigade was a cadet organization. Before the Great War there was an informal naval training program for youth and there may have been some short-lived activity in Charlottetown in this regard. In 1918 the Boy’s Naval Brigade was officially established as one of the activities of the Navy League.  When the Ings house became the Sailor’s Institute a Charlottetown branch of the Boys’ Naval Brigade was formed and by mid-September thirty boys were receiving drill and instruction from Lieut. William Gordon who has served in the Royal Navy.

A new instructor, Petty Officer A. Clements, with 10 year’s experience in both the Royal Navy and the Royal Canadian Navy, was in place by May of the following year.  He was succeeded the next year by Lt. Commander W.G. Lewin who was hired to run the Navigation School established by the Navy League. Training for the boys consisted of one afternoon and one evening of each week with instruction in signalling, including Morse code, boat work, knots and splices, sea terms, compass work and drill. Walter Hyndman also provided training in wireless telegraphy. It was stressed that these skills were not just naval preparation but were useful for any work at sea.

By the following year month uniforms and rifles had arrived and the Brigade “attired in their natty looking British jackies uniforms and  carrying rifles” were part of the opening ceremonies of the Provincial Exhibition in September 1920.

One report states that the Charlottetown Brigade was the first to be organized and had sixty members but enthusiasm, both for the youth training and the league in general,  flagged after the departure of Commander Lewin for Australia.

An attempt was made to revitalize the League in 1923 under the leadership of John Orlebar Hyndman, an insurance executive. In the same year the name of the Boys Naval Brigade across the country was changed to the Sea Cadets and the Navy League in Charlottetown announced that it hoped to establish a Corps in the City.  However that was still but a hope in 1927 when it was noted that P.E.I. was the only province without a Sea Cadet Corps.

John Ings House, Dundas Esplanade – Charlottetown Navy League Building. The house faced west across the harbour and stood immediately in front of the present Haviland Club.

The Navy League itself was not thriving. The Ings property had been further renovated to provide for rentals for social functions but in 1929 the building was leased to the Naval Department for use as the P.E.I. headquarters for the Royal Canadian Naval Volunteer Reserve (RCNVR). The League continued to have an office in the building.

The Charlottetown Sea Cadet Corps would have to wait until 1942 to be created. Its story will be the subject of a forthcoming blog.