Category Archives: Navy

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.

 

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HMCS Niobe and Coronation Day in Charlottetown 1911

HMCS Niobe illuminated for Coronation Day 1911. Photo courtesy of Greg Gallant.

In my recent posting on the first official Canadian naval visit to Charlottetown I noted that HMCS Niobe was in the harbour for Coronation Day 1911. When I wrote that post I was surprised that there seemed to be no photos of the ship while in Charlottetown harbour as it was a major event in the harbour history.

Joseph Edward McInnis. First PEI recruit to join the crew of the Niobe. Photo courtesy of Greg Gallant.

Several readers have responded to fill the void. Greg Gallant, a collector of PEI militaria, generously loaned me two albums of material on the Niobe. He had a relative who was a member of the Niobe’s crew and who went on to other naval involvement. Greg has identified a number of other Islanders who were on the ship including the lad pictured at the right.  Joseph Edward McInnis of Charlottetown was first of a number of Islanders to be taken onto the crew which numbered some 700 men.  The Charlottetown Guardian noted that on the first few days the new-to-Canada warship was in port, only those with Island connections were given leave to disembark from the vessel and visit the City.  After completing their training exercises with the ship’s guns later in the visit the officers allowed a more general exodus and the streets of the city were filled with Bluejackets. As well, Greg’s albums also contained the rare night photograph seen at the head of this posting of the warship outlined in electric lights as it lay in the harbour.

In an amazing coincidence a few days after posting the Niobe article I also heard from a fellow post card collector, Phil Culhane of Ottawa, who forwarded an image of a card he had recently acquired. The card carried the imprint of R.F. Maddigan, a merchant of Charlottetown who was responsible for a large number of postcards during the period.

HMCS Niobe firing Royal Salute, Charlottetown Harbour, Coronation Day 1911. Postcard image courtesy of Phil Culhane.

In its coverage of the Niobe’s visit the Guardian noted with satisfaction that although there had been requests that the ship remain in Quebec City for the celebration of Coronation Day it had been decided that Charlottetown would have the honour of hosting the vessel for the important event .

Crew of the HMCS Niobe in the Coronation Day parade, Victoria Park Roadway, Charlottetown. Photo courtesy of Greg Gallant

Coronation Day was celebrated on June 22 1911 and marked the crowning of George V and Mary of Teck as King and Queen of the United Kingdom and the British Empire. It was widely celebrated as a public holiday in British possessions and Dominions around the world.  In Charlottetown there were special church services, salutes, and a parade.  The ship’s company of the Niobe along with the ship’s band accompanied local military and civilian organizations and marched through the city to Victoria Park.  The Guardian had warned the residents of the capital that the ship’s band was really more of a ship’s orchestra as it contained string instruments but the photo clearly shows that they were capable of providing marching music.  It is not clear if the piper was part of the ship’s company or was loaned for the occasion.

Band of HMCS Niobe. Coronation Day Parade. Photo courtesy of Greg Gallant.