Category Archives: Navy

“Guns over the side!” Aground at Cape Bear 1838

In the days before reliable charts were available grounding was an ever-present danger for vessels sailing in unfamiliar waters. Engaging local pilots who knew the area sometimes reduced the obvious dangers but was no guarantee of safety.  In many cases, especially off Prince Edward Island where the shoals were often sand and not rock, damage might not be immediate but in the case of strong tides and storm winds the situation could turn critical in a short period of time.

Taking the ground at low tide sometimes meant nothing more than keeping the ship from moving and then waiting until the water depth increased as the tide came in. Crew would be ordered to set out anchors to help haul the ship off and offloading cargo or simply sending it over the side helped lighten the ship. (Jettisoning heavy goods gave rise to jetsam, which sank, as opposed to flotsam which was material that floated.)

H.M.S. Malabar

However in the case of foul weather the situation could turn critical very quickly. Such was the case when the HMS Malabar struck Cape Bear Reef on Friday, 19 October 1838. The Malabar was not a new vessel. It had been built for the Royal Navy in Bombay Dockyard in India and was launched in 1818. The vessel was old, although not so old as to be obsolete, but she was very big by standards of the day. She was 1700 tons, 174 feet long, 47 feet wide and had a depth of hold of 20 feet.  The Malabar was one of eleven Repulse class vessels built between 1800 and 1819. Carrying between 500 and 700 crew  vessels of the class were the battle workhorses of the Royal Navy carrying 74 guns; 56 heavy guns on the two gun-decks and the lighter guns on the quarterdeck and forecastle.

The ship had been heading to Pictou where it had been ordered to join HMS Medea and other vessels bound for Quebec. It was nearly low water and the ship had two local pilots aboard and crew members were taking soundings in the bow. Northumberland Strait had not been thoroughly charted but Sailing Directions from 1840 warned that vessels “must avoid coming too near the east point [Cape Bear] from which a ridge of sunken rocks stretches off about a mile.”

Cape Bear. Detail of 1851 Chart of the eastern section of Northumberland Strait from surveys of Captain H.W. Bayfield. Soundings are in fathoms.

The Malabar was being pushed by the tide and the S.E wind had been increasing. Following the grounding and in a scramble to get the vessel off,  the ship’s crew were ordered to throw over her heavy guns from the main and lower decks as well as a considerable quantity of round shot to lighten the load. Kedge anchors were set and was probably in this process that one of the ships boats was lost and two of the crew drowned. The ship lost all of its false keel on the rocks and the rudder was unshipped to protect it from being damaged. Fortunately for the Malabar, Joseph Wightman of nearby Three Rivers stood by with his own ship and gave what ever assistance he could. Finally the ship was able to get off the rocks, leaving her anchors, hawsers and the guns and shot on the reef. With Wightman’s help they were able to get the Malabar to Three Rivers where in more sheltered waters temporary repairs could be made. Captain Pascoe, Captain Pascoe of the Royal Marines on the Malabar was dispatched in a four-oared cutter to bring news of the grounding to the fleet. Rowing for more than 20 miles, the cutter arrived in Pictou at 2 o’clock on Saturday morning with the news that in spite of the loss and damage the Malabar was leaking only three inches of water an hour which could be managed with the pumps. She intended to set out for Halifax dockyard for more permanent repairs. The rest of the fleet then left Pictou for Quebec. At Halifax the warship, although badly leaking, was deemed fit cross the Atlantic and was ordered to Plymouth to go into dry dock for repairs.

Joseph Wightman was recognized by the Lords Commissioners of the Admiralty for his efforts in saving the Malabar and was awarded £100 (about $3,000 today) but in addition, the captain and officers of the ship ordered a tea and coffee set in a case to be presented to Wightman with the inscription: ” Presented to Mr. Joseph Wightman, by Capt. E. Harvey and the Officers of H.M.S. Malabar, for the important service he rendered to that ship when in danger on the rocks, off Cape Bear, Prince Edward Island 19th October, 1838.

Ordinarily the story might have ended there with the ship repaired and sailing off into history. However there was the small matter of the guns and iron shot which had been jettisoned. Fortunately we have an account written by a visitor from Montreal who came to the Island three years later. After spending a few days on the Island the unidentified tourist was returning to Pictou on the steamer Pocahontas and added the following to his account which was later published in the Montreal Herald: 

I forgot to mention that we met in with an incident during our voyage from Georgetown to Pictou, which not only took away from the monotony; but added to its charm. This was our falling in with a schooner of Cape Bear, the Allandale, at anchor, for the purpose of getting up the cannon and shot thrown overboard by H.M.S. Malabar 74, in October 1838, when she ran ashore on a reef in 3 fathoms water. On that occasion 36 thirty-two pounders, weighing from 51 to 56 cwt each, and 100 tons shot were consigned to the deep and the actual spot having been discovered by diving for the purpose, the government offered half price for all which could be delivered to the ordnance department at Halifax. The guns are worth about £50 stg.; and the shot is worth £4 per ton even as old iron, so that the speculation will be a good one. On board the steamer was a gentleman with a diving bell, which was to be used for the purpose of enabling a person to fix ropes round the guns by which they might be hauled up, and to put the shot into iron buckets. Previous to our coming up to the schooner, one of the men on board of her had dived and had succeeded in securing two guns, which I saw in the hold of the vessel— they were very much rusted. I tried on a portion of the diving dress, which is very heavy on land, but is necessarily so to prevent the diver involuntarily coming to the surface of the water. I would have descended in it had the tide permitted but as it would not change for 2½ hours, I was obliged to forego the novel gratification. The diver told me that he could remain under water with the greatest ease from breakfast time till dinner time, and that although the soles of his shoes were of lead, and two inches thick, he could walk as light as with pumps in a ball room.

The salvage effort was being undertaken by James Fraser a druggist and entrepreneur of Pictou. The attempt was one of pioneer undertakings in underwater salvage on the Maritime coast. At the salvage prices quoted above recovery of the entire weight of jetsam could have yielded £2,200, a value of about $400,000 today.  While the number of guns and weight of iron recovered is not known  Fraser was unsatisfied with the proceeds awarded by the naval authorities.

The Malabar  was hulked in 1848 but remained as a naval vessel until sold in 1905.

If there are still cannon and shot from the Malabar still waiting to be salvaged after more than 180 years beneath the sea they are well hidden by the rocks of Cape Bear reef.

Party like its 1839! The visit of HMS Medea

It is difficult today to understand the social life of Charlottetown in the 1830s. As a small closed society cut off from the mainland for upwards of five months per year there was a hunger for diversion. The small British army garrison with officer-gentlemen and a tiny cadre of colonial officials formed the core of society. The establishment of the Hydrographic Survey in Charlottetown did not occur until 1841 and so in the 1830s the only Royal Navy presence were the occasional visits of warships on patrols of the Gulf waters.  Such a visit took place in September of 1839 and the presence of officers and crew of 135 men was a welcome addition to the social activity of the port.  Many of the crew were no doubt allowed shore leave  enlivening the grog houses and other places of entertainment of the town. However for the officers of the ship and the elite of the community the main event took place, not on the shore, but aboard HMS Medea.

Although Charlottetown had had steamer service since 1833 when the Pocahontas began to shuttle back and forth to Pictou, the Medea was a rarity, being one of the earliest steam vessels in the Royal Navy fleet. The first Royal Navy steamship was HMS Dee, commissioned in 1832 and the following year HMS Medea was launched from Woolwich Dockyard.

Model of the HMS Medea, built 1833

The Medea was 179 feet long and had a 32 foot beam. she was powered by a side-level steam engine driving paddles on the sides of the ship.  Armed relatively lightly with two 10-inch pivot guns and two 32 pound carronades she, like many of the early steamships, performed a variety of duties including towing of larger warships and cruising and keeping a Royal Naval presence throughout the world. She spent a few years in the Mediterranean Sea and in 1838 was attached for duties in North America and the West Indies. Operating primarily out of Halifax she cruised in Maritime waters until November of 1839.  Her first visit to Charlottetown was in September 1838 when she stopped to pick up P.E.I. delegates for a meeting with Lord Durham, then investigating the governance of the North America colonies.

Her visit to Charlottetown a year later appears to have been another matter entirely. Ignoring a description of the technology or armaments or the appearance of the crew a surviving account of her visit instead noted the significant social component of the visit with its grand ball and supper which took place aboard the ship.  An account of the event was written for the P.E.I. Gazette and was reprinted in the Halifax Colonial Pearl newspaper of 20 September 1839.

On arriving at the side of this beautiful Steamer, you were ushered into a covered stair-case, formed by polished pikes, supporting snowy-white canvass, which you ascended and entered a spacious saloon. The ladies were conducted to Capt. Nott’s elegant cabin, to throw off their wrappings, and walk forth resplendent with that beauty and loveliness natural to the daughters of Prince Edward Island.

The qaudrilles, the waltz, the gallopade, each had their sway by their respective votaries. At eleven o’clock a scene of canvas was raised, and what delicacies there were displayed!  A most spacious table with a hollow centre, was set out with all the delicacies which were procured from every quarter of the globe. The whole quarter deck from the stern to the funnel was covered with a lofty awning, composed of canvas and covered with different coloured flags. Along the centre of the roof were chandeliers of every possible shape, composed of bayonets, swords and cutlasses, and around the sides lamps and scouces of fanciful shapes were suspended, all of which gave brilliancy to the splendid scene. In the middle of the deck large ottomans and couches were formed over the skylights and hatches of the ship. After several toasts were drank the table was deserted by its votaries, and we could then more particularly observe its elegant appearance. It was a hollow square, at one end of which was raised a most superb chandelier, formed of broad swords, bunting and evergreens surmounted by a crown composed entirely of most beautiful flowers. At each corner of the table was suspended an ensign, on a boarding pike. Dancing was again resumed and continued until daylight.

Before the end of the year the Medea left the maritime waters but her presence in the area is remembered through her grounding on a rocky outcrop on the eastern approach to Shediac Harbour on 17 September 1838. She was floated off without injury the following day but her brief and unwelcome visit is commemorated through Medea Rock in Shediac Bay which is frequently used some 180 years later as a race mark for local yacht races.

H.M. Steamer Medea in action at MIr’s Bay where 13 junks were captured or destroyed. London Illustrated News.

HMS Medea was later posted to the far east where in 1849 she gained fame by engaging in a battle with a Chinese pirate fleet capturing or destroying 13 of the large junks.  The ship remained on the Navy List until 1867.

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.