Category Archives: Navy

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.

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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.