Category Archives: Navy

The Brigantine and the Submarine: How a P.E.I.-built sailing ship became part of a secret Royal Navy anti-submarine fleet.

When Robert Longworth’s new vessel was launched from a Grand River shipyard on Prince Edward Island in June 1865 no one could have imagined that more than half a century later she would play an important role in the Great War.

HMS Probus (ex-Tirza) under sail, circa 1917. Detail from W.L. Wyllie graphite wash. Royal Museums Greenwich Object PAE0058

Longworth, a Charlottetown shipbuilder and broker, named the new vessel the Thirza, a Hebrew name from the bible which could be translated as “she is my delight.” A small ship, she was only 104 feet long and 23 feet in breadth and displacing under 200 tons.  She was a rather plain vessel although with a figurehead featuring a female bust. The vessel was rigged as a brigantine: she had two masts — the foremast rigged with square sails and carrying a fore and aft rig on the mizzen.  This was a common rig for Island built vessels at the time as it required a smaller crew and was more maneuverable than either a schooner or a fully-rigged ship. Longworth clearly built the ship for sale in Great Britain and before she left the Island to sail across the Atlantic in August 1865  (probably with a cargo of timber) he empowered the Pitcairn mercantile firm in London to sell her for anything over £1,800.  A little more than a year later she was purchased by a number of men in Faversham, a market town in Kent, on the Thames Estuary downstream from London.

Thirza in an unidentified British port circa 1890.

The Thirza appears to have had an unremarkable history as a coastal vessel serving ports all around England for the next fifty years, carrying cargos to and from small harbours; coal, timber, bricks – anything that that was easier and cheaper to move by water rather than by rail. Her age was remarkable at a time when small sailing vessels were easily used up and was a testament to the skills of her P.E.I. builders and by the maintenance by her Faversham owners. Although remarkable the Thirza was not unique. In fact the Sela, another brigantine, which was built on the Island in 1859 was not broken up until 1976 after a service of 117 years.

HMS Probus . Detail from W.L. Wyllie graphite wash. Royal Museums Greenwich Object PAE0058

The Thirza’s life as a coastal trader changed following the outbreak of the Great War in 1914.  England was dependent on the continued sea borne commerce to supply her people and her war effort. The Germans were dedicated to disrupting the commerce and forcing Great Britain to its knees. Most histories of the was at sea focus on the destruction of large cargo and passenger steamers but the German Navy knew that fishing and coastal vessels were also essential to keep the British population fed and industries in full war production.

The great German weapon of the war was the submarine with its torpedoes and its ability to surprise its targets. However the submarines could carry relatively few torpedoes and they were expensive so captains held them back and whenever possible sank their victims with surface gunnery, especially when the vessels were smaller and slower ships incapable of fighting back.

One of the tools the British developed was to create disguised armed merchantmen which had the appearance of helpless vessels but which were in reality ships capable of sinking a submarine on the surface. These were known as “Q ships” named for Queenstown in Ireland where they were first put into action.

Sketch of the barkentine HMS Probus (Thirza). Note the Royal Navy White Ensign flown from the mizzenmast.  Charcoal drawing by Walter Rowley Murphy. Canadian War Museum Object # 20160592-001

The Q ship was an ordinary steamer or sailing vessel that had hidden armament. They were in effect decoy vessels set to attract U-boats. They out-gunned the deck guns of the submarines. The Q ships had elaborate disguises to conceal the weapons including false deckhouses and lifeboats behind which hid powerful guns. The crews wore civilian clothing and acted as merchant sailors when stopped by U-boats, even faking abandoned ship drills when threatened.

Sketch of 6-pounder gun on HMS Probus. Detail from W.L. Wyllie graphite wash. Royal Museums Greenwich Object PAE0058

In August 1915 the Thirza was purchased by the British Admiralty and became the HMS Probus. With a volunteer Royal Navy crew she served as a decoy vessel armed with two 12 pound guns and two 6 pound guns. To confuse the enemy she operated under several names including the Thirza, Elixer, Ready and Q-30.   June of 1917 found the Probus as part of a convoy of 12 sailing ships lead by one armed trawler. A sailing convoy requires a lot of sea room to prevent collisions  and the first 12 ships were spread across three miles while the Probus lagged 4 miles behind looking like a straggler.  The ruse attracted a German submarine intent on an easy kill. The U-boat was itself disguised as a ketch with a fake mast and sails and the Probus was soon under fire. Then dropping the pretense of a merchant ship the White Ensign was run up and the disguise for the guns removed and the Probus returned fire, hitting the submarine several times. The U-boat subsequently submerged. However the blow was not final and after about fifteen minutes it resurfaced and again approached the Probus. By this time the armed trawler from the convoy had turned and was approaching the area forcing the sub to flee. This was fortunate for the Probus as the wind had dropped making it almost impossible to work the vessel to windward and making her a sitting duck.  To add to her problems the propeller of her low powered auxiliary engine had become fouled in her log line and was effectively out of action. Although the U-boat escaped, the Probus had succeeded in luring it away from the convoy. The slow-moving sailing Q-ships were an effective escort for sailing convoys and allowed armed steam vessels to be employed elsewhere. In addition, the vessels carried freight as would a normal ship and paid for themselves over and over. It was not unusual for the Probus to earn more £1000 a month.

During the course of the war the British used upwards of 200 Q-ships, the vast majority of which were steamers, some of which were actually small warships such as Flower class sloops disguised as steamships. About 37 were sailing vessels.  The ships sank a total of 14 U-boats and damaged 60, but 27 Q-ships were lost in the war.

The exchange between the brigantine and the submarine was captured in a sketch and later an engraving by marine artist William Lionel Wyllie who also made other sketches of the vessel.

“Probus and the U-boat” graphite wash by William Lionel Wyllie 1917. Collection of Royal Museums Greenwich, Object # PAE 3149

After the war the Probus was returned to commercial service and her original name. She disappears from the registers in 1920 and was probably broken up.

Sources:  One of the most accessible histories of the Q-Ships and their successes was published in 1922. Q-Ships and Their Story was written by E. Kebler Chatterton  and was until recently out-of-print and has recently been re-published but thanks to the miracle of the internet is available on-line on the internet at:  Q-ships and their story : Chatterton, E. Keble (Edward Keble), 1878-1944 : Free Download, Borrow, and Streaming : Internet Archive. Details of the encounter with the U-boat are found at pages 186-189 of the volume.  For information about the British coastal sailing fleet (including several P.E.I. – built vessels) see Basil Greenhill. The Merchant Schooners. Naval Institute Press 1988.

Causing “a good deal of mischief” – An American privateer in the North Atlantic

U.S. privateer Warrior capturing British merchant ship Hope. Detail of a painting by Thomas Birch. Smithsonian Institution I.D. #2005.0279.021

In a recent posting I noted the story of a French privateer which had captured a vessel from P.E.I. and the details suggested a measure of “fair play” in the conduct of the French commander. That was not always the case and when the Americans joined the fray the actions became more heated.  During the three years of the war the American privateers may have captured as many as 2000 British vessels, almost ten times the number captured by the U.S. Navy! The privateers sank or stole one in every fifteen merchant vessels in the British merchant marine.

The targets were not just heavily laden vessels with valuable cargos. At the time of the timber boom  many ships came out to Prince Edward Island and other timber ports carrying emigrants to the new land but more often they were in ballast – empty ships hoping to come back with valuable masts, deals, square timber and lathwood crammed into their holds and on deck. One such vessel was the ship Royal Bounty which came out from the Scots port of Leith in the summer of 1812. The ship had spent much of its life as a whaling ship exploiting the rich Davis Strait off the west coast of Greenland although in 1811 it had carried at least one cargo of timber from Quebec to Leith. Whaling ships were stoutly built and had a larger carrying capacity than ordinary merchant vessels. Earlier in that year it had been advertised for sale after some repairs and the sale notice stated “The ship stows an uncommonly large cargo for her tonnage, and would suit well for a Greenlandman, or Mast Ship.”

Caledonian Mercury 26 January 1811 p.1

She was so well suited as a “Mast Ship” that at the beginning of August 1812 she found herself just off the south coast of Newfoundland heading for Prince Edward Island to be loaded with timber.  She never arrived. Instead, she became one of the first vessels captured by privateers in a war which had broken out after her departure and of which the captain and crew were unaware.


St. John’s Aug 13

On Monday evening last arrived here, Capt. Henry Gamble, with part of his crew and passengers, belonging to the the Royal Bounty of Leith. This vessel on her voyage from Hull to Prince Edward’s Island, in ballast, was attacked on the 1st instant, four or five leagues to the southward of St. Peters,[most likely the island of St. Pierre, off the Burin Peninsula]  by the Yankee, brigantine privateer, of 18 guns and 120 men.

Captain Gamble, being unapprised of the war, was in some degree unprepared fo the attack of the Americans, who chased him under English colours, but, on coming near, hoisted the American flag, and commenced the engagement.

The Royal Bounty had 10 guns, 18 men, and four passengers — one a female. Captain G. sustained the unequal conflict for an hour and a quarter, when having the boy that was on the helm killed, himself wounded, together with his second mate, boatswain, and cook, the colours were struck; several shots were fired afterwards, one of which wounded the chief mate. The Americans then took possession, and ordered all the people on board the privateer, where the wounded received surgical assistance, but the others were treated very harshly, having their clothes, some of which they wore, taken from them.

Two Americans were badly wounded, and it is supposed some were killed, but this was not acknowledged. The American master was quite enraged at the resistance he had met with from Captain Gamble, whose conduct on this occasion, as well as his gallant associates, deserves the approbation of every brave man.

The privateer, shortly after, boarded the Thetis, of Poole, Captain Pack from Sydney, with coals, which was set fire to, as well as the Royal Bounty. The crew of the former escaped. At 11 at night, Captain Gamble, with his crew were set adrift in the boat. They reached the land of Placentia Bay the next morning — after receiving the most hospitable treatment at Lamallin,  [Lamaline is at the southern tip of Newfoundland’s  Burin Peninsula] they were conveyed from thence to Burin …..

The privateer, we are led to believe, has done a good deal of mischief on the south-west coast, but we hope Captain Cooksesley of the Hazard, who must have been near that part of the coast, will put a stop to his career.

Caledonian Mercury 19 September 1812 p.3

In spite of the hopes of the newspaper His Majesty’s sloop-of-war, HMS Hazard which was indeed on the Newfoundland station in 1812 never did encounter the Yankee as the warship had been sent back to England before the Royal Bounty left Leith. The Royal Bounty had been particularly unlucky. The Yankee was to go on to be the most successful American privateer of the short war, sinking or capturing more than five million dollars of British property and pumping more than a million dollars of profit into the economy of her home port of Bristol Rhode Island. Details of her six cruises with more than twenty prize vessels to her credit can be found in an American Antiquarian Society article published in 1913 and found here. The article provides interesting details of the articles of agreement between the owners and crew including the split of the profits and a kind of insurance so that anyone who lost an eye or a joint would get fifty dollars, for loss of a leg or arm the payment would be three hundred dollars – but only if the voyage was profitable!

To the Yankee the Royal Bounty was of little value. Instead of a rich cargo its hold was empty and the dispatch of crew to sail it back to Bristol would weaken the fighting strength of the privateer. Even getting the Royal Bounty back to an American port was a problem as it was not uncommon for prizes to be re-captured and in some cases re-re-captured. Small wonder then that the ship was burnt and the crew put over the side in a crowded ship’s boat to find their way to the barren coast of Newfoundland in the dark.

The 1892 visit of H.M.S. Blake – more social than strategic

The occasions of pomp and circumstance on Prince Edward Island were much reduced when it became a mere province rather than a colony in 1873. For the Island the change from colony to province may have seemed like a demotion and placed it at one further remove from the royal presence. Never the less the Island continued to be a proud member of the British Empire under Victoria and took every opportunity to celebrate the fact.

First Class Cruiser H.M.S. Blake, flagship of the Norther American Squadron

This was never more true than when the Royal Navy paid a call. Although the summer headquarters of the American and West Indies fleet had been removed from Halifax to Bermuda by 1890 the naval presence and HM Dockyard in Halifax Nova Scotia meant that visits in the region continued.

Second Class Cruiser H.M.S. Magicienne

One of the most significant of these Charlottetown courtesy calls was the visit of the 1st class cruiser H.M.S. Blake in August 1892.   The Blake was the flagship of the North American Squadron under the command of Admiral Sir J.O. Hopkins. Although the vessel had been launched in 1889 her attachment to the North American Squadron was her first commission. The Blake was a new class of cruiser at a time when technological advances forced many and rapid design changes. She was a protected cruiser which was designed with armour plating to protect the engines, boilers, and magazines from the damage from shells exploding in the upper parts of the ship. The Royal Navy at the time was the largest, most powerful and most modern fleet in the world and the Blake was the most recent design.  She was a 9000 ton vessel, 375 feet in length by 65 feet in width and had an impressive inventory of firepower as well as four torpedo launching tubes.  Her service complement was 575 officers and crew. The Blake was accompanied on her visit to Charlottetown by HMS Magicienne, a second class cruiser launched only a year earlier. She was considerably smaller at 263 feet and 3000 tons and carried 222 sailors and officers.

With almost 800 visitors on the two ships, and officers of the highest rank it is not surprising that Charlottetown pulled out all of the stops in their efforts to capitalize on the naval visit.  Besides being a show of naval force the Royal Navy took advantage of the occasion to participate in a wide range of cultural and recreational activities which truly flattered Charlottetown as a full member of an Empire on which the sun never set.

3218.96 HMS Blake2

HMS Blake in Charlottetown Harbour 1894. Photo by H.B. Sterling. Collection PARO.

Arriving on a Tuesday, the first evening in port the Blake entertained the populace by illuminating the town and harbour with its powerful search lights. That afternoon the vessels had been officially welcomed by a delegation including Aide de Camp and Private Secretary of the Lieutenant Governor, the Chief Justice and the Master of the Rolls, and His Worship Mayor Haviland, who had the misfortune to fall into the water on his way out to the warship.   The following day the ship and shore activities began in earnest. The band of the HMS Blake was scheduled to play in Victoria Park and the Officers challenged the members of the Victoria Park Cricket Club to a match on the park’s cricket pitch.   That evening Officers were entertained at a ball at Brighton Villa, the residence of Chief Justice W.W. Sullivan and Mrs. Sullivan. The dancing did not conclude until the small hours of the following morning.

On Thursday a team from the crews of the Blake and Magicienne participated in the Caledonia Club’s annual highland games where to the delight of the crowd they were handily trounced in the tug of war event by a team of local Islanders of Scots descent.  A planned tennis match with Officers versus the city’s gentlemen was postponed owning to inclement weather. That evening the Officers were entertained at Riverside, the home of Mrs. Louis H. Davies. Again, the dancing continued until after midnight. Other ranks and townsfolk celebrated at the Masonic Concert held at the Philharmonic Hall – “A night with the Jolly Tars” – where they were entertained by songs, dancing, and recitations by a cast which included seamen, stewards and boatmen from the naval vessels.

The tennis match at Victoria Park the next day saw the naval officers roundly defeating the members of the local club who according to the Daily Examiner “appeared to be having an “off-day” – perhaps caused by keeping late hours.”

The Magicienne had left the harbour on the 11th and so the crew missed the biggest event of the week on Friday when a “hop”* was held on the flagship. In the afternoon the guests from the town were ferried out to the ship on cutters and steam launches. Once aboard they were greeted by the Admiral on the Quarter Deck over which a large awing had been erected. Music was provided by the ship’s band and a light luncheon was served. Visitors had the opportunity to tour the vessel and a couple of extra dances beyond the schedule were squeezed in before the visitors were transported back to shore at about seven o’clock.

In addition to the formal sporting and recreational activities Charlottetown would have welcomed parties of ratings on shore leave who would have taken advantage of all of the entertainments, both licit and illicit which the town was capable of offering.

On the 13th yet another dance was held for the Officers at Government House.  After the prolonged engagement with the patriotic citizens of Charlottetown who obviously felt it their bounden patriotic duty as good Victorians to keep both officers and crew entertained, if not exhausted, it may have been a relief for those on the Blake to put away their dancing shoes and head for the next outpost of the Empire.

The Blake had a relatively short history. She returned to Prince Edward Island in 1893 and 1894 for additional visits. In 1895 she was transferred to the Channel Fleet. By 1900 she was technologically behind the times and was used as a temporary transport. She was later converted to a depot ship for a destroyer flotilla and served in the Great War in that capacity. She was scrapped in 1922.

* I thought that the word “hop” to describe a casual dance was a modern term…think soda shops and sock hops…. but it goes back to the late 1700s. Who knew?