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.



“A voyage most disasterous” – The loss of the sailing ship Alfred

A court case on the extent of liability in an insurance claim which was heard in the Court of King’s Bench in London is one of the last places one might expect to learn of the human details of what was termed “a voyage most disastrous.” However the reporting in the London Chronicle in August 1811 allowed a brief glimpse of the perils of the sea.  In an earlier posting I reflected on the danger for vessels of being frozen into P.E.I. harbours by leaving sailing too late in the season. However besides the economic loss there could be a very real danger as recounted in the sparse details in the case of Welsford v. Tunno.

Court of King’s Bench, Westminster Hall in 1808

Samuel Welsford was an English merchant, probably from Bristol,  who was active in the timber and shipping trades in Prince Edward Island in the early 1800s. He was later a partner with shipbuilder Lemuel Cambridge in several shipbuilding and ship-owning activities. John Tunno was an insurer and a member of the Lloyd’s organization who had sold insurance on a ship owned by Welsford.

As the tale unfolded through court testimony  the ship Alfred left England in April 1809 for Prince Edward’s Island to take on cargo, almost certainly timber which was a boom export in the early 1800s. The vessel had been here before and the owners thought with an expected departure from the Island in June or July she might even be able to make two round trips before the ice closed in.  That was not to be. By the time she arrived in the colony several of the crew had become indebted to the captain and deserted the ship. The owner’s brother, who was resident on the Island, tried to replace them but the timber boom had created a labour shortage.  He secured a crew on Cape Breton but they too, deserted. Others were brought from Newfoundland but the boat on which they were travelling was upset and four men drowned.  He then went to Halifax and managed to attract additional men but some of them also deserted. The search for willing crew took months but on the 18th of January 1810 the vessel finally departed the Island.

On the homeward journey at last the vessel carried a pilot, 12 men and an unspecified number of ships boys.  Slipping out of the harbour under a favourable breeze and “with every prospect of a prosperous voyage”, it seemed that the ship had managed to avoid the ice which threatened to close navigation. However, on the first night the wind shifted bringing a gale with snow and intense frost which combined to “render it impossible to guard the ship against the islands of ice which the winds drove from the shore and which rendered it hardly possible for the crew to keep the ship above water.” The pumps froze and could not be worked so the inflow could not be stemmed.  All aboard took to the ship’s boat and eventually made it to shore, totally exhausted and having lost all their belongings. Frostbite took its toll; the court report noting “the captain being in such a condition that his fingers and toes had completely rotted off.” It does not seem that any of the crew lost their lives but by the time of the court hearing in August 1811 they were scattered across the world, working on other ships and the sole eye-witness produced for the court was James Pilchard, a man who had lost a leg in the service of his country, and was engaged on the Alfred as a cook.  The one-legged man spoke to the jury of the dedication of the other crew members in ensuring his safety to their own peril. He had broken his wooden leg while struggling to abandon ship and “such was the humanity and feeling of his honest-hearted companions, in this his calamitous situation, though their own distress was so excessive that two of the most hale among them carried him along…” It was reported that the insurance underwriters had been advised of these circumstances “but they were too cold calculators to be moved by them.”

These details were, of course, superfluous to the court case which was about the insurance for the ship and cargo. Tunno, the insurer, had denied coverage arguing that in delaying departure the captain had placed the vessel in a situation that no ordinary man would consider safe. By delaying the sailing while searching for a crew the ship had been effectively rendered unseaworthy.  Pilchard’s evidence however was that inspite of the late departure they had every prospect of a successful voyage when they left the Island. Had the favourable wind lasted for a day longer they would have been completely clear of the ice danger. He stated that had there been any danger they would not have gone to lose their lives.

The insurers tried to introduce evidence of the dangers of late departure but their witnesses had no experience of Prince Edward Island waters, conceding that the situation in Quebec and Newfoundland might be very different from the Gulf and Northumberland Strait.  Lord Ellenborough reviewed the law and concluded that in order for the insurer to succeed in refusing payment he would have evidence “so strong and cogent as to show it to be madness on the part of the Captain to set out.” It appeared to him that this was not the case as regards the voyage of the Alfred.

The jury, following direction from the judge found that Welsford was entitled to the insurance proceeds and was awarded £250. These funds were for the ship and cargo and unless the owner was moved by the testimony at the court hearing it is unlikely that any of the proceeds were paid to the crew or captain for their losses or suffering . Such was the perilous nature of the employment of seamen in 1811.