Tag Archives: Charlottetown Harbour

Mrs. Brassey is not amused by Charlottetown

In spite of a few scurrilous comments from muckraking journalists it is often difficult to get a sense of what 19th century visitors to Charlottetown really thought of the place. By and large the published reports were polite. After all, they would appear in newspapers or books which the population might read.  Exceptions can be found in private accounts such as diaries and personal letters not intended for publication. Another outlet for the uncensored remarks was in private publications not intended for any but a select few of family and friends. Such is the case for an illustrated volume which was privately printed in 1872 by Anna Brassey.

Brassey was the wife of Thomas Brassey whose family had made its fortune in railway construction in England which enabled the family to live a comfortable life of leisure. Although Thomas served as a member of parliament he was also an avid yachtsman and traveller. Anna documented their voyages in a series of volumes, several of which became best-sellers. The best known of these was the A Voyage in the Sunbeam (1878) which described the round the world tour of their private yacht.   An earlier trip to North America is the subject of a volume printed for private distribution titled A Cruise in the Eothen.

Screw Steam Yacht ‘EOTHEN”  Royal Yacht Squadron 1864

The Eothen, a 340 ton steam yacht, had been built of iron at the James Ash shipyard in London for Arthur Anderson in 1864. Anderson was chairman of the Peninsular and Oriental Steam Navigation Company, an enterprise which still exists. One of their P&O cruise ships visited Charlottetown in the summer of 2019. Brassey acquired the Eothen in 1872 and set off for North America. The Eothen was the first steam yacht to cross from England to Canada but Anna was not aboard for the Altantic crossing as she came to Canada on one of the Allen Line Steamers to Montreal and joined the yacht there.  The family toured Quebec and Ontario and then took the Eothen to New York. Anna’s brief sojourn in Charlottetown was one of a number of stops. The Eothen came down Northumberland Strait and anchored inside Point Prim owing to strong winds. The next day the yacht approached Charlottetown.  The three-masted iron vessel must have seemed a considerable extravagance to the townsfolk. She was 152 feet long and 22 feet wide and even though her sails were a supplement to her 62 horse powered engine she had a graceful and pleasing shape. While the residents of Charlottetown may have been impressed by the vessel the feeling was not reciprocated. If Anna was underwhelmed by Charlottetown (a second-rate country town) she was appalled by the people (their ugliness is extreme).  All in  all it was not a happy visit, or perhaps Anna was not a person easily amused. The residents of the town remained blissfully unaware of her comments as her book was likely not circulated in the colony.

Anna Brassey 1839 – 1887

Tuesday, October 8th.—The fires were only banked up for the night, and at daylight we started again, and steamed up Hillsborough Bay, a distance of ten miles, to Charlottetown, the capital of Prince Edward’s Island, where we dropped anchor at nine a.m. Here we found H.M.S. the “Niobe,” which divides with the “Lapwing” the task of looking after and protecting our fisheries on this coast. At the present moment, owing to some absurd local dispute between the officials of Prince Edward’s Island and those of America, the fishing vessels from the United States are not allowed to take fish within three miles of the shore, where all the best fish are to be found. This seems very greedy, as the waters are quite wide enough, and there is fish in plenty and to spare for all.

Eothen in Montreal 1872. Note that the foremast now carries yards

We landed at Charlottetown with considerable difficulty, as there are no steps anywhere and we were obliged to climb across rafts, and over huge blocks of timber.
This city is very like most others in America. It contains no handsome buildings in particular, but there are numerous shops, and it may be fairly compared with ordinary second-rate English country towns.
The land in Prince Edward’s Island generally, but especially in the vicinity of Charlottetown, is of great fertility, and to its agricultural resources the island owes its activity. The day we arrived was market day, as well as the great annual cattle-fair, and the streets were therefore crowded with a most cadaverous-looking population. There were a great many Micmac Indians selling baskets. These Indians are not unlike gipsies in appearance; their complexions are dusky brown, and they are remarkable for their long, lanky black hair, and very high cheek-bones.
The Market Hall is a fine building, well supplied with fresh provisions, which included all the vegetables and fruits familiar to us in England.
The cattle and horses at the fair were anything but first-rate; there were, however, a few good specimens, which is perhaps as much as we ought to expect, considering it is but a small island.
The Post Office is an enormous structure, but there is not much business going on there, except when the mails arrive and depart, once a fortnight. There is no postal delivery here, so every one has to call for letters.
After lunch we started in two waggons to call on the Governor first, and then to drive round the “royalties,” as part of the island is called. Our horses were good, but the drivers fearfully reckless; and as the roads are very bad, and full of deep ruts, it was a marvel we did not come to grief, as we seemed to be plunging in and out of the most frightful holes, whilst driving at considerable speed; indeed, several times we were nearly thrown from our seats. We must have driven a distance of sixteen miles, making quite a circuit through the country, the scenery of which was pretty and park-like, the land rich and well-cultivated. Towards evening, on our way back to the town, we met all the people driving out in small one-horse carts. There were a few on horseback, but none on foot.
We were much struck with the unhealthy look of the population in general: they are so pale and thin, their ugliness is extreme, and they all seem to have an extraordinary tendency to squint. We looked in vain for the robust and hearty peasantry of the rural districts of the old country, It seems hard to conjecture the cause for this marked deterioration of the descendants of Scotch, Irish, and English settlers. Probably the long winter may be to a great extent the reason. The impossibility of active and out-door operations at that season, and the consequent temptation to spend the day in heated rooms, smoking, and sipping strong liquors, are extremely prejudicial to the health of the population.
Prince Edward’s Island has not yet joined the Canadian Dominion. A railway is, however, being laid down, for which a loan is necessary; and as soon as the increased burden of taxation is more distinctly felt, it is probable that the people will be prepared to unite with the Dominion.
In the numerous crowd at the fair we were surprised to see so few persons bearing traces of superior refinement and culture. We had supposed that the poor gentleman might have found a field for enterprise in the Colony as well as the industrious labourer. But, however, it is not so. The farmers of Prince Edward’s Island are evidently men who, if they had remained at home, would have been earning a scanty living as day-labourers.
When we returned to the yacht in the evening we found it was blowing half a gale of wind.
Wednesday, October 9th.—Our wedding-day, twelve years ago. We started at six a.m., in spite of the gale blowing and the barometer being low; but the wind was fair, though strong, and we had only fifty miles to run in a comparatively sheltered sea.

From Pictou the Eothen visited Halifax and a number of American cities before returning to England. Again Anna took a regular steamer to cross the Atlantic. In 1881 Thomas was knighted and in 1886 became Earl Brassey, making Anna, Lady Brassey. In 1876 Brassey and his whole family took a year-long cruise around the world in a new yacht the Sunbeam which became the first private yacht to make a circumnavigation.  This trip was the subject of Anna’s most popular book.  She died aboard during another extended voyage in 1887.


Imperfectly Known Dangers: Sailing Directions for Hillsborough Bay 1855

The 1830s and 1840s saw a major improvement in the aids to navigation on Northumberland Strait and Hillsborough Bay. A black can buoy was in place at Fitzroy Rock to mark one known hazard by the late 1830s. The Bay was surveyed under direction from the Colonial Government in 1839 and a chart published in 1842.  In 1841 Captain Henry Wolsey Bayfield transferred the headquarters of the Hydrographic Survey from Quebec to Charlottetown and quickly began to chart the Strait as well as the entire Gulf of St. Lawrence. In 1845 the colonial government commissioned the building of a lighthouse at Point Prim which showed the entrance to the Bay. The following year a chart of the Bay was published based on Bayfield’s survey.

Prior to this activity the only charts were those of J.F.W. DesBarres published in the 1780s  and they contained little more detail than the information from the Holland survey in 1764, twenty years earlier. Since the Holland survey dealt with the land, the chart contained little marine detail and only a few soundings.

Detail from J.F.W. DesBarres Chart of the South-Eastern Coast of the Island of St. John. Published as part of the Atlantic Neptune ca. 1785. Detailed soundings are rare and many hazards are not shown.

One essential aid to navigation, then as now, was the series of published “Sailing Directions” or “Pilots” which added navigation details to the charts. These were often complied from the observations of ship’s captains.  For example many of the observations on the navigation of the waters of the Maritimes are from the log of H.M. Sloop Ranger which was on fisheries patrol in the area in 1831. The Sailing Directions could be extremely detailed or frustratingly vague. An edition of 1810 said only this of Hillsborough Bay:

Hillsborough Bay is the finest bay in the island, and the River Hillsborough is a fine navigable river; but timber here is not plentiful.  Before Charlotte Town in this river, there is good anchorage in from 6 to 9 fathoms.  

We praise Bayfield for the excellence of his charts but the first edition of his Sailing Guide which includes Prince Edward Island, published by the British Admiralty in 1847 is a magnificent achievement and is as much a contribution to navigation as the charts themselves.  He introduces the section on Hillsborough Bay thusly: “The numerous dangers it contains, having hitherto been very imperfectly known and represented have rendered its navigation extremely difficult to strangers in a large ship; but this will now be obviated, it is conceived, by the Admiralty Chart accompanied by the following directions.” He then goes on for a full ten pages describing the hazards of the bay and the directions for avoiding them.

Detail of Bayfield’s 1846 Chart of Hillsborough Bay showing Huntley Rock, Fitzroy Rock and Astyanyx Rock. Detailed soundings can easily be seen.

The sailing directions were a very marketable item and every ship, except perhaps those in the local coastal trade, would have had a copy for the area for which they were destined.  Copies were published using Bayfield’s information with no regard for the copyrights of the Admiralty. There were English and American editions, both official and otherwise, as well as dozens of other editions, reprints, additions, improvements and condensations. A French-language of the Bayfield volume was published in 1864. One English version by hydrographer J.S. Hobbs published in 1855, had the remarkably comprehensive and descriptive title:

Part of the title page of an 1855 edition of Sailing Directions

A small sampling of the information contained (condensed from the Bayfield edition)  follows:

Hillsborough Bay is the finest bay in the island; within it is the principal harbour and capital town of Charlotte Town, which is advantageously situated on the northern bank of the Hillsborough, where the deep water approaches nearest to the shore. The town is well laid out with squares and its streets at right angles; the houses are generally of wood, and the population about 5000. All kinds of supplies may be obtained here, and there is sufficient water in the harbour for the largest ships; and the Hillsborough River is navigable for large ships 7 or 8 miles above Charlotte Town; smaller vessels may go farther up: the shores are all well settled. It is high water full and change, at 10h. 45m. ; spring-tides rise 9 1/2 feet, neeps 7 feet. Ships generally lie off the wharves of the town, where the channel is nearly 10 fathoms deep and 280 fathoms wide.

Strangers or those unacquainted, when bound to Charlotte Town, should take a pilot; but in the event of not meeting one outside, the bay may be safely entered, and good anchorage will be found N.W. of Governor Island, until a pilot can be obtained. When entering the bay from the westward the leading mark is Pownall’s Point, just touching the north point of Governor Island, bearing E. by N. run in with this mark, until you see the Presbyterian Church , and as soon as it is in one with Block-house Point  N. by E. 1/2 E. steer N.E. by E. or N.E. 1/2 E., according to the tide, until the west side of Government-house and Battery Point come in one bearing N. 1/2 E.; these latter marks lead up the deep-water channel to Trout Point, at the entrance of the harbour. If you cannot see the leading marks, keep along the southern and eastern edge of the St. Peter’s Shoals, in 5 fathoms, up to near the Spit Head buoy, then anchor.

When coming from the eastward at night, Point Prim Light must not be brought to the westward of N.N.W., to avoid the Rifleman Shoal; and Prim Reef should be rounded at 10 fathoms, in a large ship; smaller vessels may cross it in 4 or 5 fathoms. As soon as the light bears to the southward of E. by S. 1/4 S. , and in not less than 10 fathoms of low water, or with Point Prim E. by S. , you will be to the northward of the reef. The course across the bay must be north or N. 1/2 E. , in thick weather or at night; the object being to strike soundings on the southern edge of the bank off St. Peter’s Island, and following it to the north-eastward, in 5 fathoms , till about 1 1/2 miles within the Fitzroy Rock, where you may anchor off Governor Island, in good holding ground, and wait for daylight, or a pilot. In clear weather, your course from the outer end of Prim Reef, in 10 fathoms, will be N. by E 1/2 E., about 5 miles.

Except in areas where there was silting in the harbours or where sandbars and shoals shifted with wind and tide the hazards to navigation changed little over the years. Although published over 170 years ago Bayfield’s sailing guide could still be used today to bring a ship into safe harbour in Charlottetown.

“This is a good harbor” Charlotte Town in 1785


Charlotte Town in 1778. watercolour by Capt. Charles Randall. Library and Archives Canada #1951-5589-1. The view would not have much changed by the time of Lt. Booth’s visit seven years later. Patterson’s Battery can be seen at the left, beneath the flag.


From uncleared forest at the time of Holland’s survey in 1764 Charlotte Town grew slowly. It was inhabited mostly by colonial officials and a few merchants but the military presence was important to the capital. During and following the revolt of the Americans defense of the British colonies was a pre-occupation of the authorities.  In 1785 General John Campbell made a tour of the region from his headquarters in Halifax. One of the earliest accounts of Charlotte Town was left by Lieutenant William Booth of the Royal Engineers who was a member of the inspection party.

The itinerary of General Campbell’s tour was decided by the prevailing winds. The party embarked on the brig Maria not exactly knowing which direction they would take.

July 25th 1785
The wind continued against us for Shelburne tho’ quite in our favor for stretching to the Northward, the General’s intended route, after having finished his Tour to the Westward ‘t was now given out that; should the wind be North or South, on our clearing the Harbour, We were to sail.
We clear’d the Beach by 12 oClock, and finding the wind So. Wst we altered our course for the Island of St. John’s, where we arrived by the 28th without anything remarkable on our passage, except our, fortunately, passing between the main land and a Shoal of Rocks near the entrance of the Gut of Canso, which our pilot, who was a Fisherman we met with on our way, declared, was “only whale playing” on the Water, and that, for his part, he had been more than a hundred times, Fishing about the Coast, with his Boy, and Shallop, and never met with any accident, so that, in his idea, our, Poor Brig, was diminished to a Boat. We kept our Eyes, for several miles, upon this whale, as he term’d it, but found the appearance still the same, which confirmed our opinion of its being, a Breaker.

July 28th
This morning Captain Calbeck, the Attorney General of this Place, and two Gentlemen with him visited us. This is a good harbour, having in the middle of the Entrance, from 12 to 14 fathoms Water, and not less than 8 up to Charlotte Town, the Capital of this Island. The entrance of the Harbor is 1000 Yards in width, and runs, about a mile before it opens to the Town, and three fine Rivers viz. : one on the left call’d Elliot River, that in front, and due North, in the direction of the Entrance, is call’d Yorke River, and by some the North River, and that which runs from the Town to the Eastward, is named Hillsborough River. These Rivers are said to be full of Fish, of every kind, common to this Climate, great quantities of Oysters, are Bedded here, and Trout are found in vast abundance. There are between 60 and 70 Houses in Charlotte Town. The Governor has a small House there, and one at this Farm, situated near Fort Amherst, on the west side of the entrance of this Harbour [There has been a Barrack in this Fort, but no remains of it are at present to be seen, and the Fort quite in ruins, an old french Mortar is the only piece of ordnance in this Fort or rather Redout, bring Square, without Flanks.]


Thomas Wright’s 1780 map of Charlottetown. Made 5 years before Booth’s visit it shows only about half the number of structures noted by Booth suggesting that the town had doubled in size in 5 years. The defensive works at Patterson’s Battery, including the barracks can be seen at the west end of what would become Water Street. The only named street is Queen Street running from Patterson’s Field to a wharf which did not even extend to the edge of the flats exposed at low tide. A copy of the map can be found at the P.E.I. Public Archives and Records Office

To-day we dined with the Chief Justice; the Brigade Major Gordon, was not of the Party, having rode to St. Peters, to explore that part of the Country. I walk’d round the Town, and examined the Ground on which part the of the Barracks, that had been built for the Troops, Garrison’d here, in the war, are still standing, vizt. one wing of a Pile of Barracks, that were never completed, the other wing, and return, having been taken away by the Refugee’s, and others, for fire wood etc.  Capt. Calbeck says, the part that is gone, was only Framed. There are also standing a barrack, in front, and near Patterson’s Battery, a Guardhouse , an Hospital, and a Commanding officer’s Quarter. In the rear of the Town, has been a Field Fort, thrown up for the Inhabitants to retire to, in case of an Enemy taking possession of their Works in front. [The Inhabitants set fire to it, saying twas a harbor for muskito’s. Capt. Calbeck inform’d me this on my observing the Fascines burnt & also a Gun Carriage partly destroyed.] This Fort is now totally in ruins, as is the battery above mention’d  The Fort consisted of 4 confined half Bastions; the whole faced, and lined with Fascines, having, on each Flank, a Gun; but the Ground, in the rear again of this Work, has too great a command to render it a permanent Post. Patterson’s Battery consists of 9 Guns of different Calibres, tis 30 feet or so above the Water and is well situated for defending the approach to the Town, on that side.

Agreeably to General Campbell’s orders, I examined the state of the Officers’ and Soldiers’ Barracks , in order to have them repaired, for the Two Companies of the 33rd Regiment expected to arrive in three weeks; the General desired that this business might be done by contract: I accordingly agreed with a Mr. Clark, master Carpenter, for the completion of those Quarters, and when done, to enclose the whole with a good Palisade forming a handsome Parade; this estimate amounts to £363/7/6 H. Cy.

Dined with the Governor, and the principal  Gentlemen of the Town.

1st August
Dropt down to the Governor’s Farm, near the entrance of the Harbor, where we remained during this day, the wind being unfavorable for our intended voyage to Spanish River [In the Island of Cape Breton.] The soil of St. John’s Island is good, and the Country remarkably level, the inhabitants say there are only two Hills, of any note, in it, and they lay near the centre; some Seasons the Farmers have their Grain surprisingly destroyed, by the sudden appearance of an astonishing number of a reddish kind of Mice. By way of amusement today I made a Sketch of the Governor’s Farmhouse, & Barn, and also a rough Drawing of the Town and part of the Harbor [The latter I lost by sending by the B. Major Gordon’s request to a Gent on Shore to look at.

Sail’d this morning

After leaving Charlotte Town the military group proceeded to Cape Breton and then back to Halifax. William Booth (1748-1826), author of these observations had joined the Royal Engineers as an ensign in 1771. He was promoted to lieutenant in 1779 and served at Gibraltar before being transferred to Halifax in 1782. He retired with the rank of Lieutenant Colonel in 1800.  A number of his watercolour sketches survive but unfortunately none are of his brief visit to Charlotte Town. As a part of an official military visit Booth was more concerned about the state of defences of the town than its civil aspect but because so little is recorded about the history of the town, as opposed to the political infighting of its officials, his diary remains an important document .

The original of Lt. Booth’s report is at the Public Archives of Nova Scotia, MG1 Vol 44 pp 2-7.  Other details of the military history of the colony can be found in David Webber’s A Thousand Young Men, published by the P.E.I. Museum and Heritage Foundation.