Tag Archives: Constance

Your Mission: Protect the Fishery … and Win the Three-Legged Race

Before the creation of the Canadian navy in 1910 the nation depended on Great Britain’s Royal Navy to patrol Canada’s off-shore waters. But the waters of the Dominion were also home to a home-grown fleet of smaller patrol ships. Charged with excise duties and controlling the fishery these small ships played an important role along Canada’s Coasts.

CGS Acadia. A competitor at the Georgetown Fisheries Protection Field Day.

Some vessels like the Constance, the Curlew and the Petrel were transferred back and forth between the Customs Preventive Service and the Fishery Protection Fleet as needs required but they also seem to have had a broad range of duties no matter what service they were attached to.  The fishery patrol vessels were more frequently seen in Prince Edward Island waters, especially late in the season.  In the 1890s  there was still a large American fleet (referred to as “hookers”)  following the mackerel and herring schools which moved up the Nova Scotia shore and into the Gulf of St. Lawrence. Souris and Georgetown were regular ports of call for the American schooners and were also used as the stations for the cruisers charged with watching the American s for infractions of fishing regulations.

One of the vessels for which the King’s County ports was a base was the Kingfisher. Unlike almost all the other vessels in the Fishery Protection Service Fleet she was sail-powered.  Initially chartered  in 1891 from her builder Joseph McGill of Sherbrooke, N.S. she soon proved her worth and sometime after 1893 she seems to have been purchased by the Department of Marine and Fisheries. McGill was a major builder and was responsible for a number of vessels later built for the New Burrill-Johnson Iron Company of Yarmouth.  Some of these vessels, including the Magdalen and the Harland also saw service on P.E.I.

CGS Curlew. One of the Fisheries Prtotection Service fleet

The Kingfisher was a small schooner of 107 tons but was a relatively speedy sailer and as the American herring fleet was still sail-powered she was an effective vessel for patrol duties.  The vessel was kept busy. In 1896 for example, she sailed 7,117 miles, spending 1,762 hours at sea. During this time she recorded 416 boardings for inspection purposes.  Although that was not a particularly busy year for the fishery some 60 hookers were on the grounds off East Point where they were shadowed by the Kingfisher until they began to follow the fish schools south. In addition to the Americans, the vessel also had to keep an eye on the illegal lobster fishery, mostly from Island-based fishing craft.

With her extra duties as a customs and excise cruiser the Kingfisher had a number of successes. In 1894 she seized a vessel off East Point and confiscated a cargo of liquor.  October of 1898 saw her off Rollo Bay where a schooner from St. Pierre had suspiciously anchored over night. Landing a shore party from the Kingfisher a cache of 200 gallons of whisky was located through the keen sense of smell of one of the ship’s crew.

However, based on the amount of newspaper coverage the greatest success for the Kingfisher was not on the fishing grounds but on the sports field at Georgetown. For several years in the late 1890s the entire East Coast Fisheries Protection Fleet gathered there for a sports day. In mid-October 1898 the crews of the cruisers La Canadienne, Acadia, Curlew, Osprey and Kingfisher competed for cups and awards.

Some of the events were as one might expect – contests of strength and speed; the hammer throw, shot put and 100 yard dash. However there were also a few events not known to the Olympics (and a few not known to me) . These included the smoking race, potato race, sack race, and the egg and spoon race.  In addition there was a rifle shooting competition and a community concert in the Court House  put on by the ships’ crews for the people of Georgetown. A tea party was held in the drill shed  in conjunction with the sports day and a “snug sum” raised for the community. In return the ladies of the town provided a free lunch for the officers and men. The Kingfisher seems to have punched well above its weight as the small crew captured trophies in a number of events

Louis Henry Davies. Minister of Marine and Fisheries 1896-1901

The Minister of Marine and Fisheries for the period 1896-1901 was Island M.P. Louis Henry Davies – later to be Chief Justice of Canada.   He appears to have had a particular interest in the Fisheries Protection Service and attended several of the group’s sports days. His interest was noted in the annual report of the Commander of the fisheries service. “He takes great interest in our ships, and always on leaving the grounds has a word of praise for the officers and men.” In addition to this praise of the Minister the continuing success of the Kingfisher in the sports days  was mentioned in the Departmental Annual Reports tabled in Parliament.  The report certainly supports a mutual admiration between the Minister and the crews.

After a decade the shortcomings of a sail-powered vessel mounted and in 1905 the Kingfisher was sold to Harold Bartlett of Birgus Newfoundland. Her replacement was the Petrel whose story has been told in an earlier blog entry.  Unfortunately I have not been able to find any images of the Kingfisher, probably the last Canadian Government patrol vessel to be completely sail-powered.


From Rum running to Gun running – the Customs Cutter Margaret

HMCS Margaret

HMCS Margaret

Question: What does smuggling booze into a dry Canada have in common with a revolution in Brazil? Answer: The Margaret.

The Margaret at launch - Marine Engineering of Canada 1913 p.31

The Margaret at launch – Marine Engineering of Canada 1913 p.31

The Canadian Customs Preventive Service was established in 1892 but it was not until 1914 that it received its first vessel built specifically for customs patrol purposes.  That vessel. the Margaret, was built by the English firm, Thornycroft at its Woolston Works near Southhampton. The 800 ton ship was 185 feet long by 32 feet in breadth, drew 15 feet and had a reinforced hull to resist ice. The 200 ton capacity of the bunkers gave a cruising range of 4,000 miles, or 2,000 miles at full speed. She carried a 30 foot motor launch, a 26 foot lifeboat, a 22 foot captain’s cutter and a 16 foot dinghy. As initially configured she was armed with two 6 pound guns Vickers guns of the latest design. Launched in January 1914 she was completed and delivered to Halifax in April 1914 and took up her customs patrols. Anticipating the outbreak of what would become the Great War by only a few days she was transferred to the Royal Canadian Navy on 4 August and was commissioned in 1915 as HMCS Margaret. She, like the Hochelaga and Constance,  became part of the fleet of small vessels which served as escorts and patrol vessels along the Atlantic coast and in the Gulf of St. Lawrence for the duration of the war. She was in Halifax Harbour a the time of the Halifax Explosion and suffered minor damage.

The Margaret was decommissioned and  returned to the Customs Preventive Service following the end of the war and once again took up her patrol duties in the Gulf of St Lawrence and Atlantic Coast in 1919. She was converted from coal to oil-fired boilers in 1925. During the 1920s she was a frequent visitor to the Marine Wharf in Charlottetown and was responsible for a number of liquor seizures in the region. The Margaret played a peripheral role in the 1926 Customs Scandal which brought down the Mackenzie-King Government and led to a constitutional crisis. In testimony related to bribery and corruption within the customs service it emerged that the Customs and Excise Minister Jacques Bureau had treated the Margaret as his private yacht, made renovations to increase her already comfortable accommodations, and removed her from her duties, exposing the coasts to increased smuggling activity. Newspaper reports noted an extensive cruise to the Saguenay with the Minister’s friends and an orchestra, the stocking of the ship with solids and liquids and the presence of women with questionable reputations. The cruise was only a sideshow to the wholesale corruption which permeated the Department and the captain and crew of the Margaret seem to have emerged with their jobs and reputations intact. It would not be the Margaret’s last brush with scandal.

In 1927, while in pursuit of a smuggler the Margaret struck a rock near the Magdalene Islands and was very nearly lost. The crew and captain had abandoned ship but returned to the sinking vessel, saving it by bailing water by hand, until taken in tow by a passing steamer. In the fall of the same year the customs cutter made at least nine seizures including one near P.E.I. in which the value of the seized cargo was nearly $200,000.

In 1932 the Preventive Service was transferred to the RCMP and late that year in an effort to reduce costs the Margaret was tied up in Halifax and was shortly afterwards sold at auction for $18,000. She soon found herself in the middle of a South American revolution.

Rio Branco on patrol

Rio Branco on patrol

In 1930 a coup d’état in Brazil had prevented a duly elected government from taking control after an election and Getulio Vargas became president of the country. A movement in the state of Sao Paulo aimed at restoring the constitution led to an uprising (the Constitutionalist Revolution) which began in July of 1932 and continued until October of that year.  Open conflict between Sao Paulo and the national government saw two unequal sides. Although the revolutionaries had taken over military bases and supplies, they had fewer soldiers, limited reserves of ammunition and very light air support. As with many such actions, anticipated support from other regions of the country failed to materialize.

Plans were hastily developed by the rebels to purchase planes, armaments and ammunition and their agents were soon in contact with suppliers, most of whom were in the United States. However under American neutrality laws American ships could not carry materials under these circumstances so evasion was the order of the day.

The timing of the sale of the Margaret could not have been better for the rebels.  A New York ship broker named Fred Zimmerman had a chance meeting with one of the Sao Paulo agents and within days was in Halifax inspecting the ship. The height of the depression was a a good time to be buying a ship as prices had plunged. Suggesting that $50,000 or $60,000 might secure the ship the money was immediately supplied from Sao Paulo.  Zimmerman’s bid was $18,000 and the only other bids received were for $5,000 and $2,000 – this for a vessel which had cost nearly $500,000 to build.  Zimmerman later testified that he had provided an unnamed Canadian official $1,000 to facilitate the sale. That left over $30,000 to be accounted for.  Zimmerman and the Paulista agent had agreed that it was to be split between a number of other players involved in the transactions. Cheques were cut and subsequently cashed but not by the parties to whom they were made out. The money had vanished! Charges of theft were investigated but later dropped as it was impossible to identify just who had made off with the funds. The matter was subsequently a very minor part of the investigation of the American Senate Committee on Munitions (Nye Committee) and the testimony regarding the purchasing of the Margaret reads like a bad dime novel.

In the meantime the Margaret, which had been purchased in Zimmerman’s name was transferred to a friendly German colleague and the ship, with her name changed to the Ruth, was temporarily registered in Germany which allowed her to skirt the American shipping ban. Taking on a cargo of armaments and munitions, and with a mixed crew under a German captain, she left the United States ostensibly bound for Dresden, Germany.  Shortly afterwards the Ruth was dropping off supplies along the Brazilian coast by fast motor boat and within days she appeared off Santos, the port for Sao Paulo.  However, Santos was under blockade by a cruiser and two destroyers. An attack from the small air fleet of the revolutionaries failed to distract the blockade ships and the Ruth was forced to head to Buenos Aires without unloading.

Rio Branco at Guanabara Bay

Rio Branco at Guanabara Bay

Shortly thereafter the revolution collapsed and the national troops occupied Sao Paulo. The Ruth was considered an asset of the defeated state and became the property of Brazil. The vessel had another name change and on 14 December 1932 was commissioned ay the Brazilian Navy as the Gunboat Rio Branco.

She was converted to a survey vessel at the beginning of 1934 and when Brazil joined the Allied side in WWII she was fitted with 47mm guns and became a corvette. At war’s end she once more resumed her role as a survey vessel and served as well as a fisheries protection vessel.

Margaret Brazil

Rio Branco

By 1957 or 1958 the Rio Branco, ex-Ruth, ex-Margaret was no longer an asset to the Brazilian navy and she disappears from the record, presumably broken up for scrap.

D.G.S. Constance – customs patrol boat and Charlottetown-Pictou steamer


D.G.S. Constance early in her career

Of the various vessels that served as steamers linking Prince Edward Island and the mainland on the route between Charlottetown and Pictou one of the most unusual was the Dominion Government Steamer Constance.  The Constance was built in 1891 at the Polson Iron works in Owen Sound Ontario and was probably named for the grand-daughter the shipyard owner.

The ship was of composite construction with an elm keel, steel frames, steel watertight bulkheads, rock elm hull planking and pine deck planking.  While this was part of the developing shipbuilding technology the design was what set the vessel apart. She had a reverse stem and a bulbous underwater bow giving the false impression that she was designed for ramming other vessels. A steel turtle back at the bow gave protection to the forecastle and enhanced the odd appearance.  This was an advanced design for the period and the model was followed for two other ships the Curlew and the Petrel  although the later boats had different dimensions and deck houses.



Constance  was 125 feet long but less than 20 feet wide. Her 50 horse power engine gave a top speed of 11.6 knots.  The ship, along with her sisters, was built for fisheries patrols in the Great Lakes but the Constance was transferred almost immediately to the Department of Customs and attached to the Customs Preventive Service to help address the problem of smuggling in the Lower St. Lawrence and Gulf areas.  She was based for several years in Quebec where the photo above was probably taken. In 1912 the Constance, along with the Curlew and the Petrel (both of which had also been transferred to the east coast)  were fitted with minesweeping gear and on the outbreak of war the three vessels were taken into naval service.  H.M.C.S. Constance, armed with three machine guns, was used throughout the war for patrol and examination duties.


In 1919 she was sold to Wentworth MacDonald of Sydney. He was owner of the Margaree Steamship Company which had a number of vessels operating in the region, including services to Prince Edward Island ports.  With the winding up of the Charlottetown Steam Navigation Company and the sale of its vessels Empress  and Northumberland  the Charlottetown-Pictou route was open. In early May of 1921 the Constance completed her first trip of the daily schedule with 29 passengers and twelve crew members.  The Guardian reported that three automobiles had been scheduled to be taken on the ship but that the loading equipment had not been completed in time for the first trip.  The Charlottetown agent for the service was Bruce Stewart and Company.  Although designed for a crew of twenty-three when it was a customs patrol vessel the boat had limited accommodation for passengers. The deck houses were small and used for functions such as the chart room and galley. At the after end of the vessel, below the main deck was a saloon and a number of staterooms.

CGS Constance (Gorham)After a year it was apparent that the Constance had not proven satisfactory and in 1922 the route was awarded to the S.S. Magdalen although it was later complained that that vessel was not as good as the former customs cruiser. Wentworth MacDonald maintained his interest in the Pictou service and he was one of the founders and major shareholders in Northumberland Ferries which began the Wood Islands service in 1941.  In 1922 the Constance, along with the Curlew (which MacDonald had also acquired) was operating on a service to Labrador.

The Constance continued to operate from time to time in Prince Edward Island waters. By 1923 she was being used by the New Glasgow Tramway Company and was hauling barges from Nova Scotia to Charlottetown and Summerside with coal for use by the PEI Railroad. The following year the Constance performed moonlight excursion duties and carried the League of the Cross Band at the Charlottetown Yacht Club decorated boat parade.

Constance 3

S.S. Constance, probably in the 1930s

In an ironic twist the Constance, which had been Canada’s first Customs cruiser and declared surplus to requirements, was chartered back to the Customs Protective Service between 1926 and 1929 and was active in the fight against rum-running.  Her history after 1929 in not known but the registry was not closed until 1966 although it is unlikely that ship was still afloat at that date.