Tag Archives: Ville d’Ys

The most beautiful ship never to visit Charlottetown

It mat have seemed at first that the gigantic liner might come into Charlottetown but instead it remained in Hillsborough Bay beyond Fitzroy rock, and passengers were shuttled back and forth through the harbour’s mouth to the city’s wharves.  Even at a distance it was a magnificent sight and quite unlike anything ever before seen in Island waters.

Artists view of the Champlain

The S.S. Champlain was described as the first modern ocean liner. At the time of her launch in 1932 she was the largest, fastest, and most luxurious cabin class liner in the world. She was the flagship of the Compagnie Général Transatlantique, better known as the French Line.  She incorporated many of the art deco design features which later appeared in the better known S.S. Normandie. She had accommodation for over 1000 passengers; 623 in cabin class, 308 in tourist class, and 122 in third class; and she carried over 500 crew. At 641 feet long (almost 200 meters) and 82 feet wide (25 meters) she would have been the largest ship ever to visit Charlottetown to that date – if she had come into harbour.

Spoiled as we are by the images of the Queen Mary and Queen Elizabeth of the Cunard Line it is easy to forget that the French for many years had the most advanced designs and speed for the transatlantic crossing and luxurious interiors and services were world-famous.  These were liners which had a grace and nautical style which the sea-going, apartment-building cruise ships seen each summer in Charlottetown’s harbour today completely lack.  A three-minute video showing the ship and its interior can be found here.

The Champlain at sea

So how was it that the most spectacular vessel in the world ended up anchored in Hillsborough Bay on 24 August 1934?

The Champlain was on a special cruise. Rather than simply shuttling between New York and English and French ports the August crossing followed a unique route. It started in St. Malo from whence Cartier had departed, across the Atlantic to the French territory of St. Pierre and Miquelon off Newfoundland, then stopping at Charlottetown, Gaspe, and Quebec before proceeding to New York.  All of this was in celebration of the 400th anniversary of the voyage of Jacques Cartier. While today political correctness proclaims this as the sad beginning of the plague of “settler societies,”  in 1934 Cartier’s “discovery” and exploration of the Atlantic Coast of Canada was a very big deal.

The Champlain was accompanied by three French warships; the destroyer Vouquelin, frigate d’Entrecasteau and the armed sloop/coast guard ship Ville D’Ys. But these were not the only vessels hovering around the Champlain. Because she was judged too big to enter the harbour there had to be some transfer of passengers from the ship to the Marine wharf and so the Canadian Government Ship Cartier and the car ferry Prince Edward Island were pressed into service as passenger shuttles.  The smaller, but more official, Cartier took 100 of the official party to shore while the rest of the passengers, 500 or so, were transferred to the S.S. P.E.I.  As the Cartier approached the harbour two Canadian sea-planes circled it and dropped a wreath of flowers symbolizing the welcome to the province.

Canadian Government Ship Cartier used to ferry dignitaries from the Champlain to Charlottetown

The was no shortage of officials aboard the Champlain. France was represented by a group of 130 distinguished visitors headed by the Minister of Public Works, the president of the University of Paris, and a large contingent of Mayors from French cities and towns.  The Admiral of the Fleet for the Royal Navy and the warden of New College Oxford represented the United Kingdom. The United States sent the American Ambassador to Canada and a Senator from New Hampshire. A number of Canadian officials and politicians also lucked out on the junket while dozens more participated in the on-shore activities.

French destroyer Vouquelin which accompanied the Champlain on its visit to Charlottetown

The main even was the unveiling of a National Historic Sites and Monuments Board plaque commemorating the discovery of Prince Edward Island which Cartier had visited in 30 June and 1 July 1534. The plaque was mounted on an impressive cairn on the grounds of the Colonial Building.  Canadian dignitaries at the ceremonies included five current or former ministers of the crown, the lieutenant governor, premier and chief justice.  The ceremony itself was presided over by Dr. Clarence Webster chairman of the Historic Sites board.  After a large number of speeches it was off to Government House for a garden party.  The Island’s militia regiments played a role by furnishing an honour guard but the Boy Scouts presence was even more prominent. Island scout troops were present as was a group of twenty-two scouts from France.  After an inspection from the French scout commissioner and Island commissioner R.C. Parent commemorative badges were exchanged and the scouts marched back to the Marine Wharf with the French commissioner and three boy scout chaplains stopping off at the Bishop’s Palace.  At the pier the  French scouts “lustily sang two boy scout songs and Auld Lang Syne in French” before embarking.

After leaving Hillsborough Bay the Champlain proceeded to Gaspe where another Historic Sites and Monuments Board ceremony and round of speeches awaited.  The welcomes and speeches were repeated over and over as the party visited Trois Rivieres, Quebec, Montreal, Toronto and Ottawa.

The HSMBC plaque and sandstone cairn sat on the Colonial Building grounds until the area was landscaped following the building of the Confederation Centre of the Arts. Realizing that the event commemorated had little to do with Charlottetown it was moved to Kildare in the Alberton area, closer to the spot where Cartier had actually landed and proclaimed to Island to be the fairest land t’is possible to see.  However putting  it in context after crossing the Atlantic in a tiny ship and stopping in the rocky coast of western Newfoundland, any land at all would be fair to see.

The plaque and cairn have outlived the ship by many years.  At the outbreak of the Second World War the Champlain was pressed into service ferrying war refugees across the Atlantic but on returning from New York in June 1940 she struck an air-laid mine while approaching La Rochelle France. She was one of the largest ships lost in the war.

A wonderfully detailed site (in French) dedicated to the “unknown and unjustly forgotten” Champlain can be found here.

Attacked with potatoes – the French Navy visits Charlottetown between the wars

After the Great War the naval forces of the world were sharply reduced and the number of courtesy visits to Charlottetown dropped. The German fleet was reduced to a few patrol vessels which kept to coastal waters and there were sharp reductions to the Royal Navy following the war. Many of the duties of the latter fleet in Canadian waters were assumed by the Canadians but this capability was reduced as well by financial restraint. This meant that there were far fewer visits to the port of Charlottetown. The one exception was the French navy. There had been visits before the war but their character changed after the Armistice. The French still had their toehold in North America through St. Pierre and Miquelon and the islands boasted a significant fishing fleet which competed with other nations on the banks off Newfoundland.  In addition a thriving St. Pierre liquor trade was maintained as long as prohibition was in effect in the United States.  While the pre-war French presence had been large cruisers the post-war vessels were more likely to be patrol frigates or escort sloops.

The ships spent most of their time on patrol with the fishing fleet but they also paid courtesy visits, including stops to both Charlottetown and Souris. In 1920 the French warship Couchy visited the Island capital. The officers paid the usual calls on the Governor and mayor and the crew members were entertained at the Navy League Club Rooms where “cigarettes and light beer were provided and the card tables and chequer boards helped wile away the hours.”  In 1922 the cruiser Caspia spent several days in the port.


Ville d’Ys in a warm-water port with awnings in place. Sailors’ washing can be seen hanging from the sides.

However the most frequent visitor to the city was the aviso (escort sloop) Ville d’Ys which spent a few days in Charlottetown every year or two beginning in 1926 right up to 1939.  The vessel had been built on the Tyne by the British firm Swan, Hunter & Wigham Richardson and was launched in June 1917 as the Andromede but was re-named the Ville d’ Ys as soon as delivery was taken by the Government of France later the same year. The coal-fired ship was 255 long with a breadth of 35 feet and carried a crew of 90 with 6 officers. It was a designed as a “Q” ship with the appearance of a merchant ship in order to fool U-boats into making a surface attack. This gave it a somewhat more graceful appearance than many of the other naval vessels of the day. The Ville d’Ys appears to have had a very limited role in the war and by the early 1920s was being used as a fisheries protection vessel accompanying the French fishing fleet on the Grand Banks from April to September. She was fitted out with five small boats for making visits to fishing boats on the Banks.

Ville d'Ys showing her merchant ship profile.

Ville d’Ys showing her merchant ship profile.

Most of the Ville d’Ys visits to Charlottetown followed a similar pattern. Courtesy visits would be paid to the Governor and Mayor and the Island officials would pay a return visit to the ship. A salute of nineteen guns would be made to honour the Governor. Officers would be entertained at the Charlottetown Club or the Golf links and tennis courts. In some years a friendly game of soccer between the town and the ship would be held. In later years the appearance of the ship would provide the rationale for a ball at Government House.  It was all very civilized except the French must have wondered about the strange Island custom of prohibition which was then in effect.

Not all of the Ville d’Ys visits were without incident. In 1935 an 18 year old deserter from the ship was discovered digging potatoes on a farm in Rustico. He claimed to be worried about the increasing tensions in Europe and he jumped ship to avoid engaging in warfare. He appears to have been sent to re-join the ship in Sydney. Problems of a different nature showed up in June 1936 when Governor George DeBlois was making an official visit to the ship. A group of teenage boys attacked the vessel with discarded potatoes left lying on the railway wharf. Taking up a vantage point on the roof of a nearby-warehouse they showered the French sailors on the deck of the patrol vessel with a barrage of spuds. Rather than retaliate the ship’s officers contacted the city police but by the time they arrived the “hoodlums” had disappeared. The police took up guard duties and were later relieved by the R.C.M.P. but the vegetable carrying townies did not re-appear. The police chief was unable to provide an explanation for the unprovoked attack as the sailors had said or done nothing to cause trouble.

The last visit of the Ville d’ Ys to Charlottetown took place in 1939, prior to the outbreak of the Second War. At the beginning of the war the ship was on station at St. Pierre and Miquelon, then under the control of Vichy France, but just before the take-over of the Islands by the Free French late in 1940 she sailed to Fort de France, Martinique and was decommissioned there as the lightly-armed, coal-fired ship had little value to the war effort. She was scrapped in 1945.

Owing to its long connection with the region the Ville d’Ys was the subject of a postage stamp issued by St. Pierre and Miquelon  in 1941.