The Lady Boats

January 1, 2007 by John Boileau

PHOTOS: CSTMC/CN COLLECTION—CN003133; CSTMC/CN COLLECTION—CN005243; CSTMC/CN COLLECTION—CN001565; CSTMC/CN COLLECTION—CN001679

PHOTOS: CSTMC/CN COLLECTION—CN003133; CSTMC/CN COLLECTION—CN005243; CSTMC/CN COLLECTION—CN001565; CSTMC/CN COLLECTION—CN001679

From top: Lady Rodney arrives in Montreal; fine furniture and white linen add elegance to the Lady Boat dining rooms; Lady Hawkins at Halifax; Lady Nelson, as a WW II hospital ship.

From 1928 to 1952, interrupted only by World War II, Canadian National Steamships operated a fleet of five luxury liners, sailing from eastern Canadian ports to Bermuda, the West Indies, British Honduras and British Guyana, carrying thousands of passengers and millions of tons of freight. These immaculate white steamships offered a standard of service rarely experienced today.

Named after the wives of British admirals with a connection to the West Indies, the vessels were affectionately known as the Lady Boats and provided an efficient cargo service and romantic cruises for many years. They plied the old Canada-West Indies trade routes from the days of sail, and in addition to carrying passengers, the Lady Boats delivered Canadian goods to the West Indies, returning with bananas and other fresh tropical fruit in their large, refrigerated holds.

As sailing ships came to pass in the late 19th century, some of their routes were no longer profitable, and the Canadian government stepped in with financial assistance. Private companies continued to operate on the most cost-effective routes, such as to Jamaica and Cuba, but the governments of Canada and the islands wanted a more comprehensive and regular service.

The result was a sponsored service using ships of the Canadian Government Merchant Marine, which started in 1920. Largely because of vessel shortcomings and the requirement to operate on unprofitable routes, the service failed, and so another way to maintain these links had to be found.

The result was a new line, Canadian National (West Indies) Steamships, operating five new vessels constructed in Britain, capable of carrying both cargo and freight. The Lady-class ships were especially designed for the Canada-West Indies service and, although similar in appearance, consisted of two separate types, one to operate on the eastern run and another to operate on the western one.

The three eastern-route steamships, the 6,370-ton Lady Nelson, Lady Hawkins and Lady Drake, accommodated 130 first-class passengers, 32 second-class, 56 third-class, and 120 deck passengers. They could also carry up to 7,650 cubic metres of general cargo and an additional 370 cubic metres of refrigerated cargo.

These vessels provided a year-round service every two weeks from Halifax to Bermuda, St. Kitts, Nevis, Antigua, Montserrat, Dominica, St. Lucia, Barbados, St. Vincent, Grenada, Trinidad and British Guyana before returning by the same route to Saint John, N.B.

On the western route, the 4,665-ton Lady Somers and Lady Rodney accommodated the same number of cabin passengers but carried no deck passengers. They had storage space for 9,300 cubic metres of general cargo and approximately 410 cubic metres of refrigerated goods.

The western run consisted of monthly summer sailings from Montreal to Bermuda, the Bahamas, Jamaica and British Honduras before returning. The ships operated out of Halifax during the winter months when the St. Lawrence River was frozen.

With their fine woods and magnificent carpets, the Lady Boats were the epitome of excellence. Each vessel had a games deck, an elegant glassed-in garden lounge and a lavish forward lounge with a bar that ran the full width of the ship.

Both types had roughly the same overall dimensions–133½ metres long and 18 metres wide–with four oil-fired boilers that propelled them along at a service speed of 15 knots. The total cost of building the five ships was $8,106,542.32.

A lot of attention was also paid to crewing and outfitting the Ladies. Experienced men were chosen as ships’ captains and officers, instructed to see that the Lady Boats “had the same discipline and style as the large transatlantic liners.”

Captains and senior officers were required to wear uniform frock coats on sailing and arrival days at the homeport, while dinner at sea was a full-dress affair. Ships’ flags were raised and lowered daily in a formal ceremony.

Pursers were trained to rigourous standards, becoming known for their consideration and tact in handling customers, while the ships’ Caribbean stewards were noted for looking after every detail of passengers’ comfort.

Under an expert Swiss head chef, staff learned to prepare and serve haute cuisine. Dinner, announced by a cornet playing The Roast Beef of Old England, was always a pleasant and refined occasion. These and many other little touches contributed to an unrivalled standard of excellence for which the Lady Boats were justifiably famous.

Lady Nelson sailed on her maiden voyage from Halifax on Dec. 14, 1928, followed shortly by Lady Hawkins and Lady Drake. By the end of April 1929, Lady Somers and Lady Rodney were in service. The Lady Boats kept their schedules with clockwork precision and rapidly became popular as cruise ships, not only with Canadians, but also with many Americans because of their superior service.

When Somers and Rodney sailed from Halifax in the winter and Montreal in the summer on the western route, it took a month to complete the cruise to Bermuda, the Bahamas and Jamaica. Schedules were arranged to make a changeover possible at Bermuda, so people could cruise down on one ship, spend a day there and sail back on the other.

A two-week cruise would normally cost $95 for a round trip. One season, Lady Somers offered a “honeymoon special” for only $85, which included Boston as a port of call.

The cargo-carrying role of the Lady Boats was just as important as their passenger one, especially with regard to fresh fruit. The refrigerated holds were designed to keep bananas from ripening by maintaining a constant 11 C for weeks at a time, not an easy job in the tropical heat of the West Indies with the equipment of the day.

Liquor was cheap and plentiful aboard the Lady Boats, and a few colourful individuals could not resist the temptation to overindulge. One captain became the stuff of legend when he appeared on the bridge at sea demanding to know where his ship was.

Unfortunately, the Lady Boats entered service at a difficult time and the Great Depression seriously affected their revenues. In spite of their efficiency and dependability, the Ladies lost money every year. Although the Canadian government considered discontinuation of the service, in the end it maintained the ships’ subsidies.

While passenger service continued to be popular with full bookings, cargoes dropped off dramatically. Ten years of subsidies had cost the Canadian taxpayer some five million dollars and continued support was rapidly becoming unpopular with the government.

World War II broke out just as serious questions were being asked about the Lady Boats’ prospects. And so at least for the next few years, their future was assured. The Lady Boats’ sparkling white was soon replaced by drab grey to blend into a background of sea and sky. Lady Rodney’s experience was a particular trying one.

On her way south from Montreal, she received the radio message, “War has been declared against Germany.” The crew immediately began to paint their white ship a dull grey.

In Bermuda, the crew was informed Canada was not at war and no changes were to be made. On the way to the Bahamas, they repainted the ship her original white. At Nassau, the company’s agent informed the crew that Canada was now at war and the ship would have to be painted in wartime grey!

Captain Edward LeBlanc was not overjoyed by the prospect of a third complete repainting of his ship within the span of a few days. His mood did not improve on being confronted by an excited female passenger. She informed LeBlanc that her family was waiting for her in the States while LeBlanc intended to sail to Jamaica through a mass of German U-boats. “What should I do, Captain,” she demanded. “Have you any suggestions?”

“Yes,” replied LeBlanc, “Watch out for wet grey paint!”

In addition to new paint, each ship now mounted a four-inch gun aft as protection against attack from surface raiders and U-boats.

The first year of war passed with little effect on the Lady Boats, apart from unannounced sailings that followed timed zigzag patterns, under conditions of complete blackout and radio silence. Then, in Oct 1940, Lady Somers was requisitioned by the Canadian government and converted to an auxiliary armed cruiser.

She was the first Canadian merchant ship to go to war and helped enforce the blockade against occupied Europe. Shortly after entering service in her new role, she was sunk in the Bay of Biscay on July 16, 1941.

But the war was about to move closer to home.

On Jan. 16, 1942, Lady Hawkins left Halifax unescorted in the dead of night, hugging the relative safety of the American coast as far south as Cape Hatteras, N.C., before steaming for Bermuda. Just before 2 a.m. on Jan. 19, two torpedoes slammed into her and she went down within 20 minutes.

A few passengers and crew jumped into the dark Atlantic, some of them picked up by the only lifeboat that got away safely. Soon the small, nine-metre boat–certified to hold 63 people–was carrying 76 cold, wet survivors in serious danger of being swamped.

Through the darkness, the voices of people calling for help could be heard. Chief Officer Percy Kelly, in charge of the lifeboat, later reported he gave “the agonizing order to pull away…there was nothing else we could do. The cries of the people in the water rang in my ears for years.”

But the ordeal of the survivors, some 210 kilometres from land, was not yet over. Water began slopping over the lifeboat’s sides and everyone had to take turns bailing continuously. With a limited amount of food and water on board, breakfast and supper consisted of half a biscuit and a dipper of water each. Lunch was a mouthful of condensed milk. “Every noon, before the milk, we bowed our heads and thanked God for our deliverance. We prayed for strength and courage. It was done simply and without emotion.”

As they grew weaker, some survivors fell into a coma and died. Others–babbling incoherently from shock–also succumbed. “The burials from the small lifeboat, such a dot on the large expanse of water, were conducted with care and reverence. We said a prayer as each body was gently lowered over the side.”

On the evening of the fifth day, severely weakened, everyone bedded down for the night, “wondering how much longer our ordeal would last.” Suddenly, they were jolted awake by cries from the helmsman who had spotted a ship.

The dark outline of a ship came into view and stopped to pick them up. Many of the survivors were weeping as they scrambled aboard her.

Shortly after the ordeal, a group of survivors wrote to Kelly thanking him for “holding them together and providing such leadership.” Later that year he was made a Member of the Order of the British Empire.

Two months later, on March 22, Lady Nelson was torpedoed by U-161 while alongside at Castries, St. Lucia. The sub slipped into the small harbour, fired two torpedoes and reversed into the open sea.

The first torpedo struck Nelson, sinking her almost immediately and killing 15 passengers and three crewmen, while the second sank a British ship. Fortunately, the harbour was shallow and, in spite of a great gaping hole in her stern, she was refloated and repaired.

In April 1943, Lady Nelson’s conversion to Canada’s first hospital ship was accomplished. She carried 515 beds and completed 30 unscathed voyages by Feb. 1946, bringing home 25,000 wounded men.

Meanwhile, Lady Drake, under the command of now Captain Percy Kelly, continued on the western run. On May 8, 1942, while on the final leg of a homeward journey between Bermuda and Halifax, she was torpedoed. Luckily, the ship sank slowly. While 12 people lost their lives, 260 made it to five lifeboats. “Nobody even got wet feet,” one survivor later recalled.

At dawn on the second day, a liner came towards the lifeboats at high speed and sailed away just as quickly. It was the Queen Mary, pressed into service as a fast troopship, on her way to New York and unable to stop because of the danger from lurking submarines.

As she disappeared into the distance, her lamp signaled repeatedly, “I will report…I will report.” On the morning of the third day an American ship picked up the survivors and took them to Bermuda.

With four of the five Lady Boats sunk, the Royal Canadian Navy was finally convinced of the dangers of ships sailing alone and the need for escorts. When Lady Rodney sailed, an RCN corvette accompanied her.

Rodney remained the only Lady Boat not sunk during the war, although she had a couple of narrow escapes when she was spotted by U-boats. By war’s end, Rodney had safely transported almost 60,000 troops in addition to another 66,000 passengers.

In 1946, the two surviving Lady Boats, Nelson and Rodney, were assigned a new task: bringing war brides and their children from Britain to Canada through Halifax’s Pier 21. These so-called Diaper Specials continued for about a year before the ships were extensively refitted and returned to their old West Indian routes.

But times had changed. Union confrontations, rising costs, competition and decreasing passenger levels all led to one conclusion: the Lady Boats would have to go.

In 1952 they were sold to Egypt for $750,000, complete with all fittings and accessories. After being refitted at Alexandria and then renamed, they were used to carry passengers in the Mediterranean and Red Seas.

The legendary Ladies that faithfully plied the waters between Canada and the West Indies for nearly a quarter of a century through peace and war, were no more.

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  • rj

    Thank you for posting this….I remember my parents travelled on the lady boats from Trinidad to the UK.. It took 2 weeks and was very memorable… Would you happen to know which of the Lady Boats travelled from Trinidad to the UK in the 1920′s, ’30s, ’40s & ’50s?

  • Alan Owen

    My father was an engineer on the Nelson when she was sunk. He was assigned to stay with her while she was towed to Mobile Alabama for repairs and supervised the work carried out.

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