Calypso Connections

  • Downhome Magazine
  • Posted: Oct 18, 2016 9:45 AM
These rusting pieces are all that remain of Calypso, which lies off Embree.

Dennis Flynn follows the trail of scattered artifacts from a former WWI Naval Reserve training vessel.

The northerly wind buffets past Cabot Tower and tugs at uniform pant legs, naval caps and heavy pea jackets. The officer in charge of the Hotchkiss 3 Pounder gun pays the wind and the darkening clouds no mind, so focused on his appointed task and moving with military precision. He checks the bore and returns to place the round in the chamber, securing it with practised ease. A pocket watch upon chain is pulled out and checked. Within seconds of the appointed time to commence firing, the lanyard is passed over to me. I wait for the command and at the designated word gently pull, not yank, the cord. The great gun discharges with a satisfying roar that can be heard some three kilometres downwind and a dragon’s breath puff of smoke. I am thanked publically for my service to the Navy and discharged from my duties with requisite fanfare from the crowd assembled.

It will be a very small pension. I have only been part of the crew for about 15 minutes, but loved every second. It literally and figuratively has been a blast.

The history-loving writer in me knows I have been very fortunate to join the relatively short list of people who have gotten to fire the Signal Hill Noon Day Gun. The little boy buried very deep inside every man, however, realizes I also got to shoot the biggest cap gun I will ever get my hands on and can’t stop smiling.

An elderly visitor to Signal Hill who witnessed me firing the gun asks if I’m a member of the military or a dignitary. I tell her all anyone needs to fire the Noon Day Gun is the desire and the $49 to pay Parks Canada for the privilege.

My guide through a weekend visit to the Signal Hill National Historic Site this past August is Robin Martin. He explains that the Noon Day Gun has been firing over St. John’s harbour for at least 150 years. The daily blast helped not only residents set the time, but also ship’s captains relied upon it to test the accuracy of their chronometers (device to measure time), necessary for navigation.

“The practice of firing the Noon Day Gun was continued by the colonial government even after the British garrison departed in 1870,” Robin explains. “Today the gun you fired is a Quick Fire 3 Pounder Hotchkiss (meaning it fired a 3lb projectile) that we have restored. It was actually used as the Noon Day Gun around 1930 and originally came off HMS Briton [formerly known as the Calypso], which was a very significant vessel used in training members of the Royal Naval Reserve prior to WWI.”

Of course, I already know about the Calypso connection; it’s what brought me to Signal Hill in the first place. Even a century after her wartime career, artifacts from the Calypso keep showing up in collections all over Newfoundland and Labrador.

Back in September 2009, I was returning from a hiking trip in Labrador aboard the ferry Sir Robert Bond, and as we sailed towards the island terminal at Lewisporte, I noticed a huge metal shipwreck a few miles up the coast. Once ashore I drove north to Embree to investigate, and it turns out that what I saw were the remains of the Calypso’s hull. In February 1916, she was renamed the Briton to free up the name Calypso for another British naval vessel being built (common practice at the time). In 1922, A.H. Murray purchased her for a coal and salt storage hulk in St. John’s. From there she went to Lewisporte in 1952 and was eventually scrapped in 1968 in Embree. She now lies about 150 feet from the shore, with only pieces of her rusted hull still above water. 

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The Calypso's anchor now sits on the grounds of the Lewisporte town office.

But there are other parts of the Calypso preserved in other places and other ways. For instance, one of her anchors is proudly displayed outside the Lewisporte town hall. Another of her guns, I am told, can be found about 65 km west of there at the Grand Falls Royal Canadian Legion. During a recent visit to the HMCS Cabot base in St. John’s, as part of the Doors Open weekend in September, I encountered another Hotchkiss gun and a wardrobe chair from the vessel, both given prominent display. The Murray Premises Hotel in the heart of downtown St. John’s has a Calypso Room and once displayed a replica of the Calypso’s ship’s wheel in the lobby. And at the Admiralty House Museum in Mount Pearl, a former top-secret wireless station for the British Royal Navy in WWI, there is a Calypso Room with a shot basket (used to store cannon balls) from the ship and a bench made from a wooden hatch cover. My favourite Calypso artifacts there were two small ceremonial cannons (dating from 1883-1922) donated by the Tooton family.

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A Hotchkiss gun from Calypso is on display at HMCS Cabot Base in St. John's.

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A ceremonial cannon from Calypso is on display at Admiralty House Communications Museum in Mount Pearl.

So why does the Calypso continue to hold such a special place in the hearts of so many? According to the Calypso Project website (a collaboration of Marine Institute-Memorial University researchers), “The Calypso was part of the last class of ships known as the steam-sail corvettes. She was 235 feet long, 44.5 feet wide and weighed 2,770 tons. She could move at a speed of 15 knots.” It goes on to say the Newfoundland Royal Naval Reserve started in 1900, training men aged 17-29 aboard the Calypso to be sailors should war break out. Many of the almost 1,300 reservists were fishermen from remote parts of the island. They were ready when their call came on July 28, 1914, to go to war. 

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A panel on the WWI commemorative quilt by the Pigeon Inlet Quilters Guild honours the late Jacob Bussey of Port de Grave and the Calypso.

Among them was the late Jacob Bussey of Port de Grave. I met his daughter-in-law Daphne Bussey when I visited Bay Roberts this summer to view a WWI commemorative quilt by the Pigeon Inlet Quilters Guild. Pointing to a panel depicting Jacob in his WWI naval uniform next to a replica of the Calypso, she said. “He really loved that ship all his life. He trained on her before going overseas and never stopped talking about Calypso. Jacob actually made the replica from the wood of Calypso and we have it at home.”

A few days later I met with Jacob’s son Ross, a retired teacher, who showed me his father’s Calypso replica model. “Father was actually on the Labrador fishing in August 1914 when the call came out to report to the Admiralty for the Royal Naval Reserve,” Ross said, adding that Jacob would have been 17 then, and very patriotic. In his later years, he expressed a desire to have a piece of the Calypso that he could use to build a model of her - which he did when he was 75, his son said.

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Ross Bussey displays a replica of the Calypso his father Jacob, a former crew member of the ship, made from wood salvaged from the original vessel.

“It was a funny story, as I went out to Embree in my 1966 [Pontiac] Parisienne Sports Coupe and filled the trunk with the wood off a deck rail for him. He thought that much of the wood of Calypso I wasn’t even allowed to throw out the shavings [leftover scraps from making the model] until after he died. He took two pieces of plank and joined them together into a solid piece. He had no plans and only went from a photo in a newspaper clipping from The Evening Telegram in January 1969 and his memory. The anchor is made from the brass bearing from an 8 HP Acadia motor. Aircraft rivets from Gander he used to make replicas of the guns. He worked on it a couple of years, but loved it.”

Among Jacob’s wartime memorabilia were a uniform, papers, personal documents, diary, souvenir tins and a piece of shrapnel that almost killed him when a vessel he was serving on came under enemy fire. The shrapnel pierced the wall where his head had been just seconds before. Recognizing the significance of the near miss, Jacob dug the metal out of the wall with his pocketknife and kept it all his life. 

“Father always said if Calypso has been down in the States somewhere and rich men’s sons trained on her, she would have been preserved as a museum today. But it was poor fishermen’s sons so they let her go.”