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Remembering Calypso

The story of the Newfoundland Royal Naval Reserve’s training vessel

special feature: Commemoration

Part of a special feature marking the centenary of the First World War and highlighting Memorial’s status as a living memorial that in freedom of learning their cause and sacrifice might not be forgotten.” This feature supports WW100, Memorial’s Commemoration Program.    


By Leslie Earle

Newfoundlanders and Labradorians have a strong connection to the sea, so it was no coincidence when hundreds came forward to serve in the Royal Navy during the First World War.

And as fishermen, the men were no strangers to the hard work or harsh conditions that would ensue.

However, to ensure they were equipped with the necessary skills to survive at sea during wartime specialized training was required, which they received aboard a dedicated vessel docked in St. John’s: the HMS Calypso.

Interactive commemoration

Today, the remains of this wartime vessel lie in the waters off the shores of the community of Embree in Central Newfoundland, but her story and those of the reservists who trained on her are back in action thanks to a new project by a cross-campus team at the Fisheries and Marine Institute (MI) of Memorial University.

“Newfoundlanders played a tremendous role in our world wars,” said Katie Lawton, head of public services at the Dr. C.R. Barrett Library and member of the Calypso project team. “After discovering the architectural drawings of the HMS Calypso and several other pieces through research at both the Maritime History Archives and The Rooms, we began putting together an interactive website where students, researchers and the public could discover more about the Royal Newfoundland Naval Reserve and the ship which they were part of.”

Members of the Remembering Calypso project team meet to review the new website. Left to Right – Tracy Keeping, Katie Lawton, Danielle Percy, Scott Bruce and Jessica Cahill. Missing from photo are Mark Wareham and Paul Ryan.
From left, members of the Remembering Calypso project team Tracy Keeping, Katie Lawton, Danielle Percy, Scott Bruce and Jessica Cahill. Missing are Mark Wareham and Paul Ryan.
Photo: Chris Hammond

Visitors will find the detailed architectural drawings of the vessel, its history and photos of the many faces of those who served or were trained onboard.

Humble beginnings

The Newfoundland Royal Naval Reserve was formed in 1900 as a trial. Young men between the ages of 17 and 29 would serve to fill the working gap of sailors in the event of war. Enlisting from rural parts of the island, many were interested in steady employment following the fishing season and eager to serve.

Upon enrolment, the men agreed to five-year terms, which included training and time at sea. As the terms of their agreement evolved, so too did the training. In 1902 the reserve welcomed the HMS Calypso—an older Royal Navy ship that the City of St. John’s refurbished for 1,800 pounds. In the days that followed, the vessel would allow the reserve to introduce an intensive two-month training scheme.

Built to defend

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 fifteen knots.

Built to defend as the drawings highlight, the vessel was armed with four mounted six-inch breech-loaders and 12 five-inch breech loaders. Likewise, there were six machine guns on the upper deck and two 14-inch torpedo tubes on the main deck.

1/ Royal Naval Reservists

Royal Naval Reservists from the HMS Calypso.

Photo: The Rooms Provincial Archives

2/ HMS Calypso Crew

Crew on the deck of the HMS Calypso in drydock.

Photo: The Rooms Provincial Archives

3/ Members of the Newfoundland Royal Naval Reserve

Members of the Newfoundland Royal Naval Reserve in uniform and standing near the HMS Calypso in St. John's, N.L.

Photo: Maritime History Archive

4/ HMS Calypso, Refitted for Training Purposes

The HMS Calypso docked in St. John's, N.L.

Photo: Maritime History Archive

5/ HMS Calypso

HMS Calypso, prior to being transformed to meet the training needs of the Newfoundland Royal Naval Reserve.

Photo: The Rooms Provincial Archives

6/ Architectural Drawings

Profile of the HMS Calypso.

Photo: Digital Archives Initiative, Memorial University Libraries

The arms, combined with a protective steel deck below the main deck that could stop all but the heaviest of shells, ensured that the Calypso was well protected.

“This was a very interesting ship and as instructors in the maritime field, the discovery of the original drawings was quite intriguing to MI’s Mark Wareham and Paul Ryan,” continued Ms. Lawton. “Their role was to label each part of the vessel as part of the digital drawings, ensuring visitors to the website would have an understanding of the entire structure.”

Training transformation

Upon her move to St. John’s, the Calypso was transformed to meet the needs of trainees.

The fore, main and mizzen masts were removed, along with the funnel. Similarly, the flush deck was covered over with a peaked roof to form a giant, floating drill hall. Lastly, the hull where most of the Calypso’s armament had been removed was turned into the Newfoundland reservists’ quarters.

“Our new website captures the many faces of the young men who came forward to serve. So young and eager to learn” –Katie Lawton

Nearly 1,300 reservists trained aboard the Calypso between 1902 and the start of the First World War. On July 28, 1914, Newfoundland reservists were the first to respond when the British Admiralty issued a call for trained seamen.

“Our new website captures the many faces of the young men who came forward to serve,” Ms. Lawton said. “So young and eager to learn. It’s important we take time to remember their contributions.”

Final days

The HMS Calypso was in St. John’s until 1914, at which time she was summoned to protect the waters surrounding Newfoundland and Labrador and to assist with shipping. In 1916 she was renamed HMS Briton and in 1920 was sold to a local merchant as storage for coal and salt.

“We are proud to be commemorating the Newfoundland Royal Naval Reserve and the HMS Calypso and hope that others will take time to get to know more about the Newfoundland Royal Naval Reserve,” said Ms. Lawton. “Going forward, we hope this project will grow to include the history of the Mercantile Marine in the First World War and later, the Merchant Marine in the Second World War.”

While the website has been a great history lesson for the project team, it’s also a great example of collaboration across the Marine Institute.

“The website really was a collective effort,” said Ms. Lawton. “I would like to acknowledge the research work of Jessie Cahill, the website design by Danielle Percy and the technical web design by Scott Bruce, as well as the efforts of all other members of the team who dedicated so much of their time to make this project a reality.”

To learn more about the HMS Calypso, visit the newly designed website.


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