Ship’s wheel from HMCS Niobe returns home

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Navy News / October 17, 2016

By Darlene Blakeley

An historic part of Canada’s naval past has returned home after nearly 100 years.

The ship’s wheel from Her Majesty’s Canadian Ship (HMCS) Niobe, one of Canada’s first two warships, has been acquired by the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa.

HMCS Niobe saw active service in the First World War and its crew members played a significant role in responding to the 1917 Halifax Explosion.

The Canadian War Museum purchased the wheel from the Camden Shipyard and Maritime Museum in New Jersey with the support of the National Collection Fund, which was created to acquire and conserve artifacts of significance to Canada’s heritage.

The acquisition comes as the Royal Canadian Navy (RCN) marks Niobe Day, celebrated annually on October 21.

“The process to acquire Niobe’s ship’s wheel took place over the past year after the museum in New Jersey approached us to see if we wanted it,” says Jeff Noakes, Second World War historian at the Canadian War Museum. “We are excited to have it back in Canada.”

Mr. Noakes says that the acquisition of the wheel is “one those fascinating stories about how objects like this can go around the world and then come back to Canada.” The Canadian War Museum also has one of the ship’s wheels from HMCS Rainbow, the second of Canada’s first two warships.

Niobe’s wheel requires conservation work before it can be displayed. At over 158 kilograms, with a diameter of two metres, the wheel also needs a custom-made stand.

“This was the largest remaining artifact from Niobe,” Mr. Noakes says. “We had a rare opportunity to acquire something of importance to Canada’s naval history. We were in a position to take advantage of the opportunity and are thrilled that we will be able to preserve the wheel for present and future generations.”

Launched in 1897, Niobe served with the Royal Navy until 1910. That year, it was purchased by the newly formed Naval Service of Canada, which became the RCN in 1911. Niobe arrived in Halifax on October 21, 1910, making it the first Canadian warship to enter Canada’s territorial waters. Niobe was the main sovereignty patrol and training vessel on the East Coast before seeing active service early in the First World War. By 1915, requiring extensive repairs, it became a depot ship in Halifax.

On December 6, 1917, the Mont Blanc, carrying a cargo of explosives, collided with the Imo in the Halifax Harbour. When a fire broke out on the Mont Blanc, Niobe’s Acting Boatswain Albert Charles Mattison led a rescue attempt of six men in the ship’s pinnace, a small steamboat. As the men approached the Mont Blanc, it exploded, killing them instantly, destroying the pinnace, damaging Niobe and devastating much of Halifax.

For their rescue efforts during the explosion, Acting Botswain Mattison and Stoker Petty Officer Ernest Edmund Beard were posthumously awarded Albert Medals, both of which are also part of the Canadian War Museum collection.

Following repairs, Niobe resumed its duties as a depot ship but was sold as surplus after the war and scrapped in the United States in 1920. The wheel was displayed at the Merchantville Country Club in New Jersey before being donated to the Camden Shipyard and Maritime Museum.

“There are certain objects on a ship that represent its heart and soul – like the ship’s wheel or the ship’s bell,” says Rick Sanderson, Director of the Naval Museum of Halifax. “We have Niobe’s bell here, and other objects from the ship are located in different parts of the country.”

In fact, Mr. Sanderson helped identify an anchor uncovered in Halifax Dockyard in 2014 as being one of Niobe’s from when it was a depot ship post-1916. 

“It’s important that these objects, as pieces representative of the RCN’s beginnings, be kept in the country as much as possible,” he adds. “It was ideal that the Canadian War Museum could take Niobe’s ship’s wheel - it’s a very positive development for the navy.”