Author: Dr. Robert L. Davison

Publication Date: 2010

Edited: 2022



Historic Guelph V49P26Admiral Sir Charles Kingsmill, 1910.

(Photo courtesy of Guelph Museums (1981_280_1)).


Admiral Sir Charles Kingsmill, as the readers of Historic Guelph are no doubt aware, was the founding director of the Royal Canadian Navy and also a native of Guelph where he was born in July 1855. Exploring the life and work of Kingsmill in the context of the centenary of the establishment of the Royal Canadian Navy in 2010 seems, therefore, to be especially fitting. One aspect of Kingsmill's career has not been dealt with extensively, however. In August 1906, while he was in command of the first-class battleship, Dominion. The vessel ran aground in Chaleur Bay in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. In the subsequent Board of Enquiry and Court Martial, both Kingsmill and his Navigating Officer were convicted of, "By default hazarding," Dominion and were sentenced to be severely reprimanded. This no doubt was a profound shock to Kingsmill's professional self-esteem and played a role in his accepting the post as the Canadian Navy's first director.


Charles Edmund Kingsmill was the son of John Juchereau Kingsmill, the Crown Attorney for Wellington County, and Ellen Diana Giange, the daughter of the Sheriff of Wellington County. The couple was married in 1854. Unfortunately, Ellen passed away as a result of a tragic sleigh accident in the winter of 1860.1 The elder Kingsmill married three more times over the course of his life and left ten offspring at the time of his passing in 1900.2 The Kingsmill family had long-standing political connections to the Liberal Party, and it is not suprising that sufficient patronage could be accumulated to have young Charles selected to become a cadet in the training ship HMS Britannia in 1869, when he was just 14 years of age. It is doubtful that Charles would ever again visit Guelph.


Young Charles attended Upper Canada College between 1866 and 1868. The reason for his decision to join the Royal Navy has not been recorded. Richard Gimlett has speculated that Kingsmill was inspired by a story of a Trafalgar veteran published by his grandfather and the influence of the principal of Upper Canada College.3 Whichever story is true, during this time period, specific provision had been left in the King's Regulations that a set number of cadets from the colonies could pass to become cadets in the Royal Navy. With the political connections possessed by the Kingsmill family, obtaining a nomination appears to have been achieved with little difficulty. In the competitive entry examinations, Kingsmill managed to make the cut. So, in the fall of 1869, Charles was entered into the Royal Navy as a cadet in the training ship HMS Britannia at Dartmouth, England.


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Map showing the footprint of Kingsmill's house, 1877. Kingsmill's house is located on what is now known as Woodycrest Drive.

(Photo courtesy of Guelph Museums).


Cadets entering this school came from a very narrow class of families in British and Empire society. Kingsmill, as a son of a barrister and a judge, would have been very much part of the proper social set permitted to enter Britannia. First of all, a cadet was required to be a British subject of pure European heritage and with the requirement of a nomination from a senior officer or the Admiralty. It was also a requirement to come from a respectable middle-class family. Education provided by the training ship was not free. Parents were expected to pay in the range of £70 per annum, plus cost of outfit and books. After a cadet had passed through Britannia, families were expected to subsidize the life of the young officer until he reached the rank of sub-lieutenant four years after entering the system.


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Kingsmill House, 1940s.

(Photo courtesy of Guelph Museums).


Before the Royal Naval College was built at Dartmouth, nearly all the Navy's executive officers were trained aboard two old ships of the line moored in Dartmouth Harbour. Prior to 1857, all boys entering the Royal Navy as officers went to sea directly at the age of 12 or 13. But, it was decided by the Admiralty to offer an introductory course before going to sea in an old ship-of-the-line moored at Portsmouth. The ship was moved to Dartmouth in 1863. The atmosphere at that smaller town was deemed to offer a healthier and less morally questionable environment than Portsmouth. The education offered at Britannia was along the lines of British public schools but with much more emphasis on mathematics and the sciences than its civilian counterparts like Eton or Harrow, which tended to focus more on the classics and humanities. Britannia also featured some of the less savory aspects of the English public school system such as 'fagging,' bullying and harsh discipline. Cadets could be caned and flogged by officers in public and fights were common among the 'inmates.'


The education provided by Britannia has been criticized as being too narrow. As it was only a short course, it was deemed that those skills essential to carry out the duties of an officer of the watch were paramount. For instance, seamanship, navigation and pilotage kept the pride of place at the institution up until the Second World War. Indeed, the curriculum was so specialized that cadets often had to attend naval crammers in order to even succeed in the entrance examinations. Schools run by former Naval Instructors like Burney's Naval Academy in Gosport (outside Portsmouth) prepared hundreds of young boys for the rigours of Britannia. The process whereby Kingsmill was prepared for the training ship is unknown. It is likely that he was given a specialized supplemental instruction at Upper Canada College.


After passing out of Britannia in December 1870, Kingsmill was assigned to the steam frigate Ariadne as a cadet and gained experience in a number of vessels.4 It is apparent in this phase of his career that Kingsmill did not enjoy the patronage of any of the Navy's rising stars and it seems that his career, though off to a promising start, was limited by his lack of connections. In December 1875, Kingsmill passed his oral seamanship examination for lieutenant and was duly promoted to sub-lieutenant, pending the passing of four other examinations before his official promotion to lieutenant. It is apparent from his service record that he did reasonably well, as he was promoted to the rank of lieutenant in September 1877 at the age of 22. Just before his promotion to lieutenant, he was on the books of the Royal Yacht Victoria and Albert. This was less of a special note on his connections than that the Admiralty did not wish to place a junior officer without employment. Like many officers of his generation who were not blessed with patronage, Kingsmill applied for and specialized in torpedo. After serving a year at sea, Kingsmill took the torpedo course at Vernon, then under the command of Captain W. E. Gordon, from October 1879 until June 1880. Kingsmill, however, failed to pass the examination for Lieutenant (T), and spent a year on half pay to try the course again.


Kingsmill served as a lieutenant from October 1878 until February 1892 with a brief stint in the fall of 1889 as Acting Commander of the Cormorant, a 1,100-tonne sloop, which was not broken up until 1949. By the early 1890s, it was clear that Kingsmill's career was at a crossroads. While promotion to sub-lieutenant and lieutenant in the Royal Navy was a combination of seniority and performance on written examinations, advancement to commander and captain, was by selection and here is where those precious connections were critical. Officers could not stay as lieutenants forever with the hope that eventually they might be selected for promotion. Un-promoted lieutenants had the option to retire with a full pension at the age of 40, and were compelled to retire at 45 to ensure that the officer promotion system would continue to make space for younger men with a reasonable chance of having a successful career. Furthermore, as an officer aged and gained seniority past a certain point called the 'zone of promotion,' it was judged that he might be getting too old for advancement to captain or flag rank at a later date. The 'zone of promotion' for lieutenants to advance to commander was generally about 10 to 14 years seniority, which not a hard and fast rule as many exceptions were made. Hence, Kingsmill reached a decade of service in rank by October 1888, and could expect to leave the zone by October 1892. Fortunately, he gained his 'brass hat' or promotion to commander, which was effective June 30, 1891, and served the customary period of several months unemployment and attendance at the Royal Naval College for voluntary studies prior to being appointed to a sea-going vessel. Kingsmill served in three cruisers as executive officer from October 1893 until December 1898.


Again, by 1898, his career was at another crossroad. As with lieutenants, commanders could not stay on the active list forever at that rank. Commanders were generally selected for promotion to Captain with four to eight years seniority in the former rank. Kingsmill was fortunate enough to be promoted to Captain in the December half-yearly promotion list in 1898. His career continued steadily as he gained some good commands including the battleship Dominion in March 1906. In 1905, he was in the second batch of officers who underwent training at the War Course at Greenwich and managed to achieve a second-class certificate. This course was designed to teach comparatively senior officers the conduct of operations, and strategic and tactical planning. This was accomplished through lectures, many of which were given by the famous historian Julian Corbett (a naval theorist of great distinction), war games and intellectual exercises, which were designed to give an officer flexibility of mind in dealing with command problems.


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Kingsmill House, 1940s.

(Photo courtesy of Guelph Museums).


Hence by 1906, Kingsmill's career could be said to have proceeded very satisfactorily. While it was true that he was not exactly a 'high-flyer' in the Service, since promotion came late and he did not seem to possess the right combination of connections and select billets, he nonetheless had showed himself a man with a high level of competence and ability to command. The bulk of his career had been spent on distant stations rather than the great fleets. Serving in Home or Mediterranean squadrons was very important to be noticed and cultivate connections with peers and superiors. The irony was that to get such appointments patronage was critical regardless of ability. Andrew Gordon in The Rules of the Game, his study of Jutland, illustrates the problems of advancement in a service where patronage and social connections were extremely important.5 Nonetheless, Kingsmill had ample opportunities to advance his own education with the opportunity to qualify as a torpedo specialist, study at the Royal Naval College, while on hall pay, and finally selection to attend the War Course in 1905. Further, as his career progressed, he showed an upward trajectory that indicated that he was considered a valuable officer and could be trusted with immense responsibilities. By 1906, therefore, Kingsmill was reaching the head of the Captain's seniority list, Seniority from December 31, 1898, and it was expected that within a year or two he could be promoted to Rear Admiral and have at least several more years of active service before being compelled to retire. Even if he ended his career as a Rear Admiral, he would have the pension of a flag officer as well as the social prestige of the rank.


Kingsmill's career, however, hit a bump in the summer of 1906. In March of that year, he had been given command of the new battleship Dominion. The Dominion was the third ship of the King Edward VII class, which was built by Vickers, laid down in May 1902 and commissioned in August 1903. The ship displaced over 16,000 tons and was 439-feet long at the waterline. A complement of nearly 800 officers and men were required to drive her engines to a maximum of 18,000 shaft horsepower that gave a top design speed of 19 knots. The ship was armed with four 12-inch guns, each capable of firing an 850 pound shell that could penetrate ten inches of cemented armour plate at 5,000 yards. The vessel also mounted four 9.2-inch guns in single turrets and ten six-inch guns in barbettes.6 The ship had a reputation for being exceptionally handy even under full power. The ship cost the British taxpayer £1.5 million and over £120,000 per annum to operate.7 Prior to the construction of the new Dreadnought battle fleet just before the outbreak of World War I, Dominion was a first-class unit and the ship served as part of the 3rd Battle Squadron stationed on the Tyne in the North Sea.


It was indeed fitting that Kingsmill, a Canadian-born officer was given command of this ship as it was named in honour of the senior Dominion of the Empire, Canada. In some respects, Kingsmill's appointment to this ship was a public relations exercise. The ship itself was also a public relations exercise at a time when the Admiralty and the British government were attempting to extract support from the self-governing communities of the Empire to maintain the expensive Royal Navy on a worldwide basis. Indeed, Dominion was no stranger to this activity as the ship itself became the pallbearer for the Honourable R. Prefontaine, Canada's minister of Marine who passed away in Paris in January 1906. This still did not prevent squabbling between the Admiralty and the Colonial Office as to who should foot the bill for that activity.8


As a part of these public relations duties, Kingsmill was to have independent command of Dominion to carry out port visits to various Canadian ports. The most important of these ports was a stop in Quebec City in the third week in August where the new battleship would be presented with a crest, plate and other furnishings for the Captain's quarters and the officers' wardroom. These furnishings would be presented at a ceremony attended by the Governor General as well as Prime Minister Wilfrid Laurier, the Minister of Marine, Louis Brodeur, and the mayors of Quebec City and Halifax. The major part of the ship's program was to raise the profile of the Royal Navy in Canada and to help reframe the debate over naval defence in Canadian politics. Indeed, Kingsmill would accept the plate, "As an object lesson to the sons and grandsons of Canadians who would join the British Navy."9 But before steaming up the St. Lawrence, the Dominion would suffer a slight accident that would profoundly affect Kingsmill's career.


Dominion left Port Daniel, Quebec on the southern shore of Gaspé on August 16th and sailed further into Chaleur Bay to Dalhousie, New Brunswick, arriving about 9 A.M. The ship spent the day riding at anchor and Kingsmill, in concurrence with his Navigating Officer Lieutenant(N) Basil Noake, decided to make for Quebec that evening to take advantage of the clear visibility.10 Accordingly, at 6 P.M., the anchor was weighed and the ship proceeded down Chaleur Bay at 15 knots, which was perhaps a bit fast considering the vessel's top speed of 19 knots. It was at this point that a series of errors was made in shaping the vessel's course that had it firmly aground within three hours. The officer of the watch mistook the light of a brush fire for the lighthouse at Souris Point and the light at Paspebiac Point for a passing steamer. Neither Kingsmill, Lieutenant Noake, nor the Navigating Assistant were on the bridge during this misreading. Feeling something was wrong, Noake after arriving back on the bridge ordered the employment of the lead line and indicated that the ship was shoaling. At the last minute, the officer of the watch, Lieutenant Frederic Clarkson ordered an emergency turn to port, stopped the engines, and then reversed them. It was too late, and just as the ship touched ground Kingsmill rushed up from his cabin where he was finishing dinner, to deal with the situation. Much would be made of his absence from the bridge when the ship was still within sight of land.


The ship was hard aground, and one can imagine the dreadful feeling that Kingsmill experienced as his career flashed before his eyes. He was the captain, and he was responsible. However, a lifetime of training as a naval officer and his high degree of personal initiative stepped in. He did not just wire for orders and took steps not just to ensure the safety of the vessel, but took advantage of tide conditions to extricate the Dominion. He also turned it into an all-hands evolution where the crew was mustered forward to shift the displacement of the vessel and it turned into a dance competition led by the ship's marine band.11


Within two hours, the ship was off the shoal and at daybreak divers were dispatched to ascertain the level of damage to the ship. Only then did Kingsmill report to the Admiralty via wireless complete with recommendations that the ship be docked in Halifax for repairs.12 A full report of the incident was written after the ship had arrived at Quebec on August 19th.13


Despite the incident, the presentation at Quebec came off without incident and the press was kept in the dark until the Dominion left to return to Britain via Bermuda. Essential repairs were carried out at the dockyard and permanent work was to be completed at the Royal Dockyard at Chatham in the Thames Estuary. Kingsmill and his officers were to endure a future Board of Enquiry and the possibility of a court martial if there was evidence of misconduct. It must have been trying to maintain the efficiency of the ship and crew in such circumstances. It was not until February that Admiral Sir Gerard Noel, Kingsmill's Commander-in-Chief, ordered a formal investigation to be carried out aboard the Dominion itself.


The Board was appointed by the Admiralty to deal with this case and consisted of officers equal or superior to Kingsmill's rank of post captain - Commodore Frederick Stopford of HMS Pembroke and Commanding Officer of the Steam Reserve at Chatham and Captain A. Moggridge, Flag Captain to the Commander-in-Chief, the Nore. After taking the testimony of the officers involved, members of the Board were of opinion that Dominion,


"Was not navigated with due care and we attribute blame to lack of precaution on the part of the Lieutenant(N), we also consider the Captain should have been on deck when in such close proximity to the land."14


It is interesting to note that the Board considered that the Navigating Officer rather than Kingsmill was primarily to blame for the stranding of the ship. A bit of fellow feeling may have been involved here since Stopford, who later prosecuted at-the Court Martial, would handle Kingsmill gently and would even decline to cross-examine when Kingsmill testified in his own defence much to the chagrin of the fudge Advocate of the Fleet.15 Admiral Noel concurred with the findings of the Court and according to regulations submitted all reports to the Board for its deliberation on whether charges would be laid against Kingsmill and his Navigator.


By Saturday of that same week, on February 16th, the First Sea Lord Admiral Sir John Fisher directed that both Noake and Kingsmill should be tried by court martial for hazarding Dominion. In order to save time and expense, Commodore Stopford was selected to prosecute, and the President of the Court was Rear Admiral Frank Finnis of the Home Fleet. As prosecutor, it was Stopford's responsibility to draw up both the charge sheet and the circumstantial letter. A wrinkle was added on February 22, when Fisher amended the charge sheet to include not just Kingsmill and Noake but also the officer of the watch, Lieutenant Clarkson as well. The revised charge sheet, circumstantial letter, and the warrant were delivered to Admiral Finnis and the Court was convened on Monday, March 4, 1907. Kingsmill declined counsel and conducted a spirited defence of his actions and those of his officers.


After certificates and documents were examined, the room was cleared to permit the Court to deliberate. After a short period, the Court was reconvened and the verdict read. Both Kingsmill and Noake were convicted of the charge of having by default suffered the Dominion to be run aground.16 The officer of the watch, Lieutenant Clarkson, was found not guilty. Both prisoners were sentenced to be severely reprimanded but stopped short of dismissing them from their ship, as that would have sounded the death knell of both their careers. The Court's sentence did not take effect immediately since all punishments had to be confirmed by the Board of Admiralty. Both the Hydrographer and the Judge Advocate General weighed in on the issue. The Board, chiefly the First Sea Lord Admiral Sir John Fisher, the Second Sea Lord Admiral Sir Charles Drury and the 4th Sea Lord Admiral Sir Wilfrid Winsloe considered the punishment light and considered that both Kingsmill and Noake should have been dismissed from their ship.17


While Kingsmill had been convicted and a dreadful blow had been struck to his professional self-esteem, it was evident that the Court had refused to end his career then and there. Indeed, the conduct of the prosecutor, Commodore Stopford, had demonstrated that Kingsmill was held in high professional regard. In the report of the Board of Enquiry he had deflected blame from Dominion's commanding officer and during the trial he refused to cross-examine him. Also, the Court on finding both Kingsmill and Noake guilty, had refrained from inflicting the severest penalty available to it. Neither officer was dismissed from Dominion and Kingsmill retained command of the battleship for several more months. Kingsmill was also spared financial loss by being appointed to the command of an older ship, the battleship Repulse, with no period of unemployment on half pay.18 It must have been apparent to Kingsmill, however, that it was unlikely that he would be employed as a flag officer on the active list and would most likely be retired at the rank of Rear Admiral. This was an especially pressing issue since he was reaching the head of the seniority list.19 At this juncture, Kingsmill's connections to the Liberal party and the Prime Minister would serve him well. No doubt the possibility of continuing in active service-in a new navy was highly attractive compared to being stranded on the beach. Under these circumstances, the court martial of 1907 pushed Kingsmill toward accepting Laurier's offer to become the director of a new Canadian navy. It was, for the Royal Canadian Navy, if not perhaps for Kingsmill personally, a fortunate court martial.



  1. Wellington County Museum and Archives, Kingsmill Collection, A2002-S4, "Melancholy and Fatal Accident," Newspaper clipping source unknown, 1860.
  2. Wellington County Museum and Archives, Kingsmill Collection, A2002-S-4, "John Juchereau Kingsmill Expires at Sea," Newspaper clipping unknown, 1900. Kingsmill was married to Ellen Diana Grange from 1854 to 1860; to Julia Dickson from 1861 to 1869; to Caroline Louise Stokes from 1871 to her death in the early 1880s; and to Agnes Bernard from 1884 until his death in 1900.
  3. Richard Gimlett, "Admiral Sir Charles E. Kingsmill: Forgotten Father," in Michael Whitby et al., The Admirals: Canada's Senior Naval Leadership in the Twentieth Century (Toronto: Dundurn Press, 2006), p. 34.
  4. For details of Kingsmill's career see, Great Britain The National Archives (TNA) Admiralty Papers (ADM) 196/38, service record of C. E. Kingsmill, p. 755 A copy of this service record can also be found in the Wellington County Museum and Archives, in Fergus, Ontario.
  5. Andrew Gordon, The Rules of the Games: Jutrand and British Naval Command (London: John Murray, 1996).
  6. J. J. Colledge, Ships of the Royal Navy (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1987), p. 1, 110.
  7. Jane's Fighting Ships of World War I, (reprint of 1919 edition), (New York: Military Press, 1990), p. 46.
  8. TNA, ADM; 41, 1914.
  9. "Service of Plate to the Dominion," The Globe, August 23, 1906.
  10. Indicates rank in the Navigating Branch.
  11. "Crew All Danced to Save the Ship," The Globe, September 3, 1906.
  12. TNA, ADM; 1, 1954, Kingsmill to Admiralty, August 17, 1906, p. 12.
  13. TNA, ADM 1, 1954, Kingsmill to Admiralty, August 19, p. 6-10.
  14. TNA, ADM, 4, 1954, Commodore Frederick Stopford and Captain A. Moggridge to Admiral Sir Gerard Noel, February 11, 1907, p. 30-31.
  15. TNA, ADM, 4, 1954, Copy of the Minutes by the Judge Advocate of the Fleet, J. Hoste, March 9, 1907, p. 80-81. "I observe that the prosecutor failed to cross-examine Captain Kingsmill and Lieutenant Noake, and in my opinion failed in his duty in this respect, with the result that the Court had to cross-examine them which seems to me an undesirable position in which to place judges."
  16. TNA, ADM, 196/38 Service Record of C. E. Kingsmill, p. 755. "4 March 07 tried by Court Martial for suffering 'Dominion' to be stranded on 16 August 06: default proved. Sentenced to be severely reprimanded N. L. 2343/07. [Both] considered sentence lenient."
  17. TNA, ADM, 1954, Minutes, March 16, 1907, p. 19
  18. Unemployed officers without an active appointment were paid only a fraction of their pay. This could involve considerable financial hardship for those with families to support even at the exalted rank of captain.
  19. Promotion from Captain to Rear Admiral was by seniority. An officer reaching the head of the captain's list would be promoted to flag rank. A few years after this incident, the Admiralty would be given the power to force senior captains to retire before promotion to Rear Admiral.