The Canadian Lady Boats

Canadian National Steamships Funnel branding:
broad Red at the bottom with White band and Blue top.

Between 1928 and 1952 The Canadian National Steamship Company Lady Boats operated two routes from Canada to the West Indies the:

  • eastern-route route: where steamships, Lady Nelson, Lady Hawkins and Lady Drake, 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 New Brunswick.
  • western-route: where steamships Lady Somers and Lady Rodney during the summer months sailed from Montreal to Bermuda, the Bahamas, Jamaica and British Honduras before returning. During the winter months they operated out of Halifax when the St. Lawrence River was frozen.

The Lady Boats keep coming up in my researches into the family in the West Indies. They were clearly important not just for the economy of the islands but also as a key communications link between the islands, both for mail and passengers. It appears that the Lady Boats were used by the Governors of the Leeward Islands as they made official visits to the islands under their control.

I was researching the early career of Oriel Duke who was to be appointed Commissioner of Police of Barbados. In reading the reports of the labour riots in St.Kitts in January 1935 I learnt how he managed to control the early stages of the rioting without a shot being fired. He arrested the ringleaders with the back-up of a handful of policemen armed with rifles. The following day the rioters became more hot-headed and after the Riot Act was read for a second time by the local magistrate the police opened fire at the rock throwing rioters. Three men were killed and nine wounded. The next day police reinforcements led by Colonel Bell, Chief Inspector of the Leeward Island police arrived on the SS The Lady Nelson.

Looking through my aunt’s photo album I noticed a photograph from her visit to St. Kitts in 1952 [The year the Canadian National Steamship Co. retired the last of two remaining Lady boats]. One was captioned “Two Lady boats from Wigley’s garden”. She didn’t say which boats they were but it is possible to make out the white stripes on the funnels.

Two Lady boats from Wigley’s garden -1952.
Likely to have been Lady Nelson and Lady Rodney – one out-bound, one homeward-bound.
Note the identical funnel branding for the two white Lady boats. Also note the identical forward and rear masts.

Talking to my Uncle Mike in Connecticut I was trying to find out about the time he had lived with my grandparents in Barbados. He mentioned in passing the Lady Boats that plied their way through the Leeward and Windward Islands. I thought little further about this until I looked again at my mother’s permit to leave Barbados in 1936. The family were visiting relations in Grenada and Trinidad.

The population of Barbados had to obtain a permit to leave the colony. This included travel on a holiday. This is the permit for a family visit to relatives in Grenada and Trinidad in 1936 issued for my mother.

I had never noticed the name of the ship they were travelling on was SS Lady Hawkins.

The Lady Boats were operated by the Canadian National Steamship Company and were built by Cammell Laird in Birkenhead, England. They were named after the wives of British Admirals who had served in the Caribbean. They carried mail, freight and passengers.

The Lady Nelson, Lady Hawkins and Lady Drake, accommodated 130 first-class passengers, 32 second-class, 56 third-class, and 120 deck passengers. They also carried general cargo and refrigerated cargo. I assume the deck passengers were travelling between island stops.

The Lady Boats 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, New Brunswick.

The Lady Boats were built to attract cruising passengers from North America. They were fitted out with fine wood and carpets. 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.

Advertisement for the “Lady Liners” (Source: Tiffany Tamiko Allen)

Second World War

In 1940 the first of the Lady Boats, Lady Somers, was requisitioned for war service. She was converted by the Canadian government into an auxiliary armed cruiser. She was sent to enforce the blockade against Nazi occupied Europe and was sunk in the Bay of Biscay in July 1941.

Lady Somers (Source: Tiffany Tamiko Allen)

In January 1942 the Lady Hawkins was sunk by a U-boat on a voyage from Halifax to Bermuda. She sank in 20 minutes.

Lady Hawkins (Source: Steamship Historical Society of America)

Two months later SS Lady Nelson was torpedoed in Castries harbour, St. Lucia. Although she was sunk in the shallow harbour she was re-floated and spent the remainder of the war as a hospital ship.

Lady Nelson converted to Hospital Ship 46 (Source: Wikipedia)

SS Lady Drake continued the passenger service to the West Indies until she was sunk in May 1942.

Lady Drake (Source: Eric Wiberg, Nautical Author & Historian)

Lady 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.

Lady Rodney (Source: Tiffany Tamiko Allen)

In 1946 the Lady Nelson and Lady Rodney were assigned to bring war brides and their children from Britain to Canada. After about a year they returned to serving the Canada to West Indies route. The service survived until 1952 when the two ships were sold to the Alexandria’s Khedivial Mail Line in Egypt.

Postsript

  • Lady Nelson when sold to the Alexandria’s Khedivial Mail Line in Egypt was renamed Gumhuryat Misr.  In 1960 she was renamed Alwadi.  She was broken up in Egypt in 1968.
  • Lady Rodney when sold to the to Alexandria’s Khedivial Mail Line in Egypt was renamed Mecca.  She was scuttled in 1967 in the Suez Canal during the Arab-Israeli War.

Our guest contributor is David O’Carroll, the great nephew of Col. Oriel Duke who was Commissioner of Police in Barbados from 1939-48.  

David O’Carroll was born in London in 1951 and was brought up in Wimbledon. After graduating from University College Swansea, University of Wales, where he attained a B.A.(Hons) in Political Science & Government, he joined the UK Civil Service. He was awarded the OBE in the 2009 New Year’s honours for his public service in the Department of Health. He is now retired and lives in Wales with his wife Elisabeth and they have three children and five grandchildren. His links to Barbados are through the Gall family who arrived on the island at the end of the 17th century. His mother, Clara Gall was born in Dominica and lived in Barbados as a teenager.

Also by David O’Carroll:
A short biography of Col.Duke MM,MBE
History of the Gall family of the Island of Barbadoes


For a additional background on the Lady Boats please visit:

7 thoughts on “The Canadian Lady Boats”

  1. Anita L van Hezewyk

    Would be very interested in making contact as my grandfather was the head chef on the Lady Nelson in the later 1920’s.

  2. My mother, born a Bajan with the surname Lobo, but living near Boston in the post-world war 2 years, had a nephew, Fred Burns, who was an officer in Lady Nelson. Whenever Lady Nelson docked in Boston, Fred would come visit us, always bringing a bottle of Mount Gay rum for us.

  3. One of my great uncles was Captian of one of these ships…..he was Capt. Timothy Gooding. Bajan citizen born on Bequia, SVG. He died in Barbados. He owned property next to the Barbados Yacht Club also Bay St. near Burke’s beach…

  4. From what I remember of family stories my father Jack Rudder worked on the CNS boats prior to WWII. He talked of a trip from the UK to bring a newly built boat to Halifax. Any idea which boat this might be

  5. Quite an amazing piece of our history. Very new to my Knowledge ….thank you for such a research of enlightenment . Keep up the good work of researching our history .God blessed you!

  6. Another excellent piece of history with a local Barbadian flavour. Thanks David for the research and BajanThings for again staring these stories.

  7. Fascinating piece of history—the Caribbean was an important area in WWII-and very often overlooked in the bigger European picture. The Lady Boats paints a wonderful picture of the era before that war….beautiful ships!! JH

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