A Navy Centennial Story
Miss Phillips Remembers the Dockyard
The following stories of the Esquimalt naval base are from Miss Phillips's delightfully rambling conversation with the late M. E. Ronahan in 1978. They are excerpts from my transcript of the tape, courtesy of Miss Ronahan, who also worked at the dockyard for many years as executive assistant to seven admirals.
Joy Phillips, left, with her mother Laura, younger sister Betty and Trixie in the woods near their house in the Dockyard, ca. 1912
(Image H-00384 Courtesy of BC Archives - Cropped from Original)
This is part of a story told by Miss Joy Phillips who lived and worked in the dockyard for many years between 1905 and 1951.
As a five-year-old child in November, 1910, she witnessed the ceremony when the Canadian government acquired the former Royal Navy's Esquimalt base: "I'll never forget the Union Jack coming down. The heavens wept, it was pouring with rain."
Three decades later, on June 6, 1944, she was on the Signals Bridge of HMCS Dockyard decoding an unusually large mountain of messages for ships in Esquimalt Harbour: "We didn't know what in the world was going on until we stopped to read a decoded message... to our absolute amazement it was D-Day."
And between the wars, 19 year old Miss Joy Phillips remembered the glorious June in 1924 when a special squadron of Britain's mighty naval fleet visited Victoria and Vancouver as part of its round-the-world tour: "I remember going to 10 dances in two weeks!"
Joy Phillips was six weeks old when her father was appointed 'admiralty agent' soon after the British Admiralty closed its Pacific stations in 1905 and withdrew all but one of its ships from the Esquimalt station. HMS Shearwater was on its own to guard Canada's west coast until 1908 when HMS Algerine arrived from the China Station.
Finally, in 1910, the Canadian Government passed the Marine Services Act and bought two vessels from the Royal Navy, one for each coast. The cruiser Rainbow arrived in 1910 to become, as HMCS Rainbow, the first Canadian warship in the Pacific.
The transition years
George Phillips, his wife Laura and infant daughter Joy moved into the naval storekeepers house when he was appointed civilian manager of the dockyard in 1905. This historic photo shows the plain brick house in the 1890s, decades before it became Admiral's House in 1935.
(Image F-07222 Courtesy of BC Archives)
As dockyard superintendent George Phillips moved to 'the big house' in the dockyard with his wife, Laura, and infant daughter in March 1905. Their second daughter, Betty was born there a year later, the first and probably the only baby born in the house that later became Admirals House.
"The house was not called anything then, it was built [in 1885] as the naval stores officer's house. They [naval authorities] wanted father to go into the navy but he didn't want to, he felt he could get on far better as a civilian. He stayed on to help reorganize the Esquimalt base for the Canadians after the transfer in 1910."
For the first years the rocky peninsula with its few remaining naval buildings was a wonderful playground for young children.
"We had the run of the dockyard. What a wonderful time we had. We always wore scarlet coats and hair ribbons so they could see us on the rocks. We roamed everywhere, [finding] caves and all sorts of haunts all over the dockyard."
Their best find was a little house underneath a tangle of blackberry brambles. "We were so thrilled with this find, I was on my way home to get candles to search all the rooms, but dear old Jack Davis asked where we had been. Davis had a fit and told Daddy, then the fat was in the fire. We were forbidden to go near, an awful blow." It must have been around 1914, as their secret house turned out to be an air raid shelter.
The only other children living in the dockyard were their friends Kathleen and Betty, daughters of Coxswain Jack Davis who had been with Mr. Phillips for many years. But other youngsters from town shared another childhood delight - elaborate children's parties on visiting ships.
"One ship we loved was H.M.S. Lancaster. We adored her because the officers knew how to give wonderful children's parties. My sister and I were allowed to go in our old clothes, thank goodness, when all the other children were dressed to the nines. The sailors used to rig chutes from the bridge down to the poop deck and we'd spend the whole afternoon going up and down. They put us in sacks at the top and down we went to land at the bottom in the arms of a large fat sailor. They'd help us out of our sacks and up we'd go again all afternoon. And then we would have the most enormous teas in the wardroom. Lovely!"
"The British navy knew how to give children's parties, penny a shy with sailors as targets, put their heads through holes in canvas on board ships, we'd heave things at them, hit them in the face ... the sailors were so funny. The Canadians weren't funny, they didn't know how to give children's parties either." See photos of Special Services Squadron World Cruise 1923-1924 children's parties - Photo 1 | Photo 2
"Luncheon Party by Mr. George Phillips for officers of the Japanese Navy at the naval stores officer's house, Esquimalt Naval Yard, 15 May, 1909." Mr. Phillips, left, Japanese officers, officers of Royal Navy ships on station and civilian officials.
(Image A-03129 Courtesy of BC Archives)
Entertainment went both ways during the years when Joy's father was manager of the dockyard. She remembers "marvelous birthday parties" especially the costume party early in the war:
"I remember one for two officers of the Rainbow, Aubrey More [who] came as a beautiful girl with long black ringlets and Jolly Jinks as Little Lord Fauntleroy. Mother was busy trying to get everything ready when the Chinese cook Wong came to tell her the birthday cake was missing. [Then] we heard a funny noise under the table and caught these two birthday boys picking all the trimmings off the cake, and they'd eaten everything and spoiled the look entirely. So they were taken out and beaten under the stairs by Miss Alice Pooley, who was one of the nannies ... you never heard such noise, Betty [my sister] weeping copiously ..."
Mr. and Mrs. Phillips were also hosts at more sedate occasions for officers of visiting ships when the 'storekeepers house' was the only official residence in the dockyard.
Another lasting memory was the dolls' house made for Joy and her sister by the crew of HMCS Rainbow. "The wives furnished it entirely, and made all the furniture, including hemstitched bed sheets and even a stove with a sort of wick thing that smoked, and the smoke would come out of the chimney, it was wonderful. We adored it. We were thoroughly spoiled."
Although she was just under six years old, Joy never forgot the ceremony that many of the grown-ups must have thought a sad occasion: "I'll never forget the Union Jack coming down, the Heavens wept, it was pouring with rain." George Phillips was one of the civilians at the ceremony marking the transfer of the former Royal Navy base to the Canadian government on Nov. 9, 1910. He remained as dockyard manager when the commander of HMS Shearwater became Commander in Charge of the station.
The 1885 naval drydock shown in this 1910 postcard was probably the most valuable asset in the dockyard when the Esquimalt base was transferred from the Royal Navy to the Canadian government in 1910. (Author collection)
A view of the Royal Navy drydock in the early 1900s. It was large enough for almost all warships on the Pacific coast before the First World War. (View Royal Archives)
See 1924 photo of "new" dry dock
World War I
HMCS Rainbow in Esquimalt Harbour. She was one of two British cruisers acquired in 1910 by the Canadian Government as the first ships of the Canadian Navy.
(public domain photo from Wikimedia Commons)
Damage to the HMS Kent caused by shell fired by the German cruiser SMS Nurnberg on December 8, 1914 in the Battle of the Falkland Islands.
(public domain photo from Wikimedia Commons)
When war broke out in August, 1914, all the children were moved out of the dockyard. Joy and Betty stayed at the old wardroom near the Naden Gates, then the home of Captain Walter Hose, commander of HMCS Rainbow.
"Captain Hose was like our second father. He played Santa Claus, I can remember him at the wardroom, coming through the dining room window, he must have had to come up a tall ladder, with a huge sack on his back. He was wonderful. We used to have the most wonderful picnics too." (Later, as Admiral Hose, 'Santa Claus' became known as the father of the Canadian Navy.)
German ships were known to be off the coast of North America when war broke out.
As Joy Phillips saw it as a child of nine: "The Rainbow was ordered to sea to find Algerine and Shearwater who were down south, we thought with the Germans. ... the Algerine didn't have time to coal so burnt her furniture and rushed to sea as fast as she could and the Germans left her alone. ... eventually she met up with the Rainbow captained by Capt. Hose. Daddy had the most enormous Union Jack, ... and she flew that. They were awfully brave, those little tiny ships on patrol duty for months on end." (Other reports confirm HMCS Rainbow did meet Algerine and Shearwater off Cape Flattery. Another source says "most of the moveable woodwork had been put over the side" of the Algerine, but doesn't mention lack of coal.)
"I can remember the famous HMS Kent that was in the battle of the Falkland Islands," Joy recalled. "I remember her coming in the harbour with smoke coming out all the shell holes. I can remember that quite well, all hands terribly deaf from the explosions. It was a long way to come for repairs."
It was a scary time for at the beginning of the war "when we all thought we were going to be blasted off the face of the earth." Joy confessed she got it into her head that "Germans were Germs and flew through the air and attacked you with little spears .. I had a house up in the trees and thought I was quite safe and they wouldn't find me and I'd stay there for hours."
Defense of the coast was augmented by Japanese warships. "The Japanese navy was so wonderful, the ships came [even before the war] usually as a squadron of three. ... One of the funniest stories - we used to wear cap ribbons of the ships we liked and one afternoon we were setting out through the dockyard gate ... and wondered why a group of Japanese sailors were so interested in us. ... Captain [Yoshioka?] of the [Asama?] arrived in full regalia to call on mother. 'Mrs. Phillips, I've come to inform you that your eldest daughter is wearing my ship upside down."
Mrs. Phillips remained in The Big House during the war and "ran it as a sort of naval club, a home away from home for naval officers, a house full of lost souls with nowhere to go, but not like an institution. We stayed with Captain Musgrave's wife and went to town by tram to St. George's School for Girls."
Between the wars
George Phillips was posted to Halifax in 1918 then to Ottawa until 1923, when the family returned to the Dockyard.
"This time we didn't stay in Admirals House but in the chief engineers house, the oldest in the dockyard, because Admirals House had no furnace. The Crimea War buildings nearby were used as offices for the Admiral, my father and, I think, the intelligence officer. They should never have been pulled down. We lived within the dockyard until 1933 when father retired. ...
"We looked forward to the arrival of the Royal Navy ships which still came every summer from Bermuda to Esquimalt, then to Comox, and we went up too. We followed them, all of us were known as the seagulls. We did have a wonderful time."
But 1924 was the summer to remember. It was the year of the great round-the-world Special Services squadron, when ships of the Royal Navy fleet visited all the countries of the Empire who contributed to the victory of World War I. They were in Victoria and Vancouver in June. See Photo Gallery
"That was when the special services squadron came in 1924 - Hood, Repulse, Adelaide, four little cruisers, Delhi, Dauntless, Dragon and Danae tied up in Esquimalt Harbour. I remember going to 10 dances in two weeks. Two ships were tied up together, we danced on the quarter decks of two ships with a platform between, on whichever ship your partner belonged to. The Dowagers sat on the platform, and we wondered if it would collapse. They were beautiful little ships, so well designed, nowadays they're all superstructure, looking top heavy."
Crowds of Victorians saw the largest battleships of the British navy, HMS Hood and HMS Repulse, docked side by side at Ogden Point during the Special Services Squadron visit to Victoria in June, 1924. (Esquimalt Archives photo)
The Second World War
Joy Phillips was one of the first women to stand watch on the signals bridge in 1941: "The last place in the world where you would have found women - at least that's what they [naval personnel] made us feel. The first day they put us through the mill, I felt my head had been cracked on both sides of my skull with a hammer by the time I got off duty.
"There were no stairs to the top of building 70. We had to climb up a ladder to the bridge [carrying] everything but the kitchen stove, including food, there was no chance of getting to the canteen except on the 8 to 4 watch. It was quite a thing going up that ladder with umbrellas and gumboots and everything.
"Four to midnight was one I loathed. On Midnight to 8 I would just have to flake out on four chairs after my deadline, then [a yeoman] who used to think we needed PT used to take us out on the roof at 6 a.m. for exercise. It was lovely on a fine sunny morning, getting some air, after all night it was pretty muggy by then."
June 6, 1944, was an extraordinary day on the signals bridge.
"I'll never forget D-Day. I was the only official coder and decoder by that time. There was a pile of signals two feet high after middle watch tried to keep up with them. I started tackling them but they gave me another coder, we didn't stop at all from 3 p.m. to 8 - we wondered what in the world was going on.
"Eventually we thought, let's stop and read the text of a decoded signal - To our absolute amazement, it was D-Day! But by the time we got off duty we were too exhausted to celebrate."
Joy Phillips stayed on at the Dockyard signals bridge until 1951. This verse by an anonymous member of the group was found in Esquimalt Archives files.
(Some excerpts of the Phillips interview were first used in the 1990 publication of Beyond the Blue Bridge: Stories from Esquimalt)
See some wonderful photos of the Special Services Squadron World Cruise 1923-1924
from the album of one of the sailors on the HMS Repulse.