From Derry to Nova Scotia

The Hiawatha, owned by the famous Derry shipbuilding company William McCorkell & Co, was built in Cornwallis, Nova Scotia, in 1876. It was the last vessel owned by the company. This painting was created in 1892 by the maritime painter Joseph Joshua Sempill, who died and was buried in Derry. The Hiawatha was sold in 1897 and sunk by enemy action in 1916. (Courtesy of McCorkell Line)
The Hiawatha, owned by the famous Derry shipbuilding company William McCorkell & Co, was built in Cornwallis, Nova Scotia, in 1876. It was the last vessel owned by the company. This painting was created in 1892 by the maritime painter Joseph Joshua Sempill, who died and was buried in Derry. The Hiawatha was sold in 1897 and sunk by enemy action in 1916. (Courtesy of McCorkell Line)

With the round-the-world Clipper race arriving in Derry this weekend from Halifax, Nova Scotia, it is worth remembering that Derry’s maritime links with Nova Scotia and the eastern seaboard provinces of Canada stretch back more than 250 years. Local genealogist and regular ‘Journal’ contributor Brian Mitchell delves into this rich history....

It is estimated that between 1761 and 1762 McNutt persuaded about 500 people from the north west to emigrate to Nova Scotia.

Advertisement for the Montreal Ocean Steamship Company from the 'Derry Journal' of October 1865. Passage from Derry to Canada cost a mere �5, 5 shillings at the time. (Derry Journal Archives)

Advertisement for the Montreal Ocean Steamship Company from the 'Derry Journal' of October 1865. Passage from Derry to Canada cost a mere �5, 5 shillings at the time. (Derry Journal Archives)

It soon became clear, however, that McNutt’s ambitions to deliver Irish emigrants were unrealistic. Quite simply in the 18th century no inducements were able to overturn the Ulster Scots preferred destination of Philadelphia.

Of 128 vessels advertised to sail from Derry between 1750 and 1775, 99 (77%) sailed for Philadelphia with 10 each destined for Charleston (Carolina) and Nova Scotia.

In the middle years of the 19th century, in the age of wooden sailing ships, two local companies, J & J Cooke and William McCorkell & Co. built up sizeable transatlantic shipping fleets.

In the era of wooden ships it was difficult for a ship-builder in Britain and Ireland to compete with North American competitors with access to vast timber reserves. Hence, in the period 1834 to 1850, 28 ships belonging to Derry’s merchants were built in Canada; 16 of them in New Brunswick and 7 in Nova Scotia.

Joseph and Rebecca Monteith pictured with their ten children on board Anchor Line's Paddle Steamer, the PS Seamore, which took them to Moville to board the Anchor Line's California and from there, sail for Halifax on April 13, 1929 to start their new life. (Courtesy of Bigger & McDonald Collection)

Joseph and Rebecca Monteith pictured with their ten children on board Anchor Line's Paddle Steamer, the PS Seamore, which took them to Moville to board the Anchor Line's California and from there, sail for Halifax on April 13, 1929 to start their new life. (Courtesy of Bigger & McDonald Collection)

The Song of Hiawatha by H W Longfellow was a source of inspiration in the naming of many of the McCorkell ships, including ‘Hiawatha.’ Built in Cornwallis, Nova Scotia in 1876, it was the last vessel owned by the McCorkell Line. She was sold in 1897 and sunk during the First World War in 1916.

Pier 21, Halifax, Nova Scotia was the gateway to Canada for one million immigrants between 1928 and 1971.

Today Pier 21 hosts the Canadian Museum of Immigration – Atlantic Canada’s only national museum (www.pier21.ca).

From 1861 right through to 1939 ocean-going liners called at Moville, in the deeper waters of Lough Foyle, some 18 miles downstream from Derry, to pick up emigrants who were ferried from Derry in paddle tenders.

Steamships destined for Canada from Derry sailed in summer to Quebec and Montreal and in Winter to Halifax, Nova Scotia and Saint John, New Brunswick or Portland, Maine.

The Derry Standard of Monday 15 April 1929 (page 6) carries an evocative family portrait of the Monteith family of Castlederg, County Tyrone, on board Anchor Line’s Paddle Steamer, ‘Seamore.’ Joseph and Rebecca Monteith and their 10 children were heading to Moville to board the Anchor Line’s California which sailed for Pier 21, Halifax on Saturday 13 April 1929.

A high quality black and white reproduction of this photograph, catalogued as POR 14-9, is held in the Bigger and McDonald Collection in Derry Central Library.

It is one of 14,000 glass negatives, dating from April 1927, belonging to the Derry Standard which were salvaged by David Bigger and Terence McDonald.

Derry’s links with Nova Scotia were crucial in World War Two.

During the conflict and the ‘Battle of the Atlantic’, a vital transatlantic lifeline connected Halifax with St. John’s (Newfoundland), Iceland and Derry.

The Battle of the Atlantic was, in effect, a battle between German U-boats hunting merchant ships in ‘wolf packs’ and the destroyers and corvettes of the Canadian and British Navies escorting the merchant ships and their vital supplies to Europe.

Allied Convoys assembled at Bedford Basin, in Halifax, where Royal Canadian Navy based out of Halifax took them to the Western Ocean Meeting Point, just east of the Grand Banks.

The Newfoundland Escort Force, based at St. John’s, then escorted the convoys to the Mid-Ocean Meeting Point off Iceland.

Here, the ships were met by the Royal Navy, and the Newfoundland Escort Force would leave to re-fuel in Iceland, pick up a westbound convoy from Derry, and proceed to the Western Ocean Meeting Point.

From there, the Halifax-based Escort Force would take the convoy to Halifax for dispersal.

In one incident 42 U-Boats were deployed to trap two eastbound convoys which contained 88 merchant ships and 14 naval escorts. The two convoys were located in that crucial part of the mid-Atlantic which, at that time, had no air cover.

In the ensuing battle, which started on St. Patrick’s Day 1943 and lasted four days, 21 merchant ships were sunk with the loss of 360 merchant sailors, 12 passengers and 160,000 tons of cargo.