Admiral Sir Charles Edmund Kingsmill 1855-1935

On May 15, 2010, the Ontario Heritage Trust and the Canadian Navy unveiled a provincial plaque at the Emmanuel Anglican Cemetery in Portland, Ontario, to commemorate Admiral Sir Charles Edmund Kingsmill.

The bilingual plaque reads as follows:


    Admiral Sir Charles Edmund Kingsmill was the founder of the Canadian Navy. Born in Guelph, Ontario, he attended Upper Canada College and in 1869, entered the Royal Navy in Britain. In 1908, he returned to Canada to advise Prime Minister Sir Wilfrid Laurier on the creation of a Canadian navy. He served as the first director of the naval service from 1910-1920 and saw the new navy safely through a period of limited resources and political controversy, and the demands of the First World War. During the War, Kingsmill strengthened the command and intelligence gathering organizations, essential foundations for the future growth of the Canadian Navy. Throughout his service he encouraged and supported the training of young Canadian officers who would eventually lead Canada’s great naval efforts of the Second World War and early Cold War. Kingsmill was knighted by King George V in 1918. He died at his summer home near Portland and is buried here in Emmanuel Anglican Cemetery.


    L’amiral Sir Charles Edmund Kingsmill est le fondateur de la Marine canadienne. Né à Guelph, en Ontario, il étudie à l’Upper Canada College et, en 1869, rejoint la Marine royale britannique. En 1908, il revient au Canada afin de servir de conseiller au premier ministre, Sir Wilfrid Laurier, qui souhaite créer une marine canadienne. Il devient le premier directeur du service naval, et occupe ce poste de 1910 à 1920. Grâce à ses efforts, la Marine prospère pendant sa première décennie d’existence, malgré des restrictions budgétaires, des controverses politiques et le déroulement de la Première Guerre mondiale. Pendant la guerre, l’amiral Kingsmill renforce le commandement et les activités de recherche de renseignements, deux éléments fondateurs qui permettront l’expansion de la Marine canadienne. Pendant ces dix années passées à la tête du service naval, il encourage la formation de jeunes officiers canadiens qui dirigeront des opérations navales canadiennes d’importance majeure, aussi bien pendant la Deuxième Guerre mondiale que durant les premières années de la guerre froide. Le roi George V le fait chevalier en 1918. Il s’éteint dans sa résidence estivale, située près de Portland, et repose ici, dans le cimetière anglican Emmanuel.

Historical background


Charles Edmund Kingsmill was the founder of the Canadian Navy. He was the principal technical adviser to the Canadian government in the creation of the navy in 1908-1910 and became the professional head of the new service for its first 10 years, 1910-1920. The government selected Kingsmill because of his naval expertise. He repeatedly called on this expertise during the challenging period of political controversy and limited resources that attended the navy’s birth and threatened to destroy the young service.

Kingsmill’s expertise came from nearly 40 years of service as an officer in Britain’s Royal Navy, the world’s strongest and arguably most effective fighting sea service at the time. He served on most types of warships in most parts of the world. Although Kingsmill, at just 14 years of age, left his native Ontario to join the Royal Navy as a midshipman, his allegiance and outlook was Canadian. He showed a deep understanding of the distinction between British Empire and Canadian interests in maritime armed forces at a time when that distinction was anything but clear. Kingsmill, with his firm grasp of the practical needs of maritime sovereignty and security, and understanding of the Canadian political and social situation, did much to clarify that distinction, and acted effectively to advance Canadian interests.


Charles Kingsmill was the grandson of William Kingsmill, an officer in the British regular army who had served in the Peninsular campaign against Napoleon.1 In 1833, while on service in the British garrison in Upper Canada, William retired from the army to settle in the new country. He held a number of civil government posts and was ultimately postmaster at Guelph, Ontario. In 1837-1838, he organized units to counter the rebellion led by William Lyon Mackenzie and guard the Niagara frontier against intervention by American sympathizers. William Kingsmill’s seventh child was John Juchereau Kingsmill (1829-1900), who became a prominent lawyer in Guelph. He was Crown Attorney from 1856 to 1866, and in 1867, was appointed judge of Bruce County. John Juchereau’s first child, Charles Edmund, was born in Guelph on July 7, 1855.

Young Charles attended Upper Canada College in Toronto, as his father and uncles had before him. In September 1869, he travelled to England to train as an officer cadet in the Royal Navy, as a nominee of the then Governor General of Canada, Lord Lisgar. At that time, it was not uncommon for Canadians wishing to become professional (that is full-time) members of the armed forces, to join the British services. Canadians — considered British citizens who lived overseas — had the right to join the British armed services on much the same basis as residents of the British Isles.

Establishment of the Canadian Navy

By about the mid 19th century, Britain determined that its self-governing colonies should become more responsible for their own defence. This was one of the main reasons why the government in London promoted confederation of the British North American colonies into the new "dominion" of Canada in 1867. The issue, however, was land forces, not naval forces. Canada began to establish its first small units of regular troops in 1871, the year in which the last of British army garrisons on station in central Canada withdrew.

There was no question of Canada raising its own naval forces.2 In the negotiations on defence at the time of Confederation, Britain promised continued naval protection. The Royal Navy retained its dockyards at Halifax, Nova Scotia, and Esquimalt, British Columbia, to support warships of the North America and West Indies station and the Pacific station that operated regularly in Canadian waters.

By the early 20th century, Britain looked to its self-governing colonies for naval assistance to meet increased international rivalry. Because of that rivalry, the Royal Navy concentrated its fleet in European waters, closed the dockyards at Halifax and Esquimalt, and removed the warships permanently stationed in the western Atlantic and eastern Pacific at the end of 1904. Canada’s Prime Minister, Sir Wilfrid Laurier, faced sharp disagreement between English-speaking Canadians who advocated defence cooperation with Britain, and French-speaking Canadians. The French-speaking people believed that any form of naval initiative would be ultimately controlled by the British Admiralty, which would draw the country into every British conflict overseas. Laurier’s compromise was to develop the government’s civil marine fleet, and particularly the Fisheries Protection Service, into a national navy for the defence of the oceans adjacent to the country’s coasts. The dockyards at Halifax and Esquimalt, which Canada’s Department of Marine and Fisheries took over, were a valuable resource. Still, the government needed a senior and highly experienced officer to lead the effort, specifically someone who was sensitive to Canadian demographics, politics and requirements. Laurier selected Kingsmill, whose success in the Royal Navy was well known, and whose family was active in public life and sympathetic to the Liberal party.

Kingsmill retired with the rank of rear-admiral from the Royal Navy in 1908 to take command of the Canadian government’s civil fleet and improve the basic program of naval training already started in the largest of the armed fisheries protection steamers, Canadian Government Ship Canada. In 1909, Britain was concerned about German naval expansion. This threat prompted English-speaking Canadians to demand that Canada must do more, and Kingsmill produced a plan for a modest Canadian naval service. Advice from Britain in 1910 resulted in the quick establishment of the new Canadian Navy3 by the Laurier government. The navy was based on plans that were a logical development of Kingsmill’s scheme, but that included a larger fleet. The Naval Service Bill was introduced into the House of Commons in January 1910. It received Royal Assent on May 4, 1910 and created a Department of the Naval Service under the Minister of Marine and Fisheries.

The naval act provided for a Director of the Naval Service — the professional head of the service, preferably with a rank not lower than that of rear-admiral. Charles Edmund Kingsmill became the first director of the naval service and would serve until his retirement in 1920. Kingsmill firmly grasped the possibilities for a Canadian Navy that, although built on British models, would be shaped by Canada’s particular maritime interests, such as the close protection of the coastline and ports, the gathering of marine intelligence for the government in Ottawa and the enforcement of fisheries regulations. He understood how those interests differed from Britain’s larger international concerns, such as the defence of shipping around the world that supplied the British economy, a global mission that precluded attention to more local Canadian needs.

Almost immediately in 1910, intense division between English- and French-speaking opinions in Canada slowed down the development of the new navy. In 1911, when Robert Borden’s Conservatives came into power, they stopped all naval development, slashing the budget and ending recruitment of personnel. Kingsmill was bitterly discouraged, but remained a loyal and devoted public servant. He never spoke out in public and scrupulously respected the British principle of the supremacy of the civil authority over the military, a principle that was strongly embedded in Canadian practice.4 Kingsmill used his energies to press forward with war planning and such training as was possible with the resources he had available. He gave priority to the training of young Canadian officer cadets, as they were the hope for the future of the service. The Royal Naval College of Canada, established at Halifax early in 1911, remained open to receive new classes each year despite the severe budget cuts. The plan was that the cadets, after two years of work ashore at the College, would then receive sea training in two cruisers, HMCS Niobe on the Atlantic coast, and HMCS Rainbow on the Pacific, whose purchase Kingsmill had arranged from the Royal Navy in 1910. These ships could not get to sea however, as the budget cuts left insufficient personnel to crew them. Kingsmill therefore obtained places for the cadets on British warships.

Although the Canadian Navy had shrunk to only 350 personnel, when war broke out in August 1914, the service was able to implement basic coast defence measures thanks to the planning and preparations Kingsmill had organized. Britain provided large warships for offshore defence. With assistance from British and Newfoundland personnel and Canadian volunteers, the two Canadian cruisers were able to get to sea to join the British forces in protecting shipping in North American waters. Eventually, the Naval Service recruited over 9,600 officers and ratings during the course of the War.5

In 1915, Germany began to use submarines to attack British shipping. The large British and Canadian warships were vulnerable to submarine attack, but the Royal Navy had no anti-submarine warships to spare. Kingsmill never relented in his pressure on the Royal Navy to assist more effectively in Canadian waters. As it became clear that the British were unable to adequately counter the German submarines hunting in British waters, Kingsmill led efforts to use any and all Canadian resources. The navy took up government and civilian ships that had the speed and sea-keeping qualities6 needed for anti-submarine duties, armed these vessels, and hurriedly trained Canadian volunteers to crew them. In 1917-1918, the Canadian navy department worked with the British Admiralty to build 160 small anti-submarine vessels in Canada, and Kingsmill persuaded the Admiralty to allocate many of these to expand the Canadian force. In these efforts, Kingsmill took care not to disturb the training of the young Canadian officer cadets, leaving them to continue to serve on major British warships in more active theatres. He used his connections to find experienced Royal Navy officers, many of them retired, to organize and command the new small-ship anti-submarine flotilla.

Throughout the war, Kingsmill resisted Royal Navy efforts to control operations at Canadian ports, which were vital for the shipment of troops and war material to the United Kingdom. Using the experienced former Royal Navy officers he had invited into Canadian service, he strengthened the navy’s coastal commands and intelligence gathering organization to better assert Canada’s authority, and work on a more equal basis with Britain. The Canadian Navy was thus able to assume an effective role, in cooperation with the American and British navies, in the defence of shipping in the western Atlantic when large German submarines crossed the ocean in the summer and fall of 1918. This experience convinced even Conservative Prime Minister Robert Borden (1911-1920) that the country required the navy the Laurier government had established with Kingsmill’s advice.

Kingsmill’s legacy

At the time of Kingsmill’s retirement in 1920, the small staff of experienced ex-Royal Navy officers he had assembled in Ottawa was developing detailed plans for the navy’s future based on the experience of 1914-1918. Government cuts to military spending in the 1920s made these plans largely theoretical, but they became the basis for rebuilding the navy in the late 1930s, the foundation for the massive expansion of the service in the Second World War.7 At the outset of the Second World War, Canada had just 13 vessels: six destroyers (Saguenay, Skeena, Fraser, Ottawa, Restigouche and St-Laurent), four minesweepers (Comox, Fundy, Gaspé and Nootka/Nanoose), and three auxiliaries (Armentières, Skidegate and Venture). By the end of the Second World War, the Royal Canadian Navy had grown to become the third-largest Allied navy with 434 commissioned vessels, including cruisers, destroyers, frigates, corvettes and auxiliaries.8 That growth, and the significant Canadian naval contribution to the western alliance in the early Cold War would be led by Canadian naval officers to whose recruitment and training Kingsmill had devoted much attention.

During the course of his expansive career, Kingsmill was well recognized for his impressive service and contributions. He was made an Officer of the French Legion of Honour and a Grand Officer of the Crown of Italy. In 1913, he was promoted on the British Royal Navy’s retired list to vice-admiral, then to full admiral in 1917. He was knighted by King George V in 1918. He died in 1935 at his summer home on Grindstone Island, near Portland, Ontario and is buried in Emmanuel Anglican Cemetery, Portland.

In 1968, the navy was merged with Canada’s army and air force to form the Canadian Armed Forces, now the Canadian Forces. Today, thanks in part to Kingsmill’s vision, the Canadian navy continues to grow. At the time of writing, there were 11,648 men and women serving in the naval element of the Regular Force, with an additional 10,090 Reservists and a fleet comprised of 33 warships, submarines and coastal defence vessels. The home ports of the fleet continue to be in Halifax, Nova Scotia and in Esquimalt, British Columbia. The navy contributes to domestic operations and exercises to provide maritime security to Canada and Canadians, at home and abroad. It deploys around the world to provide international peace and stability and can fulfil a wide range of tasks, ranging from humanitarian assistance missions to the provision of warships for combat operations. During this year of 2010, the Canadian navy celebrates its centennial. Admiral Sir Charles Edmund Kingsmill would be proud.

The Ontario Heritage Trust gratefully acknowledges the research of Roger Sarty, PhD, Professor of History, Wilfrid Laurier University and Director of Research, Naval and Military, Laurier Centre for Military, Strategic and Disarmament Studies, in preparing this paper.

© Ontario Heritage Trust, 2010

1 The Peninsular War (1807-1814), was fought between France and the allied powers of Spain, the United Kingdom and Portugal for control of the Iberian Peninsula, during the Napoleonic Wars. Located on the southwestern tip of the European continent, the Iberian Peninsula includes the countries of Andorra, Portugal and Spain, and the British Crown colony of Gibraltar. The war began when French armies invaded Portugal in 1807 and Spain in 1808 and lasted until Napoleon’s defeat in 1814.

2 In 1881, there was an early attempt to establish a Canadian navy, when the young country acquired a steam-powered wooden vessel, HMS Charybdis from the Royal Navy as a training ship. The vessel, however, needed such expensive repairs that the Canadian government returned her to the British.

3 The service became the Royal Canadian Navy (RCN) in 1911 when King George V granted permission to add the prefix “Royal.”

4 Kingsmill was a prolific correspondent on professional matters in letters and memoranda that survive in the records of the navy, and the papers of such public figures as Sir Wilfrid Laurier, Sir Robert Borden and Louis-Philippe Brodeur, held at Library and Archives Canada and other Ottawa-area archives. He was not shy about expressing his views, but did so only to other officials and his political masters. An accurate summation of Kingsmill’s place in published historical literature is the sub-title of Richard Gimblett’s biographical article: "Forgotten Father" of the navy.

5 Ready Aye website. 100 Years of the Canadian Navy. “Timeline: 1910-1919. World War I.”

6 Sea-keeping qualities refers to the technical design of a vessel and its motion in waves.

7 Donald E. Graves. In Peril on the Sea — The Royal Canadian Navy and the Battle of the Atlantic (Toronto: Robin Brass Studio, 2003), pp. 42 and 231.

8 Ibid.


Gilbert Norman Tucker, The Naval Service of Canada; Its Official History: Vol. I. Origins and Early Years (Ottawa: King’s Printer, 1952). Contains much information still not readily available in any other published source.

Michael L. Hadley and Roger Sarty, Tin-Pots and Pirate Ships: Canadian Naval Forces and German Sea Raiders 1880-1918 (Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1991). Incorporates military and political history scholarship published since Tucker’s volume appeared, and archival material from Canadian, British, United States and German archives, to which his team did not have access.

Richard H. Gimblett, "Admiral Sir Charles E. Kingsmill: Forgotten Father," in Michael Whitby, Richard H. Gimblett and Peter Haydon, eds., The Admirals: Canada’s Senior Naval Leadership in the Twentieth Century (Toronto: Dundurn Press, 2006), 31-53. The most comprehensive biographical account of Kingsmill.

Roger Sarty, The Maritime Defence of Canada (Toronto: Canadian Institute of Strategic Studies, 1996). Contains essays on the origins of the navy, the navy and development of Canadian sovereignty, and the defence of the Pacific coast in the era of the First World War that shed light on Kingsmill’s role.