Admiralty House celebrates centenary with a proper fete

     The people who operated the secret Royal Naval station that is now the home of Admiralty House Museum were honoured last month during a garden party and fete to mark the 100th anniversary of the facility’s opening.
     Lieutenant Governor Frank Fagan and his wife Patricia, along with fellow guests Senator Beth Marshall, Mayor Randy Simms, Mount Pearl North MHA Steve Kent and councillor Paula Tessier, representing the Canadian Breast Cancer Foundation, unveiled a centennial plaque and planted two trees to commemorate the occasion: an oak, which is “It’s a real honour for my wife and I to be here today," said the Lieutenant Governor. "My wife is a breast cancer survivor so it's especially meaningful for us. Cancer touches most people in this province one way or another. In fact we lost our 25 year old son in his battle with cancer, so it's especially meaningful to us."
     Fagan pointed out the province is marking the 100th anniversary of the First World War. It was on August 4, 1914 that the Lieutenant Governor of that day received a telegram from Britain announcing the Commonwealth was at war, he said.
     "Within weeks he made a commitment that we would marshal 500 soldiers that we would send over to help Britain in the war effort," said Fagan.
     Two months later, on October 4, the first contingent of Newfoundland soldiers left St. John's aboard the Florizel for Europe. A month after that the British Admiralty issued an order to build a number of secret communications installations around the world, including Admiralty House.
     "Of course, Newfoundland - the small little country that we were at the time - rose to that requirement and today we're here to celebrate the construction of Admiralty House which was done on September 16, 1915,” Fagan said. “It's always wonderful to see a beautiful and lasting tribute, that not only remembers the people who participated here but also celebrates the people who participated in the whole area of the First World war."
     Admiralty House chairman John Riche said when Great Britain was at war a century ago, "the Dominion of Newfoundland was central to His Majesty's war efforts. The early months of the Great War demonstrated the significance of new wireless communication technology. This was especially true during the Battle of Coronel in the south Atlantic off the coast of Chile in November of 1914.Communication problems and delays resulted in a significant naval defeat for the British Empire. Thus the Admiralty ordered the construction of 11 identical long range secret wireless stations. They were in locations such as Singapore, Ceylon, Hong Kong and on the outskirts of St. John's, which is today's Mount Pearl. This very place proved the strategic and ideal location for this building due to its security from enemy bombardment, the conductivity of the soil, accessibility for the transport of materials and fresh water and the employability of the locals."
     HM Wireless Station St. John's, as it was called, was constructed and supplied by the Marconi Wireless Telegraph Company Limited. It opened and began operations on Sept. 16, 1915, Riche said. It was part of a global network that transmitted, received and intercepted Morse code for the British Empire throughout the Great War.
     The soldiers who operated the station lived there as well and spent their leisure time in the area, said Riche, "whether it was snow showing, skiing, playing hockey, boxing, biking, hunting - and many had dog companions who lived in the station with them. Several of the men often picnicked with the Parsons family who lived on a nearby farm."
Some of the men married local women and a number of marriage ceremonies were held at the station, Riche added.
     "Despite these jolly good times, however, danger was present," Riche said. There were two known attempts of sabotage on the station. One operator died in the spark room.
     "The men of H.M. Wireless Station St. John's, their lively characters and spirits and dedication to the empire and the cause on the home front is a large part of why we celebrate today," Riche said. "Moreover, those men, the museum and this building reminds us - the community, the province and our nation - of the importance of educating, preserving and maintaining our culture, history and heritage."
     Senator Marshall pointed out the station’s connection with the S.S. Florizel. The museum has an extensive Florizel exhibition, including a recreation of the vessel’s wireless room, where passengers huddled together awaiting rescue after the vessel struck rocks off Cappahayden and foundered in a winter storm on February 24, 1918. Some 94 of the 118 passengers aboard the vessel were lost.
     “I must say, for me the exhibit on the Florizel disaster is the most poignant,” Marshall said.
Marshall said not only did the Florizel carry the First 500 soldiers from Newfoundland overseas, it was also used in the seal hunt and to search for bodies after the sinking of the Titanic. The Peter Pan statue in Bowring Park, she noted, was erected in the memory of a little girl who died on the Florizel when it foundered off Cappahayden.
“I find that in Newfoundland and Labrador, we're all connected and all the events are connected," Marshall said.
     The Senator congratulated the City of Mount Pearl for preserving Admiralty House and its beautiful grounds. "This is truly a place where people can come and learn about one aspect of the history of our province," she said, "and sit and quietly reflect on the important role wireless communications has played in our community over the past century. I'm confident this centre will remain an important part of our community for many years to come."
     To give a flavour of what newfoundland was like in 1915 when Admiralty House opened, Deputy Premier Kent Steve Kent cited excerpts from the Evening Telegram of September 16, 1015. The paper contained updates that almost seemed "routine" after a year of war, he said.
"They told of engagements far away, of how many soldiers had made the supreme sacrifice and of Britain's efforts to finance the war effort," said Kent. "Meanwhile, here at home, even though so many were overseas, life continued. Ayre's had a sale on for the approach of the fall hunting season. McMurdo's was selling something called Worm Syrup, which I personally have never tried or experienced, and cod fishermen reported squid to be abnormally scarce. However most didn't know at that time, and it wasn't in the Evening Telegram, that the Marconi company was about to throw a switch right here on something very secret."
     Kent said the new technology at the wireless station helped guide and protect ships and supplies crossing the Atlantic. "Now in 2015 we honour the efforts of those who blazed new trails and used the latest technology to keep us safe," he said. "Admiralty House is such an important historic site. It is vital that we maintain this link with our history."
     Kent noted that earlier this year the provincial government provided some $570,000 to the museum for upgrades to the site.
     "I encourage you to look at the exhibits here today and reflect on a time when soldiers were stationed here out in the country to help keep others safe,” he added. “Ask staff about the unconfirmed story of two enemy soldiers who were found right here hiding under a pile of snow during the war; ask about the time the Florizel, which had carried so many of our sons to war, ran aground in Cappahayden in the final year of the Great War. The distress signal was received right here; and as the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Beaumont Hamel approaches, and province wide activities take place to honour those soldiers, let's all remember the role that this station played in moving people safely across the North Atlantic."
     Mayor Simms agreed the contribution of Admiralty House to the war effort was "tremendous and significant. But after the war, due to changing times and technology, Admiralty House was no longer used as a secret wireless site, he said. "And after that, not a lot happened on this property."
     That is, Simms added, until a special person, the late councillor Gloria Pearson, "who spearheaded, who passionately believed that this building and that these grounds should be preserved for all time."
     Simms said Pearson was adamant with council that "we could not let this particular facility and this building simply go away. It had to be preserved."
     The question was, said Simms, preserved as what?
     "'Let's make it a museum,' she said. She had a lot of people on council who agreed with her,” Simms recalled. “So I'm honoured that our City had that kind of sage wisdom and advice presented and a passionate argument made that we should try and … keep the building so that forever in Mount Pearl's history it would remain one of the iconic places in our community. It is tremendous that we were able to preserve it, tremendous that future generations will be able to come look at exhibits, look at art displays, look at other activities that are taking place and can pause and remember the importance of what Admiralty House really was back in the day."
     Councillor Tessier, representing the Newfoundland and Labrador Branch of the Canadian Breast Cancer Foundation, pointed out the contingent of breast cancer survivors in the audience, including Mount Pearl resident Linda Ryan, who started Pink Days in Bloom in Newfoundland, a project that has spread across Atlantic Canada.
     Tessier was delighted to learn that Ryan and the other women had decided to include Admiralty House in their Pink Tree Initiative
     The grounds are about to get another gift too, Tessier noted. Seventy years ago, Tessier said, Holland presented Canada with a gift of 100,000 tulip bulbs in appreciation of the help provided in liberating the country from the Nazis in World War II. "Vessey Seeds in Prince Edward Island decided that this year, on the 70th anniversary, they would honour that gift by also awarding 100,000 tulips to different municipalities and initiatives across Canada," she said. "They received 450 applications. Four were awarded in Newfoundland and Labrador. And the City of Mount Pearl and Admiralty House grounds will be the proud recipients of 700 tulip bulbs - 350 red, 350 white."
     After the tree plantings, Riche thanked the City of Mount Pearl for its support, Muir's Marble Works for donating the centennial plaque, and the other sponsors that supported the event, as well as the Church Lads Brigade band, which provided fabulous entertainment throughout the afternoon.
     The public event drew a good crowd, including residents of Hillcrest Estates and the Royal Canadian Legion. Later in the afternoon, a special cake was cut to commemorate the day’s festivities.

Posted on October 6, 2015 .