What did an arms race look like for a war between two countries separated by water? As the War of 1812 was starting to come to its boiling point, the race for the best weapons started to simmer. The British and Americans alike, scrambled to build crucial weapons that would win the war. During that time, these weapons were ships.
Wars were won by having the biggest and best ships because of the overwhelming importance of controlling the Great Lakes for an army’s supply chain. As a key naval base in Upper Canada, Kingston’s principal role in the war centred around its shipbuilding capabilities and distribution of supplies to other regions in Canada. However, just because Kingston was developing into an industrial city, didn’t mean the independence-crying Americans weren’t just idling about.
Unlike the British who reportedly invested more money in making their ships more presentable and elegant, the Americans were not concerned with the appearance of their ships. Accordingly, American ships lasted longer and were built at much faster rates. In the following caricature, William Charles, an American cartoonist, ridicules the shipbuilding attempts of the British.
Pictured left: Kingston Picture Collection, V23-Rec-Car-2; "John Bull making a new batch of ships to send to the Lakes"
Before the war, Kingston only had four ships on Lake Ontario. But by the time Sir James Yeo arrived in Kingston in May 1813, the city had built eight new ships. These included HMS General Wolfe (equipped with 32 guns), HMS Royal George (22 guns), HMS Earl of Moira (16 guns), HMS Prince Regent (14 guns), HMS Simcoe (12 guns), HMS Seneca (4 guns), HMS Growler (5 guns), and HMS Confiance (3 guns). However, even with these new additions, Sir James Yeo struggled to compete with the Americans. The British needed larger ships to carry more guns!
To keep up with the Americans, Kingston worked hard to build new vessels during the winter of 1813-1814. The results, HMS Princess Charlotte (42 guns) and HMS Prince Regent (56 guns) were completed and launched in April of the final year of the war. The new Prince Regent was an improved model, but the ship had only a glimpse of glory - encountering only one battle. On 5 May 1814, with a crew of approximately 300, she attacked Fort Oswego in New York and destroyed the American depository.
Pictured below: HMS Princess Charlotte, by George Albert Cuthbertson (left) and HMS Prince Regent, by George Albert Cuthbertson (right)
Just months before the crowning achievement of the Great Lakes was launched, in the summer of 1814, the shipbuilding arms race intensified. As a formidable war vessel, HMS St. Lawrence revealed the shipbuilding capabilities of the British on the Great Lakes. The news of the ship scared the Americans, causing them to hasten their shipbuilding programs, which in turn quickened Kingston’s own program.
Nevertheless, the war would not last forever and following the Rush-Bagot Treaty (agreement between the British and the Americans to limit naval armaments on the Great Lakes), ships were decommissioned. The bells of the ball were stripped of their armaments and covered for storage at Navy Bay by 1817. The fate of these ships was owed to the British focus on building ships quickly and their use of green wood, which meant that the ships were susceptible to rotting. For Prince Regent and Princess Charlotte, there was no buyer to be found in 1832 when they went up for auction, instead they now rest in Dead Man’s Bay where they were scuttled. While their sister, St Lawrence, fared only slightly better - but I’ll save that story for next time!
Picture below: "HMS St. Lawrence in Company; 1814" by Peter Rindlisbacher (left); Remains of the HMS St. Lawrence, Marine Museum Archives (right)
Research Intern, Autumn 2020