HMS Speedy (1798)

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Career (UK) Royal Navy Ensign
Name: HMS Speedy
Builder: Kingston Royal Naval Dockyard
Commissioned: 1798
Fate: Sank on 8 October 1804
Notes: Provincial Marine vessel
General characteristics
Length: Roughly 80ft
Sail plan: 2 masts
Complement: 6 crew

The battle schooner or gunboat HMS Speedy sank in a blinding snowstorm in Lake Ontario south of Brighton, Ontario and west of Prince Edward County, on 8 October 1804, with the loss of all hands. The sinking changed the course of Canadian history because of the prominence of the citizens of the tiny colony of Upper Canada lost in the disastrous event.

The ship was built in 1798 at the Kingston Royal Naval Dockyard and transferred as government vessel.


HMS Speedy was one of five warships rushed into service, quickly built from green timber at Cataraqui in 1798, to help defend British Upper Canada from the perceived threat from the newly formed United States of America. That threat was later realised as the War of 1812, but Speedy would not survive to see service in that conflict. Speedy carried four-pound guns and had a 55 foot, two-masted hull plus a 20+ foot bowsprit, bringing her close to 80 feet in total length. In spite of her name, Speedy was considered quite slow for her era. Because she was constructed from improperly seasoned green timber, she almost immediately began to suffer problems with leaks and dry rot after her commissioning.


The schooner was set to sail from York (population 345), the young capital of Upper Canada, to the district town of Newcastle (population 20) on Presqu'ile Point (now Presqu'ile Provincial Park) for a prominent murder trial to inaugurate the brand new district courthouse. Ogetonicut, a member of the Ojibway tribe, was accused of murdering trading post operator John Sharpe near Lake Scugog as revenge for the killing of his brother, Whistling Duck. Although Ogetonicut was arrested near York, the crime had been committed in the Newcastle District, and under British law of the time one had to be tried in the jurisdiction in which his crime was committed.

Speedy was also carrying six handwritten copies of the new Constitution of Upper Canada, supplies, and a Royal surveyor to help in the planning, construction and expansion of the fledgling district town, which consisted of nothing more than the three-story courthouse/jail, a handful of residences and a survey plan. Because of the location and geography of the area, as well as its location closer to the key community of Kingston, Ontario, there was speculation that Newcastle would eventually be designated the new capital of Upper Canada. The presumed execution of Ogetonicut in the new town square following his trial would bring attention and renown to the area and define it as a centre of strong government justice.

Final journey

The schooner left York on 7 October 1804 at the insistence of autocratic Lieutenant-Governor Peter Hunter, despite the reluctance of the ship's captain, Lieutenant Thomas Paxton. Paxton, an experienced British Naval officer, was concerned about an incoming storm and the condition of the ship. Although only six years old, Speedy suffered from extensive weakening of the hull from dry rot due to the timber used in her rushed construction. Two of Speedy's crew were required to constantly operate manual bilge pumps in order to keep her afloat for the journey. Under threat of court martial, Paxton departed but immediately after her launch, she ran aground in the harbour due to the heavy load she was carrying, causing a six hour delay.

After being freed and sailing west on the evening of October 7th, Speedy stopped briefly at Port Oshawa to pick up the Farewell brothers who were business partners of the murder victim and key witnesses for the trial, and a handful of natives who were also trial witnesses. The Farewell brothers refused to board the ship, expressing concerns that it was already overloaded, crowded, and unsafe, and chose to accompany Speedy in a canoe.

Speedy and the canoe were separated as the storm deteriorated into blizzard conditions during the afternoon and evening of 8 October, and the wind had turned and was blowing out of the north-east. By the morning of 9 October, the brothers had managed to reach Newcastle's harbour, but Speedy had not. After the schooner was sighted passing Presqu'ile Point at dusk on the 8th, the crew fired one of her cannons to signal her situation and position, and in response bonfires were lit on shore to guide her to safety. Unfortunately, the schooner vanished on approach to the mouth of the bay. All that was found of the ship, her passengers, cargo, or six-man crew were a chicken coop and compass box found washed up on the beach opposite the bay. This inspired a great deal of speculation about her fate, ranging from sabotage by parties wishing to prevent the formation of the new town of Newcastle, to something supernatural scooping her from the face of the earth.


Evidence suggests that Speedy, unaware that she was in the area now known as the Sophiasburgh Triangle where magnetic anomalies prevent proper compass readings, and unable to sail directly into the north-easterly wind because she was a square-rigger, tacked across the mouth of Presqu'ile Bay to avoid Bald Head Island and angle her way into port. Unable to navigate using celestial markers or spot the signal fires due to the storm, the captain was completely reliant on the ship's compass to navigate and struck the Devil's Horseblock, a stone column that forms a shoal only 20 cm beneath the surface of the water. Rescue ships searching for survivors also reported that the Horseblock shoal had vanished, suggesting that the 200-ton Speedy had struck the limestone formation with enough force to displace it from its underwater base. Speedy became the latest of nearly 100 ships The Sophiasburgh Triangle had claimed since the beginning of the 18th century, adding to fears that the area was too dangerous for a major port.


In part due to this disaster, Presqu'ile was deemed an inappropriate and "inconvenient" location for a district town. The incident was called "a disaster felt by the Bench, the Bar, Society, the Legislature and the Country." [1] Newcastle was abandoned and the district centre was moved to Amherst (now known as Cobourg, Ontario) in 1805. In addition to carrying the accused, many of the people lost with Speedy were prominent United Empire Loyalists, government officials and important members of the small colony. The disaster likely changed the course of Canadian history, as it was believed that the new capital of the colony would be moved to Newcastle once the town was established. Those plans were abandoned due to the sudden loss of so many significant members of Upper Canada society.

Lost souls

Records are not clear, listing somewhere between 20 and 39 passengers aboard Speedy, along with her crew of 6. It may never be known exactly how many were killed in the sinking. Those lost included:

  • Lieutenant Thomas Paxton, Captain of HMS Speedy
  • John Cameron, Speedy crew member
  • Francis Labard, Speedy crew member
  • Ogetonicut, accused murderer
  • Angus Macdonell, defense lawyer and member of the Upper Canada House of Assembly
  • George Cowan, Coldwater-based fur trader and interpreter employed by the government's Indian Department
  • Justice Thomas Cochran, the trial judge, Judge of the Court of King's Bench of Upper Canada
  • Robert Isaac Dey Grey, prosecutor and the first Solicitor-General of Upper Canada
  • Simon Baker, servant of Dey Grey
  • John Anderson, law student
  • John Stegman, land surveyor of the Surveyor-General's Office, possible trial witness
  • James Ruggles, Justice of the Peace, possible trial witness
  • Two or three unnamed First Nations men and women, trial witnesses
  • John Fisk, High Constable of York, first Canadian police officer killed in the line of duty in the Ontario, Canada area
  • Jacob Herchmer, prominent Loyalist merchant and fur trader, Lieutenant in York Militia
  • Two young children, sent on the "safer" Speedy by overland-travelling parents who could not afford passage for themselves


Each summer the story of the Speedy is told through a history play as part of Presqu'ile Provincial Park's Natural Heritage Education program. The story is also told by an interactive video display at the point in the Lighthouse Interpretive Centre. The point is also home to a commemorative plaque, erected by the Ontario Historical Society.

External links


  • Rif Winfield (2005). British Warships in the Age of Sail 1793-1817: Design, Construction, Careers and Fates. London. ISBN 1-86176-246-1. 
  • David Lyon (1997). The Sailing Navy List: All the Ships of the Royal Navy, Built, Purchased and Captured, 1688-1860. London. ISBN 0-85177-864-X. 
  • Robert Malcomson (2001). Warships of the Great Lakes: 1754-1834. Annapolis. ISBN 1-55750-910-7. 
  • Robert Malcomson (1998). Lords of the Lake. Annapolis. ISBN 1-55750-532-2. 
  • Jonathan Moore (2006). Archaeological and Historical Investigations of Three War of 1812 Wrecks at Kingston, Ontario : HMS St. Lawrence, HMS Kingston and HMS Burlington : Report for Province of Ontario Licence to Conduct Archaeological Exploration or Fieldwork 1999-096 at Sites BbGd-6, BbGc-45 and BbGc-46. Ottawa. ISBN 0-9781712-0-9. 
  • Robert B. Odyssey (1998). Story of HMS Speedy Townsend. ISBN 0-9683798-0-x. 
  • Friends of Presqu'ile, story of the HMS Speedy
  • JW Fisher's Underwater Search Equipment article, with history of Speedy and her possible discovery by Ed Burtt
  • List of Vessels Employed on British Naval Service on the Great Lakes, 1755-1875