A Royal welcome: Canada’s Governor General visits Collingwood

It was a clear, warm, sunny morning on June 18, 1918. A large crowd waited anxiously at the Collingwood train station as that morning’s special pulled in. After the steam from the engine had dissipated, out of one of the railcars stepped 50-year-old Victor Cavendish, the ninth Duke of Devonshire. At the sight of Canada’s Governor General, the crowd of townspeople erupted into cheers, their excitement at welcoming Canada’s head of state amplified by a sense of wartime patriotism.

Born into an English noble family in 1868, Cavendish had served in the British Parliament for 25 years before becoming Canada’s vice regent in 1916. During his five-year term in office, Cavendish took an active interest in the lives of average Canadians and conducted numerous tours of the country to meet with them. The tours were fundamental in transforming the role of the Governor General from a political executive into a public figure. Cavendish’s visit to Collingwood in 1918 was part of one such tour, which later that day was to continue on to Barrie and Orillia.

At just over 60 years old, Collingwood, at the time of the Governor General’s visit, was a burgeoning, young shipping and shipbuilding center on Georgian Bay, a transshipment point for goods between northern and southern Ontario and an innovator in the construction of steel-hulled ships for use on and between the Great Lakes. The young town’s vitality and potential helped draw the vice regent to it and his tour would take him to some of Collingwood’s greatest points of pride.

Crowds lined the streets as Governor General Cavendish, his wife, the 47-year-old Lady Evelyn FitzMaurice, and four of their seven children – 20-year-old Lady Blanche, 18-year-old Lady Dorothy, 16-year-old Lady Rachel and 13-year-old Lord Charles – proceeded from the train station to the Collingwood Public Library at the corner of Maple and Second Streets. Upon arriving at the library, the vice regal party was greeted by the school children of the town and presented with a citizens’ address.

After Cavendish, a dignified yet somewhat boring speaker, had delivered a brief reply to the citizens of Collingwood, he and his family toured the library, constructed in 1904 through a grant from American philanthropist Andrew Carnegie, and admired the murals depicting local Indigenous and pioneer scenes painted by Collingwood artist and school teacher Elizabeth Birnie.

The vice regal family then proceeded to the basement of the library, where they perused the Huron Institute’s collection of local Indigenous and pioneer artifacts, fossils, shells, plant specimens and taxidermy and inspected the operations of the local Red Cross Society, which had commandeered some of the Huron Institute’s photograph-lined exhibition rooms to assemble care packages for soldiers overseas. After touring the library, the vice regal party proceeded to the Collingwood General and Marine Hospital, which had just received its first X-ray machine.

Given that Collingwood had been building ships for Great Lakes traffic since the 1880s, no visit to Collingwood in 1918 could have been complete without a visit to its shipyards, which is where Cavendish and his family went next. There, they witnessed the launching of a new steel-hulled fishing trawler, which was formally christened by Cavendish’s daughter, Lady Rachel.

At noon, the town’s distinguished guests were treated to lunch at Arndale, the estate of Herbert Telfer of the Telfer Biscuit Company. Afterward, the town collectively bade farewell to the Governor General and his family as they returned to their train to resume their tour of the region.

Though brief, the Governor General’s visit indicated Collingwood’s significance as a shipbuilding and transshipment center, as well as as a vibrant and growing young town. The visit also instilled in the residents of Collingwood a sense of pride in their town that was probably as important to its growth as the railway and the shipyard.

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