The Early Years Part 1

From The Book “Wheelhouses, Raised Decks And Trunk Cabins” By Geoffrey U. Potter


In October, 1944, the ST. ROCH returned to Vancouver, her home port. After two historic voyages through the fabled Northwest Passage, she looked different than when she left—having a new deckhouse and a larger engine installed while re-fitted in Halifax. Captain Larsen, as well, had contributed in converting the sailing rig; changes based on experience that were part of the evolution of Arctic vessels. Sail area was reduced by more than half and engine horsepower doubled. This substantially improved the ST. ROCH and immediately after, she made what would be considered a very fast voyage from Halifax to Vancouver in less than three months. There was public interest in her return, and Larsen was promoted and bestowed with honours. Canada’s presence in the North by the Commander and his little ship had great historical significance, and it was agreed by many that Larsen and the St. Roch were made for each other. The leadership and skill of her crew and the difficulty of her duties were without precedent for a Canadian vessel, and the newspapers of the day were filled with accounts of her exploits. There was also an interest in her designer.

Those of us who are interested in the ships of the sea and their voyages and exploits can’t but wonder at times where the design comes from. In years past, the realm of ship design was more art than science. What worked well was often repeated in later craft, with slight modification. As sail gave way to powered vessels, their speed, carrying capacity and endurance became more important, and along with these factors, the need for calculating minds to interpret them.

An article in the weekend edition – November 4, 1944 – of the Vancouver Province newspaper introduced the public to naval architect, Thomas Halliday. Written by Barbara Baillie, she tells of Tom and his work. The article describes a remarkable career and introduced an unknown hero to the mariners and historians of the B.C. coast. She mentions many of his vessels. The voyages of the ST. ROCH were still prevalent in the news, and Baillie directly attributes her design to him. How might she know? Mariners have a saying however: “There are no secrets on the dock”.

Thomas Halliday Designed-the-St-RochTom was well known within the fraternity of mariners and shipbuilders, but the onlooker at this time saw only passing mention of him in periodicals and trade publications—if they might have even looked. Naval architects had, by the nature of their position, their own obscurity. They worked for the builders, not the eventual owner, and it was often only after his vessel was in service that a thoughtful chin-stroking reaction from an observer or a prideful smile from the master might evoke the question: who was the designer?

Designers have a large and sometimes forgotten role in ship construction. They are the engineers and draughtsmen whose work allows the tradesmen to carry out their given responsibilities. What men are able to translate the idea of a vessel and transform it through their drawings and calculations into form? Scottish born and educated, Thomas Halliday was one such man.

Tom spent the early part of his career in the draughting offices of major shipyards and fabricators in England, but he must have allowed himself to think of designing his own little fleet of vessels. Perhaps the day-to-day draughting of steel fabrications failed to fulfill a basic urge within. For reasons unknown, Halliday left England and moved to Canada in 1910 where he spent decades designing all manner of craft. He was a good part of the development of the West Coast ‘look’. There is a similarity in the sterns of some of his double-enders, and his bluff shoulders are seen on several designs. The wheel houses and trunk cabins have a practical, no-nonsense look. He had a style, and more than a single link in the long chain of what we understand as West Coast Marine. During his prime he was described as the “senior architect on the coast”, and an “award winner and a veteran”. The sheer proliferation and variety of his designs placed him in high ranking among the many that offered their skills here and shaped our province.

His first Canadian designs were of pleasure craft and smaller work boats. These helped Halliday establish himself, but he had the ability to contribute to the design of much larger and more specialized vessels used on the B.C. coast and in the Arctic. He designed the Lady Kindersley for the Hudson’s Bay Company and the St. Roch for the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.

The coastal tugs La Reine, and Sea Wave came from his draughting board as well as patrol vessels for the Provincial Forestry Department and Federal Fisheries. These include the “Maple” class of patrol boats of which several were built. The Nitinat and Kitimat, Scaler, Wells Grey, and Lillian D were all his designs. He penned ferries like the West Vancouver #6, Sonrisa, and Lequime. Nostalgic vessels today, yachts like Petite Amie, Cherie, Murrelet, Elusive, Miss Lee, Tahuna, and Maratea all came from his board. Many may still be spotted by the careful observer, and they are a testament to Tom’s diverse and prolific career.

Most of the time, a naval architect is relegated to the back rooms of shipbuilders. They quietly toil away with models and tables and engineering calculations to produce a design that the boss represents on behalf of the company. In a large firm, the architect may be only occasionally mentioned, and if they are lucky enough to see their design slide down the ways, sail on to fame and fortune or be admired for quality and character, they can take no glory. They are called simply, “draughtsman”.

Halliday’s personality suited this work. He was a medal winner in his field, and time with the major yards of the United Kingdom and his work in Canada gave him the opportunity to work at the forefront of design engineering. He was described as a quiet and retiring man of few words. It wasn’t until well into his forties that Tom came to the west coast of Canada, and he must have found the Victoria of 1910 much different from the ports of Southampton and Newcastle upon Tyne where he had indentured. Could he have imagined what a legacy of water-craft he would leave for British Columbia in the next forty years?

Part I. The Early Years

Tom Halliday was born in Dumfries, Scotland in 1866. Situated on the Nith River and steeped in history, this most beautiful city has given us many inventions and more than its share of historic characters. The first bicycle was invented here, and John Paul Jones and Robbie Burns frequented the streets in their time. Tom’s father, David, was a tradesman and a businessman. In partnership as Halliday & Thompson Ironmongers, the shop was the largest in the district and employed nine shop lads, two posters and fifteen smiths. These craftsmen made their bread and butter in the construction sub-trade. They made wrought iron railings, door hinges, gutters and a myriad of fitments for the home and farm. Anvil, forge and file were no strangers to these fellows.

David’s devoted wife, Jane, had five children to look after, but the family was privileged. Their ample two-story house sat at the top of Nith Hill on the west side of Dumfries. In the Ecclesiastical Parish census of 1871, general servant, Annie Dalziel, and nurse/domestic servant, Mary Rae, are listed in residence; five young children would be a handful, even then.

The local quarries of Galloway produced some of the finest red sandstone to be found anywhere. Easily quarried, fashioned and fitted with mortar, it made a superior building material and was sought after to the extent that much was exported – some to the ‘brownstones’ of New York and more to the stoic buildings of Edinburgh and Glasgow whose massive stones still provide safety and comfort. The addition of beautiful gateposts and structural braces, fashioned by local ironmongers, enhance the look of graceful longevity.

David and his partner surely had a successful venture. The half-mile stroll on Lover’s Walk is a feast of housing so common then. Opulent when built and customary at the time for stately residences, the Halliday family home was named after its location, Nith Hill. It was built in 1867 at #3 Lover’s Walk, a short distance up a lane way. Outside the stone gateposts stands a three-foot Celtic cross made of iron. Hammered, twisted, and bent, it is riveted from bar stock. There is evidence here in pride of workmanship and sanctity of form. This lovely house was not the only property owned by David and Jane, and provision was made for the young Hallidays to share in their rentals.

Nith-Hill Thomas Halliday

Nith-Hill Thomas Halliday

The ground slopes gently from Nith Hill to the river, and less than a mile away along the banks stands the Dumfries Academy. The school dates to 1804 and has its roots five centuries before that. Scots are proud of their parish academies and justly so. Academic standards have always been high, and serious students could gain an education here second to none. Originally a church school, it would have concentrated on the study of Latin and religious texts. But over time, mathematics, writing, baking, and needlework were added to the curriculum. Since the mid-1800s, greater emphasis has been placed on the sciences and physical education.

Thomas Halliday graduated from Dumfries in 1888. A young man of twenty-two, he achieved honours in naval architecture, and he joined this profession at a time when new, innovative, and radical techniques were being explored. This was a necessary evolution in the minds of designers, because, about the middle of the 1800s, shipbuilding in the UK had growing pains. The industrial revolution had spawned a complexity of new inventions, methods, and materials—and most notably, steam propulsion. Grandiose ideas emanated from the promoters, and these were adopted by investors before seeing specific plans. One of the first groups to realize the pitfalls in this lack of foresight was the team of John Scott Russel and Isambard Kingdom Brunel. They and their affiliates had their hands full while constructing the vessel, Great Eastern.

Russel was a trained engineer, and his career spanned the change from wooden sail to powered iron. As steam power and propulsion screws were developed, a new challenge fell to the designers: how to move the floating bulk with the least resistance, and therefore, less fuel. Russel was a thoughtful striding fellow who had teamed earlier with another engineer named Froude in Paris. They had developed the first testing tank for models and observed their behaviour in a controlled environment. They had towed them under different drafts and sea conditions. Developing their theories and proving them through observation, they laid the groundwork for modern analytical naval architecture. Russel and Froude proved the longer the ship, the faster she would go. A revelation then, their work also led to finer entries and full buttocks in the hull form. Russel was a facts, figures and statistics man who had the faith that technology would overcome all obstacles.

Dunfries Academy

Dunfries Academy

Brunel, on the other hand was a five-foot-something egotist. A railroader in personality and training, he was known to have worn platform shoes to increase his physical stature. An educated engineer as well, he had developed a new construction technique that utilized huge cast-iron framings of his own design. He built the bridge at Bristol, the railway station at Paddington (where you can see his bust) and the tunnel at Box Canyon in Kent. Perhaps Brunel, thinking to add immortality to his work, allows us to see the sun rise through this tunnel on the morning of his birthday!

Russel and Brunel’s ship, the Great Eastern, was an economic failure. Nobody made money from her. Nearly seven hundred feet long and sixty feet from keel to sheer, she was a victim of being too big too soon. For a start, there wasn’t a power plant strong enough to drive her with one screw. Side wheels were added along with extra boilers and more machinery. Her weight became huge. At times, a thousand to fifteen-hundred workmen crawled over her and conversely, she sat rusting for months while money was raised or material delivered. There were logistical problems and investment shortfalls. Directors sold out their interests while new principals took their place. The optimists carried on. It took six months just to launch the Great Eastern. Her stocks too weak to take her huge bulk and the winches too scant for the strain, there were many false starts. Imagined to sail from Britain to Australia and return without replenishing fuel, once afloat, the ship never generated enough business to create a profit. For fifty years she was the largest ship ever built—and somewhat of an embarrassment to anyone who managed her.

A young man of twenty-two, he achieved honours in naval architecture, and he joined this profession at a time when new, innovative, and radical techniques were being explored. This was a necessary evolution in the minds of designers, because, about the middle of the 1800s, shipbuilding in the UK had growing pains. The industrial revolution had spawned a complexity of new inventions, methods, and materials—and most notably, steam propulsion. Grandiose ideas emanated from the promoters, and these were adopted by investors before seeing specific plans. One of the first groups to realize the pitfalls in this lack of foresight was the team of John Scott Russel and Isambard Kingdom Brunel. They and their affiliates had their hands full while constructing the vessel, Great Eastern.

Russel was a trained engineer, and his career spanned the change from wooden sail to powered iron. As steam power and propulsion screws were developed, a new challenge fell to the designers: how to move the floating bulk with the least resistance, and therefore, less fuel. Russel was a thoughtful striding fellow who had teamed earlier with another engineer named Froude in Paris. They had developed the first testing tank for models and observed their behaviour in a controlled environment. They had towed them under different drafts and sea conditions. Developing their theories and proving them through observation, they laid the groundwork for modern analytical naval architecture. Russel and Froude proved the longer the ship, the faster she would go.

Launching Great Eastern

Launching Great Eastern

In the final years of her life, she redeemed her virtue in carrying capacity through laying cable. The first trans-Atlantic communications link to Newfoundland was laid by the ship under the command of Captain James Anderson in 1874. An old-boy from the Dumfries Academy, Captain Anderson made verbal presentations to Tom’s school in 1886. An honours student in engineering and drawing at the time, young Thomas Halliday must have had an inkling — from listening to Anderson — of what pitfalls could bring grief to his chosen career. An early draughting text by Audel in 1903 may say it best: “The dexterous hand and the thoughtful mind find their strength in union alone.” Failures breed further thought, but does success stand alone? Not in this business. Marine design continually evolves and sometimes, unfortunately, from the dubious experience of others.

So during the 1890s, the back-room boys at the shipyards came into their own. Naval architects began to share in finding the solution to difficulties inherent in building ships. Apart from forming professional associations, they became part of the management team that would work toward completing a project without costly delays. The design group not only had to come up with a technical plan; they also became more involved in procuring materials in proper sequence. Construction flow charts were developed, and it could be seen that better organization would forestall some of the difficulties they inherited. These lessons have been hard to learn, as more than a hundred years later we still hear of shipbuilding cost overruns from crass projections – these often traced to the great idea proceeding with an insufficient plan.



Upon graduation, Tom was immediately apprenticed in shipbuilding and naval work for five-and-a-half years to the firm of Sir James Laing of Sunderland. One of the largest yards, Laing’s had been in operation for almost a century and was a well respected yard on the Tyne and Wear. They had built in wood initially, and the changeover to iron construction was slow to take effect. In 1867, they received a patent regarding the fastening of wood to iron in the planking of composite ships. Some vessels were built with the composite technology, but by the time Halliday joined them as a junior draughtsman in 1888, they and most others were constructing in iron only.


Laing’s Shipyard

The firm was founded in 1792 when Philip Laing, a Fifeshire farmer and ship owner, who moved down to Sunderland to join his brother John in a joint shipbuilding venture. By 1804, Laing’s was already eminent on the Wear and employed fifty-three workers, over half being apprentices. The brothers moved several times – including a stay at a site at South Shields – before finally settling at Deptford in 1818. At this time, John left the partnership.

Phillip’s son, James, from whom the firm takes its name, took control in 1843 at the age of twenty. Over the next fifty-eight years until his death in 1901, James exerted considerable influence not only over his own company, but over the shipping world. He was chairman of the River Wear Commission for thirty-two years and a director of the Suez Canal Company. He gained a knighthood from Queen Victoria in 1897.

Halliday had the benefit of working with skilled organizers and managers that were well established, but his early work in the industry was much different than what we do today with our marvellous computers. The yards were grimy, smoky, dirty places, and the area was bounded by coal mines. Coke ovens and slag heaps were everywhere, and in the draughting rooms, the designers waged a constant battle against dirt on the drawings. Now, of course, design work is well removed from construction areas for perhaps this very reason, but these fellows got the job done and here is how it was accomplished:

The Chief Draughtsman would complete, in pencil, the outline of his ship, and consultation would run forth between himself and the draughtsmen proper. The Chief would be informed by the yard owners of the prospective customer’s requirements and, like all proud salesmen, would make difficult promises for the design office to overcome. But slowly, under the direction of the Chief, the evolutionary ‘spiral’ of ship design began.

The Spiral Of Ship Design

 The Spiral Of Ship Design

The general trading pattern, speed and draft were considered. Displacement and loading conditions had to be extended into the final product design as well as power and endurance. Accommodation, trim, and stability were also factored into the equation before a final economic evaluation could be produced. If any of these variables produced an unprofitable picture, it was “back to the drawing board”.

Their boards were often the size of a billiard table and known as “Davenports”, and upon these, little by little, a ship’s profile began to take shape. The engineers would make calculations for stress and requirements of strength in selecting the scantlings. The weights of structures and their location had to be computed as to their effect on trim and stability. A list of materials, costs and estimates had to be prepared and factored into this evolutionary spiral. To some extent, the spiral is still used today, but now the ‘spokes’ between the layers are often computer programs. In the 1890s, it was a matter of re-measuring and recalculating, but the system still works well in the design and construction of ships. The inviolability of physics answered many problems in completing the project, but not the problem of management and the art of raising funds and organizing a time frame. Russel and Brunel never knew of the spiral. In fact, it was from their failures and others’ that led to its inception and the need for studied minds to interpolate the figures.

After the concept was finalized, the project was broken into various areas of responsibility, and the draughtsmen would go to work in more detail. At this point, the abstract of calculations could be translated into the beauty of form. As the final drawings and their details took shape, these penciled works became ready to be reproduced into working “blueprints”. This could be tedious work, and the process was often the responsibility of the junior in these matters. The process was generally as follows:

A tracing was made of the original drawings. To accomplish this, large sheets of almost transparent paper called ‘onionskin’ were stretched over the pencilled originals and the lines and notations traced by pen in black ink. This required a steady hand and attention to detail, for a mistake made here could appear in many copies later on. The finished tracings formed the master plans for the project, and became the “negative” in the rudimentary darkroom process known as: “Heliographic Printing”.

Sheets of fine vellum paper were chemically treated to make them light sensitive. Soaked in large trays of red prussiate* of potash, citrate of iron and ammonia, these sheets were then drained, dried, and stored in light-proof drawers, ready for use.

The actual printing took place in a printing box. The light-sensitive vellum was placed in the box with the tracing on top of it. Light from the sun exposed the print. The print room was equipped with little trap doors in the ceiling that could be opened by pulling a cord. Over the course of a few minutes, the sensitive paper would gradually turn a bluish brown where the light hit the paper. The shadow under the inked tracing remained white. To fix the print, the page was placed in a further bath of hydrochloric acid, washed in water and dried. Finally, the finished reproduction was ready for the tradesmen, and they couldn’t work without them. Pattern-makers and fabricators would loft these drawings into full size components, and framing and plating would fit perfectly on the ship.

This could be a big job. The vessels were getting larger and more complex, and it was not uncommon for the project to have many hundreds of drawings. The men who made them were the vital, unseen component in a shipyard. Their product was only in two dimensions, yet they had mastered the art of the assembly line long before Henry Ford, and they enjoyed the same pride and satisfaction as any group in the yard.

This was the environment and the reality that Tom came from, and he worked in the UK for over twenty years in the yards there. He primarily trained as an engineer, adept at working with a slide rule and trigonometric tables. No stranger to drawings and experienced in what could be fabricated in iron, he sharpened his skills in draughting and attended night school in this pursuit. The Canadian Who’s Who only lists him once in 1923 and describes his background to that time. It reports that he didn’t restrict his work to shipbuilding; he spent a year as a draughtsman for the firm of Hawthorn, Leslie & Company, in Newcastle.


Thomas Halliday By Permission, Who’s Who in Canada 1923

This firm was primarily involved in the fabrication of heavy machinery. Steam power was replacing the horse. The mines needed heavy winches and cranes and the steel mills the same. Huge water lift pumps were made for use in canal construction to drain cofferdams during work on bridges and docks. With raw materials close at hand and a booming economy at the height of the industrial revolution, the time spawned many new designs. One example of the company’s products was their development of a utility shunt engine. An innovative design with many machined parts, the gantry was controlled by a huge piston that raised and lowered the boom with steam pressure. This gave a sleek look to the apparatus. There were no gin-poles, rigging, or tackle to maintain. It was a clean and tidy unit that must have taken a great deal of design and draughting – very modern for the time.

Utility Shunt Engine

Utility Shunt Engine

Next, Tom found work for three years with the Naval Construction and Armament Co. at Barrow-in-Furness. This required a move to the west coast, but it situated him close to his family in Dumfries. He must have been well thought of because he joined the elite Sir John Thorneycroft Co. of London and Southampton in 1897. Halliday continued to broaden his already rich experience, but what might his work be in the south of England?

There was a lot going on at Tom’s new yard, not the least of which was the America’s Cup contender and tea man, Thomas Lipton. Obsessed with wrestling “The Olde Mug” from the Americans, more than one of his racers were constructed by this modern yard. Metal masts were made for these racing vessels, and this material had the advantage of reducing the weight aloft more than the traditional wood. The work required the expertise of analysis and engineering. Iron is much stronger than wood in many respects, but it is also a much heavier material, so the spars were hollow. High-tensile steel alloys were still in their infancy, and the softer iron was prone to stretch under load. It must have been more than unnerving for Lipton’s Shamrock crew to experience a 130-foot mast – as thick as a man – crashing around them to the deck, but it happened. It could be shown analytically that a hollow metal spar could be made with the strength of wood but weigh less. Less weight meant more speed. As well, the hulls were of composite construction with iron flooring and shelves to support Shamrock’s huge rig. Drawings had to be made to create the patterns for constructing these components, since the strains on the vessel were enormous. Despite failures, it was ‘cutting edge’ yacht construction in 1898.

Shamrock II Postcard 1903

Shamrock II Postcard 1903

Thorneycroft and company were also experimenting with high speed patrol vessels during the same period, and they were experts in lightweight construction. Their team had developed a composite design of laminated wood and metal framing, and they ran tests of these vessels in the Solent – a strait separating the Isle of Wight from England. It was realized that a stepped hydrofoil would “plane”, that is, get up on the surface of the water and decrease drag. This was new and quite secretive (they ran tests at night), and their prototype torpedo-carrying gunboats were hitting twenty-nine knots. They could go faster but for the limitations of on-board power plants available in the early 1900s.

So what might have directed Halliday, in his mid-forties, with a young family and at the height of a successful career, to emigrate to Canada in 1910? As a seasoned professional and now Chief Draughtsman in the mercantile department at John Thorneycroft & Co., he was well placed and with a very good job. Did his exposure to military work indicate to him the coming conflict in Europe? Was there a wish for more serenity behind his move? Perhaps, like many, he may have wanted opportunity and a new life in Canada. There was shipbuilding in the Dominion, but most was centred in Quebec and the eastern seaboard. Little was being constructed on the west coast that could use his talents, and certainly not on the scale he was used to. In fact, many early iron vessels for government and public utilities were designed in the U.K. by various groups under sub-contract. One of these and an iron ship, was the Lillooet for the Dept. of Marine Services. Built by B.C. Marine Railway Company in Esquimalt in 1908 and designed by John Thorneycroft & Co., did Halliday wish to see his ship, or were there other influences that he had gained through association?


Lillooet B.C. Archives

Lillooet B.C. Archives

Sir Thomas Lipton was knighted by Queen Victoria in 1897, and he visited Victoria, B.C. ten years later. An inveterate traveller and an optimist in business and yachting, he was enthused with the area – especially with the sailing that could be enjoyed at his doorstep on Juan de Fuca Strait. It reminded him of the Solent. Lipton’s support was instrumental in attaining a Royal Warrant for the fledgling Victoria Yacht Club, where he was recognized for his philanthropy, business principles, and sportsmanship. He made no less than five challenges to the Americans and was an influence in matters home and abroad. Did he influence Halliday too? After all, the Chief Draughtsman in the mercantile department might have nothing to do with racing yacht projects or fast patrol boats either, but he might have something to do with Lillooet, and, no doubt, he had heard about the BC coast.

Although his personality might belie it, perhaps Tom wanted a chance to escape the anonymity of the draughting rooms and create his distinct mark in the profession despite that it meant leaving behind a comfortable middle-class lifestyle. Conjecture aside, through the proliferation of his work and the variety of his designs, he left an important legacy of British Columbia marine history on our coast. It is hard to accept records that describe Tom as coming here in 1910 to retire or farm!

Tom was listed in the Victoria City Directory as a rancher in his first year, but it wasn’t long before he attended to matters of the heart. The 1912 Directory lists him as a partner with Morris, Bulkeley and Halliday, marine engineers, yacht and launch brokers. They had an office at #17 in the Promis Block, 1006 Government Street. Halliday, the junior partner, was teamed with George Bulkeley, a mechanical engineer. Little is known about Morris’ contribution or training for the endeavour. As the senior partner, he more than likely provided the financial backing and local promotion for their alliance. Halliday lived in the vicinity of Head and Paradise Streets in Esquimalt and Morris in Oak Bay. Bulkeley is not mentioned in Victoria City Archives records.

Many people in the Victoria area were interested in yachting, and the local club had just recently received its Royal Warrant. Settlement was also steady throughout the Gulf Islands, and that increased the demand for utility vessels as well. Morris and company had confidence in what they were doing, and they opened a branch office in North Vancouver the following year. Despite their optimism, the partnership proved to be short-lived, but it began Tom’s professional record here, and it shows us his character. Tom had a degree of perspicacity. He didn’t come to Canada to retire or farm as early records report. He came to design boats for British Columbians!

This brings us to the conclusion of Part 1. of Geoffrey U. Potter’s Wheelhouses, Raised Decks & Trunk Cabins.

You may continue reading Part 2. The Fleet, by downloading a PDF copy of the book from the link below.

Thomas Halliday


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