The latter half of the nineteenth century saw rapid expansion and development of the British Empire. That led to the dependence on ocean shipping routes for British trade and defence.
At the same time, the German Empire was becoming increasingly aggressive, and competing step by step with Britain. There was concern about the adequacy of the Royal Navy to defend the widely separated components of the Empire and essential shipping routes. In 1895, Britain formed The Navy League, a society with the primary goal of ensuring adequate naval defence. The Navy League was comprised of local Branches in towns and cities, drawing its support from people of all walks of life interested in the issues of maritime trade and naval defence.
The movement expanded rapidly. Branches had established themselves abroad by the end of the year, including one in Toronto whose warrant dated 16th December 1895 now hangs in the National Office in Ottawa.
In October 1895 the group in Toronto prepared a submission to the Canadian Government on the subject of maritime defence and the need for a Naval Reserve training program. Continued efforts in support of improved naval defence helped the government when it was forming Canada’s naval policy and establishing the Canadian Naval Service, the forerunner to the Canadian Navy, in 1910. In these early years, the Branches in Canada informally supported a youth training programme aimed at encouraging young men towards a seafaring career. It provided basic training in citizenship and seamanship.
The First World War placed heavy commitments on the Navy League. Its activities expanded to include the recruitment of Naval and Merchant Navy personnel, operation of hostels for seafaring personnel, provision of welfare services to the dependents of seamen and, in the final stages, the rehabilitation of Naval Veterans.
In the years following World War I, the Navy League remained committed to providing support for the Merchant Marine and maintaining shore hostel facilities for the benefit of seafaring personnel. Training was formalized under the name Boys’ Naval Brigades across the country. This became the main raison d’être for many local Branches during the Depression.
The Royal Canadian Naval Volunteer Reserve was established in 1923 and benefited from the enrolment of graduates of this scheme; a parallel apprenticeship programme was set up with Canadian shipping companies to enroll ex-cadets in the Merchant Marine. The name Boys’ Naval Brigade was changed at about this time to the Navy League Sea Cadets to permit the infusion of funds from the Department of the Militia.
The outbreak of the Second World War in 1939 meant the Navy League was once again involved in War Services activities. This included the operation of 24 hostels in various port areas and the provision of amenities and special clothing supplies for visiting seamen including those of the RCN and Canadian Merchant Navy. The Navy League considered itself “the nursery of Seamen” for the RCN.
With the end of the Second World War and the closing out of its War Services operations, the Navy League was again able to turn its attention to its primary objectives – continued support of youth training and promoting a knowledge of Maritime Affairs. As the entry age for Sea Cadets had been set at 14 years, it was felt there was a need for an organization that catered to interested boys under that limit. The Navy League established The Navy League Cadet Corps for younger boys in 1948. This was followed in 1950 by the establishment of the Navy League Wrenette Corps for young ladies. Wrenettes have since become integrated in with Sea Cadet and Navy League Cadet Corps.
Today, there are 8,000 Royal Canadian Sea Cadets in 261 Corps across Canada, and 3,200 Navy League Cadet Corps Cadets in 110 Corps across the country.
The Navy League of Canada is rightfully proud of its members, current and past, and is grateful to them for their selfless support of its objectives.