Æmilius Jarvis & the First World War: Remembering a Forgotten Hero – by Ashley Newall

[1919] Admiral Jellicoe (left), head of the Royal Navy, Æmilius Jarvis (centre), Toronto Mayor Tommy Church (right), and Admiral Sir Charles Kingsmill (far right), head of the Naval Service of Canada. (Orig. photo via Toronto Archives – colourized by Ashley Newall)

Part I: War Story

   At the outset of the First World War, Æmilius Jarvis [1860-1940] was a leader in the Canadian business community, a world-renowned yachtsman, and a champion of Canada’s Imperial connection. At fifty-four years old he was the father of three sons, two of whom were of age to fight. During the war, he contributed substantially to the infant Royal Canadian Navy, and dedicated his talent and energy to the war effort. Today, however, he is little-known outside of Toronto and Hamilton sailing circles. To understand why, we must look at how the Great War transformed his life and times.

Aemilius Jarvis (centre) and his Canada's Cup winning crew, 1896. (Photo via Royal Canadian Yacht Club)

Æmilius was the most famous sailor on the Great Lakes in his day, having won over 300 races in national and international waters as of 1913. He won the venerable Canada's Cup, a Great Lakes Canada vs. U.S. challenge series, twice; first, in 1896 (the inaugural year), and again in 1901. He was a seven-time Commodore of Toronto's Royal Canadian Yacht Club (R.C.Y.C.) and was made honorary Commodore-for-life by the Royal Hamilton Yacht Club, the latter of which he helped found. Æmilius' countless business interests included Kingston’s Canadian Locomotive Co., of which he was President, and Hamilton’s Steel Co. of Canada (later and better known as Stelco), which he co-founded.

Most notably, recognizing the dire need for luxury hotel accommodations in Toronto, Æmilius spearheaded the founding of Toronto's prestigious King Edward Hotel, which opened in 1903 (, and which still stands). He was also a founding Director and co-owner of Toronto’s Arena Gardens (opened in 1912), later known as the Mutual St. Arena; forerunner to Maple Leaf Gardens and the present-day Scotiabank Arena. 

King Edward Hotel, 1913. (Photo via "Toronto of To-Day," 1913)

Commodore Jarvis, as he was commonly known, recruited sailors in WWI for the Royal Naval Canadian Volunteer Reserve (R.N.C.V.R.) from his Æmilius Jarvis & Co. office building, located at 103 Bay St. in Toronto.

Further, Æmilius toured so much giving recruitment presentations, and was so well known for it, that he became the feature of a 1917 newspaper advertorial for the Willys-Knight Coupe (automobile).

Æmilius Jarvis' 103 Bay St. office bldg. became a naval recruitment station in WWI. On the fourth day of recruiting in 1914, “the police had to close off Bay St. because the throng was so great." – Newmarket Express-Herald (Orig. photo via Toronto Archives – colourized by Ashley Newall)

The Commodore not only recruited men for the war effort, however; he also procured vessels, buying luxury steam yachts from well-heeled Americans and flipping them to the burgeoning Canadian Navy to be converted for military service. With the U.S. officially neutral early in the war, extreme measures were sometimes required to secure these yachts. In one instance, when a sale had been finalized but the U.S. Government blocked the exchange at the last minute, Jarvis slipped across the border with a ready crew and personally 'liberated' the vessel in the dead of night, navigating her back to Canada himself. [1]

(While Jarvis is known to have purchased two U.S. steam yachts on behalf of the Royal Canadian Navy in 1915, Columbia and Waturus, my research points to Columbia as having been the yacht that Jarvis heisted. She was subsequently renamed HMCS Stadacona and went on to become a flagship of the Royal Canadian Navy.)  

Æmilius Jarvis navy recruiting poster WWI, 1914-18. (Library & Archives Canada)

The following tale of a mission Jarvis performed as a secret agent for British Intelligence comes from a story told in his own words (in his autobiography/biography, “Æmilius: The Last Viking”, co-written and otherwise assembled by his grandson Robert Æmilius Jarvis) ...

On a business trip to England in early 1915, Æmilius was asked to a meeting with the British Ambassador to Russia, Sir James Buchanan. The Commodore would be journeying on to Petrograd (renamed from St. Petersburg in 1914) imminently, selling locomotives in his capacity as President of the Canadian Locomotive Co, and so with a ready-made and genuine cover story, opportunity for deployment on a covert mission was ripe.

Æmilius Jarvis was President of the Canadian Locomotive Co., Kingston, Ont. (Canadian Courier – Dec. 1912)

Reportedly, there had been rumours picked up by British Intelligence indicating that Russia's Tsar Nicholas II might be vulnerable to the sway of his German Empress, Alexandra Feodorovna, as well as that of other German members of his Imperial Court, some of whom were apparently pressuring him to declare a ceasefire with Germany. (This would of course reduce Germany's war from two fronts to one, negating a major advantage for the British and their allies on the western front.) The Ambassador subsequently asked Jarvis if he'd be willing to relay a message to Tsar Nicholas II on behalf of the Tsar's cousin, King George V himself. (Such written communications at that time were vulnerable to interception -and even manipulation- along their route, hence the employment in this case of a direct messenger. The specific worry was that the message could be intercepted by the very anti-war proponents in the Tsar's court who were of concern.) Since Jarvis already had two sons fighting in the war, he reckoned he could surely pitch in and be put in harm's way himself: he accepted the perilous mission without hesitation. The message he was tasked to deliver was, at it's heart, quite simple – it was a direct personal plea by King George V for Tsar Nicholas' Russia to stay in the war! [2]

The mission, at first, seemed to go off without a hitch. Jarvis successfully conveyed the message to the designated intermediary, one Pheonella Korotherovich (a spy for the Brits herself), without incident. Her task was then to deliver the message directly to the Tsar (bypassing his courtiers), as she evidently had access. On his way back to England, on a train and pulled into a station, Pheonella passed Jarvis in the train corridor, shooting him a look that said, 'I don't know you.' Jarvis played along in a split-second decision, and her assassins were, alas, in tow. She was shot and killed seconds later on the train station platform. [2]

Toronto Argonauts 'rugby football' quarterback Bill Jarvis was a Lieutenant in the Canadian Expeditionary Force (C.E.F.). Further to pro football, he was also a champion yachtsman, a pro hockey player dabbling in the European leagues, and an amateur boxer, topping the fight bill at Toronto's Arena Gardens. In late April 1915, while his father was in England (having just returned from Petrograd), Bill fought in the Battle of St. Julien, part of the “Second Battle of Ypres” which itself comprised of four separate battles, infamous for being the first time the Germans unleashed poison gas on a large scale. (Also, it was during the Second Battle of Ypres that Col. John McCrae composed his famous poem, "In Flanders Fields".) After two acts of heroism -retrieving a fallen comrade and maintaining communications between units while under heavy fire-, Bill was witnessed by his mates being shot and wounded. He didn't go down. He was seen being shot again, went down, and was subsequently presumed dead. After the battle his body could not be found, and he was thus deemed Missing In Action, a status which ultimately endured. [2]

Lieut. Bill Jarvis, 3rd Battalion, CEF.

Bill and his father were very close. A distraught Æmilius couldn't accept that his prodigal son was dead, and -pushing his status as a Navy recruiter- forcefully traveled to the war zone himself to search for Bill. The desperate exercise proving futile, having found no trace of his fallen son, he returned to England and proceeded to lock himself in a lodging room at a friend's club for five days. When the staff finally broke down the door, they found he'd badly mangled his hands punching holes in the walls.

Thereafter, his zeal for business deals began to wane, and in subsequent years he'd spend more and more time away from his Toronto office in favour of his Aurora, Ont. farm, Hazelburn. [2] He ceased to properly mind his shop –Æmilius Jarvis & Co.– with an eagle eye, leading to catastrophic results later on.*

Another son, Lieutenant Aemilius Jarvis Jr. of the Royal Canadian Dragoons, was awarded a Military Cross in 1918. (He too was a pro athlete, and starred for Brussels -alongside his big brother Bill- in winning the inaugural Belgian hockey championship in 1912. Jr. lead the charge in the deciding game, scoring 4 goals.) Aemilius Jr. performed the valiant act of bravery which won him the decoration acting as a cable runner. The reason for the award, from the citation:

“For conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty. In the attack, volunteering to organize and maintain communication between the attacking troops and the quarry on the northern side of the wood, he personally ran out a wire, despite the intense machine gun fire and rifle fire, and acted as a telephone operator, thus enabling covering machine gun fire to be accurately maintained. His skillful and most fearless action contributed in a marked degree to the success of the attack.”

Aemilius Jarvis Jr., Royal Canadian Dragoons, WWI.

The Commodore was himself awarded a medal, a Special Service Decoration (S.S.D.), personally presented to him by Admiral Jellicoe, head of the Royal Navy. The award was specifically for Jarvis' contributions in the all-important Atlantic Q-boat patrol. Q-boats (better known as Q-ships) were decoy vessels, sometimes known as 'mystery ships' – they were heavily armed merchant ships, brandishing concealed weapons. These ships were employed to lure German U-boats into making surface attacks, thereby giving the Q-boats opportunity to fire and sink the unsuspecting submarines. Jarvis was one of only two Canadians presented with an S.S.D. in WWI, the other being Sir John Eaton.

Aemilius Jarvis on R.C.Y.C. launch wearing WWI Special Service Decoration (S.S.D.) medal. (Orig. image via Toronto Archives – colourized by Ashley Newall.)

Æmilius has the distinction of having recruited for the Royal Canadian Navy's first two ships, the Rainbow and the Niobe (among the Q-boats and others). In 1917, he became the first President of the Navy League of Canada's Ontario Division, later becoming President of the Navy League of Canada itself.

In 1918, Æmilius was a leader in a fundraising campaign in support of Navy League sailors and their families, helping to raise an astronomical $1 million for the cause (equal to $14 million in today's money), and personally delivering the cheque to England. 

Ultimately, the Commodore enlisted over 2000 men for the Canadian and British navies in WWI, fully one quarter of all Canadian sailors recruited.

Part II: The Aftermath

*In 1924 Æmilius Jarvis was wrongfully convicted of conspiracy to defraud the Government of Ontario in a political trial aimed at his co-convicted, former Treasurer (Finance Minister) in the United Farmers of Ont. government, Peter Smith. The full story is due to be told soon, and the record set straight, however by someone far more qualified than I.

Peter Smith (l.) and Æmilius Jarvis (r.) were jointly convicted of conspiracy to defraud the Government of Ontario on Oct. 24, 1924, in what was known as the Ontario Bond Scandal. 

Jarvis' reputation was little impacted by this conviction in terms of those who knew him. Even much of the contemporaneous general public eventually sided with him, viewing the verdict as unjust, and seeing the trial as blatant political retribution on the part of the ruling Conservative Party against the previously governing United Farmers.

Tea magnate Sir Thomas Lipton, on whose 1920 America's Cup team Jarvis had substantially contributed, publicly stood by him, visiting him at the jail farm where he was serving his six-month sentence and suggesting to the press that Jarvis could be in line to skipper Lipton's next America's Cup challenger.

Over fifty of Æmilius' fellow Canadian businessmen, the most prominent in the country including names such as Southam, Sifton, Gooderham, Pellatt, Flavelle, and Rogers, all signed a forceful and detailed petition pleading Æmilius' innocence and denouncing his wrongful conviction to the Ontario Government. The petition surely helped Jarvis' reputation in certain quarters, but it did not ultimately help his case for a retrial.

Æmilius soldiered on, continuing yacht racing and horse-jumping right up until he died in 1940 at the ripe old age of 80. He was co-Master of Foxhounds with Lady Eaton in the 1930s at the Toronto Hunt Club's Aurora outpost, Beverly Farm (now the Beacon Hall Golf Club), which adjoined his beloved Hazelburn farm. In business, he notably spearheaded the consolidation of the British Columbia salmon canning industry, culminating in the 1928 founding of British Columbia Packers Ltd. (of which he became President and later Chairman), selling under the iconic brand name we still buy today, Clover Leaf.

Æmilius Jarvis was Chairman of British Columbia Packers, which sold under the enduring brand name, Clover Leaf. (Advert via Macleans, 1931)

Upon the occasion of his 80th birthday, Jarvis explained his perseverance to the Toronto Star. “Keep punching,” he reflected. “It sounds like a platitude to say that into all lives some rain must fall – but it's true. Trouble with some folks is that a little rain in their lives is considered permanent.”

The Commodore fought for his conviction to be overturned for the rest of his life, reportedly spending millions in the effort, but was pipped at the post repeatedly by petty politics. This was namely by successive Ontario Conservative provincial governments, who'd had him charged in the first place. Federal governments under two Prime Ministers, William Lyon MacKenzie King and R.B. Bennett, were highly sympathetic, but their moves to clear Jarvis were blocked from action by an Ontario government protest which the ruling provincial Conservatives refused to withdraw.

Æmilius Jarvis' 80th birthday in Aurora, Ont., 1940. Lady Eaton on his left. (Photo via Toronto Archives)

Due to this conviction, I believe, the city-builder, nation-builder, and war hero Commodore Æmilius Jarvis has been all but erased from various histories in which he played substantial roles. He is thus only remembered in the aforementioned Toronto and Hamilton sailing circles, where he remains a vital Legend to this day.

By Ashley Newall

[Photo essay continues below...]

[1] “Great Canadian; Aemilius Jarvis Passes” The Express Herald, 23 December 1940. http://news.ourontario.ca/newmarket/116439/page/2

[2] “Æmilius: The Last Viking” by Edward Æmilius Jarvis & Robert Æmilius Jarvis [Canada, 2014]

If you're interested in the many aspects of the Æmilius Jarvis story, you can follow my Twitter feed @AemiliusJarvis.

Æmilius Jarvis spearheaded the founding of the Royal Hamilton Yacht Club (which opened in 1890). [Photo via National Monthly of Canada, 1903  colourized by Ashley Newall.]

Rare image of Arena Gardens (Æmilius was a co-founding Director and co-owner); Prime Minister Sir Robert Borden addressing a crowd. In 1909, Æmilius Jarvis had personally lobbied Prime Minister Sir Wilfrid Laurier for the formation of a Canadian naval reserve, a provision for which was included in Laurier's 1910 Naval Service Act. Borden vehemently opposed Laurier's Act and fought unsuccessfully to overturn it.

Bay St., Toronto, looking north from King St., circa 1914. Jarvis Building, housing Æmilius Jarvis & Co. (brokers), front right.

The Senior Toronto Argonaut Rugby Football Team, Bill Jarvis quarterback, vs. the Ottawa Rough Riders, 1911. The Argos went on to win the Interprovincial Union Championship that year. [Photo via Canadian Courier magazine – Nov. 4, 1911 ed.]

The Commodore Jarvis, Navy League of Canada (Ont. Div.) training ship, docked; aptly named dredger Dragon Rouge in foreground. (Toronto Harbour, York St. slip; May, 1920.) (Photo via Toronto Archives  colourized by Ashley Newall)

Æmilius Jarvis (1860-1940), circa 1920. (Photo via Toronto Archives)

Æmilius Jarvis spearheaded the founding of the King Edward Hotel: "To Mr. Aemilius Jarvis belongs the credit of initiating the enterprise. Through his efforts, the Toronto Hotel Company [which built the hotel] was incorporated, in the year 1899." – National Monthly of Canada, Sept. 1903.

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