HMCS Conestoga | The Canadian Encyclopedia


HMCS Conestoga

HMCS Conestoga was a basic training establishment for the Women’s Royal Canadian Naval Service (WRCNS) during the Second World War. Located in Galt, Ontario, it operated from 1942 to 1945. Of nearly 6,800 women who served in the WRCNS, most trained at Conestoga.

HMCS Conestaga, Galt, Ontario, 1942.

WRCNS Training Facility

The Women’s Royal Canadian Naval Service (WRCNS) was founded in July 1942 during the Second World War. Shortly after, HMCS Conestoga was established as a basic training facility for WRCNS recruits, who were known as “Wrens.” The training facility was located in Galt, Ontario, on the site of the vacant Ontario Training School for Girls, a reform school for delinquent girls. The site included residences, a cafeteria, teaching space and an administration building. In October 1942, Conestoga welcomed its first class of Wrens. In June 1943, Lieutenant-Commander Isabel Macneill became commanding officer of HMCS Conestoga.

Isabel Macneill
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In the navy, commissioned shore establishments are known as “stone frigates.” As commanding officer of HMCS Conestoga, Isabel Macneill was the first female to command a navy ship in the British Commonwealth.

Basic training at HMCS Conestoga lasted three weeks. Most Wrens were then relocated to other facilities or shore establishments. Some were employed immediately in their trade, while others went on to officer or specialist training at other facilities, such as HMCS Cornwallis in Halifax and HMCS St. Hyacinthe in Saint-Hyacinthe, Quebec. At first, Wrens served in trades and occupations considered domestic or feminine, including cook, laundress, supply assistant and sick berth attendant. Soon, however, more specialized and technical trades opened to women, including communications-related trades such as wireless telegraphy, visual signalling and coding. By the end of the war, nearly 6,800 Wrens had served in 39 naval trades in shore establishments across Canada and overseas. Most trained at HMCS Conestoga.

HMCS Conestoga was decommissioned in 1945; the WRCNS was disbanded in 1946.

WRCNS Uniforms
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In October 1972, a statue of “Jenny Wren” was given to the city of Galt (now Cambridge) by veterans of the WRCNS. The statue was unveiled 30 years after HMCS Conestoga opened as a training facility. The ceremony was attended by more than 3,000 people, including the sculptor, Wren veteran Francis Gage, former commanding officer Isabel Macneill, veterans of the WRCNS and the Canadian navy, dignitaries and members of the public.

Ontario/Grandview Training School for Girls

At the end of the Second World War, HMCS Conestoga was decommissioned, and the Ontario Training School for Girls returned to its original location. Veteran Wren officer Isabel Macneill served as superintendent of the school from 1948 to 1954. During her six years as superintendent, she oversaw significant changes to the organization, bringing in psychologists and caseworkers and providing training and treatment for the girls.

The school was renamed Grandview Training School for Girls in 1967. It closed in 1976, after an investigation into the abuse of residents from the mid-1960s to the early 1970s. No charges were laid at the time. The abuse came to public attention, however, in 1991. Eight former employees were charged, and two guards convicted. The victims received financial compensation, therapy and an official apology from the government of Ontario.