The Thermopylae Club was formed in 1932 by a small number of retired seafaring men of all ranks. The object of forming a club was to gather together those who had followed the sea, to entertain each other with yarns and stories of their experiences and forge a bond of good fellowship. Some of the early members had served in the old tea clipper Thermopylae.
The ship Thermopylae
Thermopylae leading Cutty Sark
The club is named after one of the most famous clipper ships that sailed the seas. Thermopylae was built for the Aberdeen White Star Line in 1868 to carry what was then a luxury cargo from China’s ports to London. To command the highest prices for the new season’s tea, it was essential that tea clippers could maintain top speed for the entire voyage under all conditions of sea and wind. The clippers were well designed, well manned and commanded by captains of outstanding ability.
The opening of the Suez Canal in 1869 meant steamships could also compete in the China tea trade, and old routes became uneconomical for clipper ships. These soon switched cargoes as the wool trade flourished between ports in Australia and Great Britain. Thermopylae in the wool trade again established new speed records.
In the 1890s, registered in home port Victoria by Mount Royal Rice Mills, owned by the Robert Reford Co. of Montreal, the ship continued her fast runs with rice from the China ports to Victoria’s Inner Harbour. The cargo was offloaded at the wharves of the rice mill on Store Street, now the Capital Iron property. The ship’s return cargoes were mostly lumber from the B.C. coast.
Stories of the ship and the era of clipper ships have been published by authors John Crosse, Ursula Jupp, Malcolm Armstrong and Basil Lubbock, among others. Some of their books include ship-portraits of Thermopylae in harbour and at sea, and more images are online.
The club in early days
The club’s first Master was Capt. Alexander McDonald. Author and historian Major F.V. Longstaff, a retired British Army officer, also played an important part in forming the club. As on a seagoing ship, club members were required to sign on as shipmates and were entered in Ships Articles. The minutes of meetings were recorded and the yarns spun were written into the club’s log, which makes the logbooks in the club’s archives good reading.
One of the early pursers was something of an artist and his minutes are embellished with thumbnail sketches beautifully executed.
A 1954 logbook entry announced that women would from then on be admitted to membership, have equal membership privileges with male members and be eligible for election to any office in the club.
Club members met at various locations and held an annual banquet at which traditional sea menus were served. This dinner is still held on the second Wednesday of every April and maintains the comfortable camaraderie and many of the traditions of the club’s early days.
The Thermopylae Club’s meeting room was beside the old Vice-Admiralty courtroom of the Maritime Museum of B.C. during the nearly fifty years the museum was in Bastion Square. After the museum was required to relegate most of its collection to exterior storage space and move to office and exhibit space at 634 Humboldt Street, club members met in the new space and continued the supportive relationship with the Maritime Museum. Members should not hesitate to volunteer their time and skills to help the museum. We are all bound by common interest.
Thermopylae Club Now
Our purposes are listed in the constitution document:
- To stimulate interest and pride in British Columbia and Canadian maritime heritge.
- To make available to the public, information on British Columbia’s maritime heritage.
- To provide financial assistance and merit awards for maritime studies.
- To encourage gifts of maritime artifacts to maritime museums in British Columbia.
- To provide a forum for discussion of British Columbia’s maritime heritage.
The constitution and revised bylaws were filed 1 February 2018 with the B.C. Registrar of Companies, as required for all such groups in the province under the Societies Act of British Columbia [SBC 2015 c.18]. The club files annual reports with both the federal and the provincial governments.
New members receive a copy of the constitution and bylaws, available either electronically or as printout. Part 2 of the updated bylaws says about membership, in part: “A person may apply to the Board for membership in the Society, and the person becomes a member on the Board’s acceptance of the application and payment of any applicable dues…. On becoming a member, or at any other time, a member is entitled to request and receive a copy of the Society’s constitution and bylaws without charge. …”
The club’s regular meetings start at 7:30 p.m. on the second Wednesday of the month, September-to-June. The festive annual dinner is held every April.
The Club flag
The club flag is that of the old Aberdeen White Star Co., first owners of Thermopylae. Members who are vessel owners are entitled to fly the flag, which should be flown from the starboard yardarm and in accordance with flag etiquette of the locality visited.
Watch Keeping Mate Award of Excellence
The School of Trades and Technology at Camosun College presents a Watchkeeping Mate Award of Excellence every year to the Watchkeeping Mate student who receives the highest aggregate marks on the Transport Canada examinations that year. The award is co-sponsored by the Thermopylae Club and B.C. Ferries, and one or two members represent the club at award presentations.
On the centennial of the 1868 launching of Thermopylae, the club presented the Royal Victoria Yacht Club with a trophy to be awarded to the winner of the Long Distance Race in the annual Thermopylae Regatta held each September. The winner of the race is permitted to fly the Thermopylae Club flag. The trophy itself is displayed during the annual Thermopylae Club Dinner in April.
From time to time the club has been involved with the placing of bronze plaques on the Inner Harbour Causeway’s Parade of Ships and elsewhere in the region, plaques cast to commemorate seamen, ships and those in the seagoing trade. All members are encouraged to attend the dedication ceremonies held on these occasions.