James Harding: Master Shipbuilder

Biographical Sketch by Lewis Jackson, Historian

    Born at Northfield, Queens County, Nova Scotia in 1883, James Havelock Harding was the son of Cornelius and Mary Ann (Decker) Harding. Moving to Shelburne, Nova Scotia as a young man, he entered the Joseph McGill Shipyard at 17 years of age and would go on to become one of Shelburne's most respected master shipwrights.

    At the time the McGill yard was widely recognized as the leading wooden shipbuilding establishment in Atlantic Canada. It was here, under the tutelage of master shipwright and fellow Queens County native, Amos Pentz, that Mr. Harding would learn his trade. Although most vessels built in the McGill yard during this period were either designed by American naval architects or Mr. Pentz, James Harding shared lofting duties with his mentor as well as assisted him in the supervision of vessels under construction.

    Among the vessels which Mr. Harding worked on during his tenure with the McGill yard were the steam trawlers Harbinger (1901) and Messenger(1902), the first steam powered fishing vessels built in Nova Scotia. He also had a hand in constructing the Arbutus (1903), the first auxilliary powered fishing schooner built in the Province, and was present when the keels were laid for the famed two-masted schooners, Albert J Lutz (1908) and Dorothy M Smart (1910). Renowned for their speed, the latter two vessels competed for the Brittian Cup in the Nova Scotia Fishermen's Regatta held at Digby, Nova Scotia in 1911.

    In 1916 Mr Harding left the employ of the McGill yard and became the master shipwright for, and minor shareholder in, the newly organized firm of Shelburne Shipbuilders Ltd. The first vessel launched by the firm was the Keith Cann, a 130 feet by 25 feet by 11.3 feet passenger and freight steamer launched for Yarmouth parties in 1917. Over the course of the next 30 years James H Harding would supervise the construction of more than 60 vessels from the Shelburne Shipbuilders Ltd. yard. These included everything from two-masted fishing schooners and three-masted tern schooners to finely modelled yachts, ferries, motorized rum runners, naval mine sweepers and diesel powered fishing vessels for otter trawling.

    Well known as one of Shelburne's most exacting master shipwrights who could build a craft to its meticulously drafted lines, Harding turned out a number of exceptional yachts during the 'Roaring Twenties' which made names for themselves on the international racing circuits. The Waterwitch, triumphant in the Miami-to-Nassau race; Malay, two-time winner of the Newport-to-Bermuda race; and Little Haligonian, a three-time victor of the St. Petersburg-to-Havana race were all built with great care under his supervision in the Shelburne Shipbuilders yard.

    He displayed similar care in constructing the William J Roue designed Haligonian, a two-masted schooner launched in 1925 to compete in the fishermen's races against the legendary Bluenose. While the Haligonian did manage to win an informal race against the Bluenose in 1930 (the only Canadian vessel known to have done so), it could not overhaul that vessel in the elimination races leading to the international matches, and thus remains but a footnote in history.

    In addition to fishing schooners and yachts, Mr. Harding also earned an enviable reputation as a builder of very speedy rum runners. Those which were built specifically for tthe trade and earned considerable notoriety during their careers included the Josephine K (1926), Alpaca (1927), James B (1928), Symor (1928), Isabel H (1928), Malbo (1929), Frederick (1929), Maskinoque (1930) and Florann (1931).

     During the second World War Mr. Harding reportedly modified British admiralty plans for minesweepers and these plans were used by shipyards throughout Nova Scotia to construct the required craft. He supervised the construction of five of these minesweepers in the Shelburne Shipbuilders Ltd. yard.

    James H Harding ultimately retired from active yard work with his last two craft being the fisheries research vessel, Harengus in 1946 and the fishing dragger, Cadagan in 1947. Mr. Harding passed away in his 94th. year at Shelburne in 1978.

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Last modified 31 March 2002