Ajax Town

Town of Ajax Corporate Crest
(Image courtesy of Town of Ajax)
This chapter utilises local historical information generously provided by courtesy of the Town of Ajax Archive, Ontario, Canada, supplemented from local and other historical archives.

The naming of the Canadian Town of Ajax in Ontario is unique being the only recorded instance of a town or city taking its name from a ship.

But why name a town after a ship, especially a Canadian town with that of a
British warship?

How did this happen?

And why this particular ship?

On September 10, 1939 when Canada declared war on Germany, the present site of the Town of Ajax was then just peaceful rolling farmland nestled on the edge of Lake Ontario in Pickering County, some 16 miles (25 Kms) east of Toronto. In fact at that time it had only been 150 years since the first white settlers had arrived in this area to start their new life in what to them was unknown land.

And so it remained peaceful farmland until abruptly early in 1941 it became the site of Defence Industries Limited (in short - D.I.L.), Pickering Munitions Works. Thus began what was to rapidly become a vast munitions plant. By 1945 the Works had manufactured and filled 40 million shells and at peak production employed over 9,000 people, the majority of whom were female. It boasted of its own post office, water and sewage treatment plants; a school with a population of over 600 children, 30 miles of railroad and 30 miles of roads. The entire D.I.L. plant site included some 2,985 acres. People came from all over Canada to work there.

This enormous burgeoning war plant grew very quickly into a community which sorely needed an identity, a name. In mid summer of 1941 the D.I.L. management formed a committee to arrange a competition to choose a name. The name chosen came from the first significant British naval victory of World War 2 and of course, the D.I.L. Pickering plant was a critical supplier of shells to the British Royal Navy.

Ajax Town Hall
Off the coast of South America from 13th to 19th December 1939 a flotilla of British warships, HMS Ajax, HMS Exeter and HMS Achilles, commanded by Commodore Henry H. Harwood RN, had engaged and against all odds routed the powerful German pocket battleship Admiral Graf Spee at the Battle of the River Plate, near the Uruguayan port of Montevideo. A feat of arms which Winston Churchill, then First Lord of the Admiralty, in a memorable celebratory speech described it as 'the brilliant sea fight.....takes its place in our naval annals .....in the days of a dark cold winter it warms the cockles of the British heart’ (Note 1). This speech was to literally reverberate around the world and thus no doubt helped the Battle to become one of the Royal Navy’s most well known World War 2 battles. The name Ajax and the names of her accompanying ships became worldwide symbols of courage and determination; attributes this Canadian community obviously respected and found synonymous with their name seeking aspirations. So Ajax was chosen as the name of this war-born community. In 1956 the Battle was made into a very successful film ‘The Battle of the River Plate’ starring John Gregson, Peter Finch and Anthony Quale further enhancing the ship's place in history.

Although the reverse has been common practice to name Royal Navy ships after towns and cities, this naming forged a link not only to the Royal Navy but to those officers and crews who served in the seventh Royal Naval vessel of that name, HMS Ajax, a cruiser built in 1934 and it’s successor, a frigate built in 1962, through which a tradition has now been established. The Town takes a particular interest in maintaining very strong links with the HMS Ajax and River Plate Veterans Association with regular mutual visits particularly as anniversaries occur. Since 1962 each incoming Mayor has automatically extended an invitation to the British Admiralty for their ships to visit the town, of special relevance is if an HMS Ajax is in commission (Note 2). The frigate paid a visit in August 1976 and was honoured by being given the Freedom of the Town (Note 3). Upon the frigate being decommissioned and scrapped her anchor and ship's bell were donated to the Town and are now proudly installed there (Note 4). Similarly special commemorations are to take place in the Town in June, 2014 to celebrate the 75th anniversary of the Battle in which members of the HMS Ajax and River Plate Veterans Association will participate.

1945 saw the end of World War 2 but just the opposite for the Town of Ajax. As the young veterans returned home, accommodation was required for thousands of additional university students. Consequently, the University of Toronto leased much of the D.I.L. plant to house the flood of new engineering students. War machinery was moved out and the buildings were converted to classrooms and laboratories. The residences that had housed war workers changed to house university students. All the facilities of the University of Toronto were duplicated at Ajax. By 1949, by the last year of the University of Toronto, Ajax Division, some 7,000 engineering students had received their basic training here.

But what was to become of this fledgling Town named Ajax? Many people who worked or lived in Ajax during D.I.L. or university days wanted to remain here. Due largely to the vision of George W. Finley of Central Mortgage and Housing Corporation, Ajax became a planned modern community using the war time base for its post-war foundation. The swords were beaten into ploughshares. Post-war Ajax began its growth.

Industry and people came from everywhere attracted by the many assets of Ajax. Its schools, churches, hospital, steam generating plant, comprehensive town planning and particularly its pleasing environmental geography on the shore of Lake Ontario close to Toronto. A town setting its individual identity at a separate pace with its friendly, industrious and involved citizens.

Brenda Kriz, Records Manager and Freedom of Information Coordinator for the Town of Ajax, who devoted intensive research to the subject, concluded the name Ajax was probably adopted by management of the Defence Industries plant in the late summer to early autumn of 1941 following the competition to name the community in mid-summer. The community gained its own municipal government in 1950 as the Corporation of the Improvement District of Ajax. 1953 saw it become the Corporation of the Town of Ajax holding its first council elections that December. In 1973 it was amalgamated with the Village of Pickering while annexing certain portions of the Township of Pickering and became The Town of Ajax. This was all part of the new Durham Region. The Durham Region and the Town of Ajax officially came into being on January 1st 1974. In 2011 Ajax had a population of 109,600.

There is one final and unique chapter of this bond connecting Town and Ship, The Town is a living memorial as it accords the honour of naming and dedicating all of its streets by taking the names of the Officers and Crew of this Cruiser Ajax, her companion ships at the Battle, Achilles and Exeter and the next ship to wear the name Ajax, the 1962 built frigate. Thus Bob Sharplin is now remembered by “Sharplin Drive”. This practice was also graciously extended to the enemy, to the commander of the Admiral Graf Spee, KapitÓ“n zur Zee Hans Langsdorff, in naming a street "Langsdorff Drive" (Note 5).

"Sharplin Drive" Street Naming ceremony, Town of Ajax, 16th June 2014.
From left: Elizabeth Sharplin (Clive's wife), Clive Sharplin (Bob's son),
Town of Ajax Mayor Steve Parish.

Ajax Veterans and family members attending the Battle of the River Plate 75th Anniversary celebrations join the "Sharplin Drive" Street Naming party.

Source: Canadian “Daily Commercial News

1.    This speech was presented at a Luncheon in celebration of the Battle at London’s Guildhall in   
    February 1940 with the attendant crews of HMS Ajax and HMS Exeter. HMS Achilles, 
    predominately manned by a New Zealand crew  had returned to New Zealand for her own
    celebration in Auckland and a repair and refit. Video clips of Churchill's speech and the preceding
    Parade at which King George VI presented Gallantry Awards and took the Salute will be found at
    the foot of Chapter "HMS Ajax - The Ship".  

2.    The naming of Royal Naval ships may appear to be random. A name is not necessarily 
    immediately passed on, indeed it may not even be used again, HMS Fife in "Note 4" being an  
    example. The type of ship, whether it will be one of a several similar or identical ships or not can
    be factors. Since 1767 eight ships have borne this name, the two referred to in this chapter were 
    the Light Cruiser (1935-1948) after which the Town was named and a Frigate (1963-1987). The
    next ship to bear this name will be a nuclear submarine for which orders have been placed and
    scheduled to enter service in 2024. (ibid - "The Ships Named Ajax" for full details of the Frigate  
    and the Submarine )

3.    When Mayor Clark Mason took office, he too extended the invitation and to everyone's delight,   
    it was accepted. On August 25, 1976 the Frigate HMS Ajax docked at Toronto's Oshawa Harbour.
    Three days later the officers and men were given the highest civic honour that can be bestowed on
    a visiting military unit, they were given the Freedom of the Town. The crew of 257 paraded down  
    Harwood Avenue to the Ajax Community Centre "with swords raised, bayonets fixed and colours
    flying". Over their six day stay the crew were feted with a well planned programme including    
    sporting contests bringing them and townspeople together; many town families billeted crew

4.     The anchor and bell were brought into Oshawa Harbour on the Guided Missile Destroyer HMS
    Fife and formally presented to the Town in a ceremony on her deck on May 14, 1987. The anchor
    is on display in front of the Royal Canadian Legion on Hunt Street. The bell hangs in  the Council
    Chamber where to this day it is rung to bring each assembly of Council to order.
        HMS Fife was the first ship of the Batch 2 County Class Destroyers, her Pennant Number was  
    D20. Built by Fairfield Shipbuilding she was in commission between June 1966 and June 1987. 
    Sold to Chile in August 1987 and finally sold for scrap in November 2005.    

5.     Langsdorff had established himself as being of particularly honourable and humane character
    for the manner in which he had treated the allied crews he took captive after sinking their  
    ships and  respecting their wellbeing.  He regarded himself as an Officer of the old German   
    Imperial Kriegsmarine rather than the Nazi Navy. After the Battle, within days of having taken his
    ship into Montevideo harbour, he took his own life. He was buried with full military honours with
    a group of the Officers from the allied ships he had captured attending his funeral.

     Notes 3 and 4 are based upon information graciously contributed by Brenda Kriz, Records
    Manager and Freedom of Information Coordinator for the Town of Ajax as is some content of this