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At 98, Maritime historian Eileen Reid Marcil pens latest book on Quebec’s past

Eileen Reid Marcil is a Maritime historian, who has dedicated decades to researching and writing about Quebec's storied shipbuilding past.
Eileen Reid Marcil is a Maritime historian, who has dedicated decades to researching and writing about Quebec's storied shipbuilding past. Courtesy of Baraka Books

Editor’s note: A previous version of this article said the Royal William was the first steamer to cross the Atlantic Ocean. In fact, it was the first to span the ocean by steam power, without having to stop to refuel.


Eileen Reid Marcil has helped uncover a large part of Quebec’s shipbuilding history and the people behind it, but at the age of 98, she still has more to teach us.

The distinguished Maritime historian and author published her latest work, The PS Royal William of Quebec, in November — and in the midst of the novel coronavirus pandemic.

Her book, a project that required years of research and examining records, proves that the Royal William was the first steamship to span the Atlantic Ocean propelled only by steam power, as it had enough coal for the trip. Others before the Royal William had to stop to refuel to make the same trip, according to Marcil. The paddle steamer, which was built in the Port of Quebec, made its way from Nova Scotia to England in 1833.

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Marcil says someone even “pulled some strings” to acquire illustrations in time for the book to be published, which is her latest project in a long list of accomplishments spanning decades.

“I started nearly 40 years ago but I have written a few books — a dozen or more — since then,” she said. “It’s been an ongoing thing in the background until now.”

READ MORE: Quebec’s Chantier Davie will become part of the National Shipbuilding Strategy

Marcil, who lives in Montreal, first fell in love with researching when she worked as a personal secretary for a corporate lawyer in the early 1970s. When combing through archives for a project, she said she became hooked on digging for information and left her job to pursue her passion.

Afterwards, Marcil was researching houses for a historian with Parks Canada and she was eventually approached to do a PhD on shipbuilding in the province by a professor at Université Laval, in Quebec City.

“I said to him I can’t do it because I don’t have a BA or a MA — because of the war, I didn’t go to university,” she said. “I had entrance rights but I couldn’t go.”

“Anyway, it ended up with my doing a PhD because he said he had been trying to get someone to do it for 20 years and no one had agreed because it was so much research to be done in English. So that’s how I became a Maritime historian.”

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Marcil set her eyes on a doctorate degree, which she earned in 1987 on her 65th birthday. Her thesis, titled Shipbuilding at Quebec, 1763‑1893: The Square Rigger Trade, is available in both French and English.

Signing a copy of The Charley-Man for Captain Jean-Alain Moradec of the French barque Belem, in port for Quebec’s 400th anniversary in 2008.
Signing a copy of The Charley-Man for Captain Jean-Alain Moradec of the French barque Belem, in port for Quebec’s 400th anniversary in 2008. Courtesy of Jean-Pierre Charest

Marcil’s long list of accomplishments includes the books The Charley-man: A History of Wooden Shipbuilding at Quebec 1763-1893 and Tall Ships and Tankers: The History of the Davie Shipbuilders. She has also given speeches at historical societies about naval history.

While Marcil is known for her passionate work on Quebec’s storied shipbuilding past, she says she doesn’t have any shipbuilders in her family but she greatly admires their work.

The author is also determined on making that history accessible to all Canadians, since she says it’s not something that’s a part of most school curriculums.

“With one thing and another, I decided I must write for people whose ancestors did so much and yet nobody cares today,” she said.

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While publishing her latest work in the midst of a pandemic has been different, to say the least, Marcil still found a way to celebrate. She handed out copies of her book to her friends at the residence where she lives — and she was happy to do so.

When asked if she had other projects ahead of her, Marcil said it feels “good to go on to something different” but stopped short of revealing what that may entail.

“We will see what I decide finally.”

READ MORE: Storied Coast Guard ship can’t be fixed, shipyard says, highlighting yet again, Canada’s shipbuilding problem

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