The RMS Queen Mary chugs into the harbour in New York City in June of 1945, still sporting the grey assemblage it was given during World War II. The story behind the colour of the British passenger liner is directly tied to one of the most unique nicknames in all of B.C. high school sports. (Public domain photo courtesy National Archives Catalog)
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A Sunday Read: Why do nicknames matter? The origin story of Vancouver’s Lord Byng Grey Ghosts!

VANCOUVER — The best high school nicknames have always carried an understated power.

In just a word or two, they offer not only an instant connection across the generations, but a way of paying homage to unique histories and traditions that each can so proudly call its own.

In fact at their very best, they are so deeply rooted in their time and their community, that in hands of teachers and historians, can themselves become the subjects of classroom study.

At least once a year, that’s precisely what happens in Room 315 at Vancouver’s Lord Byng Secondary School.

There, in what is one of the school’s original 95-year-old classrooms, social studies teacher/rugby coach Ian MacPhee gets to teach that very lesson.

First, just exactly who was the school’s namesake Julian Byng?

And secondly, how did Lord Byng Secondary’s teams come to be so uniquely known as the Grey Ghosts?

The Lord Byng Grey Ghosts. (Photo property of Wilson Wong 2021. All Rights Reserved)

Well, as part of the Grade 10 curriculum he follows each year, MacPhee teaches his students all about Canada’s involvement in the two World Wars, including the 1917 victory in northern France at the famed Battle of Vimy Ridge where Byng commanded the Canadian troops.

“I teach about Canada’s role in the First World War and how Vimy Ridge was an important part of Canada’s identity, in the fact that they fought as a Canadian unit,” said MacPhee of an event which historians define as a pivotal moment in Canadian nationalism.

So much so that some eight years later, in the fall of 1925, Lord Byng High School was officially opened, its namesake was already some four years into his term as the 12th Governor General of Canada.

Lord Byng boys rugby coach and social studies teacher Ian MacPhee addresses a group of young players. (Photo provided courtesy Lord Byng Athletics 2021. All Rights Reserved)

THE ORIGIN OF THE GREY GHOSTS

Sporting a hull over 1,000 feet in length and built at a cost of what today would be over $420 million Cdn, the RMS Queen Mary sailed on its maiden voyage back in May of 1936, representing the epitome of transatlantic luxury liner service.

What does any of this have to do with the nickname that would soon be adopted by a high school back in Vancouver?

(For a look at our entire list of 317 B.C. high school nicknames, click here. For a comical look at fantasy high school invitational tournaments based solely on nicknames and school names, click here)

In 1939, soon after the outbreak of World War II, the Queen Mary was converted into a troopship, ultimately ferrying some 800,000 Allied soldiers to major campaigns around the world over the duration of the conflict, including the D-Day invasion.

Yet before that transformation was complete, some alterations were made to her exterior.

“They painted the ship grey so that she would be better camouflaged on the seas,” said MacPhee. “This was during the time that so many of the transport ships were being torpedoed.

“I can’t remember how many trips it made back and forth, but it was never sunk,” added MacPhee of a ship that was also noted for its incredible speed. “That’s why it earned the nickname the Grey Ghost… because they couldn’t see it.”

These days, with it’s hull restored to its original black, the Queen Mary sits permanently docked in Long Beach. Cal., where since 1967 she has served as a maritime museum and hotel.

For MacPhee, the ability to integrate the school’s nickname into a Canadian history class is special.

“It was a commandeered passenger ship, not a battleship or a tank, or something else that would typically garner more attention,” explains MacPhee.

“It’s kind of subtle,” he adds, “maybe a bit of an underdog story in terms of not being front-and-centre but still a vital aspect… kind of like being a role player on a team, where you’re needed to be successful.”

A colourized version of Vancouver’s Lord Byng High School prior to its September, 1925 opening. (Photo provided courtesy Lord Byng Athletics 2021. All Rights Reserved)

A MOMENT CAPTURED IN TIME

Ian MacPhee delights in the conversation that so often ensues when students of his notice the subject of his laptop computer’s screen saver image.

“It’s a colourized photo of the original school,” he points out of a brand-new building whose vintage matches both the automobile parked out front and the Union Jack flying full-mast atop the building’s peak. “It must have been taken in the summer of 1925, right before we opened in the fall.”

“When the kids see that picture, they all ask questions,” continues MacPhee, who is able to bring a sense of realism to the conversations since his classes are conducted in one of the school’s original rooms.

“Byng went through some seismic upgrading, so the interior is different, but when I go to the exterior walls, where the windows are,” he continues of Room 315, which sits right in the middle of the backside of the building, “it’s still the original plaster that is cracked, and the windows themselves are single-pane glass with the old-fashioned sashes and the rest of it.”

A 2019 winter view is captured from the window of room 315 at Lord Byng Secondary School. The room, part of the school’s original structure, has offered this view since its opening in the fall of 1925. (Photo provided courtesy Lord Byng Athletics 2021. All Rights Reserved)

This past November, as Remembrance Day arrived, MacPhee was once again able to bring a sense of realism to his Socials 10 class.

In the hallways of the school, poppies were appropriately placed within the photographic collages and memorials to those students lost in battle.

“And as a part of my class, I do a power point where I have some close ups of those photos,” continued MacPhee. “Some of them could have been sitting in this very classroom 80 years ago, and had the same dreams that kids do today. But through no fault of their own they were called into service and never came back.

“So I make those connections with kids… not to make them upset, but to say how lucky we are that the sacrifices of kids just like you sitting in this very room maybe 80 years ago allows you the privileges you have today in 2021 in Vancouver.”

And it’s a story, with the help of a special nickname, just waiting to be told over and over again.

If you’re reading this story or viewing these photos on any website other than one belonging to a university athletic department, it has been taken without appropriate permission. In these challenging times, true journalism will survive only through your dedicated support and loyalty. VarsityLetters.ca and all of its exclusive content has been created to serve B.C.’s high school and university sports community with hard work, integrity and respect. Feel free to drop us a line any time at howardtsumura@gmail.com.

10 thoughts on “A Sunday Read: Why do nicknames matter? The origin story of Vancouver’s Lord Byng Grey Ghosts!

  1. Howard: In my mind, this 3-part series on nicknames has topped anything else you have possibly ever done which means it is pretty awesome.
    The introductory note to this story and the series is so well said and must be repeated: “The best high school nicknames have always carried an understated power. In just a word or two, they offer not only an instant connection across the generations, but a way of paying homage to unique histories and traditions that each can so proudly call its own.”

    At one time, only a few BC schools used nicknames for their teams. But I wonder how many of us realize just how many schools have changed their nickname over the years. You noted several in this series. Here are some others that I remember: Britannia Braves (now Bruins), Cariboo Hill Shamrocks (now Chargers), Chemainus Timbermen (now Cougars), Chilliwack Frontiersmen (now Storm), Langley Pioneers (now Saints), Magee Blackshirts (now Lions), Nanaimo District Hubsters (now Islanders), North Pearce Oscars (now Grizzlies), North Surrey North Stars (now Spartans), Smithers Rockets (now Gryphons), and West Vancouver Mountaineers (now Highlanders).

    Like you, I love nicknames. Your choice of Grey Ghosts as a favourite is perfect and I’d include it in my own Top-11 favourite unique names (I couldn`t reduce it to a Top-10). Listed in alphabetical order by school name, my others are Charles Hays Rainmakers, G.P. Vanier Towhees, Gladstone Gladiators, J. L. Crowe Hawks (nice twist on the school name), John Oliver Jokers, Kelowna Owls, Nechako Valley Vikings/Viqueens (love the Viqueens takeoff on Vikings), Notre Dame Jugglers, Salmon Arm Golds/Jewels (another great takeoff), and Seycove Seyhawks (great manipulation on the school’s name). In addition I’d then add four former schools: Como Lake Comets, Delbrook Hilltoppers, Hillside Highwaymen and Lester Pearson Mikes.
    Len Corben

  2. Graduated in 1958..Before Covid19 and 15 of us got together 3 times per year. Lost 3 friends from that group. It was a great year academically and sports; provincial winners in Basketball, Rugby, Track (I think) and Tennis

  3. Howard ,
    What a terrific series ! I’ve always thought that my Alma Mater’s nickname , ” Grey Ghosts ” , is the best of the bunch ( although the modern ” ghost ” graphic could use some work ). The ” Magee Blackshirts ” , even in this age of correctness , is a far superior nickname to ” Lions ” ( it’s difficult to see the North Shore mountains from 53rd and Arbutus ! ). My Dad , were he still with us , would certainly object . C’mon
    Mageeites ( Mageesters ? )-choose a moniker in keeping with the history of the area ( eg: Magee Pioneers; Magee Blackbirds ; Magee Union-Jacks [ ha ! ] ) !

  4. Let’s not forget Burnaby’s Alpha Aardvarks! Then changed to the Alpha Aztecs and then changed to its current Alpha Eagles. I’m thinking they should revert back to the Alpha Aardvarks. 🏀👍

  5. Having graduated in 1971, this brings back memories of the school. I never knew what the meaning of the “grey ghosts” was, now I do. A huge thanks for this!!!!

  6. Coming here from The Facebook where this story was recently shared. Reading this gives me shivers – thanks Howard. What a remarkble story, and great to hear that history is brought alive by teachers like Ian Macphee. I am a graduate from 1996, and have to admit, always wondered about the nickname. Now i’m pleased to say my daughter attends, and will carry on the Grey Ghosts tradition. (now i really need to order one of those Grey Ghost tees!)

    And to echo @LenCorben comment , Howard’s statement at the top really is powerful “The best high school nicknames have always carried an understated power.”

  7. As a graduate of Lord Byng in 1964 I have a few memories of that time in my young life. The sport community in the school was my second home. My PE teacher, Mr. Johnson, was our track coach. He walked softly and talked very little, but when he spoke I tended to listen. Our football coach, Matt Phillips, was just the opposite….trying to motivate by yelling.
    I digress….I still recall Mr. Johnson telling us the origin of the name Grey Ghosts…..Howie McPhee a runner some decades before. He trained in his grey sweats and ran a lot in the area around Byng of the day, the early 1930`s. That I recall from over sixty years ago. So I take umbrage and surprise with what is being sold today as truth, which is a great idea, but know where near the truth from the PE teacher who was around and saw Howie run…..right into the 1936 Olympics and 1938 Commonwealth Games………the real Grey Ghost

  8. Hi Howard: This is an interesting story. Thanks. A little known fact is that the Mennonite Educational Institute used to be The Ambassadors and not the Eagles. The name came from II Corinthians 5:20 where Paul says “We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us.” I wish I could look up in old yearbooks when this change occurred, but the Institute’s library is closed due to Covid. I am guessing the change may have occurred with the arrival of Jake Braun who coached the senior boys to the title in 1963, but it may even pre-date him. There may be some readers from that late-50s era who could shed some more light on the subject. The name Ambassadors today would be far more unique than the Eagles.

  9. Howard, this story about Lord Byng’s nickname, the Grey Ghosts is fantastic. I attended Byng mid 70’s graduating in 1980 and never heard this story and, like most Byng students, I didn’t have a clue what a Grey Ghost was. In fact, our Student Council had a contest to change the school’s nickname. Obviously, due to apathy or a lack of name choices resulted in the name sticking – I’m so glad it did. Big kudos to teacher Ian MacPhee for taking the time to teach students this piece of history and huge kudos to you for such a well researched and written article. Much appreciated.

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