RMS Empress of Ireland

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Empress of Ireland
Name: Empress of Ireland
Owner: Canadian Pacific Steamship Company
Port of registry: Liverpool
Builder: Fairfield Shipbuilding and Engineering Company, Govan, Scotland
Launched: 27 January 1906
Christened: 27 January 1906
Maiden voyage: 29 June 1906
Fate: Sank after colliding with Storstad on 29 May 1914
General characteristics
Tonnage: 14,191 gross register tons (GRT)
Length: 570 feet (174.1 m)
Beam: 65.6 feet (19.99 m)
Installed power: Quadruple expansion steam engines
Propulsion: Twin propellers
Speed: 20 knots
Capacity: 1,580

Coordinates: 48°37.5′N 68°24.5′W / 48.625°N 68.4083°W / 48.625; -68.4083

RMS Empress of Ireland was an ocean liner built in 1905 [1] by Fairfield Shipbuilding and Engineering at Govan on the Clyde in Scotland for Canadian Pacific Steamships (CP).[2] This Empress was distinguished by the Royal Mail Ship (RMS) prefix in front of her name because the British government and Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) had decades earlier reached agreement on a mail subsidy contract between Britain and Hong Kong via Canada.

While steaming on the Saint Lawrence River in fog, the Empress was struck amidships by the Norwegian collier (coal freighter) SS Storstad; and the fatally damaged vessel sank very quickly in the early morning of 29 May 1914. This accident claimed 1,012 lives[3], making it the deadliest maritime disaster in Canadian history.[4]

Artifacts from the wreckage and the history of the vessel, her passengers and crew are on display in the Empress of Ireland Pavilion at the Site historique maritime de la Pointe-au-Père in Rimouski, Quebec.


The Empress of Ireland was built by Fairfield Shipbuilding & Engineering Co. at Govan near Glasgow in Scotland.[5] The 14,191-ton vessel was a fixed price contract of £375,000 and was to be delivered to C.P.R eighteen months from the date the contract was signed. The keel was laid for hull number 443 at Fairfield's berth number 4 next to her sister ship, the Empress of Britain which was also under construction on 10 April 1905. The new Empress had a length of 570 feet (174 m), and her beam was 66 feet (20.1 m). The plumb-bowed ship had twin funnels, two masts, twin propellers and an average speed of 18 knots (33 km/h). Providing accommodation for 310 first-class passengers and for 470 second-class passengers, there was also room for up to 750 third-class passengers. This meant that she had an overall capacity of 1,580. The Empress was launched on 26 January 1906, and she set out on her maiden voyage from Liverpool, she proved herself as both reliable and fast.[4] There was one incident in 1909 where the Empress struck a sunken vessel or an unknown submerged rock at the northern end of the St Lawrence.[6]

At some point during her career, the Empress of Ireland underwent minor renovations to relieve her superstructure of its enclosed forward promenade decks.

The vessel, along with her sister ship Empress of Britain, had been commissioned by Canadian Pacific for the northern trans-Atlantic route between Quebec and England. The transcontinental CPR and its fleet of ocean liners were part of the company's self-proclaimed World's Greatest Transportation System.


Formal portrait of Captain Henry Kendall, the last captain of the RMS Empress of Ireland which sank in the St. Lawrence River after a collision with the SS Storstad in May 1914.

The Empress of Ireland departed Quebec City for Liverpool at 16:30 local time on 28 May 1914 with 1,477 passengers and crew. Henry George Kendall had just been promoted to captain of the Empress at the beginning of the month; and it was his first trip down the Saint Lawrence River in command of the vessel.

Early the next morning on 29 May 1914, the ship was proceeding down the channel near Pointe-au-Père, Quebec (eastern district of the town of Rimouski) in heavy fog. At 02:00 local time, the Norwegian collier SS Storstad crashed into the side of the Empress of Ireland. The Storstad did not sink, but Empress of Ireland, with severe damage to her starboard side, listed rapidly, taking on water. Most of the passengers and crew in the lower decks drowned quickly when water poured into the ship from the open portholes, some of which were only a few feet above the water line. However, many passengers and crew in the upper deck cabins, awakened by the collision, made it out onto the boat deck and into some of the lifeboats which were being loaded immediately. Within a few minutes after the collision, the Empress of Ireland had listed so far on her starboard side that it became impossible to launch any more lifeboats than the four that had already been launched. Ten or eleven minutes after the collision, the ship lurched violently on her starboard side in which as many as 700 passengers and crew crawled out of the portholes and decks onto her side. For a minute or two, the Empress of Ireland lay on her side, while it seemed to the passengers and crew that the ship had run aground. But a few minutes later, about 14 minutes after the collision, the ship's stern rose briefly out of the water, and her hull sank out of sight, throwing the hundreds of people still on her port side into the near-freezing water. Exactly 1,024 people died.[3] Of that number, 840 were passengers, eight more than the RMS Titanic.

There were only 465 survivors, four of whom were children (the other 134 children were lost) and 42 of whom were women (the other 279 women were lost). One of the survivors was Captain Henry George Kendall, who was on the bridge at the time and quickly ordered the lifeboats to be launched. When the Empress was thrown on her side, Kendall was thrown from the bridge into the water, and was taken down with the ship as she began to go under. Swimming to the surface, Kendall clung to a wooden grating long enough for a nearby lifeboat, with crew members aboard, rowed over and pulled him in. Immediately, Kendall took command of the lifeboat as well as rescue operations, as he had the lifeboat crew pull as many people from the water into the boat. When the boat was full, Kendall ordered the crewmen to row to the lights of the mysterious vessel that had rammed them to drop off the survivors. After an hour or two of making a few trips back and forth from the nearby Storstad to the wreckage to look for survivors, Kendall gave up when there was no more hope of finding survivors as most had succumbed to drowning or hypothermia.

Amongst the dead were the English dramatist and novelist Laurence Irving. Amongst the survivors, "Lucky" Tower is improbably said to have been one of the few crewmen who survived this shipwreck and the sinking of the Titanic and the sinking of the Lusitania.[7]

The passengers included a large contingent of Canadian members of the Salvation Army. These travellers, all of whom died, were all members of the Canadian Salvation Army Band who were travelling to London for an international conference. At Mount Pleasant Cemetery in Toronto, Ontario, there is a monument reading "167 officers and soldiers of the Salvation Army promoted to glory" in the sinking.

Ultimately, the immense loss of life can be attributed to three factors: the location in which Storstad made contact, failure to close her watertight doors, and failure to close all portholes aboard. It was later revealed in testimony from surviving passengers and crew that nearly all of the portholes on the ship were left open by the passengers and crew who craved fresh air from the cramped and poorly ventilated staterooms. Under maritime rules, all portholes on travelling ships were to be closed, but this rule was frequently broken, especially in sheltered waters like the St. Lawrence river. When the Empress began to list to starboard, the water poured through the open portholes, flooding parts of the ship that were not damaged by the collision, and once that water hit nearly all the decks and compartments, the ship's end was inevitable.

The fact that most passengers at the time of the sinking were asleep, most not even awakened by the collision, also contributed to the loss of life when they were drowned in their cabins, most of them from the starboard side of the ship where the collision happened.


On 16 June 1914, an inquiry was launched in Canada and the crew of Storstad was found responsible for the sinking of Empress of Ireland. Presiding over the contentious proceedings was Sir John Bigham (later Lord Mersey). Bigham was notable for having presided over the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea in 1913, and for having headed the official inquiries into a number of significant steamship tragedies—including the RMS Titanic in London (1912) and later the RMS Lusitania in London (1915).

The cause of the tragedy was disputed by the surviving crew of the Empress of Ireland and the crew of Storstad. There has since been much speculation as to the circumstances of the sinking.[8] One theory involves the positioning of the ships when both encountered the fogbank.

Captain Henry George Kendall of the Empress claimed that he stayed close to shore, encountered the fog, reversed his engines to stop for about 8 minutes; and then, he said, the ship was rammed by the Storstad, which was executing a hard, 90-degree turn to the starboard. Another explanation suggested that despite Kendall's testimony, the Empress was sailing north-northeast into the centre of the channel, right into the path of the Storstad.

In 1914, the position of ships in darkness could be determined by the lights they were showing. White lights mounted on the two main masts were read in conjunction with the red and green lights indicating port and starboard. A ship showing green to starboard, red to port and one white mast light would be coming directly at the observing vessel. This was the case on that night and both captains expected to pass each other "green to green". As the fog rolled across the river between the two vessels, what happened next has never been totally clarified.

A ship showing two white mast lights and one green light would be lying across the path of the approaching vessel, exposing the starboard side. A captain in 1914, familiar with the St. Lawrence river, would reasonably be expected to have avoided a collision, if he had been able to see the lights on time. As the Storstad crashed into the Empress, it is likely that the fog obscured the other ship until it was too late to take evasive action.

Either the Empress strayed across the Storstad's bows, or the Storstad crossed the Empress's path from port to starboard and executed a 90 degree turn to pierce her starboard side.

If the testimony of both captains is to be believed, the collision happened as both vessels were stationary with their engines stopped.

An inquiry launched by Norwegians disagreed and cleared Storstad's crew for all responsibilities. Instead, they blamed Kendall, captain of Empress of Ireland, for violating the protocol by not passing port to port.

Captain Kendall himself placed the blame on the Storstad for the collision. Supposedly, the first words he said to the captain of the Storstad after the sinking was, "You have sunk my ship!" Kendall maintained for the rest of his life that it was not his fault the collision occurred.

Canadian Pacific Railway won a court case against A. F. Klaveness, owner of Storstad, for $2,000,000. Unable to afford the liabilities, A. F. Klaveness was forced to sell Storstad for $175,000 to the trust funds.

The wreck

Shortly after the disaster, a salvage operation began on Empress of Ireland. The salvers recovered bodies and valuables inside the ship. They were faced with limited visibility and strong currents from the St. Lawrence River. One of the divers, Edward Cossaboom, was killed when he fell from near the highest point of the wreck to the riverbed below and his diving equipment was unable to adjust to the sudden pressure increase. The salvage crew resumed their operations and recovered 318 bags of mail and 212 bars of silver (silver bullion) worth about $150,000 (adjusted for inflation; $1,099,000). A hole had to be made in the hull of Empress of Ireland so the salvers could easily retrieve a large safe. In 1964, the wreck was revisited by a group of Canadian divers who recovered a brass bell. In the 1970s, another group of divers recovered a stern telemeter, pieces of Marconi radio equipment, a brass porthole and a compass. Recently, Robert Ballard visited the wreck of Empress of Ireland and found that it was being covered by silt. He also discovered that certain artefacts from fixtures to human remains continued to be taken out by "treasure hunters". In 1998, Canadian Authorities passed restrictions and laws protecting the wreck and other shipwrecks in Canadian waters from destructive penetration. Unlike Titanic, which is only accessible with a submersible or remotely operated vehicle (ROV), the Empress of Ireland, resting in a mere 130 feet (about 40 metres) of water, can be accessed by scuba divers, albeit only highly skilled ones. Numerous recreational divers have since died on the wreck, mostly through accidents related to entering (penetrating) the wreck.

Design changes

The disaster led to a change in thinking amongst naval architects with regard to the design of ships' bows. The backward slanting bow design of the day (see picture above) caused, in the event of a collision, immediate massive fatal damage below the waterline. The effect of the Storstad's bows on the Empress of Ireland's has been likened to that of a "chisel being forced into an aluminium can". Designers began to employ the raked bows that we are familiar with today, ensuring that much of the energy of a collision is absorbed by the point of the bow above the waterline of the other ship ensuring less damage under the surface.

Last survivor

The last survivor of the shipwreck, Grace Hanagan Martyn (born 1906/07), died in St. Catharines, Ontario on 15 May 1995 at the age of 88.

Legend of Emmy

The ship's cat Emmy, a loyal orange tabby who had never once missed a voyage, repeatedly tried to escape the ship near departure on 28 May 1914. The crew could not coax her aboard and the Empress departed without her. It was reported that Emmy watched the ship sail away from Quebec City sitting on the roof of the shed at Pier 27, which would later become a place for the dead pulled from the river.

Popular culture

  • Stephen Pavey's novel, Pursuit of Grace: Aboard the Empress of Ireland, historically documents the tragedy of the Empress. He is a current member of the Canadian Staff Band, the same band whose predecessors were aboard the Empress that fateful evening. Some of his story is based on research in Salvation Army archives. The largest group of passengers was a delegation from the Canadian Salvation Army, including the select Salvation Army Band. These passengers, numbering nearly a hundred, were travelling to London for an International Conference.[9]
  • Empress of Ireland was commemorated in a song by Three Pints Gone, a Celtic band specializing in traditional folk songs and sea shanties. "Empress of Ireland" is featured on their CD titled There Is a Ship, all nautical songs. The refrain says, "Nobody there or for miles anywhere/we were sailing to the bottom of the sea/Don't remember the Empress of Ireland/but always remember me."
  • There is a legend that the Empress's captain, Henry Kendall, was doomed by a curse uttered in 1910 by Dr. Hawley Harvey Crippen, London's notorious "cellar killer". Dr. Crippen and Ethel Le Neve, his lover and accomplice in murder, were arrested aboard the SS Montrose, then commanded by Captain Kendall. Dr. Crippen, realizing Captain Kendall effected his capture, supposedly wished the captain's next ship would sink. Captain Kendall's next ship was the Empress.
  • Another legend is that of a cursed mummy case aboard. Supposedly, the ancient inner coffin of Egyptian Princess Ammon-Ra shipped on board both the Empress of Ireland and the RMS Titanic. This is obviously false since no mummy case was saved from the earlier RMS Titanic tragedy.

See also


  1. The disambiguation date used in this article's title is not the year in which the hull is launched, but rather the year of the vessel's sea trial or maiden voyage.
  2. Simplon Postcards: Empress of Ireland, 4 images
  3. 3.0 3.1 BBC documentary, The Golden Age of Liners, states that 1012 died
  4. 4.0 4.1 [see above]
  5. Johnston, Ian. "Govan Shipyard" in Ships Monthly. June 1985.
  6. RG25, External Affairs, Series B-1-b, Volume 238 File : ME-2-61, Access code: 90
  7. Mooney, Julie (2004). Ripley's Believe It or Not! Encyclopedia of the Bizarre: Amazing, Strange, Inexplicable, Weird and All True! p. 23;
  8. "Storstad Claims $50,000 Damages; Owners Start a Counter Suit Against the Empress of Ireland as Cause of Disaster," New York Times. 4 June 1914.
  9. Flayhart, William H. (2005). Disaster at Sea: Shipwrecks, Storms, and Collisions on the Atlantic, pp.258-259.


External links

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