RMS Empress of Japan (1891)

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Empress of Japan
Name: Empress of Japan
Owner: Canadian Pacific Steamship Company
Port of registry: Canada
Builder: Naval Construction & Armament Co., Barrow
Launched: 13 December 1890 by Lady Alice Stanley
Out of service: 1922
Fate: Scrapped in 1926
General characteristics
Class and type: Ocean liner
Tonnage: 5,905 tons
Length: 456 feet (139 m)
Beam: 51 feet (16 m)
Propulsion: Three masts
twin propellers
Speed: 16 knots
Capacity: 160 1st class passengers
40 2nd class
up to 700-steerage passengers

RMS Empress of Japan, also known as the "Queen of the Pacific", was an ocean liner built in 1890-1891[1] by Naval Construction & Armament Co., Barrow, England for Canadian Pacific Steamships (CP).[2] This ship -- the first of two CP vessels to be named Empress of Japan[3] -- regularly traversed the trans-Pacific route between the west coast of Canada and the Far East until 1922.[4]

Over the course of her career, the Empress traversed 4 million kilometres (2.5 million miles).[5] She made 315 Pacific crossings.[4]

Royal Mail Ship

This Empress enjoyed the "RMS", meaning "Royal Mail Ship." This is the ship prefix still in use today by seagoing vessels which carry mail under contract by Royal Mail.

In 1891, Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) and the British government reached agreement on a contract for subsidized mail service between Britain and Hong Kong via Canada; and the route began to be serviced by three specially designed ocean liners. Each of these three yachtlike vessels was given an Imperial name.[6]

The RMS Empress of India and her two sister-ships -- the RMS Empress of China and the RMS Empress of Japan -- created a flexible foundation for the CPR trans-Pacific fleet which would ply this route for the next half century.[4]


File:Barrow Works 1890.jpg
Barrow-in-Furness, shipbuilding yards (1890).

The Empress of Japan was built by Naval Construction & Armament Co. (now absorbed into Vickers Armstrongs) at Barrow, England. The 5,905-ton vessel had a length of 455.6 feet (138.9 m), and her beam was 51.2 feet (15.6 m). The white-painted, clipper-bowed ship had two buff-colored funnels with a band of black paint at the top, three lightweight schooner-type masts, and an average speed of 16-knots. This Empress and her two sister-ship Empresses were the first vessels in the Pacific to have twin propellers with reioprocating engines.[7] The ship was designed to provide accommodation for 770 passengers (120 first class, 50 second class and 600 steerage).[6]

She was launched on 13 December 1890 by Lady Alice Stanley, daughter-in-law of Lord Stanley, who was then the Governor-General of Canada.[8] The ship left Liverpool on 11 April 1891 on her maiden voyage via Suez to Hong Kong and Vancouver, arriving in British Columbia on the 2nd of June. Thereafter, she regularly sailed the route between Canada and the east coast of Asia.[4] In the early days of wireless telegraphy, the call sign established for the Empress of Japan was "MPJ."[9] It also transported passengers and cargo, notably Japanese tea.

This vessel was part of a fleet of Empress ships, but somehow the Empress of Japan stood out, in part because she held the speed record for crossing the Pacific for over two decades. Captained, by Captain Henry Pybus, the RMS Empress of Japan won blue ribbon for record crossing of the Trans-Pacific crossing of 1897. [10] The proud ship remained in active trans-Pacific service until 1922; and then she lingered, harbor-bound in Vancouver for several years.[5] The dragon masthead has been preserved at the Seawall in Stanley Park [11]

World War I

The Empress was refitted as an Armed merchantman during the Great War; and consequently, she lost the elegant white gleam associated with luxury cruise ships. The agreement of commission between Canadian Pacific Railway, the Canadian Federal Government and the British Parliament included a clause which stated that in the event of war, the Empress of Japan would be re-fitted to meet Admiralty requirements. In 1914, two days before the Empress arrived in Yokohama on a routine trip to Asia, World War I broke out in Europe. His Majesty's Admiralty acted swiftly to take advantage of the wartime commissioning clause, and the Empress was re-fitted.[12] During the war years, SS Empress of Japan was also refitted as an Armed Auxiliary Cruiser.[4] After the Armistice, this ship was the only one of the first three Empress ocean liners to return to the trans-Pacific route.[13]

In 1923, the war-weary ship was used in a different kind of battle when CP used the aging Empress to house strikebreakers in a dispute with the Vancouver and District Waterfront Workers' Association.[14] The ship remained moored in Vancouver's harbor until 1926.[4]

The CP eventually replaced the old ship with a new one, which was also called the RMS Empress of Japan.[4]


File:Empress figurehead 2006.jpg
Replica of the Empress of Japan figurehead in Vancouver's Stanley Park.

The figurehead was rescued after being discarded from during the salvage of the Empress of Japan by the Vancouver Daily Province newspaper. It was restored and in 1927 was mounted for public display in Vancouver's Stanley Park.

That figurehead was itself replaced in 1960 with a fiberglass replica, as the original was beginning to deteriorate. The original figurehead has been once again restored and is now housed at the Vancouver Maritime Museum as part of its permanent collection.

Various portions of the ship's once lavish interior were also scavenged by local homeowners from Vancouver's wealthiest neighborhoods and added to their homes and property values.[5]


  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 Japan, 2 images
  3. The second of two ships named SS Empress of Japan (1930) was built for CP to sail the trans-Pacific route.
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 4.3 4.4 4.5 4.6 Ship List: Description of Empress of Japan
  5. 5.0 5.1 5.2 Davis, C. RMS Empress of Japan, History of Metropolitan Vancouver website.
  6. 6.0 6.1 Miller, William H. (1984). The First Great Ocean Liners in Photographs, p. 52.
  7. Tate, E. Mowbray. (1986). Transpacific Steam: The Story of Steam Navigation from the Pacific Coast of North America to the Far East and the Antipodes, 1867-1941, p. 145.
  8. Musk, George. (1981). Canadian Pacific: The Story of the Famous Shipping Line, p. 63.
  9. Trevent, Edward. (1911) The A B C of Wireless Telegraphy: A Plain Treatise on Hertzian Wave Signalling, p. 13.
  10. http://www.stclairvancouver.com/The_St._Clair.html
  11. http://www.stclairvancouver.com/The_St._Clair.html
  12. Kirsten Weisenburger, Kirsten and Marc Dinsdale. "First Class Warrior Empress," Pacific Rim Online Magazine (Vancouver, British Columbia). 1998.
  13. Tate, p. 145.
  14. Phillips, Paul A. (1967). No Power Greater: A Century of Labour in British Columbia, p. 93.


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See also