Maritime tales: the forgotten Empress

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Black and white photo of a large ship with three funnels

The Empress of Ireland. Image courtesy of Liverpool Daily Post and Echo.

The Empress liners were well known to me, Stephen Guy, in the 1960s when they were a familiar sight at the Prince’s Landing Stage on Liverpool’s waterfront. However, this sad tale belongs to an earlier era and the loss of the Empress of Ireland was quickly forgotten. More than 1,000 people died when the Canadian Pacific Line passenger liner sank four miles off shore after colliding with another ship in thick fog in May 1914. The Empress of Ireland had just left Quebec, Canada, at 2.30 am and most of her 1,054 passengers and 413 crew were asleep. Suddenly there was a grinding thud as the Norwegian collier, Storstad, ploughed into her, tearing a huge a hole in the liner’s side. The  stricken Empress sank to the bottom of the St Lawrence river in less than 15 minutes. The terrible loss of the “Forgotten Empress” has always been overshadowed by the sinkings of the Titanic in 1912 and Lusitania in 1915.  The Empress of Ireland and her sister the Empress of Britain were the first passenger liners to be built especially for the Canadian Pacific Line’s growing emigrant trade from Liverpool to Canada. Both began service in 1906. Larger, faster and more comfortable than their rivals, they soon became the most popular ships on this route. The sinking of the Empress of Ireland is featured in a new permanent exhibition at the Merseyside Maritime Museum called Titanic, Lusitania and The Forgotten Empress. Among items on display is a tartan blanket given to surviving officer Robert Brennan of Liverpool, by one of his rescuers. Robert was junior second engineer on the Empress and gave evidence at the Canadian inquiry into the disaster in June 1914. Part of his typed report is on display. Robert graphically describes the moment of collision: “There was a terrific crash which had only one meaning and that was we had been run into by a vessel of considerable size and weight. The very fact of the collision had no effect whatever on the engine room or stokehold crowd at the time but ere many seconds elapsed the report from the stokehold indicated that our good old ship was injured badly and making water at a great rate.” Also on display is a seven-versed tribute by Liverpool poet James Ernest Bygroves, known as The Docker, which was distributed following the disaster. It includes the lines: “And deeds were done on that dark morn of which we’ll never hear. And many a last farewell was given and many a parting tear”. A new Maritime Tale appears every Saturday in the Liverpool Echo.