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Wednesday, 6 July 2011

The Empress Of Ireland by Harry Hayes. Disaster strikes the Canadian Salvation Army

The Empress of Ireland

In the early years of the 20th century, Canada was fiercely patriotic, leaning very much towards Britain. It was largely undeveloped and under-populated. Cars were becoming more frequently seen on the streets; wind-up gramophones played two-minute records; and in those days, brass and military bands could be heard every weekend in the local parks or in street parades. Prominent amongst these were Salvation Army bands, which drew people to their open-air meetings, frank testimonies and happy singing. By 1914, however, there were faint stirrings of war on the horizon, threatening enormous changes in this simple life. But the Salvationists in Toronto were not over-occupied with thoughts of war, they had one absorbing dream.

The progress of the Salvation Army had been tremendous; it had planted the yellow, red and blue flag in fifty-five countries, and the new General, Bramwell Booth, was encouraged to hold another International Congress, the third such gathering, in London, England.

Many people would be delighted to attend; the Headquarters staff would go, of course; the Staff Band would go; any other Salvationists could go, but they would have to pay their own fares, and arrange their own accommodation in England. Some other bands were given permission to go to the Congress, provided they raised money for their own fares. James Hanagan, Staff Bandmaster, had brought his group of musicians to a very high standard; his wife Edith and daughter Grace (just seven years old) would accompany him. Commissioner David Rees, Territorial Commander of Canada and Bermuda, was booked for the Congress, with his wife, son and daughter. His Chief Secretary, Colonel Sydney Maidment, was to accompany him - nearly all the leaders were to go to London, leaving the command of the S.A. work in Canada in the hands of comparatively junior officers. So off they went. They boarded the liner "Empress of Ireland" at Quebec at 3.30 pm on Thursday, May 28th, 1914, for the eight-day journey across the Atlantic.

The "Empress of Ireland" was launched at Liverpool on January 271h, 1906; she displaced 14,191 tons, and had accommodation for 1,700 passengers and a crew of 500. just 1,057 passengers and 417 crew were aboard, as she sailed down the St. Lawrence River that late Spring afternoon. The band collected together a few chairs, and played the Canadian National Anthem, and other well-known tunes, ending with "Auld Lang Syne" and "God be with you till we meet again." Dinner was served; the Captain, Henry Kendall, entertained prominent guests at his table - actor Laurence Irving and his wife (he was the son of Sir Henry Irving); Sir Henry Seton-Karr (former British M.P.) and his wife were amongst the number.
Some years before, when Commander of the ship "Montrose," Captain Kendall had been responsible for the arrest of the infamous murderer Dr. Crippen, and perhaps he would have told his guests of this adventure. After dinner, the S.A. Male Voice Party leader persuaded fifteen of his men to stage a sing-along on the deck. Strolling couples joined in, and eventually, by midnight, the ship was quiet.

The ship exchanged bags of mail at Rimouski Dock; then, further downriver, dropped off the pilot. The ship went on its way down the river, which was about thirty miles wide at this point, and the order was given: "full speed ahead!" At 1.35 am, the ship's lookout, Jack Carroll, reported: "A ship's masthead spotted on the starboard bow!" It was a squat, graceless freighter, far ahead. Shortly afterwards, a blanket of fog descended, then lifted, and they saw that the boat was heading directly towards them. The "Empress" gave a long blast on the foghorn, then the fog descended again. Captain Kendall gave the order to go full speed astern, and the liner stopped as the engines were reversed.

Within two minutes, the ships were about one length apart, and he gave orders to his engine room to go full speed ahead, to reduce the shock of collision. just at that moment, the freighter came right in, and cut the "Empress" in a line between the two funnels. The freighter was the "Storstad", a Norwegian collier of 6,028 tons, and fully laden with coal. It was commanded by Captain Thomas Andersen, said to be a strict disciplinarian. For this reason, no doubt, First Officer Alfred Tuftenes, in charge on the bridge, didn't waken his captain until just before the collision. Had he done so, a thousand lives might have been saved. Captain Kendall later reported: "When he struck me, I had stopped my engines. I shouted to him to keep full speed ahead, to fill the hole he had made and then he backed away!"

The ship began to fill, and almost immediately listed over to starboard. The wireless operator quickly sent out an S.O.S. Very few passengers even heard the collision, and others didn't stand a chance, being trapped in their cabins. Within five minutes, the ship was listing so badly that it was impossible to walk on the deck. The first lifeboat just dropped into the water; the second one was more successfully launched; others were almost impossible even to reach. In fourteen minutes, the ship went down, in 110 feet of near-freezing water.

Captain Kendall went down with his ship, but was able to seize a piece of grating, and was seen by men in a lifeboat, who pulled him aboard. The "Storstad" took aboard many of the survivors, and got together clothes, drapes, table cloths, curtains - one man even wore a pillow-case, and the frozen survivors thawed out.

One bandsman saw water pouring down the corridor, and pulled himself up the stairs to the deck, then jumped as far as he could into the darkness. By sheer chance, he jumped into a boat which was floating near the liner. He was one of the very few who landed on shore still dry. Together with the few men in the lifeboat, they dragged many survivors aboard.

One man actually saw the collision from his porthole, and dashed up on deck to help people with their lifebelts. One young girl, unable to swim, cried to a nearby man "show me how to swim!" and copied his movements; she was thus able to keep going until she was pulled aboard. Many other tales were told - of heroism, self-sacrifice, and of sadness. It was eventually found that of the 1,474 who sailed on the "Empress of Ireland", 1,012 were drowned - 840 passengers and 172 crew. About 150 Salvationists were lost, including Commissioner and Mrs Rees and two of their children; Colonel and Mrs Maidment; Staff Bandmaster and Mrs Hanagan, and most of the bandsmen. Laurence and Mrs Irving, Sir Henry Seton-Karr, and many other prominent figures were also lost. Every year, on the Sunday nearest to May 29, Salvation Army members and friends gather in Toronto, for a service of remembrance of the victims of the disaster, and wreaths are laid at the granite memorial in the Mount Pleasant Cemetery. Over the years, though, the number of survivors grows smaller, and Mrs Grace Martyn (seven-year-old Grace, daughter of Staff Bandmaster and Mrs Hanagan, who were lost) is the oldest survivor. Grace eventually married, and had one son, with whom she now lives at St. Catharines, Ontario. In 1992, she was reported to be in the Torontoarea, and attending Highland Road Baptist Church.

Like many other liners, the "Empress or Ireland" carried mails. Reports of the quantity on board vary from 155 to 298 bags of newspapers; 51 to 169 bags of letters; 1,905 to 4,000 registered letters, arid around 300 parcels. The "American Philatelist" magazine stated that "more than 800 registered letters contained money.' On August 22nd, 1914, the Canadian Salvage Association reported the recovery of 29 bags of mail and a large part of the registered mail. A telegram of September 19th stated that 319 sacks had been recovered, though all the salvaged newspapers were useless and had been disposed of as waste. A letter of September 21st stated that 2, 100 letters were in good enough condition to be forwarded to the addressees. On October 10th, it was reported that only 49 of the 4,000 registered items had been recovered; on October 26th, that 19 of the sacks of mail contained 20,000 letters. By this time, climatic conditions had put a stop to salvage operations. Whatever the quantities saved, there must have been a great amount of confusion on the part of almost everyone who dealt in any way with this salvaged mail, and quite understandably so.

Salvaged letters can be identified by a 95 mm single-line handstamp, struck in purple or blue-green, reading "Recovered by divers from wreck of S.S. Empress of Ireland." On the reverse of the envelopes is found a single-line oval handstamp, measuring 42x28 mm; this was the sorting mark of the Branch Dead Letter Office of Ottawa, and shows the date of processing. It was also struck in purple or blue-green. Later covers have "Dead Letter Office" (not including "Branch") in a double-line oval of 5 1 x33 mm, struck in purple. The letters almost invariably have the stamps washed off, and they were forward to the addressees or senders in special envelopes, 20,000 of which were printed on September 16th, which indicates that a great many letters must have been recovered. Perhaps the 2,100 letters quoted on September 21st was an error for 20,000? These outer envelopes were usually thrown away, and are exceedingly scarce.

Adrian Hopkins, in the standard work "A History of Wreck Covers", states "I have three covers, with the single-line cachet in purple on October 2nd, and the green one on October 23rd and December 10th"; (he doesn't state the colour of the oval handstamp); 'on the Dec. 10th cover, the oval handstamp is applied three times, two of them having the date scratched out by a penknife - perhaps a wartime censorship measure." Of course, by this time, the Great War had commenced. However, if it was a censorship device, what was the point of scratching out only two of the three dates? In the "American Philatelist" of April 1984, is a long article by Henry Berthelot, who reports purple single-line and oval handstamps of October 3rd; his illustration is without doubt from Hopkins' book. The figure "2" in the date is across the edge of the envelope flap, and seems to have been misread.

In "British North American Topics", May-June 1985, Robert Wyse stated that he had yet to see a registered cover from the "Empress." He had a cover with both of the handstamps in purple, and another with two strikes on the back, one in purple and one in emerald- green, though he didn't say if they were both of the same type! If they were different, then that was the normal, though unusual for them both to be on the reverse of the cover. He also stated that "It is not uncommon to see the single-line mark on front and back of the envelope." Several picture postcards of the Empress of Ireland are known most of them pre dating the disaster. Stevengraphs were also produced showing the liner, these are woven silk cards and the standard catalogue shows three types distinguished by variations in the smoke, funnel, or the cards border. All three types are rare.

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