The Tragedy known as the Canadian Titanic: The Sinking of the RMS Empress of Ireland
Painting by Yves Berube of Lunenburg, Nova Scotia.
On 11 November 1905 the Empress of Britain was launched, closely followed on 27 Jan 1906 by her sister ship, the Empress of Ireland. The twin Steamships were built by the Fairfield Ship Building company and owned by the Canadian Pacific Railway, operating under the subsidiary company called Canadian Pacific Steamships. In the summer of 1906 the ships proceeded upon their maiden voyages approximately one month apart. They established record speeds and their ease and comfort became popular with the public who were establishing intercontinental travel specifically between the Quebec, Canada port and that of Liverpool, England.
The ships could accommodate 1686 people, they had 40 lifeboats and 2212 life jackets. On the 96th sailing of the Empress of Ireland on 28 May 1914 the voyage began as normal. New Captain Henry George Kendall had been installed recently, it was it be his first voyage along the Saint Lawrence River. 1477 people were aboard, headed for Liverpool, England:
87 First Class
253 Second Class
717 Third Class
The event is reported that in the early morning of 29 May 1917 the fog notorious to the area was thick and although the ships had been aware of each other and fog whistles blown, the Empress of Ireland and the coal ship Storstad collided off the coast of Quebec.
The Storstad was under the command of Captain Thomas Andersen, it had been fully loaded with 10,400 tons of coal and was owned by Norwegian ship owner Klavenes. The Storstad suffered very little damage and no loss of life.
From the time of impact until Empress of Ireland’s sinking was a total of 14 minutes.
Out of the 1477 passengers and crew, 1012 died. The 465 survivors were cared for on the shores of Quebec at Rimouski. 248 of the survivors were crew members, having more familiarity with the ship and emergency plans. 840 passengers were lost. Out of the 138 children aboard, 134 were lost.
Our Personal Connection
Sarah Ellen ‘Nellie’ Jones was born in Brierley Hill, Dudley, West Midlands, England in 1889 to Amelia Pearce and Enos Jones. Enos was cousin to our own great Grandmother, Martha Jones Hitchcock. The Jones family has always been rumoured to have been from Wales, and yet our research has fallen short of placing them in Wales, but rather they seem to be settled in Staffordshire.
Nellie came to Canada looking for a well paying position with a wealthy family like her cousin, our own Elizabeth Anne Hitchcock, and upon her arrival stayed with her Aunt Martha’s family in Montreal, Quebec. It’s most likely that Nellie arrived aboard the Empress of Ireland on 8 Jun 1912. Nellie settled in to Canadian living and began working for the Montreal Telephone company. Within the next two years Nellie fell in love with her first cousin, son of Martha Jones and John Thomas Hitchcock by the name of Richard George Hitchcock (Hedgecock or Hedgecoe were also used during these years, the family ultimately using Hedgecoe for the most part). The pair had Martha and John Thomas’ permission to marry, but were determined to return to England for Nellie’s parents blessing as well. In a news article reporting Nellie’s personal correspondence with her family she was quoted:
“It is with much love and pleasure that I am telling you I shall soon see your dear face, for I am sailing on the Empress of Ireland on the 28th of May, so I guess I shall land in England somewhere around 6th of June.”
On the fateful day of 28 May 1914, Nellie Jones and Richard George Hedgecoe boarded the Empress of Ireland together. Happy and in love, they waved good-bye to their family here. In a twist of events, it was first Martha Jones Hitchcock who was going to sail out on the Empress of Ireland, and the family first believed that it was she who had been killed in the tragedy. Martha actually sailed out before her son and niece aboard the Victorian and arrived safe and sound in England ahead of the tragic news.
A news article preserved Richard George’s account of Nellie’s final moments. Seeing she had no life jacket, he gave her his. They stood together watching the water levels creep higher and judging when to jump from the ship, but waited too long, and at the moment of the Empress was being sucked under, leapt and were dragged under with the suction of the sinking vessel. As George grabbed for Nellie, he was shot to the surface while she was dragged under. George could swim, while Nellie really never had a chance despite the life vest.
Richard George did not return to England, although Nellie’s body was returned there for burial. Although there was much confusion as to who the actual passengers were, and then even more confusion over a similarly named member of the Salvation Army band, George’s telegram to his family in England was brief and to the point. It simply read:
“Sad news. Nellie drowned.”
On 15 April 1999 the site of the Empress of Ireland wreckage was classified as Canadian Historical and Archaeological property by the Ministry of Quebec’s Cultural and Communications department to prevent the raiding of personal effects by divers. Before his death, family historian Ray Pleau put a great deal of effort into uncovering the circumstances of Nellie’s death.
Canadian Museum of History: Empress of Ireland, Canada’s Titanic
Empress of Ireland: The Forgotten Tragedy
The National Post: Canada’s Titanic: The Sinking of the Empress of Ireland
Black Country Bugle: 100th Anniversary of forgotten liner disaster is remembered
Black Country Bugle: Brierley Hill death linked to poisoner Dr Crippen
FindAGrave.com Memorial of Sarah Ellen ‘Nellie’ Jones: