Genealogy Hedgecoe-McKenna History

The heartbreaking tragedy of Sarah Ellen ‘Neillie’ Jones and Richard George Hitchcock.

Posting Member: Jenn
Topic: Romantic Tragedy, Empress of Ireland, Ship, Sink, Accident
Family Name Associations: Jones, Hitchcock, Hedgecoe
Location: Home
Mood: Saddened

We’ve known about the story of Nellie and George for years now…  It was something to get around to further documenting when we had a moment.  And honestly, I’ve put it off.  It’s so sad, and I haven’t placed her grave, which has been on my ‘to do’ list forever.

Years ago Mum and Ray Pleau got together and shared information and stories, and the tragic story of two cousins was something ‘The Ray’ had included in his genealogy work…  He’d actually put together a little page and included it in his package that he sent out to everyone in the family.

Mum brought up seeing an ‘Empress of Ireland’ memorabilia case today at the post office.  And finally, it was the nudge to finish up what should have been complete ages ago. And I’m so thrilled to say, that on following a pair of links in a vague search, we’ve confirmed the shipping records and located an article that confirms everything we knew, as well as added an likeness of Nellie.  Imagine that it survived these many years…


The story goes that Nellie Jones was the niece of Mum’s Great Grandmother, Martha Jones Hitchcock.  The Jones’ were supposed to have been from Llandudno, Colwyn Bay, Wales and there’s a rumour of them having excellent singing voices, but so far my personal research hasn’t come up with much proof of Wales or singing.  I sure did not inherit that talent!
Nellie had come to Canada and lived with the Hitchcock family, who had changed their names to Hedgecock and Hedgecoe upon immigration.  She was looking for work with a wealthy family…  And instead cousins Nellie and George fell deeply in love.

George and Nellie booked passage board the ‘Empress of Ireland’ to travel to England and get Nellie’s father’s permission for them to wed.  Nellie’s parents were Mary Amelia Pearce and Enos Jones who lived in and about Stourbridge, Worcestershire, England – Kingswinfordshire area where the Hitchcocks resided before they came to Canada.

On the 29th of May, 1914, only 12 hours after leaving port, the Empress of Ireland was hit by a Norwegian coalship called the ‘Storstad’.  The ship sank into the St. Laurence River in only 14 minutes.  1012 of the 1477 people on board perished.
George was saved.  Nellie drowned.

There were plenty of stories about Martha and John Thomas traveling back to England but I personally couldn’t fathom how they could afford it, or stomach making the multiple trips.  My own experience with cruise ships had me even more doubtful of their supposed travel…  So part of the article that I’m re-posting below is purely amazing.  Nellie and George were traveling Third Class, as is confirmed by the Empress Memorial.  The two additional articles include personal family information I had no idea of…  Imagine Martha being in Birmingham when they thought she’d drowned!  And just things that are amazing.  I’m overwhelmed at the details and the images.  We’ll be making sure that there’s a memorial posted on FindAGrave right away too.

FindAGrave Memorial:
100th Anniversary of forgotten liner Disaster is Remembered
By Black Country Bugle  |  Posted: May 29, 2014  |  By Nick Baker

IN this centennial year of the Great War, nothing perhaps illustrates the overwhelming nature of that conflict’s grip on history than the fact that another great disaster of 1914 has all but been forgotten.

This was the loss, on May 28, of the liner Empress of Ireland. She sank in the St Lawrence river, Canada, taking with her more than 1,000 lives, including that of 26-year-old Nellie Jones of Brierley Hill.

The Empress was built in 1906 for the Canadian Pacific Railway Company. A typical contemporary liner, she had a crew of 400, and offered 1,000 first, second and third class berths.

While not a ‘giant’ (the Titanic was 882 feet long) at 570 feet and 68 feet in beam she was still an impressive vessel.

It was in such ships that thousands of European emigrants crossed the Atlantic; and in which many would occasionally return on visits ‘home’.

It was into this category that Nellie Jones of Brierley Hill fell. Nellie was born in 1889, the third of the ten children of Enos and Mary Jones.

Enos, along with several sons, was employed at Round Oak steelworks. The family were Methodists, attending the Wesleyan Chapel in Bank Street, Brierley Hill.

In the tradition of self-reliant non-Conformism Nellie does not appear to have been in any way constrained by her upbringing or that she was female and, after leaving Bent Street School, lived with an aunt in West Bromwich while working in Birmingham.

In 1912 she decided to emigrate to Canada with her cousin’s mother and she worked in the Montreal Telephone Office.

Two years later Nellie became engaged to her Canadian cousin George Heathcock and they decided to travel to England to get married.

Nellie’s family were living at 29, Little John Street, Brierley Hill, and excited letters were exchanged.

Nellie wrote to her mother: “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.”

Nellie’s letter had enough North American inflection to reveal the New World culture of which she was now a part; a world apart from Brierley Hill and the Black Country!

On Thursday, May 28 Nellie and her fiancé boarded the Empress in Quebec.

At half past four in the afternoon she set out eastwards along the St Lawrence towards the Atlantic, which she expected to reach the following morning.

Meanwhile, the passengers began to settle into the journey, during which they had little to do except relax.

A meal was served and a ‘holiday humour’ pervaded. Many went on deck and watched excitedly as the Empress, ablaze with electric lights, passed the inward bound Alsatian ship.

As night fell the chill diminished enthusiasm for promenading, and most people drifted to their cabins. Around 2am the Captain, Henry Kendall, spotted the Norwegian collier Storstad to starboard.

What happened next is not entirely clear. However, a sudden fog bank hid the vessels from each other and, despite communications by whistle, the Storstad smashed into Empress amidships.

The collier’s solid bow sliced into liner like a chisel and the Empress began to sink.

It was immediately obvious she was in trouble and the passengers made their way on to the deck.

Nevertheless, there does not seem to have been any panic and most boats were launched within ten minutes, although by then the Empress was sinking fast and many passengers who might otherwise have been saved were still aboard. This included Nellie and George.

George later described Nellie’s last moments. Having quickly found her and seeing she had no lifejacket gave he gave her his own.

Then they stood and watched the water creep higher (or rather the Empress sink lower) judging the moment to leap.

By George’s admission they left it too late and as the Empress went down they were still on deck.

A moment later suction pulled them under. Several survivors described being dragged down and then suddenly ‘released’.

Good swimmers could, with luck, survive this – and George could swim. However, Nellie became entangled as the ship sank; so that when the suction slacked she was carried down with the wreck, while George, making a hopeless grab for her, was shot to the surface.

The Empress had gone down in just 14 minutes.

Rescue vessels were soon on the scene including the Storstad which was still afloat.

However, so violent had been the collision and so swift the sinking, that only 397 were rescued out of 1,475.

Next day many bodies, although no more survivors, were recovered and taken into Rimouski where they were placed in coffins (the supply quickly ran out and scores of wooden boxes had to be hastily made), before transhipping to Quebec aboard the Lady Grey.

She was accompanied by the cruiser HMS Essex which had also searched for bodies and supplied the manpower to unload the grim cargo.

Ashore, the coffins were laid out for identification of the dead. The horror was compounded by the fact than many bore signs of injury and several were beyond facial recognition.

Funeral supplies rapidly ran out, and most corpses were dressed only in nightclothes or coats they had rapidly thrown on.

There were a number of children and infants. One of the latter was claimed by two men and required the adjudication of the Mayor Quebec who decided the matter by comparing the baby’s features with that of one of the men’s wives, who was also among the dead. George despatched a telegram to Nellie’s parents. It said, simply: “Sad news. Nellie drowned.”

By now news was filtering into England that many lives had been lost.

The Jones’, quite apart from the shock of Nellie’s death, were confused as to who had been with her. George, by their last information, had not sailed in the Empress; while his mother – Nellie’s aunt – had.

That she turned up later in the day is a scene better imagined than described. She explained that she had crossed earlier in the Victorian and had been staying in Birmingham.

On Monday a further telegram was received. It stated : “Nellie identified, Quebec, by George. Advise if body buried Quebec or send you.” The Jones’ replied: “Send Nellie home.”

Unfortunately confusion still caused angst to the distraught family. The CPR in Montreal cabled for confirmation their daughter was “Ensign Emily Jones”, adding: “Up to the present we have no news of Miss Jones, but in the event of the body being recovered, if you so desire, the company will be pleased to arrange to bring the remains home to Liverpool free of charge.”

Fortunately, the tight-knit Black Country Methodist community, of which the Jones’ were part, provided support; and the matter was taken up by Benjamin Cartwright, an officer of the Bank Street Church.

He established ‘Ensign Nellie Jones’ was in fact a member of a large Salvation Army contingent aboard the Empress, whose body had not been recovered.

Thus the remains of Nellie were transported to England accompanied by a number of cousins but not George, who was simply too upset.

The journey was undertaken aboard the Alsatian which, a few days earlier, had been so memorably viewed by the exited passengers of the Empress of Ireland, including Nellie Jones.

Nellie’s funeral recalled in next week’s Bugle

Have your family any connections with the Empress of Ireland liner? If so email or write to us at 41 High Street, Cradley Heath, B64 5HL, or log on to

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Brierley Hill death linked to poisoner Dr Crippen
By Black Country Bugle  |  Posted: June 08, 2014

The funeral of Nellie Jones at the Wesleyan Chapel in Bank Street, Brierley Hill, on Saturday, June 12, 1914

ON last week’s Bugle page one NICK BAKER’S story about the 100th anniversary of the forgotten liner disaster created much interest among our readers. Brierley Hill bride Nellie Jones travelling to her wedding was one of 1,078 who drowned when the Empress of Ireland sank in the St Lawrence river, Canada. This week he tells of Nellie’s funeral which was at the Wesleyan Chapel, Bank Street, Brierley Hill, 100 years ago next week.

THE funeral of Nellie Jones took place on Saturday, June 12, 1914, with a considerable crowd lining the route from Little John Street to the Wesleyan Chapel in Bank Street.

At the service, conducted by the Reverend W. J. Burrow and Reverend Arnold Crawshaw, the youth of Nellie Jones formed the central theme.

The Rev. Burrow stated: “When death came to youth it was another thing altogether. Youth was a time of hope. Youth was glad to live. Because youth had something to live for. When human life was cut short in youth, they felt not only that they had lost a loved one, but that that loved one had lost in some respects the brightest and the best part of life…they had the feeling that life was unfinished.”

As a prophesy for the near future, with the Great War just six weeks away, the Reverend’s words could not have carried greater portent.

The burial of the victims did not end the Empress tragedy, nor the deaths associated with her. The wreck lay in 150 feet of water, her deck some 80 feet down. In this position many of the hundreds of bodies still in the ship would eventually float. Furthermore the cold water would cause slow decomposition. Newly-buoyant corpses were already being recovered daily.

While the ship’s company was undoubtedly genuinely concerned for grieving relatives, nevertheless the on-going appearance of deceased ex-customers was not good publicity; and they looked for a solution. They decided to commission a diving operation to recover accessible bodies and place nets over the ship to prevent others from floating (although the latter was not advertised). Indeed, there were other reasons for visiting the wreck which were also kept low-key.

The recovery of mail was one and the salvage of an amount of silver bullion was another. In addition, as the immediate shock of the disaster wore off, the company was inundated with insurance claims for valuables held in the purser’s safe.

The Navy refused to become involved in any salvage so they turned to William J Wotherspoon, an American who was famous for recovering bodies from the USS Maine sunk at Havana in 1898. However, the waters in Cuba had been shallow, clear and warm; the exact opposite of the St Lawrence. Wotherspoon, who after failing to bribe the officers of HMS Essex to assist, set about the task as best he could.

Almost immediately the Empress claimed another victim. Edward Cossaboom, a diver, was killed when he plunged rapidly into deep water and was crushed to death. Nevertheless, Wotherspoon’s men did recover some bodies, the bullion and – secretly – spread nets. They also retrieved the purser’s safe.

This was opened under supervision in Quebec. It contained nothing of value, the money and jewellery claimed either having never existed or being dispersed among the passenger’s luggage.

Enquiries into the disaster got underway in Canada, England and Norway. These were long and acrimonious, and under ordinary circumstances would have been widely reported.

However, before they were over the world was at war and the Empress disaster was virtually forgotten

Yet there was one final aspect to the Empress drama. This was the subsequent fate of the vessels involved and their peculiar association with the Empress Captain, Henry Kendall.

For Kendall had a previous claim to fame; he was known as ‘The man who caught Crippen’.

The Crippen murder case had taken place four years earlier; and Dr. Hawley Harvey Crippen remains one of the best known ‘monsters’ in British crime history. Crippen, an American émigré patent medicine dealer, had allegedly poisoned then dismembered his wife and buried the remains in the cellar of their London home.

He then disappeared with his mistress, Ethel Le Neve. At the time Kendall commanded the Montrose, plying between Antwerp and Canada. He studied the details of the Crippen case including a Daily Mail photograph of the heavily be-whiskered alleged murderer. Kendall’s curiosity was roused by a father and son ‘Mr and Master Robinson’ among the passengers.

Still within radio range of England, he sent a message to Scotland Yard. Detective Walter Dew was immediately despatched on the next fast liner to Canada, the Laurentic, which overtook the Montrose. When the Montrose arrived Drew arrested the disguised couple. The trial was a cause célèbre; with the press suggesting Crippen and Ethel made love while his wife died in agony a few yards away. Crippen was hanged.

Ethel disappeared into obscurity. In 1914, an idea arose that the loss of the Empress of Ireland was ‘Crippen’s Revenge’. The supernatural case for the ‘Curse of Crippen’ was reinforced in October when Kendall, now at Antwerp, escaped from the city being attacked by German troops, by sailing his old ship the Montrose to England.

The operation was successful but shortly afterwards the Montrose broke her moorings and was wrecked. No lives were lost, but the same could not be said of the Laurentic, which had carried Inspector Dew. She was mined off Ireland in 1917 with the loss of 350 men. A month later the Storstad was torpedoed with three deaths. So all the vessels associated with the ‘Crippen Curse’ were lost by shipwreck with the loss of 1,432 lives, including Nellie Jones.

The tragic death and subsequent public funeral of Nellie Jones mark something of a turning point in the way such matters were conducted before and after the Great War. Her body was carefully transported 3,000 miles, mourners gathered from far and wide, and there was a display of funereal and mourning regalia and ritual which was ‘expected’, even from an ordinary working-class family. Yet, within a few short weeks, repatriation of bodies and ostentatious funerals had become unseemly when so many young men were being killed and buried, often without ceremony or even identity, in France, Belgium or at sea.

One further aspect of the death of Nellie Jones’s that harks to the pre-war period was the erection of a commemorative gravestone with a narrative of her untimely end. It is, fortunately, still in existence. Laid flat, the stone is surmounted by a Celtic style cross which also incorporates fleur de lys’; symbolising the Empress of Ireland and Montreal. The wording is just legible stating that Nellie “was drowned in the wreck of the Empress of Ireland, May 28th 1914” and the stone “erected by her parents and by friends in Montreal, Canada.” Shipwreck graves such as this are not uncommon in maritime areas, but to find one in Brierley Hill is highly unusual. To find one connected with the ‘Curse of Crippen’ is even more so!

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All credit and copyrights are respected for the Black Country Bugle, it’s photographers, researchers and authors.  No disrespect is intended in re-posting their work.

Always one for making things pretty, Jenn is our resident artist. Métis, British Home Child Descendant, family historian and genealogist, she is always looking into some new branch of research and encourages historical preservation and education.

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