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Empress of Ireland was luxurious, fast and Canada’s worst naval disaster

June, 2010

The Empress of Ireland, before May 29, 1914, was known as one of the most luxurious, fastest and quietest ocean liners. After May 29, 1914, she became known as Canada’s worst naval disaster.

The Canadian Pacific ship left port in Quebec City and was on her way to Liverpool 96 years ago when she went down 12 kilometres downriver from Pointe au Père, near Rimouski.

In the sudden heavy fog that is a dangerous trademark of the St. Lawrence River, a Norwegian coal carrier, the Storstad, rammed the Empress. Though the hit did not at first seem fatal, historian James Croall wrote of the collision: “The Storstad’s bow had gone between the liner’s steel ribs as smoothly as an assassin’s knife.”

Water began to pour in; those sleeping on the lower decks had no time to react. Learning from the mistakes of the Titanic, the Empress boasted more than enough lifeboats and lifejackets to go around and the crew had done a successful safety-device runthrough before leaving port. But she sank so fast – in 14 minutes – that there was no time to get the heavy lifeboats down; some passengers were killed by falling lifeboats.

Among the 1,477 people aboard was British actor Laurence Irving, son of the Lyceum Theatre’s Henry Irving, and Laurence’s actress wife, Mabel Hackney. The couple had just completed a successful tour of Australia and North America with Typhoon, a play set during the Russia-Japan war. The couple were meant to sail from Montreal on the Teutonic but left the country early, boarding the Empress instead.

The New York Times reported on the tragedy on May 30, 1914. Source: New York Times Archives

A New York Times report on the sinking, published May 30, 1914, said this about Irving: “He was a fine speaker with a sense of humour. One evening at the Kingsway Theatre he had a special note inserted in the programmes asking anyone suffering from first-night cough to apply for jujubes at the box office.”

Other news reports at the time claimed Irving had made his way to safety but Hackney had been left behind. He knew she could not swim and so went back for her. They were both lost.

Just 465 souls survived, many of them crew; 1,012 died. One of the greatest tragedies of the Empress is that the Great War broke out just weeks later, knocking her story firmly out of the eye of the media, unlike the tale of the Titanic two years earlier.

She is remembered in poems and songs and at a museum in Pointe au Père, where a half-hour 3D not-doc – “This is not a documentary. This is our history” – is narrated by the ship’s photographer and a ghost girl who walks into and through the pictures.



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