Equal in death: The Empress shipwreck claimed both rich and poor

May 6, 2014

When the Empress of Ireland ocean liner sank on May 29, 1914, it dragged men, women and children of every age and social class into the watery depths. A local newspaper reporter described seeing the victims in Rimouski’s quayside hangar that served as a makeshift morgue: “The rich sleep beside the poor, the powerful beside the weak. The humble Pole or Russian who was starving in the streets of a Canadian metropolis sleeps beside the golden patrician . . . they are all equal.”

Equal in death, they were not so in life. The 1,057 passengers en route to Liverpool belonged to different social classes. Those travelling first class included Sir Henry Seton-Karr, a British sportsman and Member of Parliament heading home after a moose-hunting holiday in Canada. Second class included upward of 170 members of the Salvation Army, en route to a world congress in London. Many of the third-class passengers were recent immigrants to Canada and the United States. Arthur James Blackham, a Toronto streetcar conductor, was returning to England to fetch his fiancée. Travelling from Minnesota, Carolina and Egildo Braga were headed to their hometown of Turbigo in the north of Italy.

The passengers stayed in separate quarters: third-class passengers on the lowest deck; second-class in the middle; and first-class on the upper deck. When the collier SS Storstad rammed into the Empress in the dead of night — tearing a 30 square metre hole in its side and unleashing a flood of water that sank the liner in less than 15 minutes — the third-class passengers had the least chance of escape. Many were trapped in their cabins and drowned below deck.

Among the first-class passengers, 49 percent of men and 32 percent of women survived. In second class, the figure for men was 29 percent and for women, 12 percent. In third class, survival rates were 26 percent (men) and 10 percent (women). Of the 138 children aboard, only five escaped death. Most of the children (102) were in third class.

As for the 420 members of crew, the majority (60 percent) survived. Among them was Captain Henry George Kendall, who leapt from the ship just before it went down. Kendall was plucked from the St. Lawrence River by his crewmen in a lifeboat. Together, they rescued dozens more passengers.

Of the 1,477 passengers and crew who boarded the ship in Québec City, only 465 survived.

Canada’s Titanic – The Empress of Ireland is on display at the Canadian Museum of History from May 30, 2014 to April 6, 2015.

Empress of Ireland

Framed black and white poster commemorating the sinking of the Empress of Ireland, May 29, 1914. ©CMH IMG2012-0281-0009-Dm, Frank Wimart