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100th anniversary of forgotten liner disaster is remembered

By Black Country Bugle  |  Posted: May 29, 2014

By Nick Baker

  • Fiancée Nellie Jones who drowned

  • The Empress of Ireland who sank in just 14 minutes with the loss of 1,078 lives

  • The grim task of identifying the bodies begins as the coffins arrive in Quebec

  • Loading the luggage on to the Empress of Ireland

  • The Montreal Telephone Office where Nellie worked

  • The damaged bow of the Storstad which collided with the Empress of Ireland

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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 editor@blackcountrybugle.co.uk or write to us at 41 High Street, Cradley Heath, B64 5HL, or log on to www.blackcountrybugle.co.uk

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