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!