Remembering the Empress

By Lisa Terech, Youth Engagement / Programs

You would be hard pressed to find someone who is not aware of the Titanic disaster.  If there was ever any doubt, a certain blockbuster secured its place in infamy.  However, mention the ship, the Empress of Ireland, and recognition typically decreases.  This year marks the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Empress of Ireland, a disaster which took the lives of 1,012 people, and it remains Canada’s worst maritime disaster to happen in peacetime.  Commemorations have been taking place this week to mark the anniversary and to remember those on board.  There are hundreds of stories that could be told about the ship and her passengers; today I would like to share three.

But first, background.  The Empress of Ireland first launched in January of 1906.  She was constructed in England by the Fairfield Shipbuilding & Engineering Co. and was owned by the Canadian Pacific Steamship Company along with her sister ship, the Empress of Britain.  She had made hundreds of trans-Atlantic crossings before May 1914 when she departed Quebec for her first voyage of the year.  On board, there was 167 members of the Salvation Army, actors Laurence Irving and Mabel Hackney, and explorer/politician Sir Henry Seton-Karr.

The Empress of Ireland, photo from Site Historique Maritime de la Pointe au Pere

The Empress of Ireland, photo from Site Historique Maritime de la Pointe au Pere

In the very early morning hours of May 29, the Empress of Ireland collided with a collier, the Storstad, and sank to the bottom of the St. Lawrence River in only 14 minutes. There were 1,477 people on board; 1,012 did not survive.  The Empress is commemorated at the site historique maritime de la Pointe-au-Père, a museum in Rimouski, Quebec

The Irvings

Earlier this year, after perusing through our postcard collection, my attention was captured by a simple photograph of the profile of a man and woman, with the inscription, “Laurence Irving—Mabel Hackney in The Affinity (The Incubus).”

Laurence Irving (1871-1914) was a noted British actor and playwright, the son of Sir Henry Irving, who was also a noted actor and stage manager.  Laurence married Mabel Hackney (1872-1914) in 1903.  They would often appear on stage together.

Postcard of Laurence Irving and Mabel Hackney

Postcard of Laurence Irving and Mabel Hackney, Oshawa Community Archives Collection

The Affinity, or The Incubus as it was also titled, was a play the pair toured with during the 1909/1910 season.  It was based on Eugène Brieux’s Les Hannetons, and Irving translated the play himself.  Toronto’s Royal Alexandra Theatre advertised that they would be showing this production before the Spring of 1910, and it also showed in New York, with critics declaring it “one of the most entertaining plays of the season,” “well worth seeing,” and “punctuated by appreciative laughter.”

During the Spring of 1914, the couple embarked on a cross Canada tour, performing four shows: Typhoon, Unwritten Law, The Importance of Being Earnest, and The Lily.  The tour wrapped in late May, and the Irvings, anxious to return home to England, booked passage on the Empress of Ireland; the majority of their company were to sail a few days later onboard the Teutonic. The Irvings did not survive the sinking.

Grace Hanagan

On July 7, 1906, Grace Hanagan was born in Oshawa, a daughter to Edward James Hanagan and Edith Collishaw.  The family was residing on Metcalfe Street at the time, but they would later relocate to Toronto.  Edward was the bandmaster for the Salvation Army, and their family was destined for England for the Salvation Army’s third International Congress. Edward made a stop in Oshawa and visited with friends on his way to Montreal to board the ship. Grace was the youngest person to survive the sinking, and she was one of only four children to survive.  Her parents both perished.  Grace became the last living survivor of the Empress of Ireland before she passed away in 1995.

The Hanagan Family. Grace Hanagan, left, was 1 of 4 children to survive the sinking. She was born in Oshawa in 1906. Photo from http://www.empress2014.ca/

The Hanagan Family. Grace Hanagan, left, was 1 of 4 children to survive the sinking. She was born in Oshawa in 1906.
Photo from http://www.empress2014.ca/

May Blakeburn

May was born in 1890 in Sunderland, County Durham, England, the youngest of three girls.  In 1912, she travelled to Canada to work for the family of Walter Black in Halifax.  She had been in Canada for 18 months when she boarded the Empress of Ireland to return home.  She was travelling 3rd class and did not survive the sinking.

The Empress of Ireland is often referred to as the Forgotten Empress as the story is not known to many, but I have known about this disaster for many years. I wrote many a research paper in University about the Empress.  In my research, I happened across a newsclipping in the Halifax Herald from after the sinking, profiling passengers on board the ship from Halifax and area.  May was mentioned in this article, and it was said that she was ‘much liked by those who knew her.’

The Blakeburn family, circa 1895.  May Blakeburn, right, was 24 when she was on board the Empress

The Blakeburn family, circa 1895. May Blakeburn, right, was 24 when she was on board the Empress

May Blakeburn is the reason why I am drawn to the story of the Empress of Ireland and why I have known about it for several years.  May Blakeburn was my two-times great aunt (my grandmother’s aunt).

Today, we remember the Empress.

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