ON May 29, 1914, the Canadian Pacific ship, RMS Empress of Ireland, sank in the St Lawrence River after colliding with a Norwegian collier, the Storstad. The ship went down in just 14 minutes; 840 passengers out of a total of 1052, and 172 crew members out of a complement of 420 were drowned. More passengers died in this disaster than perished on the Titanic or the Lusitania and yet the story of the tragedy is lost to history, perhaps because it occurred on the eve of the First World War.

Wilma Hayes gave her audience a fascinating exposition of the course of events on the fatal night. The ships sighted one another in clear conditions but the collier (which was also an icebreaker) rammed the Empress amidships in the thick fog which apparently can envelope the river quickly at that time of year. The apportionment of blame for the collision remains a controversial topic.

Fascinating as the story of the disaster was, the peripheral tales were equally interesting. The development of the Canadian Pacific Railway Company, almost bankrupt after the construction of the transcontinental rail link, made an exciting story. After completion of the railway, the company diversified into communications, oil and gas, hotels, a steamship route from Vancouver to Japan, and then developed the transatlantic link which was the means of bringing hundreds of thousands of European immigrants to Canada in the later years of the 19th and early years of the 20th century.

The most famous person on board the Empress was probably her captain – Henry Kendall. He had worked with Marconi on the development of ship-to-shore radio and, when captain of the SS Montrose in 1910, he had been instrumental in securing the arrest of Dr Crippen – the first time radio had been used in the apprehension of a criminal. Cleared by the Court of Inquiry after the tragedy, Kendall went on to have a distinguished career during WWI and later. He died in 1965, aged 91. His obituary in the Times made no mention of the “Empress of Ireland”.

The Society’s next talk will follow the AGM on the evening of Thursday, 27 April at 8pm. Carmel Langridge will be talking about “Overlooked Treasures of the Bell Tower – the Art of the Medieval Mason”.

For more information visit the Society’s website: www.valeofeveshamhistory.org or contact the Secretary, Gerry Harte, on 01386 870665.