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Wednesday 28 May 2014

The Empress of Ireland's Manitoba Victims

© 2021, Christian Cassidy
May 29, 1914, Winnipeg Tribune

A lot of attention was paid to the centenary of the sinking of the R.M.S. Titanic. The centenary of another tragic sinking that happened right here in Canada has not had anything near the same level of interest.

On May 29, 1914, the C.P.R.'s R.M.S. Empress of Ireland sank on the St. Lawrence River. With her went the lives of 1,012 people, most of them Canadians.

Here's a look back at the disaster and some of its Manitoba.


Top: January 27, 1914, Winnipeg Tribune (wire story)
Bottom: Empress photo from Library and Archives Canada

The Empress of Ireland was built in Glasgow by Fairfield Ltd. for the Canadian Pacific Railway and launched in January 1906. She was one of two Empresses built for the company. Her sister ship, the Empress of England, was launched the November before.

The Empresses were the jewels among the sixty ships in Canadian Pacific's Atlantic shipping fleet.

Over the years, the Empress of Ireland brought tens of thousands of immigrants from Europe to Canada to settle the West. The Empress could could carry nearly 1,500 passengers at a time, divided into first class (200), second class (480) and and third class (900) and brought thousands of new immigrants to settle the West.

Last ad for last voyage, May 11, 1914, Winnipeg Free Press

The May 28th departure was a popular one for those wanting to take their summer holidays in Europe. Ads appeared in Winnipeg newspapers until mid-May and tickets could be purchased at the CPR offices in the Canada Block on the south-west corner of Portage and Main. (CPR office in Portage la Prairie and Brandon reported that they had not sold any tickets for this voyage.)

The Empress set sail from Montreal at 4:30 p.m. on Thursday, May 28th with 1,477 passengers and crew bound for Liverpool.

On the St. Lawrence River, near Rimouski, Quebec, she and the Norwegian coal ship Storstad approached each other a
t around 1:45 a.m. in a low-lying fog. The crews lost sight of each other and collided at nearly a 45 degree angle which tore a large hole in the bow of the Empress.

In this post-Titanic era, the Empress was well equipped with life vests and rafts, but she turned and sank in under fifteen minutes which gave few passengers a chance to get dressed and onto the decks.


A joint Canadian - British government inquiry held the Storstad's crew responsible for the disaster as they had made a course change in the fog thinking they had already passed the passenger ship. The finding was not universally accepted as both crews made incorrect assumptions about where the other ship was and turned in on each other.

For more about the ship, the accident and the aftermath, check out the "related Links" at the bottom of this post.

Manitoba's Dead

This list has been pieced together from dozens of newspaper articles, mainly from the Winnipeg Tribune and Winnipeg Free Press.

I can't say that it is completely accurate. As with most large disasters, confusion reigned in the days immediately afterwards. A list published in the Tribune three days after the disaster showed only three locals confirmed dead and nearly two dozen still missing. In some cases, people didn't appear on the initial lists at all or floated between the dead, missing and rescued.

By the time of the inquiry began in June, (they didn't waste a lot of time in those days), final lists came out, but only the First Class list had place names associated with the names of victims. 

In the case of some disasters, it is easier to find a complete list of victims in newspapers on the one-year anniversary of the event after everything had been sorted out. In the Empress' case, World War I began just months after the sinking and the anniversary was all but forgotten.

My estimate is that the total number of Manitobans aboard was around 42, of which 27 died. That number includes people who were "temporary" Winnipeggers, here for a short stay, or had made their minds up to return for good to their home country.

If you have any additional information about Manitoba's victims, I would love to hear from you: cassidy-at-mts.net.

Mrs. Charlotte Gallagher 

Initially, Charlotte and her teenage son Cedric, a student at Manitoba College, did not appear on the passenger list. The pair arrived in Montreal the week before and stayed with her sister, only purchasing their tickets the night before the sailing. 

After the crash, Cedric and Charlotte jumped from the deck into the water next to a lifeboat but she got caught up in the myriad of ropes hanging overboard. He tried to extricate her but she got pulled below the water. He made it to the boat, she did not. Her daughter Bessie (6) was initially listed as missing but it turns out that she stayed behind with her aunt in Montreal. 

Charlotte's body was returned to Winnipeg on June 5 where it was met at the new CPR station on Higgins Avenue by her husband and funeral cortege. It proceeded directly to St. John’s Cemetery for burial.

Mrs. Harriet Hakker (28) and Judith Hakker (7 mos.) 
Robert Street (now Galt Avenue)

Harriet lived in Winnipeg for just a year after marrying CPR employee J. Hakker. They lived in a residence attached to a bunkhouse for CPR employees, where she and her husband were caretakers. Her mother became seriously ill and she was en route back to Amsterdam to see her.

Mrs. Christina Nuttall , Tom Nuttall (4) and Ralph (3 mos.) 

Christina was bringing her children to vacation for the summer in her native England. Her body and that of son, Ralph, arrived in Winnipeg on June 5, 1914 and were buried the following day in Brookside Cemetery. No mention was made of the discovery of  Tom's body, though he does appear on the list of the dead at the inquiry.

She was a prominent volunteer at St. James Park Congregational Church. Her husband, Thomas Nuttall, was an accountant with R. J. Whitla and had remained in Winnipeg.

Mrs. Edith Prior (33 - nee Auger)

Edith did not appear on the initial lists of the survivors or the missing. Husband, George, a mechanic at Maw's Garage, who stayed behind in Winnipeg was so distraught that he travelled to Quebec to search through the unidentified corpses. A small note in the Tribune on June 5 says that he sent word back that he looked through all of the bodies but could not find her and was awaiting the arrival of the last of the salvage boats. 

There was no follow-up as to whether or not he found her body. Her name, though, eventually appeared on the final list of the dead.

It was yet another heartbreak for George. The couple had five children together but all had died at birth or in infancy.

Mr. Eli Evison (27), Julius Evison (9 mos)
655 Dufferin Avenue (now demolished)

Eli Evison was travelling with wife Fanny and son Julius. Initially, it was reported that they all perished but a local family member informed the Tribune that he had received telegrams from both adults saying that they were alive.

Despite this, Eli Evison ends up on the final list of dead. He may have been one of a number of people who were rescued but succumbed to exposure or injuries.

Mr. and Mrs. Herbert Kitson, Monica Kitson (3)
277 Semple Avenue

A native of England, Mrs. Kitson's was a frequent visitor to Winnipeg to see her sister who had come here a couple of years before. In 1913, Mrs. Kitson decided that she would marry in England and come to stay.

The couple tried farming near Younkers, Manitoba (sp ?) but Herbert could not get used to the cold weather. They ended up moving to Winnipeg and stayed with the sister on Semple Avenue before finally deciding to pack it in and return to their homeland.

Christopher Halliday, James F. Dandy

Halliday was the postmaster and a grain dealer in Pierson. James F. "Jim" Dandy was a former hardware merchant. The two were vising Winnipeg together when they encountered some old friends from their native Britain and decided to that they should go back for a visit, (apparently Dandy's wife telegraphed her permission !)

Initially, both men were reported as missing and presumed dead but the June 4, 1914 Free Press carried an interview with Dandy who had just arrived in the city with the body of his friend en route to Pierson.

Dandy said that the two awoke when water began entering their cabin. They made it to the deck just as the ship plunged beneath the waves, sucking them under. When Dandy reached the surface, he could not find Halliday but did find another man with two life jackets. They hung onto wreckage until a life boat picked them up an hour or so later and brought them to the Storstad.

A public funeral was held in Pierson for Halliday, one of the largest ever held in the village. He was buried in nearby Winlaw Cemetery.

As for Dandy, he had sold his business prior to the Empress trip as he had been suffering from ill health. A December 6, 1915 Free Press article reporting his death said that  "The exposure in the water for so long a time was a shock to his system from which he never recovered." He was 49 years old.

William Shattock

Shattock had been working as a farmhand in Nesbitt for three years and returning to his native England.

Miss Alma Fedora Maude Assafrey (26)

Alma and a friend came to Winnipeg just a month earlier for Alma's marriage to A. J. Musgrave, a teacher at the Winnipeg School of Art. According to Into the Mist, Alma had a hard time adjusting to frontier life and she was returning to her native Scotland.

Alma stayed with the Lowe family on Simcoe Street while in Winnipeg. The Free Press reported that the day after the disaster the Lowes received a small thank-you gift in the mail that Alma had mailed from Montreal. 

As for the ex-fiancee, he travelled to Quebec to identify Alma's remains and escorted her body back to Scotland.

The friend ended up settling in Winnipeg and got married herself.

Miss Mary Frances Afanassief 
Alfred Avenue

She was a recent immigrant from Russia who lived on Alfred Avenue and worked as a fur finisher for H. F. Hoerner. She was returning to the old country.

Marcus August Blomquist, Elisabet Blomquist, Eric (9), Fred (1)

Mrs. Georgi Zuk (32), Wladislaw Zuk (6),Miss Josepfa Zuk (5)

The Zuk family was in third class and are mentioned only once on the newspaper lists. According to the final list, the father, Georgi, and one of his sons, Kirilio, survived.

Miss Annie Jensen (Age unknown, third class)


Brandon Sun, June 3, 1914

There was a large contingent of Salvation Army members aboard who were heading to England for a large international conference. One report said that 169 members died. Hardest hit were members of Toronto's Salivation Army band and head office, including the commander of the Army in Toronto.

The Salvation Army held a large memorial service in Toronto for all of their members who died. The same happened at the Walker Theatre on Sunday, June 7.

SA Adjutant Nettie Beckstead
Grace Hospital, Arlington Street (now demolished)

Beckstead graduated from nursing at the Grace Hospital in 1913 and the following year was a head nurse there. The Salvation Army facility was built in 1905 to specialize in the care of wayward girls and included a small maternity wing. In 1911 the hospital underwent a major expansion and within a few years it was Western Canada's largest maternity hospital.

Her body was found June 1 and returned to her native Morrisburg, Ontario to be buried next to her parents.

SA Captain Matthew McGrath

McGrath was one of the Salvation Army's premiere musicians. He had been sent from England a few months earlier to visit Western Canada to work with bands in major cities. He had a brother, Edward McGrath, living in Winnipeg so he set up his home base here. He was returning to England.

Ruth Greenfield (65)

She came to Winnipeg two years earlier and lived with her daughter on Church Street. She was returning to England as part of the Salvation Army delegation.

May 18 1914, Winnipeg Tribune

The most famous people aboard the ship were the husband-wife acting duo of Laurence Irving and Mabel Hackney who were touring Canada with a trio of stage dramas. There was much anticipation for the show, especially The Unwritten Law which ran in London's West End for 350 performances with Irving as the lead.

They appeared at the Walker Theatre in the first week in April and returned in mid-May for a final week. The two then hurried to Montreal to catch the Empress while the rest of the crew took a later ship.

Walker Theatre, Winnipeg

A memorial tablet twas installed in the lobby of the Walker Theatre on March 22, 1915. It reads: "This tablet was erected by the citizens of Winnipeg to perpetuate the memory of Laurence Irving and his wife Mabel Hackney who made their last appearance on the stage of this theatre on the 23rd of May 1914 and were drowned in the St. Lawrence River on the 29th May 1914 with 1,014 others when the RMS Empress of Ireland was sunk in collision with the collier Storstad."


Quebec-born Wilson Smith was a captain with the Canadian Pacific's Atlantic lines and had captained the Empress before. He left the company in 1908 and came to Winnipeg to join his brother B. B. Smith and created Smith Agency, a real estate and apartment rental company that is still around today. 

The 1908 year was given in a story written at the time of his death in 1955. Strangely, back in 1914 there were a couple of articles about him that mentioned he was the second in command on the Empress of Ireland the night it was rammed. Checking the crew list, though, he is not listed.


- Empress2014.ca
- The Empress of Ireland Museum
- The Tragic Story of the Empress of Ireland John C. Winston, 1914. (Includes numerous photos of the interior of the ship.)
- Journey to Oblivion: The Empress of Ireland Story NFB (movie trailer)
- The Empress of Ireland CBC Archives
- Empress of Ireland Merseyside Maritime Museum*

* It is their passenger lists that I am using as the "final list."

If you have any additional information about Manitoba victims of the Empress of Ireland, I would love to hear from you.


Unknown said...

I am writing a piece on the Jewish victims of the Empress of Ireland, and found your info on ELI EVANSON quite interesting. While I was able to find something in print saying that initial reports of Eli's survival had been wrong - I would like to read the piece that you sourced saying the both had wired family in Winnipeg to say that they had survived.

ALSO - if . you have the source for ELI's photo, I may be able to take the "moiré" halftone pattern out of the image if I can get hold of the original.

If Fanny and Eli did initially survive, and Eli succumbed to injury after the fact, there should be some record of his burial — other documentation I have seen says he was lost at sea. Baby Julius' body was found, and I believe buried by the Jewish community in Quebec City — although I still have no proof, other than speculation by a newspaper report and an inscription on the Sillary, Quebec monument that says a child was buried by the Jewish community.

With regard to the Zouk family — I have found some evidence to suggest that they were also buried by the Jewish community.

Many thanks for your help.
PLMK how I should credit you in my article ... it is still a ways from being published.

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Anonymous said...

On May 28, 1914, the Empress of Ireland set sail from Quebec City, not from Montreal, as stated in the article.