Feature: The Empress of Ireland, remembered

published on 30 May 2014

[Photo credit: Salvation Army Archives Canada and Bermuda Territory]

In 1914, The Salvation Army was to hold its first international celebration in London, England, since its Founder’s (General William Booth’s) death. Members would come from across the world to take part.

The Canadian Staff Band was to travel with Canadian leaders and members to the event (known as a Congress). Sadly, many never made it – more than 120 of them drowned on 29 May 1914 when their boat, RMS Empress Of Ireland, was struck by another vessel on the crossing and sank in only 14 minutes.

A century later, on 25 May 2014, the Canadian Staff Band marked the tragedy when the memorial ceremony took place at Mount Pleasant Cemetery in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. There has been an annual memorial service at the cemetery since the disaster to recognise the Salvationists who lost their lives.

Grace Hanagan, the last of the Salvationist survivors, who died in 1995, lost both her parents in the disaster. Her father, Adjutant Edward James Hanagan, was the staff bandmaster. She is pictured attending a ceremony some years ago.

In remembering the disaster, we share survivor Kenneth McIntyre’s moving account that documents his decision to continue his journey to the Congress to represent his lost friends. His testimony is taken from an article printed in The Musician on 28 May 1960.

AT the fishing village of Rimouski on the St Lawrence River, it was mid-morning on Friday, May 29, 1914. The day was bright, clear and chilly with no sign of the fog in which, at 2 am, the Empress of Ireland had been struck in collision, had turned on her side and gone down in fourteen minutes. One thousand and twenty-four souls had gone to meet their Maker, 167 of them Salvationists-promoted to Glory. Twenty-eight of them were my comrades of the Canadian Staff Band. Only 12 of us survived.

In the Hotel St Germain, a converted mansion, several dozen survivors were sheltered. My costume was a seaman’s undershirt and a damp bedspread. After the first shock came the desire to communicate with loved ones. It fell to me to put through telegrams and cables telling of survival. The only means of communication· was that of spelling every word over long-distance telephone to a French Canadian in Levis, Quebec. His command of English was almost nil. He was to relay the message by Bell telephone, charges collect, to SA DHQ at Montreal. My plain message to my father in New York City was so garbled that he thought Ernest Pugmire was trying to say that Kenneth had not survived.

At about three o’clock a special train left Rimouski taking uninjured survivors the 200 miles along the South Shore of the River St Lawrence to Levis, across from the City of Quebec. A Salvation Army captain met the Salvationist survivors at Levis and took us across on the ferry. l asked him would he please get me to a Bell telephone. He took me to the tiny cubicle office of the Salvation Army Emigration Service on the wharf.

I managed to convince the telephone operator at SA NHQ in New York that an emergency required that Colonel McIntyre be brought to the telephone, even though he was on the platform and about to speak. The occasion was the farewell meeting of the American party of 100 which was to sail on the Olympic at ten o’clock the next morning. A few minutes served to convey the essentials and then: ‘Son, if I arrange passage on the next steamer will you come on over?’ I could only answer ‘Yes!’ And so a week later, on June 4th, I sailed from New York on the Baltic.

It was noon on Saturday, June 13th, that l arrived in London by boat train; it was the first day of the International Congress. My mother and Mrs Commissioner David Lamb met me at the station and took me to the hotel.

Major George Attwell, now a retired Colonel, my 1st baritone mate, had sent on to New York a Canadian Staff Band scarlet tunic and cap. A quick change and I was taken to the place in the line of march which our staff band was to have occupied. As the great procession marking the opening of the Congress made its way through the heart of London, I marched alone behind draped flags.

On Monday morning, June 15th, was held the Canadian Session in the great Strand Hall, specially built for the Congress, seating 6,000. Remnants of the Canadian delegation, having proceeded in separate parties, were seated on the platform. The appropriate number of vacant seats was there – draped. A lone Canadian Staff Bandsman was seated where his band of forty was to have been placed.

An indelible recollection naturally is that of my being called to the front of the platform by General Bramwell Booth. How tall he was, and how gracious! With his arm about my shoulder the General introduced me and asked me to speak.

I related how, at our farewell meeting in Toronto, the Scripture portion read by the late Colonel Maidment, Chief Secretary, was the 46th Psalm. This introduced my reading of that Psalm. It seemed specially composed by the Psalmist for the circumstances: ‘God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore will we not fear…’ and toward the end ‘Be still, and know that I am God.’

As I write of these memories I am not dwelling on my own emotions, though my voice broke frequently during my speaking. I am thinking rather of the emotions of the many tens of thousands who were witnesses of all the events I describe.

At another session of the Congress I was seated near the International Staff Band. The Bandmaster, Colonel George Mitchell, handed me .a slip of paper. On it he had written: ‘The bearer, Kenneth McIntyre, is a member of the International Staff Band. Admit him on all occasions when the band is present. George Mitchell, Colonel, Bandmaster.’ Colonel Mitchell’s gracious and thoughtful act has been among my precious memories.

The climax and finale of the Congress came, as I recall, on Saturday, June 27th, at the Crystal Palace. There took place the great March·Past – thousands of delegates reviewed by the General and his staff. Jim Johnson, another survivor who had arrived in London by this time, joined me on that day. We marched together in our Canadian Staff Band uniforms, representing and symbolising our faithful comrades back in Canada or looking on from above.

A sequel came years later on June 30, l953, in New York. The funeral service of Commissioner Ernest Pugmire had just been held in the morning. General Albert Orsborn had flown across the Atlantic to be present. As a close friend of the promoted commissioner, I had been invited and was now in conversation with Commissioners McMillan, Parker, Wilson, Marshall and Dray. The conversation turned to Ernest Pugmire and myself.

Was it true that Ernest and I were rescued by the same lifeboat from the colliding vessel, the Storstad? Yes, it was true. A detailed account ensued. How did my father and mother get·the word that I was saved? l told about the captain of the Salvation Army Emigration Service who took me to the telephone at Quebec. To my great surprise Commissioner William Dray, the present Chief of the Staff, revealed that he was that captain.