IT REMAINS one of the worst peacetime disasters ever to occur – but it is barely remembered.
The sinking of the Empress of Ireland passenger ferry in 1914 saw 1,024 people die within minutes, but it is now largely forgotten as it was eclipsed by the outbreak of the first world war a matter of weeks later.
Now, Selsey resident Mansfield Steede has succeeded in getting Liverpool to remember those who lost their lives with a memorial service today (May 29), exactly 100 years on from the disaster.
Mr Steede’s grandfather was the chief officer and second-in-command on the ship. He died after it was struck by another ship and sunk.
“This time I thought no way is it going to be let go,” said Mr Steede, 78, of Landseer Drive.
The Canadian Pacific ferry left Quebec 100 years ago in May 1914, carrying 1,057 passengers and 420 crew members.
However, in the early hours of May 29, just miles off shore, fog descended and the ship stopped.
It was then struck by the Storstad, a Norwegian collier ship.
A huge hole was ripped in the side of the Empress and she sank within 14 minutes.
It has been described as a total contrast to the Titanic, which sank far from land over a long period of time.
In that instance there were only half the lifeboats needed to carry everyone on board.
In the case of the Empress of Ireland, there were more than enough lifeboats, but there was simply not enough time to launch them, with many people not even having time to get on deck before the boat sank.
Mr Steede’s grandfather, whose name he shares, desperately tried to cut as many of the lifeboats free as he possibly could.
The harbourmaster of Quebec was quoted afterwards as saying: “The conduct of the officers and crew is typified by that of Chief Officer Steede, who hurried up in his pyjamas and started setting the boats free, with the result that he was crushed to death by a boat falling on him when the boat lurched.
“Before he was killed, Mr Steede loosened several boats, which saved a number of lives.”
The chief officer’s son was just ten years old when his father did not come home.
His widow compiled a scrapbook containing a huge number of newspaper clippings that were printed at the time about the disaster, which has been passed down to Mr Steede.
When he grew up, the chief officer’s son tried to make people aware of the forgotten ship, but had little success in getting people to acknowledge it.
But now his son, who moved to West Sussex around 20 years ago, has succeeded in getting the anniversary noticed – and today sees a large memorial service happening in Liverpool.
“I still can’t get my head around it, it’s all happening so quickly,” said Mr Steede.
He added: “It’s just something I wish had happened 50 years ago even.
“It’s just a shame it’s taken so long to be brought to everyone’s attention, particularly with the Titanic taking all the attention.”
A month ago, he contacted the Liverpool mayor’s office about the sinking and since then events have gathered pace.
The Liverpool Echo newspaper picked up the story and has been calling Mr Steede for information.
In a letter written to Mr Steede, Captain Derrick Kemp, chairman of the merchant navy day committee, said: “For too long this tragedy has been forgotten. We want to ensure that this ship is never again the ‘Forgotten Empress’.”
Hundreds are set to gather to mark 100 years, with Mr Steede and his wife Susan travelling up especially.
Asked what more he would like to see done, Mr Steede said: “I would like to see a memorial erected in Liverpool for all the people who lost their lives. This was Liverpool’s biggest peacetime disaster.”
Only four out of 138 children on board survived the disaster and more passengers in total lost their lives than on the Titanic.