Sea Stories

The Strange History of the Jinxed Empress of Canada

The Empress of Canada the former Duchess of Richmond at full speed of 19 knots or 22mph.

As an eleven-year old schoolboy I often travelled on the Overhead Railway (the Dockers Umbrella). From the windows of the rickety train’s carriages windows one (or in our case several schoolboys) enjoyed an unfolding panorama of docks and ships loading and loading in the many docks.

There was never a better time or place. The Liverpool dock system was the biggest and longest in the world and stretched for many miles. Furthermore, the British Merchant Navy was also the greatest merchant marine in terms of ships and sailors.

January 1953 held a special significance and recall for it was world news that the Empress of Canada, one of the world’s great ocean liners was on fire in Gladstone Dock. The dock itself was just at the top of the road where our family lived so a walk away.

From the windows of the train running along the Overhead Railway we had the perfect view of the stricken liner. Now on its side and smoke pouring from several hundred ports and openings, the liner was certainly a sorry and, it must be said, an awesome spectacle. It was an historic event.

It would never have entered this eleven year-old schoolboy’s mind that just 6 years later I would save the MV Britannic (27,000 tons) from exactly the same fate. In 1959, I was a deck boy on the last of the White Star Liners fleet. During the 14 hour night’s fire watch I was stationed on the ship’s bridge whilst it was in Huskisson Dock’s dry dock. When fire broke out deep in the Britannic’s bows it was my acting swiftly that identified the source of the fire, set the alarms, raised hell and high water and saved the MV Britannic from suffering the same as that suffered by the unfortunate Empress of Canada six years earlier.

The Empress of Canada was launched as the Duchess of Richmond on June 18, 1928. She sailed on her maiden voyage from Liverpool on January 26, 1929. Her maiden voyage entailed a six-week cruise to the Madeira, Canary Islands and West Coast of Africa. Amongst her passengers were the Chief Scout, Lt. General Sir Robert Baden-Powell, and Lady Baden-Powell. The new Duchess could carry 580 passengers in cabin-class, 480 in tourist-class and 510 in third-class. She carried a crew of officers and rating of 510.

DUCHESS OF RICHMOND in her original form

Empress of Canada (Duchess of Richmond) was built by John Brown & Co. Ltd at Clydebank in 1929.   Gross Tonnage: 20,022,   Net:  11,238    Length: 600ft     Breadth: 75.1ft and owned by the Canadian Pacific Railway Company. 6 steam turbines, single-reduction gearing to twin screws. Speed: 18 knots, maximum: 19 knots (23 mph).

The Duchess of Richmond settled into her regular service runs on the Canadian route when she left Liverpool on March 15, 1929 for St John, New Brunswick. The first calamity occurred when a month later she grounded in fog at St John on April 28. Her passengers were relocated to the Montcalm.

The Duchess of Richmond in typical early-season icy conditions in the St Lawrence River between Quebec and Montreal

Then in November 1932 the hapless vessel was in collision in fog with the Cunard liner Alaunia off Sorel, Quebec. Three years later she carried the Duke and Duchess of Kent on their honeymoon.

The ill-fated Duchess of Richmond had more than her fair share of incidents. On December 18, 1935 she was at Gibraltar and involved in a collision which necessitated temporary repairs being carried out. Her 748 passengers missed their Christmas at home in the U.K. due to the delays.

Some eighteen months later, in April 1937, the Duchess broke away from her moorings in Haifa (Palestine) harbour during gales. Her 1,000 passengers, pilgrims to the Holy Land, were stranded ashore until the gale abated.

The DUCHESS OF RICHMOND passing under the Quebec Bridge
on passage to Montreal.

What could possibly go wrong? On February 14, 1940 the Duchess of Richmond was requisitioned as a troopship and left Liverpool for Suez. During the invasion of North Africa, the Duchess was close to the P&O liner Strathallan when that ship was sunk by two torpedoes on December 21, 1942.

In March 1945 the Duchess sailed to Odessa carrying 3,700 displaced persons (DPs) who had been held prisoner in France. This sad event is more than a footnote to history.

Many of the Cossacks handed over were not part of any agreement, some were foreign nationals including at least one who had earned British decorations, were unwanted even by Stalin, and their deportation was strictly illegal under international law. 

50,000 civilians, who had surrendered to the British Army, were simply a problem to be disposed of.  Displaced persons, Central and Eastern European refugees, against their will, were shipped to various Soviet ports. Upon disembarking from vessels, including the Duchess of Richmond, they were gunned down or dynamited in groups or assigned to the notorious Gulag prisoner camps scattered throughout the USSR.

As the Duchess left Liverpool for Stalin’s Soviet Union, many threw themselves into the Mersey, some in a vain attempt to escape but others simply to end their lives. It is unknown how many refugees actually disembarked as many took their own lives during the voyage to a land they had never known.

The Empress of Canada at Liverpool

Eight months later the Duchess arrived at Liverpool from Rangoon with the last of the released British prisoners-of-war returning from Sumatra and Singapore. On her return from Bombay in March 1946, the Duchess was held in quarantine until four smallpox cases among the service personnel on board were removed into isolation.

In May 1946 the liner was sent to the Fairfield Yard at Govan for complete refurbishing. She re-appeared as the Empress of Canada. Her passenger complement was reduced to 397 in first-class and 303 in tourist-class. On July 16, 1947 the new Empress (of Canada) sailed on her first post-war commercial voyage from Liverpool to Quebec and Montreal under the command of Captain E. A. Shergold.

On January 10, 1953, the Empress of Canada entered Gladstone Dock for her routine winter overhaul. She was due to return to service on February 11. But this was a date she was unable to keep. On Sunday January 25, whilst lying in Gladstone No.1 Branch Dock, the Empress caught fire. Despite the efforts of firemen from all over the north-west of England, she eventually slide on her side along the dock bottom and became a burnt-out hulk. It was said that the water used to put the fires out had resulted in the liner overturning in the dock.

The height of the blaze on the Empress of Canada

Work to right the Empress began immediately as she was completely blocking a much-needed deep water berth at Liverpool. Her masts, funnels and much of the superstructure had to be cut away. It was not until over a year later, on Saturday March 6, 1954, that the salvage operation was successfully completed. It was the greatest salvage operation of its kind ever tackled in Europe. It was a feat of skill rivalled only by the salvage of the Normandie in New York and the battleship Oklahoma at Pearl Harbor.

Rob Routledge recalls that his father worked as a diver on the salvage operation. Rob’s father’s job was to feed cables underneath the hull of the stricken vessel. He used a fire hose to make a path through the mud under the ship and pulled through a rope which was then used to pull progressively larger wires.

As he went under the ship, the mud would seal up behind him so he had to keep moving forward, an unbelievably horrible job. The French salvage company working on the operation had had a couple of divers killed on the job which was when Rob’s father was seconded by the Mersey Docks and Harbour Board to work with them.

The morning after the fire: the Empress of Canada capsized on her port side, with her funnels smashed against the quay.

The hulk of the once great liner was finally pulled upright by a combined system of parbuckling and buoyancy. The Mersey Docks & Harbour Board, responsible for the cost of the salvage, pledged an expenditure of £380,000 to tackle the problem.

When the sixteen hawsers took the pull, the Empress began moving without the slightest protest. Six pontoons, each filled with 104 tons of water, pulled down on the exposed starboard side. Eleven other pontoons, filled during the night with compressed air, pushed upwards on the submerged starboard side. The wreck moved silently and quickly towards her point of balance. It took only thirteen minutes to come from 88 degrees to 44 degrees.

The uprighting of the hulk on Saturday, March 6,1954

Then, however, a snag was encountered which the experts had not allowed for in their plans. The Empress of Canada had meantime slid twenty feet along the mud of the dock bottom, rather more than they had anticipated. The blocks on the winch purchases had come together. Adjustments took twenty minutes, and with a final pull of only 70 tons, the Empress righted herself. When the operation ended, just fifty-five minutes after it had begun, the liner was sitting on the mud of the dock bottom at an angle of only nine degrees.

After the Empress of Canada had been righted, she was left

The deadweight pull which had been needed to the ship right was 15,000 tons. There now remained to be completed the patching up of her port side and the actual re-floating; an operation which would take about ten weeks.

The liner was taken into the Gladstone Graving Dock on June 30, 1954 to be made seaworthy for her last voyage to the breakers’ yard. Four Alexandra Towing Company tugs carried out the delicate manoeuvre. The Empress had a displacement of 45,000 tons and was drawing 40 feet 9 inches, giving her a clearance of only two feet over the entrance sill to the dry dock.

The hulk of the Empress of Canada, now a mass of blackened and rusty steel, left Liverpool docks on September 1, 1954 under the tow of the 836-ton ocean-going tug Zwarte Zee (Black Sea) under the command of 61-year old Captain Thomas Vet. Watching her leave the Mersey was Commandante Enrico Accame, who had paid £130,000 for the hulk, and was said to have paid another £12,000 for the 2,200 mile tow to La Spezia. There’s inflation for you; £12,000 today (2021) would just about pay a year’s rent on a classy apartment overlooking the Liverpool quays.

The salvage operation had cost the Mersey Docks & Harbour Board £466,000, plus the loss of  deep-sea berth for eighteen months. The Board sold the Empress’s propellers separately for about £8,000.

The hulk of the EMPRESS OF CANADA being manoeuvred into the
Gladstone River Entrance Lock on 1st September 1954.

The hulk of the Empress of Canada being manoeuvred into the Gladstone River Entrance Lock on 1st September 1954.

Commandante Accame stated that he was happy with his purchase. The hulk of the Empress would be completely broken up in between nine and ten months and would be fed into the large Italian steel plants.

Twelve Dutch seamen, supplied by the towing company, would sail on board the Empress. Accommodation had been built on to the wreck, close to where the old luxurious Empress Room had been situated. A coal galley stove, toilet facilities and a motor-driven dynamo for lighting had been installed.

Captain Vet of the Zwarte Zee estimated that the tow would take between 21 and 40 days, dependingt on the state of the weather. He said he would be happy if he could maintain an average speed of 5 knots. The towing gear comprised 6-inch wire cables, 600 yards long, and 22-inch manila ropes, 160 yards in length.

The tow to La Spezia presented some serious difficulties. After rounding the Skerries to the north-west of Anglesey, the Zwarte Zee encountered a full gale and off Tuskar Rock 12 miles off Ireland’s coast, the tow rope parted, leaving the jinxed Empress adrift.

After reconnecting the tow, the hulk was taken to Dublin Bay, and it was intended that it would next be taken to Belfast for repairs to the pumps and the makeshift crew quarters. This proved to be too difficult and so the wreck was diverted to the Clyde for necessary repairs. After these had been completed the indomitable Zwarte Zee once again headed south and more gales were encountered. The hulk of the Empress of Canada eventually arrived at La Spezia for demolition on October 10, 1954.

There were many similarities between the salvage operation to right the Normandie at New York in 1942, [above], and the operation to right the Empress of Canada in 1954. The cause of the capsize was the same in both cases, water pumped into the hulls to attempt to put out a fire caused the vessels to turn on their side.

The Court’s Findings: The Court of Inquiry into the loss by fire of the liner took place in Liverpool on January 25, 1953 and concluded on January 8, 1954. The findings of the Court were issued in mid-March 1954, in the course of which it was stated that the probable cause of the fire was a cigarette discarded in a cabin.

The Court stated that the Working Party on Fire Prevention and Fire Fighting in Ships in Port, 1950, was a comprehensive study of the problem of fire risks aboard ships in port. It contained a number of valuable recommendations which, although there was no statutory sanction behind them, deserved the closest study by all parties concerned. It was therefore regrettable to have to record that no attempt was made to consider the recommendations in details or to carry any of them into effect with regard to the Canadian Pacific Railway Company’s ships sailing into Liverpool.

Had the Empress of Canada been in commission, there was no reason to doubt that the fire precautions would have been effective.

It was clear that no liaison had been established between the ship owners and the fire brigade in relation to the ship. Also, there was no direct telephone between the ship and the fire brigade. Fire patrols were below the recommended standard, and no personal alarms for each patrol man were supplied. The ship’s fire main had not been maintained under pressure and no adequate alternative had been arranged. And, there was no 16-year-old deck boy stationed on the bridge during the fire watch (smile).

The second to last omission was due to the action of the assistant chief engineer who stated that the pump had not been restarted since the vessel came out of dry dock.

No attempt had been made to connect up to the shore main. The treatment of this important matter by the chief officer and the assistant chief engineer appeared to have been casual in the extreme. The chief officer appeared to have accepted the fact that there was no water instantly available, while the assistant chief engineer did not make sure that all his juniors were informed of what was to be done in an emergency.

The Court was satisfied with the evidence of a witness, a worker on a grain elevator berthed across the dock from the Empress of Canada said he saw smoke issuing from the starboard shell door between 3.25pm and 3.30pm on Sunday 25th January 1953. The man hailed the Empress, but no notice was taken. Such inaction was tragic in the extreme. The first discovery of the fire was not made inside the ship until 4.10pm.

The hulk of the EMPRESS OF CANADA being manoeuvred towards the
Gladstone River Entrance prior to the commencement of the tow to La Spezia.

The Court was satisfied that at the time of the arrival of the fire brigade, the fire had obtained such a firm hold and was spreading aft and upwards with such rapidity, that all that could be done was to attempt to box it in. This was done with some measure of success, but by 8.35pm it became necessary to stop pumping any more water for stability reasons.

The Court of Inquiry considered that clandestine smoking was the most likely cause of the fire. The most probable explanation was that a cigarette end had been discarded in a cabin within the range B39 to B53.

It was difficult to explain non-detection over a period of time which resulted in a build-up of heat and gases sufficient to create this débacle. The Court felt that the patrolling system, particularly on a Sunday afternoon, was less than effective. It was clear from the evidence that smoking went on to a considerable extent on board the Empress of Canada, and the Court appreciated just how difficult a problem this was, especially when driving the practice underground might in itself increased the fire risk.  Source

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