Eight-year-old Florence Barbour clung ferociously to Robert Crellin’s neck as they fought to stay afloat in the St. Lawrence River. Minutes earlier they’d been passengers aboard the Empress of Ireland, which collided in the night with the SS Storstad.
Crellin, 35, helped Florence, her mother Sabena, and younger sister Evelyn from their second-class cabins to the deck. As the ship sank beneath them, Crellin put Florence on his back and entered the bone-chilling water. By one account, he swam for over an hour.
“I finally came across an upturned lifeboat from our steamer and managed to put Florence on it and then straddled it myself,” Crellin recalled. “Another man climbed aboard and soon we drifted to a collapsible boat, which three of us managed to open and climb into. I dragged two women aboard, and with a man, saved some men.”
In all, he helped rescue more than 20 people. The tall, rugged man and the golden-haired little girl, both from Silverton, were among the lucky survivors of Canada’s deadliest maritime disaster.
‘GOD BE WILLING, WE WILL SAVE EVERYONE’
Florence’s family was already dealing with tragedy when the ship sank. Her father, Tom Barbour, was teaming a load of ore down from the Silverton mines in 1913 when a slide startled his horses, who threw him from his wagon. He died in hospital after nine agonizing days, age 38.
Tom and Sabena were both from Cumberland in the north of England. They came to Canada around 1900, where Tom worked in the Slocan silver mines. Florence Lorraine was born in the now-ghost town of Three Forks and the family later moved to the Van Roi mine near Silverton, where Evelyn Beatrice was born in 1910. They enjoyed a brief but bucolic childhood.
After Thomas’ death, the bereaved family was comforted by frequent visits from Florence’s godfather, Robert William Crellin, whom she called Uncle Bob, and William Simpson (Billy) Barrie. Both were Cumberland miners who emigrated to BC about the same time as the Barbours.
A year after her husband’s death, Sabena booked passage to the old country with her daughters. Bob and Billy joined them after trying unsuccessfully to convince Sabena to delay her departure by a few weeks. Florence, who was attending school in Silverton, tearfully left her friends behind, “but as we intended to come back I consoled myself. It would not be long until I saw them all again.”
On May 28, 1914, they boarded the Canadian Pacific ocean liner Empress of Ireland at Quebec City as it set sail for Liverpool. Just before 2 a.m. the next day, in heavy fog, the Storstad, a Norwegian collier, crashed into the Empress, gashing a hole in its starboard side.
Florence, who shared a cabin with her sister, remembered being awakened by an “awful bump” and hearing screams as her uncle Bob grabbed her.
“Don’t be frightened dear, I’ve got you,” he said. “God be willing, darling, we will save everyone.” Crellin was in his bare feet as he carried her up the slanted corridor, slipping on its highly polished floor. She was shocked to hear him exclaim “Oh my god!”
When they reached the deck, Sabena was holding Evelyn.
“Then as the ship listed we climbed over the rail and walked cautiously down the ship’s side to the water’s edge, trying to avoid falling into the portholes,” Crellin said. “Just as we reached the water’s edge the ship gave a terrible tremor. We knew it was all over. I saw Mrs. Barbour and her child tottering toward the water and reaching out their hands to me. I tried to get them, but I couldn’t reach them.”
In contrast to the Titanic’s slow death, the Empress sank in 15 minutes.
As Bob tried to hand Sabena a life preserver, someone snatched it away. Florence’s mother screamed her daughter’s name, “but we never saw her again … I remember clinging to Uncle Bob and knew I would be safe as long as he had a hold of me. Thank God Uncle Bob was a big strong man.”
The whole time, she held on like a barnacle and never cried. (“I felt somehow that I had not let him down by disgracing myself and crying.”)
“The child was pluckier than a stout man,” Crellin told reporters. “She never even whimpered, and complaint was out of the question. Time and time again I feared Florence would lose her hold, and I would speak to her when my mouth and eyes were clear. Each time her little hands would clutch me tighter, until it seemed she’d stop my breath, but I welcomed the hold because it showed she had the pluck and courage needed. You should have seen how the girls and women in Rimouski hugged her when we got ashore.”
According to the Daily Telegraph, when Florence arrived at the Chateau Frontenac in Quebec, still clutching Crellin, she “asked persistently for her mother. She was a general favourite at the Chateau, and many women went away with tears in their eyes after talking with her.”
Crellin’s own eyes grew moist recalling how in the space of a year the little girl had lost her whole family. “Poor child! She’s alone in the world, but Florence will never need a friend or home while I have breath in my body.”
One newspaper suggested Sabena’s body was recovered and sent back to New Denver, but there’s no record of the burial. (Florence believed her mother was interred in Quebec.) Neither Billy Barrie nor Evelyn was ever found.
An inquiry blamed the Storstad and its chief officer for wrongly changing course during the fog, but others fingered the Empress captain, who was on his maiden voyage as its master.
Of 1,477 people on board, 1,012 died. Of 138 children, Florence was one of a handful to survive — and became a media darling.
The Empress’ Kootenay connections
Robert Crellin and the Barbour family weren’t the only Kootenaians, or even the only Silvertonians, aboard the ill-fated Empress of Ireland on May 29, 1914, though there was much confusion over their fates.
• William Simpson (Billy) Barrie, 29, of Silverton, was travelling with the Barbours. He was engaged to a woman from Hensingham and was en route to marry her but didn’t survive.
• Another Silverton man, John Wise Langley, 26, escaped through a porthole. He had a habit of cheating death. In addition to surviving the sinking ship, he was badly injured in a motorcycle accident, shot at twice during a religious uprising in Ireland, and kicked in the head by a horse.
• Martin Gill, 30, of Nelson, was rescued. He was employed at the No. 1 mine at Ainsworth for two years, and before that worked at Moyie with his father, whom he was on his way to visit.
• Charles Malloch, 38, of Howser was rescued. A rancher for about eight years, he had sold part of his property and was on his way to visit his parents in Glasgow, unsure if he would return. Another Howser man, John H. Stavey, would have accompanied Malloch on the trip but for an “unavoidable delay” in getting away.
• George and Mary Ann Dowker of Nelson, 52 and 45 respectively, were reported lost, but actually survived — it’s unclear if they ever boarded. Mrs. Dowker died in Winnipeg in 1938 and Mr. Dowker still lived there as of 1947. At that time their son Thomas lived near Nelson.
• Eric J. Erickson, 27, a timber man at the LeRoi No. 2 mine in Rossland, was on his way to Sweden to meet family and bring them back. He was officially listed as lost, but a relative says he survived and lived in Ludvika, Sweden.
— Greg Nesteroff