In the early hours of September 22, 1899, the SS Scotsman of the Dominion Line ran aground in a fog in the Strait of Belle Isle, off the coast of Nova Scotia. Approximately thirteen of her 396 passengers perished, among them my great-great-grandmother Alice (Thornhill) Robinson and her eldest daughter Ellen. All of the victims were women (and a child, by one account) by virtue of the fact that they had been in the first lifeboat lowered, which sank although the Scotsman herself did not.
Newspaper accounts disagree about the number of lives lost (between ten and fifteen, depending on which story one reads) but are in agreement on most of the essentials although the details vary widely. Due to a seaman’s strike in Liverpool, the Scotsman was crewed by “scabs” instead of the regular crew, and their actions in the hours following the wreck were despicable. Reportedly, the crew broke into the liquor supply and proceeded to get drunk and break into cabins and steal passengers’ valuables while Captain H.T. Skrimshire and his officers worked valiantly to assist the surviving passengers. The crew are described, perhaps somewhat dramatically, as “tearing the rings from the fingers of fainting and dying women”.
One newspaper article suggests that the first lifeboat that was lowered was swamped before it could get clear of the ship, but other accounts suggest that this swamping occurred because the “wharf rats” hired in Liverpool to crew the Scotsman had neglected to insert the plug.
Surviving passengers had to climb a 200-foot cliff and trek twelve miles over difficult terrain to the Belle Isle lighthouse, most clad only in thin nightwear and at risk of succumbing to the cold and damp. Before setting out for the lighthouse they survived for several days on biscuits and tinned meat taken from the ship, and berries they found ashore. Once arriving at the lighthouse they were looked after as well as possible by Mr. Coulton, the lighthouse keeper, and his sister, until all but fifty who had not made the trek were picked up by the steamship Montfort and taken to Montreal. (The remaining surviving passengers and crew who had not made the trek to the lighthouse were rescued by the steamships Grecian and Ottoman. A small number of passengers made the return voyage to England instead on the Monterey, the next ship to arrive.)
Police were waiting on the docks to arrest the crew; unfortunately they were in uniform which gave the crew the opportunity to throw some of their loot overboard before being searched, and for some of them to jump ship and escape. Nevertheless, between 24 and 30 of the scoundrels were arrested. The police also had their hands full in preventing an angry mob that had gathered at the docks from throwing the thieving crew members into the river. The surviving passengers arrived in much the same state as they had been after the wreck — first class as well as second class passengers hatless and coatless, some of the ladies skirtless and wrapped in shawls and whatever else they’d been able to cover themselves with.
Alice and Ellen had been returning on the Scotsman from a two-month trip to Europe when the tragedy occurred. In a letter sent home by Alice, written from Switzerland on Hotel de Zermatt letterhead and dated August 14, 1899, she writes, “We go on to Geneva at the end of this week and remain there 4 or 5 days then to Paris and will be back in Bolton by the 26 then we leave for home on the 14th of September on the Scotsman Dominion Line … We have had a lovely time and have seen some beautiful scenery but one gets tired of all that and longs for the dear ones at home.”
My great-great-grandmother and her daughter were supposed to have sailed up the St. Lawrence to Montreal, and my great-great-grandfather Alfred Robinson had traveled from Toronto to Montreal to meet them there. The happy reunion was not meant to be; in those days before instant communication, he was informed after he arrived in Montreal that his wife and daughter had perished. Alice was 48 years old, Ellen 19.
Sadly, this loss was not to be the only such blow that Alfred would suffer in his life. Nearly sixteen years later he would receive news of his son William’s death in Victoria.
We longed to hear each loving voice,
We craved each loving smile,
Ne’er dreaming that the hand of Death
Was holding you the while;
Were ever hearts so pierced with grief,
Were ever hopes so crushed?
When told the voices we would hear,
Beneath dark waves were hushed.
We’ll miss you, sister, daughter, dear,
We’ll want you, mother, wife;
But vain ’twill be to pray those waves
To give our sweet ones life.
Dear hearts, ’twas doubly hard to part;
We can but bow the head,
And wait that Great Re-Union, when
The sea gives up its dead.
[from a memorial booklet for Alice and Ellen Robinson]