[From How the Manx Fleet helped in the Great War, 1923]

The Empress Queen.

THE EMPRESS QUEEN was well known to the travelling public, when she ran on regular service between Liverpool and Douglas, and was a great favourite on account of her fast runs and the ease with which she carried her two thousand passengers.

For the conveyance of troops across the Channel she was an ideal ship, and it was for this purpose she was chartered by the Government on February 6th

Her fitting-out at Barrow occupied a fortnight, and two days after her arrival at Southampton she sailed from that port with nineteen hundred men of a Scottish regiment for Havre.

She remained on this service, gaining for herself the good opinion of the transport authorities for her regular and fast passages, as she had never to stop for bad weather or for engine trouble. She was crowded with outgoing troops on the journey from Southampton, and, returning, often brought back large numbers of "Liberty Men," who during the earlier Stages of the War, came direct from the trenches.

Everything went exceedingly well until February 1st 1916, when, returning from Havre with some thirteen hundred "liberty men," during thick weather, she ran ashore about 5 a.m. on the Ring Rocks at Bembridge, Isle of Wight, about a quarter of a mile from the cliffs. She ran well up on these flat rocks at about half-flood tide, and lay nearly upright with the fore end embedded in the rocks, and the after end afloat.

The troops were taken off by destroyers, and all sorts of craft, which came alongside in reply to her calls for help. The weather was calm and there was no danger to life. It seemed at first as though it could not be a very difficult matter to refloat her, and efforts, by means of tugs and the ship’s engines, were made to move her, but later it was realised to be an impossible task.

I arrived on the scene the day after the stranding and, being piloted to the ship by two local fishermen, Walter and Fred Attrill, in their small boat, I found, in addition to the crew, a number of men from Portsmouth dockyard, with appliances for stopping leaks, etc.

The total number of people engaged would be about a hundred and twenty. The weather was becoming rapidly worse, and, after going ashore to send off a telegram, I found it impossible to return to the ship.

That night it blew a gale, and everyone on board had an anxious time.

In the morning things were so bad that the Bembridge lifeboat was called out at 9.30 a.m. to take off all hands, but, as the lifeboat house was about two miles from the wreck, and the wind dead ahead, it took a long time to beat up to anywhere near the Empress Queen.

It was decided that the best plan was to wait until low water and then land the men on the flat rocks, which formed a sort of natural pier, alongside of which the lifeboat could lie.

At 2 p.m. the work of rescue commenced, and boat-load after boatload was safely landed, until the water was so low, that the lifeboat grounded and received damage. The last remainder of the crew was taken off by the two fishermen referred to before in their small boat. By 5 p.m. all hands were landed, including the ship’s cat and dog: the latter animal was on the ship’s articles, and wore a disc.

The next day (Friday) the weather had moderated and we were able to go aboard the wreck.

I shall never forget the scene of confusion on deck. The vessel had been swept from stern to stem by huge seas, piling up ropes, furniture, etc., on the foredeck in a confused mass. All the rooms had been gutted, and I do not think that any-one could have lived on the ship during that storm.

The spar deck aft had been beaten down by the seas, and the ship, being full of water, did not float again. Up to this time the after end of the ship had been afloat at high tide, and the saloons were quite dry, but during the gale, the after deck-house was smashed, and the saloons were flooded. All compartments, including the engine room, were now filled with water at high tide, and there seemed to be little hope of refloating the ship.

Efforts to get the water out were, however, made with the assistance of motor driven pumps from the dockyard. But soon it was found to be a lost endeavour, and the only thing that could be done was to save as much of the ship’s gear as possible.

These efforts at salvage were ably assisted by Mr. J. Halsall, superintendent carpenter, and much valuable property was saved. The chief engineer, Mr. George Kenna, also stood by and rendered valuable help.

The Empress Queen remained a very conspicuous figure for a long time after she was stranded and could be seen by all vessels navigating Southampton Waters. The two big funnels seemed to be always in view during the daytime, and were still standing there on Armistice day. In the summer of the year after, however, (1919) during a heavy gale, which lasted two days, the funnels disappeared, and all that now remains to be seen at low water is a little lump of old iron.

The way in which the Empress Queen withstood the buffeting of winter gales, is a testimony to her strength, and to the good work put into her by the builders.

The salvage operations were finally put into the hands of a contractor, who, with a gang of workmen, recovered a large amount of valuable metal from the engine room and other parts of the ship.

It was only during the summer months that the work could be safely carried on, and the temptation to work later on in the year, when the weather was bad, cost the contractor his life.

The wreck of this splendid paddle steamer was the cause of great regret to thousands of people in Lancashire, with whom she was a great favourite. For eighteen consecutive seasons she carried them safely across to Mona’s Isle, and it was hoped that, when the war was over, she would resume her old occupation, but this was not to be.

In looking back to the time of the loss of the Empress Q ucen, there are two incidents that come to my memory that are worth recording.

When the crew was landed by the lifeboat on the rocks at Bembridge they could not, of course, bring with them their bags, containing their clothes and belongings. The latter were landed the next day, Friday, but, owing to War regulations, these bags could not be removed from the beach until the Sunday afternoon. During all that time they lay exposed to the weather. The result may be imagined.

The other incident is of a pleasant nature. I have referred to two fishermen-brothers, who took me off to the wreck, and afterwards rendered very valuable services in rescuing the crew.

The father of these two men was an old man of seventy-two, who had been coxswain of the Bembridge lifeboat for twenty-seven years, and was now retired, living in his own house with a nice garden attached. The little house was interesting, for he told me that it had been purchased in some other part of the Isle ofWight, and had been removed, being of wood, to its present position by his sons and their friends, costing a ridiculously low figure for so comforable a home-stead.

I was introduced to the old man by the sons, and visited the house with them on a very stormy wet night. The darkness was so great, and the wind so high, and the way to the house so exposed, they had to take me by the hand and lead me.

When I arrived at the old man’s house and was ushered into the living room with its cosy fire and bright lights, and saw the comfortable old couple snugly enjoying these conditions, I was strongly reminded of the scene described by Charles Dickens in David Copperfield—the boat-house on Yarmouth sands. I told the old man about this story, and promised to send him a copy of the book, when I returned home, so that they could enjoy reading it for themselves.

This was done, and some considerable time afterwards, I re-visited the old couple, and found they had enjoyed the reading of the hook, and were still in the possession of a fair amount of health and strength. They are, I am glad to say, still alive, and keep remarkably well for their age.

Before leaving the passing of the Enzpress Queen, it is worth while to call to remembrance some particulars of this epoch making vessel.

She stood for the high water mark of the Paddle steamer. Built by the Fairfield Shipbuilding and Engineering Company in the year 1897, she was the fastest Channel steamer of her day.

Her dimensions were as follows

Length, 360 ft. ; Breadth, 42 ft. 3 in. ; Depth 17 ft.; Gross tonnage, 1,995, and an Indicated Horse Power of 10,000.

To build a paddle channel steamer of sufficient strength. to stand the strain of this unprecedented power was a problem for the builders not easy of accomplishment. The overhanging weight of each paddle wheel and its shaft (seventy-five tons) required supporting, while revolving at forty-two revolutions per minute.

No wonder, when she appeared on the scene, that the Manx people were proud of possessing the most powerful Paddle Steamer afloat,


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HTML Transcription © F.Coakley , 2000