More than a century after the Empress of Ireland sank in the St. Lawrence River, claiming over 1,000 lives, long-lost footage of the disaster’s aftermath has been rediscovered.
Included are images of a Silverton man and his neighbour’s daughter, who became minor celebrities after his heroic efforts to save her. They were among several West Kootenay residents on board the ship, most of whom did not survive.
The two-minute Pathé news reel, unearthed by Quebec City art historian Sébastien Hudon and cinema specialist Louis Pelletier, has now been digitized from a 35 mm diacetate print and placed online at https://vimeo.com/554020306/c044ae285a.
Hudon, who regularly scours international auctions for Quebec-related photography and art pieces, bought the film in an auction in England in April 2020. But it wasn’t until December that he was able to set up a light table and confirm what it contained.
“It seems we are lucky,” Hudon says. “The lost footage of that moment is not lost anymore. It was quite a long wait but it was worth it.”
A 10-second sequence at the end shows Robert Crellin holding eight-year-old Florence Barbour in front of the Château Frontenac not long after their ordeal. Somehow both manage to smile. An exaggerated caption reads: “Mr. Robert Crellin, who battled for hours in the ice-cold water to save little Florrie Barbour.”
They were sailing to England on May 28, 1914 along with Florence’s mother Sabena and four-year-old sister Evelyn to visit family. Crellin and another neighbour, Billy Barrie, agreed to accompany the Barbours, who were reeling from an earlier tragedy. Sabena’s husband Tom was killed the previous year in an accident while taking a load of ore down from the mines.
Hudon discovered that Crellin and Sabena were actually planning to marry when they reached England, something Florence and Evelyn may have been unaware of.
The Empress of Ireland set sail from Quebec City for Liverpool, but early the next morning, another ship crashed into it in heavy fog, tearing a hole in its side.
In the chaos that followed, Sabena and Evelyn were swept away, but Florence clung to Crellin’s back. He swam for at least 20 minutes until they came across an upturned lifeboat and crawled inside. They drifted to a collapsible boat and began dragging others on board.
Crellin marvelled at Florence’s bravery while downplaying his own. “The child was pluckier than a stout man,” he told reporters once back on land. “She never even whimpered, and complaint was out of the question.” Florence later recalled: “I felt somehow that I had not let him down by disgracing myself and crying.”
Florence was one of only a handful of children to survive the disaster. Photos of Crellin holding her after their rescue appeared in newspapers across North America and one of those shots, taken by the Bain News Service at the same time as the newsreel footage, survives in the Library of Congress.
The footage was known to exist, for it was described in the Bisbee (Arizona) Daily Review of June 20, 1914: “Florence and her rescuer are given a full screen view … She is a winsome, bright appearing child, though the marks of terror and grief implanted by the night of the disaster are not lacking in her face.”
Until now, however, the film was believed long lost.
Despite the magnitude of the tragedy, it somehow faded from public consciousness and Crellin’s actions were totally forgotten in the Slocan Valley. This was probably because after the ship sank, he continued on to England and enlisted for the First World War. He didn’t return to the Slocan for several more years, but then spent the rest of his life there.
Florence wanted Crellin to adopt her — she called him Uncle Bob — and he wanted to take her with him to England. But as Hudon learned, in the face of multiple offers, Crellin finally left her with the wealthy McQuillan family.
They promised “that she should be given every advantage as their own child,” and Crellin, a working man of modest means, agreed. He sailed for England alone on June 10, 1914.
However, both of Florence’s grandmothers sought custody. Somehow this was resolved in favour of her father’s mother and Florence departed Quebec, bound for Cumberland, 17 days after Crellin. Yet he may have been under the misimpression that Florence was still in Quebec. She probably had no way of getting in touch with him, even if her grandmother was willing to help.
We still don’t know whether they ever saw each other again. They may well have, but Florence left things ambiguous in a memoir. She explained she knew what happened to Crellin, but it’s not clear whether she was aware of those details at the time or only found out decades later.
She wrote that Crellin married a woman from Cumberland, and after the war, they “went back to Canada to live. No one will ever know how much I wanted to go back with him, to where I had so many happy memories.”
Florence finally returned to visit Silverton in 1964, 20 years after Crellin’s death, and 50 years after the disaster. Crellin’s sons showed her the watch their father had in his pocket the night of the shipwreck.
Florence said her fondest wish was to be buried next to Crellin in the New Denver cemetery, but it didn’t happen. She died in Whitehaven, Cumbria in 1978, age 73. She was married but had no children.