The R.M.S. Empress of Ireland Community

Disaster Relief Fund

Please note that none of the following is taken from Forgotten Empress by David Zeni. Instead, it draws on the author's original research from Canadian and U.K. newspaper and archival sources.
A note on British currency

In 1914, the pound sterling was worth almost exactly $5 in either Canadian or American currency. The pound was divided into 20 shillings (20s); each shilling was further divided into 12 pence (12d). Thus a pound was equal to 240 pence. Some luxury items were--and still are--priced in guineas, an obsolete denomination that was equivalent to 21s (i.e. £1 1s 0d). This explains why, for example, box seats at the Royal Albert Hall recital of June 29 cost a rather odd-looking 63s. In reality, this was 3 guineas. And why, at the Aldwych Theater, the most expensive seats were £2 2s (2 guineas).

See Summer Rates for comments on wages in Britain in 1914, to put into perspective the donation of, say, £500 by Sir Thomas Shaughnessy to the Mansion House Fund. Also, for comparison purposes, British private soldiers in 1914 were paid 1s (equivalent to 25 cents) per day; their Canadian counterparts, the princely sum of $1.10.

In 1914, governments in English-speaking countries were not in the habit of providing funds for disaster or emergency relief. Instead, following the principle of "voluntarism," this task was left largely to public-spirited social and business leaders. Thus, within days of the sinking of the Empress of Ireland, a well-oiled machine sprang into life and, over the next weeks, thousands of people gave their names, talents and time to a host of fund-raising activities, just as they had done before and would do again.

On May 29, Sir T. Vansittart Bowater, Lord Mayor of London, set up a fund for the families of Empress victims and appealed to the public for donations. In launching what became known as the Mansion House Fund (after the Lord Mayor's offical London residence), Bowater wrote:

"I feel I shall be anticipating the wishes of the benevolent public and following the tradition of the Mansion House on occasions of great public calamity, if I intimate, without delay, that I have opened a fund for the relief of the widows, orphans and dependent relatives of the crew and passengers of the ill-fated liner Empress of Ireland, whose loss in such distressing and pathetic circumstances, has caused widespread sympathy and grief throughout the Empire.

"I shall be glad to receive the offerings of the charitable public for a cause which must appeal to everyone, and I invite the assistance of my brother Lord Mayors and mayors throughout the kingdom in the collection of an adequate fund. The help of the newspaper Press will, as in the past, be warmly welcomed, and, I know, readily extended.

"I should like to add that in the distribution of the fund I propose to avail myself of the services of the Public Trustee, whose administration of the large sum collected two years ago on the loss of the Titanic has given universal satisfaction.

"Donations may be sent to the Secretary's Office, Mansion House, or to the Bank of England."

Donations flowed into the Mansion House Fund in short order. On June 2, readers of The Times were informed that the King had contributed £500, Queen Mary £250, the Prince of Wales--the future Edward VIII--£250, and Queen Mother Alexandra £200.

The letter from the King to the Lord Mayor read:

Privy Purse Office, Buckingham Palace

June 1, 1914

My Lord:

I have it in command from the King to inform your Lordship that his Majesty subscribes the sum of £500 to the fund your Lordship is raising for the help of those stricken by the loss of the Empress of Ireland. For them, on their overwhelming sorrow, the King feels most deeply.

I remain, my Lord, your Lordship's obedient servant,

William Carrington


Over the next days the Fund did very well, growing to £8,000 (June 2), £21,500 (June 4), and £24,000 (June 5), £28,000 (June 6), £29,000 (June 8); and £31,000 (June 9). By June 22, the fund had reached £39,000.

Donations came from companies, banks and people from all walks of life and stations in society. Among the notable individual donors were King Haakon VII and Queen Maud of Norway (100 guineas), as well as many individuals and companies involved with the shipping industry, the Canadian Pacific Railway, or having other ties to Canada or the Empress. Thus we find, for example, Lloyd's Register (£210); Fairfield Shipbuilding & Engineering Co. Ltd. (£105); members of the London Stock Exchange (£1,109 17s); the Corporation of London (£525); Cunard Co. (£250); Oceanic Steamship Co. (£250); Elder Dempster Co. (£100); Lady Strathcona, widow of one the builders of the CPR (£500); Lord Mount Stephen, first president of the CPR (£1,000); Sir Thomas Shaughnessy, President of the CPR (£500); the CPR itself (£5,000, the single-largest contribution); Mrs. Hugh Allan, of the Allan shipping family (£50); and Sir George Perley, acting Canadian High Commissioner (£100). There was even a donation of £100 by Mr. A.F. Klaveness of Oslo, managing owner of the Storstad.

A special collection at St. Paul's Cathedral garnered £46 7s 6d; a box set outside the Mansion House, in the heart of London's financial district, collected small change from passers-by and, in just five days, netted a nearly identical sum.

A similar fund was launched in Liverpool, also on May 29, by Lord Mayor Herbert Rathbone. Fund-raising went well in the Empress' home port, hit by the loss in the same way Southampton had been two years earlier on the loss of Titanic: all but seven of the 245 dead crew members on the Empress had come from the Liverpool area. In five days, the Liverpool fund stood at £13,758, and grew, over time, to some £25,000. As in London, contributions came from corporations and individuals. The CPR and Sir Thomas Shaughnessy, having already contributed generously to the Mansion House Fund and, sensitive to the suffering of the Liverpool families, made further identical donations to the Liverpool Fund. The National Seamen's and Sailor's Union, in a gesture of solidarity, contributed £300.

In London, the Salvation Army opened a special fund for the families of Salvationists lost in the disaster, for a large Canadian contingent had been aboard the Empress en route to a congress in London. Many of the Canadian delegates, travelling with wives and children, never arrived.

It was soon evident that a substantial amount of money would be required. On June 3, Duncan Fraser, who had previously acted as honorary actuary for the Titanic Fund, responding to a request by Lord Mayor Rathbone, estimated that about £180,000 would be required. Of this, about £80,000 would be needed for dependents of the lost crew members, and £100,000 for passengers.

Rathbone's appeal for money appeared in the newspapers the following day, and he urged that "as soon as the holidays are over, all who can afford to do so will contribute according to their means."

Fraser's estimates were based on his experience with the Titanic Fund. There, after much debate, it had been decided that distributions to passengers' dependents, other than third-class, would be made on a lump-sum basis, ranging from £150 to a widow with children to £24 for a father. Crew dependents, on the other hand, would be given weekly allowances, the exact amounts of which varied according to a number of factors. A widow, for example, received anywhere from 12s 6d £2 per week, with extra amounts for children, again determined by various factors. Of course, the biggest variable in all of this was how much could be raised. The more money raised, the greater the individual payments.

Various benefit theatrical and orchestra performances were staged in the capital and other cities, over the next weeks with all proceeds being given to either the London or Liverpool Funds.

The first of these was a special matinee performance of Pygmalion on June 1 at His Majesty's Theater in tribute to Mr. and Mrs. Laurence Irving, two noted British actors lost in the disaster. The benefit, for which the actors and members of the orchestra donated their services and George Bernard Shaw donated his author's royalty fee, raised £92 4s and must have been a great success, for it had originally been planned as the first performance of a People's Theater, with special low prices aimed at the working and trades class. Shaw's sparkling comedy was still new to the London stage, having opened only in April at His Majesty's, and the theater was almost sold out, hardly surprising since even the stall seats were only 2s 6d, and standing room in the gallery was only threepence. This imposing, copper-domed theater in the Haymarket was built in 1897 and has changed little since that date. It is easy to imagine the largely working-class audience, along with a few Labour Party members, settling down in their seats on that holiday Monday afternoon with an expectant hush as the house lights dimmed.

Sir Herbert Tree, proprietor of His Majesty's, starred as Henry Higgins, while Eliza Doolittle was played by Mrs. Patrick Campbell, and there is no doubt that these two fine, experienced actors lived up to the review filed by The Times critic who, when the play first opened, wrote: "Mrs. Campbell's Eliza is a delicious thing," and "Sir Herbert Tree makes quite a rich character of Higgins." In their acting careers, Sir Herbert Tree and Mrs. Campbell had each played opposite Laurence Irving and, on that particular afternoon, both probably felt a mixture of emotions, including a keen sense of loss for a fine actor and valued colleague. At the close of the previous night's performance, Tree had paid a special tribute to the lost actor: "We actors were proud of Irving in life and we are no less proud of him in death.... His work was always like the man, original." Shaw's play is still performed regularly, but is probably more familiar to millions as the inspiration for the musical My Fair Lady.

On June 5, Princess Bariatinsky (whose stage name was Madame Lydia Yavorska), a Russian actress and owner of London's Scala Theater off Tottenham Court Road, offered the theater for a 2:30 matinee of Anna Karenina, in which she was currently featured. The Princess, married to Prince Vladimir Bariatinsky--among other things, a playwright whose works often featured his wife--was well-known in London's theatrical circles, having made her London debut in 1909 at His Majesty's. One critic found "her strange, fierce type of acting [made] her a theatrical sensation." She was also acknowledged as one of the most successful foreign interpreters of Henrik Ibsen's plays, and a supporter of various causes, including women's suffrage. There is no indication of how much the stage version of Tolstoy's great novel, then at the end of its London engagement, raised for the Fund, but every bit helped and, with seats costing from 2s 6d to 10s 6d, it must have done reasonably well.

Joint patrons for the Scala event were ex-king Manoel II of Portugal, the Lord Mayor and Hon. John Burns. The 24-year-old former Portuguese monarch, married to a German princess and an intimate of the British royal family, was a fixture of the capital's social scene, having selected Britain as his residence-in-exile after being deposed in 1910. Burns was President of the Board of Trade, a member of Parliament and the first Labour representative to attain cabinet rank.

By this time, the Empress was becoming old news, elbowed aside by other pressing issues such as Home Rule in Ireland, and continued unrest in the Balkans. Still, the fund-raising activities went on.

In Paris, the Boston Opera Company--on tour in Europe that summer--gave a special performance at the Theatre des Champs-Elysees on June 17 in aid of the Mansion House Fund. The correspondent of The New York Times reported that "the house was crowded with a brilliant audience, including the American, German and British Ambassadors." Also present were representatives of French President Raymond Poincare, who had originally planned to attend.

The Company offered two works, the first being Il Segreto di Susanna (Susanna's Secret), a 1909 one-act comic opera by Ermanno Wolf-Ferrari that called for two voices and a mime.

The second was Verdi's 1859 Un Ballo in maschera (A Masked Ball), whose setting, fittingly, is eighteenth-century Boston. This latter featured soprano Felice Lyne in a minor role as the court page Oscar. She had asked permission to take part in the performance, to celebrate her good fortune; originally booked on the fateful Empress voyage, Miss Lyne had taken an earlier boat to Europe following an urgent cable summons. Not surprisingly,both works from that evening have disappeared from the current repertoire. Verdi wrote better operas, many of which are still performed, and a modern audience would find Wolf-Ferrari's work somewhat ludicrous, for Susanna's great secret is that she smokes.

A concert of popular orchestral works and excerpts took place on the afternoon of Monday, June 29 at the Royal Albert Hall. This was a fitting venue, as the public memorial for Empress victims had been held here on June 5, with virtually every one of the 15,000 seats filled. The concert, yet another event under the Lord Mayor's patronage, was not particularly well attended, possibly--as the reporter for The Times speculated--because of a local heat wave, something that would prove to be common in that last summer of peace. In fairness, in an auditorium of this size, almost any crowd would look small.

Four hundred instrumentalists donated their services, as did a total of seven conductors, all gathered from London's leading orchestras. Of the seven, the most familiar to a modern listener was Thomas Beecham, knighted in 1916 and, on his death in 1961 at the age of eighty-two, recognized as one of England's foremost conductor-arrangers and the founder of two major orchestras. Two others--Sir Henry Wood and Landon Ronald (later knighted)--were well regarded as conductor-arrangers, though their names are hardly familiar to today's audiences. The remaining four have faded into obscurity. Boxes for this event cost up to 63s, while seats ranged from 2s to 12s 6d; for those who could not afford these prices, there was standing general admission at 1s.

The Times provided a brief (and favorable) review the following day, while also carrying stories about the murder of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Habsburg throne, in an obscure Bosnian town named Sarajevo. Though no one yet knew it, the fuse for the Great War had been lit and the old order in Europe was about to self-destruct.

The following day, the hottest thus far in London, featured a matinee at 2:15 at the Aldwych Theater under the patronage of HM Queen Alexandra and other members of the royal family. The Aldwych, an elegant, well-proportioned theater off Drury Lane, has changed little over the past eight decades and it takes no stretch of imagination to recreate that sweltering afternoon of 1914, with well-dressed patrons arriving by motor car to witness a program of poetry recitals and tableaux featuring various artists. Programs involving tableaux--a scene depicted by silent and costumed participants--are almost unknown to today's theater audiences, but they were immensely popular at the turn of the century. Among the many artists donating their services for the occasion were Fraulein Janotha, court pianist to Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany. Tickets for the event were moderately priced, ranging from 2s 6d to £2 2s, in order to appeal to as wide an audience as possible.

On July 8, Princess Louise, the Duchess of Argyll, was the patron of a 2:30 matinee performance of a play entitled Grumpy at the New Theater, just off Leicester Square. The play was a popular one, described later by one critic as an "engagingly artless little thing." Again, the players donated their services for the Mansion House Fund. The same evening featured a benefit concert at Queen's Hall, near Shaftsbury Avenue, with an audience drawn mainly from the leading shipping firms in London.

Other performances took place in London as well, usually smaller in scope, like The Mikado at the Cripplegate Institute Theater, and in theaters in various other cities. Even if these could not match the size or prestige of mainstream London theaters, they were all motivated by a common feeling of compassion and generosity toward those who had suffered family losses.

In North America, similar activities were also underway. The Montreal city council voted $10,000 for relief on June 2, and the money was subsequently turned over to the fund established on June 9 by the Montreal Board of Trade. The Montreal Fund started off well with $30,000 in its first day, the main contributions coming from the city, the Bank of Montreal ($7,000) and the Canadian Manufacturers' Association ($2,000). The Board named a general committee, consisting of leading citizens, representatives of newspapers and the churches, and appealed for funds.

Noting the progress in the United Kingdom, for the amounts raised there were carried in local Canadian newspapers, the organizers expressed their confidence "...that the citizens of Montreal will not be found lacking in similarly generous contributions." In a week, the fund had grown to $36,000 from a mixture of corporate and individual donations. By late June, when the fund was closed, it had collected almost $50,000.

As to the disposition of the funds, the Montreal committee recognized the need to avoid duplicating efforts in Britain. It therefore promised to "...forward the total amount to whatever central committee may be finally charged with the distribution of the funds now being raised in the United Kingdom."

In Toronto, home to a considerable number of the drowned passengers, the city's Board of Control recommended $25,000 for relief funds, and this was ratified on June 8.

The first subscriber to the fund set up by the Quebec Board of Trade was Field Marshal HRH the Duke of Connaught, Governor-General of Canada, who gave $500 on June 13. The Duke and Duchess were no strangers to the Empress: they had first sailed to Canada aboard her in vice-regal splendor in a special suite in October 1911 and remembered the ship and her crew with particular affection.

The largest single contributor to the relief funds was the American oil magnate and philanthropist John D. Rockefeller who, on June 21, contributed $11,000 (£2,200).

On June 4, Canadian Prime Minister Robert Borden committed his conservative government to aid those who had suffered in the disaster. Characteristically, he did not specify the form or amount of such aid. Only later, perhaps shamed by the generosity of private citizens and aware of how much would be needed, did the government pledge £10,000.

On July 6, Lord Mayor Bowater convened a meeting at the Mansion House to deal with the pressing problems of administering the amounts of money collected in London and Liverpool, by this date amounting to £43,000 and £25,000 respectively, and not including the sums pledged by the Canadian government and other groups. The meeting, with representatives from the Public Trustee, the Canadian High Commission, the CPR, the Salvation Army and other interested parties, led to a number of decisions. First, the Liverpool fund would be used for the claims of the dependents of crew members, and in this respect it soon began making payments for temporary relief. On the other hand, the London fund, along with the Canadian funds, would be used to settle claims from passengers, and September 30 was set as the date by which all such claims should be filed.

When Britain went to war on August 4, a host of national priorities and competing claims for public charity tended to push the Empress fund-raising to the background, as various civic leaders set up funds for every conceivable cause, ranging from Belgian refugees to the Red Cross. In reality, it didn't much matter: the Empress-related activities had ended and week-over-week donations had fallen off rapidly.

On December 11, the County Court in Liverpool awarded widows of the Empress crew a pension of 15s 6d a week, for life, to be paid from the accumulated funds.

A month later, Sir Charles Johnston, elected Lord Mayor of London the previous September (and great-great-uncle of the writer), finally closed the Mansion House Fund and turned over to the Public Trustee the sum of £45,364. To this was added more than £36,000 raised in Canada. In all, three hundred and fifty-three widows, children and other dependents received settlements.

Although these were considerable sums for the time, and sufficient to pay modest lump-sum settlements and pensions, they were a long way from the £430,780 raised two years earlier for the Titanic Fund. But then, Empress wasn't Titanic and its sinking lacked the compelling drama and high profile of the latter. The money was also far short of the £180,000 which the actuary, Duncan Fraser, had previously indicated would be required.

With this, however inadequate it might seem to the victims' families, the Empress file could be closed. Those who had lost relatives aboard the ship had to pick up their lives as best they could. In this, they were not alone. The war which began on July 28, 1914, would take, on average, 5000 lives in every 24-hour period over four and a quarter years--almost five times as many as were lost in the St. Lawrence on that cruel night of May 29, 1914.

Contributed by Derek Grout
Montreal, Canada
COPYRIGHT © Derek R. Grout 1998