The R.M.S. Empress of Ireland Community
Ron Watson shares with us the following story about his great-grandfather, Thomas Robinson, and Thomas’ daughter, Katie.
Thomas Robinson was born in Canada, the son of a British military officer stationed at the Citadel in Halifax. His parent returned to Scotland when Thomas was 12 years of age. As a young man, Thomas began working at the Fairfield Shipbuilding and Engineering Company in Govan, outside Glasgow, on the River Clyde.
The year was 1905 and Fairfield had just been awarded a contract from the Canadian Pacific Railway Company to build two new fast Atlantic liners, which would later be named Empress of Britain and Empress of Ireland. By this time Thomas Robinson had risen to the position of Master of the Paint Shops.
According to Katie, her father’s responsibility as Master of the Paint Shop was mixing the paint, and doling it out to the ship painters as needed. He was also required to hand cut all of the stencils, each about 4 feet high and made of heavy-duty cardboard, which were used for the letters of ship’s names. Katie related that her father retained for himself the pleasure of painting the ship’s names on the hull. It was a source of great pride to Thomas that he had painted the names of both the Empress of Britain and, later, the Empress of Ireland.
In early 1906 Fairfield was ready to launch the two incomplete ships into the Clyde. It was a tradition at the company that all those who had had a hand in building a particular vessel were given the honor of being aboard during the launch. Thomas, devoted to Katie, brought her aboard. In later life, Katie took great joy in describing the thrill of riding down the ‘skids’ (as she called them) into the Clyde. Of course, she had no inkling that she herself would be a passenger in 1910 aboard the Empress of Britain, then commanded by one of the most popular Canadian Pacific Railway Captains, Captain James Anderson Murray.
Thomas Robinson, however, was not well, largely as a result of working in the Paint Shops. He died at an early age, likely from acute lead poisoning; paints in those days were lead-based.
Katie emigrated from Scotland to Canada in February 1910 as a third class passenger aboard the Empress of Britain. To the young woman, the trip was ‘like a holiday’ though the North Atlantic winter crossing was quite cold. Unlike many passengers she never missed a meal and did not suffer any sea sickness in the crossing. Arriving at Saint John, New Brunswick, the winter port of the two sister Empresses, Katie boarded a CPR train to Manitoba.
With her, Katie brought some of the large stencils her father had used to paint the names of the two sister Empresses. When asked why, she replied that they were a souvenir and a remembrance of her father. Ron recalls that there were about 4 or 5 of these stencils, each about 4 feet high when unfolded, with the letters ‘EMP’ ‘IRE’ or perhaps ‘E’ ‘IRE’. There was not a complete set making a full word, but Ron assumes they were all Katie could manage to carry, due to the weight. Over the years, Ron grew up hearing his grandmother telling stories of her childhood with her father, and the great ships he worked on at Fairfield’s. Eventually Katie gave Rom the stencils as a gift.
Sadly, the stencils were stored in the farmhouse cellar; within a few years they were wet and moldy, and had to be disposed of.