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Page last updated at 13:13 GMT, Thursday, 2 September 2010 14:13 UK
Roger's story: The sinking of the Empress of Ireland
Roger Creegan from Burnley holds his display dish from the "Empress of Ireland"
The plate has been in the family for nearly 100 years

As part of the BBC's A History of the World project, Roger Creegan from Burnley shares the story of a special family heirloom.

Roger's grandfather was a steward on the ill-fated ship, the Empress of Ireland that sank in 1914 with the loss of over 1000 lives.

Roger's family own a plate commemorating the ship.

The plate belonged to Roger's grandfather, and has been passed down through the generations.

Though the plate has been in the family for nearly 100 years, Roger admits he doesn't know where it originally came from: "I would suspect it was made in the potteries because it doesn't match the dinner services that have been recovered from the wreck," he explains.

"It's been suggested it could be a display plate made for members of the crew after or before the event - we don't know."

The Empress of Ireland was launched in 1906 and belonged to the Canadian Pacific Line. During the summer she sailed between Liverpool and Canada.

Ice flows

On her first trip of the summer on 29 May 1914, the Empress of Ireland sailed away from her berth in Quebec Harbour bound for Liverpool. Only nine hours into her voyage, at about 2am, she was hit by a Norwegian collier ship, the Storstad.

Roger explains: "She was rammed in fog, in the dark, in the St. Lawrence river. It was a complete accident, but unfortunately the ship that hit her was reinforced to go through the ice flows on the river.

(c) Library and Archives Canada / PA-116389
The Empress of Ireland was launched in 1906

"The collier went into the ship and left a 14 foot gash that took about 60,000 gallons of water a second. She sank in only 14 minutes."

Most of the passengers were already in their cabins asleep, but a lot of the crew were still about their duties. "What isn't realised is that there were more passengers lost off this ship than there were off the Titanic - more than a thousand," says Roger.

As the temperature of the water was near freezing, many died from hypothermia.

Blown to the surface

But the tragedy never made the news in the way the Titanic did. No one particularly famous was on board, it wasn't a maiden voyage, and the world was soon at war.

Roger's grandfather survived, even though he couldn't swim. "He always said that he was blown to the surface by air escaping from the sinking ship," says Roger.

"My grandmother thought she was a widow for two days until she got a telegram saying 'coming home safe'."

The wreckage of the Empress of Ireland still lies on the bottom of the St. Lawrence river, eight miles east of Rimouski, Quebec.

Roger was contacted from Canada by Philippe Beaudry who has dived the Empress wreck some 600 times.

They spoke on the phone and Roger now has an invitation to Canada to visit the Museum of the Sea at Rimouski, home to many artefacts associated with the Empress.


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