Empress of Ireland and the Salvation Army… and the 1921 Census of Canada

When I saw that the ship Edith and the kids came over on was called Empress of Ireland, I figured I’d see what I could find out about the ship itself. The Canadian Passenger Listings showed me that Empress of Ireland generally ran between Liverpool and a variety of North American ports, primarily Canadian ones. Then, I googled her. I can’t say I was particularly expecting what I found.

You can read the Wikipedia entry yourself here, but the short version is that she was a steamship of the Canadian Pacific Steamships, a division of Canadian Pacific Railway. Built and christened out of Liverpool in 1906, she went down on 29 May 1914 in the St. Lawrence River with 1,477 souls on board, of whom 1,012 died. By comparison, Titanic lost 1,503 out of 2,208 souls. The disasters were of similar scope, but Empress of Ireland wasn’t carrying the star-power of Titanic, and her loss was overshadowed by the outbreak of World War I shortly thereafter. The Royal Alberta Museum is one institution involved with historic and scientific conservation of the wreck and has an online exhibition here.

By all accounts, she was a glorious ship and well-appointed. But I doubt Edith and the kids saw much of that gloss in third class. One interesting thing about the passenger log was a note I didn’t at first understand — “S. Army” listed under passengers’ reason for coming to Canada. While “Salvation Army” occurred to me, I assumed it must have been something else, something genuinely military, perhaps.

Nope. According to Henry Gariepy’s Christianity in Action: The History of the International Salvation Army (2009), beginning in 1894 (really in earnest by about 1901), the Salvation Army undertook a massive immigration push, helping thousands of England’s poor families and individuals emigrate from “Darkest England” to other countries — including over 200,000 to Canada specifically. It wasn’t the railway who paid for William Pearce’s wife, stepson, and (some of his) children to come to Canada; it was the party listed right on the passenger log  — “S. Army”

This suggests a few things. First, it diminishes if not dashes any real prospect of William having been a specialist of value to the company. That in turn makes it more likely that his death was exactly what it seems — the end of a bender that was probably not his first. The picture of Phyllis as a woman whose father, first husband, and eldest son were all alcoholics begins to come into clearer focus. Per Gariepy, it was generally understood that the Salvation Army was doing England an immeasurable favor by removing the poor and thus the disreputable or even criminal element from England.

It also sort of raises interesting implications for Stephen Joseph McNally’s religious situation. It’s possible that the notation on his enlistment papers that he was Catholic was bogus, an assumption by the officer/clerk doing the paperwork. It’s also possible it was legit and that he hid or abandoned his papist roots to marry Phyllis, as in 1919 they’re both listed as CofE. But the Salvation Army also had a contentious relationship with the Church, which once sought to acquire it as an auxiliary and ended up creating its own “Church Army” that, per Gariepy, mimicked the Salvation Army in virtually every way. Edith’s decision to emigrate via the Salvation Army may have had infinitely less to do with religion than with convenience, and they may have been prepared to accept anyone who’d say “Yup, I love Jesus and want to live a Righteous life… in Canada.”

The Salvation Army made agreements with several steamship companies, including Canadian Pacific Steamships, owner of Empress of Ireland, for the transport of their emigrants. When the ship went down on a return voyage to Liverpool on 29 May 1914, she was actually carrying 167 members of the Salvation Army’s Canadian staff, returning to England for a conference. Only eight survived.

I told my father what I’d discovered, and it made him sad, in a way, to find out that Edith and her children had come with the help of the Salvation Army. I know that helping him learn more about his family is sort of bittersweet for him, and thus it is for me, too. I love being able to give him back his people, as it were. But I also know it pains him to hear of their plight.

But I discovered one other thing in the 1921 Census of Canada. Edith and Major/Les were there all along. Always look at the actual document, and always zoom out!

mcnally-pearce-1921-census pearce-grey-mcnally-1921-census pearce-grey-mcnally-1921-census-part-2

[Images: 1921 Census of Canada.]

I didn’t see ’til I looked at it — the census-taker identified Edith as head-of-house, then later edited it to make Stephen Joseph McNally head instead. Now the original designations, otherwise a mess (and screwed up in the record-index copy), make a LOT more sense. Always look at the document!



One thought on “Empress of Ireland and the Salvation Army… and the 1921 Census of Canada

  1. Ancestry.com. 1921 Census of Canada [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations Inc, 2013. Original data: Library and Archives Canada. Sixth Census of Canada, 1921. Ottawa, Ontario, Canada: Library and Archives Canada, 2013. Series RG31. Statistics Canada Fonds.

    Ancestry.com. Canadian Passenger Lists, 1865-1935 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations Inc, 2010. Original data: Passenger Lists, 1865–1935. Microfilm Publications T-479 to T-520, T-4689 to T-4874, T-14700 to T-14939, C-4511 to C-4542. Library and Archives Canada, n.d. RG 76-C. Department of Employment and Immigration fonds. Library and Archives Canada Ottawa, Ontario, Canada.

    Gariepy, Henry, Christianity in Action: The History of the International Salvation Army. Cambridge (U.K.): Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2009.

    Royal Alberta Museum, “Lost Ship, Recovered Voyages: The Empress of Ireland.” Edmonton, Alberta, Canada: The Government of Alberta, accessed 2 February 2017, http://www.royalalbertamuseum.ca/exhibits/online/empress/introduction.cfm.

    Royal British Columbia Museum, Marriage Registrations, British Columbia Archives, Genealogy Collection [database on-line]. Victoria, BC, Canada: Royal British Columbia Museum. Original Data: British Columbia Vital Statistics Agency. British Columbia, Canada. British Columbia Vital Statistics Agency: P.O. Box 9657, Stn Prov Govt, Victoria, BC V8W 9P3.

    Wikipedia, “RMS Empress of Ireland,” accessed 2 February 2017, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/RMS_Empress_of_Ireland.


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