On the bridge an order was given, the course altered, and her bow swung landward. Bounding through the furious seas, the S. S. Florizel struck Horn Head Point off Cappahayden on the southeast coast of Newfoundland. Impaled on the rocks with her back broken, the bottom torn out of her, the ship began to disintegrate while her 78 passengers and 60 crew members fought for their lives. Ninety-four died.
On her way from St. John’s to Halifax and then New York, the S. S. Florizel ran at full speed onto rocks at approximately five o’clock a. m. on February 24, 1918. Nine and a half hours earlier she had left St. John’s, a mere fifty miles from where she was wrecked. In addition to her 138 passengers and crew, Florizel was also carrying and lost 12,000 barrels, mostly of dry fish, herring, and fish oils, valued (at the time) at about $250,000. All together the ship was worth about $750,000, an enormous amount in 1918, worth something in the area of $11 million today.
Florizel had been built in 1909 by Connell & Co., Ltd., Glasgow, for the New York, Newfoundland and Halifax steamship Co., (Bowring Bros., Ltd. were the Managing Owners). She was primarily a passenger ship but was also part of the world’s first fleet of icebreakers and every spring she was also transformed into a sealing vessel. Aside from this, as explained by The Evening Herald, “her most notable work was the conveying of the first draft of the Newfoundland regiment across the Atlantic in October 1914 in company with the Canadian contingent of 30,000 men.”
Due to her construction as an icebreaker, Florizel was built to be stronger than most ships of her class. During the subsequent enquiry, her captain William Martin, who was one of the forty-four survivors, made a case for her abilities in bad conditions:
She was classed A1 and considerably above the strength of the regular steamer classed A1. Along the waterline there was a belting of 1¾ inches of steel plate. An ordinary ship would have a belting of ½ of ¾ inches…. We very rarely get the sun. I have left New York and after passing the light ship have seen nothing until we made the gates at Halifax, and the same has occurred from Halifax to St. John’s, sighting no land until we made the narrows.
The Daily News, March 6, 1918
Martin had plenty of experience on the ship Florizel. He had held his post as her captain for a little over three and a half years, and had served for two years previous to that as a mate on Florizel. This combined with the ship’s hardy construction and good reputation in poor conditions led him to set sail on February 23, 1918, despite a storm warning.
When Florizel ran aground, it was to the great surprise of everyone on board – there had been no warning of danger or trouble. At approximately four o’clock a.m., Captain Martin had altered the course to West–South–West, which he thought would leave lots of room around Cape Ballard. Tragically, the ship had been moving much slower than the Captain realized, and the change in course had been made with what the court of enquiry subsequently called a “lack of caution” – Captain Martin had failed to properly verify the location of the ship before changing course. Florizel was in fact only at about Bear Cove at this point and about an hour later was driven onto a reef, about two hundred and fifty yards from shore. An S.O.S. signal was sent out immediately, at about five a.m., which read, “S.O.S. Florizel ashore near Cape Race; fast going to pieces”; it was intercepted at Mount Pearl.
Caught on Horn Head Point, Florizel’s passengers and crew were at the mercy of the elements. Trapped on the reef, lifeboats would only be destroyed if launched so the crew and passengers were forced to find as safe a place as possible aboard the ship and wait for rescue, which they hoped would come. Many, such as Betty Munn, the three-year-old daughter of John Munn, and the granddaughter of Sir Edgar Bowring (one of the owners), were swept to sea. Also contributing to the large death toll, according to The Evening Herald, was the fact that ten minutes after the collision, electricity aboard the ship suddenly went off, meaning that many people could not find their way to safety.
Fishermen gathered on shore shortly after the collision but could not be of assistance until the weather conditions improved. Thus it was hours before rescue work could begin. A convoy of rescue ships staffed with volunteers (the regular crews of the ships and naval reservists, according to The Evening Herald) was sent from St. John’s, the first one to leave, the Gordon C., was out of the harbour by 11:30 a.m. on February 24, and arrived at the scene around dusk. When she arrived, the seas were still too rough for rescue to be attempted.
Around five o’clock a.m. on February 25, about twenty-four hours after the Florizel had wrecked, the first rescue attempt was made with dories, as the sea was still too rough for any larger ship to approach the wreck. Carefully, in groups of “twos, threes and fours,” survivors were removed from Florizel; only forty-four people in total survived. The bravery of the rescuers was widely recognized, The Evening Herald went so far as to say, “that never in the history of the country, or, for that matter, in the history of any other place, has the bravery shown there [at the wreck of the Florizel by rescuers] been excelled, and very seldom equalled [sic].” Many of the rescuers were later awarded the Royal Humane Society Medal for Bravery at Sea.
Many questions remained after the rescue was complete and an enquiry was set up for several reasons:
a) To ascertain whether or not there was any neglect on the part of the captain, officers, engine room staff, etc. to which the disaster might be attributed;
b) To ascertain whether proper measures were taken to avoid the ship striking the reef; and
c) To ascertain whether the proper steps were taken after the ship struck the reef to save the lives of those on board.
After a grueling examination of the captain, surviving crew and passengers, rescuers and any other parties involved, the court ended with no clear answer: “exactly what happened on the Florizel throughout the night of February 23, 24, will never be known.” Captain Martin was ultimately blamed for the incident and stripped of his Master’s Certificate for twenty-one months. The court found him guilty of not following the proper precautions, which they felt could have prevented the disaster. Martin was able to keep a Chief Mate’s Interim Certificate for his “good record and general care and attention to duty.”
The lack of speed was ultimately cited as the main reason for the collision, and an effort was made to determine what caused it. Ultimately the enquiry decided it was the result of “the wind and weather,” “the sea,” and “the reversal of the usual southwesterly Polar Current.” In her book about the incident, Cassie Brown puts forward a very different reason for the tragedy. She states that the real reason for the slow speed was the intentional reduction of the engine’s revolutions by the Chief Engineer, John V. Reader, without the captain’s knowledge. Brown says Reader wanted to delay their arrival in Halifax by a few hours, thereby forcing the ship to stay overnight so that he could spend the night with his family, who had survived the Halifax explosion a few months earlier but whose home had been shattered. Reader did not survive the wreck, but according to Brown, he told Third Officer Philip Jackman what he had done at around midnight, before the ship crashed. As explained by Brown (1974), Jackman did not tell the Captain due to concerns about the effect it would have on interrelations aboard the ship and because Jackman feared he might lose his job if he interfered as the Captain was not likely to appreciate a word from a junior officer. As a survivor of the wreck, Jackman thus felt a great degree of responsibility for the loss of the Florizel.
Brown, Cassie. 1976. A Winter’s Tale: The Wreck of the Florizel. Reprint, St. John’s NF: Flanker Press, 1999.
Galgay, Frank and Michael McCarthy. 1997. Shipwrecks of Newfoundland and Labrador Volume IV. St. John’s NF: Creative Publishers.
Unknown. 1918. “Eye-Witness at Cappa-Hayden Tells of the Wreck and Rescue Work.” The Daily News (St. John’s, Newfoundland). February 26, p. 3.
Unknown. 1918. “Florizel Enquiry Begins. Several Witnesses Are Examined.” The Daily News (St. John’s, Newfoundland). March 6, p.5.
Unknown. 1918. “An Ocean Horror: Liner ‘Florizel’ Ashore Near Cape Race With Heavy Death Roll.” The Daily News (St. John’s, Newfoundland). February 25, p. 2.
Unknown. 1918. “Splendid Work of Rescuers Who Braved Death to Succor Florizel Survivors; How The Disaster Occurred.” The Evening Herald. February 26, p. 2.
Unknown. 1918. “Marine Court of Inquiry; First Sitting Yesterday Afternoon; Evidence of Capt. Martin and Marconi Operator Carter Taken.” The Evening Herald. March 6, p. 5.
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