Updated: May 26, 2021
In 2019, I wrote here about some long-lost footage showing survivors of the Empress of Ireland disaster of May 29, 1914 that claimed more than 1,000 lives, including several people from West Kootenay.
I didn’t hold out much hope the film would be found more than a century later, but I’m thrilled to report that is exactly what has happened and the images depict two of the ship’s most extraordinary passengers.
Silverton’s Robert Crellin saved his neighbour’s young daughter, Florence Barbour, although her mother and sister perished. She clung to him in the frigid waters of the St. Lawrence River until they reached a lifeboat — and then he proceeded to rescue others. Florence was one of only a handful of children to survive.
A still from a newly-rediscovered 1914 film sequence showing Robert Crellin and Florence Barbour shortly after the Empress of Ireland sank.
Despite the magnitude of the tragedy, it somehow faded from public consciousness and Crellin’s actions were totally forgotten in the Slocan Valley. This probably had something to do with the fact that after the ship sank, he continued on to England and enlisted for World War I. He didn’t return to the Slocan for several more years, but spent the rest of his life there.
Images of Crellin holding Florence in front of the Chateau Frontenac after their rescue appeared in newspapers across North America and one of them, taken by the Bain News Service, survives in the Library of Congress. Film of the pair was taken at the same time. A story in the Bisbee (Arizona) Daily Review of June 20, 1914 said that in a newsreel, Pathé Weekly No. 40,
Florence and her rescuer are given a full screen view … She is a winsome, bright appearing child, though the marks of terror and grief implanted by the night of the disaster are not lacking in her face. The Empress of Ireland pictures dealt with the landing [?] of bodies at Quebec and other features of the disaster. They are very interesting.
The Internet Movie Database has a summary of this newsreel, but gave no indication it survived.
The British Pathé website contains a bit of footage of the Corsican arriving in Glasgow with 136 survivors of the Empress of Ireland (it begins at the 8:32 mark), but Robert Crellin and Florence Barbour are not among them.
The newspaper story also explained that Florence’s uncle and aunt, George Roseware and Mrs. Harry Hellen, both lived in Bisbee and “it is probable that in due time they will bring the little girl here to make her home and be reared, for she is without nearer relatives in the world.”
Instead, Florence went to live with her paternal grandmother in England, much to her dismay. She wanted Crellin — whom she referred to as her Uncle Bob — to raise her. I don’t know if they ever saw each other again, or remained in touch at all, but she finally returned to visit Silverton in 1964, 20 years after his death, and 50 years after the disaster.
In December 2020, I received a Facebook message from Quebec City art historian Sébastien Hudon and cinema specialist Louis Pelletier. Two hours earlier, they had unrolled a Pathe newsreel on which they hoped to find the long-lost Empress of Ireland sequence.
“It seems we are lucky,” Hudon says. “The lost footage of that moment is not lost anymore.” Hudon regularly scours international auction houses for Quebec-related photography and art pieces, and happened to come across the footage in an auction in England in April 2020.
He explained that they were hopeful when they purchased the reel that it would live up to its billing, but couldn’t be sure until they set up a light table. “It was quite a long wait but it was worth it,” Hudon said.
The full two minutes can be viewed below. The sequence featuring Bob Crellin and Florence Barbour is at the very end. Ten seconds that will break your heart.
The exaggerated caption reads: “Mr. Robert Crellin, who battled for hours in the ice-cold water to save little Florrie Barbour.” (It was probably more like 20 minutes.)
Hudon also made some further discoveries in Quebec newspapers that eluded me, revealing the whole story is sadder still.
• Bob Crellin and Sabena Barbour planned to marry once they reached England. Florence didn’t mention this in her memoir; she may not have been told.
• While Crellin initially intended to take Florence with him to England, ignoring offers from several Quebec families who wanted to adopt her, ultimately he relented.
Probably against his better judgement, Crellin accepted a plea from the wealthy McQuillan family, who promised “that she should be given every advantage as their own child.” Crellin, a working man of modest means, agreed. He sailed for England alone on June 10, 1914.
However, both of Florence’s grandmothers sought custody. Somehow this was resolved in favour of her father’s mother and Florence departed Quebec, bound for Cumberland 17 days after Crellin. Yet he may have been under the mis-impression that Florence was still in Quebec. She probably had no way of getting in touch with him, even if her grandmother was willing to help.
• We still don't know whether Florence and Bob ever saw each other again. They may well have, but Florence left things ambiguous in her memoir. She explains she knew what happened to him, but it's not clear whether she was aware of those details at the time, or only found out decades later.
She wrote that Crellin married a woman from Cumberland, and after the war, they “went back to Canada to live. No one will ever know how much I wanted to go back with him, to where I had so many happy memories.”
I have not been in touch with any Crellin descendants (Robert and wife Margaret had two sons and a daughter), but believe there are some in the Kamloops area, and would love to hear from them.
Updated on May 26, 2021 to report the discovery of the footage!