Our story begins on the 10th September 1908 when a ship, ( yard number 394 ) was built by Harland & Wolff and launched into the River Lagan. This ship was originally ordered by the Dominion Lines Shipping Company, and was to be called the Alberta. Before she was built, this line was bought over by The Oceanic Steam Navigation Company, better known as The White Star Line and the name of the ship was changed to Laurentic.
The SS Laurentic was a magnificent ship, some 570 feet long and 14892 ton unladen weight, representing the very latest in shipping technology. She was powered with new triple expansion steam engines and her three screws could drive the ship through the water at a speed of 17 knots. This meant that the SS Laurentic could out-run all the various German submarines in service during the First World War period.
The Laurentic was put on the American Run and offered luxury, comfort and reliability to the many thousands of passangers who used the ship in the run-up to the First World War. Like all luxury Liners of the time the Laurentic hosted Masonic gatherings for their Masonic passengers, giving them the opportunity to socialise together.
One interesting story associated with the ship took place in July 1910, when Inspector Dew, (The Blue Serge) from Scotland Yard, used the faster Laurentic to get to Canada before a slower ship, the SS Montrose, that had already left Antwerp with Doctor Hewley Crippen on board.
Dr Crippen had previously murdered his wife Bella in February 1910 and after cutting up her body, he buried the remains in the cellar of his house in London. Scotland Yard received several complaints from Bella’s friends and Inspector Dew carried out a preliminary investigation including a search of Dr Crippen's house that turned up nothing. However these investigations worried Dr Crippen, who along with his secretary and new love Ethel Clara le Neve packed up their belongings and crossed to Brussels, where they hid away until such time as the SS Montrose set sail from Antwerp to Quebec. Crippen was on board, having cut off his moustache, taken off his spectacles and disguised the girlfriend as his son.
These actions were sufficient to arouse the suspicions of Capt Kendall of the Montrose, who used the new fangled Marconi radio to contact the White Star Line head office in London, and raise his suspicions. These were then forwarded by The White Star Line to the Metropolitan Police Commissioner. Although the Montrose was three days out of port at that time, Dew was dispatched on the faster SS Laurentic getting him to the St Lawrence Seaway in time to go onboard the SS Montrose disguised as a river pilot.
Inspector Dew is rowed out to meet the Montrose
Crippen was quickly located, arrested, returned to England and after a criminal trial was found guilty and hanged at Pentonville Prison on the 10th November 1910.
Crippen being escorted off the Montrose by Insp Dew
It is interesting to record that both Inspector Dew and Captain Kendall were both English Freemasons at the time.
On the outbreak of the First World War the SS Laurentic was commissioned by the Admiralty to become His Majesties Ship Laurentic and fulfil the role of transport ship bringing German Prisoners of War and raw materials from West Africa to the United Kingdom. On her return to Liverpool, at the end of 1914, she was equipped with 6 inch deck guns and recommissioned as an armed merchant cruiser AMC.
In 1915 HMS Laurentic was sent off to serve in the Indian Ocean and the Far East for a period of eighteen months. The Ship was recalled at the end of 1916 and selected to transport some 43 tons of gold bullion, from Liverpool to Halifax, Nova Scotia to pay for much needed war munitions. At 1914 values these 3211 bars of gold bullion were worth approximately £ 5 million pounds.
HMS Laurentic left Liverpool on the 23rd January 1917, and was in constant radio contact with the Admiralty, as she proceeded. Captain Norton received instructions to call at HMS Hecla – the military name for the naval base at Buncrana in Lough Swilly, where she was to discharge five ill seamen.
HMS Laurentic arrived in Lough Swilly on the 25th January 1817 and the ship’s officers took the opportunity to go ashore and have a meal in the Lough Swilly Hotel, Buncrana. However everyone was back on board before 5.00PM, when the ship finally left its berth and headed out into the North Atlantic, on a bitterly cold night, when a snowstorm was blasting the ship at gale-force 12.
As the Laurentic passed Fanad Head, approximately two miles off-shore, she struck her first mine, one of six, laid in a mine field earlier in the month by U-Boat U80, which had already returned to Germany. Then the Laurentic struck a second mine and began to settle quite quickly.
As the ship began to sink Captain Norton R.N. got the life boats out and got as many of the survivors into these as possible. However the second mine destroyed the engine-room and generators, killing most of the Engineering Officers and Engine Room Ratings. Because of this the ships pumps could not be deployed, and the crew had no power to get any radio warnings off.
HMS Laurentic was doomed, and it was not made any easier by the fact that it was still dark, and the officers had to swing the lifeboats out in pitch darkness. Perhaps the pumps would have saved the vessel, but this was no longer an option. The Laurentic’s commanding officer, Captain Reginald A. Norton together with the ship’s chief steward, Mr. Charles Porter, descended down through the vessel’s lower decks, which were already filling rapidly with water. These officers closed two of the watertight doors, leading to the lower decks and checked that no man still alive was left on the sinking ship.
After checking the lower decks, both Officers returned to the main deck and entered the last lifeboat, and finally, abandonded ship. It was shortly after this time that the Laurentic made her final plunge and sank in 125 feet of water.
The lifeboats had left the ship safely, but not the men inside them. Many of the sailors had been badly injured, and they were now exposed to extremes of low temperatures and wind-chill. by the prevailing weather conditions. It would be some time before rescue boats would come out from the coast, as the weather was so bad, and as the lifeboats were picked up the following day, many of the occupants were found dead, of exposure in the boats. In some cases the ratings had died at their oars, frozen stiff by the awful conditions.
A number of the deceased sailors were brought to the basements of The Lough Swilly Hotel, which was converted into an emergency morgue for the occasion. Of the 470 Officers and ratings on board, some 350 persons lost their lives. Of these a number of bodies were trapped on board and a larger number were washed out to sea. Corpses were washed ashore for many weeks after the sinking.
The main burials of some 71 bodies took place in St Muras C.of I graveyard in Upper Fahan. The service was unique in Ireland with participation of Church of Ireland, Presbyterian and Roman Catholic Clergy in the one service on the 31st January 1917.
The Officers were transported on gun carriages from Dunree and the ratings were transported by ambulance. On the next day a further two other bodies, one officer and one rating were buried in Cockhill Catholic Cemetery on the outskirts of Bunrana. A memorial Celtic Cross was erected at St Muras and a memorial plaque was erected at Cockhill.
You may be interested to learn where some other Memorials to the HMS Laurentic can be found. On the Somme at the Beaumont Hamel ( Newfoundland ) memorial, some eighteen names of Newfoundland Royal Navel Reserves lost on the Laurentic are listed.
One lonely grave to Seaman John Kenny is located in the Arklow town Cemetery in County Wicklow. Seaman Kenny was born on the Fair Green in Arklow. A further 35 names are found on the Chatham Naval Memorial, in the town of Chatham in Kent. Amongst the dead remembered on this memorial was wireless telegraph operator Sydney Joseph Buller and ordinary signalman John Victor Davies. There are also a number of Royal Marines who were on board at the time.
Other single memorials include that to Corporal William Worsfold in in St Peter’s church-yard in Chorley, Lancashire; Engineer Lieutenant Mitchell buried in Holywood cemetery in Co Down and Serjeant W.Hagan buried in the Liverpool city cemetery in Lancashire. The largest list of names, some 200 names is to be found on the Plymouth Navel Memorial in Devon.
One of the saddest tales from the story of the sinking of the Laurentic is the story of Lieutenant McNeill, whose remains are buried on Heisker, a five-island group (also known as the Monach Islands) that lies six miles west of North Uist in the Outer Hebrides. The islands are now an uninhabited National Nature Reserve, but during World War I there was a lighthouse on Shillay, the most westerly island. The lighthouse (built in 1864) was in use until 1942, at which time the last members of the population (which had reached over 100 in the early 19th century) left the small island group.
The following quote from the book The Scottish Islands - A Comprehensive Guide to Every Scottish Island by Hamish Haswell-Smith (Edinburgh, 1996) suggests that Lieutenant McNeill's body was washed up alone, on Ceann lar, and was possibly identified by articles in his clothing or by his identification tags:
Hebridean sailors believed, and maybe still do, that when they drown the sea will always carry their body home. A cairn on Ceann Iar marks the grave of Lieut. R.N.R. MacNeill, who drowned off Fanad Head, Donegal on the 25th January 1917, when his ship, HMS Laurentic, struck a mine. His body was washed up on Ceann Iar which is part of the clan lands of the MacNeills.
Lieutenant William A. McNeill's family home was in Orkney, the West United Free Church Manse in the parish of Holm. William and his brother, Patrick K. McNeill, are commemorated on the Holm War Memorial, which looks out over Scapa Flow.
The two brothers joined up early in the war, William into the Royal Navy and Patrick with the Territorials. Patrick was twice wounded (on the Western Front), but was a Sergeant in the Glasgow Yeomanry, training as a Royal Artillery cadet officer at Exeter, when he died (presumably of sickness) on 31st January 1917 - less than a week after William's death.
The loss of two sons in the same month of the war must have come as a great shock to the parents, the Rev. Daniel McNeill, M.D. and wife Jessie Jane Dewar. William's body was presumably recovered from the sea on the lonely Hebridean island some time after the sinking of H.M.S. Laurentic, possibly after Patrick's death.
This is only one of the many tragedies that make up the story of the HMS Laurentic, one of the many Allied ships that were sunk around the coasts of Ireland during the Great War of 1914-18.
On Saturday the 28th January 2012, an Act of Remembrance will take place at 2.00PM in the graveyard of St Mura’s Church of Ireland Church in Fanad. This will be followed at 3.00PM with a further Act of Remembrance in the graveyard of Cockhill RC Church outside Buncrana. Afterwards, there will be a cup of tea in the Laurentic Bar, located on the road out to Fort Dunree.
So why not come along and give some thought to all those brave men and boys, who gave their all, in the struggle for democratic freedom.
Click here for complete list of casualities of HMS Laurentic.
We are very grateful to all the many authors and web-sites dedicated to the preservation of the story of the Laurentic. In particular, Jack Scoltock and his excellent book 'We Own Laurentic' and Brian Budge for his dedicated research.