Two Ships

Andrew O’Hagan

The early railroads were rough maps of Victorian fancy. Trains and human hearts, in those days at least, were similar engines, chugging along on fresh steam or dank air. The Victorians cared about going forward: they meant to conquer all the worlds beyond their own, and no matter of geology, or history, or finance, was too big for their ambition, or too small for their genius. The story of the great railways is also the story of minor lives, and how they were made, or altered, or destroyed, with the coming of the new machines. People have been travelling from one great place to another forever, in their heads, but to move over the distant world – to be carried quickly on wheels, or propelled fast over water, or carried supersonically through the air, or through space, to some faraway place – must count for a lot in what it means to be modern. The carriages that carried us, the sustaining vessels, have a central role in our recent tales. We are intimate with our modes of transport. These vehicles are now close to us by nature, by desire and by design. Transport promises a future, just as it carries the remembrance of selves and places and things passed. Ours is a world of pictures coming and going at speed. Few of us now live, or would care to live, with the guarantee of being in one place for ever. But the British live with these thoughts of expansion and speed just as their empire is shrinking to nothing.

Canada always seemed like a fair place to end up – the scramble westwards hastened by the demand for furs, and by the unholy business of the Gold Rush. The Great Canadian Pacific Railway, completed in 1885, was to bring ‘Western Civilisation’ to the simple parts of North America, and from there to the even simpler parts of the Orient. In 1887 the Earl of Harrowby reported that the railroad was ‘perhaps the greatest revolution in the condition of the British empire that had occurred in our time ... It had brought the Pacific Ocean within 14 days of the English coast.’ The company that built the railroad wanted to expand the world until it met itself on the other side, and said hello, in English. They began to invest in a fleet of ships, urgent vessels, that would bind the glittering trade routes between England and Canada. The Canadian Pacific Railway sent its first president to London: he, too, spoke of civilising Australasia and the Orient, and he found able listeners at the Post Office, at the Chamber of Commerce and at the Colonial Office. The man came back to his company and ordered ships.

SS Montrose had been built by a Middles-brough company called Sir Raylton Dixon and Co, and was launched in 1897. It was a steel vessel weighing 5431 tons; it was 444 feet in length and 52 feet wide. It was neither a big ship nor was it especially fast. It made about 12 knots. The steamer’s first owner was Elder, Dempster and Co, who ran it on behalf of a South African shipping company. The ship was intended to carry cargo, and was fitted out with giant refrigeration chambers: but these were replaced with berths, and she spent her first few years carrying troops to the Boer War. In 1900 she carried the entire Dublin – Denbigh Imperial Yeomanry, along with their many horses, to the South African coast. The ship was later brought into service on the Beaver Line, a company of ships sailing between England and the prosperous shores of North America. The Beaver Line was bought up by the Canadian Pacific Railway in 1903.

Canadian Pacific ran advertisements in British newspapers telling of the new life; it sent an agent to London to spread the word, to farmers especially, that things could be better if you upped and offed to Canada. At the turn of the century, a travelling exhibition van used to drive all over Britain, high and low, to the remotest villages and the primmest suburbs, passing on the good news about emigration to Canada. The CPR company records, and Lloyd’s List for 1903, reveal the effects of this sudden drive over the hills and byways of prewar British yearning: ‘Evidence of the great “trek” to Canada has been very patent in the streets of Liverpool during the last few weeks. Crowds of emigrants have been thronging the streets, and outside offices of the several steamship companies engaged in the Atlantic trade there have been large numbers of people waiting whilst their tickets were procured.’ A second-class cabin to Montreal, on SS Montrose, would have cost you £7.

Nobody could claim the Montrose was especially plush. It was a steerage vessel: most of the passengers were quite content to bed down in loose bunks deep in the old refrigerators. The heating was fine, and people said the food was a version of adequate. The crossing could be rough. But the Montrose gained the reputation of being a worthy and serviceable little vessel: well run, trusty and as comfortable and quick as you’d get for the money. The passengers could pace the decks without fear of assault or disease (not as new a feature of the crossing as you might expect). Not long after it was bought over by Canadian Pacific, it had a Marconi wireless fitted on board. The man in charge of SS Montrose in 1910, Captain H.G. Kendall, had been second officer on another old Beaver Line ship, SS Lake Champlain, which had been the first merchant ship in history ever to be fitted with a wireless. Now the ships were not so alone at sea.

For several years after 1910 one of the popular songs in the music halls of Great Britain went like this:

Oh Miss le Neve, oh Miss le Neve
Is it true that you are sittin’
On the lap of Dr Crippen
In your boy’s clothes,
On the Montrose
Miss le Neve?

Had she not been the victim in the case, Mrs Belle Crippen, a music-hall chanteuse herself, would have been among those to sing such a song. As it was, she had the least fortunate role in that weird tragedy of unfortunates, the Crippen case, which is perhaps the best remembered of what Orwell once called ‘the old domestic poisoning dramas’. Dr Crippen, a bespectacled, respectable man, who lived in North London, killed the lady, cut her up and buried her in the coal bunker. He then took up with his lover, a young thing called Ethel le Neve. Like many murders before and since, the one carried out by Dr Crippen came to be seen as a reflection on and of its time. All manner of local customs, fashions, ways of speaking, ways of believing, ways of wanting, seemed to come together in that horrible tale.

The Montrose was in port at Antwerp on 20 July 1910. It was due to sail to Quebec. There were reports in all the papers that a warrant had been issued for the arrest of Dr Crippen and his paramour. They had been spotted at a Brussels hotel, but were lost track of soon after. SS Montrose set off from the quay. Kendall, the ship’s captain, takes up the story:

Soon after we sailed for Quebec I happened to glance through the porthole of my cabin and behind a lifeboat I saw two men. One was squeezing the other’s hand. I walked along the boat deck and got into conversation with the elder man. I noticed that there was a mark on the bridge of his nose through wearing spectacles, that he had recently shaved off a moustache, and that he was growing a beard. The young fellow was very reserved, and I remarked about his cough.

  ‘Yes,’ said the elder man, ‘my boy has a weak chest, and I’m taking him to California for his health.’

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