Stephen has been exploring the history, legends, and folklore of his home province of Newfoundland Labrador for the better part of 40 years.
History of the SS Florizel
The SS Florizel, named for Prince Florizel of Shakespeare's The Winter's Tale, was built by C. O'Connell & Company of Glasgow, Scotland. The vessel was commissioned in 1909 by Bowring Brothers, the operators of the New York, Newfoundland, and Halifax Steamship Company. One of the first ships in the world built specifically for the challenges of the icy North Atlantic waters off Newfoundland Labrador, the Florizel was classified as a luxury liner and was the flagship of Bowring Brothers Red Cross Steamship Line.
In addition to transporting passengers to and from St. John's, Newfoundland, Halifax, Nova Scotia, and New York, the ship was modified each spring for use in the Newfoundland Seal Hunt. The vessel was also used as a troop carrier during world War I and was the ship that transported the famous "first 500." The first 500 were the volunteers of the Newfoundland Regiment, known as the Blue Puttees, that were taken to the battle in Europe.
The Florizel's Last Voyage
At 8 pm on Saturday, February 23, 1918 the Florizel, with Captain William Martin at the helm, left St. John's bound for Halifax then on to New York. On board were 138 passengers and crew. Included in the passengers was J. S. Munn, the managing director of the Red Cross Line, and his three year old daughter Betty, Granddaughter of Sir Edgar Bowring, one of the partners in Bowring Brothers Ltd. They would never reach their destination.
The voyage, which would turn out to be the Florizel's last, had problems from the outset. On the trip North there had been a smallpox epidemic on board. This caused an issue in St. John's as some passengers cancelled and a number of crew members who were sick had to be left behind. This delayed the ships departure by two and a half hours. In addition,the weather, which had been questionable from the start, quickly became a fierce winter storm.
Within an hour the weather began to deteriorate. By midnight the winds were more than 30 miles per hour and increasing, the snow was heavy, and the ship was being tossed about on a ferocious sea.
Due to low visibility the crew could not see a lighthouse on shore from which to take a bearing, and though the Captain took hourly soundings from 10 pm to midnight they were of little use as the ocean depth along Newfoundlands Southern Shore is fairly constant. As a result the crew had no way of telling exactly how close the ship was to shore.
The seriousness of this situation was compounded by the fact that the ship was moving slower than it should have been, the reason for which the captain did not attempt to ascertain, and the currents were stronger than usual, thus the ship was being pushed closer and closer to the shore.
At around 4:30 am Captain Martin, navigating solely by dead reckoning at this point, thought he had rounded Cape Race and ordered a course change. In fact the Florizel had not yet reached the Cape, and never would.
At approximately 5:00 am, February 24, 1918, the SS Florizel ran aground at Horn Head Point, off Cappahayden, on Newfoundland's Southern Shore.
An SOS was immediately sent out by the Florizel. It was received by the Admiralty Wireless Station (now Admiralty House Museum) in Mount Pearl.
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The Wreck and the Rescue
The condition of the ship, which had been severely damaged by the impact with the rocky point, began to deteriorate quickly from the constant bombardment of wind and waves, and the lifeboats could not be launched due to the severity of the storm.
Those passengers not killed in the collision began to seek shelter in the front of the vessel, where the least damage had occurred, and where it was riding highest in the water. Unfortunately many were swept out to sea and lost in their attempt to reach the relative safety of the Bow.
Local fisherman gathered on the shore but could not get their boats in the water to get to the Florizel. Four rescue ships, the SS Gordon C, the SS Home, the SS Hawke, and the SS Terra Nova, headed to the site of the wreck but were forced to hold back and wait for the storm to abate. It wasn't until late evening of the 24th that the storm subsided enough to allow a rescue attempt to begin.
Twenty-seven hours after the accident occurred the last of the survivors was rescued. Of the 138 passengers and crew aboard the SS Florizel only 44 survived. Among those who perished in the disaster were John Shannon Munn and his little daughter Betty, the youngest victim, at just 3 1/2 years old.
The inquiry that followed concluded that, even though the storm was responsible for the accident, Captain Martin (who survived the disaster) was partially to blame. It was felt that, had he continued to take soundings he would have realized how close he was to shore and could have kept the vessel off the rocks.
It wasn't until some time later that it was discovered that the chief engineer, R.V. Reader (who did not survive), had deliberately slowed the ship without the captain's knowledge in an attempt to delay the vessel enough to force it to overnight in Halifax so that he could spend the night with his family. This slowing caused the captain's estimation of where his ship was to be off substantially, it also gave the increased currents the opportunity to push the Florizel closer to shore than it would have been. Captain Martin was subsequently absolved of blame.
In memory of his granddaughter, Betty Munn, Sir Edgar Bowring commissioned a statue of Peter Pan to be placed in Bowring Park, the park he had given as a gift to the people of St. John's, Newfoundland Labrador.
Brown C. (1999) - A Winter's Tale: The Wreck of the Florizel - St. John's, NL - Flanker Press
Calgay F. , McCarthy M. (1997) - Shipwrecks of Newfoundland and Labrador - St. John's, NL - Creative Publishers
The Florizel Disaster - newfoundlandshipwrecks.com/Florizel/Documents/the_florizel_disaster.htm
Whiffen G (2018) - Untold Stories of SS Florizel Disaster on 100th Anniversary of NL Sea Tragedy - thetelegram.com/news/local/untold-stories-of-ss-florizel-disaster-on-the-100th-anniversary-of-nl-sea-tragedy-188309/
Andrieux J. P. (1986) - Marine Disasters of Newfoundland and Labrador - O.T.C. Press
Barnes S (2017) - How Peter Pan Came to be in Bowring Park - wanderwisdom.com/travel-destinations/In-Memory-of-a-Little-Girl-How-Peter-Pan-Came-to-be-in-Bowring-Park
© 2020 Stephen Barnes
Stephen Barnes (author) from St. John's, Newfoundland and Labrador on February 25, 2020:
You're welcome Hal. I am sure the accident must have weighed heavy on your grandfather. Hopefully being absolved of blame in the incident gave him some comfort. I feel certain from all I have read that he was a fine man and a good captain.
Hal Martin on February 24, 2020:
Thank you Stephen...My Grandfather was Capt. Martin & although I never met him, I am told he never forgave himself.
Stephen Barnes (author) from St. John's, Newfoundland and Labrador on February 23, 2020:
Thank you Liz, I am glad you enjoyed the article. It is a sad story, one of the worst sea disasters in Newfoundland history.
Liz Westwood from UK on February 21, 2020:
What a sad and seemingly avoidable tragedy. You have written a good account of the SS Florizel's last voyage.