A story of emigration, tragedy and treasure

My maternal family emigrated to Canada on 11th May 1912 on the White Star Line ship RMS Laurentic. This was less than a month after the dramatic and tragic sinking of another White Star vessel, the largest ship afloat; a ship that has haunted the pages of history ever since, the RMS Titanic. The Laurentic plied the north Atlantic route from Liverpool in England to Montreal and Quebec in Canada. It would have sailed a very similar course across the northern Atlantic to the one taken by the Titanic.

I can only imagine the thoughts that would have been running through the minds of my forebears as they made their way from Felixstowe to Liverpool, and prepared to board ship in the wake of the greatest maritime disaster ever recorded. They too were going to trust their lives to another White Star Liner on a trans-Atlantic voyage; there must have been a lot of trepidation. 

My great-great grandfather firmly believed there was a better life for the family in Canada, and the Carrs relocated from Suffolk en mass. The whole extended family went in search of a new life and fresh opportunity in the new world and on the whole, they made a great success of their new lives. Today the descendents of the Suffolk Carrs are spread over the provinces of Ontario, Saskatchewan and British Columbia.

A ship of hopes and dreams

The Laurentic had a displacement of 14,892 grt and was some 550 ft in length. She was a triple screwed vessel with triple expansion engines pushing out 12,000 ihp, giving a top speed of 16 knots. She accommodated 230 first class passengers, 430 in second class and 1,000 in third. In addition, the ship was equipped to carry cargo, some of it refrigerated, in six large holds.

She was constructed in the same Harland & Wolff shipyard in Belfast as the Titanic – yard number 394. She was laid down in 1907 and launched on the 10th September 1908. The ship was completed and handed over to the White Star Line on the 15th April 1909. The Laurentic was a test bed for the propulsion system that would later be fitted to the much bigger Titanic and its sister ships, the Brittanic and Olympic.

The ship was originally commissioned by the Canadian Dominion Line and was going to be named the Alberta. However, during construction it was ceded to the White Star Line and re-christened Laurentic prior to its launch. The ship sailed on its maiden voyage to Canada on the 29th April 1909 and from then on sailed regularly between England and Canada. In our modern world of jet travel it is very easy to forget that prior to the introduction of international trans-Atlantic air travel in the 1950’s, one could only reach the new world by ocean liner on a leisurely journey that would take a week.

The RMS Laurentic on the Atlantic run

I think there was perhaps more of a sense of adventure and romance in those distant days of sea travel than in the stress filled, over-crowded tedium of modern trans-Atlantic flights. Time is not always of the essence, but sanity and civility certainly are. It is a real shame that we seem to have lost the adventure and romance of international travel in our frenetic modern world.

On 22nd January 1910, the Laurentic was damaged whilst on a westbound crossing after being caught in a very bad storm. There was some flooding, some structural damage and the telegraph was put out of action for a while, but on the whole, nothing too serious. The north Atlantic in winter can be a cruel and savage environment and in a time when ships did not have the stabilizers of modern ships, it must have been enough to make even those immune to the effects of sea sickness, rather green at the gills. I would also image that the on board church services were particularly popular during foul weather and well attended too.

The Laurentic at war

The First World War broke out on the 28th July 1914. Whilst moored in Montreal on the 13th September 1914, the Laurentic was commandeered as a troop transport for the 1,800 men of the Canadian Expeditionary Force. She set sail from Montreal on the 26th September as part of a convoy of ships carrying some 35,000 men in total. She arrived off Plymouth in England on the 14th October 1914. In 1915 the Laurentic was converted to the status of Armed Merchant Cruiser and was fitted with a number of deck guns for defence.

In 1917 the vessel was engaged to convey a cargo of £5,000,000 in gold bullion, 3,211 gold bars in all to Halifax, Nova Scotia as payment for Canadian munitions supplied to the British armed forces. It was a vast sum worth billions in today’s money. The financial lifeblood of the nation being bled out, in order to fight a European war that held no real benefit for the UK or its people.

The Laurentic sailed from Liverpool on the 21st January and first landed a contingent of naval ratings in Northern Ireland, before heading out for the Atlantic crossing on the 23rd January. It was to be a short and fateful voyage.

Off the coast of County Donegal she struck two mines that had been laid by the German submarine, U-80. The explosions occurred close to her engine room and ripped the heart out of the ship. She capsized and sank within an hour with the loss of 354 lives out of a total ships complement of 475 souls. Many of the seamen died of exposure and hypothermia, a terrible echo of the fate of so many of the passengers aboard the Titanic five years earlier. The sinking of the Laurentic was the worst loss to mines of a ship during the First World War.

A Press Association correspondent of the time wrote this contemporary dispatch about the sinking:

"The White Star Liner Laurentic, which had been taken over by the Admiralty as an auxiliary ship, left on Thursday. The weather was fine but intensely cold. Within an hour-and-a-half or thereabouts the liner struck a mine and sank in three-quarters of an hour. Of the crew of about 475, something like 125 have been saved. Many of those lost were killed by the explosion. Perfect order prevailed throughout, the crew responding to the officers’ orders with precision and loyalty."

On the 9th February 1914 the British Admiralty located the wreck of the ship in 125 feet of water and instigated a salvage operation to recover the gold bullion. The salvage began during May but had to be suspended in July with the onset of inclement weather. Strong gales and heavy seas broke up the wreck, making the gold bars difficult to recover. The operation was halted for the duration of the war after the recovery of just over £836,000 worth of gold.

After the war in 1919 recovery was once again resumed and it went on for the next five years. By 1924 only £41,292 worth of gold was left on the wreck to be recovered. It was only in 1952 that further attempts were made to recover the remaining gold but it was not all recovered. Twenty gold bars, with a current day value of around £10,000,000 are still on the wreck somewhere, waiting to be found and brought to the surface.

Gone but not forgotten

Despite the British government’s understandable determination to recover the vast fortune in gold ingots from the wreck of the Laurentic, we should always be mindful that the location was the scene of a horrendous tragedy that took the lives of hundreds of men, and remains a cold and lonely war grave for many of them. After the sinking, some of the bodies of the dead washed ashore and were laid to rest at the Fahan graveyard in Buncrana, Northern Ireland.

Since the sinking of the ship in 1917, the wreck was owned by the British Ministry of Defence. In 1969, Ray Cossum, his son Des and his brother Eric, all Deep Sea Divers, gained salvage rights in respect of the vessel. Since then they have dived regularly on the wreck and recovered many artefacts including the heavy guns used to convert the ship into an auxiliary cruiser for WW1.

The wreck site is now protected by law and all diving is only permitted under strict licensing legislation. A commercial concern, Laurentic Limited, has been incorporated in order to both protect the wreck and attempt to recover the remaining gold bars. Shares have been sold to investors in order to finance the salvage operation.


A video of a salvage dive on the Laurentic in 2007

The sinking of the Laurentic can be seen as just one horrific episode in the decline and fall of the British Empire. The passing of the Edwardian Age was the beginning of the end. The Empire had reached its zenith and was soon to fall into a spiral of war and conflict that would see the unraveling of the greatest Empire the world had ever known.

Two world wars in the space of just twenty five years during the first half of the 20th century were the undoing of centuries of advance and progress for the United Kingdom. The country was bankrupt and on its knees as a consequence of those wars. Its place on the world stage usurped by the industrial might of the USA and after WW2, the rigid command economy of the USSR.

In 1921 the Irish Republic broke away from the UK and in the aftermath of WW2, Britain’s long established colonies agitated for independence, often fermented by the proxy wars fought by the USA and USSR during the so-called ‘Cold War’. It was an on-going battle of wills that only came to an end with the demise of the Soviet Union in 1991. The United Kingdom has been a nation in decline since 1914 and in recent times it has often been an embarrassing, painful and decrepit dotage.

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