The Liverpool Nautical Research Society, Maritime Archives and Library, Merseyside Maritime Museum, Albert Dock, Liverpool, L3 4AA UK


The Liverpool Nautical Research Society Maritime Archives and Library Merseyside Maritime Museum Albert Dock Liverpool L3 4AA UK


Alsation/Empress of France of 1915 (2002)

Alsatian / Empress of France of 1914
from Forgotten Liners of Liverpool by John Shepherd
First published in the Bulletin in January 2002 


The Allan Line can be traced back to 1819. On 23rd May of that year an advertisement stated that the 169-ton brig Jean, commanded by Captain Alexander Allan, would shortly be sailing to Canada. She sailed on 5th June and was the forerunner of a large fleet.
      The first Allan Line steamer, the 1,764 ton iron screw Canadian, was launched by Wm. Denny & Brothers of Dumbarton on 13th July 1854 and sailed from Liverpool for Quebec and Montreal on 16th September.
      Early in 1910 the Allan Line issued a statement that it was proposing to build two 20 knot steamers. Various postponements took place and eventually two smaller and slower ships were laid down – the Alsatian and the Calgarian.
      Among North Atlantic liners of what might be called the ‘600-foot class’, there has arguably not been a more magnificent pair than these two with their quadruple screws driven by four sets of direct-acting steam turbines, and their cruiser sterns – the first on the North Atlantic. They were second to none in the Canadian trade for size, speed and luxury of accommodation. However their particular type of machinery was soon outmoded and considered uneconomical.
      The Alsatian and her sister were ordered in October 1911. The success of Canadian Pacific’s Empresses, which had been in service since 1906, decided the Allan Line to go one better and to produce two ships which would overshadow their rivals and set a new standard on the Canadian route. The order for the Alsatian went to William Beardmore and Company of Glasgow and her design conformed with Admiralty requirements for vessels to be used as armed merchant cruisers in time of war. The lifeboat equipment was well in excess of B.O.T. requirements and consisted of 18 lifeboats and 28 collapsible boats, with a motorboat equipped with wireless – the first time that such an item of equipment had figured in the life-saving appliances of an Atlantic liner.
      The Alsatian had bunker space for 5,700 tons of coal and consumed about 270 tons a day. Her service speed was 181/2 knots.
       Passenger accommodation was the finest yet seen on the Canadian route and equal to the best on the New York service, with magnificent public rooms and nothing spared in passenger comfort on what was only too frequently a cold boisterous voyage. The Alsatian’s original passenger capacity was for 263 first-class, 596 second-class and 976 third-class. Her crew numbered 500.
      The Alsatian was launched on 22nd March 1913. Her gross tonnage was 18,485 and she had a length of 600ft and a beam of 72.2ft. In December 1913 she ran her trials off Skelmorlie in a strong gale, but the new ship averaged 20.48 knots. She i then went off on a 600 mile run in the Irish Sea and averaged 19.5 knots.
      On 17th January 1914 the Alsatian left Liverpool on her maiden voyage to Halifax N.S. and St John, N.B. At the end of May 1914 the Alsatian brought home many of the survivors of the Empress of Ireland disaster.
      About this time the idea began to form for the fusion of the Allan Line with Canadian Pacific, which was down to just one Empress on the North Atlantic. For instance, a joint victualling department was established at Liverpool and, in due course, a joint maintenance department. Finally it was made known in 1915 that Canadian Pacific was to absorb the Allan Line and a new company, Canadian Pacific Ocean Services Limited was established on 1st October 1915 to operate the combined fleets.
      It was to be some time before the fusion was finally completed. An Allan Line circular dated 1st January 1916 made it clear that the company would continue to operate under its old name under the management of Allan Brothers & Company in Great Britain and H. & A. Allan in Canada.
      An article in the Liverpool Journal of Commerce on 17th July 1917 stated: ‘The recent fusion of Canadian Pacific Ocean Services Limited with the Allan Line was formerly completed yesterday, when the former company rook over in their entirely the management, control and general operation of the Allan Line steamers, together with the head and branch oflices of the company.’ Had it not been for the war the takeover would undoubtedly have received much more prominence than it did.
      Meanwhile, following the outbreak of war on 4th August 1914, the Alsatian was taken over by the Admiralty on 7th August and served as an armed merchant cruiser. She was armed with eight old 4.7in guns and took on 5,600 tons of bunker coal so that she could spend prolonged periods at sea and joined the 10th Cruiser Squadron. She patrolled off Lisbon and later New York, on the prowl for German liners breaking out of port.
      The work of the 10th Cruiser Squadron then moved to the windswept waters to the north of the U.K., from Iceland to the Lofoten islands. The Alsatian was first employed on patrol off the Shetlands, and while in this service she was instrumental in rescuing the crew of the wrecked Oceanic1 which went ashore on Foula Island on 8th September, 1914.

1 The Oceanic (White Star Line, 1899, 17,274 grt) had been posted to the 10th Cruiser

      Squadron on the Northern Patrol on 27th August, 1914. She was commanded by a Royal Navy Captain (W.F. Slayter), who had no experience of so large a ship, and her own master, Captain Henry Smith, was also on board. On 8th September the Oceanic stranded in flat calm and clear weather three miles south-east of Foula Island, 20 miles west of Shetland. The ship was attempting to navigate at high water to the west of the island but due to a navigational error, compounded by dual responsibility, (Captain Smith was overruled when he said she was too close in), the fast current carried the Oceanic off course and she grounded on Hoevdi Rocks in the Shaalds. The trawler Glenogil transferred some 400 men from the Oceanic to the Alsatian,v which was now standing by.
      On 11th September attempts to save the ship failed. The battleship Hannibal put a 6 inch hawser on board, but the Oceanic was impaled. Two weeks later rough seas caused the Oceanic’s bottom to be stove in. Courts Martial followed. The navigator (D. Blair) was blamed and (surprisingly) the two captains absolved. But the Admiralty thereupon changed the procedures so that these large cumbersome ships, larger than all but the largest battleships, were under the control of their regular captains and staff with the Royal Navy being responsible for the Northern Patrol actions. It was also ruled that there should not be two captains.

      The Alsatian was based at Liverpool and re-armed with 6 inch guns and sent up to the Northern Patrol as flagship of the Squadron, a position she retained for the next two years. Early in 1915 she was provided with two A.A. guns and with D/F apparatus. The Alsatian continued in northern waters until December 1917 when the 10th Cruiser Squadron was disbanded. She is reputed to have steamed 266,000 miles and to have examined 15,000 ships while with the squadron. She then went on Atlantic convoy work with her sister the Calgarian. On 1st March 1918 the Calgarian was torpedoed four times by U-19 off Rathlin Island with the loss of 49 lives. In May the Alsatian was in collision with the Ausonia in the Mersey, but without serious damage.
      At the end of the war the Alsatian and the rest of the Allan fleet came under C.P.R. Management, with herself as the principal unit of the combined fleets and the Empress of Britain second, followed by the Victorian and the Virginian. At the end of January 1919 the Alsatian returned to her builders for a thorough refit and on 4th April she was renamed the Empress of France. Her accommodation was now for 287 first-class, 504 second-class and 848 third-class passengers.
       The Empress of France left Liverpool for Canada on 25th September 1919 and quickly regained her previous reputation. In August 1920 she crossed from Liverpool to Quebec in 5 days 20 hours and 6 minutes at an average speed of 18.8 knots. It was not until September 1920 that the reconditioned Empress of Britain, now converted to burn  oil fuel, joined her old rival. In 1921 the new company was re-organised and ‘Canadian Pacific Steamships Limited’ replaced the ‘Canadian Pacific Ocean Services’ of 1916. The black tops were removed from the ships’ funnels which became plain buff.
      in May 1922 the Empress of France moved to the Hamburg-Southampton-Le Havre-Quebec service and at the end of the year went on charter to the Clark Tourist Agency of New York for a world cruise. Later in 1923 the Prince of Wales (Edward VIII) travelled in her as ‘an ordinary passenger’ so that ‘he might join in the fun’. The world cruise was repeated for the Clark Tourist Agency.
      In 1924 the Empress of France returned to her builders for a refit and conversion to bum oil fuel. She could carry 3,600 tons of fuel, sufficient for a round voyage. The stokehold crew fell from 117 to 34. The Empress returned to sen/ice on 14th June 1924 and crossed to Canada at an average speed of 19.3 knots, returning eastbound at 19.14 knots. Her best passage was at 20.49 knots.
      On 31st October 1928 the Empress of France left Southampton for Vancouver, via Suez, and spent a year on the trans-Pacific service. For this her hull was painted white, with a dark blue band and green waterline, and she retained this colour scheme until the end of her Canadian Pacific service. She was deputising for the regular vessel, the Empress of Canada of 1922, which had returned to the U.K. to be fitted with new machinery. The Empress of France lefi Hong Kong for Liverpool, again via Suez, on 17th October 1929, and on arrival was given a refit during which her accommodation was altered to 331 first-class, 384 second-class and 352 third-class.
       In 1930 the Empress of France resumed the Liverpool-Canada service but there was not much to occupy her as the new Duchesses were in service. She made her last voyage on 2nd September 1931 and following her return to Liverpool she sailed up to the Clyde where she arrived at the fitting out berth of the Fairfield Company on 28th September. The old ship lay there dejectedly for three years until 20th October 1934 when she was sold to W.H. Arnott Young for scrapping at Dalmuir. On 24th November she arrived at the breaking up berth.
      The Alsatian / Empress of France had a working life of only eighteen years and her comparatively early withdrawal seems to have been due to three causes: 1) the slump years; 2) the fact that her owners had somewhat overbuilt; and 3) by 1930 standards her direct drive turbines were obsolete and uneconomical. The Empress, however, had served Canada well and will be long remembered as one of the grandest vessels that ever sailed the St. Lawrence or the Mersey.

Sea Breezes, April 1957, p266
Merchant Fleets, Canadian Pacific : Duncan Haws
North Atlantic Seaway, Volume 1. N.R.P. Bonsor