FAMILY ROOTS: Hartlepool woman survives shipwreck

Susan Quigley
Susan Quigley

IT’S quite remarkable what people can uncover when they begin their family tree quest. Sometimes it is not always connected to their own family. Just ask genealogist Susan Quigley who, while researching her own past discovered how a Hartlepool woman survived a shipwreck. Chris Cordner reports.

SUSAN Quigley’s interest in her past began when she was younger than most researchers.

As a child, she was always inquisitive.

Susan, now 65, said: “I used to ask relatives who was who, what happened to Uncle Fred, but they never give you the full story and there was no way of finding out then.”

But the dawn of the internet brought exciting times for Susan.

The mother-of-three said: “You can do family history by buying certificates but you can’t get the big picture without the net. You have got to research around the event.”

But perhaps Susan’s most fascinating study came about quite by chance.

She was researching the history of Wilton Grange, the grade 2 listed building in Hartlepool and once the home of Joseph Howe, the builder of many of West Hartlepool’s outstanding buildings.

His daughter Ethel married Harold Hewitt Carter, a member of the Carter family famous for timber importing.

In 1914 the couple lived in Liverpool. Harold had travelled to Vancouver in Canada, “probably buying timber,” said Susan. At the end of May 1914, he set off for home from Quebec on the Empress of Ireland.

But the ship hadn’t even left the St Laurence Seaway when it collided with a collier and sank in 14 minutes. Harold Carter and more than 1,000 other people drowned.

Yet one quite remarkable Hartlepool woman survived. Susan, of Elm Grove in Hartlepool, explained more.

She said: “I have an interest in the Carter family because my grandmother worked for them as a cook.”

While researching the disaster, Susan came across the name of a Mrs E. Kirtley of West Hartlepool, who was also on the ship.

“She’d travelled to Toronto to visit a friend the previous December and was returning from Quebec,” said Susan.

“She was in her berth in third class when the collision happened. She ran up to the deck as the ship rolled onto its side, threw off her heavy coat and jumped into the sea.”

Mrs Kirtley was known to be a strong swimmer, but was “almost pulled under when a man clung onto her,” said Susan. “She shook him off and climbed into a lifeboat, exhausted.

“She was about 26 years old and well built.

“Many newspapers reported her survival, she seemed a fine example of West Hartlepool womanhood.”

Susan added: “Mrs Kirtley was married to Eli, and appears with him on the 1911 census, along with their son. She was a dressmaker and they lived in Mulgrave Road.

“She had travelled to Toronto in December 1913, and was returning on the Empress of Ireland. She went to Canada again in 1920 and seems to have stayed there. One of the reports says that Eli died in the Empress disaster, but I found no proof of that. On one manifest she says she is a widow.

“I can’t find her on Canadian documents, but as in the UK they mostly stop at 1911.”