Laurentic (I) was a White Star Line ship in service between 1909 and 1917. She is notable for her sinking in 1917 while serving as an armed merchant cruiser with £5 million worth of gold aboard and lost with the ship, for her involvement with the arrest of murderer Dr Hawley Crippen and for being used as part of an experiment to help decided the type of engines to be used on White Star Line’s Olympic and Titanic.
When construction of Laurentic (shipyard number 394) began at Harland and Wolff, Belfast, she was not originally intended for the White Star Line but had been ordered by the Dominion Line and was known as Alberta. Prior to her being launched on 10th September 1908, she had been transferred from the Dominion Line to the White Star Line, both owned by the International Mercantile Marine Co.
As well as Laurentic being transferred from the Dominion Line, so was her under construction sister ship, named Megantic by White Star. The two ships were used by Harland and Wolf, and White Star to experiment to see which type of engines should be fitted into Olympic and Titanic. Megantic was fitted with quadruple expansion engines powering two propellers – while Laurentic was fitted with a newer idea of having three propellers powered by triple expansion engines for the starboard and port propellers and a turbine for the central propeller. Laurentic’s system proved to be the most economical and fastest too, and so, Olympic and Titanic were fitted with the same newer idea of engines as Laurentic.
It was reported in the New York Times newspaper in April 1909 that on 15th April Laurentic had arrived in Liverpool from Harland and Wolff, Belfast, to a "noisy welcome". The article also noted that Laurentic and Megantic were to be the largest vessels employed on their route.
As part of White Star Line’s joint service with the Dominion Line from the United Kingdom to Canada, Laurentic, under the command of Captain Hayes, departed Liverpool on 29th April 1909 for her maiden voyage to Québec and then to Montréal. She had aboard a reported 1,057 passengers.
She arrived at both Québec and Montréal for the first time on 7th May 1909, and was reported to have been the first White Star Line ship to visit those ports. Some newspaper articles took much interest in her new type of engines. She departed Montréal heading home for the first time on 15th May arriving back in Liverpool on 23rd May.
In early 1910 Dr Hawley Harvey Crippen had murdered his wife, Cora, and hidden part of her body buried in the coal cellar of their home in London. Soon after his mistress, Ethel Le Neve moved in to Hawley Crippen’s home and it was noticed she was wearing possessions belonging to his wife. He had initially claimed that his wife had gone to America to visit sick relatives and then said while there she had died. After friends of Cora had gone to the police about her concern for her, Chief Inspector Walter Dew from Scotland Yard visited Hawley Crippen, who told the inspector that in fact his wife was alive and had gone to live in America with a man, and that he lied about her death to shield himself and his wife from scandal over it. Inspector Dew searched Hawley Crippen’s house and found nothing. Hawley Crippen then seems to have panicked and he and Ethel Le Neve left home and went to Antwerp. When Walter Dew returned to Hawley Crippen’s house to make more enquiries, he found him to be gone and the house empty. The house was then searched and body parts were found buried in the coal cellar. The story became well circulated in the media of the day and Hawley Crippen was wanted for murder.
From Antwerp, Hawley Crippen and his mistress boarded the Canadian Pacific Steamship Company’s SS Montrose on 20th July 1910, sailing to Canada. He was sailing under the name John Robinson, and had shaved off his moustache and had started growing a beard; while she was disguised as his son, in boy’s clothes. The captain of the Montrose, Captain Henry George Kendall, become suspicious of them and sent a wireless message to his company about his concerns.
Upon being given the information from Montrose, Walter Dew, in Liverpool on 23rd July 1910, boarded the Laurentic, a faster ship than the Montrose. Outside of on board the Montrose, who was suspected to be aboard Montrose had not remained a secret. When Walter Dew was dropped off by Laurentic at Rimouski, Canada, via a pilot boat, he was met by great interest, including by reporters and people with cameras.
When Montrose arrived in Rimouski on 31 July, Walter Dew boarded a pilot boat and made his way to Montrose, where Hawley Crippen was arrested. At a trial beginning on 18th October 1910, he was found guilty of murdering his wife and was sentenced to death. He was executed on 23rd November 1910. His mistress, Ethel Le Neve, was cleared of any wrong doing. Laurentic had played a key role in one of the most famous British murder cases.
An article in the New York Times newspaper printed in February 1911 tells how a recent voyage of Laurentic from Liverpool to New York had been "enlivened" by a second class passenger, returning from Ireland to America, “shooting up the ship.” After drinking and having a disagreement with other passengers earlier on in the day, he, at about 11pm, appeared in an alleyway and fired an automatic revolver, with the bullet hitting the wall, and then unsuccessfully firing at several crew members. With difficulty the crew were able to overpower him and with him fighting like a "madman" managed to take the gun away from him. For a day and a half he had to be kept in a straitjacket. When in New York the passenger said he remembered nothing about the incident or anything from Friday afternoon when he had been drinking. It was reported that he was being sent to Ellis Island to have his sanity tested.
Another article printed in the New York Times, this time on 21st April 1912, said that Laurentic which was scheduled to arrive from Liverpool "will bring no tidings to encourage hopes that any bodies of victims of the Titanic may be recovered” and, in a wireless message Laurentic’s captain, Captain Mathias, “reported that he had kept a careful lookout while passing over the Grand Banks, and had seen neither bodies nor wreckage."
In very early August 1914, just before Britain declared war on Germany and what was to become the First World War having already begun, many non-Europeans were fleeing Europe – Laurentic sailed to Canada with her accommodation full.
While at Montréal, Canada on 13th September 1914, Laurentic was requisitioned by the Canadian Expeditionary Force for use as a troop transport. She sailed to Gaspé Bay where on 3rd October 1914 she set sail, under the command of Captain John Mathias, as part of huge convoy of 32 ships sailing from Canada to the United Kingdom with well over 30,000 Canadian soldiers sailing to Europe to serve the British Empire. Laurentic arrived at Plymouth, United Kingdom on 14th October 1914.
Afterwards she became an armed merchant cruiser.
With £5 million worth of gold aboard intended to pay for war supplies, under the command of Captain Norton, Laurentic left Liverpool, United Kingdom bound for Halifax, Canada on 23rd January 1917. Two days later, on 25th January, she called at naval base in Lough Swilly, Ireland and then headed out to sea at about 5pm. Around an hour later Laurentic suddenly hit a mine, striking her forward end of the port side, followed by hitting a second mine, striking the area of her engine room on the port side. With Laurentic sinking the survivors started to evacuate the ship in the lifeboats; as the power had failed, there was no light aboard the sinking ship. Laurentic sank within about an hour. The last person to leave the ship was the Captain. Those in the lifeboats were not safe – it was a terrible freezing cold winter’s night. The rescue was slow with some being rescued in the morning; others as late as the afternoon. Of the 475 people aboard Laurentic only 121 survived the tragedy resulting from an act of war.
Most of the gold aboard Laurentic was recovered by the Royal Navy between 1917 and 1924, during over 5,000 dives to the wreck. The last gold to be found at the wreck site was in the 1930’s. Despite some unsuccessful efforts since to recover more, it is believed that 22 bars of gold, worth a very considerable amount of money are still hidden somewhere at the wreck site of Laurentic today.