February 23, 1918
The SS Florizel, set out amidst poor weather conditions on its regular route from St John’s, Newfoundland to New York City on February 23, 1918 under the command of captain William Martin. By February 24th a storm had both diminished visibility and interfered with the ship’s equipment. With the crew confused and mistaken about the ship’s position, the Florizel struck a rock called Horn Head near Cappahayden on the Southern Shore.
Ninety-three (93) crew and passengers perished, while 44 were miraculously rescued after 27 hours spent braving punishing seas and bitter cold.
One of the passengers on this ship was a three year old little girl named Betty Munn who was sailing with her father; she was torn from his arms in this disaster. In memory of her death there is a statue of Peter Pan (the fairy tale she loved most) in Bowring Park.
Fifteen members of the crew were young Spanish “firefighters” or stokers responsible for feeding the engine furnace with coal. Eleven of their bodies were recovered and buried in the same plot in Mount Carmel Cemetery, St. John’s. A memorial plaque stands over their grave.
The story remains etched in the family history of many families in Newfoundland. Craig Tucker on staff at The Rooms Provincial Archives wrote:
” My great-grandfather (Leonard Nicholl) was killed in the disaster, his body was never recovered. He was on his way to Halifax to work as a carpenter after the Halifax explosion. He left a wife and 5 sons with no support. The eldest was 10 at the time, and I guess he became the breadwinner.”
The task of preaching and bringing comfort to the families of those who had suffered the loss of loved ones fell to Archbishop Edward Patrick Roche of St. John’s who in a sermon at a memorial for the victims said:
“With the exception perhaps of the great Sealing Disaster of a few years ago [the SS Newfoundland, 1914], never has there been in our history — strewn as that history is with marine tragedies great and small — an ocean horror that has come home to us with such appalling force as the great disaster of the ‘Florizel’ which now throws its shadow over our city and our Island.”
The Marine Court of Enquiry into the Loss of the SS Florizel was established on 2 March 1918, on the recommendation of Governor Charles A. Harris. The Court was mandated to enquire into the circumstances surrounding the loss of the Florizel and the conduct of the master, crew and owners. James P. Blackwood was appointed commissioner. The report was made public on 29 May 1918.
The final verdict; Martin failed to take soundings before changing course to round Cape Race. A sounding would have indicated that he was not in the proper location.
The vessel has a storied history; she participated in the rescue of sealers during the Great 1914 Newfoundland Sealing Disaster and was also used as a transport vessel during the First World War. In October 1914 she carried the famous First 500 volunteers of the Newfoundland Regiment, the Blue Puttees, to Europe.
Recommended Archival Collection: Take some time to come to visit the Rooms Provincial Archives and explore GN 123 the seven volumes of typed transcripts, passenger lists, a list of the crew and passengers lost, manifests and customs clearance, the Florizel crew agreements and the report of the Minister of Marine and Fisheries regarding the wreck of the Florizel.
Recommended Reading: A Winter’s Tale: The Wreck of the Florizel By Cassie Brown, Flanker Press, 1997.
Recommended Activity: Visit the statue of Peter in Bowring Park or the Spanish Memorial in Mount Carmel Cemetery and remember little Betty Munn and all of those who died on the SS Florizel.