Remembering the Florizel

  • Downhome Magazine
  • Posted: Jan 16, 2018 1:31 PM
The Florizel wrecked off Horn Head, Cappahayden in February 1918. (Courtesy Admiralty House)

The winter wind outside the snug kitchen pries at windows with ice-dipped talons, gives a banshee wail and moves with sinister intent out Renews harbour, where white mares of waves gallop headlong into unyielding natural buttresses of stone. 

Inside, an even more unbelievable scene is unfolding. An aging fisherman watches himself tell a story nearly a century old. Paddy "Iron" McCarthy of Renews sits to a table telling in a calm, yet faraway, voice a tale of being 14 years old and helping recover victims’ bodies from the wreck of the Florizel. Somehow it still feels fresh and raw in the memory and mannerisms of the man. He is, paradoxically, both primary participant and offsite observer at the same time. 

I’m almost lost in the surreal experience until I snap back to reality - the speaker in the room is accomplished writer and actor Frank Holden portraying Paddy in a play, while the real Paddy looks on from a large photograph projected high above the stage as if to verify the telling of the tale. It was a wonderful bit of theatrical magic, which I experienced in March 2009, and it has stayed with me ever since. 

Previous to that, I’d been fortunate to interview the genuine Paddy “Iron” McCarthy for a story, “The Last Witness,” which appeared in the June 2008 issue of Downhome. Back then, even at age 104, he remembered the Florizel disaster as if it had happened yesterday. 

“I was 14 and supposed to be a man in those days, but really I was just a boy,” said Paddy. “I can still see the Florizel plain as day, just like it was, right now. She was hove upon that big rock…Men were lined up along the beach and around the landwash as far as you could see, wanting to help any way they could. There wasn’t a thing anyone could do to help them because the sea was too rough. I remember quite well one of the bodies that we put in our cart: it was a woman and she had on a brown fur coat. That kept sticking out in my mind because a fur coat was not a common sight at that time, at least not to a young fellow living in Renews. Another body I helped put on our cart was a man by the name of Snow; he was dressed in his army uniform.” 

At the time of my interview, Paddy believed himself to be the last living witness to the disaster. He passed away in 2009, one month short of his 106th birthday. 

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The Florizel wrecked off Horn Head, Cappahayden. (Dennis Flynn photo)

Despite this loss, the Florizel shipwreck remains far from forgotten. As of this writing, artifacts related to the horror and heroism, of lives lost and saved, are being gathered for the “Faces of the Florizel” exhibit, set to open at Admiralty House Communications Museum in Mount Pearl this month. To find out more I visit the museum and speak with Sarah Wade, museum manager, and Deanna Walter, assistant manager. 

Florizel is important to us because it left St. John’s February 23, 1918, on [its] way to Halifax and continuing on to New York City. Due to various circumstances it crashed into Horn Head, Cappahayden, and they sent a distress signal by wireless operator Cecil Carter - and it was actually received here at this building,” says Sarah. Of the 137 people onboard (78 passengers and 59 crew), only 44 souls survived (17 of them passengers). 

“It is really important to us to commemorate the 100th anniversary in 2018, and we have partnered with other organizations and government to have an additional temporary exhibit in the annex next door called ‘Faces of the Florizel.’ It is focusing on people who were either passengers or crew at the time of the disaster, or people who were the rescuers or helped recover those lost. Not just the rescuers from other ships, but the locals on the shore as well, since they have some really important stories,” she says.

One of those stories is that of Tom Kane (pictured below, courtesy of the Eugene Kane Photo Collection). From Renews, he was 21 years old at the time of the wreck and was one of the many men in the area who assisted with the rescue and recovery efforts.

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Two generations on, Tom’s granddaughter, Lynn Hamilton McShane, feels the importance of the 100th 
anniversary.

“In 1988, I interviewed my grandfather about his experience and it was truly incredible to hear him recall all the details so vividly, even though 70 years had passed,” she says. “He and some other men from Renews first went up to Cappahayden on the morning of February 23, 1918, with a horse and sleigh during that terrible storm, and the next day actually rowed from Renews up to the site - six miles away. Can you imagine how hard that was?” she asks. Tom and others worked to assist however they could, boarding the wreck to search for survivors and eventually transporting more than a dozen bodies to the Cappahayden railway station. 

“It was an incredible effort by so many people in the area. It’s hard to imagine exactly what they all went through,” Lynn continues. “I’m very glad that the Admiralty House Museum is featuring the rescuers of the area in their upcoming exhibit, as I think that’s a story that really needs to be heard.” Visitors will be able to hear Tom Kane on an audio recording in the exhibit.


Tragic Tales
Admiralty House assistant manager Deanna Walter has spent a lot of time researching the personal stories related to the wreck. Among them is the particularly heartwrenching tale of William “Billy” Guzzwell of St. John’s. The young boy, around 10 years of age, was travelling on the Florizel that tragic day, Deanna explains. Swept into the hull of the ship and drowned, his body was the last one recovered. When his remains washed up on shore at Cappahayden almost a year, to the day, after the wreck, Billy’s young body was identified by the socks he wore, which his grandmother had made for him.

Deanna also tells me of 15 Spanish sailors (most of them “firemen,” stokers who kept the engine fires burning) who were among the ill-fated crew of the Florizel. Eleven of their bodies were found and buried in the same plot in Mount Carmel Cemetery in St. John’s, where a memorial stone to them still stands.

In addition to “Faces of the Florizel,” a permanent exhibit includes a number of interesting items and artifacts related to the wreck: a model of the ship, plus silverware, a rifle and numerous other items that were once aboard her. There is also a to-scale replica of the Marconi Room, where 31 people took refuge during the storm for 27 hours. Aside from the tiny Marconi Room, which was afforded minor protection due to its relatively sheltered location on the ship, the rest of the vessel was slowly battered to bits, explains Sarah. 

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Above: Sarah Wade, museum manager (left), and Deanna Walter, assistant manager inside a replica of the Marconi Room, located at Admiralty House Communications Museum in Mount Pearl. (Dennis Flynn photo) Below: The Marconi Room aboard the doomed Florizel. (Courtesy Admiralty House)

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Continuing the Conversation
No doubt there are many stories yet to be told about this iconic vessel. In its short but remarkable career the Florizel became famous for transporting the “First 500” volunteers (the Blue Puttees) of the Newfoundland Regiment to Europe during the First World War; carrying the last victim (James McGrady) recovered from the Titanic to Halifax for burial; and for record-breaking service at the seal hunt. 

Admiralty House will continue to welcome all stories and artifacts related to the Florizel beyond the 100th anniversary, says Deanna. (Meantime, folks can keep up to date with the hashtag #FlorizelFriday on Twitter.)

As I leave the museum I take comfort in that, while the ship itself is long gone, the stories and the faces of the Florizel, both the souls at sea and the saviours on shore, will remain to be shared with future generations. - By Dennis Flynn