SS Empress Queen

SS Empress Queen

 Listen to a reading of this article

SS Empress Queen

The paddle steamer Empress Queen was used as a troop transport ship during the war, the remains of the wreck are located off the east coast of the Isle of Wight. The ship was built for the Isle of Man Steam Packet Company, and was named in honour of Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee. 

The ship was built in Glasgow by Fairfield Shipbuilding and Engineering Company, it measured 360 ft (c.110m) long, with a beam of 42 ft (c.12.9m) and depth of 17ft. With a crew of 94, the ship carried up to 850 passengers. The speed the vessel was able to attain was due to two diagonal three-crank compound engines which drove the side wheel paddles, the engines were an advanced design for this period. There were 32 furnaces to power the engines, which required 16 men to keep them filled with coal. 

When the Empress Queen came into service it was one of the fastest and most powerful paddle steamers on the seas. The ship ferried passengers from Douglas Harbour on the Isle of Man across to Merseyside. The Isle of Man was a popular destination for those from Liverpool, being known as the ‘playground of Lancashire’. The ship was very popular due to its speed, and provided many years of service to the Island before being called up into war service. 

Photograph of the Empress Queen (Image from, within the collection of Manx National Heritage).

The importance of the ship to the Isle of Man and Merseyside are reflected in local museum collections, items held (but not necessarily on display) include: the ships bell and a range of historical images and documents are held by Manx National Heritage, while the builder's model (below) is held by Merseyside Maritime Museum (*See note at the bottom of this page). 

War Service and Loss

The Empress Queen was chartered by the Admiralty on the 6th February 1915, the ship was fitted out as a troop carrier within two weeks after which it travelled to Southampton to begin transporting troops to Le Havre. The ship enjoyed almost a year of highly reliable service until the 1st February 1916 when in very low visibility the ship ran aground off Bembridge on the Isle of Wight. There were 1,300 troops onboard which were being returned from France to Southampton. Although visibility was poor, the winds were light and sea was calm and it was hoped to refloat the ship. 

The Empress Queen coming alongside a dock (Image from, within the permanent collection of Manx National Heritage).

The understanding of the loss of the vessel and detail of the rescue operation is greatly helped by the publication How the Manx Fleet helped in the Great War: The Story of the Isle of Man Steam Packet boats on Service. This was written by the companies Superintendent Engineer, C.J. Blackburn, who arrived at the ship after the troops had been removed, but while the crew was still onboard with men from Portsmouth Dockyard and attempts were being made to refloat the vessel. However, the weather turned against the rescue effort with gale force winds soon experienced. The decision to abandon the ship was made and the Bembridge lifeboat assisted by local fishermen got the crew, including the ship’s cat and dog safely to shore. 

The following day the weather abated and the Engineer went back onboard. His account of what he witnessed provides fascinating information on the damage caused by the sea and the process of wrecking: “I shall never forget the scene of confusion on deck. The vessel had been swept from stern to stem by huge seas, piling up ropes, furniture, etc., on the foredeck in a confused mass. All the rooms had been gutted, and I do not think that any-one could have lived on the ship during that storm……. The spar deck aft had been beaten down by the seas, and the ship, being full of water, did not float again. Up to this time the after end of the ship had been afloat at high tide, and the saloons were quite dry, but during the gale, the after deck-house was smashed, and the saloons were flooded. All compartments, including the engine room, were now filled with water at high tide, and there seemed to be little hope of refloating the ship”. 

There were attempts to refloat this ship, but it was eventually abandoned, it broke up over time with the two funnels being familiar landmarks for shipping until the summer of 1919. Salvage of the remains was undertaken by a contractor, which stripped the vessel of any material of value, the wreck then broke up over time. 

Diving Investigation

Diving on the site as part of the Forgotten Wrecks Projects has revealed the site is scattered over a large area, with some areas of more coherent remains. Few parts of the structure survive much above 2m proud of the seabed. The water depth is between 4 and 6 metres, with abundant marine life covering the remaining structure. Salvage and the ravages of the tide mean that the metal sections viewed can be difficult to interpret in terms of their original position within the vessel, however, careful observation does reveal features to allow some interpretation of the remains. 

Diver investigation revealed part of the boiler. The holes through this substantial metal element would have held the fire tubes. The fire tubes were essential for the production of steam to power the engines. Further evidence related to the engine and boiler arrangement was discovered in the form of a drain cock. This would once have been fitted to the engine or on brackets attached to the boiler. Taken in combination with the evidence of the fire tubes, indicates the structure surveyed is from the mid-ships area. 

Left: Diver inspects area of wreckage which has a dense covering of marine growth.
Right: Part of the boiler, the holes once contained the fire tubes, the curve of the edge of the boiler can be seen to the left of the fire holes.

There are a number of objects that have been recovered from the wreck in public and private collections. Some objects were removed when the ship was stranded on the rocks, others by the salvage undertaken soon after the ship became a wreck, with further recoveries by divers. There are some objects from the site on display at the Isle of Wight Shipwreck Centre, Arreton Barns

If you would like to see the site report, please click here.

Left: Diver inspects a drain cock which would once have been fitted to either the engine or on brackets attached to the boiler.
Right: Builder's Model of the Empress Queen (Copyright Merseyside Maritime Museum, reproduced with kind permission of the Museum).

*NOTE: The Empress Queen model is not currently on public display. The Merseyside Maritime Museum has a large and varied collection; unfortunately it cannot show everything at one time. But you can find out more about the Empress Queen here.


Support the Maritime Archaeology Trust Sign up for our newsletter Become a friend - Join today