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The Florizel Story

Despite worsening winter weather on the night of February 23, 1918, the Steamship Florizel of the prestigious Bowring Red Cross Line, left the wharf at St. John's Harbour at 7:30 pm on what was destined to be her last voyage. At 3081 gross tonnes and with a length of 305 feet, she was splendidly furnished in oak and mahogany and richly carpeted. Although she had crossed the Atlantic several times with as many as 500 Newfoundland troops bound for the conflict in Europe, she was mainly confined - because of the war - to journeys to Halifax and New York. The War was now four years old and the secret H.M. Wireless station in Mount Pearl, built by the Marconi Company for the British Navy, was kept busy intercepting German Naval communications and transmitting and receiving radio signals. After the sinking of the Titanic, 400 miles off the coast of Newfoundland only six years earlier, ships' safety and iceberg tracking were also a part of the duties of the station. Wireless communication was finding a greater role for distress calls.

In the early hours of Sunday, February 24, 1918, only hours after the S.S. Florizel left St. John's, the urgent sound of morse code was plucked out of the air by the long receiving wire antennas perched high up on the 305 foot towers above the Marconi station in Mount Pearl and heard by the wireless operator. "Dit dit dit dah dah dah dit dit dit: S.O.S.". The message came in with no pause for confirmation: "S.O.S., S.O.S., S.O.S. Florizel ashore near Cape Race. Fast going to pieces.". The short message was repeated over and over until, after only three minutes, it unexpectedly broke off. Commander Anthony MacDermott, the station C.O. and acting Captain of the H.M.S. Briton, moored in St. John's, was awoken. The time was a little before 5 am on Sunday morning. Immediately the Commander, unsure if the sinking was due to enemy action (as it was in 1916 with the Stephano), telephoned the Minister of Shipping, The Honourable John C. Crosbie, who had one of the few hundred telephones in St. John's at the time, to tell him of the news. The S.S. Florizel was ashore on the rocks at Horn Head, Cappahayden having made less speed from St. John's than Captain Martin (of the Florizel) had estimated. The ship had changed course to round Cape Race too soon. What looked like ice ahead turned out to be the breakers on the shore, and the Florizel ran aground at over nine knots.

It was going to be problematic to raise a rescue effort early on a Sunday morning during a winter storm. Try as they might, the Florizel was not responding to the efforts of the station's wireless operators. Nothing more had been received from the stricken vessel. Their fate was now in their own hands. They had to survive until the rescuers could arrive which turned out to be a long and cruel 27 hour wait, only 200 yards from shore.

Of the 137 souls on board, only 17 passengers and 27 crewmembers survived. Most of those who did survive, owed their life to the Marconi House, a steel structure on the top deck (boat deck) just ahead of the ships funnel. The structure, partly sheltered from the huge seas breaking over the decks by the ship's funnel was small - just big enough for the two wireless operators of the Marconi Company and the equipment - however, over 30 people squeezed inside for shelter. The Marconi House was still standing when all the other structures had given way and buckled under the weight of the seas. Most of those not so fortunate to reach the shelter were washed away.

The ship that once carried the body of a victim of the Titanic disaster from Halifax to St. John's, was now the focus of another world news story, and an enquiry followed. Had the Titanic disaster not have highlighted the possibilities for wireless distress communications, and the building of a network of H.M. Wireless stations worldwide not been undertaken, perhaps the distress call of the Florizel would have gone unanswered and a greater loss of life would have occurred.

Admiralty House Museum and Archives, Mount Pearl, is situated in the restored buildings of the H.M. Wireless Station Mount Pearl, originally constructed in 1914. On display are artifacts from the Florizel on loan from the Provincial Museum of Newfoundland and Labrador. Also on display are information and artifacts from the H.M.S. Calypso (later renamed H.M.S. Briton) from where the Navy supplied men for the station. The 1915 Commanding Officer's sitting room has also been recreated. Radio signals are still received and transmitted from the building on 92.3 FM tourism radio, and the S.O.N.R.A. Radio Amateur station using the original station call sign V01 BZM.

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