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GEORGE MCKEE CAIN, (1882/1917) of Glasgow & later of Liverpool

We thank David Cain, of Brisbane, Australia, for the data which follows, data which relates to Devonian when moored in 1916 at Boston, Massachusetts, & also lower on the page, to the sinking of the ship, by torpedo, on Aug. 21, 1917. The data is from the 'Cain' family records, & relates to David's grandfather, i.e. George McKee Cain, of Liverpool.

George McKee Cain was awarded the Silver Medal of the 'Liverpool Shipwreck and Humane Society'. I understand that he was also awarded the 1914-15 Star, The British War Medal 1914-1918 & the Mercantile Marine Medal.

That's George Cain at left. The image can be seen in a larger size here.

a) At Boston in late 1916.

In 1916, George McKee Cain was a lamplighter or lamp trimmer. He was awarded the Silver Medal of the 'Liverpool Shipwreck and Humane Society', & also the Society's 'Certificate of Thanks'. For his brave actions, on Nov. 2, 1916, in an attempt to rescue six men, each asphyxiated by gas fumes in the hold of Devonian. Similarly recognised were Chief Officer John J. Selby, & Robert Wood, carpenter's mate. Alas, only three of the six asphyxiated men recovered & John Selby nearly lost his life in the rescue attempt.

On Nov. 1, 1916, Devonian was fumigated with hydrocyanic acid gas, likely being used to exterminate rodents. The next morning, 21 hours later, shore carpenters entered the holds. Six of them were overcome by gas fumes. Chief Officer John J. Selby, George Cain & Robert Wood responded, as you can read in the following words from the 1916 Annual Report of the Liverpool Shipwreck and Humane Society.

The following is the official story as given by Captain Trant, of the steamer: - On November 1st, at 9 o'clock in the morning, while the vessel was lying at Boston, the ship was fumigated with hydrocyanic acid gas.  At 6 o'clock the next morning, when shore carpenters entered No. 2 lower hold, they were overcome with the gas fumes, five of them lying unconscious in the lower hold, and one was found in the orlop deck. On the alarm being given one of the first men to reach the hatches was George Cain, lamp trimmer, and he was accompanied by Robert Wood, carpenter's mate. Cain got a wet towel tied round his mouth and entered the hold, and went half way down the ladder to the lower hold when he found the fumes overcoming him. He returned to the orlop deck and recovered, so that he was able to attempt to hold up a carpenter who had struggled up the ladder in an attempt to escape from the hold. His weight was too much for Cain, and the man fell back in the hold and was killed. Cain then turned his attention to the man who was lying in the orlop deck; he tied a rope round him, when the man was pulled up on deck and recovered. In the meantime, Mr. John J. Selby, chief mate, had got to the hatchway, and sent Wood to get the anti-gas and smoke helmet from the carpenter's shop near at hand. When Wood returned with the helmet the chief mate tried to put it on, but finding it rather too small he turned it over to Wood and told him to put it on. Selby then took a handkerchief from a man standing by the hatch, and, putting it round his mouth, went into the hold, and on the way down he met Cain, who begged him not to go down as it was very dangerous, but Selby went right to the bottom and proceeded to sling one of the prostrate men with a strop and hooked him on the fall that had been lowered into the hold. He then turned to rush up the ladder again, but taking another look at the man he noticed that the man had a saw stuck in his belt, and fearing lest that it would hurt the man when the weight came on the strop, he returned to the man and removed the saw. The man was then pulled up, and Selby made for the ladder, and in his own words he describes “having a sweet taste in his mouth; things began to dance up and down before me.” He remembered taking hold of the ladder and then knew no more until revived some time later on deck. Robert Wood, carpenter's mate, then entered the hold equipped with the gas helmet, and as he reached the bottom of the hold he saw Mr. Selby fall unconscious. Wood remained in the hold and sent all the men up; there were three dead, while the chief mate and two others were sent to the hospital and recovered, and one man sent up by Cain was able to walk home. It would be interesting to know how deadly the effect of the gas was, inasmuch as after four hours had elapsed from the time of the accident the Federal health authorities, who were doing everything to clear the gas out of the hold, lowered a live mouse down in a cage, and the end of three minutes it was hauled up dead.

The Massachusetts Humane Society also recognised the bravery of Cain, Selby & Wood. Cain & Wood had joined Norwegian, another Leyland vessel, at the end of their Devonian voyage. And each found, upon reporting later to the office of the Leyland Line, a check for $50 & a silver medal. From the Massachusetts Humane Society - awarded for their conspicuous bravery in the above matter. Both were aboard Norwegian when an explosion occurred, on Mar. 13, 1917, en route from New York to Liverpool, with a cargo that included copper ingots. 4 miles SW of Seven Heads, County Cork. At 51.32N/08.55W. Six lives were lost in the disaster, out of the crew of 47, but George Cain & Robert Wood were amongst the fortunate survivors. Attempts were made by Captain W. Brown to get Norwegian to shore at Red Strand, but she grounded on Carrigduff Rock, & later, in a storm, slipped off the rock into deeper water. A dive site today, still with dangerous munitions. What exactly had happened? From the WWW record, it is hard to answer that question with 100% certainty. Apparently no submarine was seen. It would seem, however, that the ship hit a mine laid by UC-43, a minelaying submarine. But there are a few references also to the ship having been torpedoed.

Data Sources:- 1 (''), 2 (ref. to Norwegian), 3 (N.Y. Times article), 4 (Irish Shipwrecks), 5 ('', Norwegian), 6 (UC-43).

b) Torpedoed in 1917

George McKee Cain lost his life on Aug. 21, 1917. He was carpenter's mate aboard Devonian, when the vessel, defensively armed, was in a W. bound convoy to North America when torpedoed by German submarine U-53. The ship went down 20 miles N.E. of Tory Island, off the coast of Donegal, Ireland. Donegal is located at the extreme north west of Ireland.

George Cain, & the ship's carpenter also, were killed instantly by the explosion. What follows is the account of the sinking ex 'The Globe', a prominent Toronto, Ontario, Canada, newspaper.

Hun Underseas Boats Attack Convoy off Irish Coast.
Air Filled With Shells As Two Forces Got in Contact.

Toronto, Sept. 20 - The Globe this morning publishes a despatch from Albany, N.Y., giving the vivid story of a survivor of the big sunken liner Devonian, detailing a fight between eleven British and four German undersea boats off the Irish coast.
"We left Liverpool," says the survivor, early in the morning, a group of fifteen vessels, to be convoyed through the danger zone by eleven British submarines going along the surface. About 38 miles off the Irish coast four submarines of the U-boat type were seen in the distance. We immediately received orders to put on speed and make the greatest headway we could, sailing in pairs. Six of the English submarines submerged until they were half awash, while the remainder threw a cordon around the merchant ships. You could fairly hear the shells scream as they whizzed through the air and dropped through the surface of the sea in the direction in which the submarines were first seen. Suddenly two periscopes were seen to our starboard and on a line almost with the ship following us were seen. One was quite near, the other a little distance off. From one of the half-submerged submarines a white streak shot out under the surface straight toward the U-boat. There was a dull explosion and the periscope disappeared. Oil floated on the sea. She had gone down.

U-Boat Uses Torpedoes.

"Almost simultaneously a streak of white shot out from a place where the other U-boat had been seen; then another. Both travelled in our direction. The ship right behind us was hit. She got it right amidships and sank in a few minutes. A second after this the other torpedo struck our stern. Two men were immediately killed by the explosion, the ship's carpenter and his assistant."
The survivor then tells of the coming of a fleet of aeroplanes and submarine chasers and their attack on the German submarines. "It all took less time than it takes to tell it," he says. Our ship was rapidly sinking. Men were leaping overboard; others were frantically getting the lifeboats down. I decided I would I would have a better chance if I got hold of some of the wreckage that littered the sea than in one of the crowded boats. I jumped overboard and got on a large floating box. I was on this nearly five hours. The other ships did not stop to pick us up, but, according to admiralty orders, kept on going."

It is strange indeed, in all of the circumstances, for David Cain & his family, to be able to see today images of the crew of U-53. As you can right here.

David further advises that George Cain’s three sons George, William & Alexander, (but not his two daughters), subsequently lived at and were educated by The Royal Liverpool Seamen's Orphan Institution, which educated the sons of deceased mariners. His wife lived on - to the age of 86. She died in New South Wales, Australia, in 1969, 52 years after her husband lost his life in 1917.


The following menu is a distinguished looking menu indeed. As indeed was the food, it would seem! Dated May 27, 1906, it was in a package of items respecting the May 19, 1906 voyage of Devonian from Liverpool to Boston. It appears on this page, thanks, (again!), to Ray Brown.

Now I usually, on this site, resize images so the entire image can be viewed at a glance without scrolling. I have not done that in this case, so you also can appreciate the beauty of the most distinguished hand writing.


On Sep. 22, 1900, 'The Sphere' published an article about Devonian, that had then just sailed on her maiden voyage from Liverpool to Boston. The item is of particular interest to the webmaster, because it compares the vessel's length with the length of Northumberland Avenue in London, England, a street which runs from Trafalgar Square to the Embankment. The webmaster's very first job was at an office on Northumberland Avenue in a building that one would today call a 'flatiron' building.


The New Transatlantic Leyland Liner " Devonian."

The steamship Devonian, which sailed on her maiden voyage from Liverpool to Boston last Saturday, has been specially constructed for the Leyland Line to run in their Liverpool-Boston passenger and cargo service. She is the largest single-screw steamer in the world, having a displacement of upwards of 21,000 tons, with a length of about 575 ft. over all. This line is a believer in single screws, and the sister ship Winifredian " was successfully employed as a Government transport for two trips to the Cape. The vessel is built of steel to Lloyd's highest class, under special survey, and arranged on the cellular double-bottom system, having in addition two deep ballast tanks (water) placed one at each end of machinery space. The water-ballast capacity is 4,384 tons. There are ten watertight bulkheads carried up to the upper deck. The upper deck is arranged to convey 850 head of cattle, also accommodation for horses, sufficient drinking water being carried for them in the double bottom. The bridge deck includes the saloon, which has seating accommodation for over 100 passengers. The promenade deck contains the remainder of the state-rooms with music-room and library and smoking rooms. The shelter deck extends the full length of the passenger accommodation. Accommodation is provided for 135 first-class passengers.

The main engines are of the triple-expansion type, direct acting and surface condensing, with indicated horse-power of 5,500. The propeller has four blades of manganese bronze. The air pump is driven by levers from low-pressure engine ; the circulating pump is of the centrifugal type driven by two engines, one of which is quite capable of doing the work. Steam is supplied at a pressure of 200 lb. by four steel boilers which have eighteen furnaces. The funnel is double and is 103 ft. from the level of low furnaces. A refrigerating installation is fitted in tunnel for the ship's provisions. The bunkers hold about 2,000 tons of coal.

The steamer is an immense carrier, carrying upwards of 20,000 tons measurement cargo. Some appreciation of her size will be gathered from the accompanying sketch of the steamer in Northumberland Avenue in contrast with the Hotels Metropole and Victoria.

The general workmanship will be appreciated from the fact that the steamer was built by the well-known Belfast firm of Harland and Wolff, whose first ship was built about forty years ago for the Leyland Line. The steamer's immense size and power, which drives her at the rate of fourteen to fifteen knots per hour, will also be appreciated by the fact that she could steam round the world without re-coaling, besides carrying 800 horses, 1,000 troops, and some 2,000 tons of guns or stores.


I have learned that one builds a site such as this with one tiny piece of new information at a time, from wherever that data can be found. And gradually the total site becomes comprehensive. So I mention here that I bought an old issue of Whitaker's Almanac, the 1902 edition, when I saw it contained some pages devoted to shipping & to the then leading shipping companies of the world. It tells me as follows re Leyland Line:

'This old-established business was converted into a public company after the death of its founder, Mr. F. R. Leyland. Owing to the enterprise and ability of the new management, the company soon attained a solid and influential position, and now possesses a fine fleet, including some of the largest vessels afloat. The Winifredian is 10,405 tons, and Devonian 10,418 tons. The company are now building the Hanoverian, 13,000 tons, and two others each 12,000 tons, besides the Colonian and Californian, 6,600 tons each. In 1895 a new passenger service was established between Liverpool and the United States, which has increased to such an extent as to justify the building of vessels with larger passenger accommodation. In 1900 the company acquired by purchase the West India and Pacific S. S. Co., an old-established concern, consisting of 22 steamers with a gross tonnage of 111,183 tons, carrying passengers and cargo to the principal ports in the Spanish Main, the West Coasts of North and South America, and the Gulf of Mexico. Special attention has been paid to the New Orleans cotton trade, and the steamers of the company engaged in it have the largest cotton-carrying capacity of any entering the Port of New Orleans. In addition to the Liverpool and Boston, Liverpool and New York, and the West Indian and Pacific services, the company have successfully inaugurated services from London to Boston, U.S., and maintain regular sailings from London to New Orleans and to Quebec. In 1901 the ordinary shares of the company were all acquired by American capitalists, under which arrangement the company parted with its Mediterranean, Portugal, and Antwerp-Montreal trades, as well as the 21 steamers (43,865 tons) then engaged therein.
Fleet, 46 steamers ; 293,015 tons.
London Agents, Thos. Ronaldson & Co. Ltd, 120, Fenchurch Street, E.C.'

There is similar data in the 1902 Whitaker's Almanac re a total of 67 shipping companies, with the texts re some of them much more extensive than the above text re Leyland Lines. Leyland would seem to have then been 5th in size of the largest steamship owners in the world - owners each with over 100,000 tons of shipping. Leyland was listed as having 293,000 tons (46 vessels). Cunard at that time was 25th in size in the world, with 120,000 tons of shipping only (18 vessels).

At left an old 'Ogden's Cigarettes' cigarette card that shows the Leyland Line flag and funnel colours. It would be good to have that card in better quality. It relates to the next composite image .....

... where the 'title' at top right & the list at top left are from a saloon passenger list re Leyland liner Devonian re a voyage from Liverpool to Boston on May 1, 1913. Captain Trant was in command. Thanks Ray Brown!

The rest? Leyland Line related. And since Leyland line items seem to be quite scarce, I show them here for your viewing interest. We thank the now unknown e-Bay vendors for those three other items. The image at bottom left seems to have an incorrect funnel colour?


The following photo postcard image was sold on e-Bay in Jan. 2006 for GBP 11.55 or approximately U.S. $20.15. It had a copyright stamp, I read, of 'John Clarkson'. And was taken on the Mersey. That is all I did know. But I now see that the image is available here, along with two other images of the ship (-01 & -02).


The following painting, sold on e-Bay in Jul. 2006, is most attractive, indeed. 10 x 12 inches in size, initialled 'WGW' below the hull at lower left, I read. It sold for U.S. $56.05. The property of a newspaper publisher perhaps in the past, I guess, because we are advised On reverse is written 'Saxonia Can use this as the Minneapolis, or the Leyland Liner Devonian. File box a7 of D Cabinet' And stamped on reverse 'Return to the Morning Art Dept'. Those words are a bit of a puzzle because they imply that the painting is of Saxonia, which, from the detail which was also provided where the name could be read, it clearly is not. That name was clearly Devonian. A tiny mystery. But a fine image, I think. I show the full work & one of the detail images that were provided. No indication as to the date or who 'WGW' was.

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To the Special Pages Index.

The other pages related to the Devonian are here: 65, 66, 67 & 68.

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