Eighty years ago the SS Athenia was outbound from Glasgow, Liverpool and Belfast to Montreal, Canada with over 1,000 passengers on board. On the day World War 2 was declared in September 1939 it was attacked and sunk, becoming the first maritime casualty of the war. 122 people lost their lives. The deliberate sinking of the SS Athenia by a German submarine changed American public opinion, which ultimately lead to the US offering Britain and France support during WW2.
Riverside has a display dedicated to the ship and tells the story of the sinking. The ship was built in Glasgow in 1923 for the Anchor-Donaldson Line, which later became the Donaldson Atlantic Line. She worked between the United Kingdom and the east coast of Canada until September 1939.
In 2019 Rosemary Cass Beggs, the last British survivor of the sinking, donated a very personal memento to Riverside. As a 3 year old Rosemary was put into a lifeboat by her parents. Her father couldn’t swim, and her mother insisted they stay together, but save their child. Rosemary has vivid memories of being barefoot in the lifeboat, before being transferred to a ship that travelled on to Canada. While on board the ship to Canada other passengers made her tiny canvas shoes to protect her feet. When she was reunited with her parents some weeks later Rosemary’s family kept one shoe and gave one to the lady who had looked after her.
The tiny treasured shoe is now on show in Riverside. Such personal objects help bring the stories we tell in our museums to life and we are very grateful to Rosemary for her kind gift.