R.M.S. Tunisian – Montreal to Liverpool – June 27 to July 6, 1903

R.M.S. Tunisian - postcard postmarked Sarnia June 25, 2003
R.M.S. Tunisian – postcard 1903.  Courtesy Simplon Postcards, The Passenger Ship Website

Boarding in Montreal, the Fleming party settled into their quarters on the Tunisian at 7:30 pm Friday, June 26. Roy noted – “We put baggage in our rooms. Mine is Room 126 Berth 2, Uncle James 126-4. Aunt Jennie 128 – 2 – Minnie 128-4.” They were on the Upper Deck, in cabins on the outside wall. The Saloon Deck with the dining, music, and smoking saloons for second class and first class was above. The two top decks were the Bridge for First Class and the Promenade deck .

The Norway Heritage website has a full history of the Tunisian with postcards and the cabin floor plan.

With advances in steamer technology and ship design, travelling to Great Britain and the continent had become more comfortable and increasingly fashionable. They were travelling second (cabin) class in rooms that accommodated four people. Roy immediately remarked, “Rather neat appearance of rooms and dining rooms. Music Room and Smoking Room.”

Cover of brochure for Allan Line obtained from the agent in Owen Sound
Cover of brochure for Allan Line obtained from the agent in Owen Sound

The Tunisian was a new ship, built in Scotland for the Allan Line in 1900. It was 10,576 tons and had two screw propellers thus ensuring greater speed and safety in the event of one failing. First class travellers had more spacious quarters, and even cabin class had airier and roomier accommodation. The ship also had hot and cold running water  (1) . Closed berths, rather than the open dormitory style of steerage, was another of the major improvements for cabin class on the Tunisian. One thing it did not have was enough deck chairs – Roy and Jennie had to buy their own in Quebec City.

A description in a marine journal 1900 tells us –

In dimensions, the Tunisian measures: Length over all: 520 feet; Beam 59 feet; Depth: 43 feet. There will be accommodation for 200 first class passengers on the upper bridge deck, 250 second cabin, on the after part of the bridge and on the upper deck amidships, and a considerable number of steerage passengers on the upper deck aft, the latter being berthed mostly in separate rooms.

The main saloon occupies the forward end of the bridge deck, being well lighted from three sides and also from a handsome cupola. Most of the first class cabins are located in a spacious deck house on the upper bridge deck, and on this deck are also the music room and smoking room, these latter rooms occupying the ends. She will have twin screws and triple expansion engines. (2)

More technically, the specifications were –

Details: – length 500,6 feet (152,55 m.) x beam 59,2 feet (18,3 m.), hull of steel, 4 decks, forecastle 54 feet., bridge 177 feet., and poop 40 feet. She had one funnel and two masts. Twin screws, triple expansion engine, 2 x 3 cylinders delivering 871 nominal horse power giving a speed of 14 knots. There was accommodation for 240-1st, 220-2nd and 1,000-3rd class passengers. (3)

Roy kept the printed list of Second Class Passengers of which there were 113: half (62) were from Ontario; twenty-three had come from the United States – mostly Chicago ; seventeen lived in Quebec, nine in other parts of Canada, and two were tourists returning to Great Britain. Roy also provided a count – “There are 204 saloon [ie first class], 165 + children II cabin, and about 50 or 60 steerage. Crew 120.”

Menu card for Second Class - Sunday July 5th, 1903
Tunisian Menu for Second Class – Sunday July 5th, 1903

The voyage began calmly – “beautifully smooth” in the Gulf of St Lawrence, but on Monday turned cold and rough – Jennie needed to get another coat from her cabin – “although I have my raincoat and my fur on and my shawl around my legs”. As fog rolled in and the seas became worse Jennie began to feel sea sick. In her note taking she was particularly attentive to the ship’s speed of 14 knots per hour, and the distance ahead – 2692 miles Rimouski to Liverpool. On Sunday she attended at least one of the Divine services of which there were three – “morning in Saloon Dining Room, afternoon steerage department and evening second cabin. We had lovely music from four gentlemen from Chicago who were on their way to some Christian Convention”.

In fact, there was entertainment nearly every evening that the guests themselves provided: Mrs Leut sang “She is so queer”, Mr Heins was on solo violin, some gave lectures –  “Rev Soloman Cleaver of Toronto – Sherbourne St. Methodist Church – recited the story of Jean Val Jean from Les Miserables – beautiful story, beautifully told”,  wrote Roy.

On Tuesday , as they were leaving the Gulf of St Lawrence, they observed whales and icebergs. Jennie held herself together well enough to chat with Miss Read of Belleville – Senator Read’s daughter (would have been Caroline, who did not marry). This was one of those remarkable cases of small world – for Miss Read’s father was the Hon. Robert Read, brother-in-law to Janet (Fleming) Read (1824-1919), a cousin of Jennie’s whose family had settled in Hastings County.

From Thursday to Sunday, however, Jennie stayed in bed, except, on July 4th, to bravely go on deck at night to see the “grandeur” of the stormy sea.

Roy, meantime, was recording his conversations. Rev. W.J. Libberton of Chicago was an expert on Sir Walter Scott and performed a reading. Mr Francais Monad of Paris – a cabin mate, was studying universities in America; while the Englishman Mr Simons, also a cabin mate, knew a great deal about English schools. John Smith of Bell Organ and Piano Co based in Guelph, Ontario told Roy his life story and the ins and outs of the piano business. Detective Charles Slemin of Toronto was returning to Ireland with his son. Another pastor, Rev. Dr. Withrow of Toronto, was on his seventh trip to Europe as a tour leader, this time with a group of 65 travellers going to Switzerland and Italy. Roy likely picked up some pointers from Withrow, though he felt Withrow neglected some of his charges.

As the ship neared Ireland, it was announced that passengers would be able to communicate with Ireland through the Marconi Wireless Communicating Co. at 10.30 am. Wireless communication for trans-Atlantic transmission had only recently been introduced.(4) The passengers were abuzz with excitement. Roy learned that about 20 messages were sent.

“The Marconi apparatus was fixed to the foremast as figured – and connected with an inverted funnel. Sound like that of escaping steam “hiss – Hiss hiss – hiss””.

Description by Roy Fleming of the Marconi apparatus used on the ship for wireless communications.
The Marconi Apparatus – Roy F. Fleming’s Travel Journal 1903

After nine days on the Tunisian, they arrived in Liverpool on July 6th and were transported by tender to the pier after a long, cold, miserable wait on board and a wet, rough crossing of the Mersey River. Relieved, they sent a cable home: “Fleming Owen Sound safe”.


(1) Mentioned at Genealogy and Family History Interests – by Marj Kohli

(2)  GG Archives– Steamships – Allan Line https://www.gjenvick.com/VintagePostcards/Steamships-OceanLiners/AllanLine/SS-Tunisian-Postcards.html

(3) Norway Heritage – http://www.norwayheritage.com/p_ship.asp?sh=tuni2

(4) Guglielmo Marconi, Wikipedia – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Guglielmo_Marconi

Note: Web pages accessed 23 March 2018


GG Archives– Steamships – Allan Line
Gjenvick-Gjønvik Archives, The Future of Our Past, Social and Cultural History. Atlanta, Georgia, USA – holds several major digitized collections about immigration and travel by steamship to the United States 1880-1954.  Browse the page for links to Allan Line vintage postcards and articles about turbine steamships.


Historian Drew Keeling has written several articles about Mass Migration as a Travel Business for this period of roughly 1880-1914. See his books and summaries of articles at https://www.business-of-migration.com/

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