McNeilance, John Alexander

McNeilance, John Alexander (John)


SS Empress of Canada (London), Merchant Navy

Died as the result of enemy action on Sunday 14 March 1943 (aged 49)

No known grave


Commonwealth War Graves Commission

Tower Hill Memorial, London, England (Panel 47)


John Alexander McNeilance was born at 4.30 am on 26 May 1893 in Leith, Edinburgh, Scotland, and he was the youngest son of Alexander and Elizabeth (Eliza) McNeilance (nee Howatson, sometimes Howetson) who lived at 13 Henderson Street, Leith.  Alexander McNeilance worked as a marine engineer and the McNeilance family moved from Leith to Belfast where they lived in Mountcollyer Street and later at 39 Greenmount Street.

Alexander and Elizabeth McNeilance (nee Howatson) had seven children including:


Anne (Annie, born around 1885; worked as a reeler; married Alexander Houston, a rivetter, on 27 August 1905 in St Anne’s Church of Ireland Church, Belfast)

Samuel (Sam)

John Alexander (John)

Their other three children died young.

When John Alexander McNeilance left school, he worked as an apprentice shipwright and qualified as a carpenter.  John and Sam McNeilance both served during the First World War.

Sam McNeilance enlisted in the North Irish Horse on 8 October 1914 (No.1293). He embarked for France on 17 November 1915 with ‘F’ Squadron.

He was transferred to the Royal Irish Fusiliers on 20 September 1917 and served with the 9th (North Irish Horse) Battalion (No. 41493).  In June 1918 he was transferred to the Royal Engineers (No. WR/347334), where he was a Sapper in the Inland Waterways and Docks section.  Sam is commemorated on the Roll of Honour in the Crumlin Road Freemason’s Hall, Belfast as having served and survived.

On 2 March 1915 John McNeilance and Elizabeth (Lily) Robinson were married in Newington Presbyterian Church, Belfast.  Lily Robinson was a daughter of Robert Robinson, a butcher.

John and Lily McNeilance (nee Robinson) had two children:

Elizabeth Howatson (Bessie, born 29 December 1915 at 54 Mountcollyer Avenue, Belfast)

Eileen (born 26 June 1917 at 110 Nelson Street, Belfast)

The McNeilance family lived at 110 Nelson Street, Belfast and, in his maritime identity papers, it was recorded that John Alexander McNeilance was 5 feet 10½ inches tall.  He had fair hair, blue eyes, and tattoos on both forearms.

John and Lily McNeilance separated and subsequently divorced after John returned home from war service and found that Lily was pregnant with another man’s child.  Bessie was 3 years old, and Eileen was 18 months old when their parents separated.  Initially Bessie lived in Aberdeen with her Scottish grandmother, Eliza McNeilance (nee Howatson), while Eileen lived in Bangor with her aunt, Annie Houston (nee McNeilance).

After the divorce, John McNeilance remarried; his marriage to Rowena (Winnie) Crawford was registered in the second quarter of 1925 in Salford, Lancashire.  The birth of their son Roy Howatson McNeilance was registered in the third quarter of 1927 in Salford.

John, Winnie, Bessie, Eileen, and Roy McNeilance lived at 39 Burnside Avenue, Salford.  Bessie and Eileen never saw their mother Lily again; Lily also remarried and had six more children.  Later, as adults, these children rejected efforts by Bessie and Eileen to meet them.

During the Second World War John Alexander McNeilance served as a carpenter aboard the SS Empress of Canada.  Rejected on age grounds by the Royal Navy, he was accepted for service by Canadian Pacific Steamships.  The Royal Mail Ship (RMS) Empress of Canada was an ocean liner built in 1920 for Canadian Pacific Steamships by the Fairfield Shipbuilding and Engineering Company at Govan on the Clyde in Scotland.  Based in Vancouver, she sailed between the west coast of Canada and the Far East until 1939.  Following the outbreak of the Second World War the SS Empress of Canada was converted for use as a troopship, and she carried ANZAC troops from Australia and New Zealand to the war zones in Europe.

On 14 March 1943 while on route from Durban in South Africa to Takoradi in Ghana, carrying Italian Prisoners-of-War along with Polish and Greek refugees, the SS Empress of Canada was torpedoed and sunk by the Italian submarine Leonardo Da Vinci approximately 400 miles south of Cape Palmas in Liberia.  There were about 1,800 people aboard and around 400 died, many of them Italian Prisoners-of-War.

After Carpenter John Alexander McNeilance died on 14 March 1943 his sister Annie Houston and her family who lived at 2 Church Street, Bangor placed a Roll of Honour notice in the 18 March 1944 edition of the County Down Spectator, and it contained the text:

No stone to mark his resting place.

At the time of Carpenter John Alexander McNeilance’s death the family address was 124 Church Lane, Marple, Greater Manchester.  His effects amounted to some £425, and probate was granted to his widow Rowena who was then living at 39 Burnside Avenue, Salford.

Carpenter John Alexander McNeilance was 49 when he died, and he is commemorated on the Tower Hill Memorial in London.

During the Second World War Bessie’s husband served with the RAF and survived.  Eileen’s husband, Second Radio Officer Eric Scrafton served with the Merchant Navy aboard the SS Rosenborg (Port of Spain, Trinidad) and was killed on 8 June 1942 (aged 29) when this cargo ship was torpedoed and sunk.  She was on route from Reykjavik to Swansea via Belfast when she was torpedoed by the German submarine U-386 and sank with the loss of 28 lives.

John Alexander McNeilance’s son, Roy Howatson McNeilance, served with the Paratroop Regiment, and he died as the result of a heart attack (aged 39).  Roy left a widow and three children, Neil, Alasdair (Dair) who died as the result of a motorcycle accident (aged 18), and Nancy.