It’s October, which means it’s time for stories that are scary, spooky, and downright terrifying. And it doesn’t get much more terrifying than the tale of a tiara that narrowly escaped a watery grave. Today, brace yourself for the unbelievable story of Lady Allan’s Tiara, which was miraculously rescued from the wreck of the Lusitania.
Our story begins in Montreal in 1909. Sir Hugh Montagu Allan (pictured above, ca. 1912), a wealthy Canadian businessman, was in search of a gift for his wife, Marguerite. The Allans were prominent both in Canada and abroad, and their wide-ranging business interests (shipping, rubber, coal, paper, hotels, banking, etc.) had offered them entrance into the upper echelon of society at home and in his father’s native country, Great Britain. Queen Victoria had knighted Montagu’s father, shipping magnate Sir Hugh Allen, in 1871. In turn, King Edward VII had knighted Montagu in 1906, and the following year he also made him a Commander of the Royal Victorian Order.
The knighthood meant that Marguerite Allan was known going forward simply as “Lady Allan.” A woman who was married to such a prominent man in those days needed plenty of impressive clothes and jewelry for various society functions. One very necessary accessory was, of course, a tiara. Montagu commissioned this diamond and seed pearl meander tiara from Cartier in 1909 as a gift for his wife. A large old-mine-cut diamond is placed in the center of the pattern; it can be detached from the tiara as well.
Marguerite had plenty of opportunities to show off her new tiara. The society pages are full of references to the Allans’ presence at galas, parties, and performances, and descriptions of Marguerite’s jewels and clothes are often included in the reports. In 1911, for example, Marguerite attended the grand drawing room held in Ottawa by the royal Governor-General and his wife, the Duke and Duchess of Connaught: “Lady Allan (Montreal)—White satin, brocaded in gold, draped with lace, diamonds, orchids.” For a night at the opera the same year, also attended by the Connaughts and Princess Patricia, Marguerite dazzled in a tiara: “Sir Montagu Allan’s party included Lady Allan, wearing black and silver striped satin, with black velvet girdle and diamante trimming, diamond tiara.”
By 1914, war had broken out in Europe, and though the Allans were across the ocean in Canada, they were still drawn into the conflict. Sir Montagu was appointed Lieutenant-Colonel of the Canadian Expeditionary Force. The couple’s two older children, Martha and Hugh, also joined the war effort. Martha sailed to Europe to work as a nurse in 1915, while Hugh served first with The Black Watch (Royal Highland Regiment) of Canada and then with the Royal Naval Air Service. Sir Montagu was readying to head to Britain in the spring of 1915 as well.
Montagu and Marguerite decided not to keep the family separated across the sea during the conflict. She would bring their two younger daughters, Gwendolyn and Anna (pictured above with Marguerite in 1906), to England, setting up a home base during the war where she could work with the Red Cross. The Allans were in the beginning stages of planning to open a military hospital, likely leaning on the experience and connections that Montagu had developed as president of Montreal General Hospital.
Leaving Montagu behind in Quebec to finalize plans, Marguerite, 16-year-old Anna, and 15-year-old Gwendolyn, traveled to New York, where they boarded a ship bound for Liverpool. Many transatlantic liners had discontinued service thanks to dropping wartime demand and a need for hospital ships, but the ship that Marguerite booked for their passage, the Lusitania, had continued in commercial service. The three Allans were traveling in first class with two maids, Emily Davis and Annie Walker.
Ship travel in the waters around Britain and Ireland had become increasingly perilous when the Germans declared the surrounding waters a war zone in February 1915. The Allans, of course, would have been more than aware of this; they knew the ins and outs of maritime travel well, having owned and run the Allan Shipping Line for two generations. Even though there were warnings from the Germans that the Lusitania was a particular target, many believed the ship’s speed would allow it to make the journey unscathed. Marguerite, Anna, Gwen, Emily, and Annie were on the ship when it departed from New York on May 1, 1915, for a week-long crossing. Marguerite had brought nearly 20 trunks with her, containing enough clothes, jewelry, and personal items to sustain her during a long residence abroad. The Cartier tiara was nestled within one of the pieces of luggage.
On May 7, the ship was sailing along the southern coast of Ireland, nearing its Liverpool destination. The three Allan women and the two maids had finished lunch and were resting afterward in the ship’s lounge, when suddenly a fellow passenger spotted the wake of a torpedo near the ship. A German U-boat had fired on the Lusitania, and the torpedo smashed into the side of the ocean liner. A second explosion within the ship made it clear that the ship was sinking—and fast. It took less than 20 minutes for the ship to disappear completely beneath the water’s surface.
The Allans and their fellow passengers frantically tried to decide how to survive. They worked to find life vests in the melee. At some point, either Emily or Annie must have returned to the family’s suite, searching through the numerous trunks that Marguerite had packed and locating the Cartier tiara. One survivor noted that both of the maids returned with life vests, and that they were with the family on the deck as the boat sank. The crew wasn’t successful in lowering the lifeboats, and the deck vanished beneath their feet as the ship went down.
Marguerite, Anna, Gwen, Emily, and Annie all jumped into the water together. They tried to stay together as long as possible, with Marguerite reportedly clutching Anna’s hand. But, in the tumult of the sinking, the two Allan girls were separated from the rest of the party, likely because of the suction that resulted from the sinking of the enormous ocean liner. Marguerite was seriously injured, her collarbone broken and her thigh crushed.
Emily and Annie managed to stay with Marguerite in the chaos that ensued. One of them also managed to keep the Cartier tiara on her person during the entire ordeal. The three were pulled from the water by the men of a cargo steamer, the SS Westborough (in its wartime disguise as a Greek ship, the Katrina). The joint efforts of their fellow survivors and the ships who answered the rescue call ended up saving 764 of the ship’s 1,962 passengers. Sadly, Gwen and Anna Allan were not among the survivors. Gwen’s body was discovered shortly afterward, and Anna’s remains were never found.
Marguerite was taken to an Irish hospital to recover in the wake of the sinking. She was soon joined by Sir Montagu, but her convalescence lasted several months. By August 1915, the couple were in England. The Allans were on hand for a royal visit from Princess Alexander of Teck (Princess Alice, Countess of Athlone) to a new wing at the Queen’s Canadian Hospital on the grounds of Beachborough Park: “Among the guests was Lady Allan with Sir Montagu, the former still looking far from well.”
Lady Allan channeled her grief into action. A special cable to the Montreal Gazette in January 1916 describes some of her initial wartime relief activities in England: “Lady Montagu Allen, who is residing at Folkestone, is looking well after the wounded in the local hospitals, frequently taking parties of them for drives or to attend moving picture shows.” The Allans all remained deeply involved in war relief efforts throughout the duration of the conflict, with Sir Montagu playing a key role in establishing a pension system. Sadly, though, there was another family loss on the horizon. The Allans’ only son, Hugh, was shot down over the English Channel during his very first service flight in July 1917.
Lady Allan remained in Britain for the duration of the war, returning to Montreal in the autumn of 1919. (Before sailing home, she was one of Canada’s representatives at a Buckingham Palace garden party in June 1919, wearing “a gown of white mousseline de soie and crepe de chine.”) She returned to Canada aboard an Allan Line ship, the SS Empress of France. Sir Montagu, who had already returned to Montreal, made a special trip back to England to accompany his wife on the voyage, which must have been a difficult experience. The emotional challenge of setting foot on another ocean liner was compounded by the fact that the crossing was not an easy one; press reports described the ship sailing through “head winds and heavy gales.”
Both Lady Allan and the Cartier tiara returned home safely to Canada, and she continued to wear the jewel in portraits (like the 1920s-era photograph above) and for gala occasions for the next several decades. But while she retained the tiara, the majority of the possessions she had packed for a years-long stay abroad were lost when the ship went down. In 1922, she filed a claim with the war claims commission for the other belongings that did not survive the sinking of the Lusitania. The Regina Leader-Post reported that the claim consisted of “$30,240 for loss of personal effects in the sinking of the Lusitania, $25,000 damages for injuries sustained, and $6,633.02 for medical treatment.”
Sir Montagu and Lady Allan (pictured above in 1940) remained important philanthropists and charitable patrons for the rest of their lives. Montagu died in Montreal in 1951, and Marguerite passed away six years later. Sadly, they had outlived all four of their children. Their daughter Martha, an important patron of the arts who founded the Montreal Repertory Theatre, died in 1942.
In her will, Marguerite decided to bequeath the Cartier tiara to one of her cousins, Elspeth Paterson Dawes. The Globe & Mail reported in 2015 that the tiara passed from Dawes to her English granddaughter, Elspeth Bourne Straker. As the hundredth anniversary of the Lusitania tragedy approached, Straker decided that the time was right to sell the tiara. In an interview with the paper, Straker said, “I am sad for it to be passing from the family. I grew up with the story of how it was saved on the doomed Lusitania. But the moment is now with the 100th anniversary of the war.”
The tiara was auctioned by Sotheby’s in Geneva on November 11, 2015. Buoyed by its fascinating backstory, the tiara smashed auction estimates, selling for 802,000 Swiss francs (or around $868,000 USD). Since the sale, the tiara has made another public appearance: it was featured in a special exhibition, “Ocean Liners: Speed and Style,” at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London in 2018.