Design and build
The ship was commissioned from then noted River Clyde-based warship builders John Elder & Co., who incorporated a number of new and then original features into a cable ship. One of the first ships built from steel, she had a relatively deep keel design to: accommodate as much cable as possible; keep the ship stable in the Atlantic Ocean swells; and yet a design which was also very hydrodynamic to keep her fuel efficient and fast in operation. The hull design included bilge keelsto keep her stable, and she had two rudders, one fore and one aft, to maximize maneuverability.
Named after the two founders of her owners, the sailors who served aboard her pronounced the name "Macky-Bennett." Mainly based out of Halifax, Nova Scotia, where she first arrived in March 1885, she was also often used for operations on the European side of the Atlantic, based out of Plymouth, England. The Canadian author Thomas Raddall worked as wireless operator aboard Mackay-Bennett and based some short stories on his experiences aboard.
Recovery of bodies from wreck of RMS Titanic
In April 1912, whilst working on maintaining the France-to-Canada communications cable, the ship became famous as the first ship contracted by the White Star Line to carry out the difficult task of recovering the bodies left floating in the North Atlantic after the Titanic disaster. After returning to port in Halifax, Nova Scotia and clearing out her cable stores, her captain Frederick H. Larnder took on board above her normal supplies:
- Canon Kenneth Cameron Hind of All Saints Cathedral, Halifax
- John R. Snow, Jr., the chief embalmer with the firm of John Snow & Co., the province of Nova Scotia's largest undertaking firm, hired by White Star to oversea the embalming arrangements
- Sufficient embalming supplies to handle 70 bodies, including 100 coffins
- 100 long tons (100 t) of ice, in which to store the recovered bodies
Leaving Halifax at 12:28 PM on Wednesday, 17 April 1912, due to severe fog and rough seas it took the ship nearly four days to sail the 800 nautical miles (1,500 km; 920 mi) to the scene of the disaster. The ships crew were instructed by the captain to keep their logbooks complete and up to date during the voyage and subsequent recovery operation, but only two are presently known to have survived. The first consists of seven pages from the logbook of engineer Frederick A. Hamilton, now kept in the National Maritime Museum, England. Much of the detailed account of the recovery operation is today traced to the personal diary of Clifford Crease, a then 24 year old Naval artificer (craftsman-in-training), now held in the Public Archives of Nova Scotia.
Having arrived the previous night, recovery of bodies started at 06:00 on April 20. Having anchored close to but not within the recovery area, she offloaded her skiff lifeboats. Crews then rowed into the recovery area, and manually recovered the bodies into the skiffs. After recovering as many bodies as they thought safe for the return journey, the crews then rowed back to the CS Mackay-Bennett. Having recovered 51 bodies on the first day, it was noted by the captain that: there was not enough space aboard to store all of the recovered bodies; nor enough embalming supplies aboard. As the Canadian Government and associated burial and maritime laws directed that any bodies carried had to be embalmed before a ship enters a Canadian port, the captain agreed to a system where by:
- First-class passengers were embalmed, placed in coffins, and stored in the rear cable locker. These included the bodies of: John Jacob Astor IV, the richest man aboard, body #124 recovered on April 22, identified by the initials sewn on the label of his jacket; Isidor Straus, owner of Macy's Department Store; and architect Edward Austin Kent, body #258.
- Second-class passengers were embalmed, wrapped in canvas, and stored in the forward cable locker.
- Third-class passengers were buried at sea, a total of 116 passengers. In October 2013, a photograph taken by Fourth officer R. D. “Westy” Legate came up for auction, which captured the Canon ministering over a ceremony of multiple burials at sea on board the ship.
- The body of band leader Wallace Hartley, found fully dressed with his music case strapped to his body. Transferred to the Arabic, the body was returned to England, where on 18 May he was buried in Keighley Road cemetery, Colne, Lancashire.
- One body of a two-year-old male infant, a third-class passenger and the fourth body recovered, was saved by the crew and stored in the hold.
At 19:00 on 23 April, she lay briefly alongside the Allan Shipping Line's Sardinian (en route to Saint John, New Brunswick), to collect additional canvas. Just after midnight on 26 April, she rendezvoused met with the Anglo-American Telegraph Company's CS Minia to gain extra embalming supplies, before departing homeward bound for Halifax at dawn that day. After a seven day recovery operation, the ship had:
- Recovered 306 bodies, of the 328 bodies that were found from the 1,500+ who perished aboard Titanic
- 116 were buried at sea, of which only 56 were identified
- Set-sail for home with 190 bodies on board, almost twice as many as there were coffins available
The ship arrived in Halifax on 30 April 1912, and began unloading her cargo at 09:30, with the bodies transferred to the ice rink of the Mayflower Curling Club.
The fate of the unknown child
With the body of the unknown child unclaimed, the crew paid for the burial and headstone monument out their own wages, with the casket marked by a copper plaque reading "Our Babe". The entire ships crew, together with the majority of the population of Halifax, attended the bodies burial at Fairview Lawn Cemetery on 4 May 1912. After his death in 1955, Clifford Crease's body was interned only a few metres away from the grave of the unknown child, a site he had visited on every anniversary of the tragedy during his lifetime. In 2002, A poor DNA test linked the body of the unknown child to Eino Viljami Panula, a test which was later proven wrong. With improved DNA testing, on 30 July 2007 Canadian researchers at Lakehead University announced through testing of the body's mitochondrial DNA molecule that he was 19 month old Sidney Leslie Goodwin.
Retirement and scrapping
The ship was retired in May 1922, anchored in Plymouth Sound to be used as a storage hulk. During The Blitz on England, she was sunk during a Nazi Germany Luftwaffe attack, but later refloated. Her hulk was finally scrapped in 1963.