The forgotten victims: How the Titanic tragedy handed a devastating legacy to the people of Southampton

Of the 700 crew who perished on the Titanic, 550 came from Southampton. Their stories have rarely been told – until now.

In the 100 years since the Titanic sank, one group of people on board have been reduced to the role of mere ballast. Nameless in almost all accounts of the sinking, they were nevertheless the most numerous, and suffered losses which made even third-class passengers seem privileged. They were the crew: the poor bloody, loyal crew. As the ship slowly went down by the head, the engineers and firemen stayed below, keeping its electrics working until the final moments. Stewards ushered passengers to the boat decks, helped with life jackets, or gave them their own to wear. No member of the crew rode away in a lifeboat, save those ordered into one by an officer. They knew they were the lowest priority on a doomed liner, and some, such as the restaurant staff, even accepted being locked into their quarters. They did their duty, which – on a ship carrying 2,223 people and lifeboats only for half that number – was, basically, to die. Of the 899 crew who sailed on the ship, 686 perished – a death rate of 76 per cent, worse than any class of passenger, even steerage.

These, truly, are the forgotten victims of the Titanic – hundreds of husbands, brothers, fathers, sons, and sweethearts reduced by history, as they are by any film of the sinking, to mere anonymous extras: the little people, just so many figures making up the crowd in that night's panorama of desperation. Even more ignored by any film or popular account of the disaster are the families left behind. Few towns can have experienced the shock and drawn-out wait for firm news endured by the women and children in hundreds of Southampton homes, or the wholesale bereavement they suffered when they got it. Of the 724 crew who came from Southampton, no fewer than 549 died that April night.

Even for someone like myself, who has lapped up every Titanic book and documentary for 20 years or more, this statistic comes as a shock, so comprehensively have the Southampton crew been written out of the script. I thought they deserved, on the centenary, some effort to remedy this. And so, using the superb Encyclopaedia Titanica website, records of the Titanic Relief Fund, and the city's heritage collection, I set about collecting stories of Southampton's lost crew and their families.

A lot of people relied on the port and its ships for employment in 1912, just as they do now. Southampton's population had grown rapidly to 62,000 by 1901 and, with major shipping companies transferring there, as White Star did in 1907, another 33,000 were added by 1911. Here was work, albeit of an insecure, voyage-by-voyage kind, not only for local men, but also increasing numbers of incomers from London, Liverpool, Glasgow and elsewhere. The grimy workers in engine rooms gravitated towards the close-built terraced streets of Northam and Chapel (the kind of hard-drinking neighbourhood on whose Albert Road six pubs could be found side by side). The stewards, engineers, electricians and officers, meanwhile, settled in areas rippling out from the town's centre in strata of ever-increasing gentility. Such social divisions continued at sea. At the top, on the bridge, were the captain and senior officers. Then came the crew's middle class: junior officers and the like, followed by the lower-middle class of stewards, waiters and clerks, and then, at the bottom, toiling in the bowels of the vessel, were its working class: the "black gang" of firemen, stokers and greasers without whose sweated labour the ship would not have moved at all.

It was on 10 April that this crew of around 900, serving about 1,300 passengers, left Southampton. On Sunday 14 April, just before midnight, it struck an iceberg 400 miles off Newfoundland and sank within two hours 40 minutes. The actions of the nine senior officers (four of whom survived) are well known, but of the Southampton men – the bell boys, lift boys, boot boys, bakers, soup cooks, wine butlers, stewards, stokers, clerks, and greasers – there are only glimpses. Here is Eustace Blann, a fireman/stoker aged 21, rushing into his dormitory quarters holding a piece of ice and saying: "Look what I found on deck!". He died. There is Thomas McCawley, the 36-year-old Scot in charge of the gym, who remained at his post until the last, then declined the offer of a life jacket on the grounds it would slow him down as he swam. He died. So did John Jago and all the other postal clerks who, as the ship went slowly down by the head, manhandled 200 sacks of mail, each weighing as much as a small woman, to higher and higher decks in a vain attempt to keep them dry. They all died.

And then there is William Mintram: fireman/stoker aged 46, resident of the tough Chapel Road, father of five, grandfather, and convicted killer. On 18 October 1902, he had come home from the pub at around 10.30pm, slapped his wife Eliza round the face, argued with her, grabbed a knife, and fatally stabbed her in the back. At his trial for murder, Mintram said his wife nagged at him when he complained about her pawning the boy's boots to buy drink. He said she rushed at him, but he could remember nothing more. The court – perhaps more concerned with not making orphans of the five Mintram children than an example of William – convicted him of manslaughter, and sentenced him to 12 years, of which he served only three. Such a blot on his CV was no bar to working on the black gang of the Titanic, and Mintram signed on, along with Walter Hurst, the husband of his daughter Rosina. As the ship neared its end, the two met, and Mintram, seeing his son-in-law had no life jacket, gave him his. Hurst was saved and the convicted killer perished.

More glimpses: maître d' Paul Mauge – the only one of the 69 restaurant staff to survive – jumped into lifeboat number five, landed on a woman occupant, and broke both her legs. They both lived, unlike stewards William Cox, Albert Pearcey and George Dodd, who ushered groups of steerage passengers up to the boat decks and a chance of salvation while the lifeboats they had been allocated left without them.

When the last of the lifeboats had gone, there were still around 1,500 people on board, half of them crew. Among those Lowry-like figures we see crowded by the rails in the film are storekeepers Michael Kieran, Frank Prentice and Cyril Ricks. As the Titanic's bow took its final plunge, and the stern rose, they jumped. Ricks was killed by falling debris, Kieran was never found, and only Prentice was saved. Greaser John Bannon, 32 and married, jumped, and found a wooden grating to use as a small raft. He was last seen paddling it towards a distant light, almost certainly a low star.

Very few of those who plunged into the sea survived. The temperature of the water was barely above freezing, and even a healthy, fit young man couldn't last much more than 15 to 20 minutes before hypothermia, and a merciful unconsciousness, kicked in. A small number, such as 29-year-old married bedroom steward Sidney Siebert, were hauled into a lifeboat, but he was too far gone and died before daylight. Not that there were many so picked up. Only lifeboat number 14, navigated by fifth officer Harold Lowe, risked capsize by returning to rescue those in the water. The rest ignored the cries – one man was heard to cry "Mother! Mother!" until his strength had expired – and rowed away.

By contrast, there was the Boy's Own Paper cheerfulness of purser Hugh McElroy who, at the last moments of the ship, was seen near the gym with a few other crew. He shook them by the hand, and said: "Well, goodbye, fellows. It looks like sand for breakfast tomorrow."

Back in Southampton, what had happened to the Titanic came first as rumour. And, in a town where more than 600 homes had men and women aboard, word passed from k person to person, from street to street, like a city-wide game of Chinese whispers. One of the first confirmations of sorts appeared in the window of the Southampton Times where a notice said the Titanic was "probably sinking". Soon that Monday morning, crowds anxious for news had gathered outside the offices of the White Star Line in Canute Road, and the Seafarers' Union in Terminus Terrace. There was talk that the Titanic had been holed, but was still afloat and being towed to the port of Halifax, Nova Scotia. No doubt there were some who said the worst could not be true because "they" said the Titanic could not sink. But, at some point on Monday, the following was posted outside the White Star offices: "Titanic foundered about 2.30am April 15. About 675 crew and passengers picked up... Names of those saved will be posted as soon as received."

And so began the wait. The Hampshire Independent reported: "As darkness grew, the crowds increased, both outside the White Star offices and the west gate side of the docks. It was an impressive and pathetic scene. The street lamps and the white light from the arc lamps flickered on hundreds of faces which were wan and grey by anxiety. The crowd was very dense around the entrance to the Company's offices, but frequently a gap was formed to allow some grief-stricken relative to pass in and inquire if any more news was to hand. But each time the answer was the same, and the inquirer turned once more towards the street with head bowed."

By Tuesday, most were probably resigned to the worst, but of firm news, there was none. The vigil outside the White Star offices continued day and night. Dolly Curry, daughter of White Star's office manager, brought out trays of coffee to those still keeping watch. On Wednesday, workmen came and nailed to the railings blackboards on which would be posted the names of the saved. The Daily Mail described one woman who waited with two babies in a pram and toddler holding her hand. "'What are we waiting for, mummy? Why are we waiting such a long time?' asked the tired child. 'We are waiting for news of your father, dear,' came the choked answer, as the mother turned away her head to hide her tears."

On Friday, five days after the sinking, a clerk appeared and pasted on to the boards strips of paper on which the names of those saved were written in large blue letters. And thus became apparent the scale of the loss. More than 500 households lost at least one person. Whole streets in Northam and Chapel were drab with black crepe. At one school, the headmistress took a visitor into a classroom and said: "Stand up any child who has a relative on the Titanic." Every chair scraped back, and the whole class stood. At another school, in Northam, half the 240 pupils lost their father. And the words of one woman to the Daily Mirror capture how concentrated the deaths were: "Mrs May across the way lost her husband and oldest son... Mrs Allen round the corner lost her husband, George. And the young girl there in black is Mrs Barnes. She lost her brother. The woman going into the shop is Mrs Gosling. She lost a son..."

At Victoria Road, Ethel Burr, wife of first-class steward Ewart, had recently received a letter from her husband, posted as the ship stopped at Queenstown. "Dearest Ethel I need not mention to you to take care of our little son as I know you love him as much as I do. Give him my love and kiss him each night from daddy." Not long afterwards, a knock at the door brought a telegram. "Much regret," it curtly informed her, "Burr not saved."

Also not coming home were junior assistant engineer Henry Dodds, due to be married on his return; John Brookman, wed only three days before the ship sailed; and father and son Arthur May senior and junior, whose deaths left no fewer than 11 dependents: the elder Mrs May and her eight children, and May junior's young wife and six-week-old baby.

Not that the loss of the unmarried was any easier to bear. The parents of bell boy Archie Barrett, just 15, placed "In Memoriam" advertisements in Southampton papers for many years after the sinking: "...As we gaze at your picture that hangs on the wall, Your smile and your welcome we often recall. We miss you and mourn you in sorrow unseen. And dwell on the memory of days that have been."

More haunting still is the case of electrician Herbert Jupe, whose body was recovered, buried at sea, and his effects – watch, small pencil, and a single brass screw – returned to his parents. His father subsequently wrote: "I should like to thank you for the great kindness you have done my precious son... I am very pleased with the watch, pencil and screw. I have got it mounted on a round black polished stand with a glass shade over it with silver plate with inscriptions as family memento on our sitting-room table. He was a dear boy to me and mother and he would never have married while we were alive."

The body of saloon steward Fred Wormald was also found, but sufficiently intact to be taken to Halifax. White Star arranged for his widow Emily, and their six children, to sail over on the Olympic to pay their respects. They travelled third-class, of course, and so in New York were dropped off at Ellis Island for immigration and health checks. Officials there took one look at them, rejected their story and put them back on the returning Olympic. Passengers had a whip-round and raised £40 for them, which was just as well because when they got back to Southampton they found their landlord had rented their home to another family, and dumped their furniture in neighbours' outhouses.

Their salvation, as it was for so many of the bereaved, was the Titanic Relief Fund, an amalgam of the appeals launched by the lord mayors of Southampton and London, The Daily Telegraph, and some unlikely fund-raising ventures on both sides of the Atlantic. Enrico Caruso gave a benefit concert, the FA Charity Shield match between League champions Blackburn Rovers and Southern League champions Queens Park Rangers was brought forward, and there was a charity record of a song based on the Titanic captain's alleged final order to his crew: "Be British!". The Shipping Federation gave £10,500, George V gave 500gns, Queen Mary 250gns, and Queen Alexandra £200. Eventually, £450,000 – the equivalent to about £21m in today's money – was raised. Trustees invested it in such reliable stock as Canadian Northern (Ontario) Railway 3 per cent debentures, and the fund was still making payments in the late 1950s.

Some 2,396 dependents made claims on the Fund, more than 1,400 of them in the Southampton area. For the crew's families, payments were about half the pay of the lost man (only three of the 686 crew who died were women). The widow of a bedroom steward could expect £1 12s 6d, with 6s 3d (31p) for each child. Salaried employees of White Star were granted outstanding pay in full, plus £300 under the Workmen's Compensation Act, but these were few in number. Most of the crew was hired for each voyage, and so their families were not entitled to such a payout. With little work available to married working-class women except taking in washing or seamstressing, it was the fund – or the workhouse.

Besides the standard weekly payments, the fund's minute book records ad hoc grants: "One quart of milk per day and six eggs to the value of per week to be continued to Mrs Johnson (widow) for a further three months"; 8/6 to Miss Penrose for a pair of spectacles; "£5 to purchase surgical appliances for Mr Reed"; 4gns so that Ethel Duffy, widow of engineer's clerk William, could buy a set of false teeth; and, on 23 April 1914, for stoker's widow Amelia Barnes and her four children: "An order to supply groceries to the value of 2s (10p) per week be given to Lancaster & Crooks Ltd for the period of 12 weeks." They were still giving her an allowance of 3s a week 10 years later. The fund paid out so the children of lost Titanic crewmen could start apprenticeships: "Melita Wallis (daughter, nearly 15) be apprenticed to Mr Proust, hairdresser, at a premium of £20 for a period of 3 years." There was even £5 given to Mrs Bristow, widow of saloon steward Harry, "to take her children to the seaside" – generous indeed to a family living a short walk from the English Channel.

The fund's administrators took a close interest in each dependent family, which was not always to their advantage. Payments to the parents of fireman/stoker Edward Biggs were stopped in 1914 because his mother Rose had been "up before the magistrates for drunkenness"; and "Mrs P" had her allowance stopped the same year "as the committee were dissatisfied with her mode of life". And then there was Mary Foster, widow of storekeeper Albert, whose payments were stopped in February 1914 because "certain facts of an undesirable nature" had been reported. Had Mary Foster been finding comfort in a variety of different tattooed arms? Or was she the target of malicious gossip? Probably the latter, since payments for her two girls continued, and, come October, those to Mary were restored. So the valuable, if paternalistic, work went on, until 1959, when the remaining money was converted into annuities.

Next month, exactly 100 years to the day that the Titanic sailed, Southampton will open its new Sea City Museum with special exhibitions on the Titanic, its crew and their families. It, and the city's remarkable archives, guarantee that the death of all those men and the endurance of their families, will not be forgotten. Maybe one day, someone will even make a film about them.

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