Friday 13 April 2012, 15:00
This weekend sees the 100th anniversary of one of the most tragic and dramatic of all sea disasters, the loss of the White Star liner RMS Titanic. The story, of course, is well known.
On the night of 14/15 April 1912, the Titanic was on her maiden voyage across the Atlantic, ploughing steadily through an area of sea where ice flows had already been reported. Her captain - and the White Star Line - were desperate to claim the Blue Riband for the fastest crossing of the ocean and, partly as a consequence of this recklessness, the ship struck an iceberg and went quickly to the bottom of the ocean.
Over 1,500 lives were lost in the disaster; fewer than a thousand were saved from a ship that many had proclaimed unsinkable and which, in any case, had too few lifeboats to safely accommodate all of the passengers and crew. So much for the bald facts of the story.
There are numerous Welsh connections with the disaster. Perhaps the most important - and certainly the best known - comes in the person of the ship's Fifth Officer, Harold Godfrey Lowe. Born in November 1882, he was a native of Eglwys Rhos in Caernarfonshire. At the age of 14, Lowe ran away to sea, signing on as a ship's boy and gradually rising through the ranks of his chosen profession.
Lowe earned his First Mate's Certificate in 1908 and joined the White Star Line three years later. Despite his many years at sea, when he was appointed as Fifth Officer on the Titanic in 1912, her maiden voyage was to be his first trip across the Atlantic. Like the ship, Lowe was destined not to make it - at least not on board the Titanic.
When Titanic struck the iceberg Lowe was asleep in his quarters and was not called to duty until half an hour after the collision. After that he was quickly involved in helping women and children into the boats and in keeping order on deck - there are reports that he had to fire his revolver in order to prevent a group on panic stricken men boarding a lifeboat.
As the ship went down Lowe, seeing that there was nothing else to be done, took his allotted place in command of one of her lifeboats. Pulling away from the side of the stricken vessel, there was little alternative but to sit and watch as the last act of the disaster was played out.
By now the ocean was littered with debris and with half-full lifeboats. Harold Lowe gathered in and roped together another two or three boats and made sure they were out of the range of the suction as Titanic sank. He then decided to take his own boat back into the area of the sinking in order to search for survivors. Harold Lowe was the only Titanic officer to undertake this difficult and dangerous task.
He managed to pick up three men from the water, one of whom subsequently died of the cold. After several hours adrift in the Atlantic, Lowe and the men and women in his boat were picked up and rescued by the Carpathia.
The part of Harold Lowe in the 1997 film Titanic was played by young Welsh actor Ioan Gruffud - another, if rather more distant, Welsh connection to the disaster. Hailing from Llwydcoed near Aberdare, Gruffud trained at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art and, with the success of the Titanic film, went on to other notable successes. These have included playing the part of Horatio Hornblower in the TV series of that name.
In Trinity Church in the small seaside town of Penarth there is evidence of a further Welsh connection to the Titanic. A small brass plaque on one of the pews at the front of the church states simply:
In memory of James Reed, aged 18 years, who was drowned in the RMS Titanic disaster, April 15th 1912. Erected by the members of his Sunday School class.
Little else is known about young James Reed but, clearly, he was journeying to the New World in search of a better life, leaving his fellow church members and the town of Penarth far behind.
Someone else who was planning a new start in the USA was the mother of Edwin Meak. She had left her son behind while she took steerage passage in the Titanic and then, hopefully, established herself in America. Tragically, like so many other steerage passengers, she was drowned in the disaster. Her son, Edwin, later attended the Nautical Training School in Penarth, the JA Gibbs Home, his fees being paid by the Titanic Relief Fund.
One little known Welsh connection comes in the person of ham radio operator Arthur (Artie) Moore. Born in Pontllanfraith, Artie had lost part of his leg in an accident and had been fitted with a wooden leg. He was an engineer and very keen on the new-fangled wireless technology, so much so that by 1912, when he was just 26-years-old, he had already erected aerials and built an early version of a radio station at his home in Gelligroes Mill near Blackwood.
Artie often listened to messages from ships around the Welsh coast and had even intercepted the Italian government's declaration of war against Libya in 1911. But nothing prepared him for the faint Morse message he received in the early hours of 15 April 1912:-
Require immediate assistance. Come at once. We have struck an iceberg. Sinking. We are putting off the women in the boats.
The message was from the Titanic, 3,000 miles away in the Atlantic, and was the western world's first news of the disaster. The message was followed by several others, the last one reading "Come quickly as possible old man, our engine room is filling up to the boilers." After that there was only silence. The Titanic had gone down.
Artie Moore quickly passed on his news to the local police but, as the press had often reported, the Titanic was unsinkable and so they did not believe him. In any case, 3,000 miles away, there was nothing they or Artie could have done.
The loss of the Titanic was a disaster on an unparalleled scale. The sinking has retained a strange and compelling fascination for people and there is no doubt that the centenary, this April, will be marked by many commemorative events. It is interesting to know that Wales has more than a few connections to the disaster.
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