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13 November 2014

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You are in: Cambridgeshire > People > Profiles > Jack Binns - hero of the high seas

Jack Binns (centre in bowler hat).

A hero's welcome: (

Jack Binns - hero of the high seas

A Peterborough man is being feted as a hero 100 years after making the first distress call from sea. Jack Binns's determination and skill saved the lives of 1,500 people and could have had a dramatic effect on the Titanic disaster...

When Jack Robinson Binns was born in a workhouse, no one expected his life to amount to much; but he grew up to be a hero, an expert in radio communications and the saviour of 1,500 souls who might otherwise have perished.

Jack Binns

Jack Binns

In the early hours of Saturday 23rd January, 1909, the RMS Republic and the SS Florida - a liner filled with refugees from a Sicilian earthquake - collided in treacherous waters off America's east coast.

"CQD - Shipwrecked!"

Binns was the lone radio operator on board the Republic, and immediately began to send out the recognised distress signal using Morse Code - CQD - CQ being a call for any ships or land-based radio operators, and the 'D' being the all-important signal for distress.

He remained at his post on the Republic for 18 hours, sending the continuous distress call which was picked up by the Siasconsett Station on Nantucket Island, about 60 miles away. He worked tirelessly, in the biting cold - part of the radio cabin had been ripped away in the collision leaving it open to the elements - working with crude equipment running on emergency back-up batteries.

As he transmitted the distress call, sailors from the Republic were frantically transferring the ship's passengers to the less-damaged Florida, a feat that itself took four hours in the small rowing boats on board both vessels.

Jack Binns after being rescued

Binns after rescue:

Passengers and crew were eventually rescued by the White Star Liner The Baltic, which was able to take all passengers on board and tow the Florida back to shore. The Republic, however, was too badly damaged and sank in 40 fathoms south of Nantucket.

Although there was no official inquiry into the accident, Binns, who was a highly-respected Marconi radio operator, advised the authorities that all ships should employ two operators, ensuring that communications were manned 24 hours a day. His suggestion was rejected, however.

Luck of Titanic proportions

Marconi went on to offer Jack the position of radio operator on the White Star's newest liner, Titanic. By this time, however, the young 'Marconiman' was engaged, and his American fiancee didn't want him to return to sea. And so, he refused the job and one day before the Titanic sank, Binns began work as a reporter for a New York newspaper.

Although there were two radio operators on board Titanic on the fateful night in 1912 when it struck an iceberg, there was only one operator on the nearest potential rescue vessel - SS California - which at the time was only a few miles from the Titanic. If two wireless operators had been on board, the Titanic's distress signal may well have been picked up sooner and many more of the passengers and crew may have survived.

Binns's heroism on show

One hundred years after his high-sea heroism, Jack Binns is being celebrated around the world by amateur radio operators, including clubs in Peterborough and the oldest Marconi operating station, based at The Lizard in Cornwall.

Jack Binns (right)

Binns (centre right):

He will also be the focus of a new exhibition at Peterborough Museum in the spring. 'Famous Peterborians' will include medals presented to Binns for bravery, together with photographs similar to the ones in this feature.

Memories of his hometown

Although Binns spent much of his adult life in America and Canada (he became a pilot and radio operator trainer in the Canadian Air Force after his career as a journalist), he remained fond of the city where he grew up and was educated.

Before his death at the age of 75 in 1959, he shared his photographs and memoirs with his granddaughter, Virginia Lovelace, who lives in Ithaca, NY.

Jack Binns on the Adriatic in 1910

Jack Binns on the Adriatic in 1910

She told us: "He often talked with me about how much he loved Peterborough. He was particularly fond of the cathedral, and reminded me that Catherine of Aragon was buried there. He gained his appreciation of music listening to the choir.

"Many years ago I made a "pilgrimage" to the cathedral, and heard the Sunday evensong - I could understand what my grandfather meant - the choir moved me to tears. As I write this I can look at an old print of his that he cherished - it shows the cathedral as it might have looked in the 18th Century."

She continues: "His interest in all things electrical was piqued by two events: one was the installation of electric lights in a local department store and the other was a demonstration of an Edison talking machine at the agricultural fair. As he noted: "I remember putting the stethoscope-like tubing into my ears - after parting with the tremendous sum of sixpence for the privilege - and listening in amazement to a recitation of the Lord's Prayer."

More information

Virginia Lovelace has a website dedicated to her grandfather, Jack Binns, which contains more information about his fascinating story:

There is also a first-hand account of the night the Republic and the Florida collided, given by Jack Binns to a radio broadcast journal in April 1924:

And for the full story of the wreck of the Republic, take a look at the official website:

last updated: 18/08/2009 at 09:30
created: 22/01/2009

Have Your Say

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Sidney Harbour
Regarding RB query.Yes it is quite correct that Jack Binns was born in Brigg Lincolnshire. He came to Peterborough at the age of three and lived here until he left in adult life to take up a post off Telegraph Clerk. He himself always thought of Peterborough as his home town,and I believe always spoke with fond memories of his time here. Also he left his Medals etc. to the people of Peterborough upon his death.At the time Peterborough was in the county of Northamptonshire but with the redrawing of County boundaries it the came under Cambridgshire.

Rob Cowles Radio m0tix
This is an amazing story andan eyeopener to me Many thanksto the author/s well written.

John Crowder
In your article about Jack Binns you refer to him as a Peterborian (or should that be Petraburgian), a term which surely refers only to people born in Peterborough.Whilst Jack Binns lived in Cobden treet, Peterborough whilst being raised by his grandparents he was in effect born in Scunthorpe and moved to Peterborough at an early age.

John Bowen. C.Eng. MIET. G8DET
Thank you very much for a really good write-up.Essex Chronicle in Chelmsford have done NOTHING even though Henry Jack Tattersall - Cheif Wireless Operator on the RMS Baltic (saving ship) lived in Chelmsford from 1935 to his death in July 1980 aged 94 and all the equipment made in this rescue was made in Chelmsford.Look & well doneJohn G8DET.

Geoffrey McNab
It is quite incorrect to say there was only one radio operator onboard the Titanic. There were two. Jack Phillips, the Chief Radio Officer and Harold Bride, the No:2 Radio officer. Both were Marconi wireless operators and both remained at their posts until just a few minutes before Titanic sank.

What is his connection to Cambridgeshier given he was born and brought (for at least part of his life) in Brigg, Lincolnshire?

clive burchell
vry good well done!! 73s

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