A hero's welcome: (RMS-Republic.com)
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.
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.
Binns after rescue: RMS-Republic.com
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.
Binns (centre right): RMS-Republic.com
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
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."
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
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