Wales

Titanic: Survivors from Wales of 1912 liner tragedy

  • 14 April 2012
  • From the section Wales

A meeting of seamen in Swansea was interrupted with further news of the scale of the Titanic tragedy unfolding in the mid Atlantic.

Its chairman broke down as he received news of the death of his cousin, Cyril Foley, a 26-year-old steward in third class on the liner.

Within days, relatives were receiving a different account. Foley had actually been rescued by lifeboat and had arrived, very much alive, on the Carpathia arriving with other survivors in New York.

In the confusion he may have been mistaken for an Irish passenger, who shared his name.

Cyril had left Swansea in 1907 with his father, a foreman at the King's dock, to find work in Southampton. He had previously been a steward on the Oceanic. Nothing is known about what happened to him after his fortunate escape.

One of the Titanic lifeboats, with some of the 700 survivors

Three other Welsh crew who survived were in charge of lifeboats but had contrasting stories to tell.

The tale of Barmouth-born Harold Lowe is best known and is featured in James Cameron's epic 1997 film of the disaster.

Fifth officer Lowe, 29, was in charge of lifeboat 14 with five crew, 32 passengers, and still room for another 28. He later recalled: "All women and children, bar one passenger, who was an Italian [actually Irish] and he sneaked in and he was dressed like a woman - he had a shawl over his head. I only found out at the last moment."

After redistributing passengers among other boats, Lowe returned with the lifeboat to rescue other survivors, including a Chinese man tied to a door.

Able seaman Thomas William Jones, 32, son of a fisherman from Llanbadrig on Anglesey, was in charge of boat No 8. It contained two fellow crew and 24 women, all first class passengers, including the redoubtable Countess Rothes, an expert oarswoman.

However, despite Jones' own misgivings, the majority of passengers were against going back for survivors, despite there being room on board for fear of being swamped. A letter of gratitude from the countess's cousin, a fellow survivor, said: "I shall always remember your words, 'ladies if any of us are saved, remember I wanted to go back. I would rather drown with them, than leave them.'"

Another crew member from Anglesey was Holyhead-born Edward Brown, 34, a steward in first class, who helped load lifeboats but was washed overboard by a wave as he tried to leave in a boat as the ship sank.

The non-swimmer said it felt "like a lifetime" in the water, clinging onto a lifebelt until he was rescued by a collapsible lifeboat, one of the last to leave Titanic.

His great-great niece Olivia Goulding said: "He was in the water so long his hands and feet swelled up - he said that his feet were bursting through his boots, but he took an oar of the lifeboat".

Edward later married but the physical toll from that night may have contributed to his death at the age of 48 in a Liverpool sanatorium. He left a widow and six-year-old daughter.

Olivia and her cousin Valerie Lewis, who have researched his story, presented Holyhead Maritime Museum with their findings in his memory to coincide with the centenary.

Historian Richard Davenport-Hines, who has written Titanic Lives: Migrants and Millionaires, Conmen and Crew said: "The crew and passengers in the lifeboats would have realised, with 1,000 people bobbing in lifejackets in the water, people might get to the sides and overwhelm them.

'Screams, cries and moaning'

"Thomas Jones would also have been told before they embarked to head for the lights on the horizon for what they thought was a rescue ship."

Davenport-Hines said the crew themselves would have been "pretty stunned" at events and what had happened to their liner, while not all dispatched to man the lifeboats would have been technically adept at sailing them.

A young survivor from Lowe's boat was eight-year-old John Morgan Davies. Born in Cardiff but brought up in Cornwall, he was travelling in second class with his widowed mother Agnes and his half-brother Joseph, 19, to join relatives in Michigan.

John and his mother were given room in the lifeboat but Joseph - as an adult male - was not so lucky and was told he would be shot if he attempted to join them.

Later his mother recalled hearing the "screams, cries and moaning" of those losing their lives in the freezing waters, while men on the boat shielded her from the sight of the ship's final moments.

John reportedly worked in Detroit as a clerk until his death in 1951.

For those back home, newspapers initially proved unreliable. First reports broke news from wire reports that the Titanic had been hit by an iceberg but all were rescued. The South Wales Echo was among newspapers reporting "reassuring" news that the damaged liner was still afloat and "making her way slowly" to port. It took another 24 hours for the true picture to emerge.

In the days after the tragedy, the list of "lost" passengers from Wales also included some names who presumably travelled on other ships or not at all.

There were others who survived through quirks of fate.

A Mr Scott had been visiting his native Bridgend but much to his annoyance had to return to his saddling business in the United States early, and was transferred from Titanic to fellow White Star liner Olympic. A Mr Rees of Penarth was another Titanic booking who had a "merciful escape" after being wired news of a berth on the same ship and decided to take the alternative option.

Charles Middleton, 31, from Splott, Cardiff was emigrating to Canada but decided to change his booking and transfer to an earlier crossing on another line. The South Wales Evening News reported three Swansea men also booked on Titanic changed their travel plans at a late stage.

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