Titanic tales from Bitterne Village

4 September 2018

When RMS Titanic sank hardly any area of Southampton was untouched by the tragedy. Earlier CJ and I explored the streets of Bitterne where some of the crew of the ship once lived. Now, we were at the top of the hill in Bitterne Village, looking for three more houses. A lot has changed since 1912. Many houses were lost in the 1980’s when  Bitterne bypass was built, others were demolished to build the Bitterne Leisure Centre, the Bitterne Library a Health Centre and a large doctor’s practice. Whether we would find any of the houses we were looking for intact remained to be seen. 

The first two houses were in Commercial Street. Thomas Jubilee Mayzes lived at number 8. Born in Battersea London on 23 February 1887, the year of Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee, his name may well reflect his parent’s patriotism. His father, George, was a labourer, he and Thomas’ mother, Lynda, had eleven children. In 1905 Thomas married Mary Ann Turner in London and, by 1911, the couple and their son, Frederick Thomas, had moved to Southampton where Thomas was working as a trimmer on the Oceanic.

Once CJ and I had turned the corner by the funeral director’s, it quickly became clear that number 8 Commercial Street no longer existed. The even house numbers began with a bungalow numbered 14 and a car park belonging to the shops on Bitterne Road where the other houses would once have been. We walked up and down a bit trying to peer over the wall at a small terrace of houses that seem to have been swallowed up by the funeral directors. The very end house looked as if it might once have been number eight but there was no way of telling for sure.

Thomas transferred from the oceanic to the Titanic on 6 April 1912, his monthly wages as a coal trimmer were just £6, the least of all the ship’s engineers. This doesn’t seem a great deal considering how hard he would have had to work. Coal trimmers were responsible for loading the ship with the coal needed to fire the engines but their duties didn’t end there. They worked inside the ship’s coal bunkers, which were above and between the boilers. Using shovels and wheelbarrows, they moved the coal around. Some would be shovelled down the coal chute to the firemen who then shovelled it into the furnaces but trimmers also had to move coal about in the bunkers to make sure it was level. If too much coal built up on one side of the bunker it could easily cause the ship to list.

All this was very hot and dirty work but it still wasn’t all they did. Trimmers were also responsible for extinguishing any fires that broke out in the bunkers. When Titanic left Belfast for Southampton, a huge fire was already burning in her coal bunkers. By the time Thomas joined the ship his fellow trimmers had already been trying to put the fire out since 2 April. They would have used hoses and tried digging out the burning coal and shovelling it into the furnace to stop the fire spreading. The coal bunkers on the Titanic were three floors high though, so it was an almost impossible task and one Thomas would have had to continue.

Some have since suggested this raging fire may well have contributed to the eventual sinking of the ship. It continued to burn during the first days of the voyage, although this news was carefully kept from the passengers. It’s possible that the steel of the ship became warped and brittle because of the heat. When Titanic hit the iceberg at almost the exact spot on the hull where the fire had been, the weakened metal gave way. Of course, this is just speculation and the ship may have sunk anyway.

When the ship began to sink the seventy three trimmers aboard stayed below deck to help keep the generators running. This meant the water pumps could still keep going and the lights stayed on. This gave passengers time and light to escape. Only twenty trimmers survived. Thomas was one of them. He was rescued in one of the lifeboats.

In 1914 Thomas and his small family moved to 33 Commercial Street, a house that does still exist and was, by the looks of it, a little larger and nicer than his previous house. He was, undoubtedly, a very brave man and the sinking of the Titanic wasn’t the end of his seagoing days. During World War I, he volunteered for service and was was involved in troop transport to the allied ports. He also served in the Archangel campaign, part of the allied intervention in Russia. For his war time efforts he received the General Service and Mercantile Marine war medals. After the war he returned to the merchant service, probably still as a trimmer.

He died of typhoid on 9 February 1928. He was just forty years old and some of his final words show he never forgot the sinking of the Titanic. His illness had made him delirious and, shortly before he died he was heard shouting “save the women  and children.” His widow, Mary, never remarried and lived in Commercial Street until her death in 1960. Frederick, his only child, died in Southampton in 1943.

Thomas Kelland, also lived in Commercial Street, but, when he signed on as crew of Titanic, he didn’t give a house number. Obviously, this means CJ and I couldn’t find his house. He was born in Chalton, Wiltshire on 20 September 1892. Both his parents, William, a blacksmith, and Isolt, were from Somerset and both had been married before. William had seven children with his first wife, Sarah. He was widowed in 1891. Isolt was widowed in 1885 and had at least four children.  The couple went on to have two more children together. The youngest, Edgar, was born in Southampton. When the family moved and whether all of them came to live in Commercial Street isn’t clear but, if they did, it must have been a very crowded little house.

By 1911, Thomas’ mother had been widowed again and Thomas was a steward on the Adriatic. His brother, Edgar, was a blacksmith’s apprentice, possibly at Thorneycroft’s shipyard in Woolston.  Thomas later worked on the Olympic and signed on to Titanic on 4 April 1912 as a library steward. He earned £3, 15s a month.

After the disaster second class passenger, Lawrence Beasley, mentioned the library steward during his account of the disaster. His description gives an insight into what Thomas must have been like and his work on board the ship.

“Looking over this room, with his back to the library shelves, is the library steward, stooping, sad-faced, and generally with nothing to do but serve out books; but this afternoon he was busier than I have ever seen him, serving out baggage declaration-forms for passengers to fill in.”

Beesley mentioned Thomas again when describing the events after the collision.

“…and on the way back to my cabin passed some stewards standing unconcernedly against the walls of the saloon: one of them, the library steward again, was leaning over a table, writing. It is no exaggeration to say that they had neither any knowledge of the accident nor any feeling of alarm that we had stopped and had not yet gone on again full speed: their whole attitude expressed perfect confidence in the ship and officers.”

From this it seems Thomas was not aware of the danger he was in. Perhaps this was why he died when the ship sank. His body was never identified and was probably not recovered. His mother and brother were listed as his dependents and benefited from the Titanic Relief Fund, they later moved to Paddington in London. Isolt died in 1939 and Edgar married in 1920. He named his only son Thomas.

The last house on our list was in Chatsworth Road. It’s a very long road that runs from Bursledon Road, near to Bitterne Church, all the way to Deacon Road, near Itchen College. Back in 1912 it was called Victoria Road and Titanic’s quartermaster, Walter John Perkis, lived at number 2. CJ and I had no idea which end number 2 was or whether it was still standing but we set off to find out. It soon became clear we had a long walk ahead of us.

Walter was born in Ryde on the Isle of Wight on 11 August 1874. His father, James, was a carpenter and, with his wife, Emily, had twelve children. When Walter was sixteen, he left his family in Ryde and went to work as a waiter in St Bartholomew’s Hospital in London. In 1891 he joined the Royal Navy. He sailed on several ships before he was discharged in 1905. During his years of service he’d risen to the post of able seaman but had also been locked in the cells for misdemeanours on at least four occasions. He was described as being just five foot three. With dark brown hair, hazel eyes and a florid complexion.

In 1909 Walter married Phoebe, a Bitterne lass. They had just one child, Robert Edward, born in 1910 and shared their house in Victoria Road  with Phoebe’s mother, Martha. They called the house Olympic, possibly after the White Star ship Walter was working on at the time.

When CJ and I reached the bottom of Chatsworth Road we discovered Walter and Phoebe’s house is still standing and is, in fact, a rather grand double fronted affair with a tiled roof on the porch above the front door. These days it isn’t called Olympic, of course, and it has new double glazed windows and doors but, other than that, it looks much a it must have when Walter lived there. It seems a very large house for such a small family but perhaps Walter, who grew up with so many siblings, liked to have room to breathe?

On 9 April 1912, Walter transferred from Olympic to Titanic. His wages as quartermaster were £5 a month and his job was, in part, to navigate the ship. The title quartermaster was derived from the phrase master of the quarterdeck, where the helm was located. When Titanic hit the iceberg it was 11:40 pm and Walter was off duty. The ship’s joiner woke him with news of the collision shortly afterwards but, as he had felt no impact, he didn’t immediately rush to the quarterdeck. Instead he waited until midnight, when it was time to start his watch. The delay made no difference to the outcome of that fateful night but it does give an insight into Walter’s character. He was obviously not a man prone to panic, or one who blindly obeyed orders.

When Walter arrived on deck he went to his assigned lifeboat, number 4, and helped lower her. He was about to head aft when someone in the lifeboat shouted out that another hand was needed to help man the boat. He didn’t hesitate. He slid down into the boat and took command. There were three crew and thirty nine passengers on lifeboat 4. With Walter directing, they rowed aft and plucked eight more crewmen from the water. Two of these, a fireman and a steward, died, despite Walter’s efforts to save them. At the American enquiry, Walter recounted his tale. He said the little lifeboat was about six lengths of the ship away when Titanic went down. He did not discern any suction as she sank. His actions undoubtedly saved the lives of forty seven people, along with his own.

After he returned to England in June 1912, Walter went back to working on Olympic and continued to work at sea until 1935. Between voyages he carried on living in his house in Bitterne and died in Southampton General Hospital on 4 August 1954. He is buried in Bitterne Churchyard with Phoebe and his son Robert, who died in 1939, aged just nineteen. In 2001 a headstone depicting Titanic was  added to their, until then, unmarked grave.

Even though we hadn’t found all the houses we were looking for our little trip back in time had been interesting. Uncovering the stories of the Titanic crew who lived in Bitterne is merely scratching at the surface. More than seven hundred and twenty of Titanic’s nine hundred crew lived in Southampton and, as we slowly walked back home, CJ and I agreed we should make an effort to find out about more of them soon.

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Writer, walker, coffee drinker, chocolate eater, lover of nature, history and the little things that make me smile

4 thoughts on “Titanic tales from Bitterne Village”

  1. Very interesting story,great investivigative feature.well done
    Walking the length of Chatsworth Rd.Which end of Chatsworth Rd did you find the house.
    thank you very much for very interesting feature.

    1. I’m glad you enjoyed it. The house was at the Itchen College end of Chatsworth Road. A little further than I wanted to walk given how far I’d already walked that morning but not too taxing.

  2. To think that a ship would have sailed with a fire in her coal bins is beyond ridiculous. Apparently the overall “look” of safety and reliability was more important than passengers or crew. That’s pretty sad!
    The White Star Line should have been sued for all they had.

    1. Apparently fires in the coal bunkers were fairly common on steam ships. The bunkers were usually right above the boilers and the coal sometimes spontaneously combusted due to the heat. I think, if it happened today, White Star would have faced a huge lawsuit. At the time they stopped paying the poor men’s wages as soon as the ship sank and families survived in charity handouts.

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