Titanic tales from St Denys part two

10 April 2019

Many years ago I lived in Portswood in a little flat a minute’s walk or so from St Denys Station. In 1989, the Portswood bypass was built and cut a swathe through the area I knew so well. The new road was named Thomas Lewis Way after Tommy Lewis, a St Mary’s lad and son of a dock labourer, who became a prominent trade unionist, local councillor and, in 1929, Southampton’s first Labour MP. The streets I knew so well were soon unrecognisable and many houses disappeared. The last five St Denys crew members all lived on Dukes Road, one of those swallowed up. We might not have been able to find their houses but we could still find what little is left of Dukes Road and tell their stories.


The walk from Priory Road to the remains of Dukes Road was once part of my walk to work but, even in the short time since my Bus Mine days, things have changed. One of the highlights of my walks used to be the path behind the Millennium Flats where boats were tied to little jetties and swans and ducks made me smile each day. The path led to some steep steps and Horseshoe Bridge. The gate at the top of the steps is now locked. The people living in the flats don’t like unsavoury characters like me walking near their nice homes, even though there is a steep bank and a high metal fence between the path and their property.

So we walked the long way round. Both of us feeling quite miffed. A train going under Horseshoe Bridge did cheer us up a little and I was even more cheered knowing I didn’t have to go inside the bus depot and spend ten hours being moaned at by angry passengers.

Almost opposite the bus depot, squashed between the big metal units of the industrial estate and the new road, is a tiny stretch of service road. This was once Dukes Road. In fact it’s still called Dukes Road even though there is no longer a single house on it. Still, we went to what was left of it and took some photos of the road sign.

The first of the Dukes Road Titanic crew was John Bertie Ellis, born in Southampton in 1883. His father, also called John, was a naval seaman from Manchester and his mother, Emma, was from Cornwall. John and Emma had nine children and moved to Southampton just before John was born. John began his working life as a cellarman. In 1905 he married Ethel Amelia Brooks. Ethel was also born in Southampton but was of exotic heritage. Her father, Addison Taylor Brooks, was born in Washington DC, of mixed African-American and European heritage. He’d seen service in the US Military before moving to England. John and Ethel had three children, Mabel Ethel, Bertie Alec and Frank.

When John joined Titanic as a vegetable cook the family were living at 30 Dukes Road. He’d previously been working on Oceanic as assistant vegetable cook so the job on Titanic was something of a promotion and his wages of £5 a month were probably very welcome. John escaped the sinking ship in emergency lifeboat 2, the seventh boat loaded from the port side. Fourth Officer Boxhall was in charge of the boat and took Steward James Johnstone, able seaman Frank Osman and John to assist with rowing. The boat had only eighteen or so people in it, mostly women and children. It was lowered, half empty, to A Deck to pick up more passengers but found nobody there. It was the first boat to reach Carpathia. 

John was not called upon to give evidence at any of the Titanic inquiries and returned to Southampton. In October 1912, his fourth child, Archie, was born. John went back to sea but, a few months later, jumped ship in America and was never heard of by his English family again. Ethel and the children carried on as best they could. Mabel became a cook and live in domestic to a sales executive in Enfield, Middlesex. She never married. Bertie married Annie Maria Corbishley and settled in Staffordshire to raise a family. He served as a Royal Artillery gunner in WWII and was killed in 1945 in Burma. Frank moved to Biloela, Queensland and died in 1991. Archie served in the Merchant Marine and Royal Navy Reserve as a quartermaster. He married Robbia Stewart and moved to Staffordshire to raise a family. He died in 1964. Poor deserted Ethel, with her family scattered, remained in Hampshire where she died in 1931. She never heard from John again. 

Having left his family in England, seemingly without a second thought, John he moved to New South Wales and began a new life. He bigamously married Isabella Towers in 1914. The couple had two sons, John and William and set up home in Sidney. It is unlikely that Isabella ever knew of John’s previous life. In 1916, John enlisted with the Australian 19th Infantary Battalion. He ended his days in Sidney as a war pensioner. He died in Sidney in 1932 and is buried in the Randwick Cemetery.

Dukes Road today

Charles Augustus Coombs was born in Wimborne Dorset in 1867. He was the second of two sons born to Mary Jane and George Edwin, a master butcher. Charles, better known as Augustus, was brought up in Wimborne and when or why he ended up in Southampton is a mystery but it’s probable he moved to get work at sea. He was certainly living in Southampton when he married Annie Amelia West in 1891. They had three children, Elsie Annie, Gladys Kathleen and Norah Georgina. On the 1901 census Augustus was working as a ship’s baker and living with his family, including his father, George, at 9 Ivy Road, Itchen.

George died in 1902 and at some time after this, the family moved to 78 Dukes Road. By 1911, Augustus was working as a cook for the White Star Line. He left Olympic to join Titanic as assistant cook, earning £4 10s a month. 

It was not the good career move he’d hoped for though. Augustus died when Titanic sank and his body was never recovered. What became of Annie isn’t clear but neither Elsie or Norah ever married and both died in 1970. Gladys married Robert Dyer and continued to live in Southampton until her death in 1976.

Titanic cooks from Pintrest

John Henry Jackopson was born in Liverpool in 1881. His father, Charles Ludwig Jackopson was probably Norwegian, although this is not certain. His mother, Sarah Ann, was born in Whitehaven, Cumberland. The couple married in Liverpool and had five children. Very little is known about John’s early life, mainly because his surname was frequently misspelled so records are hard to identify with any certainty. 

When John’s father died, in 1896, his mother went to live with her married daughter, Mary Thalia Gibson in Kirkdale, Lancashire. John probably also lived with her but, by this time, he was already working at sea so doesn’t show on any census. In 1903, John married Catherine McCabe in Liverpool and, in 1907, moved to Southampton. They had four children, the first two, Charles and Thomas, born in Liverpool and Cornelia and Catherine born in Southampton. Tragically, Catherine died within a few weeks of her birth. 

The move to Southampton was most likely prompted by John’s work as a ship’s fireman. His last ship before joining Titanic was the merchant steamer Highland Brae, a far smaller ship than Titanic, carrying around sixty or so passengers. When John signed onto Titanic the family were living at 97 Dukes Road. His wages would have been £6 a month.


The firemen on Titanic had a relentless job. The ship had twenty-four double-ended boilers and five single-ended boilers. They consumed around eight hundred and fifty tons of coal every day and all this coal had to be shovelled from the coal bunkers into the boilers. Every two minutes the boilers needed a ton of coal to keep working. Each boiler had a team of ten firemen and four trimmers, working in four hours shifts. Four hours was the maximum time a man could deal with the exertion and the incredible heat. Even while the ship was sinking, the men on duty kept shovelling coal to keep the pumps working and the lights shining. Of the 176 firemen on board just 48 survived.

For the firemen, survival was a matter of luck. Those on duty stood no chance. As soon as the ship began to list they would have been trapped in the boiler room, unable to climb the steep ladder out. Those off duty lived or died depending on whether or not they were ordered to man the lifeboats and use their muscles to row passengers to safety. John was not one of the lucky ones. His body was never identified. 

Catherine must have been devastated by the news. She was pregnant at the time and gave birth to a son, named John after his father, just a few weeks after the sinking. Baby John only lived a few months, adding to the tragedy. In late 1913, Catherine married Charles George Hatcher and went on to have two more children. She lived in Southampton until her death in 1951. John’s children also remained in Southampton. Thomas married Florence Spencer in 1946 but had no children. He died in 1974. Charles married Doris Glasspool Plummer and had five children. He died in 1942. Cornelia married Robert Fuller and had four children. She died in 1991. 

Dukes Road today

Robert Frederick William Couper was one of eight children born to engraver Robert and his wife Stirling in Southampton in 1883. The family lived in Kingsfield Road, All Saints. Robert was just ten when his mother died and, by the time he was eighteen, he and his younger brother Leopald were boarding in a house in York Street, St Mary’s working as boilermakers. What became of the rest of the family is unclear.

In 1910 Robert married Emily Alice Westbury and the couple soon moved to 101 Dukes Road with Emily’s mother, Alice. At some time in 1911 they had a child but it died soon after birth and there is no record of a name or even if it was a boy or a girl. As Robert was almost certainly working at sea aboard Olympic by this time, it must have been a difficult time for poor Emily. They would have no more children. 

Robert Frederick William Couper From Encyclopedia Titanica

Robert signed onto Titanic as a fireman. When Titanic sank luck was on his side, unlike so many of his colleagues, he survived. Few exact details are known but he was almost certainly in lifeboat 3, the third to be lowered on the starboard side. Officer Murdoch directed the procedure and when all the passengers had boarded and there were still empty seats, he directed nearby crew members into the boat. There were several other firemen aboard the little lifeboat and their muscles were undoubtedly welcomed when it came to rowing. Lifeboat 3 was the fifth or sixth to reach Carpathia. 

Despite his experience, Robert continued to work at sea. He died on 31 December 1941 at Southampton Docks. Exactly how isn’t clear but it may well have been during a bombing raid. He was buried in Hollybrook Cemetery in an unmarked grave. Emily survived him and continued to live in Southampton. She died in 1963.

Dukes Road today

Sidney Humphries was born in Wimborne, Dorset in 1859 to William, a publican, and Elizabeth. He had one sister, born the year before him. By 1861 the small family had moved to French Street, Southampton and William was working as a ship’s steward. 

Sidney followed in his father’s footsteps and went to sea at an early age then, in 1874, he joined the Royal Navy. His first ship was the St Vincent. He went on to serve on Excellent, Rover, Euphrates and Duke of Wellington but was invalided out of the service in 1882. For the next ten years it isn’t clear what he did but it’s probable that he joined the merchant service. In 1892, he rejoined the navy, serving as an able seaman on Trincomalee. 

Sidney left the navy and married Annie Rosetta Snead in 1895. They already had two children, Catherine born in 1892 and Frederick, born in 1894, and went on to have six more, Sidney, Horace, Leslie, Hetty, Arthur and Joan. They lived at various addresses in Shirley and Sidney is described on the 1901 and 1911 census as being a seaman so it is likely he’d rejoined the merchant service. 

In 1886 Sidney witnessed a young woman, Minnie Whitehorn, throwing herself into Shirley Pond. Poor Minnie, a domestic servant, was trying to kill herself but Sidney intervened. Without a thought for himself, he dived in and saved her. His efforts were recognised by a medal from the Royal Humane Society. 

Dukes Road today

Annie had just given birth to their youngest daughter when Sidney signed onto Titanic as Quartermaster. He and his family were living at 113 Dukes Road. His previous ship had been Olympic. Titanic had six quartermasters, each acting as helmsman, in charge of navigating the ship, when on duty.

Stanley wasn’t on duty when the ship hit the iceberg. Whether he’d have done anything differently if he had been is anyone’s guess. He was on A deck though, helping to load the lifeboats. He watched the youngest crew members, the bellboys, being taken to their posts in the main cabin entry by their captain, a steward. The fifty lads, some as young as fourteen, were told to stay in the cabin and not get in the way. It’s hard to imagine what the poor boys must have been thinking but they all sat quietly on their benches and did as they were told. When it was clear the ship really was going to sink and the order was given that every man was free to save himself so long as he kept away from the lifeboats, these lads scattered to all parts of the ship. Sidney saw several of them standing around smoking cigarettes and joking with the passengers, as if they didn’t have a care in the world. In fact they seemed quite gleeful to be breaking the rule against smoking while on duty. Not one of them tried to get in a lifeboat and not one was saved. 

Sidney Humphries from Association Francaise du Titanic

Sidney took command of lifeboat 11, the sixth to be lowered from the starboard side. Several stewards were ordered into the boat to help the passengers over the railing. It was one of the most heavily loaded lifeboats, with between sixty and eighty people aboard, mostly women and children. Miss Edith Rosenbaum brought a toy, a musical pig with her and entertained the frightened children with it. Several people later said a baby was thrown in at the last moment without its mother.  

There was some difficulty when the boat was launched as the crew were unable to release her from the falls, the ropes and blocks used with davits for lowering the boats. When the boat finally reached the water it was discovered there was no lamp aboard and a sailor lit a piece of rope to use as a signal. The boat was so heavily loaded those manning the oars had difficulty actually rowing. Even so, lifeboat 11 was the sixth or eighth to reach Carpathia. 

Sidney returned to England and was not called to give evidence at either the American or British inquiries into the sinking. He carried on working at sea, even throughout World War I. Later, as his health began to fail with age and he developed a heart condition, he worked as a stevedore in Southampton Docks. He died in 1919, aged 60, and was buried in Hollybrook Cemetery in an unmarked grave. Annie died in 1936. 

We might not have found a single house still standing on the second half our our St Denys search but we had at least accounted for all the St Denys crew members. Now we had a descision to make. We were more or less in Bevois Valley and I’d brought the list of Bevois Valley crew and their addresses with me just in case. Time was getting on though. It was almost midday and we were both getting a bit hungry and thirsty. Should we cut our losses and head for home or carry on searching?

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Marie

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

7 thoughts on “Titanic tales from St Denys part two”

  1. . The gate at the top of the steps is now locked. The people living in the flats don’t like unsavoury characters like me walking near their nice homes, even though there is a steep bank and a high metal fence between the path and their property.
    The gates were closed because Prostitutes were doing there trade on the path till 5am along with drug dealers who would leave discarded needles laying on the path for our kids to find,not to mention Oganised Gang fighting,people drinking and leaving bottles and other waste to clear up.. Ive walked the closed path many a time and came across homeless people heating spoons and taking there cocaine,would you want this outside your home??
    Youve got to look at the slipway/park to see what a shit tip people leave it in. Last summer was a living nightmare for the quay200 residents. The decision to lock the gates was done with a heavy heart.

    1. I appreciate it’s not always a pleasant area, although, in my many, many walks along there, I have never seen any of the things you mention. Even so, it’s a real shame that another part of the river is no longer available to the people of the city.

      1. I agree it’s a shame,most of the issues are late at night,not many Prostitutes come out in the afternoon. I live in quay2000 and have witnessed a lot of the issues personally, ie when walking my dog etc.. The directors of quay2000 are heavily involved with police and council leaders trying to rid st denys of the recent crime (now 3rd worse in Southampton by the way)

  2. I’ve been mourning those lost Victorian houses of Dukes Road for the last thirty years. I was thinking about them just the other day and would dearly love to see any photographs anyone might have. In particular, there was a beautiful terrace of houses at least three stories high, set back from the road on the left just before you turned the corner for The Hobbit on Bevois Valley. Great article. Thanks

    1. Thank you. I did try to find some old photos but, sadly, had no luck. It was thirty odd years ago I lived just up the road from here. The area is unrecognisable today. If only we’d had phones with cameras back then.

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