10 April 2019
There were fourteen Titanic Crew houses in Bevois Valley and, as far as I could tell, many of them were still standing. When we set out this morning, 107 years to the day after Titanic set sail, the plan had been to find the houses in St Denys. Even so, I’d brought the Bevois Valley addresses with me because some of them were so close to where we’d be walking it seemed silly not to tick them off the list. The first few were in Empress Road, once a little terraced street overlooking the railway line and the river. In my imagination, they were much like the houses we’d already seen in Priory Road and an old photo I found later proved me correct. Sadly, they are all gone now. Many were lost to bombing and the last three terraced houses were demolished a couple of years ago.
Today the area is an industrial estate with a giant bus depot, lots of modern shed like units, a supermarket and a few small businesses. There was no chance of finding any of our crew houses but we walked along the road anyway, thinking about the men who once lived here.
One was George Walter Nettleton. He was born in St Denys in 1882 and his mother, Caroline, was a Hampshire lass. His father, Frederick, a tram driver, was originally from London. Frederick and Caroline had seven children.
George spent his early life in Portswood. When he first went to sea is unclear but he had previously worked for some time as a labourer. When he left Oceanic and joined Titanic as a fireman he was living at 23 Empress Road, presumably with his parents. He was unmarried.
Outside of the officers, Titanic’s firemen were paid some of the best wages on the ship, and rightly so. It was their muscle and sweat that kept the ship running. Unlike the stewards, in their starched white jackets, the firemen were hidden away in the bowels of the ship. They had no chance to supplement their £6 a month with tips from rich and grateful passengers and it’s doubtful any of those above decks gave them a single thought. When Titanic sank the majority of the firemen sank with her, shovelling coal to the bitter end in a desperate attempt to give others the best chance of escape. George was probably among them. He did not survive and his body was never identified.
The aptly named Joseph Henry Bevis was born in 1890 in Hastings, the youngest of Albert and Julia’s two children. The family moved from Hastings to 70 Empress Road in about 1911 and Joseph was soon working as a labourer. When he signed on to Titanic as a trimmer he gave his address as 171 Empress Road. He’d never worked at sea before but the wages of £5 10s a month were probably an enticing prospect, especially as the city had been hit badly by strikes and unemployment was rife.
A trimmers job was physically hard, hot and dirty work. They loaded all the coal onto the ship and then worked inside the bunkers with shovels and wheelbarrows moving coal around to keep it level and stop the ship listing. They also shovelled coal down the cute to the firemen in the boiler rooms. Because of the heat, the coal would often spontaneously combust and trimmers were also responsible for putting out any fires in the bunkers. When the ship left Belfast there was a fire burning in one of her bunkers. It continued to burn for most of the journey and Jospeh may have been one of the trimmers trying to fight it.
Sadly, wherever he was and whatever he was doing when Titanic hit the iceberg, Joseph never lived to tell the tale. Like so many of the engineering crew, he was lost with the ship and his body was never identified. His family remained in Southampton. His mother died in 1931 and his father in 1935.
The next house on our list wasn’t actually in Bevois Valley but it didn’t really fit into any other area and was so close by it seemed silly not to try to find it. Empress Road leads to Imperial Road and, at the bottom corner, there is a leafy cutaway leading to Mount Pleasant Road, this was once the home of George Terrill Thresher.
A Southampton native born in 1886, George was one of at least ten children born to George and Catherine Thresher. His father was an engine fitter and the large family lived in Mount Pleasant Road. In the final decade of the nineteenth century the family moved from number 50 Mount Pleasant Road to number 36 and, by 1901, young George was working as an errand boy. A decade later George was working at sea for White Star. He was unmarried and still living with his, now widowed, mother at 36 Mount Pleasant Road.
CJ and I left the cutway with high hopes of finding at least one of the houses George had called home. Unfortunately, although we walked all the way to the railway crossing, we had no luck. The house numbers were more than a little erratic, mainly because many of the houses seem to have disappeared and been replaced by a row of ramshackle garages. Whether this is the result of war time bombing or something else we couldn’t tell. In the end, all we could do was take photographs of the houses that were still standing and try to imagine them as they had been back in 1912.
When Titanic hit the iceberg luck was on George’s side. Due to the terrific heat in the boiler rooms and the physically exhausting job of shovelling tons of coal, the firemen worked four hour shifts with eight hours off duty to recover. George must have been off duty when the collision happened. Exactly how he managed to get on a lifeboat and which one isn’t clear but the chances are his muscles were what got him a place. Each boat needed strong men to row and an officer or able seaman to take command and navigate. In all probability, George was just in the right place at the right time and he survived.
Despite his narrow escape, George continued to work at sea. At some time in the 1930’s he relocated to Gateshead and it was there, in 1937, that he finally married. He was 51 and had his wife, Jane Fawcett, was just two years his junior. Marriage didn’t change him. He carried on working at sea in the Merchant Navy. On 18 November 1939 his luck finally ran out. He was working as a fireman aboard the cargo ship SS Parkhill when she was torpedoed off the coast of Aberdeen. The U-boat, U-18, had already fired one torpedo but the Parkhill had managed to avoid it and steamed on. Less than an hour later they were hit by the second attack and George was one of nine seamen killed. Poor Jane, who had waited so long to become a wife, was widowed within two years. She never remarried and remained in Gateshead until her death in 1964.