Titanic tales from Portswood

The bow of the RMS Titanic taken June 2004 by the ROV Hercules.

11 July 2019

The plan for today was to try to find at least some of the Titanic crew houses in Portswood. As there are a lot of them, covering a large area, and the weather was incredibly hot and humid, I was resigned to the fact that we might not be up to the job of finding all of them. When CJ and I set off the mood was hopeful and doubtful in equal parts. Originally I’d hoped to tick of the handful of houses in Highfield on this walk too but I already knew that was a step too far.

The first of the houses on my list was in Rigby Road, not too far from some of the Bevois Valley Houses we found on our last search. This is not a part of Portswood I know well but we found the road fairly easily. With the vibrant colours of the Mexican Restaurant on the corner, we could hardly have missed it.

As soon as we turned the corner I felt sure we would find the house still standing. Rigby Road is a short cul -de-sac of red brick Victorian terraces, each neat and tidy, with arched doorways and bay windows. Right away I could see one with a plaque so, without even looking at the numbers, we headed right for it. As it happened, it wasn’t the right house but it was interesting all the same.

Number 2 Rigby Road was where artist Eric Meadus was born in 1931. Although he was born in Portswood he grew up in Lobelia Road, next door to my Mother in Law’s childhood home. She even had a painting of his, oil on hardboard, which was used as a fire screen. Meadus painted scenes from the city in a primitive style, inspired by Lowry. His work was exhibited in the Royal Academy and Paris Salon. His house may not have been what we were looking for but it was an interesting find all the same.

Meadus, Eric; Suburban Housing in the Southampton Area; Hampshire County Council’s Fine Art Collection; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/suburban-housing-in-the-southampton-area-25862

At the other end of the road we finally found the house we were looking for. Number fourteen Rigby Road was where Percy Edward Keen once lived. The son of James, a house decorator from Wiltshire and Southampton born Ellen, Percy was born in Portswood Road on 9 August 1881. He was one of four children. He began his working life as a printer but, by 1905, he had gone to sea.

In 1908, he married Adelaide Martha Jane White, a Southampton girl and two years later they had a daughter, Kathleen Frances. When he left Oceanic to join Titanic as a first class saloon steward, the little family were living at 14 Rigby Road. He would have earned £3 15s a month and supplemented that with tips from the wealthy passengers he served. 

Exactly what happened on the night Titanic struck the iceberg isn’t known, although it’s thought Percy somehow managed to get onto lifeboat fifteen. This was the eighth boat lowered from the starboard side. It had been partly filled on the boat deck where a number of crew boarded. Possibly Percy was amongst them. The boat was then lowered to A deck and there picked up passengers. Eyewitness accounts are quite contradictory. At the inquiries some said the boat was mainly filled with women and children, others said the majority were men, many from third class. The inquiries chose to believe the former, although the latter is probably nearer the truth. Whatever really happened, the boat was almost lowered on top of lifeboat thirteen, which had become tangled below.  At the last moment someone managed to cut the falls and release the boat so disaster was narrowly averted. It took between fifteen and twenty minutes for lifeboat fifteen to get away from Titanic. It didn’t pick anyone up from the sea and was the tenth or eleventh boat to reach Carpathia. 

After his lucky escape, Percy returned to England and quickly went back to sea. Later that year his father died and, in 1913, he and Adelaide had a second daughter, Vera Winifred Lucy. Percy had a long seafaring career, continuing until at least the late 1930’s. During this time he worked on many ships beside another Titanic survivor, his friend Edenser Wheelton. It must have been a comfort to find a friend who’d also lived through the disaster. 

In his later years Percy, Adelaide and their daughters lived in Hillside Avenue, Bitterne Park. Percy died in November 1954. His ashes were scattered in the Garden of Rest in South Stoneham Cemetery. Adelaide died in 1964. 

14 Rigby Road

Right beside Percy’s house we spotted an interesting cutaway. Sadly it didn’t looked like it would lead us anywhere we needed to go so, slightly reluctantly, we retraced our steps. Our next house was on Lodge Road and, as we turned the corner, I was quietly confident we would find it.

As it happened, it was a little more complicated than either of us expected but we did find two pieces of interesting local graffiti as we searched.

The house we were looking for was number 29, once the home of William Farr Penney. We walked along the road counting off the numbers but, when we reached 27, on the corner of Spar Road, we were confused to find the house on the opposite corner was 31d. The terrace of three houses looked as if they had been converted into offices and partly rebuilt. As the house after these three is numbered 35, I’m fairly confident the corner house was once number 29 but it has changed a great deal since 1912.

29 Lodge Road, probably

Whatever the truth, this was as close as we were going to get to William’s house. He was born in Barnsley, Middlesex in October 1880. His father, William George Penney, a clothier manager, was from Shoreditch, London and his mother, Annie Maria Farr, was from Huntingdonshire. The couple married in 1871 and had seven children. The family seem to have moved around a fair bit. William’s first years were spent in Islington. The family later moved to Hackney. By 1901 William appears to have gone to sea. 

By 1909 he was living at 29 Lodge Road, Southampton and had married a local girl, Phylis Maude Harrison. Within the year they had a son, Lionel William. According to his family, William had been working for White Star for around six years. Before he joined Titanic as a second class steward he was working as a medical steward aboard the SS New York and had plans to stay in the United States and become a doctor. Unfortunately it wasn’t to be. Poor William perished in the disaster and his body was never identified. It’s unknown what became of Phylis, but his son, Lionel, remained in Southampton where he married Elizabeth Bacon in 1941. He died in 1978.

William Farr Penney, From Encyclopedia Titanica by his great nephew Tony Evans

Our next house was 122 Avenue Road, a very long road running Parallel to Lodge Road from the Avenue all the way to Portswood Road. We’d almost walked to the Avenue before we finally cut through a side street onto Avenue Road and discovered the house numbers there ran in the opposite direction. We were hot and tired by this time and CJ was not impressed that I’d added an unnecessary half mile to our walk. He was even less impressed when we found the house and discovered it was almost opposite the little cutway we hadn’t taken on Rigby Road!

122 Avenue Road

This house was once home to Benjamin James Thomas, born in Clapham, London in May 1881. His father was also called Benjamin and his mother was Jane, a native of Shrewsbury Shropshire. By the time he was ten his father had died and he was living with his mother and younger half brother, Ernest Charles in the boarding house she was running in West Ham, Essex. In 1896 she took a second husband, John Ryan, who was probably Ernest’s father, and they ran a shop together. 

By 1901 Benjamin had gone to sea and his mother, widowed for a second time, was living in Canning Town with his brother. Benjamin married Polly James from Bicester, Oxfordshire in 1906. A year later they were living in Digswell, Hertfordshire and had a daughter Bertha Annie. They later moved to Southampton and set up home at 122 Avenue Road. Benjamin was working as a ship’s steward aboard Olympic, which could explain the move. He was on Olympic when she collided with the Hawke in 1911. Titanic’s Captain Edward Smith was in charge of the Olympic at the time. The two ships were sailing beside each other out of Southampton on the Solent when Olympic turned to starboard. This caught the commander of Hawke by surprise and he wasn’t able to take evasive action in time. The Hawke rammed Olympia’s starboard side near the stern and tore two large holes in it, flooding two watertight compartments and twisting a propellor shaft. Thankfully no one was seriously injured and Olympic managed to limp back to Southampton. Hawke was badly damaged and almost capsized. 

Benjamin joined Titanic for her delivery from Belfast and signed on as a first class steward for her maiden voyage. Like Percy Edward Keen, he was rescued in lifeboat fifteen. Although he was not required to testify at either of the inquiries into the disaster, he was detained for a while, possibly in case his testimony was needed, and was paid expenses of £11 17s 6d as compensation. He never returned to England. Later that year Polly and little Bertha sailed on Oceanic to join him in Plainfield, New Jersey.   He did not go back to sea. Instead he found work as a steward on the Pennsylvania Railroad. Benjamin spent the rest of his life in Plainfield but kept in touch with and visited fellow Titanic survivor Fred Toms, who’d moved from Bitterne Park to Los Angeles. 

Benjamin died in 1937 in the Muhlenberg Hospital in Plainfield, after a short illness. He was just 56. He was buried in Hillside Cemetery in Scotch Plains, New Jersey. Poly remained in Plainfield for the rest of her life. She died in 1949 and was buried with her husband. Bertha worked as a stenographer and married Halsey Saint Mills, an office clerk. They had one son, Thomas, who sadly died aged five. Bertha died in 1978 and was buried with her parents.

The next house on my list was a couple of streets away in Livingstone Road. Luckily, it wasn’t too far to walk. We found number 93 on the corner of Earls Road. It was a surprisingly large, grand looking house for a mere Pantry Steward like our next crew member James Marks. In all likelihood this was just a lodging house back in 1912 though.

James Marks was one of seven children born to Irish parents, Robert John and Mary Jane, in Wishaw, near Glasgow, in October 1884. Robert was a steel worker, who later became a travelling sewing machinist. James began his working life as an iron worker but moved to Portsmouth in 1904 and enlisted in the Royal Marine Light Infantry. Two years later he joined the Royal Navy as a stoker, serving aboard the Nelson, Victory II, Sapphire and finally Canopus. His conduct was not always good and he spent time in the cells for misconduct, abandonment and poor demeanour. In 1908, he married Portsmouth girl, Minnie Reynard, who was pregnant at the time. He was discharged in 1909, probably because of his poor behaviour, and their son, Ronald James, was born later that year. Minnie and her son lived at her father’s house in Landport Street Portsmouth. James appears to have gone straight back to sea in the merchant service. 

When James left the Avon to join Titanic as an assistant pantry steward, first class, he was living apart from Minnie at 93 Livingstone Road. He seems to have abandoned his wife and child and had little contact with them. Whether they ever saw any of his £3 15s monthly wages is unclear. James died in the sinking and his body was never identified. His parents benefitted from the Titanic relief fund but it doesn’t seem as if poor Minnie was provided for at all. She married William Butler in 1921 and they had a son, Anthony John the following year. She died in Gosport in 1971.

93 Livingstone Road

James’ son, Ronald worked in communications for the RAF and spent some time in Palestine. During World War II he served in Malta. He later returned to the UK and was involved in the D-Day landings. In 1947 he married Sheila Irvine from Oxfordshire. They had two children. Ronald retired from the RAF as a Wing Commander in 1963. He then joined NATO’s Allied Radio Frequency Agency in a civilian capacity. He died in 1972 in Brussels.

Our next crew member lived at 23a Gordon Avenue, a short walk away. We found the neat little bay fronted terraced house quite easily. It was numbered 23, so I’m guessing it was divided into flats in 1912. It looked much as it must have back then, except I imagine the red brick was unpainted back then and there certainly wouldn’t have been a satellite dish or wheelie bins in the front garden.

23 Gordon Avenue

Henry Samuel Etches was a local lad, born in Freemantle, Southampton in October 1868. His father, John, a master painter, was originally from Scotland and his mother, Caroline, was from Southampton. They had eleven children. Little us known about Henry’s early life but the family lived in Park Road Millbrook for a time. By 1891 Caroline had been widowed and was living in a boarding house in St Mary’s Road. It seems Henry had gone to sea.

In 1896, Henry married a Worcestershire girl, Lilian Rachel Smith. The couple did not have any children. For a time Lilian was living with friends or family at 114 Derby Road while Henry was at sea and  it isn’t clear exactly when they moved to 23a Gordon Avenue but they were certainly living there at the time of the 1911 census. This was also the address Henry gave when he left Oruba to join Titanic as a first class bedroom steward. His job involved assisting some of the most rich and famous passengers aboard the ship and tips from them would have certainly bolstered his wages. 

He was in charge of eight cabins on the aft port side of B deck and one on A deck. The latter was the cabin of Thomas Andrews, the Chief Designer of Titanic. Every morning at seven o’clock he went to Andrews’ cabin to take him fruit and tea. He then visited him at a quarter to seven each evening to help him dress. He had also met him several times in Belfast when both were on Olympic. 

Henry was off duty at the time of the collision but curiosity led him to head forward along the working alleyway on E deck known as Scotland Road. In the third class accommodation he witnessed a passenger dropping a chunk of ice onto the floor with the words “will you believe it now?”

Once Henry understood the gravity of the situation he went to B deck and began waking his passengers and helping them into their lifebelts. With just nine cabins under his charge this should have been a simple task but it was not. Benjamin Guggenheim, the mining magnate, was reluctant to wear a lifebelt. Even when Henry had persuaded him he said it was too uncomfortable and hurt his back. Henry took it off, adjusted it and then put it back on. After this Guggenheim was more comfortable but he and his valet, Victor Giglio, still had to be persuaded not to go out onto the cold deck in just their evening clothes. Eventually, Henry managed to pull heavy sweaters over their lifebelts and both men went out onto the boat deck. At another cabin the passengers refused to open the door and, even when Henry had explained the situation and warned them of the danger, they wouldn’t open the door or let him in. 

One passenger who did not have to be woken or helped was Thomas Andrews. He was more aware than most of the danger. He’d gone to survey the damaged straight after the collision and knew with certainty the ship would sink. Henry met him on B deck and walked with him down to C deck. The pair walked along C deck together, rousing passengers as they did. They found the purser outside his office surrounded by a large group of ladies. He was trying to persuade them to go to the boat deck. Andrews said, “that is exactly what I have been trying to get them to do,” and walked down the staircase to D deck. This was the last Henry saw of him because the purser ordered him to tell all the other bedroom stewards to get their passengers onto the boat deck and stand by. It was now twenty past twelve, the time Carpathia received Titanic’s distress signal.

By the time Henry got to the boat deck lifeboat seven was being loaded. He saw Guggenheim and his valet going from one lifeboat to the next helping women and children into the boats and shouting “women first.” He was surprised to see they had removed the sweaters and life jackets he’d had so much trouble persuading them to wear. When he asked them why, Mr Guggenheim replied, “we’ve dressed in our best and are prepared to go down like gentlemen.” He also gave Henry a message to pass on to his wife. 

Right after this Henry was ordered into lifeboat five to man an oar. He waved goodbye to Guggenheim and did not see him or his valet again. Third Officer Pitman was in charge of the lifeboat. After the ship had gone down he began to guide it back towards the site to pick up people from the water but there were so many people swimming the passengers were afraid the boat would be swamped and they would all die. Eventually he was persuaded to stand by and the boat did not rescue anyone from the water. Lifeboat five was one of the first to reach Carpathia.

Henry Samuel Etches  From Encyclopaedia Titanica

Later Henry was asked to give evidence at the inquiries. He also kept true to his word and delivered Guggenheim’s message. He went to the St Regis Hotel in New York on 20 April, hoping to speak to Mrs Guggenheim personally. He was not allowed to see her but instead gave the message to her brother in law. Although the message was short, “if anything should happen to me, tell my wife in New York that I’ve done my best in doing my duty,” he had written it down to make sure it was correct. He told Guggenheim’s brother “there wasn’t time for more,” and that Guggenheim and his valet, Giglio, “both died like soldiers.” Later the press would report that Mrs Guggenheim was greatly consoled by the message. Neither Guggenheim or Giglio’s bodies were ever identified, despite great efforts by the Guggenheim family to find them.

Henry did not return to sea after the disaster. He moved to Pershore in Worcestershire where his wife was born and died of chronic myocarditis, in September 1944. He was seventy five. His widow, Lilian, died ten years later. 

The Gordon Arms, Gordon Avenue

We’d started our walk on the edge of Bevois Valley and had been slowly meandering towards the centre of Portswood. Now we walked down Gordon Avenue, past the Gordon Arms pub on the corner with its bright hanging baskets and onto Portswood Road at the beginning of what is, effectively, Portswood High Street. Our next house was somewhere here but it wasn’t going to be easy to find.

We were looking for 134 Portswood Road and Google Maps told me it was around here somewhere. The problem was most of the shops displayed names but no house numbers and the ones we did find didn’t seem to go in any particular order. We walking up and down peering at the shop fronts trying to work out which might have once been 134. It was incredibly humid and we were both tired. We’d already walked more than four miles on our sinuous search and our water was running out.

We stopped for a while in the shade of the shop fronts while I searched Google, trying to find out which shop was number 134. The most likely one was the large Iceland supermarket, or at least part of it, it was clear none of the modern buildings had been standing in 1912 so our house was long gone.

We may not have been able to find the house, or to even be sure of exactly where it once was, but we did know the story of the man who once lived there. Francis Ernest George Coy was born in Thetford, Norfolk in 1885. His father, also called Francis, was a tool maker and machine fitter from Stretham, Cambridgeshire. He and Francis’s mother, Ada, married in 1884 and went on to have three more children, all girls. Francis Senior was working as an engineer in the dockyards by 1891 and his son followed in his footsteps to become an engine fitter’s apprentice. He served his apprenticeship in Portsmouth Dockyard working alongside his father. 

In 1907, Francis joined the White Star Line as sixth engineer on Oceanic. He was obviously good at his job because he was soon promoted to fifth engineer and then to assistant fourth engineer aboard Olympic. Like Benjamin James Thomas, he was aboard Olympic when she collided with the HMS Hawke in September 1911.

Shortly after this lucky escape, Francis married Beatrice Elizabeth Bridges a bookkeeper from Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk. Beatrice was living with her parents in Oxford Avenue, Southampton at the time and the couple set up home together at 134 Portswood Road. Francis joined Titanic as junior assistant 3rd engineer, another promotion, earning £11 10s a month. None of the engineers survived the sinking. All were most likely below decks doing all they could to keep the ship afloat and give passengers time to get away on the lifeboats. Francis’s body was never identified. Beatrice did not remarry for over twenty years. In 1933, she married James H Cox and spent her last days living in Worthing, Sussex. She died in 1951

Francis Ernest George Coy From Encyclopaedia Titanica

By now CJ and I were both flagging badly. We still had a lot of houses to find but we were in need of a sit down in the shade and something to drink. The problem was, all the places we could have found these things were in the opposite direction to our next houses…

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Marie

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

4 thoughts on “Titanic tales from Portswood”

    1. Thank you. It’s nice when we find the houses of the survivors, although their lives were changed forever by that night.

  1. Great read. My great grandfather , survived Titanic and lived in Portswood. His name was Humphreys, I think lifeboat no. 11.

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