25 July 2019
This morning we finally set out to find the last of the Portswood Titanic crew houses. It was yet another stupidly hot muggy day, not a cloud in the sky or a hint of wind, probably not the best for walking the streets looking for houses. We only had eleven to find though and a fairly small area to cover. Roadworks on the corner near Bitterne Park Triangle meant a short detour and a walk on the park side of the bridge rather than the railway side. It made no real difference to distance but gave us different views to admire. The little houseboats moored on the bank seemed especially appealing in the searing heat of the morning.
It wasn’t long before we were turning onto Kent Road, where we hoped to find the first two houses on my list. The first one we found, number 40, was in the middle of a terrace of three narrow fronted cottages. Some improvements had obviously been made since 1912, including a new porch and new windows. Next door, number 38 gave us a good idea of how it once must have looked.
This was where Walter Henry Nichols once lived. He was not a Southampton native, having been born in June 1876 in Brompton, Middlesex. His father, George, originally from London, was a coachman and his mother, Ruth, was from Swansea. The couple married in Derbyshire in 1863 and, after a brief spell in Hampshire, moved to London in 1868. They had eight children. Walter passed away in 1881, aged just forty. The family were living in Battersea at the time and Ruth made ends meet by taking in laundry.
Ten years later most of the family had moved to Chiddingfold, Surrey and were living in a laundry, presumably, where Ruth worked. Walter, aged just fourteen was lodging with Charles Harpman in Lambeth, London though and working as a builder’s clerk. Not long after this he went to sea as a steward. When he married Florence Helen Sheath in September 1901, he’d already been working at sea for ten years, although he was still just twenty four. The couple were married in Richmond and went onto have four children, Walter, Dorothy, Basil and Audrey. By 1911 the family were living at 40 Kent Road and Walter was working on the immigration ship, St Paul. The coal strike in early 1912 prompted him to sign on to Titanic as an assistant second class saloon steward, earning £3 15s a month.
On the night of 14 April, Walter was awoken by the vibration of the ship striking the iceberg. A little later the engines stopped. Neither he or his fellow stewards were especially concerned and most stayed in bed. Curiosity drew Walter, still in his pyjamas, to go to see what had happened. This undoubtedly saved his life. He was ordered to report to the boat deck. On his way there he saw unconcerned passengers in the gymnasium on exercise bicycles and working out on punch bags.
When he arrived on the starboard side of the deck there were lifeboats already in the water and the ship seemed low and tilted slightly forward. He saw the officer in charge with a revolver in his hand, but he was calm and speaking quietly so Walter was still not overly concerned. This was probably either First Officer William McMaster Murdoch, Third Officer Herbert Pitman or Fifth Officer Harold Lowe, the officers in charge of the lifeboats on this side of the ship.
Walter was assigned to lifeboat fifteen. As he waited to be lowered he heard the band playing. Lifeboat fifteen was lowered from the boat deck to A deck. Here Walter recalled officers urging women to get into lifeboats but they were reluctant to leave the ship. Even at this late stage most, including Walter, didn’t believe the ship would sink and this could explain why so many lifeboats were not filled. Walter estimated there to have been around fifty people in his lifeboat, although other accounts give conflicting numbers. There were certainly less women than many suggested and far more men and third class passengers
In Walter’s account, later published in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle newspaper, he made no mention of the near disaster when lifeboat fifteen was almost lowered on top of lifeboat thirteen, which had become entangled below. Perhaps he wasn’t aware of it? It was only as they were rowing away that the full scale of the disaster became apparent. Walter could see that the prow of the ship was so low in the water that the propeller was above the waterline. He could hear the band still playing. After about an hour of rowing around trying to keep warm, he noticed the front of the boat going under the water. This was when he finally realised it wasn’t just a little break from the monotony of work and the ship really was going down.
He recalled the ship sinking slowly and steadily until there was a small explosion. This he believed to be one of the boilers. After this the lights began to go out. Then there was another, larger, explosion and a mass of black smoke and the ship rose out of the water, tilting on end with the prow under water. This was when he saw people falling, or maybe jumping, into the sea. Then the ship seemed to break and drop down.
Now the air was filled with the sound of people screaming and crying for help. The cries stayed with Walter for the rest of his life but he knew there was nothing he or the others on the lifeboat could have done. There were so many in the water their little boat would have been swamped and all aboard lost if they’d gone to help. The cries went on for half an hour or more, slowly getting fainter as people succumbed to the icy sea.
Lifeboat fifteen was the tenth or eleventh boat to reach Carpathia. By this time it was dawn and, for the first time Walter saw the icebergs all around them. He said he had never seen so many icebergs in all his years at sea and there were bodies and pieces of wreckage floating amongst them.
Walter returned to England and carried on working at sea. He served on the troopship SS Royal Edward and the hospital ship HMS Panama during World War I. Later he returned to the merchant service before retiring from the sea to become a postmaster in the village of West Moors, Dorset. During World War II he worked in several military establishments in Weymouth. In the 1950’s he helped Walter Lord with his research for the film A Night To Remember. Walter and Florence continued to live in West Moors for the rest of their lives. Florence died in 1955 and Walter followed in 1969, aged eighty three.
The second crew member living in Kent Road was Albert Victor Pearcey. The son of Southampton couple Jesse, a brick maker and builder and Elizabeth. Albert was born in January 1887, also in Southampton. He was one of eleven children. Albert’s childhood was spent living in Winchester Road, South Stoneham. By 1901 the family had moved to 23 Kent Road, a little semi detached cottage still standing today. By this time Albert had already left school and begun work as a gardener’s boy. Ten years later he had joined White Star as a steward but was still unmarried and living with his parents. In 1912 he was working on Oceanic but was transferred to Titanic as a Pantry Steward, earning £4 a month.
Albert didn’t feel the collision and only found out about it when he heard the order to close the watertight doors. After he had helped close the doors he was ordered to take passengers to the boat deck. He helped some passengers to put on life belts and guided them through the emergency door into the first class main companionway running from the boat deck to the upper deck. Assisted by his colleagues, William Denton Cox and John Edward Hart he then led groups of third class passengers up to the boat deck.
When he was on the boat deck he found two unattended babies. He picked them up and placed them into Collapsable lifeboat C which had been fitted into the empty davits after lifeboat 1 had been launched about half an hour before. First Officer Murdoch must have come along at this time because he told Albert to get into the boat and take charge of the babies, which he did.
Standing close to the boat, along with several third class passengers from the Middle East, was J Bruce Ismay, the chairman and managing director of White Star. All night he had been helping passengers into boats and urging them to get away. Also nearby was Quartermaster Rowe, who’d been trying to contact nearby ships with the morse lamp and firing rockets. When between twenty five and thirty women and children had been helped into the boat and, according to Albert, no others were on the deck, Quartermaster Rowe and several other crew were ordered aboard. There were still empty seats and Ismay, along with another first class passenger, William Carter, got into the boat. It was then lowered, the ninth and last boat to leave the starboard side.
Albert handed the babies to other passengers and took an oar. Bruce Ismay also took an oar but kept his back to Titanic so he could not see her sinking. He was later vilified for getting into the boat and his life was ruined by it. He fell into a deep depression from which he never really recovered. Albert did watch the ship sink. He described Titanic as having a list on the port side. He watched her go down, her head down and her stern upright with her keel visible. The sight upset him so much he couldn’t properly describe it later at the English inquiry but said her lights were burning to the end. It sank just twenty minutes after Collapsible lifeboat C was launched.
There were about forty people on Collapsible lifeboat C, although Albert put that number at seventy one. It was the tenth or twelfth boat to reach Carpathia. Albert returned to Southampton and carried on working at sea. He had various jobs, including as a ship’s baker and worked on various ships including Aquitaine. He later married but there is no record of him having any children. He died in Southampton in 1952 and is buried in South Stoneham Cemetery.
Feeling pleased to have ticked off two houses so easily, we carried on along Kent Road, under the low railway bridge towards our next destination, Belgrave Road. From the outset I knew this would be a different story. Once this was a street of mostly terraced houses much like many we have seen in Portswood. They were built in the late 1800’s of red bricks with square bay windows to the front parlour and, on the east side, backed onto the railway line. Not one remains today, the last of them were demolished somewhen in the 1970’s and the road is now an industrial estate.
We walked past the modern industrial units trying to imagine what must once have been here. The houses may have gone but we could still tell the stories of the men who lived there. Edward John Harris lived at number 83. He was born in Southampton in late 1883 to Charles, a bricklayer and Eliza. He had eleven siblings, including twin sisters. His childhood was spent living in Ivy Road, South Stoneham but, by 1901, the family had moved to Northcote Road in Portswood. Edward and one of his brothers were working as bricklayers labourers, possibly with their father.
By 1911 the family were living in Kingsbury Way Bevois Valley and Edward had left bricklaying and gone to sea as a fireman. Perhaps he wanted an adventure, or just to get away from what must have been an increasingly cramped and overcrowded house. Maybe though, it was just better money, as a fireman earned £6 a month. When he left Oceanic to join Titanic he was living at 83 Belgrave Road, whether his family were also living there isn’t clear but I suspect they were.
A fireman’s job was hot, dirty and very demanding. It required muscle to shovel endless tons of coal into the boilers and firemen worked four hour shifts with eight hours off. Who lived and who died was down to the luck of whether they were working or resting when the ship hit the iceberg. Those working kept shovelling to the bitter end, keeping the pumps working and the lights shining. Once the ship began to list, there would have been little chance of climbing the steep ladders to get out of the boiler room. Whether Edward was down in the dark and heat at the end isn’t clear but he didn’t survive and his body was never identified.
Wilfred George Platt lived little further down the road, at 107. Wilfred was born in Southampton in 1894, one of Guernsey born John and Mary Platt’s four children. John was a seaman and the family lived in Peto Street, St Mary’s, later moving to Clifford Street. By 1911 the family had moved again and were living at 107 Belgrave Road, Wilfred was working as an assistant butcher.
At some time in 1911 or early 1912, Wilfred decided to follow in his father’s footsteps and go to sea on the Oceanic. In April 1912 he joined Titanic as a scullion. It was not the most glamorous job, fetching, carrying, washing pans and dishes and cleaning the kitchens. The pay of £3 10s a month with no chance of tips wasn’t exactly great either but it may have been better than that of a butcher’s assistant.
What happened to poor Wilfred on that fateful night isn’t known. He was almost certainly off duty when the ship hit the iceberg but probably, like so many others, didn’t realise the danger he was in until it was too late. He did not survive and his body was never identified.
At the end of Belgrave Road we turned onto Portswood Road. The Brook pub on the corner was one of the few buildings Edward and Wilfred would have recognised. Living so close together, it is likely the two men knew each other, they’d worked on the same ships after all, even if in very different jobs. Perhaps they shared a pint or two in this very pub?
Our next house was on Broadlands Road, one of the roads that runs off Portswood road almost opposite the Brook. It is almost half a mile long and curves up hill past the University all the way to Burgess Road. CJ and I were already overheating so we were hoping number 6 was not too far away. As it happened we were in luck and we found the house quite quickly. It was a small mid terrace, much like the houses on Belgrave Road would have been apart from the steep steps leading to the front door.
This little house was once home to Errol Victor McGraw. Errol was born in early 1882 in Aldershot, Hampshire to Robert and Ellen. He had two siblings. After Robert died in 1887, Ellen took up with James Oliver Watson, a boat maker from Southampton, and soon Errol had another sibling, a half sister. By 1891, the family were living in Folkestone, where Ellen had been born but, after Ellen and John married in 1898, they resettled in Southampton. By 1901 they we’re living in Ash Tree Road South Stoneham but Errol doesn’t appear on the census of that year.
In 1902 Errol married Mary Anne Francis Clarke from St Denys. Between 1903 and 1909, they had three children, Florence, Errol and Dorothy and, by 1911, they were living on Queenstown Road Freemantle. Errol was driving a baker’s van for a local cooperative. Most likely this was a horse drawn van, much like the one my own grandfather used to drive.
In April 1911 Errol’s step father died. This was a man Errol had probably thought of as a father since he was just five years old and it may have been this event that prompted him to go to sea. At some time that year he joined Oceanic as a fireman and around that time the family seem to have moved to Broadlands Road. Whatever prompted these changes, Errol left Oceanic to join Titanic in April 1912. Like so many of the firemen aboard, he did not survive and his body was never identified.
Mary Anne did not remarry and continued to live in Hampshire. She died in Winchester in 1971. Errol’s children also stayed in Hampshire. Florence married Herbert Dacombe and died in Winchester in 1987. Errol junior married Violet Nother in 1930. He died in Southampton in 1988. Dorothy married Albert Yarney in 1933. She died in Winchester in 1983. In a cruel twist of fate Errol’s brother Robert also died at sea. He was working as a greaser on the SS Derrynane when it was attacked and sunk in February 1941.