Chester has several links with the ill-fated Titanic. Some are fairly direct, others fairly tenuous.
While there are many "conspiracy theories" about the foundering of Titanic, including that the ship which sank was actually the sister-ship Olympic engaged in a botched insurance fraud, the accepted view is that on a moonless and very still, but slightly hazy night, long before the advent of RADAR, the world's largest liner steamed into an iceberg. The collision was an unfortunate one as it was a glancing blow which damaged several of the "watertight" compartments into which Titanic was divided. Just about any other angle of collision would have damaged the ship but may not have sunk it. However RMS Titanic sank in the early morning hours of 15 April 1912 in the North Atlantic Ocean, four days into her maiden voyage from Southampton to New York City. The largest ocean liner in service at the time, Titanic had an estimated 2,224 people on board when she struck the iceberg at around 23:40 (ship's time) on Sunday, 14 April 1912. Her sinking two hours and forty minutes later at 02:20 (ship's time; 05:18 GMT) on Monday, 15 April, resulted in the deaths of more than 1,500 people, making it one of the deadliest peacetime maritime disasters in history. In accordance with then existing practice, Titanic's lifeboat system was designed to ferry passengers to nearby rescue vessels, not to hold everyone on board simultaneously; therefore, with the ship sinking rapidly and help still hours away, there was no safe refuge for many of the passengers and crew.
Before the scale of the disaster was realised, false rumours circulated that other ships had arrived in time to take the passengers off. Some of these even originated with the White Star Line. Like many other newspapers, the Chester Courant reported on 17th April that:
- "..immediately after the collision wireless messages were broadcast, the operator signal “S.O.S”, the urgent call for assistance. There was no panic on board, and the liners Baltic, Virginian and Carpathia ultimately arrived on scene and transferred passengers. Nothing but the watertight compartments and the invaluable wireless telegraphy, however, prevented the most appalling disaster, for the collision was a severe one, and to an ordinary vessel would have been immediately disastrous".
As later telegrams were received, the true extent of the accident was revealed: by the 20th April the Chester Chronicle reported:
- "..the Titanic sank at 2.20 on Monday morning, that is to say about four hours after the collision. Of those on board, numbering about 2,200, by far the larger portion perished"
RMS Carpathia arrived about an hour and a half after the sinking and rescued the last of the survivors by 09:15 on 15 April, some nine and a half hours after the collision. The disaster shocked the world and caused widespread outrage over the lack of lifeboats, lax regulations, and the unequal treatment of the three passenger classes during the evacuation.
Lowe and Sons
The Row shop (Lowe and Sons - an easy to miss, rather upmarket, silversmith) has an intact Edwardian hardwood interior - the best example of its period in Chester, with a stair to an arcaded gallery at third storey level, having tapered square posts, with entasis, round arches and triple keys. This gallery probably reflects the 17thC arrangement. There is a probably 17thC chamfered oak beam across shop and rear passage. The chamber above the Row has a C17 beam morticed for a former stud partition. The rear wing, east, has Georgian brickwork and a Georgian window. A narrow stair leads to the altered fourth storey which has some oak studding, wattle-and-daub and an exposed 17thC trenched-purlin roof truss. It's often been said that it's the oldest store still trading in Chester city centre. Throughout the 19th and 20th centuries the Lowe family dominated the story of Chester silver. Their finest piece of work on display in the Grosvenor Museum Silver Gallery is a hot water jug of 1830 by George Lowe I. Also on display is the last piece of silver hallmarked at the Chester Assay Office before its closure in 1962, and a new bowl, commissioned by the then owners of Lowe & Sons to celebrate the opening of the gallery.
Lowe and Sons was founded in Chester by the first George Lowe in 1770 and has occupied the premises in Bridge Street Row since 1804. Harold Lowe, a grandson of George Lowe of Chester, was fifth officer on the Titanic and one of the heroes of its sinking in 1912.
Harold Lowe grew up in Barmouth where his father ran a branch of Lowe and Sons and was a regular visitor to the Chester store, then owned by his uncle. Harold did have the opportunity to join the family business but instead chose to run away to sea.
He was born Harold Godfrey Lowe at Bryn Lupus Llanrhos, Caernarvonshire, on 21 November 1882, the fourth of eight children, born to George and Harriet Lowe. The family later moved first to Harlech (1883) and then in 1893 to Penrallt, Barmouth and Harold learnt to sail on the Mawddach estuary. His elder brother George was drowned in the estuary in a boating accident in 1895 and Harold himself had a boating accident in 1896 when he was capsized. He ran away to sea at age 14, as a cabin boy on a traditional square-rigged sailing ship from Liverpool. His father did not want him to go to sea as he had seen one son drown and had offered him a position as an apprentice, but as Lowe put it:
- "I was not going to work for anybody for nothing...I wanted to be paid for my labour."
The first record of him on a ship is from 1900 when he was an ordinary seaman on the William Keith. In 1904 he joined the RNR as a rating. During the next five years he earned enough certificates to make him an officer, becoming qualified as a second mate in 1906 and as first mate in 1908. In 1911, he held a masters certificate and joined the White Star Line. In his own words, he had:
- "experience with pretty well every ship afloat – the different classes of ships afloat – from the schooner to the square-rigged sailing vessel, and from that to steamships, and of all sizes."
He served as third officer on White Star's Belgic and on Tropic before being transferred to Titanic as Fifth Officer in 1912. Despite his numerous years at sea, however, the maiden voyage of Titanic was to be his first transatlantic crossing. Like the ship's other junior officers, Lowe reported to White Star's Liverpool offices at nine o'clock in the morning on 26 March 1912, and travelled to board the Titanic at Belfast the following day. On sailing day (10 April), Lowe assisted (among other things) in the lowering of two of the starboard lifeboats to satisfy the Board of Trade that the Titanic met safety regulations. On 14 April 1912, he was Fifth Officer on RMS Titanic when the newly built liner struck an iceberg.
Lowe had been relieved at 8.00 PM by Sixth Officer James Moody, was off watch at the time and fast asleep in his bunk at 11:40 when the ship struck the iceberg. He remained asleep through the collision and did not wake up until as much as half an hour had passed; as he explained later:
- "We officers do not have any too much sleep, and therefore when we sleep, we die."
He was eventually alerted by the sound of voices outside his cabin on the boat deck (strangely none of the other officers had thought to rouse him). He was put in charge of loading passengers into some of the lifeboats by Third Officer Herbert Pitman. He portrayed a cool and calm demeanour under pressure. Before and during loading of lifeboats it is said he ordered J. Bruce Ismay, Managing Director White Star Line, to get out of his way:
- "If you will get the hell out of that then I shall be able to do something. Do you want me to lower away quickly? You will have me drown the lot of them"
Around 1.30 AM, Lowe engaged in a conversation with Sixth Officer Moody: While launching lifeboat Nos. 14 and 16 on the port side of the ship, the two junior officers felt that this group of boats needed to have an officer with them. Moody insisted that Lowe should get onto lifeboat No. 14 and that he would get on another one. Moody was drowned, and his body was never recovered.
It was only women and children who were allowed but a few men tried to get on the lifeboats. While no. 14 was being lowered Lowe dissuaded them with his pistol and fired three shots into the air along the side of the ship to show that he meant business.
He took charge of lifeboat 14 and ordered it to stay 150 yards from the sinking liner with the intention of returning to pick up survivors in the water. He gathered together four more lifeboats and transferred people from his own boat to the other four, then with a volunteer crew he set out to try to recover any survivors amongst the wreckage and dead bodies. He had waited until the swimmers had thinned out before returning so that they would not be swamped and capsized by their numbers. It was only well-into the rescue operation that they realised this had been unnecessary; the water being simply too cold for anyone to survive any great amount of time, let alone have the energy to swamp a lifeboat. His boat picked up four survivors, one of whom died from injuries. Eventually they were all rescued by Cunarder RMS Carpathia. An image taken by a passenger on the Carpathia clearly shows Lowe at the tiller of lifeboat 14 as they approach rescue. He remained aboard his lifeboat long enough to ship the mast and make certain everything was properly stowed.
The Titanic survivors arrived at Pier 54 in New York on 18 April. Lowe was soon called upon to testify in the American inquiry into the sinking. He boarded the Adriatic on 2 May to return to England, where he participated in the British inquiry. Lowe's testimony in the American Senate Hearing was direct, often to the point of being flippant, although some of the questions he was asked to answer were rather silly; when asked what an iceberg was composed of, Lowe responded, "Ice, I suppose, sir." Lowe also came under some fire for some remarks. He had to apologise twice for using the word "Italian" as synonym for "coward".
Lowe served in the Royal Navy during the First World War. He served on HMS Donegal and, in the Far East, HMS Suffolk. He eventually attained the rank of Lieutenant Commander of the Royal Navy Reserve, before being released by the RNR with the rank of Commodore in 1927. He never achieved a command in the merchant service.
He retired from seafaring in 1931 and moved into 1 Marine Crescent, Deganwy. He pursued his hobbies of boating, fishing and shooting, and after the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939 became an Air Raid Precautions warden. He suffered a stroke in 1942 which left him confined to a bath chair and died on 12th May 1944. His death certificate cited hypertension and "cerebral haemorrhage malaria (chronic)". He had probably become infected by malaria as a young man sailing around Africa.
He is buried in Llandrillo. In the same churchyard is that of the body of a man who was found floating in the sea off Rhos Point at the end of December 1894. He was wearing a lifebelt inscribed with a ship’s name, Loweswater, and had a cross tattooed on his arm. The ship had sailed from Liverpool for Brazil but had been lost in a storm. The ship owners, Jackson, Metcalfe & Co. of Liverpool, claimed to have no knowledge of the man and refused to attend the inquest. The jury criticised the owners, and, after a public subscription was raised, all the jurors attended the man’s funeral as a token of respect.
Lowe is not the only connection between Chester and the doomed ship: William Wynn, a surviving deckhand on Titanic, was born in Chester.
William Wynn (Quartermaster), known to his friends as Bill or "Punch", was born in Chester, Cheshire, England on 13 November 1870. His exact background is uncertain as there are no identifiable census records for him but he reportedly lost his father in 1890 and around the same time lost contact with his family. As a boy he attended Holy Trinity Boys' School. Holy Trinity, a National school, was opened in Linenhall Street in Holy Trinity parish in 1869. The National schools charged small weekly fees, and a marked increase in the number of very poor children unable to pay led to the formation in 1851 of the Chester Ragged School Society, which recognized the need for free education for poor, orphaned, and neglected children. The school closed in 1939.
At age eleven and a half became an errand boy at Bollands and then at a tailor's in Foregate Street before working as a conductor on the Trams. Around this time he became involved with "a group of trouble-makers". An elderly lady made herself interested in him, drawing him away from trouble and being instrumental in having him posted to the training ship "Clio". The Clio had been towed to the Menai Straits in 1877 and, for the next 40 years, provided care and training for homeless, destitute and poor boys aged 12 to 16, provided they had not been convicted of any crime. In practice, the ship was often used as an alternative to a conviction for young offenders, bullying was rife and punishments brutal. The boys slept in hammocks which must have been icy-cold in winter, despite the provision of flannel drawers, and the Clio’s 1879 Annual Report records several cases of frostbite during the previous winter and that "one poor little fellow lost some of his toes".
In January 1939 the following article appeared in the Chester Observer:
- "In the 1880s one Chester lad may have been heard asking another "What's happenned [sic] to Punch Wynn?" and the reply might well have been, "Oh, didn't you know 'e 'ad gone to sea?" What has happened to Punch Wynn in the Intervening years? Recently, while strolling the deck of a big liner, my attention was drawn to an old sailor. I addressed a deck steward who stood near by — "Who Is that old fellow?" The deck steward glanced towards the games deck where the sailor was busy supervising and assisting with the removal of deck tennis nets, quoits, ping pong table, etc., so that the deck might be prepared for a night attraction. "Oh! that is old Bill Wynn" a pause, then "'e's a lad oi tell yer. Yer should get ’old of ’im some time, sir. an' 'e'll tell yer 'ow 'e got away from the Titanic." I was interested and watched for suitable opportunity for a chat with the old man. who was always busy about the ship. Considering his years, he was a remarkable man, he was never idle. During the day he would be found tying up here, washing down there, or polishing brass work. One afternoon I skipped up to the promenade deck, where all was quiet. Games were suspended and all passenger were enjoying forty winks either in their berths or in deck chairs on the sunny decks. Yes, there he was, rolling along with a bucket in one hand and a bundle of cleaning rags in the other, towards the stern of the ship, a typical old salt who might have materialised from Marryat's pages. I decided to walk round the other way and come upon him as if by an accident. I found him wiping a capstan head. I asked him if I might take a snapshot. He readily agreed, and we got into conversation. "I was born in Chester." This was interesting, for I, too, was born in Chester. I gradually gleaned that as a boy he attended Holy Trinity Boys' School. When he was about 11½ years of age he became an errand boy at Bollands, and then at a talor's shop in Foregate-street; later he acted as a conductor on the trams. But he always felt the "call of the sea," as he termed it. About this time he was mixing with a number of young lads, among whom were some who might have led him into trouble; he was therefore glad when an old lady interested herself on his behalf, and was instrumental in getting him posted to the training ship Clio. When he was 16, he was sent to Liverpool, where he shipped in a 100 ton schooner. But he did not get enough to eat and sought and obtained a job in a bigger vessel. In 1888, while he was employed on a large sailing ship, the Garfield, he nearly lost his life in a typhoon while on a voyage from India to New York. He was employed by an American Line when the Spanish-American war broke out, and he joined the American Navy "for the duration." Later, while in Southampton, he married a local girl, just as the South African war broke out, and he was soon employed in ship sailing to and from South Africa with troops and invalids. The war over he joined the White Star Line, where he was on the quartermaster's staff of the Oceanic. One day the men were assembled, and he was chosen to proceed to Belfast, where he found he was posted to the Titanic. The vessel sailed for New York on the 10th April 1912, on her fateful voyage. As the old man put it. "It was on Sunday night, the 14th, we ran into a nest of icebergs," and the great vessel, which was said to be "the last word," was struck by the submerged shelf of an iceberg. There followed one of the greatest disasters in the history of the Marine, for two hours later the Titanic sank, and all but 706 of her 2,300 passengers lost their lives. He would never forget the scenes he witnessed during that short period. He was placed in charge of a lifeboat containing 55 women and four men. It will be remembered that, in response to frantic S.O.S. messages, the Carpathia arrived and took aboard those she found on the rafts and in the lifeboats of the Titanic. Arrived back in England, he was granted six months' rest. In 1914 he was afloat in the Olympic when war was declared, and he "carried on" during the period of the Great War in different ships, finishing up in the Persian Gulf. He could tell some stories about this period of his life. "And I am still afloat, sir, in the crack ship of the Union Castle Line, the Stirling Castle," and it will be seen from the photograph that Punch Wynn (he informed me that this was his nick-name when he was a lad in Chester), is still going strong. He has lost track of his relatives-never heard of one since he lost his father in 1890. He has never had a day's illness since he went to sea, and he has been over 55 years a seaman. He is indeed a fine example of merchant sailor, and a credit to "Ye Ancient Citye." J.F."
Wynn may have initially been placed in charge of a lifeboat, but he left the ship in lifeboat 9, which was under the command of Boatswain's Mate Albert Hames with Able Seaman George McGough at the tiller. Accounts of the numbers in the boat vary widely some state that No 9 left Titanic about 1:30 with 56 aboard and was the fifth boat to be launched from the starboard side. Boats 1, 3, 5 and 7 held only passengers from first class besides the crew. In boat 9, the situation changed.. Most passengers were women, with two or three men who entered when no more women came forward. Other accounts have the boat with only 35-40 people: twelve ladies, six or seven men passengers as well as perhaps 18 male crew members.
The Union Castle Line served the African Route and the passenger list and booklet from July 1939 survives. William himself passed away in 1945 at the age of 75. He was buried in an unmarked grave at Hollybrook Cemetery, Southampton
Lilian, daughter of Thomas Hughes perished in the sinking. She was married at St Paul in Boughton, Chester in 1890 to Ernest Courtenay Carter (b. 1858), a clergyman originally from Berkshire. The newly married couple appeared on the 1891 census living at the Vicarage in Chieveley, Berkshire before they settled in London, appearing on the 1901 and 1911 censuses at St Jude's Vicarage, 26 Commercial Street, Whitechapel. Lillian learned Yiddish so that she could speak with and assist local poor jewish families. She also helped to run a rest cottage at Longcot, Oxfordshire.
The couple had no children. Lillian and her husband boarded the Titanic at Southampton as second class passengers (ticket number 244252 which had cost £26). On the night of the sinking it is believed that the Carters made their way up to the boat deck during the evacuation and were, according some accounts, offered a space in a lifeboat together. However, they chose to remain behind and it has been suggested that this was because Mrs Carter refused to leave her husband. She was one of only 12 (some say 13) second class women passengers to drown the remaining 83 second class women (some say 78) and all of the 117 first class women save 4 were rescued.
The ship which accompanied the Carpathia to New York was USS Chester, but is named after Chester Pennsylvania, which was in turn named after the original Chester in 1682 by William Penn. Penn is known to have visited Chester in 1687, but it is not known whether he had visited prior to his first trip to the US.
The bell of the SS Galeka hangs on the corner of St John's Hospital in Chester. Galeka was photographed alongside Titanic's sister ship Britannic in 1915. The keel for Britannic was laid on 30 November 1911 at the Harland and Wolff shipyard in Belfast, on the gantry slip previously occupied by the Olympic, 13 months after the launch of that ship. Titanic had been launched on 31 May 1911 so while Britannic was building Titanic was fitting out and the ships were never "side by side". The Galeka bell was brought to Chester by MP for Chester, Owen Philipps, who at times owned both the Union Castle Line and White Star Line and whose downfall for fraud ended in a prison sentence.
A Titanic Scam?
A rather mysterious photograph shows a woman standing in what is believed to be Foregate Street in Chester with a pony. Apparently she is collecting money. A sign on the pony reads "I WAS SAVED FROM THE TITANIC.." - but there were no ponies on the Titanic when it sank in 1912 (and so none were saved). The only animals on board were dogs (three of the twelve on board survived), cats, chickens, other birds and an unknown number of rats and mice. The tramlines are seemingly absent in the photograph and the surrounding building pattern seems wrong in parts. However that does appear to be the Hop-Pole in the background, given the shape of the windows and the name visible above the door.
White Star's one time flagship Oceanic was laid down in 1897. She was named after their first successful liner RMS Oceanic of 1870, and was to be the first ship to exceed Brunel's SS Great Eastern in length (marked out on the City Walls of Chester). On 22 August 1888, the first Oceanic collided with the coastal liner SS City of Chester, according to one witness, "cutting her just as though she was a cheese" just outside the Golden Gate; the latter ship sank, killing 16 on board. Thereafter the name Oceanic was associated with bad luck at sea. The second Oceanic became involved in the near collision of Titanic with SS New York, when Oceanic was nearby as New York broke from her mooring and nearly collided with Titanic, due to the large wake caused by Titanic′s size and speed. A month later, in mid-May 1912, Oceanic picked up three bodies in one of the lifeboats left floating in the North Atlantic after Titanic sank. Oceanic was eventually wrecked in 1914 - the first Allied passenger ship to be lost in the war. The wreck was caused by a miscalculation of navigator David Blair (or Davy) (11 November 1874 – 10 January 1955). He was a British merchant seaman with the White Star Line, which had reassigned him from RMS Titanic just before its maiden voyage. Due to his hasty departure, he accidentally kept a key to a storage locker believed to contain the binoculars intended for use by the crow's nest lookout (there are other versions in which he took the binoculars with him). The absence of any binoculars within the crow's nest is believed to be one of the main contributory factors in Titanic’s ultimate demise, although there were other intervening causes. The First Officer of Oceanic when it was wrecked, and the last man off the ship, was Charles Lightoller the second officer on board RMS Titanic. The Commander in charge at the time of the wreck was named Smith, just like Titanic. The disaster was hushed up at the time, since it was felt that it would have been embarrassing to make public how a world-famous liner had run aground in friendly waters in good weather within a fortnight of beginning its service as a naval vessel. Another RMS City of Chester a British passenger steamship that sailed on the transatlantic route from 1873 to 1898 briefly became the largest passenger ship afloat when launched on 29 March 1873.
Chester's "Art Deco" Odeon is actually an a-typical example of the style. It was not designed by Harry Weedon (who despite a long career never actually designed a cinema), but by Robert Bullivant a member of Weedon's team, and opened to an invited audience on October 3rd 1936 with Ned Sparks in “Two’s Company”. The Odeon was closed on 14th June 2007. Just as it it closed, the "Marquee Letter Board" on the front of the cinema was changed to read "GOODBYE: IM NEVER GONNA FORGET YOU" - a (perhaps double-edged) quote from the character Fabrizio De Rossi in the film "TITANIC".