A Survivor's Heartache

At 20, Charlotte Tate left her home in Surrey, England and went to work as a cook and housekeeper for the Vicar in a nearby town. She is believed to have met Harvey Collyer there, who was the church sexton and verger, or clerk. Charlotte and Harvey were married, and soon had one daughter, named Marjorie. When the Vicar moved to another church in Hampshire, the Tates followed. Harvey continued as verger, served on the church council, and as bell ringer. He also ran the town grocery store.

collyer family

collyer family

The Collyer Family

Friends of the family had moved to Payette, Idaho, where they had started a successful fruit farm. They wrote of the beauty of the land and climate, urging Harvey and Charlotte to join them. They didn’t take their friends’ suggestion seriously, at first. But Charlotte had developed tuberculosis, and found it increasingly harder to breathe. Finally, for Charlotte's sake, they decided to move to Idaho, and booked passage on the Titanic.

“I had never been on an ocean voyage,” Charlotte later said, “and I was afraid of the sea. But I listened to the people who said, ‘Take the new Titanic. She cannot come to any harm. New inventions have made her safe; and then, the officers will be extra careful on her first trip.’”

titanic advertisement

titanic advertisement

Harvey sold the grocery store and most of the family’s possessions. He took $5,000 in cash, against the advice of a bank teller, who suggested he take a draft note. The church members gave a long surprise sendoff for the family by ringing all the bells for an hour. Charlotte later said, “It was almost too much of a farewell ceremony.”

Like so many others aboard Titanic after the ship struck the iceberg, the family didn’t realize the extent of the danger until well after the first lifeboats were loaded. Charlotte and Marjorie were put into Lifeboat 14. Harvey’s body, if recovered, was not identified. Charlotte wrote to her mother from New York, a few days after arrival on the Carpathia:

My dear Mother and all, I don't know how to write to you or what to say, I feel I shall go mad sometimes but dear as much as my heart aches it aches for you too for he is your son and the best that ever lived. I had not given up hope till today that he might be found but I'm told all boats are accounted for. Oh mother how can I live without him. I wish I'd gone with him if they had not wrenched Madge from me I should have stayed and gone with him. But they threw her into the boat and pulled me in too but he was so calm and I know he would rather I lived for her little sake otherwise she would have been an orphan. The agony of that night can never be told. Poor mite was frozen. I have been ill but have been taken care of by a rich New York doctor and feel better now. They are giving us every comfort and have collected quite a few pounds for us and loaded us with clothes and a gentleman on Monday is taking us to the White Star office and also to another office to get us some money from the funds that is being raised here. Oh mother there are some good hearts in New York, some want me to go back to England but I can't, I could never at least not yet go over the ground where my all is sleeping. Sometimes I feel we lived too much for each other that is why I've lost him. But mother we shall meet him in heaven. When that band played 'Nearer My God to Thee' I know he thought of you and me for we both loved that hymn and I feel that if I go to Payette I'm doing what he would wish me to, so I hope to do this at the end of next week where I shall have friends and work and I will work for his darling as long as she needs me. Oh she is a comfort but she don'trealise yet that her daddy is in heaven. There are some dear children here who have loaded her with lovely toys but it's when I'm alone with her she will miss him. Oh mother I haven't a thing in the world that was his only his rings. Everything we had went down. Will you, dear mother, sendme on a last photo of us, get it copied I will pay you later on. Mrs Hallets brother from Chicago is doing al he can for us in fact the night we landed in New York (in our nightgowns) he had engaged a room at a big hotel with food and every comfort waiting for us. He has been a father to us. I will send his address on a card… perhaps you might like to write to him some time. God Bless you dear mother and help and comfort you in this awful sorrow. Your loving child Lot.



Charlotte and Marjorie following the Titanic disaster

Charlotte and Marjorie were destitute, but with donations from the American Red Cross and other funds, they went on to Idaho as they planned. But Harvey’s loss was too much to bear. Charlotte sold her story to a newspaper for $300, and after friends in New York raised additional funds, she and Marjorie returned to England.

Charlotte remarried, but died of tuberculosis at age 35. Marjorie went to live with an uncle until she was married. The couple had one child who died in infancy. Her husband died at age 41, and she remained a widow, working as a doctor’s receptionist. She was moved to a nursing home in the 1960s due to ill health, and died of a stroke at the age of 61.

Photo credits: Encyclopedia Titanica, Clickamericana.com, Ebay.uk

Lifeboats on the Titanic

One of the reasons so many individuals perished on the Titanic was the lack of enough lifeboats for everyone. Titanic had a maximum capacity of 3327, but on her one and only voyage, around 2224 passengers and crew were on board. However, her 20 lifeboats were capable of carrying 1178 at most. And because most of the boats left the ship less than full, only 712 survived the sinking.

titanic boats approaching carpathia

Titanic lifeboats carrying survivors

Larger davits had been proposed for the new White Star Line ships, including Titanic, allowing for 48 lifeboats. But regulations issued by the Board of Trade required only 16 lifeboats for all British vessels over 10,000 tons. Titanic’s designers opted for 20 lifeboats, wanting to save on unnecessary costs and provide plenty of space for passengers to stroll the open decks. Twenty boats were more than the law required, and that seemed more than sufficient. After all, they could practically guarantee there would be no need for them.

Titanic carried 16 regular lifeboats, numbered 1 through 16. Eight even-numbered boats were mounted along her port side, and the eight odd-numbered boats along the starboard side. Four collapsible boats were stored near the bow, with two on either side.


Diagram showing lifeboat placement. Two collapsible boats (red) are not seen. The pink boats are emergency cutters.

Fourteen lifeboats each had a capacity of 65. They were 30 feet long, 9 feet wide, and 4 feet deep. They were supposed to be equipped with oars, blankets, provisions, and flares, although some survivors claimed their boats lacked one or more of these items. Two emergency cutters, boats 1 and 2, were built to hold 40. They measured 25 feet long and 7 feet wide. Their purpose was for immediate emergencies, such as a man overboard, and were permanently swung out, ready for lowering. The four collapsible boats, A, B, C, and D, were 27 feet long, 8 feet wide, and 3 feet deep. They had canvas sides that could be raised in use and could be stored almost flat.

A number of mistakes and misconceptions led to the boats leaving Titanic at less than capacity:

1) The one lifeboat drill had been cancelled due to cold weather.

2) When Captain Smith ordered passengers to be loaded into the lifeboats, many refused, not aware of the real danger. They felt it was safer to remain onboard the ship than climb into a small boat and be lowered to the sea. Many women didn’t want to leave their husbands, brothers, or sons.

3) Crewmen had not been given adequate lifeboat training. Some charged with filling the boats weren’t sure of how many the boats could hold and lowered them half-full.

4) Some crewmen strictly enforced the ‘women and children first’ rule, and when no more women and children were immediately available for boarding, they lowered the boats as the men watched.

5) Third class passengers reached the boat deck late, due to a lack of information and language barriers. Some were purposely kept back by crewmen until first and second class passengers filled the boats. By the time more third class passengers reached the boat deck and the true urgency of the situation was realized, most of the boats had already gone.

Titanic-lifeboats after

Lifeboats dropped at White Star Line pier in New York following arrival of the Carpathia, carrying 712 survivors  

Only two lifeboats returned to the scene after the Titanic sank to rescue a few people in the water.

Following the inquiries into the sinking, a new ruling required every passenger vessel to be equipped with more than enough boats to carry every passenger and crewmember, and for crewmembers to be fully trained in lifeboat use. Also, lifeboat drills for all passengers on every voyage is now required by law.

Note: Beginning today, I will be posting on this blog every other Wednesday. As soon as my novel about Titanic survivor Ruth Becker is accepted for publication, I will share the news with you here. Thank you to all my readers! I look forward to bringing you more of the Titanic on April 13th, one day before the 104th anniversary of the sinking.

Photo credits: Historyofthetitanic.org, Titanicuniverse.com, Wikipedia

The Heroine of Lifeboat 12

Nineteen-year-old Lillian Bentham of New York had spent a year touring Europe with her godfather, other relatives, and friends. For the return trip to the US, the group boarded Titanic at Southampton. Lillian occupied a second-class cabin with Emily Rugg, age 22, from Guernsey, England. Emily was on her way to live in Wilmington, Delaware, where a relative owned a store. Emily was awakened by the collision and woke Lillian. The women made their way to the upper decks and were put into Lifeboat 12, along with 40 other women and children. When no other women or children were immediately available, a crowd of men from second and third class tried to board. The officers in charge refused to let the men on. As it was being lowered, a man leapt aboard as it passed B Deck. Later, No. 12 picked up passengers from the overturned collapsible boat B.


Lillian Bentham in the 1950s

Lillian gave several interviews in her later years about her experience in the lifeboat. “The greatest horror of the experience was the eight hours we spent floating about until we were picked up by the Carpathia…At first, the sea was smooth as glass but it was literally dotted with human forms swimming, clinging to wreckage, fighting to climb into the lifeboats…I began to realize that I had lost nothing compared to others, who had been compelled to see their relatives and friends go down with the Titanic.”

Toward morning, No. 12 came upon collapsible B, slowly sinking with 20 men aboard. Lillian said, “I helped the seaman pull those 20 men into our boat…We had to pile them in like so many sacks of flour, because they were unable to do anything to help themselves…I took off my coat and gave it to one man. I had two coats and could spare one.”

Seven of the men they pulled aboard died of exposure. The man who received Lillian’s coat was Cecil Fitzpatrick, an Irish crewman from the Titanic. In gratitude, he later gave Lillian the whistle he’d blown all night in the hope of calling another boat to help.

Lillian described the moment when, at last, she spotted the Carpathia. “Far off in the distance, we saw smoke, thin and indistinct at first, but gradually coming nearer…To me, and I guess to all of the others in that boat, that was the most wonderful ship in the world.”

bentham card

Lillian's Custom Card given to her aboard the Carpathia

None of the men in Lillian’s traveling party survived, including her godfather. His widow met Lillian in New York City and helped her get to her parents’ home in Rochester, New York. She lived with them until she married, five years later. The couple remained in Rochester and did not have children. Lillian died in 1977 at age 85.


Lillian's headstone bears her Titanic story and the names of her traveling companions.

First man to see the Titanic iceberg

“Iceberg, right ahead!” When Titanic lookout Frederick Fleet phoned the bridge and shouted those infamous words, the ship had less than a minute before impact. The officers on duty, seeing the iceberg at the same moment, turned the ship hard to the left in an effort to avoid collision, but it wasn’t enough. The iceberg sliced a 240-foot gash in her starboard side.


Frederick Fleet

Frederick Fleet began working aboard ships at the age of 16, after his father died and his mother left him. He worked for four years as lookout aboard the Oceanic, then joined the Titanic as lookout for her maiden voyage in April, 1912.

At 10:00 pm on April 14th, 24-year-old Fleet and Reginald Lee took their watch in Titanic’s crow’s nest. As the ship sped along at 22 knots, Fleet and Lee kept a careful eye on the seas for icebergs. No moon lit the sky, but many survivors, including Fleet, remembered an unusually large number of bright stars. Why didn’t they see the dark shape of the enormous iceberg sooner?

Some experts have claimed that their lack of binoculars was partly to blame. Binoculars for the crow’s nest were supposed to be available, but were rumored to be locked away with the whereabouts of the key unknown. No matter where the binoculars were, it’s unlikely they would have made a difference. According to new information, binoculars were useful during daylight on the ocean, but the naked eye was more reliable at night.

The sudden drop in water and air temperatures recorded by other ships in the area and survivor accounts describing a light gray haze hanging low over the water has led some to conclude there may have been a ‘night-time mirage’ affect taking place. This phenomenon, well-known to fishermen in the north Atlantic, causes the horizon to appear to blend with the water. It distorts objects and distances, making it difficult for the observer to be certain of what he is seeing. This may have contributed to the last-second iceberg sighting.

After the collision, Fleet and Lee remained at their post another 20 minutes before being sent to help load the lifeboats. Fleet was ordered to man Lifeboat 6, carrying Margaret Brown (see last week’s post). After rescue, he testified at the inquiries into the disaster. He returned to sea for several years, working for other White Star ocean liners, then for Harland and Wollf shipbuilders in Southampton England.

Following the death of his wife in 1964 and a bout of depression, Frederick Fleet hanged himself in 1965. He was 77.


Pets on the Titanic

When the RMS Titanic sank in the Atlantic in 1912, over 1500 lives were lost. In addition to the men, women, and children who died, several animals also lost their lives. It’s not clear exactly how many live animals boarded the Titanic because they were not included in the passenger lists, even though they did not travel for free. Passengers had to pay roughly the price of a child’s ticket to bring their pet aboard. It’s believed the ship carried twelve dogs belonging to first and second class passengers, and several roosters and hens, most likely owned by steerage passengers who hoped they would help them start off their new lives on American farms. One canary also boarded the ship in Southampton, England, but disembarked with its owner in Cherbourg, France. A few dogs stayed in their owners’ cabins, while others were kept in kennels in the cargo area, along with the chickens.

dogs with crew

One pet belonged to the crew: Jenny the cat, whose job was to keep rats and mice at bay. Jenny had given birth to a litter of kittens prior to the ship’s first voyage out of Southampton. She was seen carrying each kitten, one by one, off the ship and into the city. A crew member who saw her decided Jenny knew something was about to happen and was protecting her family. He quit his post and left the ship before it sailed.

When the Titanic struck an iceberg on the night of April 14th and began sinking fast, a crew member reportedly went below and opened the kennels so the dogs would have a chance to save themselves. But only three of the twelve dogs aboard survived: a Pekinese belonging to Henry Sleeper Harper of Harper Publishing, and two Pomeranians. They were all taken onto the lifeboats by their owners. A story surfaced not long after the sinking that First Officer William Murdoch’s black Newfoundland, Rigel, was seen swimming toward the rescue ship Carpathia and was adopted by the Carpathia crew. That story was never proven true. Murdoch perished in the disaster.

A dog show had been planned for the day of the sinking, which would have featured all the dogs on board. Also lost that day were the chickens. The fate of Jenny the cat is unclear, but we hope she remained with her kittens and did not return to the ship.

Is there something you would like to know about the Titanic? Leave a comment and I’ll try to have the answer here next week.