Untold tales of tragic liner

John Welshman with his new book about the Titanic
John Welshman with his new book about the Titanic

THE passengers on the Titanic joking at dinner about chipping ice off passing icebergs for their whisky.

The baby handed in desperation to strangers on the deck who warm his toes in the icy air.

The engine room stoker who, after the collision, shivering in his singlet on deck, ruefully thinks of his soup left to heat on the red hot boiler below.

These are some of the stories told in the new book Titanic: Last Night of a Small Town by lecturer John Welshman of Lancaster University.

It was historian Walter Lord in his book A Night to Remember (1955) who described the sinking of the Titanic as ‘the last night of a small town’.

Dr Welshman’s book both builds upon and challenges Lord’s famous account. It re-balances the narrative, covering first, second, and third class women as well as men; children as well as adults; crew members as well as passengers; and people from countries other than Britain and America.

The book includes previously untold stories and offers not just a minute-by-minute depiction of events, but explores themes - the ship’s construction, social class, migration, radio - thereby extending the metaphor of a small town.

According to Dr Welshman, there are several connections between Lancashire and the ship.

Henry Threlfall Wilson, who helped found the White Star Line which built the ship, was educated at Lancaster Royal Grammar School.

And the Titanic’s second officer, Herbert Lightoller, was born in Chorley in 1974 and attended Chorley Grammar.

The Titanic’s shipwreck was one of four he survived during his adventurous career, which included a stint in the Gold Rush in Canada, a fire at sea and shipwreck on a desert island.

Second class passenger Lawrence Beesley was married in Lancaster but his wife Cissy died of tuberculosis so he decided to visit his brother in Toronto.

A teacher at Dulwich College, one of his pupils was the future crime writer Raymond Chandler. Beesley survived the sinking but was drawn to the filming of the 1958 movie.

He faked an Equity card and dressed up in costume in order to sneak aboard the replica Titanic during the filming but was spotted by the director who ordered him to disembark.

Dr Welshman, who lives in Lancaster, said: “Growing up in Northern Ireland in the 1960s, I was aware of the Titanic from an early age because of the story of its designer Thomas Andrews who died in the disaster.

“We are all still fascinated by the Titanic because we imagine what we would do if we found ourselves in that predicament.

“The silver slipper left in the cabin, the hot soup on the stove, this is the human detail of the real people that I’ve tried to breathe life into again a century later.”

* Dr Welshman will give a free talk about his book at Waterstones on King Street, Lancaster, at 2.30pm on Sunday, April 29. Meanwhile Lancaster Maritime Museum’s exhibition about the disaster, Unsinkable runs until October 30. The museum is open from 11am-5pm, seven days a week.