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RMS TITANIC – Let’s remember the crew! Many had Dorset origins.

RMS Titanic

On 15th April it will be the 110th Anniversary of the sinking of RMS Titanic. The story of the tragedy is well-known, and doubtless there will be media references to the millionaires and aristocrats who perished. Invariably, less attention is paid to the crew. Of the estimated 2224 people on board, 885 were crew. It is thought that some 1514 people died, of whom 821 were passengers and 693 were crew.

A very large proportion of the crew lived in Southampton, and amongst these, were many who had Dorset origins. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, many families left the largely agricultural county of Dorset and moved to nearby cities to find work. The thriving docks of Southampton were particularly accessible, offered good employment opportunities, and the city was not too far from home and family in Dorset. It is likely that Society members have ancestors or other relatives who served as crew on the ship, and either survived or were lost.

In my own family is William James PITFIELD. The Pitfields are an ancient Dorset family, the earliest references to whom were living in the early 1500s in Allington, Bridport and nearby. Over the subsequent centuries, the family spread across the county and beyond. From 1700 an especially large group established in Fordington, Dorchester. William’s family was from this group, his grandfather having moved from Fordington to Southampton in the mid-19th century. This was typical of very many families who had lived in Dorset for centuries, often tied to the land as farmers or agricultural labourers. The industrial revolution opened up new vistas for them, and very many left Dorset forever.

William James Pitfield was born in 1886 in South Stonham, and baptised 28 January 1887 at Woolston. He was the fifth son of William Henry Pitfield (1854-1910), a seaman of Southampton. In 1876 he married Louisa GOREY (1855 – 1911), also of Southampton.

William James Pitfield, aged 21, married Haidee Ethel DIAPER, aged 19, in 1908. The Diapers were a well-know Southampton family involved in running the Itchen ferry. William’s profession was given in the 1911 Census as Marine Fireman; he had served on several ocean liners. The couple’s son, William Frederick, was born 07 October 1910, and by early 1912 Haidee was expecting another child.

William James was recruited to the crew of RMS Titanic for her maiden voyage, and served as a Greaser, on a monthly wage £6.10.00 (£6.50 in decimal money). The job of a Greaser was to lubricate all the machinery to ensure it ran smoothly. It was a skilled and responsible occupation, located in the engine rooms and surrounding areas of the ship. He was a member of the engineering crew.

It is easy to imagine the excitement of William and Haidee at his having a well paid job on the greatest ship in the world and with a new baby on the way. Sadly though, as we know, tragedy was to strike on 15th April 1912.

The engine room was deep in the bowels of the ship. The crew there were amongst the first to realise that there was something seriously amiss after the collision with the iceberg. Valiantly. though, the engine room crew stayed at their posts to ensure that electricity would continue to be generated to provide light during the rescue efforts. Also to provide power for the davits that would lower the lifeboats. Very many brave men were lost. – of the 33 Greasers like William, on the ship, only 4 were saved.

William himself did not survive the sinking. He died aged 25 and his body was not recovered. His address at time of death is given in his signing on papers as 13 Albert Road, Woolston. (This was later renamed Keswick Road).

Yet more tragedy was to strike poor Haidee. As mentioned above, at the time of the loss, William’s wife was pregnant. Their daughter Haidee Doris was born to William posthumously.  At that time, for a wife to be left with two children and no breadwinner to support her was dire. It would have been very hard for Haidee to cope, not least financially. To add to her grief, little Haidee Doris died in 1913. Later that year, the Titanic Relief Fund made several payments to Haidee Ethel, including sufficient to cover the expenses of her daughter’s illness and funeral.

Titanic

The eventual outcome was happy, however, as in 1919 Haidee married again. This was to Edward WELLS, she had two more children. This photo shows her with her children William (Bill) Pitfield, Nellie Wells and Ernie Wells. Bill married and had children, so the descendants of William James and his Dorset forebears live on.

Sadly there is no known photo of William James. Both the Titanic Museum and I would love to find one.

I’m sure other members of the Society have family members who were amongst the crew, or were passengers, on the Titanic. If so, do share your stories by writing a blog of your own about them.

NOTE: The film ‘Saving The Titanic’ (available to stream) is about the efforts of the engine room crew to delay the sinking, keep the electricity going, etc. It gives graphic depictions of the conditions below decks as the ship sank. It’s well worth watching.

Michael Pitfield

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