The story of Noëlle Rothes, Titanic’s ‘Plucky Little Countess’
by Randy Bryan Bigham
There was more to Great Britain’s fashionable Countess of Rothes than banquets and garden parties. She proved that the night Titanic went down.
Finding herself in an undermanned lifeboat, the pretty young peeress –– called “Noëlle” for her Yuletide birth –– practically took charge. Calming panicky fellow survivors, pulling an oar, even managing the tiller herself, Rothes led her small boat through choppy seas, past icebergs and debris, to the safety of the rescue ship the next morning. Even after Carpathia docked in New York, she remained aboard to aid steerage passengers who had lost everything they owned and had no place to go.
But her courage and compassion didn’t end there. Randy Bryan Bigham examines the life of the Christmas-born countess and discovers that the heroism that made her famous in 1912 was par for the course for this real-life Lady Bountiful.
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Noëlle, Countess of Rothes in 1907
|Prinknash Park, the Dyer-Edwardes country estate|
|Thomas Dyer-Edwardes, Noëlle's grandfather|
The Gloucestershire village of Prinknash Park, nestled in the leafy hills of the Cotswolds, is a picture-perfect oasis of English charm. Peace pervades this little country nook, and it’s easy to see why. Prinknash (pronounced “Prinnage”), is famed for its 16th century abbey where Benedictine monks blend incense and craft rosaries, and for a pastoral wildlife preserve where peacocks promenade among grazing fallow deer.
Prinknash Park was even more peaceful over a century ago when, having but three houses in it, the town may have been the smallest in England. One residence was the abbey itself, then owned by multimillionaire Londoner Thomas Dyer-Edwardes, who treasured his country seat nearly as much as he cherished his only child, a daughter he named Lucy Noel Martha –– “Noëlle.”
Noëlle was born to Thomas and his wife Clementina (nee Villiers) in London on December 25, 1878, and if having such an auspicious birthday wasn’t enough to ensure goodness, the child had the idyllic atmosphere of Prinknash to inspire and mould her. With playgrounds at Prinknash, in Kensington Square, the Dyer-Edwardes’ London home, in Sussex, and in Normandy, where the couple had a chateau, no more perfect upbringing could be imagined than that provided young Noëlle.
Her mother and father certainly did their best. Small-framed, black-haired and bewhiskered, Thomas was sensitive and artistic, and for all his love of the country, he was cosmopolitan in his tastes. A Cambridge graduate, he made lucrative investments in firms and properties all over the United Kingdom, from India to Australia, where his own father was a substantial landowner. In fact he donated the bells for Melbourne’s St. Paul’s Cathedral in honor of Thomas Dyer-Edwardes, Sr.
Noëlle’s mother, Clementina, was pretty, well-adept at the social graces and spoke fluent French, being part of a large, aristocratic family descended from the Dukes of Perth and Melfort. Despite her entree to the highest London circles, Clementina was countrified in her outlook.
“Clementina was more retiring than her husband,” says writer and researcher Craig Stringer, who has made a special study of the Dyer-Edwardes family. “She preferred the country to life in London, and was happier by the sea in Sussex, and in Gloucestershire.”
Thomas’ education and success in business, and the cultural and political connections of Clementina’s noble family, brought prosperity to the Dyer-Edwardes, a fact that could have bred complacency in their daughter. But the young heiress, though much petted by her loving parents and their rarefied circle, remained unspoiled by the privileges afforded her. The London gossip magazine, The Bystander, described Noëlle as “small, blue-eyed and very gentle and appealing in manner.”
Yet she was hardly perfect. Researcher Geoff Whitfield learned through interviews with family members that Noëlle could be quite formidable. Her descendants remembered her as generous and kind but also said she was quick-tempered, hard-nosed and “bossy.”
“She could get quite cross,” recalled her grandson, the late Ian, 21st Earl of Rothes. “But she was so charming one soon forgot it.”
Unimpressed by her wealth, Noëlle seems to have been just as unaffected by her physical allure. Fair-skinned with dark blonde hair, the adorable little girl became an exquisite beauty.
“My grandmother had that true English rose beauty,” said Ian Rothes. “She appeared ageless and kept her beauty her whole life long.” He added, however, that Noëlle was shy about her appearance. “When someone complimented her looks,” he said, “she was gracious but seemed uncomfortable accepting the praise –– and rather annoyed!”
Modesty was the least of the fine qualities Noëlle inherited. Her main gift was a sense of familial duty and social responsibility. From an early age she witnessed this trait in her father especially. For instance, despite Thomas’ love for his Prinknash estate, he intended to bequeath it to a group of Benedictine monks in London. He wanted his family to enjoy the property for the time being but he instructed Noëlle that eventually it must be returned to the religious order for which the abbey was originally built in 1520. Noëlle promised her father she would make sure that it was done.