In recent years much has been written about those who sailed aboard the RMS Titanic. Stories of heroism, selflessness and cowardice on that fateful night have emerged through the lives of those who were witnesses to the Titanics first and last voyage. There were many families aboard the ship with representation in all three social classes.
One of the many untold stories concerns the Herman family from Castle Cary, Somerset, England. Samuel Herman was a successful farmer and hotel proprietor in Castle Cary. Samuel was born in Galhampton, County Somerset in 1862 and was the son of George and Sarah Herman. Samuel had three sisters, Mary Ann, Anna and Sarah. Samuel grew up in Galhampton and nearby Castle Cary where he became a pub owner as well as the head butcher of the establishment.
Mr. and Mrs. Samuel Herman and daughters Alice and Kate c.1900
Michael Findlay / TIS Archives
His wife, the former Jane Laver, was born in July of 1863 in India to English parents, James and Margaret Laver. James Laver had been sent to India for a brief time as a British soldier and was stationed in Madras. During her childhood Jane and her parents moved back to County Somerset where she was raised. In Bristol, England Jane married Samuel Herman in 1887, and soon afterward twin daughters, Alice and Kate, were born on 6 December 1887.
A postcard view of the centre of Castle Cary with the Britannia Hotel at right
Courtesy of Muriel and Diane Harris
Life for the Hermans was prosperous during the early years. Samuel owned the Britannia Hotel in central Castle Cary and Jane assisted him with its management. The family were well-respected citizens of the village and were known for their musical talents. Both Alice and Kate learned to play the piano and viola. Around 1910, Samuel hired a friends son, George Sweet, to work at the hotel. Samuel, having no sons of his own, and the rest of the Hermans adopted young George into their household as a member of their own family. In the Britannia Hotel, young George worked with Samuel in the kitchen.
In 1912 business began to slow for Samuel Herman. Faced with several seasons of poor rentals and scarce tourists, caused by a virtual slowdown in the countrys hotel industry, Samuel Herman was faced with a decision that would ultimately change the course of history for his family.
For a few years prior to 1912, Janes brother, Arthur Laver, had been writing to the family back in England of the wonderful opportunities that were to be found in the United States. Laver had established himself as a successful manager in the Somerset Country Club in Bernardsville, New Jersey.
In addition to his bleak business prospects, Samuel Herman was also concerned about his daughters. Potential husbands were not plentiful in Castle Cary and proud Mr. Herman undoubtedly believed his girls would have more opportunities for marriage in the United States. As both girls had attained the age of 24 on 6 December 1911, he was afraid that if they did not marry soon, they would not marry at all.
Arthur Lavers many letters finally convinced Samuel Herman to cut his losses in England and start a new life in America. The family had hoped to sail in February 1912 but found that they were not quite ready to make the move. In April, the Hermans were set to depart Castle Cary. Along with 16 year old George Sweet, who had received permission from his family to live in the United States with Samuel and Jane, the Hermans prepared for the long journey to America.
Mrs. Jane Herman and her daughters with George Sweet
Muriel Cleland Harris /Michael Findlay Collection
Samuel Herman was wise in not selling the family home in Castle Cary. While he sold the hotel, he reasoned that if the family found life in the United States to be difficult, they could all return to England and their house could be available. Samuel leased his home for one year to a family and James Laver, Samuels brother-in-law and a police constable, took responsibility for the house while the family was away. Their original passage tickets cost much less than what they were to pay in April 1912, but Samuel had booked Second Class accommodiations for his family and George Sweet on the maiden voyage of the worlds largest and most luxurious ocean liner, the R.M.S. Titanic.
Unfortunately history does not record much of the familys voyage onboard. Alice Herman always recalled the ship was very beautiful and had everything one could ask for. As with many of the families who were traveling Second Class, there was much to see and do. Spacious accommodations, a library, and a magnificent diningroom added to their many comforts . Kate remembered that she and Alice were befriended by many young men during the voyage and they often spent time with them promenading all over the ship, lunching and playing deck games.
The flirtatious sisters genuinely enjoyed the attention which lasted up until the night of the disaster. None of the Second Class suitors were mentioned by name but there was a large contingent of unmarried men in their company.
Alice and Kate Herman in 1913 Courtesy of Muriel Cleland Harris / Michael Findlay Collection
After dinner on Sunday night, Jane Herman retired for the evening while Samuel desired to enjoy a latenight stroll and a cigar on the boat deck. According to Kate, both she and her sister wer also up late, and were enjoying the company of their male companions. Kate was wearing her favorite bracelet. Unfortunatley the prized bracelet broke and conversation followed how unlucky that was. Before turning in for another good nights sleep Alice. Kate and their friends opted to take one more walk on deck.
For the Hermans and over 2,200 others, their lives would change forever at 11:40 p.m. on Sunday, April 14th. Whe Titanic grazed an iceberg at twenty minutes to midnight, Samuel and his daughters were awake and walking on unknown decks when the impact occurred. Their reactions are not known, but they returned immediately to Mrs. Herman.
According to Mrs. Herman,
I had retired to rest and was in my berth when the ship struck. It was not much of a shock. My husband came down from the deck and told me not to fear, but to stay in bed-it being so cold. It is believed that Samuel Herman instructed his daughters to remain with their mother while he went in search of news of the situation.
My husband came and told us all to dress, but I put on only a thin waist, not foreseeing what was in store, and when we got on deck all was confusion and they were filling the boats. Cries, prayers, and lamentations were on every side. My husband handed us into the second boat, and there we parted. He expected soon to join us by a later boat, so we did not feel so badly. Our situation at the time was not thought to be serious. When out on the sea in the darkness, we saw the ship go down and knew that all was over.
It has been assumed that Jane and her daughters left the Titanic in lifeboat number 9. According to Alice and Kate, both their father and George Sweet calmly reassured the ladies that the departure in the lifeboats was only a precautionary measure, and that the Titanic would remain afloat until assistance arrived. Although the details of the sinking were scant among the Herman ladies, fellow Second Class passenger, 12 year old Bertha Watt, who was traveling with her mother to Portland, Oregon, described a scene in her lifeboat which has led historians to believe that the Herman ladies were in lifeboat 9 indeed.
During the night, the Rev. Sidney C. Smart Collett of London bemoaned the fact to his fellow survivors that he had lost all his sermons in the sinking. With women around him who had lost husbands, sons, fathers and brothers aboard the Titanic, it seemed terribly inappropriate to be discussing ephemeral losses when lives were at stake. It apparently grew so irritating that according to Bertha Watt, One of the ladies, a First Class passenger I believe, shouted at him that she would pay him for his sermons if it meant that her husband and son had been saved. I dont know who she was but she just flew at him, and I dont blame her. Many historians believe this woman to be Jane Herman, given her strong character, and the fact that she was one of the very few women who lost both a husband and a son (adopted).
Samuel Hermans fate and that of young George Sweet was uncertain as dawn approached across the Atlantic. Within a short time, Jane and her daughters sighted the Carpathia and would be among the 705 collected from the Titanics lifeboats. Once aboard the rescue ship, the ladies went in search for Mr. Herman and George. They were not to be found- but Jane and the girls clung to the hope that other ships had succeeded in picking up additional survivors and that they would all be reunited in New York. On 18 April 1912, Jane sent a telegram to her brother from the Carpathias wireless room. The message read, Arriving this evening-Herman.
The sad voyage to New York confirmed Janes belief that her husband and George had been lost at sea. As the Carpathia docked at Pier 54 in Manhattan, the Herman ladies were met by Janes brother, Arthur, and a young friend of Arthurs, William D. Cleland. Samuel Herman and George Sweet were reported among the missing. In a state of shock and grief, Jane and her daughters wer egiven medical assistance and were taken to Bernardsville, New Jersey.
According to Alice Hermans descendants, Jane and Alice went into a very deep period of depression following the disaster. Both women took ill and were treated by a physician in Bedminster, New Jersey for several months. Kate remained stoic and was rumored to have had a romance with the doctor who was treating her mother and sister. Many years later there was speculation about Kates behavior after the sinking. It seemed as if the disaster deprived Kate of most of her emotional strength. In a state of semi-shock, which lasted quite some time, she did not cry or exhibit any emotional outpourings like her mother and sister. That was her way of dealing with the catastrophe.
Jane Herman Courtesy of Muriel Cleland Harris / Michael Findlay Collection
Despite Janes bout with shock and depression, she remained strong, and did not want to be dependent on the charity of others. Since Jane had experience in managing the familys hotel back in Castle Cary, she advertised in several New York and New Jersey newspapers to obtain a caretakers position at a gentlemans farm for the 1912 summer season. No sooner than the advertisement was printed than a call came from the Harriman family in New York City. Jane was quickly hired, and was soon on the road to recovery. Under the strict supervision of her doctor, and the sympathetic care of her new employers who showed compassion and concern during her recovery period, Jane was able to continue on.
One month after the sinking, Jane gave serious thought about returning to England. The girls were homesick, but Jane wrote to her attorney, I think it might be better to try and stay. It will help us. It is dreadful to think of at present. Jane would eventually make up her mind not to return, as her husband would have wished for her to carry on with their original plans. Returning to England so soon would bring back so many sad reminders of a happier time for the Herman ladies, so Jane made the family decision final.
The women also kept up hope that the ocean would eventually yield up the body of their husband and father as well as young George- this was not to be.
Fortunately for the Herman women, most of what they owned did not go down with the Titanic, in spite of news reports which claimed the opposite. A claim by Jane Herman against the White Star Line was filed in the amount of $395.50 which included jewelry, clothing and two oil paintings and one large fur rug. Luckily the family farm back in Castle Cary had not been sold, but only rented for the summer months. Within a short time, the family home was sold, and Jane and her daughters received much-needed financial assistance through the sale of the old family homestead. The sale was arranged with the help of Janes brother, James, who was back in Castle Cary.
The Herman House in Castle Cary
Jane Herman stayed with the Harriman family during the summer of 1912 but decided to find work closer to home in New Jersey. The origins of Janes next job are unclear, but she came to work at Brook Cottage in Far Hills, New Jersey. Her new employer was Max Behr, brother of the noted tennis player, Karl H. Behr, who himself had survived the Titanic disaster. The Behr family were summer residents of Morristown and Montville , New Jersey and it is understood that since Janes brother Arthur worked at Somerset Hills Country Club, all titled and wealthy families in Somerset County belonged to it. It is believed that Arthur who knew the Behr family, probably secured his sister a position and undoubtedly a recommendation from fellow survivor Karl Behr.
Janes many letters to her attorney in 1912 reveal much of what was happening with the family and how they coped with the aftermath of the disaster. In August, 1912, from Brook Cottage, Jane wrote,
I am here for the season with one of my daughters and do not quite know what we might do when we finish here. I have not been feeling well and have not been able to get over the shock. The girls are holding up bravely.
The claim that Jane filed against White Star Line brought about an uncertain decision in December 1912. Jane's attorney believed that the American courts would find the Titanic's owners free of all liability for the loss of the Titanic. He believed that is Jane and her daughters filed suit in England, they would probably fare better with the British courts. On 16 December 1912 she wrote, "If it is necessary to return to England I will do so. I am ill and feel I will not receive anything if I remain here in the United States. I don't feel strong enough to return to England, but I ask your advice if you think it is wise to go back and receive compensation."
By the beginning of 1913, Jane abandoned all thoughts of ever returning to England. either her attorney or her physician's recommendation caused her to arrive at this decision. Legal battles in the courts against the White Star Line could take years, so Jane felt that even returning to England would not help her cause at all.
Alice Herman soon began seeing the young man who had accompanied her uncle to Pier 54 on the night the Carpathia arrived, William D. Cleland. He was a horse-trainer in nearby Peapack, New Jersey. The two fell in love and were married in the autumn of 1912. They rented a house and Alice assisted her husband in starting a horse business. The Clelands became the parents of three sons and a daughter. Their first child, Muriel, was born in 1914, followed by Basil, John and Norman. The Clelands then bought a 100 acre farm in Bernardsville and became successful. According to their daughter Muriel, "They worked hard for the success they achieved." All the children rode in horse shows and Alice delighted in watching them. Her son Norman became a steeplechase rider and also rode race horses. In addition to the horse business, one of Alice's other great hobbies was raising Great Danes. Her husband raised greyhounds. Many years later Alice had to give up raising the big dogs as they would knock her down.
Kate was introduced to a young man named Walter Parsons in 1913. When a better job opportunity caused him to relocate to Portland, Oregon, Kate followed. They were married in Portland on 6 January 1914. Jane Herman attended her daughter's wedding. Alice, who was expecting her first child could not make the long journey to the West Coast to attend her sister's nuptials. The Parsons raised a family of two sons, Herman and Norman and a daughter, Hermoine.
In the years following the sinking, the topic of Titanic was never discussed. According to Alice's daughter, Mureil, she said her mother "never talked about it because it was very sad. Grandmother didn't either. They just thought it was a dreadful experience." Muriel related that she did hear on one occasion when the subject came up, that Mrs. Herman and her daughters always believed somehow that their husband and father could have succeeded in getting into a lifeboat and would one day appear at the door. "They never dreamt he would have remained on the ship," Muriel Harris said years later.
Although the three Herman ladies rarely mentioned Titanic, the impact of the tragedy did not hinder Jane Herman from returning to England. In the late 1920's Jane returned for an extended visit to her old friends and family. She traveled with her friend Lucy from Brooklyn, New York as neither Alice nor Kate wanted to make the journey back to their birthplace. "My mother would not go, and I don't blame her," Muriel Harris recalls today.
Despite the terrible ordeal that she suffered, Jane Herman maintained a positive outlook on her later life. Grandchildren filled the void inflicted by the Titanic, and her definite-minded personality won her a host of friends. During her last years Jane battled renal failure which hastened her death on 16 January 1937 at the age of 73. She is buried in the St. Bernard's Churchyard in Bernardsville, New Jersey.
Alice Herman Cleland continued to live in Bernardsville with her family. Alice was so well-liked by friends and family and was so amiable and warm to all those she met, it was said that there was always a place at the dinner table in the Cleland home. Alice loved to cook and bake and hosted many parties. Never having lost her musical talents from early childhood, Alice continued to play the piano. She never returned to England. According to her daughter, "She was a homebody, but enjoyed going to the Jersey Shore, attending horse shows in Madison Square Garden and New Jersey to see me perform." Unfortunatley Alice developed diabetes and struggled with the disease until her untimely death at age 59 on 23 March 1947. She was buried near her mother in the St. Bernard's Churchyard. Alice's husband, William, died in 1961.
As for Kate Parsons, she would remain the sole family survivor. Somewhat estranged from her mother and sister, her personality had changed even more so after the Titanic disaster. She had always considered herself somewhat shallow, and believed she had always been somewhat jealous of her twin sister. She became a very introverted person and did not share in the joy and fun of her early days. She remained a devoted mother and wife to her family, but never left Portland, Oregon and remained there for the rest of her life. She did not join any organizations or did not become active in any type of professional work. Her greatest pastime was her garden where she spent many hours during the year tending to her plants and flowers. Unlike her twin, Kate would live on more than a quarter of a century afterward. Like her mother and sister, Kate did not like to discuss the Titanic.
However, toward the end of her life, and in trying to reconcile past events, Kate would grant the occasional interviews to the local newspapers and would speak to schoolchildren and civic groups about her experiences on the Titanic. At one of her last interviews in 1983, Kate related that she never cried again after the Titanic disaster and always believed that the sinking destroyed her emotional being.
On 18 January 1983, Kate Herman Parsons, one of the last remaining survivors of R.M.S. Titanic died at the age of 95 at a nursing home in Portland. Unlike her mother and sister, Kate was cremated and her ashes buried at the Rose Garden Valley of Memories in Portland.
This article first appeared in VOYAGE, the journal of the Titanic International Society.