The mystery of Charles Barnes and Robert Barnhouse

The mystery of Charles Barnes and Robert Barnhouse

In April 1913, an article appeared in the Torquay Times under the headline: Echo Of The Titanic Disaster : The Strange Story Of The Man With Two Names.

A hearing at Torquay County Court had established the true identity of a stoker, who had died a year earlier on the Titanic, when a pensioner brought an action for against the White Star Line, who had turned down an application in respect of his late son Robert Barnhouse, who was known by the alias Charles Barnes.

During the hearing, it emerged that Robert Barnhouse had been born at Barnstaple on 8 December 1870. The fifth of eight children, he had left his parents’ home in Newington Street over twenty years before his death and became estranged from his family. He drifted to Bristol where his hands were badly burned in a fire at a licensed house run by William and Edith Curtis. Homeless and destitute, Barnhouse was taken in by the Curtis family and remained with them until his untimely end nineteen years later. When William Curtis moved to 45 York Road, Southampton, to run a bakery, Barnhouse went too, and, now known as Charles Barnes, became a seaman. A chance meeting with his younger brother Arthur, who worked as a railway cleaner at Eastleigh, near Southampton, re-established contact with his family in 1908. Their parents, George and Susan, had remained in Barnstaple until retirement age, then moved to Torquay where one of their daughters, Elizabeth, lived with her husband, fish hawker, Joseph Moss. While serving on the Oceania, ‘Charles’ obtained shore leave while the ship was in Plymouth and, accompanied by his brother Arthur, stayed with his parents at their new home at 3 Arch Row, Stentiford’s Hill, in October 1911. Shortly afterwards, he transferred to the Titanic and was one of the unfortunate souls who went down with the ship on her maiden voyage. Although aged forty-one, he had claimed to be only twenty-nine (probably in an effort to prove that he was fit enough for such a physically demanding job).

Represented by solicitor Ernest Hutchings, George Barnhouse claimed £70 from the White Star Line and testified that he had been dependent on his deceased son, who had regularly sent him sums of twelve or fifteen shillings in either stamps or postal orders to pay his rent of three shillings a week (15p). A letter he had received was produced in evidence. Dated December 1908, it had been sent while his son was receiving hospital treatment for an accident and signed ‘From your loving son, Robert Barnhouse’. However, Edith Curtis appeared for the defendants and claimed that the letter was in her handwriting - as ‘Charles’ could neither read or write. She contested that she had dealt with all of his correspondence and had never sent any money on his behalf to the natural parents. Furthermore, Charles Barnes had only worked for eighteen months out of the last four years of his life. During these long periods of unemployment she had supported him, yet, despite always treating him ‘like one of my own children’, her own claim for compensation had also been rejected by the White Star Line.

Summing up the case, Judge Lush-Wilson paid tribute to Mrs Curtis on her ‘extraordinary kindness’ to the deceased. In that respect, he considered that the dead man’s obligations had been ‘almost greater to her than his own parents’. He considered the uncorroborated claims of George Barnhouse were ‘vague and shadowy’, nevertheless, he found the applicant ‘an honest and truthful witness’ and although, the sum of £70 requested was ‘altogether too high’ awarded the sum of £5 plus 10 shillings costs.

Edith Curtis also revealed in her testimony that until fifteen months before the maritime tragedy, Charles Barnes was ‘always in trouble’ but since he ‘gave up the drink’ had become ‘a different man’. Sadly, this change in his personal situation had seemingly enabled him to resume his career at sea and gain a position on the doomed Titanic.

Mike Holgate, UK

Related Biographies:
Charles Barnes

Relates to Place:
Torquay, Devon, England

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    Added to Encyclopedia Titanica Thursday 9th April 2009, last updated .