Mrs Thomas Potter Jr. (Lily Alexenia Wilson) was born in Michigan on August 15, 1855 the daughter of Seth Wyle Wilson and Martha A. Thompson. She moved to Philadelphia, PA in 1870.
Lily met and married Thomas Potter Jr., in 1876. Thomas Potter Jr., the son of a successful Philadelphia oilcloth and linoleum manufacturer, was also a prominent commercial leader in the city. He later became an officer of the National Guard in Pennsylvania. During his duties, Col. Potter was sent to Johnstown, Pennsylvania, to assist in the relief work for the survivors of the disastrous flood in 1889 which killed over 2,200 people. Lily Potter herself sent a trained nurse from the Potter household to join Clara Barton, the founder of the American Red Cross, to help. Col. Potter later received a medal of honour in recognition of his services.
Mr and Mrs Potter became the parents of three children: Thomas III (born in 1887), Wilson (born in 1880), and Olive (born on September 9, 1888). The family resided in Mt. Airy, Pennsylvania, a comfortable suburb north of the centre of Philadelphia.
In 1894, the Potter's eldest son, Thomas III, died at the age of 17. In 1910, Col. Potter himself died at the age of 60.
In December of 1911, Lily Potter, now a widow, decided to take a European vacation with her daughter, Olive. Olive's marriage to Boulton Earnshaw was failing and Olive had filed for divorce. In an effort to take her daughter's mind off the divorce proceedings, Lily Potter took her to Europe. Travelling with them was Miss Margaret Hays of New York City. Olive and Margaret were school friends from Briarcliff School in New York and Margaret was invited to join them on their travels.
The three ladies toured Italy and the Middle East and had booked passage to return home on another ship. However, just as they were about to leave Turkey, they were told about the Titanic and how grand it would be to travel on her. Although the Titanic was not scheduled to sail until a week later, the trio decided it would be worth the wait, cancelled their previous reservations and booked first-class passage on the new White Star liner.
The Titanic arrived in Cherbourg on the evening of April 10, 1912. Boarding from the tender Nomadic, Lily Potter was assigned cabin C-50, and Olive and Margaret shared cabin C-54. Gilbert Milligan Tucker, Jr., who had appointed himself as their "escort", took cabin C-53.
During the voyage, the three ladies spent their time in each other's company, and frequently socialised in the first class lounge.
While the voyage had been uneventful and the sea flat calm, Lily Potter was occasionally ill with seasickness during the trip. Her son later said, "My mother is a very strong woman but not a very good sailor."
On Sunday following dinner, Lily, Olive, Margaret and Gilbert spent time chatting in the lounge. Too soon, the Sunday festivities were at a minimum, the group felt the chill of the air and decided to retire for the evening.
The Titanic collided with the iceberg at 11:40 p.m. All three ladies were in bed. Lily had not fully gone to sleep and felt the ship shudder. Soon after, the engines stopped. Olive and Margaret came to Lily's room. Lily ordered them to go out and see what the trouble was.
About ten minutes later, the girls returned. "We have hit an iceberg but the steward told us we should not worry and should go back to bed. "The girls really did not believe the steward and neither did Lily Potter. "Well, we definitely should not stay here," Lily said.
Lily later said, "I was the most alarmed of our party. Miss Hays and my daughter thought less of the circumstances but I was somewhat frightened. They continued to assure me."
Lily ordered the two girls to put on their heavy underwear. She later said, "We all had a little conference and decided that we better not wear our corsets because they might prevent us from swimming. Oddly, I thought about such a thing and never realised that the water had been terribly cold."
Picking up blankets, and wrapping Margaret's little Pomeranian dog in them, the trio headed topside, and met Gilbert Tucker along the way. Waiting for orders at the landing on C deck, Gilbert Tucker helped the three ladies into lifejackets before placing one on himself.
lifeboat 7 was the first boat prepared. A call went out for ladies to come forward. "Why should we?" Lily heard someone ask, "There is nothing seriously wrong, is there?" Lily did not hear a response but a seaman standing near her told her, "The Captain wants to lighten the boat while repairs are being made."
Lily stepped into the boat, and was soon followed by Olive and Margaret (still holding her Pomeranian - to which there was no objection given). Because there were not enough women in the boat, and that many still refused to enter, Gilbert Tucker was allowed in the boat to continue his "protection" of the three ladies.
The boat was lowered away at 12:45 a.m. After the boat reached the water, Lily related, "The men took to the oars. The sea was absolutely calm and the stars were out. We kept rowing and suddenly someone cried out, 'I feel water on my feet!' We checked and found that the drainage plug was not in. It was quickly put back. I asked, 'Are there any provisions aboard?'. The men looked and could fine none whatsoever."
"After rowing from an eighth to a quarter of a mile, we stood off and watched the mammoth ship. About fifteen minutes after we left the Titanic, we were drifting in water filled with cakes of floating ice with our eyes on the great vessel we had deserted. Within a short time, we saw the Titanic begin to settle and then we knew that we had been wise to take to the small boats."
"On the Titanic, the crew kept sending up the distress signals. The rockets would roar upward and light the water for miles around. The orchestra kept playing and their music helped to calm us."
"I kept my eyes on the liner and could see six rows of portholes. I looked again and there were five rows, then only four and then I knew she was going down. It was clear and starlit. We who were watching knew that many persons were going to their death when the upper deck neared the level of the water. It was the most tragic sight any one will ever witness. Scores of men were standing on the decks. All the lights on the Titanic suddenly went out, and she slowly began to disappear from sight. Then came the screams, too horrible for words..."
The occupants of boat 7 drifted and made no attempt to return to the scene of the wreck.
The Carpathia arrived at dawn. When her turn came to climb up the rope ladder, Lily was too cold to grab hold of the rope. She chose instead to sit in the rope swing.
During the Carpathia's return trip to New York, the three ladies and Gilbert Tucker did all they could to assist in the caring for those who left family members and friends. Margaret Hays was given the charge of caring for the two Navratil brothers and became their guardian.
At Pier 54, the three ladies were met by the Potter and Hays families. The Potter party returned to Philadelphia later that night.
After the Titanic disaster, Lily Potter became very active with the American Red Cross. In 1916, she began her volunteer work during World War I. She directed the opening of chapter workrooms, leading volunteers in making garments and supplies for base hospitals overseas.
Lily and Olive continued their volunteer work to the Red Cross for the rest of their lives. In August, 1944, Lily Potter was recognised for her 27 years of Red Cross work. Recognised as the oldest volunteer in the South-eastern Pennsylvania Chapter, she was 88-years-old by this time.
Lily gave occasional interviews about the Titanic during the later years. She never again took another ocean voyage after the Titanic. She related, "You can't go through an experience like that without feeling that you have escaped an awful fate and should not risk the same again."
On January 1, 1954, Lily Potter died at the age of 98. She was buried at Laurel Hill Cemetery, Philadelphia, PA. Her daughter Olive is buried in the same plot.
(© Michael A. Findlay, USA)
References and Sources
Newark Evening News, 16 April 1912, Article
Atlantic City Daily Press, 20 April 1912, Mrs. Potter Describes Confidence of Astors
The Philadelphia Inquirer, January 2, 1954, Obituary
Commonwealth of Pennsylvania Certificate of Death
Phillip Gowan, USA
Michael Findlay, USA