Chief Purser McElroy on that night


Arun Vajpey

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I have been interested in Chief Purser McElroy's whereabouts and activities just before the Titanic collided with the iceberg and during the sinking. Information available is somewhat limited but I have collated witness statements of various survivors about McElroy's movements and formed a rough timeline. I hope other members can fill in the blanks.

On the evening of Sunday 14th April 1912, McElroy was ‘on duty’ in the First Class Dining Saloon, which I took to mean that he hosted at his usual table. I have found no information about the occupants of his table that night but I believe First Class passenger Eleanor Cassebeer was one of the regulars and so she might have been there. Also, there is no direct information on what he was doing at the time of the accident but given the late hour, he was probably asleep in his cabin. McElroy certainly appears to have become aware of the damage to the ship and its seriousness fairly early; he was seen by several witnesses early on urging passengers and crew to put on warm clothing and life vests before going to the boat deck. Later, he worked on the starboard side of the boat deck, mostly alongside Murdoch. Hugh McElroy died in the sinking; his body was later recovered by the salvage ship Mackay-Bennett but, presumably due to the condition, was given a burial at sea.

I have tried to reconstruct McElroy’s whereabouts, movements and activities just before the accident and during the sinking, based on witness statements if the survivors. The times, where mentioned, are my conjecture based on relating witness statements and known launch times of lifeboats.

  • 23:55 to 00:00 hours – Seen by Stewardess Anne Robinson on E-deck in company of Captain Smith and one of the mail clerks, headed in the direction of the mail room.
  • 00:05 – Seen by Stewardess Violet Jessup with the Captain on the latter’s way back up towards the bridge. Joined by Ismay and Dr O’Loughlin.
  • Soon afterwards seen by First Class passenger Eleanor Cassebeer (who had dined at his table) near the Grand Staircase on B-deck urging passengers to put on warm clothes, life vests and ‘be prepared to board lifeboats’.
  • Then he descended Grand Staircase to C-deck where he met Bedroom Steward Wheat and ordered him to summon his colleagues and get them to round-up their passengers, get them into lifebelts and assemble on the boat deck.
  • At some stage soon after, many First Class ladies are supposed to have approached McElroy and/or his assistant pursers asking for their jewelry and other valuables. They were told instead to get into their life jackets and get onto the boat deck. Thomas Andrews and Steward Sam Etches were present at the time and McElroy gave Etches instructions similar he did to Wheat.
  • A few minutes later McElroy saw the Countess of Rothes pass him and advised her to ‘hurry’ as there was not much time. McElroy was reportedly glad that the countess did not ask for her jewelry like some other ladies had.
  • 00:30 or soon thereafter: After his encounter with McElroy, Etches went to where Lifeboat #7 was being prepared for loading. He was joined by Saloon Steward William Ward who reported seeing McElroy among others helping Murdoch with loading the boat.
  • McElroy appears to have been involved with preparation of lifeboat #9 before it was loaded. This lifeboat was uncovered and brought down to boat deck level as early as 01:00 am with Ward one of the crew involved but due to Murdoch and other being otherwise busy, its loading was delayed. Meanwhile, McElroy ordered Bathroom Steward Isaac Widgery to place some sea biscuits that had arrived from the storeroom in a box and place it on the bottom of #9.
  • During the loading of Lifeboat #9 Boatswain’s Mate Albert Haines saw McElroy assisting Murdoch and also at one point talking to Bruce Ismay. Widgery was also present during the loading and saw McElroy calling out to women and children to get on board the lifeboat.
  • At an unspecified time, Bathroom Steward Samuel Rule reported seeing McElroy talking to Second Steward Dodd while he, Rule, was on his way to the boat deck. Since all sightings of McElroy were on the starboard side of the Titanic, it is likely that he assisted with preparations and loading of Lifeboats #11 and #13; Rule himself was rescued in Lifeboat #15.
  • Second Officer Lightoller reported that after he lowered Lifeboat #4 at 01:50 am, he popped across to the starboard side where Collapsible C was just starting to be loaded. He saw McElroy with Surgeon O’Loughlin, Assistant Surgeon Simpson and Assistant Purser Barker going from the bridge towards #C; Simpson reported asked the sweating Lightoller if he was warm. McElroy was seen by others working with Murdoch in loading Collapsible C with many Lebanese women and children; one of those witnesses was First Class passenger Jack Thayer, who testified that when several men looked as though they might rush the lifeboat, McElroy fired twice into the air to dissuade them. I felt that after 4 days on board an intelligent and sociable teenager like Thayer would have been familiar with McElroy, who as Chief Purser would have interacted a lot with First Class passengers.
That was the last reported sighting of Hugh McElroy but it is more than likely that he was one of those who worked with Murdoch and Moody in trying to launch Collapsible A against the then steep port list. He probably died with several others when the ‘wave’ washed over the lifeboat and knocked several people overboard.

I request anyone with additional information about McElroy during the accident and sinking to contribute to this thread.
 
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Thomas Krom

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Hello Dr. Vajpey,


The sighting by stewardess Annie Robinson of purser McElroy and captain Smith on E-deck near the stairwell leading to the squash court, post office and first class baggage room took place around 12:10/00:10 during captain Smith his second inspection. They were soon joined by Thomas Andrews Jr who reported to them that:

“Well, three have gone already, Captain.”

Around 12:15/00:15 they were seen going up the forward Louis XIV staircase by Violet Jessop. The sighting at the enquiry office on C-deck happened between 12:30/00:30 to 12:35/00:35, before lifeboat number 7 was lowered.
Second officer Lightoller recalled the following about his sightings:

At the American inquiry:

“ Lightoller describes meeting “Purser, Assistant Purser, and the Senior and Junior surgeons” (Hugh McElroy, Reginald Barker, O’Loughlin, Simpson) as saying goodbye to them when the water was at C deck. And about this time also meeting all the engineers, as they came trooping up from below. "Most of them I knew individually, and had been shipmates with them on different ships of the Line….There was little opportunity to say more than a word or two to the engineers. Up to that time they had known little of what was going on, and it was surely a bleak and hopeless spectacle that met their eyes. Empty falls hanging loosely from every davit head, and not a solitary hope for any of them. In point of fact, they were lost to a man, not one single survivor out of the whole thirty-five.”

In his book Titanic and other ships:

“Just before launching the last two lifeboats, I had made my final hurried visit to the stairway. It was then conclusively evident that not only was she going , but that she was going very soon, and if we were to avoid the unutterable disgrace of going down with lifeboats still hanging to the davits, there was not one single moment to lose. Hurrying back to the two remaining lifeboats still hanging in their davits, I met the Purser, Assistant Purser, and the Senior and Junior surgeons—the latter a noted wag—even in the face of tragedy, couldn’t resist his last mild joke, “Hello, Lights, are you warm?” The idea of anyone being warm in that temperature was a joke in itself, and I suppose it struck him as odd to meet me wearing a sweater, no coat or overcoat. I had long since discarded my great coat, even in pants and sweater over pyjamas alone I was in a bath of perspiration. There was only time to pass a few words, then they all shook hands and said, “Good-bye.” Frankly, I didn’t feel at all like “Good-bye,” although I knew we shouldn’t have the ship under us much longer. The thing was to get these boats away at all costs. Eventually, and to my great relief, they were all loaded and safely lowered into the water.”

In a private letter to a close friend of Dr. Simpson:

"I may say I was practically the last man to speak to Dr Simpson, and on this occasion he was walking along the boat deck in company with Mssrs. McElroy, Barker, Dr O'Loughlin and four assistant pursers. They were all perfectly calm in the knowledge that they had done their duty and were still assisting by showing a calm and cool exterior to the passengers. Each one individually came up to me and shook hands. We merely exchanged the words 'Goodbye, old man'. This occurred shortly before the end and I am not aware that he was seen by anyone after. With deepest sympathy for you in the loss of your friend."

I believe you already knew of the reports from Lightoller above but I posted them just in case. I am not certain if this sighting was on either the port or starboard side, since he does not state it at specifically. The timing of the sighting is believed to be before 1:50, which is plausible since the water was flooding onto the well deck at the time which was on C-deck. Sadly we do not know exact to which stairwell he was referring to, but it is widely believed he referred to the port side stairwell leading to B-deck. This is unconfirmed however.



I hope this may assists you.



Yours sincerely,



Thomas Krom
 
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Arun Vajpey

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Thanks for the post and the correction of times that McElroy was seen by Robinson and Jessop.

Lightoller describes meeting “Purser, Assistant Purser, and the Senior and Junior surgeons” (Hugh McElroy, Reginald Barker, O’Loughlin, Simpson) as saying goodbye to them when the water was at C deck.
I am not certain if this sighting was on either the port or starboard side, since he does not state it at specifically
That is the problem with a lot of Lightoller's statements. He was vague about places and times and a lot of them had no witnesses at all or 'witnesses' who did not survive - like McElroy, Barker, Simpson and O'Loughlin in that encounter. I am sure that I have seen somewhere the writer's interpretation that the meeting took place as Collapsible C was being loaded but cannot recall where. That statement, like many others by Ligtoller, have been interpreted in different ways.

Once lifeboat loading started, McElroy spent most of his time on the starboard side, including loading and lowering of Collapsible C. I found Jack Thayer's testimony about McElroy - and not Murdoch - firing those shots in the air. As I said before, the Chief Purser would have been a familiar figure among First Class passengers and an alert and intelligent teenager like Thayer certainly would not have mistaken someone else for McElroy.
 

Thomas Krom

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There is only one question the account raises, which is how could Purser McElroy get his hands on a revolver. The guns were only reserved for the captain and the senior officers in the safe in the cabin of the first officer after all (as mention before in past treads fifth officer Harold Lowe had his own Browning pistol with him on-board. There are either two explanations to this if it was indeed purser McElroy:

  • Possibility 1 Just as fifth officer Lowe he had his private revolver or pistol.
  • Possibility 2 It could be possible that chief officer Wilde, just as Lightoller, gave him one of the Webley revolvers with .445 ammunition.
It is also important to mention that the 1940 account states that the revolver was fired by McElroy on the forward promenade on A-deck, not on the boat deck. Fellow first class passenger Hugh Woolner stated the following at the American inquiry about the shooting on the starboard side:

Senator SMITH.

What happened then?



Mr. WOOLNER.

Then they eventually lowered all the wooden lifeboats on the port side, and then they got out a collapsible and hitched her onto the most forward davits and they filled that up, mostly with steerage women and children, and one seaman, and a steward, and I think one other man - but I am not quite certain about that - and when that boat seemed to be quite full, and was ready to be swung over the side, and was to be lowered away, I said to Steffanson: "There is nothing more for us to do here." Oh, no; something else happened while that boat was being loaded. There was a sort of scramble on the starboard side, and I looked around and I saw two flashes of a pistol in the air.



Senator SMITH.

Two flashes of a pistol?



Mr. WOOLNER.

Yes.



Senator SMITH.

Pistol shots?



Mr. WOOLNER.

Yes; but they were up in the air, at that sort of an angle (indicating). I heard Mr. Murdoch shouting out, "Get out of this, clear out of this," and that sort of thing, to a lot of men who were swarming into a boat on that side.



Senator SMITH.

Swarming into the boat?



Mr. WOOLNER.

Yes.



Senator SMITH.

Was that into this collapsible boat?



Mr. WOOLNER.

It was a collapsible; yes, sir.



Senator SMITH.

That was the first collapsible that was lowered on the port side?



Mr. WOOLNER.

On the starboard side. That was the other side.

Senator SMITH.

You were across the ship?



Mr. WOOLNER.

Yes.



Senator SMITH.

You were then on the starboard side?



Mr. WOOLNER.

Yes. We went across there because we heard a certain kind of shouting going on, and just as we got around the corner I saw these two flashes of the pistol, and Steffanson and I went up to help to clear that boat of the men who were climbing in, because there was a bunch of women - I think Italians and foreigners - who were standing on the outside of the crowd, unable to make their way toward the side of the boat.



Senator SMITH.

Because these men had gathered around this collapsible boat?



Mr. WOOLNER.

Yes, sir. So we helped the officer to pull these men out, by their legs and anything we could get hold of.



Senator SMITH.

You pulled them out of the boat?



Mr. WOOLNER.

We pulled out several, each.



Senator SMITH.

How many?



Mr. WOOLNER.

I should think five or six. But they were really flying before Mr. Murdoch from inside of the boat at the time.



Senator SMITH.

They were members of the crew?



Mr. WOOLNER.

I could not tell. No; I do not think so. I think they were probably third class passengers. It was awfully difficult to notice very carefully. I got hold of them by their feet and legs. Then they cleared out, practically all the men, out of that boat, and then we lifted in these Italian women, hoisted them up on each side and put them into the boat. They were very limp. They had not much spring in them at all. Then that boat was finally filled up and swung out, and then I said to Steffanson: "There is nothing more for us to do. Let us go down onto A deck again." And we went down again, but there was nobody there that time at all. It was perfectly empty the whole length. It was absolutely deserted, and the electric lights along the ceiling of A deck were beginning to turn red, just a glow, a red sort of glow. So I said to Steffanson: "This is getting rather a tight corner. I do not like being inside these closed windows. Let us go out through the door at the end." And as we went out through the door the sea came in onto the deck at our feet.



Senator SMITH.

You were then on A deck?



Mr. WOOLNER.

Yes, sir.



Senator SMITH.

And did you look on both sides of the deck to see whether there were people?



Mr. WOOLNER.

Yes, sir.



Senator SMITH.

You say there were none?



Mr. WOOLNER.

None, the whole length of it.



Senator SMITH.

The whole length of A deck you saw no people?



Mr. WOOLNER.

Not a soul.



Senator SMITH.

How long was that after the collapsible lifeboat that you have just referred to was lowered?



Mr. WOOLNER.

Oh, quite a few minutes; a very few minutes.



This testimony was given on the 29th of April 1912, instead of 28 years later as John Borland Thayer III his account.
 
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Arun Vajpey

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There is only one question the account raises, which is how could Purser McElroy get his hands on a revolver. The guns were only reserved for the captain and the senior officers in the safe in the cabin of the first officer after all (as mention before in past treads fifth officer Harold Lowe had his own Browning pistol with him on-board. There are either two explanations to this if it was indeed purser McElroy:

  • Possibility 1 Just as fifth officer Lowe he had his private revolver or pistol.
  • Possibility 2 It could be possible that chief officer Wilde, just as Lightoller, gave him one of the Webley revolvers with .445 ammunition.
Good question. AFAIK, Lowe certainly had his own handgun.

I believe Jack Thayer's testimony in which he clearly states that McElroy fired 2 shots in the air while he was helping Murdoch with loading Collapsible C. I don't think someone like Thayer would mistake the Chief purser for anyone else. As an up and about First Class passenger from a prominent family, Jack Thayer is very likely to have interacted with the Chief Purser several times in the 5 days since Cherbourg.

As to how McElroy got hold of a gun, there are several possibilities. I don't thin he would have had one of his own. Remember that Lowe, Moody and possibly Boxhall were not in the group that were issued handguns. Pitman had already left. Since the Chief Purser is 'almost' a ship's officer, he might have been included in the distribution, even if it was to make up numbers. Alternatively, Murdoch might have given McElroy his gun; some Titanic researchers had named Murdoch as the man who fired those 2 shots to disperse rushers near Collapsible C but now it seems almost certain that it was McElroy.

As an aside, I suggest you don't take my word about Lightoller. Take a day off and go through his testimony on both sides of the Atlantic carefully on the Titanic Inquiry Project and form your own opinion. I am certain that you will see what I mean about being vague and evasive.
 

Michael Hinz

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His ET biography says that McElroy was last seen standing near the gymnasium beside mail clerk William Logan Gwinn. Unfortunately, I could not find a source for this but I could imagine that this was not the last time McElroy was seen. It is possible that he helped to load and lower the aft starboard boats and on his way back to the bridge he met mail clerk William Logan Gwinn.


Besides, I would add another event to your timeline. Steward Frederick Dent Ray testified at the american inquiry that he saw the two pursers (Barker and McElroy) and the clerks in the pursers office putting things in bags. This happened after boat 7 was lowered and before boat 9 was lowered.


Mr. Ray:

"I walked leisurely up to the main stairway, passed two or three people on the way, saw the two pursers in the purser's office and the clerks busy at the safe taking things out and putting them in bags, and just then Mr. Rothschild left his stateroom and I waited for him -"
 

Arun Vajpey

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His ET biography says that McElroy was last seen standing near the gymnasium beside mail clerk William Logan Gwinn.
Last seen standing by whom? Lightoller? I ask because Lightoller said that he saw last McElroy with O'Laughlin, Simpson and a mail clerk (Gwinn?). That was when Simpson is supposed to asked the sweating Lightoller if he was warm.

I am not necessarily disputing Lightoller's claim, but am trying to figure out when that meeting could have taken place. Lightoller's wording about the 'doctors' meeting' suggests that it was relatively later during the sinking. One possibility is that it was after Lightoller lowered Lifeboat #4 but before Collapsible D was launched. There was a 15-minute interval between the launch of those two port front lifeboats. Therefore, after instructing the crew to fit Collapsible D to davits and form a protective ring around the boat, he would have had time to pop across to the starboard side for a brief visit.

In fact, in one Titanic book or article, (I cannot figure out which) I recall reading that Lightoller briefly went to where Collapsible C was about to be lowered after he launched #4. Since #C was lowered at 01:58 am, it would fit in.
 

Michael Hinz

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As I said I could not find the source for this. I dont know who saw McElroy and Gwinn together at the gymnasium. I dont think that Gwinn was part of that group that Lightoller saw. He describes only the doctors, the pursers and their assistants. But let us take a look at Lightollers account before the american Inquiry.

Mr. LIGHTOLLER.
"Of that I have no absolute knowledge. I can merely be guided by the circumstances which occurred. The purser - as a matter of fact, both the pursers - and the purser's assistants, of whom I believe there were four - two pursers and four assistants, and two doctors, were there. Both pursers I was very friendly with, and knew them both intimately, ashore and afloat. They were both thoroughly capable men.

I draw the conclusion that everyone was notified, by the manner and under the circumstances under which I met them last. It was obvious to me that everything with regard to their duty had been done by the mere fact that shortly before the vessel sank I met a purser, Mr. McElroy, "Mr. Barker, Dr. O'Loughlin, and Dr. Simpson, and the four assistants. They were just coming from the direction of the bridge. They were evidently just keeping out of everybody's way. They were keeping away from the crowd so, as not to interfere with the loading of the boats. McElroy, if I remember, was walking around with his hands in his pockets. The purser's assistant was coming behind with the ship's bag, show that all detail work had been attended to. I think one of them had a roll of papers under his arm, showing that they had been attending to their detail work."



Lightoller said that they were keeping away from the crowd so, as not to interfere with the loading of the boats. So I think we can assume that there were still boats hanging in the davits. As you said it is possible that this event took place at boat C, some minutes before it was lowered, maybe 01:55 am?
 
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Arun Vajpey

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I dont know who saw McElroy and Gwinn together at the gymnasium. I dont think that Gwinn was part of that group that Lightoller saw. He describes only the doctors, the pursers and their assistants.
I think you are right. Looking back, I believe Lightoller said he met McElroy, an assistant purser, Dr O'Loughlin and Dr Simpson. The Gwinn meeting might have been earlier and somewhere else.

I draw the conclusion that everyone was notified, by the manner and under the circumstances under which I met them last. It was obvious to me that everything with regard to their duty had been done by the mere fact that shortly before the vessel sank I met a purser, Mr. McElroy, "Mr. Barker, Dr. O'Loughlin, and Dr. Simpson, and the four assistant
Lightoller's wording there suggests that the 'doctors' meeting' took place rather late and it might be after Lifeboat #4 was launched. That happened at 01:50 am and Collapsible D was not lowered till 02:05 am. 15 minutes between bats seems rather long that late and given the circumstances and could only have been because #D was still being positioned and Wilde and Lightoller had given orders to secure the position by the 'sailor's ring' etc. IF Wilde was also present near Collapsible D at the time, Lightoller might have had the opportunity to pop across briefly to the starboard side and met those others.

They were just coming from the direction of the bridge. They were evidently just keeping out of everybody's way. They were keeping away from the crowd so, as not to interfere with the loading of the boats. McElroy, if I remember, was walking around with his hands in his pockets
That highlighted part is what has me confused a bit. Lightoller was on the port side and could have crossed over to the starboard side of the boat deck. So, when he said "they were coming from the direction of the bridge", it seems relative to Lightoller's own position at that moment. Also, did he mean ALL of them, McElroy included, were coming from the same direction? There is evidence that McElroy was working with Murdoch in loading Collapsible C, which was launched at 01:58 am. Jack Thayer - who would have been very familiar with the Chief Purser - stated that he saw McElroy fire 2 shots into the air to disperse the potential boat-rushers. BUT THEN.....
McElroy, if I remember, was walking around with his hands in his pockets
That does not fit in, does it? Either Lightoller was confusing timelines and mixing-up an earlier sighting of the Chief Purser or it might have been after Collapsible C was lowered. But that would leave only a 5 minute window, the time between launches of #C and #D; I don't think Lightoller would have then been talking casually to the doctors nor would McElroy be walking around with his hands in his pockets.

Lightoller said that they were keeping away from the crowd so, as not to interfere with the loading of the boats. So I think we can assume that there were still boats hanging in the davits. As you said it is possible that this event took place at boat C, some minutes before it was lowered, maybe 01:55 am?
Yes, that fits except for what Lightoller said McElroy was doing. Since Lightoller did say "if I remember", we have to surmise that he was mixing-up an earlier sighting of the Chief Purser with that moment during the Doctor's meeting, which does seem to have occurred around 01:55 am. Considering all that happened, it is quite possible.
 
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