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Death of a purser

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Ireland and the Irish are inescapable elements in the story of RMS Titanic, the ill-fated vessel was, after all, designed by Irishmen and built by Harland & Wolff in Belfast. There were many Irish members among its crew while, appropriately enough, the doomed liner’s final port-of-call was Queenstown, in the south of Ireland. Some of the Irish people associated with the ship have been well-recorded – Thomas Andrews, Dr William O'Loughlin and first-class stewardess Violet Jessop, for example, have featured in various Titanic books and films. Arguably, less is known about Hugh McElroy, the ship’s purser – a ‘big, jolly, courteous’ officer, who was generally regarded as ‘the ideal man for the position he held’.

Purser McElroy was, in reality, a Liverpool-Irishman, albeit with a solid Irish background, although this did not prevent the manager of a club for merchant seamen in New York from describing Hugh as ‘a fine, big-hearted Galway man, and a prince to boot’! The family had originated in County Wexford, and they were staunch Roman Catholics.

The advance publicity for Death of a Purser, by Frankie McElroy states that Purser McElroy, the Chief Purser of RMS Titanic:

Hugh McElroy Biography Cover...perished in the icy waters of the Atlantic Ocean along with over 1,500 others, after his ship collided with an iceberg, neglecting his individual memory. His great-nephew, Frankie McElroy, hopes to finally redress this injustice, completing the picture of Hugh as a family man with a rich and rewarding life, which is so much deeper than just a name and a face that has been pinned to the memory of one of Britain’s greatest tragedies, for a century.

Death of a Purser reveals the human story of a man only known to the public through the circumstances of his death. Hugh McElroy was born in 1874 and was one of five children - three girls and two boys. He was well-educated by his family, sent as a boarder to preparatory schools in Buckinghamshire and Staffordshire, until his schooling was interrupted by the death of his father in 1888. ….

Frankie McElroy was driven to publish his ancestor’s biography in an effort to correct the mistakes that have been written about his great uncle Hugh over the years; little accurate testimony has existed about McElroy, how he came to serve aboard the Titanic or about the role he performed during the voyage to New York. Frankie McElroy addresses this imbalance by providing detailed and engaging accounts that create a warm, well-rounded and informative picture of the man himself.

Included in this painstakingly researched biography are many private, family photographs, which bring to light the manner of Hugh McElroy as well as evoking the history of a world quite unlike our own. It has certainly been a labour of love and dedication; Frankie McElroy began his research in the early 1960s and only completed his work shortly before the publication of Death of a Purser. He hopes that the book will encourage readers to understand that in the case of the Titanic there were no villains at play within the story, just simple human beings, each and every one of them a victim of circumstance.

Chapter One covers the early life and career of Hugh Richard Walter McElroy, who was born at 3 Percy Street, Liverpool on 28th October 1874, his parents being Richard and Jessie McElroy (née Fox). He had a brother, Richard, and two sisters, Mary and Charlotte – Charlotte being the author's grandmother (or ‘Nan’). The family moved to 6 Eversley Street, Toxteth, in Liverpool, when Hugh was 7 years old, while in the following year Hugh was sent away to a prep school at St Marys Lodge, St Leonards-on-Sea (which is in Sussex, rather than Buckinghamshire, as stated in the book). In 1885 he entered Cotton College, a Catholic boarding school near Oakamoor in Staffordshire, which had trained many eminent bishops and clergymen. This was followed by two-years at St Francis College at Wimborne Minster, in Dorset.

Chief Purser Hugh McElroy Titanic Postcard Titanic In Memoriam

It is hardly surprising, given his Catholic background, that in 1890, when Hugh was aged just 16, he joined a Roman Catholic Religious Order called the ‘Canons Regular of the Lateran’, with the aim of studying for the priesthood. He took his Simple Vows at St Joseph's Priory in Dorset, and then moved to St Mary's Priory in Bodmin for his novitiate. However, in 1892, after two years in training, he evidently had doubts about his suitability for the priesthood, and his ‘Solemn Vows’ were delayed for a year, after which he was ‘dismissed by order of the Abbot General, Felix Menchini’.

It would have been interesting to have been told a little more about the circumstances surrounding Hugh's decision to leave the seminary - which must have been one of the major turning points in his life. The auther suggests that ‘Hugh had made up his mind to leave’, but this is little more than stating something very obvious. On the other hand, the author provides a wealth of detail about the various Catholic establishments that featured in Hugh's story, and it would be wrong to suggest that the religious background has been ignored or glossed-over.

Having left the seminary, Hugh McElroy commenced his seafaring career with the help of his future father-in law John Ellis, formerly the Allan Line Passenger Manager in Liverpool, where his family had been well known in shipping circles for two generations. Hugh went to sea for the first time in 1893 as an assistant purser aboard the Allan Line vessel Numidian. He is said to have taken to the work ‘like a fish to water’, and he continued to serve the Allen in the same capacity until 1899, when he was offered the job of purser with the White Star Line, and was told to report to their Liverpool Office for induction into the company, his earlier service with the Allen Line having put him in good stead. The author suggests that Hugh had made this career move ‘after a long talk with John Ellis, his father-in-law’, his life from that point being ‘mapped out in front of him, following John Ellis’s footsteps …. because John Ellis knew and respected J.Bruce Ismay’, and Hugh had been introduced to Ismay in the previous year.

In 9th July 1910 Hugh married his childhood sweetheart, Miss Barbara Mary Ennis, a daughter of John Ennis - the wedding being held at St Peter's RC Church in Ballymitty, County Wexford, while the ceremony was performed by Hugh’s brother, Father Richard McElroy, who had recently been ordained as a priest. Hugh was then aged 35, and Barbara was 32.

Hugh and Barbara lived for a short while with Barbara’s father, then an ailing 75-year old widower, who was cared for by a resident nurse in a surprisingly palatial 10-room house known as ‘Springwood’, at Tullycanna, County Wexford. Photographs of Springwood, which was situated about one mile along the Wexford Road from Ballymitty Church, are provided in the book, together with an extract from the 1911 census return, which reveals that the Ennis family had three domestic servants and a ‘stable man’, in addition to Cathleen O'Brien, the resident nurse – a reminder that not all Irish Catholic families were dirt poor subsistence farmers. Hugh and Barbara resided at Springwood for a little under 12 months before moving to Polygon House in Southampton. At the time of the Titanic disaster they had just been married for less than two years, and had no children.

Hugh's record of service with the White Star company included trooping duties throughout the Boer War, first on the Cymric and later the Britannic, for which he received the transport medal with the South Africa clasp. Thereafter, promotion followed rapidly as he served on larger and ever more prestigious vessels such as the Majestic and Adriatic, under the command of Captain E. J. Smith. He was subsequently transferred, along with Chief Steward Latimer and Dr O'Loughlin, to the newly-built Olympic, after which they were transferred to the Titanic. Hugh signed-on aboard the Titanic on 9th April 1912 as Chief Purser on a salary of £20 per month.

Chapters Three, Four and Five deal with the Titanic disaster and its aftermath. We are told that, on 6th April 1912, Hugh sent a postcard from the Royal Southampton Yacht Club to one of his priest friends, with the message ‘Many thanks for your letter and good wishes which I reciprocate, the Titanic is in many ways an improved Olympic and will I trust be a success, I am sorry I could not get down to Swanage this time but I was tied to Southampton and the train service too erratic to take chances, all kind of messages to you both’.

Apart from Captain Smith, Purser McElroy was the only other officer who dined regularly with the passengers, and indeed the Chief Purser seems to have been almost as popular among habitual travellers as the Captain – some passengers even timing their journeys so that they could enjoy his company. On the fateful night of 14th April 1912, Hugh had spent an evening in the First Class restaurant dining with some of his many passenger friends, including William T. Stead, Albert Stewart, Mrs Genevieve Cassebeer, Mr and Mrs Alexander Taylor Compton, Miss Sara Rebecca Compton, Harry Anderson and John Montgomery Smart.

After the Titanic had struck the iceberg Hugh was seen by several witnesses as he worked tirelessly to assist the passengers onto the boat deck and into the lifeboats. He is known to have helped First Officer Murdoch during the loading of Lifeboat 9, where J. Bruce Ismay was also trying to make himself useful. Bath Steward James Widgery recalled that the Purser asked him if he ‘understood anything about lifeboats’, and when he replied ‘a little’ Hugh told him to get into the boat. Saloon Steward William Ward said ‘Purser McElroy sent me along. They had taken the canvas off of No 9 and lowered it, we lowered her down to level with the boat deck, and a sailor came along with a bag and threw it in the boat. This man said he had been sent down to take charge of the boat by the captain. The boatswain’s mate, Haynes, was there, and he ordered this man out of the boat, and the man got out again. He stayed there for three or four minutes, and the Purser took hold of my arm and said get in the boat and help the boatswain’s mate pass the ladies in. So I got in the boat and stepped on the side, and the purser said Are you all ready? Haynes answered Yes and we started to pass the ladies and children into the boat’.

Some sources say that Hugh fired a pistol into the air after two men had jumped into collapsible boat ‘C’, which had been fitted to the lifeboat davits. This account was verified by first class passenger Jack Thayer who stated at the US inquiry that ‘There was some disturbance in loading the last two forward starboard boats. A large crowd of men was pressing to get into them. No women were around as far as I could see. It was every man for himself. Purser McElroy was standing up in the next to last boat, loading it, two men, I think they were dinning-room stewards, dropped into the boat from the deck above. As they jumped, he fired twice in the air. I do not believe they were hit, but they were quickly thrown out. Purser McElroy did not take a boat and was not saved’.

With the water rising rapidly rising, Purser McElroy stood with Dr O’Loughlin and his assistant Dr Simpson, together with Assistant Purser Reg Barker. They were joined briefly by Second Officer Lightoller, he was sweating from his work at the boats and Dr Simpson remarked ‘Hello Lights are you warm’. As the last lifeboats were pulling away from the ship, the ever-jovial Purser is said to have turned to his assistants and said: ‘Well, boys, the last boat has gone. I'm afraid we must eat sand for supper to-night’.

Purser McElroy was last seen standing calmly on the Boat Deck, beside mail clerk William Logan Gwynn. His body was later retrieved from the sea by the crew of the MacKay-Bennett, although as it was not immediately identified it was referred to as Body 157. He was wearing a ship's uniform and his effects included keys tagged ‘Linen locker No 1 - C Deck’ and the address ‘Miss McElroy, Layton, Spottisbury, Dorset’. As Body 157 had decomposed beyond preservation it was decided that it should be buried at sea and thus, at 8.00 pm on the evening of 22nd April 1912, Hugh Richard McElroy was committed to the deep, together with 14 other victims of the Titanic disaster. The service was conducted by Canon Kenneth C.Hind of All Saints Cathedral in Halifax, Nova Scotia.

The story does not end with Hugh's death. In July 1913, Hugh's sister Charlotte was living at Flanders Road in Chiswick, west London, having argued bitterly with her mother and Barbara after she had married an Anglican and left the Roman Catholic Church. In the event, the marriage lasted just three years because her husband died in 1918. Thereafter, Charlotte reverted back to her maiden name of McElroy and brought up her two young children. According to the author, ‘Charlotte realised the enormity of what she had done, in changing her religion and prepared herself for the onslaught, given that her family were for generations staunch Roman Catholics, she would be excommunicated from the family as well as the church, and because the Roman Catholic church felt she had committed such a grave offence against the ecclesiastical authorities, the Bishop would put her under interdict (denying her confession, communion or consecrated burial), which made it a mortal sin for a Catholic to support’. Which all seems a little harsh.

It must be said that the grammar and punctuation throughout Death of a Purser is somewhat eccentric, so much so that the book is, in many places, extremely difficult to read. There are, for example, whole paragraphs without full stops or indeed any recognisable sentence structure, as shown in the following extract:

'Hugh's upbringing and education has taught him a very strict way of life, a new life has to be christened, in order to give it positive start in life, this brought Hugh into much conflict with the White Star Line, he was never given the reason why, their ships were never christened, when they were launched? Because the White Star Line were not in the business to discuss Thomas Ismay reasons for the aversion to the practice of christening his new ships, but the White Star fleet, from the original Oceanic through to the last ship built under White Star control, were never christened.
Thomas Henry Ismay personally made it crystal clear that no White Star ship would ever be christened, with Champaign (sic) or otherwise, because of the particular derivation of the ritual from ancient times. In fact, he never attended christenings of any ships, even of other lines, for that very same reason. He abhorred the practice. Bruce carried on his father's tradition of not christening White Star ships. Although both men were good Christians, as was Pirrie, Thomas Henry Ismay set the standard and it was simply followed. In fact, Thomas Henry Ismay politely and respectfully crossed swords with Queen Victoria over certain ships not being christened, especially the Teutonic which had been outfitted with guns in order to accommodate war efforts if ever drafted into service by the British Navy. Her upset was that a ship that might one day be requisitioned as a British Naval ship would not be properly christened. The Queen was one of the few people outside Thomas Henry Ismay's close circle who received the actual reason for his aversion, and as a result she acquiesced to his practice. "Them what runs show, makes the rules".

There are some obvious errors and inconsistencies, for instance, on page 43 we are told that ‘the 16 (rather than 20) boats with which RMS Titanic was equipped were all accounted for’, whereas Lifeboats 1 to 16 and collapsible boats 'A', 'B', 'C' and 'D' are all mentioned in some detail in the ‘Titanic Timeline’ on pps.38-42, the number of survivors in each boat being recorded. On page 88 there is a group photograph showing Hugh McElroy and his family aboard ‘the London, Brighton & South Coast Railroad (sic) cross-channel steamer SS Paris (Newport-Dieppe route) about 1910’, with an accompanying postcard view of ‘the cross-Channel steamer SS Paris’. Unfortunately, these were not the same vessel, the LB&SCR Paris employed on the Newhaven (not Newport) to Dieppe route in 1910 being a paddle steamer that was sold by the railway company in 1912, whereas the screw steamer shown on the postcard is her replacement, which was added to the fleet in 1913. Elsewhere, Nomadic, the White Star Line tender at Cherbourg, is erroneously referred to as the Normandic, while Flanders Road, W2, is referred to as Flander Road.

The book tends to be discursive, in that it jumps from subject to subject, and from place to place, with little regard for any kind of overall structure. What might be termed the ‘formal narrative’ section, dealing with Hugh McElroy and his family history, ends on page 61, the remaining 75 pages being filled with pictures, press cuttings, census extracts, photographs and other ephemera. For this reason, Death of a Purser works best if treated as a scrap book, the various notes, anecdotes, and photographs being picked-out and studied at random. Some of this additional material is unexpected. For example, it transpires that ‘Nan’, the author's grandmother, was a close friend of Violet Jessop, the stewardess, and Frankie McElroy thereby met Violet and was presumably able to ask her about Hugh McElroy and his work on ocean liners such as the Olympic and Titanic. There also is a good photograph of Violet's cottage at Great Ashfield in Suffolk, together with two photographs of her gravestone.

It also comes as something of a shock to discover that on 6th March 1987 the author's family were, by a tragic coincidence, involved in another major shipping disaster, when they survived the sinking of the Herald of Free Enterprise – a truly terrifying ordeal in which the 13,600 ton car ferry capsized and sank in just 90 seconds – the worst peacetime British maritime disaster since the loss of the Titanic. It would have been interesting to have been told a little more about this more recent disaster – after which Frankie McElroy swore ‘never to set foot on any other boat’.

Published by AuthorHouse 2011, 136 pps, ISBN: 9781456790424
Perfect Bound Softcover. Size: 8.25 x 11 inches

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Encyclopedia Titanica (2012) Death of a purser (Titanic Review, ref: #15073, published 5 January 2012, generated 18th November 2022 07:38:59 AM); URL : https://www.encyclopedia-titanica.org/death-of-a-purser-review-frankie-mcelroy.html