by Jemma Hyder
At the beginning of 1912 Harold Thomas Cottam already had a wealth of experience behind him. The youngest graduate from his class at Wireless Telegraphy school, he had operated at an early age on routes as far flung as Australia, as well as on shore stations working for the Post Office before he was selected above a number of other applicants to take up his place as the sole Operator under Arthur Rostron on the Cunard Liner Carpathia in February 1912. Mature beyond his years he was a rather small man, but there are still those alive today who comment on how handsome he looked when he returned home to Nottinghamshire dressed up in full Marconi uniform. Born at the end of January in 1891, Harold was the eldest son of William Cottam, a local builder and his wife Jane Powley, whose family origins were of a farming nature further north. Four more sons followed as the years progressed and they had somewhat of a reputation locally, but whatever Harold got up to, he never warranted the notoriety of Oscar, three years his junior.
It is evident from his education and early career that Harold wasnt one to shirk responsibility. Individual Marconi Operators on board ships at the time found their hours vaguely defined. Cottams own view on the subject was that Midnight was an acceptable time to turn in after a days work, although he did state that if a ship was expected to pass at 3am then you should be ready and willing to communicate with her. Indeed on the two nights before the sinking he hadnt turned in until after 2am. Even on the night of the 14th Harold admitted he had nothing much to work on, and on hearing how pushed at his key Jack Phillips was aboard the Titanic he decided he may be of some assistance if he made a note of all the incoming traffic and re submitted it the next morning.
Harold Cottams role in the Titanic disaster is often summed up as being solely played out in the early hours of the morning on Monday 15th April 1912. The Twenty One year old had almost turned in for a well-deserved rest when he picked up Phillips desperate distress call, reported it to the bridge and sent the Carpathia speeding towards the Titanics aid. During the four-hour voyage to the scene of the White Star Liners demise he kept up a continuous stream of transmission. He advised Titanic of their progress, helped her Operators by re-transmitting messages they were unable to hear and kept up to date with the sinking ships progress, but often overlooked is the fact that his role remained pivotal long after the Titanic had sunk beneath the surface of the North Atlantic.
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For those in the lifeboats, there came some kind of relief when they stepped, climbed or were hauled aboard the Carpathia on Monday morning, but for Harold, already more than 24 hours without sleep, his role was to be virtually uninterrupted until she docked in New York the following Thursday. Monday began with an endless stream of traffic. All the surrounding ships pressing the young Operator continuously for information. He found himself repeating his story time and time again as more ships arrived at the scene, Titanic sank 2am, rescued 20 boatloads. On top of this came the correspondence between the various ships captains, mainly Haddock of the Olympic conversing with Rostron. Where they heading for Halifax or New York, would the survivors remain on board or transfer to the larger Olympic? *
Cottam tapped away into the evening. Somewhere during the days transmission an infamous message found its way to shore to the effect that all passengers had been saved and that the Titanic was being towed to Halifax. Rostron had initially intended to dock there, before deciding that it would only add to the trauma already experienced by the survivors if they had to travel overland once they reached Canada. Their original destination seemed a much less stressful option. Cottam never denied that he might well have mentioned the Nova Scotia town in this capacity but denied sending the message that would eventually be linked to Jack Phillips uncle and end up sprawled across the front page of the press the following morning. Harold was visibly and understandably stressed throughout the day, and people noted that he sounded tired, the pressure showing when he snapped I cant do everything at once. Patience please. After almost 24 hours solid transmitting, and 36 hours without any sleep Harold began sending a list of survivors to Moore on the Olympic. In all he passed on 322 names of 1st and 2nd class passengers and the Olympic Operator noted that During transmission it was evident he was tired. Harold eventually gave up, promising that the names of the 3rd Class Passengers and the Crew would follow.
After at least three days with little or no sleep Harolds tiredness finally got the better of him and he fell asleep fully clothed, still sitting at his key, making it evident that support had to be acquired from somewhere. One of the survivors whose injuries rendered him incapable of climbing his way aboard the Carpathia was Harold Bride. The 22-year-old Londoner had been recovering somewhere below decks ever since Monday morning, suffering from frost bitten feet among other ailments, and there he probably would have stayed if not for receiving a visit telling him that the ships Wireless Operator was Getting queer. He could have been forgiven for refusing to assist in his condition, but nevertheless Harold hobbled up to the top deck on his crutches to lend a hand. Cottam was to remain doing most of the transmitting whilst Bride made himself useful by sitting on the bed with his leg propped up on a pillow organising the traffic. It certainly took some of the pressure off of Harold Cottam who was able to break for meals on Wednesday and take a catch up on a few hours sleep.
The sheer amount of traffic made for frustrating work. So much interference inevitably led to voluminous misinformation evident in contemporary newspapers and President Taft eventually ordered the vast majority of stations to stop working in an attempt to cull the amount of traffic. The fate of the Americans on board had still not been accurately confirmed so he also ordered out the U.S. Navy Scout Chester to try and find answers. Archibald Butts survival, or not as the case was to be, must have been at the forefront of his mind. The Navy Operators were unfamiliar with the Continental Morse code used by Bride and Cottam and transmission was painfully slow and often heated. Harold Bride didnt have a positive word to say about them after he sent through the names of the third class passengers, and Cottam branded them Insufferably incompetent.
As the Carpathia approached New York Cottam turned over the headphones to Bride for the last time to go and eat. The Titanics Junior Operator was at the key when she docked and the New York Times reporter arrived with Marconi to collect his exclusive version of events. In more than 150 hours since Friday morning Harold Cottam would have had approximately 20 hours sleep before reaching New York so it is little wonder that he slipped away into the city as soon as the ship landed
Arthur Rostrons orders were clear. Official traffic then passenger messages and both Bride and Cottam adhered to this strictly. For those not aboard the little liner heading for New York it was a frustrating experience trying to establish any detailed information. Despite the fact that the two Operators barely ceased transmitting until the Carpathia reached New York Harbour, it appeared to those ashore that information was being withheld. After Official traffic the ship was flooded with not only every message any survivor on board wanted to send, but also every family member, friend, loved one, and acquaintance of anyone who was or might possibly have been on the Titanic looking for information. Not surprisingly messages went astray and some important people didnt get answers to the questions they were asking. Marconi himself asked why he could get no news, to which he received no reply, (on Rostrons instruction) and the Secretary of the U.S Navy launched an investigation using radio experts as to why President Tafts message asking for news on Archibald Butt and the other American passengers went unanswered. Jack Binns, Radio Operator of Republic fame put the apparent silence down to the inadequacy of the Carpathias wireless equipment and the atmospheric conditions at the time, whilst Moore, the Olympic Operator sensibly stated that he thought the did exceptionally well with the job they had on. Bride claimed that he had Positively refused to send press dispatches due to the overwhelming number of personal messages.
Senator Smith however saw a more sordid motive at the United States Enquiry for the apparent lack of details provided en route to New York. The fact that both Cottam and Bride received financial sums for selling their stories on arriving in the U.S seemed to imply, as far as the Senator was concerned that they had in some way been withholding information on the way to America in hope of financial gain. He vigorously pursued the avenue in his questioning despite Cottam claiming that they heard no mention of money until they were almost at New York, reading the message in question as Bride took it down. Smith also tried to imply that Cottam was in some way in breach of data protection by selling his story, but as his tale of events didnt include personal details from individual messages these claims were unfounded. Either way Harold Cottam had a prime opportunity to provide his version of events when the New York Times reporter boarded the Carpathia with Marconi himself. One suspects that if he had been so keen to make himself some easy money he wouldnt have made the sharp exit from the dock that he did. As it was, Harold didnt enquire after permission to sell his story until the early hours of the next morning when he telephoned Mr. Marconi himself. He eventually received $750 for the story that appeared alongside Harold Brides in the New York Times on April 19th 1912.
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Harold Cottam retired from sea ten years later to marry Elsie Shepperson, the daughter of a local gardener. He appeared as the guest of honour at a local premiere of A Night to Remember in 1958 and gave the odd interview recounting the night of the sinking. He passed away in 1984 at the age of 93.
*This idea was later abandoned quite sensibly when the Rostron considered how traumatic it would be to transfer the survivors to the sister of the ship that had just sank from underneath them.
New York Times, April 19th 1912
Carpathia Log BT100 Series, PRO
Mrs. E Powley
1891 Census Return
United States Enquiry, Testimony of H. Cottam
United States Enquiry, Testimony of E. Moore
United States Enquiry, Testimony of H. Bride
New York Times, April 20th 1912
British Enquiry, Testimony of H. Cottam
United States Enquiry, Testimony of G. Marconi
United States Enquiry, Testimony of Capt. Haddock
United States Enquiry, Testimony of J. Durrant
New York Times, April 16th 1912
United States Enquiry, testimony of J. Binns
New York Times, April 21st 1912
Mr. A. Shepperson
Certificate of Entry of Marriage. H. Cottam 1922
Certificate of Entry of Death H. Cottam 1984
Newark Advertiser, 1958
© Jemma Hyder, UK 2002