Encyclopedia Titanica

Major Peuchen's Predicament

The inaction of a man of action


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Major Peuchen's Predicament

Late on the afternoon of April 10, 1912, a telegraph messenger trotted up the steps of a large, red-brick house that stood near the top end of Toronto’s most fashionable street. He was carrying a message for Mrs Margaret Peuchen, the lady of the house, from her husband, Major Arthur Peuchen. The telegram announced that the major was sailing that day from England for New York on a ship called the Titanic. Allowing a week for the crossing, and a day for the train trip up from New York, Margaret Peuchen may have calculated that her husband was aiming to be home for his fifty-third birthday on April 18th.

Peuchen residence Jarvis

The Peuchen home at 599 Jarvis Street just before it was demolished in the 1970s. His church, St Paul’s Anglican, can be seen in the background.
(Mike Filey)

Peuchen home Woodlands

‘Woodlands’, Peuchen’s country home still stands on Lake Simcoe though the 60-acre estate has been subdivided.
(Mike Filey)

Though not as showy as some of the mansions on a street that had been dubbed ––with more than a little civic hyperbole­­­­–– ‘Toronto’s Champs-Elysees’, the Peuchen home at 599 Jarvis was nonetheless a suitably imposing residence for the president of the Standard Chemical, Iron and Lumber Company of Canada. But it was ‘Woodlands’ on the shore of Lake Simcoe fifty miles north of the city that was the real showpiece of Arthur Peuchen's success. There, a high-gabled house with gingerbread verandahs dominated a sixty-acre estate, complete with tennis courts, a lawn-bowling green and golf course, riding stables, and a boathouse filled with canoes and sailboats. Peuchen’s nautical enthusiasms, moreover, were not confined to the placid waters of Lake Simcoe. His 65-foot yacht, the Vreda, had won more races in its class than any other in Canada and was moored at Toronto’s Royal Canadian Yacht Club where he had served as both rear and vice-commodore.

Arthur Peuchen Yacht Vreda RCYC Clubhouse

Peuchen purchased the Vreda in 1899 after it had sailed from England under its own canvas. Post-race celebrations often took place on the verandah of the Royal Canadian Yacht Club overlooking Lake Ontario.
(Royal Canadian Yacht Club Archives)

But the best club of all in Edwardian Toronto was a good militia regiment and Major Peuchen had been an officer in the elite Queen's Own Rifles for over twenty years. After his return on the Titanic, he was to add a lieutenant colonel's pip to his uniform and succeed Sir Henry Mill Pellatt as the regiment's commanding officer. For years, Sir Henry, a wealthy financier and philanthropist, had run the Queen's Own as if it were Pellatt's Own, but now he was consumed by the construction of his fantasy castle, Casa Loma, on a hill overlooking the city.

Arthur Peuchen had joined the Queen’s Own at the age of seventeen and his militia connections had proven useful as he had made his ascent in business. He was the son of a German-speaking immigrant, Godfrey Peuchen, born in Westphalia, who had come to Montreal in 1850 to work as a contractor for the Grand Trunk Railway. There, he had married the English-born Eliza Clarke, and, by the time Arthur was born in 1859, had set himself up in business as a wine merchant. Over time, the Germanic consonants of the Prussian family surname had been softened to make it sound more like the English name ‘Peacham.’

At sixteen Arthur moved to Toronto to work first as a clerk and then as a salesman for a paint company. Within a few years he had become company manager and by his late twenties he was heading up his own paint manufacturing concern, Peuchen and Company, and had begun to develop custom pigments using acetic acid made from hardwood. Seeing the potential in distilling wood alcohol and acetone from waste lumber he decided to found the Standard Chemical Company in 1897. As his company prospered, Peuchen eventually acquired a lumber company with vast tracts of forest in Alberta, and by 1911 he was producing formaldehyde along with charcoal and iron. On one of his trips westward he had also purchased the largest horse ranch in Alberta, located near Pincher Creek.

A principal investor in Standard Chemical was the Toronto railway millionaire Sir William Mackenzie, who in 1902 had partnered with Peuchen’s militia friend, Henry Pellatt, to build a hydroelectric plant at Niagara Falls that brought electric lights to Toronto streets. In 1910 Pellatt had decided that for the fifitieth anniversary of the Queen’s Own Rifles he would take all 600 men of the regiment to England at his own expense for the British Army’s autumn maneuvers at Aldershot. But it was his second-in-command, Major Arthur Peuchen, who put the regiment through its paces since Pellatt was preoccupied by social gatherings in London and a trip to Balmoral for an audience with the newly-ascended King George V. In a time of heightening international tensions, the king had been impressed by Pellatt’s contribution to the empire’s military preparedeness. Yet Arthur Peuchen’s part in the imperial military exercises did not go unnoticed; he was invited to the coronation the following June to ride as marshalling officer of the Indian Cavalry in the grand procession up the Mall from Westminster Abbey. And once again, it seems that Peuchen’s military connections proved strategic, since Standard Chemical was soon a purveyor of acetone to the British War Office for use in the making of explosives.

Arthur Peuchen / Henry Pellatt / Casa Loma

A ramrod-straight Major Peuchen stands behind Sir Henry Pellatt at a Casa Loma garden party (inset) and chats (at centre) with some Mikado-costumed young women at a fancy-dress event at the castle. Casa Loma is today a tourist attraction in Toronto and its glass-domed conservatory (inset) is one of its most-admired rooms.
(Archival photos: City of Toronto Archives. Color photos: Hugh Brewster)

By 1912 Major Peuchen’s company had factories across Ontario and in Quebec and was shipping crude alcohols to refineries in Germany, London and France. Visits to these installations may well have been part of the month-long business trip from which the major was returning on April 10, 1912. The Titanic's first crossing would be Peuchen's fortieth, so the prospect of a maiden voyage on an elegant new ship held no special allure. He had booked only a basic first-class cabin, No. 104 on C - deck, which was without a porthole or private bathroom. But it was conveniently close to the grand staircase so that the dining saloon was just one flight down and a fresh-air stroll on the boat deck only three flights up. "The Titanic was a good boat, luxuriously fitted up -- I was pleased with her," he later recounted. "But when I heard that our captain was Captain Smith, I said, 'Surely we are not going to have that man.'" E. J. Smith was known as "the millionaire's captain" because of his winning way with wealthy Americans, but Peuchen thought him rather too much the society captain.

Comparing captains and ships was a common conversational gambit among the privileged few who travelled regularly on liners. One can imagine Peuchen pontificating about Smith to his table companions: Harry Markland Molson, 53. a member of the brewing family and director of the Molson's Bank in Montreal, and Hudson J. C. Allison, who at thirty had made a killing in Montreal real estate and stocks. Allison was traveling with his young American wife, Bess, their two infant children and four servants they had recently hired in England. Molson, perhaps the wealthiest Canadian on board, was a director of one of Peuchen's companies and had been persuaded by him in London to travel on the Titanic rather than wait for the Lusitania.

At lunch on sailing day, it would have been surprising if Peuchen had not tut-tutted about Smith and the size of White Star’s new liner. During the departure from Southampton, the Titanic had come within a few feet of colliding with another ship that had been moored at the pier. The passing of the Titanic had caused the New York to snap its moorings and swing into the departing liner's path. Backwash from the port propeller and quick maneuvering by the tugboats had narrowly avoided a collision, but it was over an hour before the New York was towed to safety and the Titanic could continue on her way.

The delay meant that the Titanic arrived in Cherbourg quite late in the day. The sun was nearing the horizon as the ship dropped anchor off the French port and the tenders Traffic and Nomadic began ferrying another 274 passengers out from the town's Gare Maritime. Those boarding at Cherbourg ranged from a clutch of the American fashionable set returning home at the end of ‘the season’ on the continent to a hundred or so third - class passengers, many of them immigrants from the Middle East.

Peuchen, Fortune Beattie, Ross at Venice

The Canadian ‘three musketeers’ and Mark Fortune pose with pigeons in St. Mark’s Square, Venice, in March of 1912. (From left) Hugo Ross, unidentified man, Thomas McCaffry, Mark Fortune and Thomson Beattie.
(Wellington County Archives)

As they began boarding the Titanic, dinner service had already begun in the first-class dining saloon. It was not necessary to dress for dinner on the first night of a voyage, and so Major Peuchen may well have used the time to look in on his ailing friend Hugo Ross of Winnipeg. The thirty-six-year-old Ross had run a mining stock business in Toronto as a young man and had been a sailing companion of Peuchen's on the Vreda before returning to Winnipeg to run his father’s real estate business. Working in the same Winnipeg office building was another dapper and witty bachelor named Thomson Beattie. To escape the Winnipeg winters, Beattie, 36, and his close friend the Vancouver banker, Thomas McCaffry, 46, were in the habit of boarding liners for destinations like the Aegean. This year, they had asked Hugo Ross to join them and had departed on the Franconia from New York in January for a three month tour of Italy, Egypt, France and England. Also making the crossing on the Franconia was another successful Winnipeg land speculator, Mark Fortune, 64, who was taking his wife, three twenty-ish daughters and nineteen-year-old son Charles on a European grand tour. A highlight of their trip was a cruise down the Nile on which they were joined by “the three Musketeers” as Hugo Ross and his friends had been dubbed on the Franconia. Ross came down with dysentery in Egypt and when the illness lingered, his travel-weary companions became anxious to get home. Thomson Beattie had written from Paris to his mother in Fergus, Ontario: “We are changing ships and coming home in a new, unsinkable boat." Hugo Ross was carried onto the Titanic at Southampton on a stretcher. The Fortunes too, had decided to return home on the maiden voyage of the new White Star liner.

Arthur Peuchen

Major Arthur Godfrey Peuchen pictured in The Leading Financial Men of Toronto, 1912.
(Royal Canadian Yacht Club Archives)

Over the next few days, Arthur Peuchen and his circle settled into the contained routine of a transatlantic crossing -- generous meals, orchestra concerts in the reception room, reading, writing, a card game in the smoking room. The gregarious, opinionated major was to the Canadian coterie what the Washington artistocrat and amateur historian Colonel Archibald Gracie was to the shipboard group that he would famously dub ‘our coterie’ in his book about the Titanic. The similarities between Peuchen and Gracie continue even further: both were born in 1859; both were comfortably off and owed their military titles to fashionable militia regiments; both were generously moustached (though Peuchen also sported a small goatee)––and both were expansive, often garrulous, men.

Colonel Gracie attended the church service in the first-class dining saloon on the morning of the fifth day, Sunday April 14, and it is likely that Major Peuchen, a regular Anglican communicant, did the same. The service was held in front of a large carved oak sideboard with a piano set into it that stood in the center of the dining saloon. Afterward the stewards rearranged the tables to prepare for Sunday luncheon. The afternoon was sunny but cold, and many passengers later gathered on deck to watch the particularly brilliant sunset. Major Peuchen noted that there had been no fire or lifeboat drills, which, as a rule, took place on Sundays during a crossing. With his military bent, he often liked to watch them. That evening he dined as usual with the Allisons and Harry Molson. It was the most festive dinner of the crossing and flowers and arrangements of fresh fruit decorated the tables. Hudson Allison’s two-year-old daughter, Loraine, was brought into the dining saloon so she could see how beautiful it was.

After dinner, the major and his table-mates took coffee amid the potted palms of the reception room while the orchestra played. Around nine, Peuchen left his Montreal friends and walked aft to the first-class smoking room, where he joined a table that included Thomson Beattie and Thomas McCaffry. The room had been designed to evoke the cosy opulence of a Pall Mall men's club and featured mahogany paneling inlaid with mother-of-pearl and green leather club chairs arranged around small tables. Peuchen stayed on chatting and smoking until almost 11: 30 and then decided to turn in. Once inside his room, he was beginning to undress when, as he later described it, "I felt as though a heavy wave had struck our ship. She quivered under it somewhat. I would simply have thought it was an unusual wave which had struck the boat; but knowing that it was a calm night and that it was an unusual thing to occur on a calm night, I immediately put on my overcoat and went up on deck. As I started to go through the grand stairway, I met a friend who said, 'Why, we have struck an iceberg. If you go up on the upper deck you will see the ice.'"

Looking down toward the bow from A - deck, Peuchen could clearly see ice along the starboard rail where the berg had brushed against the ship. He thought of Hugo Ross lying ill in his cabin and decided to let him know that the ship had struck an iceberg but that it was not serious. Ross reportedly said, "It will take more than an iceberg to get me out of my bed," and went back to sleep.

About fifteen minutes later, Peuchen saw another Canadian acquaintance, Charles Hays, the president of the Grand Trunk Railway, walking with his son - in - law. "Mr. Hays," he called out, "have you seen the ice?" Hays replied that he had not, and Peuchen offered to show it to him. When the three men reached the upper deck, the Major noticed a change from his last visit. "Why, she is listing," he said to Hays. "She should not do that, the water is perfectly calm and the boat has stopped." The railway president was dismissive. "You can't sink this boat," he replied. "No matter what we've struck, she is good for eight or ten hours."

Thomson Beattie

Thomson Beattie told Peuchen that the captain had ordered passengers to put on lifebelts and report to the top deck.
(Wellington County Archives)

As he stood in the A-deck grand staircase foyer after midnight, Peuchen saw a group of grim - faced people coming down from the boat deck, Thomson Beattie among them. "The order is for life belts and boats," Beattie reported. Peuchen was taken aback. "Will you tell Hugo Ross?" he asked. Beattie replied that he would. Peuchen then returned to his cabin on C - deck and began to change out of his evening clothes. Donning heavy underwear, two pairs of socks, a collarless shirt, brown pants, an old sweater and tan boots, he then put on his overcoat and a life preserver. As he left his small cabin, he glanced at a tin box that contained some jewelry he had bought and $217,000 worth of stocks and bonds. This was no time to bother with valuables, he decided, and stepped outside. The corridor was filled with passengers in life jackets, and some of the women were weeping. Suddenly Peuchen turned around and went back into his room. He retrieved his favorite pearl tiepin, pocketed three oranges and once again headed for the grand staircase.

When he walked onto the portside boat deck, he saw Captain Smith and Second Officer Charles Lightoller standing next to four lifeboats from which the covers had been removed. Steam was being vented through pipes on the funnels and the noise was deafening. When it suddenly stopped he overheard Lightoller say, "We will have to get these masts out of these boats and also the sail." Ever handy around boats, Peuchen jumped into one and began to cut the lashings to remove the mast and sail. When this was accomplished, the call went up for women and children to board, The ‘women and children only’ order would be more strictly enforced here than on the starboard side where men were being allowed into boats. When a crowd of grimy stokers and firemen suddenly appeared carrying their dunnage bags, Chief Officer Wilde was spurred into action. “Down below, you men! Every one of you, down below!" he bellowed in stern, Liverpool-accented tones. Major Peuchen was very impressed with Wilde’s commanding manner as he drove the men right off the deck, and thought it “a splendid act.”

Once again the call went up for women and children only, but it was not met with an enthusiastic response. Many were unwilling to leave the warmth and security of the huge liner. Like Charles Hays, they believed the ship had hours to live. At 12: 47, over an hour after the collision with the iceberg, the first distress flare rocketed into the sky. "They wouldn't send those rockets unless it was the last," remarked Emily Ryerson, the wife of a wealthy Philadelphian. "Can't you hear the band playing?" her husband replied, trying to calm her.

By 1:05 Peuchen had helped load twenty women and two crewmen into Lifeboat No. 6, which could have held more than sixty. When it had been lowered down a few decks, Quartermaster Hichens, the crewman in charge of the boat, called up, "I can't manage this boat with only one seaman." Since no crewmen were on hand, Peuchen offered his assistance.

Are you a seaman?" Lightoller asked. "I am a yachtsman and can handle a boat with an average man," replied the major. Lightoller responded that if Peuchen were enough of a sailor to climb out on the davit and lower himself down then he could get into the boat. Captain Smith thought this too dangerous and suggested the Major go below, break a window and climb in from there. Peuchen did not think this was feasible and shouted to the crewmen in the boat to throw him the end of a loose rope that was hanging from the davit arm. As he later described it to the Toronto Evening Telegram, "One hundred and ninety pounds is a good weight to come suddenly on the end of a slack rope, but my grip held." To swing out above a sixty- foot drop in heavy clothes and a cork lifebelt and then lower oneself twenty -five feet into a boat is a considerable feat of derring- do ––particularly for a man a few days shy of his fifty- third birthday. But it was to be Peuchen's finest moment of the night.

When the lifeboat arrived at the water, Quartermaster Hichens began to unhitch the pulleys from the boat and Peuchen asked if he could help. “Get down and put that plug in,” Hichens ordered curtly. The plug was for a hole that allowed water to drain from the lifeboat when stored on deck. Peuchen scrabbled on his knees for the plug but could not find it in the dark. In frustration as water seeped in, he stood up and suggested that Hichens find it while he undid the pulleys. A furious Hichens came rushing back, saying “Hurry! This boat is going to founder!” Peuchen thought he meant the lifeboat but Hichens was referring to the Titanic. Once the boat had been made ready, the quartermaster brusquely ordered Peuchen to sit and row beside the other crewman, who, as it happened, was lookout Frederick Fleet. Hichens had been the man at the ship’s wheel when Fleet had called in his fateful “iceberg right ahead” message from the crowsnest. As he stood at the tiller of the lifeboat, a nervous and shivering Hichens urged Fleet and Peuchen to row away quickly from the liner, muttering dire predictions about the suction that would occur when it sank.

After ten minutes of rowing, Peuchen suggested that Hichens let one of the women steer so that he could join them at the oars. The quartermaster erupted at this: “I am in charge of this boat! It's your job to keep quiet and row!” In the awkward silence that followed, Peuchen could hear snatches of "Alexander's Ragtime Band" coming from the brightly-lit liner. As the two men pulled at the oars, a stowaway crawled out from under the bow, "an Italian by birth, I should think," Peuchen later recalled. The "Italian" is believed to have been a twenty-two-year-old Lebanese emigrant named Faheem Leeni (later known as Philip Zenni.) He had injured his arm, perhaps while clambering up to the boat deck from the third-class well deck. Since he proved unable to handle an oar, curses from Hichens rained down on him. " Peuchen later told the Toronto World that he was sure that Hichens had been drinking.

As water began to wash over the forecastle deck, Captain Smith's voice through a megaphone summoned Lifeboat No. 6 to return for more passengers. Hichens chose to ignore this, saying, "It's our lives now, not theirs." Many of the women protested, but the humiliated Peuchen remained silent. "I knew I was perfectly powerless," he later recounted. "He had been swearing a good deal and was very disagreeable.” But Margaret Tobin Brown, the feisty, estranged wife of a Denver millionaire, was not intimidated. When Hichens began repeating his warnings about suction from the sinking liner, Mrs. Brown told him to shut up and row. When he ignored her, she picked up an oar and began rowing herself, encouraging other women to join her.

While Mrs. Brown was battling with Hichens, Peuchen had been quietly watching as the Titanic's stern pulled higher in the air. Then he heard "a sort of an explosion, then another... then the lights went out. Then she went down head first, so suddenly that those on her decks were spilled with ropes and chairs and slid quickly into the sea as though you would tip a table suddenly.... Then the dreadful calls and crys [sic]...it was horrible to listen to."

Some of the women pleaded with Hichens to go back and rescue those in the water, but he refused. There would only be a lot of "stiffs" there, he said which upset many of them greatly. Through it all Peuchen remained impassive. "It is no use arguing with that man," he muttered. "It is best not to discuss matters with him." While the Major sat grimly at his oar in a lifeboat less than half full, virtually all of his companions from earlier that night, Hudson and Bess Allison, and their two-year-old daughter Loraine, Harry Molson, Hugo Ross, Thomas McCaffry and Thomson Beattie, Charles Fortune and his teenaged son, Charles Hays and his son-in-law and almost 1,500 others either drowned or slowly froze to death in the icy water. As time passed the “dreadful calls and crys” became a monotone chant, what another passenger in Boat 6, Helen Candee, called a “a heavy moan as of one being, from whom final agony forces a single sound.” Slowly, slowly the moaning grew weaker until it finally died away into the deathly stillness of the north Atlantic night.

Lifeboat 6 Titanic

Lifeboat 6 approaches the Carpathia with Quartermaster Hichens standing in the stern. The tall man holding an oar on the right near the bow is believed to be Peuchen.

As Peuchen and Fleet and some of the women doggedly rowed on, Hichens stood at the tiller shouting out rowing instructions mixed with doom-filled warnings that they could be lost for days with no food or water. Peuchen thought him “the most stupid man I ever saw.” Some of the women tried to taunt the quartermaster into joining them at the oars but Hichens refused. Eventually Boat 16 came near and the two lifeboats tied up together. Margaret Brown spotted a chilled, thinly-clad stoker in the adjoining boat and after he jumped over to help with the rowing, she wrapped him in her sables, tying the tails around his ankles. She then handed him an oar and instructed Boat 16 to cut them loose so they could row to keep warm. Howling curses in protest, Hichens moved to block this but an enraged Mrs. Brown rose up and threatened to throw him overboard. The fur-enveloped stoker reproached Hichens for his foul language in a Cockney accent: “Soy, don’t you know you are talking to a loidy!”

“I know who I’m talking to and I am commanding this boat!” the quartermaster spluttered as Boat 6 rowed away under the direction of the woman who would enter American folklore as “The Unsinkable Molly Brown.”

Shortly before dawn a white rocket was seen in the sky, fired by the Carpathia, a Cunard liner that had heard the Titanic's distress call and raced to the rescue. In Boat 6, the ever-contrary Hichens dismissed it, saying, “That is a falling star.” After it became clear that it was indeed a ship, the quartermaster stated, "No, she is not going to pick us up. She is to pick up bodies," and ordered that the rowers let the boat drift. But the women at the oars were having none of it. “Where those lights are lies our salvation,” said Helen Candee, voicing what they were all thinking, and with renewed spirit they began pulling hard toward the Carpathia. To Peuchen, the small steamer was “the gladdest sight I ever saw.” Boat 6 was the second last to arrive at about 7:30 am and had to make several attempts to come alongside due to the rising waves. Peuchen clambered up the rope ladder and collapsed on the deck. Someone took off his life jacket and put a blanket around him and gave him a mug of coffee laced with brandy.

Margaret Brown, too, was grateful for the hot coffee given to her as she stepped onto the deck and she was also impressed by how many of the Carpathia’s passengers came forward to offer clothing, toiletries, and the use of a stateroom. On entering the dining saloon, she spied “our brave and heroic quartermaster” gesticulating to a small group as he described how difficult it had been to discipline the occupants of his boat. On seeing Mrs Brown, however, Hichens, in her words, “did not tarry long but made a hasty retreat.”

After all the lifeboats had come in, the Carpathia’s captain, Arthur Rostron, asked an Episcopal clergyman to go into the dining saloon and read the service for the burial of the dead from the Book of Common Prayer as a comfort to the bereaved survivors. During the service, Arthur Peuchen went out on deck and stood by the bow railing looking for any sign of his friends as the Carpathia circled over the area where the Titanic had gone down. He saw some deck chairs and lifebelts and streams of granular, reddish-brown cork, but no bodies. Peuchen assumed they had drifted off with the wind that had come up that morning. He also saw a striped barber’s pole bobbing in the waves which puzzled him since the barbershop had been on C deck. He concluded that it must have been blown out of the ship by the explosions he had heard during the sinking. Eventually, Peuchen was given the use of a stateroom where he soon fell into a deep sleep.


Lights burned all through the night of Monday, April 15, at 599 Jarvis Street as an anxious Margaret Peuchen awaited news of her husband. The Toronto newspapers had been full of contradictory reports. In the Evening Telegram, a White Star Line official had firmly stated that "even if she was in collision with an iceberg, she is in no danger.... She is absolutely unsinkable...." The Daily Star claimed that the Titanic was being towed to Halifax by a Canadian liner. But by Tuesday morning, the shocking story of the Titanic disaster was headline news everywhere. The Toronto Daily Mail and Empire had obtained local names, and Major Peuchen was conspicuous as the only male in the "Saved" column. Under the headline AGONIZED WAITING IN TORONTO FOR THE SHIP THAT PASSED IN THE NIGHT, the Evening Telegram noted that Mrs. Peuchen, "weakened by the great tension and the fearful foreboding... is in a state of collapse and is unable to be downstairs." The news that her husband was alive should have relieved some of the tension, but another kind of worry may have followed -- that his survival might bring on social disgrace. For everyone was speculating as to how the major had escaped when so many other men had perished. A Daily Star editorial observed that it was "a subject of universal discussion in Toronto" and that "the dispute is hotly waged and participated in by everybody young and old."

With the news that Peuchen was alive, the officers of the Queen's Own chose not to cancel their annual dinner at the Toronto Club on Tuesday night. A toast to the Major's health was drunk in silence. The generally expressed view at dinner was that given Peuchen's sailing skill, he had probably been put in charge of a lifeboat. Left unexpressed was the collective thought that by surviving, old Arthur might have let the side down. For already, based on very little information, the Titanic disaster was being hailed as a triumph for chivalry and British fortitude. A message issued that day from Ottawa on behalf of the Dominion Cabinet had stated that "...the one cause for thankfulness is found in the heroism of the men...who turned bravely away from the only means of escape.... Such conduct makes us proud of our British stock and renews our faith in the nobleness of humanity."

The next day Margaret Peuchen left for New York with her brother and her two children, planning to meet the Carpathia upon its arrival. On board the crowded rescue ship her husband was sharing his stateroom with three others, and still wearing the clothes he had donned on the Titanic. But a far greater cause of discomfort was the hostility of many of the grieving women. In his words: "Married women were envious when they saw that I, a strong man, had been saved, while their husbands, sons and brothers had gone down.” According to Margaret Brown, “the attitude of the men who were rescued was indeed pathetic,” and she describes one man, undoubtedly Peuchen, “displaying an order he had demanded from the officer” which explained that he had been asked to get into a lifeboat to help row. Peuchen had asked Second Officer Lightoller for just such a note. The second officer obliged and wrote that Major Peuchen had “proved himself a brave man.” (Peuchen later claimed that Lightoller had offered this note voluntarily though this is likely untrue.)

On the evening of Thursday, April 18, Peuchen's fifty-third birthday, the Carpathia entered New York harbor. Reporters fought their way through a crowd of 30,000 waiting near Cunard’s Pier 54, but it was the Toronto Globe's man on the scene who snagged Peuchen before he had even greeted his wife.

Crowds New York

As the Carpathia enters New York harbor late in the afternoon of April 18, 1912, crowds wait outside Cunard’s Pier 54.
(Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Archive)

“Carelessness, gross carelessness," thundered the Major, handing the reporter a ready- made headline. "The captain knew we were going into an ice field, and why should he remain dining in the saloon when such danger was about?" After days of frustration on the Carpathia, Peuchen was a man ready to talk. All through his reunion with his family and till after midnight in a suite at the Waldorf-Astoria, reporters furiously scribbled as he told his story again and again. "I have a clear conscience" and "It was my training as a yachtsman that saved me" and "If there is room for one more let it be a woman, I am no coward" and "Less mother - of - pearl and a searchlight on the bow could have saved hundreds of lives" were just some of the quotes attributed to the major in the next days' editions.

Major Peuchen and Family Waldorf Astoria

Arthur Peuchen stands with his wife Margaret, daughter Jessie and son Alan, outside the Waldorf-Astoria on April 19, 1912.
(Family picture: Philadelphia Bulletin; Waldorf Astoria Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Archive)

At breakfast on Friday morning, a crowd of curious hotel guests gathered around the major and made him recount his story once again. Meanwhile, in the Waldorf's largest ballroom, seven American senators were preparing to question White Star Line managing director J. Bruce Ismay, the first witness to appear before the hastily called U.S, Senate inquiry into the disaster. Ismay had escaped from the Titanic in one of the last lifeboats and was therefore the press's scapegoat of choice. Hearst's New York American famously ran a photo of Ismay surrounded by pictures of Titanic widows with the caption "J. 'Brute' Ismay." Peuchen added to Ismay's woes by telling the press that the head of the line had dined with Captain Smith on the night of the disaster (which was untrue and later publicly denied by Ismay).

Russell Building Caucus Chamber Senate Russell Building

Arthur Peuchen testified at the U.S. Senate Inquiry in the Caucus Room of the new Russell Senate Building. Years later, the room would be the scene of the Watergate hearings.
(Library of Congress)

By Friday evening, Peuchen and his family were homeward bound on an overnight express train. Early the next morning. not long after they crossed the Canadian border, a train ahead of them jumped the rails and tore up the track for a quarter of a mile. Peuchen's train was delayed for three hours and then evacuated. ("Since he left Southampton, a veritable hoodoo has followed him on his homeward way" was the Toronto Star Weekly's comment on this.) As the passengers tramped to another train, a Telegram reporter called out to Peuchen, "Your troubles don't seem to have finished yet."

No," replied Peuchen with a wan smile, "but this is more comfortable than my last transference."

The reporter then told Peuchen that Second Officer Lightoller, the most senior of the Titanic's officers to have survived, had confirmed before the Senate inquiry that he had ordered Peuchen into a lifeboat. "Oh, that's splendid, I am glad of that," responded the Major.

At Toronto’s Union Station a large crowd waited to catch a glimpse of the man who had survived the tragedy that, according to the Globe, "has stirred two continents as they have not been stirred in a century." Also greeting the Peuchens was a large headline in Saturday's Toronto World: MAJOR PEUCHEN BLAMES CAPTAIN WHO WENT DOWN WITH HIS SHIP. The article that followed repeated Peuchen's account of the disaster and his accusations of "criminal carelessness." Further on in the newspaper, a notice from the T. Eaton Company announced that their stores in Toronto and Winnipeg would be closing at one p.m. that day out of respect for George E. Graham, a chinaware buyer for the department store chain, who had "come to an heroic end on the S. S. Titanic."

Back at 599 Jarvis, a telegram awaited. It was from Senator William Alden Smith, the chairman of the U.S. Inquiry requesting that Peuchen give testimony in Washington. After three days at the Waldorf, the hearings were to reconvene on Monday in the U. S. capital. Although utterly fatigued, Peuchen made arrangements to leave the following day. But before his departure, he found time to talk to one more reporter, to correct what certain newspapers had attributed to him. "I have never,” he asserted, “spoken an unkind word about Captain Smith....” The captain was, he believed, ” a brave man and a likable man. “ He added that he had merely expressed the view that greater precautions should have been taken for the safety of the ship, in view of the fact that warning had been received of the presence of ice floes.

Molly Brown Presents Loving Cup to Captain Rostron

Margaret Brown presented a silver loving cup to Captain Rostron on behalf of the Titanic Survivor’s Committee on May 29, 1912
Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Archive)

On the following morning, as the major and his wife prepared to leave for Washington, the Titanic furnished a ready theme for Sunday's sermons. At Peuchen's own church, St. Paul's on Bloor Street, his friend and neighbor Archdeacon H. J. Cody sermonized, "The men of our race have not forgotten how to die... sacrifice for a chivalrous ideal is one of the finest features of our history." In more than one Methodist church, the Sunday card - playing on the Titanic was deplored, and at Cooke's Presbyterian Church the minister projected that in the coming month more than five times the number who had perished on the Titanic would die through drink in Toronto.

Major Peuchen took the stand before the Senate subcommittee on Tuesday, April 23, at 3: 55 p.m. His testimony reads as if he were self - assured and even a little self - satisfied, but according to the New York Times, he seemed nervous and there were occasional pauses for him to recover his composure. At the end he asked to make a statement. In it he repeated his denials of ever having said "any personal or unkind thing about Captain Smith." He went on to say, "I am here, sir, more on account of the poor women that came off our boat. They asked me if I would not come and tell this court of inquiry what I had seen, and when you wired me, sir, I came at once, simply to carry out my promise to the poor women on our boat."

The image of Peuchen as the manly guardian of the "poor women" in his boat would have been greeted with a derisive snort by Margaret Brown who was miffed at not being asked to testify before the Senate Inquiry. Margaret Brown is never mentioned in Peuchen's testimony, and only one oblique reference to him appears in her account of the disaster. Although her actions became greatly embroidered in the many books and the musical based on her life, there is no disputing that she became the authority figure in the lifeboat while the major sat passively by. Perhaps it was his military training that made him defer to "the man in charge." But any British officer of the period would have had an almost instinctive ability to put a lower - class upstart like Hichens in his place. Did the weekend warrior from a colonial regiment fail in his moment under fire? Does Peuchen represent a particularly Canadian kind of passivity where Molly Brown stands as a symbol of American pluck? The Titanic story has certainly been freely used for interpretations of this kind. To be fair to Peuchen, he may simply have wanted to avoid inciting the erratic Hichens any further. Yet surely, a tall and manly figure like Peuchen, with years of experience at managing employees, captaining yachts, and commanding men in a militia, should have been able to subdue Hichens and become the dominant presence in the lifeboat.

When defending how he got off the Titanic, Peuchen would claim, "Not many men would have done what I did." And certainly, his swing over the side was a bold act. But once in the lifeboat, he behaved as perhaps most people would ––which is not how heroes are made. Furthermore, his injudicious remarks to the newspapers after his arrival in New York, many of which he had to retract, did little to cement his reputation as “a brave man.” The Toronto Mail and Empire called him, “a man who had to defend himself before the necessity of the defence was apparent.”

After his return from Washington, Peuchen's promotion to lieutenant colonel and CO of the Queen's Own went ahead on May 21st as planned, despite rumors to the contrary. He retired from Standard Chemical in 1914, and for the first year of the war was commander of the Home Battalion of the Queen's Own. From 1915 to 1918 he lived in London, where his son was a lieutenant in the Royal Field Artillery and where his daughter married an officer from the same regiment. He returned to Canada after the war. A nephew recalls in a family memoir that "the backlash of the Titanic disaster played havoc with my uncle's enterprises." He further claimed that Peuchen eventually lost most of his money and that even Woodlands had to be sold. "Years after, when I would mention my uncle, people would say, ‘Oh yes, he's the man who dressed in woman's clothes to get off the Titanic’."

Like many male survivors of the Titanic, Peuchen did indeed have to live with the stigma of cowardice and the absurd cross- dressing accusation. But whether he lost all his money and whether the Titanic had anything to do with it is questionable. He certainly sustained losses in 1924 after Henry Pellatt's overspending on Casa Loma brought about the collapse of the Home Bank. But he continued to own his Alberta lumber company and a sawmill in Saskatchewan and held onto Woodlands until the year before his death. Unlike his friend Henry Pellatt, who in his last days had to live with his former chauffeur, Peuchen died on December 7, 1929 in a sizable home in Rosedale, a garden suburb that had succeeded Jarvis Street as Toronto’s most desirable address.

In 1987 Arthur Peuchen's wallet was retrieved from the ocean floor. Inside it were a few business cards and some Toronto streetcar tickets. Four days before the centenary of the Titanic’s sinking in 2012, it became one of the 5,000 articles to go under the auctioneer’s hammer during the sale of artifacts retrieved from the wreck site of the lost liner.


Aldershot Museum Website: ‘The Canadian Army Comes to Aldershot.’

Behe, George, On Board R.M.S. Titanic:Memories of the Maiden Voyage, Stroud, Gloucestershire: The History Press, 2012.

Brewster, Hugh, Gilded Lives, Fatal Voyage: The Titanic’s First-Class Passengers and Their World, New York: Crown Publishers, 2012.

––––––––––– ‘Sinking Sensation’, Toronto Life, May, 1997.

Hustak, Alan, Titanic: The Canadian Story, Montreal: Véhicule Press, 1998.

–––––––––––‘Peuchen, Arthur Godfrey’: Dictionary of Canadian Biography, Toronto University of Toronto Press, 2000.

Newspaper archives at the Toronto Central Reference Library

Oreskovich, Carrie, Sir Henry Pellat:The King of Casa Loma, Toronto: McGraw-Hill Ryerson, 1982.

Royal Canadian Yacht Club Archives, Toronto

Wormstedt, Bill; Fitch, Tad and Behe, George in ‘Titanic: The Lifeboat Launching Sequence Re-examined’ on the website, wormstedt.com.

About the author

Hugh Brewster has worked on many books about the Titanic as an editor, publisher and author. His newest book Gilded Lives, Fatal Voyage: The Titanic’s First-Class Passengers And Their World was published in March of 2012 by Crown in the US, Collins in Canada, and the Robson Press in the U.K.

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Encyclopedia Titanica (2012) Major Peuchen's Predicament (Titanica!, ref: #16109, published 26 April 2012, generated 19th November 2022 10:55:11 PM); URL : https://www.encyclopedia-titanica.org/major-peuchens-predicament.html