The Life and Times of Hugh Walter McElroy : Chief Purser of R.M.S. Titanic


Prelude to disaster

On the afternoon of the 13th April, Chief Engineer, Joseph Bell, had informed Captain Smith that the fire in Boiler Room 6 had been put out and the danger was now over, but the bulkhead that formed part of the coal bunker was damaged and a stoker was sent to rub oil on it.

First class passenger Mrs Eleanor Genevieve Cassebeer wife of Mrs. Henry Arthur Cassebeer, Jr., a resident of New York City, who is one of the survivors of the ill-fated R.M.S. Titanic, boarded the R.M.S. Titanic at Cherbourg, and was rescued in lifeboat 5, she had twice given her account of her experiences aboard R.M.S. Titanic,

Her first account which was given in an interview to a reporter from the Binghamton Press, while she was making her way to Washington where she will probably be called upon to testify before the Senatorial Investigating committee. She stopped off in the town of Binghamton at the House of the Good Shepherd, to visit her mother, Mrs. L. V. Fosdick who is very ill, when seen by the Press reporter that morning; she was preparing to leave on the 11 o'clock train. A cab was waiting for her at the door to convey her to the railroad station and she told her story hurriedly while she was preparing to depart and was published on Monday 29th April 1912,

Her story of the happenings of the fatal night, given exclusively to the Binghamton Press was as follows:

“My being aboard the R.M.S. Titanic was merely a matter of chance. I was visiting in Paris and being desirous of coming to America, I took the first available steamer, which, as luck would have it, happened to be the R.M.S. Titanic, I have travelled considerably and this was the 10th time that I have crossed the Atlantic Ocean. My cabin was situated on D deck on the starboard side of the boat, and I felt the full impact of the iceberg when we struck it.

I was reclining on a couch in my room at the time and I had summoned a stewardess to inquire if it would be safe for me to allow the electric grate to burn throughout the night. She assured me that it would and immediately after she had left my cabin the shock of the cabin came. It sounded as if something were grinding and tearing away the very entrails of the monster liner. I knew immediately that there was something radically wrong and slipping on a kimono and slippers, I hurried on deck where I met Harry Anderson, a fellow passenger, and together we made our way to the bow of the boat where we found a litter of small particles of ice which was torn from the iceberg by force of the impact. We could see the berg towering some 75 to 100 feet out of the sea, and, as I afterwards learned only one-fifth of the iceberg shows above the water you can imagine the enormous size of that mountain of ice. Here we also met Thomas Andrews, who, I understand was the designer of the R.M.S. Titanic. In answer to many questions he assured everybody that we were absolutely safe and that the R.M.S. Titanic was absolutely unsinkable. He said that she could break in three separate and distinct parts and that each part would stay afloat indefinitely.

It was not long after this, however, that the pursers started to go among the passengers ordering them to go below and put on warm clothing and be prepared to embark in the lifeboats. I hurried below and dressed and when I came on deck again I found that the deck had started to list in a very alarming manner. I had already donned a life preserver which I found with some difficulty, and when I reached the deck I met Mr. Andrews again and he took me by the arm and led me to the lifeboat.

I could not hear just what he said to me at the time on account of the din, but I saw him motion to me to get into the boat, which was about to be swung over the rail 90 feet above the water. I asked him why he did not get in also, and he said: 'No, women and children first.'

Right here I wish to say that Bruce Ismay was there also, helping to load the women and children into the boat. He was dressed in pyjamas in slippers with a coat thrown over his shoulders and as the boat I was in was the sixth to leave the ship, you can see that the reports that, he (Mr Bruce Ismay) was in one of the first boats are absolutely false.

There was absolutely no panic. The discipline was excellent. I was in the boat commanded by Third Officer H. J. Pitman. There were 37 people in the boat, five of them being seamen. The boat could not hold any more at the time, as it would have been foolhardy to attempt to overload it, inasmuch as it would have buckled and broken in two from the extra weight the moment it was swung from the davits.

We saw the R.M.S. Titanic when it made its final plunge. The lights were burning until the very last moment and it was a spectacular as well as awesome sight. After the R.M.S. Titanic had sunk there were thousands of people struggling in the water crying piteously for help. Three times Officer Pitman ordered his men to turn about so that he could pick up some of them, but each time they were prevented from doing so by some of the passengers in the lifeboat who called upon the seamen frantically to go ahead and when they grasped the oars and interfered with the proper handling of the boat so that the seamen were finally forced to give up their efforts of turning back to rescue any of the unfortunates.

We were all wrapped warmly in rugs which the stewards and pursers had pinned about our waists before we got into the boat. When we were picked up by the Carpathia we were treated beautifully by both officers and the passengers. Many of whom gave up their quarters for our accommodation.

Aboard the R.M.S. Titanic I sat at the same table with Dr. O'Loughlin, the ship's surgeon and Thomas Andrews of the Holland and Wolf [sic] Building Company, I believe the name of the firm is. Mr. Andrews is said to have designed the R.M.S. Titanic. Harry Anderson was also a member of our party.

When the boat first started to list so alarmingly I immediately started to make my way to where the men were assembled because I knew that there I would assuredly be safe. I am a staunch admirer in American and British manhood.

A fact that is not generally known is that it was very hard for the men to coax the women into the lifeboats and it became necessary for some of them men to get into the lifeboats first before the women would venture into them, so confident were they that the big steamship was absolutely unsinkable. Then again some of the women absolutely refused to leave their husband's sides and it almost became necessary for Mr. Ismay and Mr. Andrews to use force in making some of the men get into the boats with the womenfolk so that they might be saved.

Another thing that is not generally known is that the R.M.S. Titanic was not ready to sail at the time she did. Mr. Andrews told me himself and said that the only reason they allowed her to go when they did was that the sailing date had already been fixed and they just simply had to start. While the ship was fitted up most sumptuously once could not help but notice that she was not prepared to sail.

There were none of the usual printed notices in the cabins. The frames for them were on the walls, but the notices themselves were not there and when I tried to find a life preserver I did not know where to look for it and was compelled to inquire of some stewards who showed me where to find it.

While I knew matters were very serious I did not realize just how badly we were off until I came up on deck the last time and stumbled over the ropes with which they were preparing to lower the lifeboats. My boat was the third to leave the starboard side and the sixth to leave the ship”.

The second was in the form of a letter to her son in 1932, some 20 years after the disaster, with the help from the notes that she made at the time, while being rescued aboard the Carpathia, describing her voyage on the R.M.S. Titanic, below her accounts of that incredible voyage…

May 1932

My Son,

I had thought, before my memory fails me, to give to you this account of my experiences on board the R.M.S. Titanic, for I think it is my duty to make sure no one in our family forgets the story of this ship. In 1912, my former idea was to send a complete manuscript of my adventures to the commission which role was to shed light on the sinking, but Mr. Cassebeer made me change my mind. I think that at the time he preferred me not to take part in this. So what you’re holding in your hands is my first and only account of the tragedy, which took place already twenty years ago. Can you believe it?

The maiden voyage of the R.M.S. Titanic has remained fresh in my memory, though. But, I have to confess, I did have to refer to the notes I had taken on the “Carpathia” to write the present document.

The R.M.S. Titanic was simply superb; a real marvel and a feast for the eyes. Luxury and refinement prevailed. I had never witnessed such a remarkable spirit of comradeship on a ship before. Everyone seemed to be in a good mood. The weather to, I have to mention it, was particularly comfortable for the month of April. I got on the R.M.S. Titanic at Cherbourg, in the north of France. I had decided to return to New York sooner, on account of the delicate health of Mr. Cassebeer, which I had been warned of only a week before sailing. While I was getting on board our ship, a young woman, embarked in England, was bidding farewell to her parents, who were getting ready to leave the R.M.S. Titanic. I later learned that this bright young woman was in fact an Irish countess, whose parents travelled with her as far as Cherbourg. I do not think that at the time of this parting, these people really knew how lucky they were to leave the R.M.S. Titanic…

The entrance of the ship opened on a large and beautiful hall, where dozens of butlers were welcoming the new passengers on board, as well as directing them to their respective staterooms. My room was located on the reception deck which we used to call deck “D” and, to give you an idea of the size of this mighty ship, let’s just say that there were at least four decks above my room, and four others below! We had to our disposal gymnastic rooms, tennis rooms, two large restaurants, endless promenade decks, lounges and even a pool! All of the ship’s decks were, of course, connected with electric elevators. The first days of the trip were devoted to meeting passengers, unpacking luggage and chatting over cups of tea. I got used very quickly to our ship, although every day brought new surprises. I met on board a gentleman, elegant and discreet, whose name was Anderson. We had been assigned to the same table in the saloon and quickly got along very well. I often played card games with him and a lady from Los Angeles in the music room (a very large, all-green lounge with a chandelier that was magnificent).

On Sunday morning (April 14) we assisted to a religious ceremony in the restaurant, which was presided over by our dear captain, a tall man, very polite, who sported a white beard. It was easy to say, by giving him a single look, that his life had been entirely devoted to the sea. In the afternoon Mr. Anderson came to my stateroom (his was under mine) and asked me if I wouldn’t mind taking a walk with him on deck. I told him that it was an excellent idea and that I would join him on deck as soon as I was ready. It was only when we stepped outside that we realized how much the temperature had dropped, and it was with a certain detachment that I told him there must be an ice field nearby…

This evening’s dinner was perfect in every aspect. I had put on my most beautiful dress (the white muslin one that your father liked so much) and my pearl necklace from Geneva. I was dining at the purser’s table, Mr. McRoy [sic] and, other than Mr. Anderson, my table companions were: to my left the journalist Stead and a Mr. Steward [sic], and to my right Mr. Smart, who was always smiling, as well as a small family (a mother and two children) whose name was Crompton [sic]. Mr. Stead and Mr. Steward were entertaining me with fantastic stories from ancient fairy tales, while Mr. Anderson and I were sharing memories from our respective trips throughout Europe. The Cromptons were most discreet and only very rarely joined our conversations, although I do not wish it to be understood that I found them to be of bad company. Mrs. Crompton’s children were impeccably educated, and the mother herself was always of extreme courtesy. Every evening, at dinner time, Mrs. Crompton paused before me to compliment my attire, a small attention that I found particularly touching.

After dinner, in the huge hall which I have already described, we assisted to a concert given by the “R.M.S. Titanic’s orchestra which, like every other night, was divine. Then, at around eleven o’clock, I felt ready to retire. I bid good night to my comrades, and Mr. Anderson escorted me to my room, which was icy cold due to a porthole that had been left open. I closed it and turned on the electric heater. I had already prepared for the night and was brushing my hair before the mirror when I felt a slight vibration, and then I heard a long howl, just as if the R.M.S. Titanic was crying in pain. My wrist-watch indicated 11:44, and I am convinced that this is the exact hour of the collision, as purser McRoy himself, after dinner, had adjusted my watch to ship’s time. It is when the engines stopped that I started to be panicked, so I immediately decided to dress. I was just finishing lacing my boots when Mr. Anderson came to knock at my door. He was wearing a lifebelt and the first thing he said was that the mailroom was flooded, and that we should go to the top deck at once. But before we did so, my friend was adamant in making me wear a lifebelt. We had great trouble in finding the lifebelts, though, and we had to ask a passing steward to help us. He finally found them under my bed.

The elevators being condemned, we had to mount the steps to the top deck. At the purser’s office level we bumped into Mr. Andrews, the ship’s designer, whom I knew well. He seemed to be extremely busy and when he passed us he didn’t even say a word to me… Some minutes later Mr. Anderson and I were finally outside, on the starboard side, near the boats. It was so cold outside that we had to take shelter into the gymnastics room. Mrs. Astor, the wife of the millionaire, was already there and was so tired that she constantly had to put her head to her husband’s chest in order not to fall asleep and fall to the floor! I was admiring the different machines in the room when an officer blew his whistle on deck. So we got back outside to listen to the orders. Two officers were supervising the loading of the boats. The first was tall and young and the second was short and was sporting a moustache. Both of them were waving to the women to step into the boats, but few of them were willing to take that risk, so a few men had to get in first before the women could follow. Mr. Ismay was there, and constantly repeating the officer’s orders as soon as they were given, which gave way to an argument between the two men.

The loading of the boats was very quickly carried. Mr. Anderson helped me get in the boat, but he himself did not step in. Until I saw him again safe and sound on the “Carpathia”, I feared for my friend’s safety and prayed that he was not on the ship when it took its final plunge. So it was with great relief that I came upon him in one of the lounges of our savoir-ship. I believe that you are well aware of the end of that story, from the disappearance of the R.M.S. Titanic to our arrival at the Cunard’s pier, so I won’t bother describing again to you the details of that chapter. Before I end this letter, I want to express my gratitude to the ship’s crew, to their courtesy, and to the perfection of their services during that fateful night. The officers and stewards showed great courage and, without them, everybody on board would have drowned. So I thank them all before God.

Geneviève Cassebeer


Related Biographies:

Hugh Walter McElroy

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