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


Fateful night

On Sunday 14th April was one of the most famous dinner parties to have taken place in the À la carte restaurant, given in honour of Captain Edward J. Smith, who would sit at the head of the table, this party was hosted by George and Eleanor Widener from Philadelphia, (this party was re-created in the 1958 movie “A Night to Remember”). Two other prominent Philadelphia couples were invited to join the Wideners that evening, the ThayerÂ’s and the Carters, like George Widener, John B. Thayer had inherited most of his wealth, but also worked his way up from clerk to 2nd vice president of the Pennsylvania Railroad. Although William E. CarterÂ’s income derived from his father who acquired coal mines, his social life had been enhanced by his marriage to Lucille Polk, whoÂ’s descended from a relative of James Knox Polk, the 11th President of the United States.

Joining these grandees of Philadelphia society were two of the R.M.S. TitanicÂ’s most sought-after table companions, Captain Edward J. Smith, the shipÂ’s urbane and popular commanding officer, and Major Archibald Butt, the shipÂ’s most famous bachelor, who was a friend and military aide to William Howard Taft, the President of the United States, Captain Smith excused himself from the party around 8 p.m. to make his way to the bridge, he discussed the weather and how calm the sea was with Second Officer Lightoller. Then at 9.20 p.m. Capt. Smith retires to his cabin, for the night leaving word that he should be called "if anything becomes the least doubtful".

Apart from Bruce Ismay and Captain Smith, the only other Officer who regularly dined with the passengers was the Chief Purser; approaching what Hugh McElroy always classed as his retirement from sea duties (he had always set his sights on becoming Passenger Manager for White Star, similar position to that of his Father-in-Law).

The R.M.S. TitanicÂ’s First Class Restaurant had tables that were designated to certain people from the White Star Line they were Bruce Ismay he had a two-seater table but preferred to dine alone, Captain Smith and Chief Purser McElroy who both had eight seated tables within the First Class Restaurant.

Hugh seems to have been almost as popular as Captain Smith. His strong sense of humour was so popular with the passengers that they often timed their journeys with him in mind, many a times Hugh had held his own with a difficult passenger without giving cause for offence. The Chief Steward was responsible for all seating arrangements within the 1st Class Restaurant, although Hugh had the final say on all arrangements that the Chief Steward made, although very rarely changed any decision, HughÂ’s dinner companions were only ever altered twice during any Atlantic crossing,

The placement of the dinner companions for HughÂ’s last dinner aboard the R.M.S. Titanic on Sunday April 14th 1912, sitting from his left was Miss Sara Rebecca Crompton, next to her was Mr Alexander Taylor Crompton Jr who was sitting next to his mother Mrs Crompton from Lakewood New Jersey, who was sitting next to Mr John Montgomery Smart of New York he was sitting next to another New Yorker Mr Harry Anderson, then came Mrs Geneviève Cassebeer who was also a New Yorker and to her left was Mr William Thomas Stead from Westminster in London and the last dinner companions, who was sitting to the right of Hugh was Mr Albert A. Stewart who had homes in both Paris and New York, HughÂ’s last dinner in the 1st Class Restaurant was typical evening meal aboard R.M.S. Titanic; the following menu was for Sunday evening on the 14th April 1912.

On the fateful night of the 14th - 15th April 1912, many people believe the first and second class safe’s in the Purser's Office went down, full of gold and jewels. This is false. At 12:05am, most of the First Class Passengers headed to the Purser's Office to take out all their valuables and treasures they had put there, as they wanted their valuables to leave the ship with them. Dr. Washington Dodge said "The Purser's Office was surrounded by a crowd demanding their valuables which the purser and his assistant endeavouring to hand out as quickly as possible. Chief Purser Hugh McElroy told the Countess of Rothes “I’m glad you did not ask me for your jewels as some ladies have”, he then closed the Purser's Office during the evacuation and advised all the women not to worry about their valuables, but to put on their lifebelt's and report to the lifeboats. Before the purser left his station, he locked the safe, so no opportunist thief would take anything. Hugh and his staff had retrieved valuables from most of the Purser's safes and were distributing valuables to their owners as the lifeboat’s got filled.

In addition, the White Star Line urged passengers travelling with coins, currency, securities, and jewellery to deposit them in the Ship’s safe. In return they were given a claim receipt for their possessions. On the night of the sinking, the pursers diligently removed a large number of those valuables from the safe, putting them into leather “Gladstone” handbags for evacuation in the Ship’s lifeboats. The bags never made it to the boats and were strewn over the ocean floor. One of those bags was recovered by George Tulloch of the R.M.S. Titanic Inc. during their 1987 Expedition; this bag contained $65,000 in bank notes, over 300 gold sovereigns, a very large amount of jewellery and 2 gold watches. The choice of leather bags was particularly fortunate, since the chemicals used in tanning the hides afforded protection to delicate paper objects such as bank notes and business cards, which would have otherwise deteriorated when exposed.

Violet Jessop said that the purser was seen bringing a “Gladstone” bag out onto the boat deck. It got knocked over and a shower of sovereign’s got splashed across the deck. The purser frantically grabbing the sovereign’s to stuff back into the bag. I strongly believe the references that Chief Purser McElroy had worked hard to return valuables to evacuating passengers as much as was possible and with Violet's statement and the fact that George Tulloch found a Gladstone bag containing many of the passenger’s valuables, plus 300 gold sovereigns, makes my belief possibly valid.

When the Purser's safe was recovered in the 1987 Expedition, it contained only 7 silver coins. Some say, this was the second class Purser's safe. It is said that the “Rubayiat of Omar Khayyam” was stored in the first class safe, but after the collision, it was transported into a Gladstone bag to be taken off in a lifeboat, but when no space was found, that was secure, it was returned and placed in the first class safe, still in the bag, Hugh strongly believed it would be safer to remain in the Gladstone bag.

Related Biographies:

Hugh Walter McElroy

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