The saga of the Newell family of Lexington, Massachusetts is one known to many, especially the memories of Marjorie Newell Robb who in later years gave many lectures and spoke in many publc venues about her Titanic experience.
The three sisters, Alice, Marjorie and Madeleine, formed a close Edwardian family presided over by the “kingpin” Arthur Newell, successful banker And strict Yankee patriarch who would lose his life on April 15, 1912. “It was such an honor to be asked by Father to escort him down to the square on his way to the office,” mused Marjorie one day. “The men were the kingpins in those days!”
The girls had taken a Grand Tour with the family aboard the Romanic in 1909 - Marjorie kept a diary with postcards. Everyone in the family was musical and practised and performed together regularly in the rambling house on Percy Street. Marjorie’s practice violin would be lost on Titanic.
Of the three sisters, Marjorie would be the only girl to marry and have a family of three daughters, Rosalind, Marjorie and Madeleine and a son, Newell Robb. Marjorie Robb Snow and her daughter Mary Payne live in New England and enjoy keeping alive the memory of their intrepid mother and aunt. Madeleine is now the family historian and lives out in California. Son Newell Robb, once a curator for the Fall River Marine Museum died several years ago. A resident of Westport Point, he was able to provide tender care for Marjorie who lived nearby in her charming weathered-shingle cottage until the ripe old age of 99. She then moved to Adams Nursing Home on Highland Avenue in Fall River- a lovely old brick senior residence overlooking the Taunton River until her death at 103. She was determined to match her mother’s longevity.
Marjorie Newell accompanied by Madeleine at the piano
Marjorie Newell Robb / Michael Findlay Collection
Titanic International Society Archive
But it is Madeleine Newell whom little is known about - the shy and dutiful older sister to Marjorie. Born on October 10, 1880, she was 31 aboard Titanic and nine years’ Marjorie’s senior. Sister Alice and mother Mary E. Greeley Newell did not accompany the girls and Mr. Newell on this trip. After a whirlwind Middle East tour, they boarded Titanic at Cherbourg, occupying cabin D-36, Mr. Newell in D-48. He promptly got his girls up on deck after the collision and into lifeboat 6. Sister Marjorie often told the tale of how when her mother saw the two sisters standing at the end of the hotel hall in New York after Carpathia docked, she screamed and nearly fainted when she saw her husband was not beside them. Mary Newell never allowed the topic to be mentioned at home and slept with Mr. Newell’s watch under her pillow. His Neptune trident ring has become a family heirloom now proudly worn by grand daughter, Mary Payne.
Madeleine entered Smith College in the fall of 1899, Class of 1903. It is of interest to note the courses in the curriculum of the college, they being such an indicator of the curriculum felt essential for the educated young lady of the era.
Elocution Mechanical Element of Expression: Voice Ortheopy
English Intellectual Element of Expression: Emphasis, Inflection, Phrasing
Literature Study of Beowulf, Chaucer, the Tudor period
Latin: Livy and Horace, Letters of Cicero
Math Plane and Solid geometry
Greek Homer’s Odessey, Plato Apology & Crito, Herodotus
In following years courses in German, music, astronomy, physics, art, the Bible, Economics, Geology and Economics would be added to the formidable roster which comprised a well-rounded sampling in Liberal Arts.
Other details of Madeleine’s years at Smith may be found in the Class Records, as well as the 1906 Triennial Record. Madeleine, as other alumnae, was asked to submit a record of her activities each year which give a true portrait of her nature, travels, and concern for others.
“In answer to the request to give an account of my doings since graduation, I will say that for the greater part of the time I have been at home doing some studying, principally German and music. Last spring and summer I enjoyed a European trip of five months. “
“Home for me” sums up my story very well, for I can boast of no startling adventures. For the past two years I have tried some settlement work which I found most interesting, also a little private teaching. This winter I have been enjoying a course in German conversation.”
Of particular interest is a letter written by Madeleine in December 1956 in response to a request for Titanic information and the death of the widowed Mrs. Newell. It is clear Madeleine was not eager to have anything published in the Quarterly but is influenced at last to make her memories know as classmates desired the details.
“I was of course surprised to receive your letter regarding my mother and information for the Alumnae Quarterly. I am rather reluctant to have anything of the kind printed in the Quarterly; but if you feel it would be of interest to members of the class, I would not object to it. I realize Mother has lived to an exceptionally old age. She celebrated her 102nd birthday last August and aside from the fact that arthritis has prevented her from walking or even taking a step for these many years (16 I believe it is) she is in very good general health. However her eyesight is very poor and she does not hear well, so that there is little for her left to enjoy. My mother’s name is Mrs. Arthur W. Newell. You asked if all three of us were on the Titanic. I have two sisters and the younger one was with my father and myself on the steamer, Mother having remained at home with my other sister (Alice). We had been enjoying a wonderful winter in Egypt and Palestine and were returning home at the time.”
This is all Madeleine chooses to write to this inquirer, but another letter written in November of 1957 reveals more of the story which Madeleine confided to her friend, Marjorie Gray.
“Mr. & Mrs. Newell had never been separated till he and Madeleine and her younger sister Marjorie took that trip to Europe in 1912 and came back in the Titanic. Mrs. Newell and Alice, the middle sister went on to New York to meet the boat before the sinking. When Madeline and Marjorie got into the lifeboat they said to their father, “ Come along too- there’s plenty of room,” and he said, “No, I’ll come later.” It was a case of women and children first – but there were no more lifeboats! When I crossed in July of that year, the boats were cluttered with lifeboats. I still have the” Titanic sweater” , a heavy red one which Alice gave me and which I wore all over Europe. People went into mourning in those days. Now new widows wear red hats or pink roses on them. That Titanic lifeboat went down only half-full and Marjorie and a college student (man) helped row it. From the decks of a boat they had seen a light on the horizon so expected to be picked up at once. (The Captain of it was drunk and refused to do anything and lost his command). I was surprised when Madeleine told me later that she gave a talk on their trip, she got information from “Father’s diary”. He was found floating face up, and they were given his watch and diary from his vest pocket. Mrs. Newell was a fine pianist and played, really practicing, I think, into her 80’s (which does not seem so astonishing to me now as I practiced mine quite a lot last summer!) Mr. Newell played the cello, Marjorie was a fine violinist and Madeleine took up the viola so they could play quartets”.
More of the details of Madeleine’s life after graduation come to light in a questionnaire sent out by the alumnae society. We find she did not pursue an advanced degree, but rather channeled her energies in caring for her mother at home, continuing to further her studies from home base, and volunteering in many worthwhile charitable endeavors including a popular institution for distressed gentlewomen, the “settlement house”.
She did volunteer work and was recording secretary for ten years for the Frances S. Willard Settlement in Waltham which was a nursing home, and another in Bedford which was a vacation and rest home given over to the care of elderly women.
Of her travels we know now of three trips abroad: the five months on the continent and in Great Britain, the second a similar one of general travel of three months in Europe and the third, the one of which she writes, to Egypt and Palestine in 1912 which included a visit to the south of France and chateau country. Her travels within America took her to Chicago, to Florida for a month, and in 1924 and 1928 a winter in California to visit her sister in Pasadena. She mentions the twenty years following were spent “living quietly at home with my sister and mother”.
A most revealing comment, which reflects the respect she had for her parents, and the discipline and order they provided in the upbringing of their three girls can be found in Madeleine’s response to a question asked her about her greatest concern about modern American life. She responds, “The lack of discipline and respect on the part of children for elders, especially as shown in family life. Secondly, the careless attitude toward human life as evidenced on the highways of our country”. She finds most hopeful the increased interest in public affairs, both domestic and foreign, and takes great comfort in the rising participation in great humanitarian movements.
In her gentle, retiring manner, Madeleine accomplished much in her lifespan of 89 years. As many women of the era, some few were college graduates, but most wives and mothers , her loving care for those less fortunate, the ties of family and friends and their welfare, and the daily selfless good works occupied and filled the hours and days of a productive life. She was the living embodiment of all the womanly graces and virtues so admired of that generation, and so sadly absent today. Protecting her family from the prying eyes of the public in their time of sorrow, faithfully fulfilling her duty to her grieving mother, -she would become the tender confidante of nieces and later grand-nieces. She passed away in the Titanic month of April, 1969 well-loved, from a life well-lived.
· Very special appreciation and gratitude is extended to Smith College Library and Archives for their kindness in making materials used in this article available .
First Published in Voyage: the Official Journal of the Titanic International Society Inc. Issue 47, Spring 2004