by Fergus Mulligan
I balanced all, brought all to mind,
The years to come seemed waste of breath,
A waste of breath the years behind
In balance with this life, this death.
W.B. Yeats, 1919
In James Cameron’s film Titanic as the ship foundered a Catholic priest is seen praying with his fellow passengers and reciting from the Book of Revelation. This man was not a figment of Cameron’s imagination: his name was Fr Thomas Byles, 1870-1912, PP of Ongar in Essex, and he trained at the Beda College and was ordained in Rome in 1902.
Fr Byles was travelling to New York to officiate at the wedding of his brother William. The night before he left for Southampton his friend, Mgr Edward Watson, called in to say goodbye and share a glass of wine. His final words to Fr Byles were unintentionally ominous: ‘I hope you’ll come back’, his fear being that the priest would find more interesting work in the US and decide to stay.
Thomas Byles’ background
Thomas Byles was born Roussel Davids Byles on 26 February 1870 in Shelton, Staffs. He took the name Thomas on entering the Church.1 He was the son of Rev. Dr Alfred Byles, a Congregational minister and his wife, Louisa Davids. He went to Leamington College and Rossall School, Fleetwood and in 1894 entered Balliol College Oxford to read Maths, History and Theology. There he began to have doubts about Nonconformity and became an Anglican. His brother William, meanwhile had become a Catholic and soon after graduating with a BA in 1894, after various encounters with the Jesuits, Thomas followed him into the Church.
Fr Thomas Byles
Thomas went on retreat in Manresa, Roehampton, conducted by Fr Purbrick SJ and after a time in Germany entered Oscott College to study for the priesthood. This didn’t work out and he left, some say because he found it intellectually dull. He taught at another seminary for a while, St Edmund’s, Ware before arriving at the Beda College in 1899, just reopened after a lapse of over 20 years, its name having changed from the
Collegio Pio. The Beda was at this time housed in the Venerable English College, occupying most of the garden wing. The easier training regime for its older students, many of them convert clergymen, kept them separate from the Venerabile. As the Collegio Pio it had its own corridor, staircase and common room but shared the chapel, library and refectory; an unsatisfactory arrangement.2 The student intake included an actor, a lawyer, an army major, an artist and several former Anglican clergymen; a mixed group then as now.
In 1918 the Beda moved out of Via di Monserrato but for all of his time in Rome, Thomas Byles now in his early 30s lived there, sharing the facilities of the Venerabile and studying at the Pontifical Gregorian University known to generations of alumni as ‘the Greg’. As student no.5987, between 1900 and 1903 Thomas took courses in Theologia moralis, Theologia dogmatica, Theologia dogmatica brevior, Scriptura Sacra,
Historia ecclesiastica, Institutiones Canonicae, receiving a Baccalaureate on 10 July 1901.3
Thomas was ordained on 15 June 1902 in the church of Sant’ Apollinare in a square just above Piazza Navona.4 The following February Fr Byles was in Gunnersbury as one of the founding members of the Catholic Missionary Society set up to convert English Protestants. In 1905 he was appointed PP of St Helen’s, Ongar, Essex, a poor rural parish with a scattered Catholic community.5 Essex was then part of Westminster diocese.
William Byles, Thomas’ brother, emigrated to the US and became engaged to Katherine Russell in New York. The brothers were close and Fr Byles willingly agreed to conduct the wedding in St Augustine’s church, Brooklyn.
The church of Sant’ Apollinare near Piazza Navona where Thomas Byles was ordained in 1902.
Photo: Lalupa, Wikipedia
On 10 April 1912 Thomas took the boat train that left Waterloo at 09.45 for Southampton and sailed on Titanic at noon, his 2nd class ticket no.244310 costing £13.6.
On board Titanic
Facilities for 2nd class on Titanic were excellent with red carpeted entrances and corridors lined in two tone green carpets.
There was a well stocked library with sycamore panelling and comfortable mahogany sofas and armchairs. The Louis XVI style smoking room had oak furniture covered in dark green Morocco and there was a bar and a dedicated promenade deck.7
A 2nd class cabin on Titanic similar to the one Fr
In a letter posted in Cobh, Co. Cork, Titanic’s last port of call, Fr Byles wrote to his housekeeper, Miss Field, that all had gone well on the trip so far except he had lost his umbrella at Liverpool St station and did not like the ‘throbbing of the screws’ on the ship.8
His cabin, a comfortable 2 berth with a washbasin and mirror, was at the stern of the ship on either D, E or F deck just above the propellers, a noisy spot. If on D deck he was near the 2nd class Dining Saloon and the ship’s hospital, on E deck he would have been within earshot of Wallace Hartley’s much loved ship’s orchestra, the barber’s and most 3rd class cabins and on F deck right over the propellors, the noisiest location of all, he would have been near the dog kennels.9
A fellow passenger but in 1st class, Jesuit scholastic Francis Browne, sailed from Southampton to Cobh, courtesy of his uncle, Robert Browne, Bishop of Cloyne whose cathedral dominates the town. Francis Browne took some of the best internal and external photos of Titanic, including his own stateroom. Invited by a rich American couple to continue to New York, his Jesuit superiors in Dublin responded to his request for permission in a terse telegram handed to him in Cobh: ‘Get off that ship – Provincial’. He was very fortunate.10
Fr Byles took his meals with other 2nd class passengers in the bright and airy dining saloon running the full width of the ship’s stern on D deck, its oak panelling of 17th century design. Passengers could choose to sit at long refectory type tables or those for six diners, both with finely carved swivel dining chairs in mahogany. Photos of the time show generous tablecloths, linen napkins and three sets of cutlery per diner. Second class on board Titanic was better than 1st class on most other ships at the time.11
Meals were lavish and just short of the gargantuan scale of 1st class; both were prepared in the same galley. As Titanic approached Cobh on the morning of Thursday 11 April 1912, for his first breakfast onboard, Fr Byles could choose from the following:
And finally watercress, to aid digestion.12 This was heartier than breakfast options in Ongar or presumably at the Beda. Lunch and dinner on board needed even more stamina.
‘Be calm, my good people’
Titanic did not have a chapel and on Sunday morning, 14 April, Fr Byles said Mass for 2nd class passengers in the dining saloon and then for 3rd class passengers. He preached in English and French on an apposite maritime theme: the need for a spiritual lifebelt in time of temptation or moral shipwreck. Captain E.J. Smith led the Anglican Sunday service in the 1st class saloon.
The options for Fr Byles’ last dinner on that fateful night were, as might be expected, substantial:
Despite all the books and films we will never know the full story of what happened on the night of 14-15 April 1912. Captain Smith, for example, was hailed as a hero, allegedly urging people to ‘Be British’, whereas the evidence indicates he had a breakdown and ceased to function as the commander. Not surprising: he had just steered the largest ship in the world into an iceberg and realised that 1,500 of those on board were going to die that night. Who’s to know how any of us would behave in such a situation.
Titanic struck the iceberg on her starboard side at 11.40 on Sunday night and reports suggest Fr Byles was walking the 2nd class promenade on B or C decks at the time saying his office. He spent the next 2 hours and 40 minutes until the ship sank, praying with passengers, giving absolution and offering them what comfort he could as the awful drama of the ship’s destruction unfolded.
Ellen Mockler, a 23 year old from Caltra, Co. Galway, who boarded at Cobh, paying £7 12s 7d for her 3rd class ticket, was travelling with friends from her home town to make her fortune in the new world. A New York Herald report in 1912 quoted her saying that Fr Byles refused to enter a lifeboat:
When the crash came we were thrown from our berths…. Slightly dressed, we prepared to find out what happened. We saw before us, coming down the passageway with hand uplifted, Fr Byles. We knew him because he had visited us several times on board and celebrated Mass for us that very morning. ‘Be calm, my good people’, he said, and then he went about the steerage giving absolution and blessings…. After I got in the boat …. and we were slowly going further away from the ship, I could hear distinctly the voice of the priest and the responses of his prayers.13
Her account is confirmed by Agnes McCoy from Granard, Co. Longford travelling with her brother and sister to Brooklyn.
I saw Fr Byles when he spoke to us in the steerage; and there was a German priest with him there. I did not see Fr Byles again until we were told to come up and get into the boat. He was reading out of a book and did not pay any attention. He thought, as the rest of us did, that there wasn’t really any danger.
Then I saw him put the book in his pocket and hurry around to help women into the boats. We were among the first to get away and I didn’t see him any more.
I learn from several passengers that Fr Byles and another priest stayed with the people after the last boat had gone, and that a big crowd, a hundred maybe, knelt about him. They were Catholics, Protestants and Jewish people who were kneeling there. Fr Byles told them to prepare to meet God, and recited the rosary. The others answered him. Fr Byles and the other priest were still standing there praying when the water came over the deck.14
Bertha Moran from Askeaton, Co. Limerick was travelling back to the US with her husband, Daniel Moran, also from Askeaton, a New York policeman; he did not survive. She said Fr Byles had acted as a chaplain to steerage passengers all through the trip.
Barred from reaching the boat deck she related how he helped them to escape:
Continuing the prayers, he led us to where the boats were being lowered. Helping the women in, he whispered to them words of comfort and encouragement.15
Nearer my God to thee
Many passengers turned to their faith at this critical time. Col. Archibald Gracie of the US army describes how ‘Prayerful thoughts now began to rise in me that my life might be preserved and I be restored to my loved ones at home. I weighed myself in the balance, doubtful whether I was this deserving of God’s mercy and protection.’16 Walter Lord, who might be accused of starting this great obsession with all things Titanic via his 1956 book A Night to Remember, makes only a brief mention of Fr Byles: ‘A few prayed with the Reverend Thomas R. Byles, a second-class passenger. Others seemed lost in thought.’17
Another survivor, Charlotte Collyer from Bishopstoke, Southampton, recalled the horror of the night and seeing Fr Byles when she realised the unsinkable Titanic was doomed.
We saw a stoker come climbing up from below. He stopped a few feet away from us. All the fingers of one hand had been cut off. Blood was running from the stumps…. I asked him if there was any danger. ‘Danger’, he screamed at the top of his voice. ‘I should just say so. It’s hell down below, look at me. The boat will sink like a stone in ten minutes.’ He staggered away and lay down fainting on a coil of rope…
On the boat deck that I had just left perhaps fifty men had come together. In the midst of them was a tall figure. This man had climbed upon a chain or a coil of rope so that he was raised far above the rest, his hands were stretched out as if he were pronouncing a blessing.
During the day, a priest, a certain Father Byles, had held services in the second cabin saloon and I think it must have been he who stood there leading those doomed men in prayer.18
Fifty-eight miles away from the stricken liner, Captain Arthur Rostron of Cunard’s Carpathia, had stopped his vessel for the night in the icefield when his radio operator woke him with news of the Titanic disaster. Rostron, an energetic, prayerful man of 42 from Bolton, leapt into action.
He ordered full steam ahead and even with seven lookouts posted took an enormous risk racing Carpathia for four hours at top speed in the dark through a field of virtually invisible icebergs. Rostron himself kept watch on the starboard wing through the night, his uniform cap slightly raised as his lips moved in silent prayer. He ordered his crew to make all preparations to care for an unknown number of frozen, shocked survivors, giving up his and all his officers’ cabins for those in bad shape. Unaware of the emergency, his passengers complained there was no hot water and their cabins were freezing as the captain diverted every ounce of steam to gaining more speed. Later Rostron told a friend: ‘When day broke, and I saw the ice I had steamed through during the night, I shuddered, and could only think that some other Hand than mine was on that helm during the night.’19 Sadly he arrived too late for Fr Byles.
Most Titanic victims froze to death within minutes in the icy waters rather than drowned. In the days and weeks that followed various ships combed the area attempting to identify recovered victims before burial at sea. Fr Byles’ body was never recovered. About 150 were buried in Halifax, Nova Scotia, half of them unidentified. Fr Byles may have been in one or other group. To this day Cunard, successor to the White Star Line, contributes to the upkeep of those graves in Fairview Cemetery and Mount Olivet Catholic Cemetery, Halifax.
As Thomas’ brother William Byles waited in New York for news, a White Star Line official contacted him on the afternoon of 16 April to say all Titanic passengers had transferred safely to other ships. Gradually the awful truth filtered through and hopes of Thomas’ survival faded. Nonetheless, William constantly checked the lists of survivors even after Carpathia docked in New York two days later with just 705 Titanic survivors out of around 2,225 souls on board.
Katherine and William Byles’ wedding went ahead, a low key ceremony in a different church, St Paul’s, Brooklyn. Afterwards the couple went home, changed into mourning and returned to attend a funeral Mass for the repose of Thomas’ soul. On 22 April 1912 Westminster Cathedral and Cobh Cathedral both held a requiem Mass for all the victims of Titanic while Fr Byles’ friend, Mgr Watson, gave the homily at a Mass in St Helen’s, Ongar.20
A church window in St Helen’s portrays St Patrick, the Good Shepherd and St Thomas Aquinas commemorating their brave pastor with this text: ‘Pray for the Rev Thomas Byles for 8 years Rector of this mission whose heroic death in the disaster to SS Titanic April 15 1912 earnestly devoting his last moments to the religious consolation of his fellow passengers, this window commemorates.’21
Fr Thomas Byles is often portrayed as a heroic figure or a martyr. He was without doubt a brave man who seeing the terrible situation of his fellow passengers, acted exactly as a pastor should, doing everything he could to prepare them for their final ordeal. The CMS journal, Missionary Gazette, commented that the full story of Fr Byles’ actions will never be told: ‘All we know is that his end would be all apiece with the rest of his life; and that he would do all that a Catholic priest could in that terrible hour.’22 We can be certain of one thing: Thomas Byles was a good priest. The Beda had trained him well.