Of Rats and Men: Titanic Survivor 'Sleeping Rough'

Titanica!


YESTERDAY IN PARLIAMENT

Fireman Naps on the Street

A fireman from the Olympic napping in the sun after deserting the ship on April 26, 1912.
Daily Sketch, 27 April 1912

Mr [George] Barnes MP - Can the Right Hon. Gentleman tell me in plain terms how much per day or week these men get for coming up from Southampton, and is he aware that one of the men, a greaser, has stated that he preferred sleeping on the Embankment to going to the Seamen's Home he was referred to?

Mr [Sydney] Buxton (President of the Board of Trade) - I shall be glad to have particulars of that case. I pointed out in my answer that these rates vary in certain cases.

Mr Barnes - Can the Right Hon. Gentleman tell me the highest and lowest rates paid? Can he give me any information of a definite character as to how much these men are getting for coming from Southampton to give evidence?

Mr Buxton - Perhaps the Hon. Member will give me notice of the question.

Mr [William] CrooksMP - Is a man to sleep on the Embankment until the Board of Trade has made up its mind?

Mr Buxton - It is not a question of making up its mind. The Treasury scale is there.

(Cork Examiner, May 9, 1912, p. 9)


THE greaser whose case was raised in Parliament was Thomas Ranger, one of the working stokers at the time the Titanic struck, and therefore a man most fortunate to survive.

Ranger felt disgusted that he was expected to doss down with rats when in London to give evidence. Especially as he and the other crew escapees had enjoyed the luxury of the Continental Hotel in Washington D.C.

The tale of Ranger's revulsion at encountering vermin can be seen in a file of Board of Trade Marine Department correspondence held in the Public Record Office in Kew under the identification MT9/920D. Images of some documents, which are Crown Copyright, are also available on the 1999 CD-Rom Titanic, The True Story, which contains 7,500 facsimile pages related to the casualty.

Thomas RangerRanger claimed he had been driven out by scuttling pests at the Sailors' Home in London, where the Titanic men were expected to stay. He had spent the night on the Embankment of the river Thames, a place of benches and tramps, where today there is a memorial to demi-monde journalist W. T. Stead.

This was the lot of a man who had done his duty to the last, coming up onto the Titanic's boat deck only after all the boats were gone, insofar as he could see.

Stokehold 'rats' like Ranger never had even the chance of deserting the sinking ship.

"There was just a slight jar; it lifted us off our feet," remembered Ranger of the impact with ice. He turned round and saw the turbine engine stopped. After a quarter of an hour of indecision, he was sent to stop all the electric fans, 45 of them, which took another three quarters of an hour. He even went up the dummy funnel, where four were fans situated.

Ranger climbed out of the dummy funnel by the exit door, and found himself on the boat deck, aft, in second class. "I had stopped all the fans, and I went on deck to see what was being done," he said. "I could hear the band playing."

He met about 20 firemen and heard that all the boats had left the ship. "I went to the port side of the boat deck, aft, after that. There was me and a greaser by the name of [Frederick] Scott. We climbed up the davit, the after-davit of all [no. 16], and down the boat falls, and I got into a boat, and Scott dropped into the water."

Ranger had squirmed along a davit barely wider than a man's leg. Walking the plank in piratical times would have been easier, because here the davit tilted down toward to the black sea, far below. The Titanic's list to port gave it that sickening slope, and Ranger had to wriggle forward, as if burrowing, along a freezing metal arm.

At the end of the davit, he was faced with reaching out into space for the dangling lifeboat fall...

Boat 4 had meanwhile reappeared close to the Titanic's port quarter, giving a headlong view from Ranger's awful perch of an almost upside-down fortunate few.

He lurched for the fall, leaping for life itself. He reached the rope, clung on, arrested his own weight with a jerk of burning hands, and hung and swung and swayed. A shadow flashing by was Scott failing to make the same connection.

Ranger lowered himself gradually, a long way. The ship was threatening from high above, the lifeboat uncertain below, But he reached the cockleshell, found himself grasped by the legs, and was pulled in dry.

Quartermaster Walter Perkis and sailor Jack Foley were the only other crew in the boat, he thought, but there were also 40 women and children. They next moved to pull in the shivering Scott from the water, and then Ranger helped to pull the boat away from the side.

"We only just got away in time before the ship went down.... The forward end of the ship went underneath and seemed to break off. It broke about the second funnel from forrard, and the after part came back on a level keel. Then it turned up and went down steadily. You could see the three propellers in the air. The lights gradually went out as the aft end of the ship went under. There were cries then."

There was room in the boat for more. They pulled back to the wreckage and picked up seven men, he thought, probably all crew. "We still had less than fifty [in the boat], and there might have been room for a few more, but it would not give you room to pull the oars. The men we got out of the water were not fit to pull the oars. We had to rub them to fetch them round."

And so Ranger massaged the raving, moaning men.


Thomas Ranger

Thomas Ranger, wearing a crepe armband in memory of his lost mates, outside the British Inquiry on May 7, 1912.
Daily Sketch, 8 May 1912

WHEN Thomas Ranger attended the Board of Trade Inquiry before well-heeled barristers and various monied interests, he had just spent his second night in the open in little over a month.

He had chosen to follow the river and snatch sleep where he could, under the stars, rather than stay in the Sailors' Home in the Dock Road of the East End, to which Titanic crew survivors were directed.

The home was full, and undergoing renovations. Spill-over crew were directed to re-adapted quarters in the yard. Meanwhile the building work had disturbed the rats. Thomas Ranger simply couldn't stomach it.

He was photographed outside the Inquiry on May 7, wearing a crepe armband to mourn and honour the dead men with whom he had served. He looked drawn and pinch-faced. In his jacket pocket was a banana-shaped bulge that probably represented his lunch.

The same day, the Times reported the Port of London Authority having issued new bye-laws requiring ropes and moorings to be fitted with rat-guards to prevent rats from landing, on penalty of a five pounds fine. The significance will be seen later.

Ranger was meanwhile getting seven shillings and six a day - 37.5p - to present himself at the court's pleasure.

He had still not been called by the next day, by which time his plight of sleeplessness had become known at Westminster. It was raised by George Nicoll Barnes, the uncompromising leader of the Labour party, then in Opposition, whose constituency lay the opposite end of the land from Southampton, in Glasgow. But the interests of labour and the shipyards were intertwined, particularly on the Clyde.

It may be noteworthy that Ranger - the unnamed greaser - was put into evidence on the very day that the story of his hardship appeared in the press. It seemed the publicity had the desired effect.

That same day - May 9 - proceedings at the British Inquiry had opened with the Attorney General, Sir Rufus Isaacs, complaining that it was " very inconvenient and expensive to keep a lot of witnesses." He was talking about retaining witnesses who had already been called, and seeking that they should be let go. He might as easily have been talking of the nuisance of having to accommodate men like Ranger.

But Ranger wasn't taking it. After he had given his evidence, summarised above, he went home to 81 Middle Road, Southampton, and to his young wife Isabel. There he wrote a letter setting out his grievances:

Ranger's address is the same as that given in his Titanic sign-on listing, below.
Crown Copyright.

Thomas Ranger Sign On

The man who came to see Ranger appears to have been a Southampton member of the Labour party, because the Ranger letter, or a copy thereof, was received by George Barnes, the party leader who had raised the matter in the Commons.

Barnes in turn sent the letter to the Board of Trade, with President Sydney Buxton admitting that there had been a number of representations over the scale of witness expenses and that the pay was under review. Buxton then instituted enquiries within his Department on the separate matter of conditions at the Sailors' Home. Before long the BoT solicitor, R. Ellis Cunliffe, was raising the matter with the home itself.

The Sailors' Home in Dock Road had been the first such establishment in Britain, opened in 1830. More than 580,000 followers of the sea had passed through its hands in that time. But the local council had recently demanded urgent modifications - hence the construction work which had displaced vermin and forced Ranger to take the road.

This is what Albert Loder, Secretary and General Manager of the Sailors' Home, had to say in the matter to the Board of Trade in a letter dated May 29, 1912:

Sailors Home

Left: Loder's Letter to the Board of Trade (Crown Copyright).
Right: The Sailors' Home, Dock Road, London.

Ranger had further good reason to protest against being thrown in with rats. That year of 1912 there was an outbreak of bubonic plague in Cuba, the same Black Death that led to the deaths of millions in the Middle Ages. The island was quarantined, but rats could always find a way.

On July 25 1912, a seven year old boy was admitted to the Royal Infirmary in Liverpool with a suspected case of appendicitis. It turned out he had been bitten by a flea, hosted by a rat. "He lives in the neighbourhood of the docks, where there is a likelihood of foreign rats being brought in," reported the Liverpool Post. By August 6, the national newspapers were reporting that a gland excised from the boy's groin had been found to contain plague bacilli.

Ranger knew well that a Sailors' Home on the docks was no place to cosy up to rodents. And it was not for nothing that seafarers, like firemen Joseph Mulholland and his mates on the Titanic, kept cats. Stokers also had a particular delight in burning rats in the furnaces whenever they could scoop them up quick enough with their shovels.

Enough of rats. Ranger told his story honestly and went home. The Sailors' Home was forced in July to go public with an appeal for funds for the first time in its history. It sought the huge sum of £10,000 for total renovations.

When it is considered that the press duly reported the generous gift of £10 to the fund from no less a personage than the Prince of Wales, it can be seen that the amount was truly gigantic for the time. The home must have been run-down indeed when Ranger went there first.

It is not known who the other Titanic crewmen were who walked the streets with Ranger, by his own letter, rather than lodge with the seaman's traditional foe.

And while Titanic baker John Joughin and steward Edward Brown were happy with their accommodation, there is no knowing how it may have differed from what was offered to a man who had helped to save lives in 1912.

Many shipping lines - P&O, Shaw Savill, Elder Dempster, the Royal Mail as examples - clubbed in to make donations to the Sailors' Home. There is no extant evidence of any support from White Star.

Thomas Ranger stayed in the mercantile marine and no doubt caught many a further glimpse of scampering fur. But he kept a tidy house in Southampton all his life, and died in the same port from which Titanic had sailed at the age of 81 in July 1964.

There was no mention of the Titanic in his death notice, but only of a long illness bravely borne.

And he has slept untroubled since.

© Senan Molony 2004.
All images courtesy of the author.

Related Biographies:

Thomas Ranger

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Senan Molony