Encyclopedia Titanica

Benjamin James Thomas

Saloon Steward

Benjamin James Thomas
Benjamin James Thomas

Mr Benjamin James Thomas was born in Clapham, London, England1 on 31 May 1881.

He was the son of Benjamin Thomas (b. 1856)2, a joiner, and the former Jane Evans (b. 1851)3 who had married at Clapham Parish Church on 25 December 1879, residents of Newington and Clapham, respectively, at the time. 

His father hailed from Lambeth and was the son of mariner and chandler James Thomas and his wife Catherine; his mother Jane hailed from Shrewsbury, Shropshire and was the daughter of farmers Thomas and Hannah Evans. 

Benjamin had one known surviving sibling, a half-brother named Ernest Charles (b. 4 January 1891)4.

What became of Benjamin’s father remains unknown; he, his mother-described as a widowed boarding house keeper-and his brother appear on the 1891 census residing at 41 Rathbone Street, West Ham.

Mrs Thomas was remarried in 1896 to a John Ryan and they ran a shop together. Although Benjamin was absent from the 1901 census his mother and brother were listed as residents of 203 Victoria Park Road, Canning Town. His mother and brother were living at 1 Stockwell Street, Greenwich, London by the time of the 1911 census when mother Jane was then described as a widowed ladies' outfitter and his brother as a baker's assistant.

Thomas was married in Lewisham in 1906 to Polly James (b. March 1877); Polly hailed from Bicester, Oxfordshire, and she and Benjamin went on to have one child, a daughter named Bertha Annie (b. 29 June 1907) who was born in Digswell, Hertfordshire. The family appear on the 1911 census living at 122 Avenue Road, Portswood, Southampton and Benjamin was described as a ship's steward.

Thomas was on board the Titanic for her delivery trip from Belfast to Southampton. When he signed-on again in Southampton for the maiden voyage on 4 April 1912 he gave his address as 122 Avenue Road, Southampton. As a first class saloon steward he could expect monthly wages of £3, 15s. His previous ship had been the Olympic, and he had been aboard at the time of her collision with H.M.S. Hawke in 1911.

Thomas was rescued in lifeboat 15; he was not required to testify at either the American or British Inquiries into the disaster but did receive expenses of £11, 17s, 6d for his detention with regard to the latter.

It is not clear if Benjamin ever worked at sea again; he soon settled in the USA and was later joined by his wife and daughter, who departed from Southampton on 2 October 1912 aboard the Oceanic, their intended destination being Wood Brook Farm in Plainfield, New Jersey where he was already living. 

The family established themselves in Plainfield and Benjamin initially worked as a machinist for the International Motor Company before beginning a long career as a steward on the railroads. By 1918-at the time of his draft registration-Thomas and his family lived at 825 West Third Street, Plainfield; he had declared his intention of becoming a US citizen and was described as being of average height and build and with hazel eyes and dark brown hair. They would be at the same address by the time of the 1920 census.

Signature
Thomas’ signature from his 1918 draft registration

The 1930 census shows Benjamin and his wife as visitors to the home of their friend and fellow Titanic survivor Fred Toms who at that time was living in Los Angeles.

Benjamin spent the rest of his life in Plainfield where he continued to serve as a steward for the Pennsylvania Railroad, his last address being recorded as 634 Brookside Place. In September 1937 he fell ill and for the last two weeks of his life he was a patient at the Muhlenberg Hospital in Plainfield where he passed away on 15 October 1937 aged 56. He was buried in Hillside Cemetery in Scotch Plains, New Jersey on 17 October. His death notice in the Courier-News (16 October 1937) declared that he was a survivor of the Titanic disaster.

His widow Polly remained in Plainfield and later lived with her daughter; following a long illness, she passed away on 16 June 1949 and was later buried with her late husband two days later.

Their daughter Bertha later worked as a stenographer, married Halsey Saint Mills (1905-1991), an office clerk, and had one son, Thomas Halsey, who died 29 December 1935 aged 5. Working for many years as a bookkeeper for Van Blarcom and Co, Bertha died in Piscataway, New Jersey on 5 September 1978 and she is buried with her parents in Hillside Cemetery.

Notes

  1. When he signed on in Belfast Thomas gave his birthplace as London; whilst signing-on in Southampton he gave it as Wrexham, Wales. 
  2. Benjamin Thomas was baptised 17 August 1856 at St Mary’s Church, Lambeth.
  3. Jane Evans was baptised in Shrewsbury on 26 December 1851.
  4. There is no evidence that Benjamin and Ernest shared the same father; Ernest would be listed on the 1901 and 1911 census records as Ernest Ryan. Listed as a baker's assistant on the latter record, he later obtained a degree and worked as a masseuse. He was apparently married when listed on the 1939 register and whilst living in Wimbledon, although details of his union are uncertain. He had been listed as Dr E. C. Ryan in a death notice for Benjamin. He died in Kent in 1946.

Titanic Crew Summary

Name: Mr Benjamin James Thomas
Age: 30 years 10 months and 15 days (Male)
Nationality: English
Marital Status: Married to Polly James
Occupation: Saloon Steward
Last Ship: Olympic
Embarked: Belfast on Monday 1st April 1912
Rescued (boat 15)  
Disembarked Carpathia: New York City on Thursday 18th April 1912
Died: 1937
Buried: Hillside Cemetery, Hillside, New Jersey, United States

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References and Sources

The Courier-News (Bridgewater, NJ), 30 December 1935, death notice of Thomas Halsey Mills; 16 October 1937, death notice of Benjamin Thomas; 18 October 1937, burial notice of Benjamin Thomas; 17 June 1949, death notice of Polly Thomas; 20 June 1949, burial notice of Polly Thomas;  6 September 1978, death notice of Bertha Thomas Mills.

Documents and Certificates

1891, 1901, 1911 Census (England)
1920 US Census
1930 US Census
Agreement and Account of Crew, National Archives, London; BT100/259
Titanic Crew Particulars of Engagement (Belfast), Ulster Folk and Transport Museum (TRANS 2A/45 381)

Miscellaneous

US World War I Draft Registration Cards 1917-1918

Bibliography

Craig Stringer (2003) Titanic People (CDROM)
Search archive online

Comment and discuss

  1. Nigel James

    Nigel James said:

    Polly James was actually born in Stoke Lyne, Oxfordshire.(1877) she was my Grand Aunt, They lived in Southampton with their daughter Bertha at 122 Avenue Road (not 22).Ben never returned to England, Polly and Bertha joined him in America later that year 1912 and finally settled in Union NJ.

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Acknowledgements

Gavin Bell, UK
Peter Engberg-Klarström, Sweden