Miss Robertha Josephine Watt, better known as Bertha, was born in Aberdeen, Aberdeenshire, Scotland on 7 September 1899.1
She was the only child of James Reid Watt (1868-1937), an architect, and Elizabeth Inglis Milne (1871-1951). Her father was born near Aberdeen and her mother in Edinburgh and they had married in 1896.
Bertha first appears on the 1901 census living at 45 Holburn Road, St Machar, Aberdeen. The family were active members of the Belmont Congregational Church and Bertha attended Ashley Road School.
The family decided to settle in Portland, Oregon and James Watt would travel ahead of his wife and daughter, departing from Glasgow aboard the Anchor Line's Caledonia on 21 October 1911. Mrs Watt and Bertha boarded the Titanic at Southampton as second class passengers (ticket number C.A. 33595, which cost £15, 15s). On board they shared a cabin with two other ladies, Ellen Toomey and Rosa Pinsky and it seems their social circle included Marion Wright, Kate Buss and William Mellors, with Bertha reportedly developing a crush on the latter. She also befriended eight-year-old Marjorie Collyer.
Bertha's most vivid memory was that she was roused from her sleep and told to say her prayers because the Titanic was in trouble. She wrote about the experience as a student in 1917 for the Jefferson High School newspaper in which she claimed
"we heard many pistol shots, and could see people running hopelessly up and down the decks. Some in the lifeboat were crying. One or two were hysterical. There was nothing anyone could do. We just kept on going.
We didn't row much, just enough to get far enough away from the suction. Then we puttered. We had just to drift around until dawn, occasionally flicking a gentleman's cigar lighter to let the other boats see where we were.
The fellow at the tiller was an Irishman. Paddy had no authority, he was just a deckhand. He was wonderful, telling me about the stars.
It was calm. I don't remember sloping around in the boat. There was nothing on the lifeboat but a keg of biscuits. No water, no liquor, no light. I don't know if the first class lifeboats had all the things they needed, but if anyone was sick or collapsed in our boat, there was nothing to revive them with. It showed the disorganization. We didn't find the rudder [sic] until we were out quite away.
I had a nightie tucked into a pair of panties, and house slippers. Luckily, I had a fur lined coat. They lined them with squirrel bellies in those days, and it had a fur collar. They asked if anyone could row, and mother said she could. That's how she spent the time. Rowing or standing.
A minister appeared out from under a seat. He must have gotten in before the the lifeboat even left the deck. He sat with his chin on his walking stick moaning on about all the years of sermons he lost. One woman all but turned and flew at him - "if you can give me back my husband and my son I'll pay you for your sermons."
We didn't get aboard Carpathia until about 9 a.m. There was a rope ladder with a belt. My mother said, "go on, you can climb that. I went up without the belt." The captain roared down, "don't let anyone come up without a belt on."
She also recalled the sinking in an interview with the Vancouver Province, in which she spoke of her mother reassuring her that if this were a nice night on Loch Ness you'd just be out for a row, and telling her, "don't worry honey, you weren't born to be drowned, you were born to be hanged."
Following the sinking Bertha was reunited with her father and the family settled in Portland where she attended Jefferson High School followed by the Oregon Agricultural College. She later became a bookkeeper. She was married in 1923 to Leslie Frederick Marshall (b. 19 August 1899), a Canadian dentist.
Leslie Marshall was born in Kamloops, British Columbia and was a graduate of the North Pacific School of Dentistry, later opening his own practice on West Broadway, Vancouver. Following his marriage to Bertha they settled in Vancouver, she becoming a Canadian citizen, and they had four children: Frederick James, Robert, Donald and Jane Elizabeth (later Mrs Godfrey Douglas Ferguson). Like their father, Bertha's sons all became dentists and Jim and Don would join him following their graduations in the practice which later expanded.
Bertha never let her experiences on the Titanic deter her from one of her passions, sailing, and she was a long-time member of the Burrard Yacht Club, owning a 45' yacht with her husband. The family built a summer cottage in Gibsons, British Columbia which was only accessible by boat and they spent many holidays there.
Bertha was widowed when her husband died on 30 November 1971, not long after he had retired. She was to garner further sorrow when her daughter Jane, then aged 46, and her 16-year-old grandson Robert Leslie Douglas were both killed by a drunk driver on 24 November 1978.
Although Bertha would grant occasional interviews regarding her experiences and was in contact with the Titanic community, attending at least one Titanic Historical Society convention, she often shunned the publicity associated with being a Titanic survivor. One of her most valuable possessions was the Titanic's second class passenger list. "A day out or so, passengers were given booklets with the names of those in the same class," she said. "My mother had it in the pocket of her tweed coat. When we were picked up by the Carpathia the officers borrowed it to radio the names of the second class passengers to New York. " Although she kept the list in a bank vault, it appears to have gone astray. It was not among her possessions when she passed away.
Bertha spent her last years living in St Vincent's Arbutus Care Home in Vancouver. She died there on 4 March 1993 aged 93 and was buried in Mountainview Cemetery, Vancouver. She was the last remaining survivor of the Titanic living in Canada and her death came just one day prior to that of another Titanic survivor, Ellen Shine Callaghan who died in New York as the last living Irish passenger.
Robertha Watt's grave at Mountain View Cemetery, Vancouver, British Columbia, Section 8, Plot 25
Courtesy of Jason Tiller