Mrs Bessie Watt was born as Elizabeth Inglis Milne on 21 September 1871 in Edinburgh, Midlothian, Scotland.
She was the daughter of Aberdeenshire natives Joseph Milne (b. 1840), a comb maker, and Ann Margaret Adams Paterson (b. 1842) who had married on 10 June 1864 in their home county before settling in Edinburgh where they started their family. Bessie's known siblings were: James Paterson (b. 1865), Margaret Jane (b. 1866), William (b. 1868) and Robert (b. 1870).
In the year before Bessie's birth her family were listed on the 1871 census residing at 176 Fountainbridge, St Cuthbert's, Edinburgh. The family continued to reside in the St Cuthbert's vicinity and appear on the 1881 census at 62 Rosemount Buildings and on the 1891 census at 14 Angle Park Terrace. Curiously Bessie is not listed with her parents and siblings on either record but is recorded elsewhere. When Bessie appears on the 1881 census she was living with her childless maternal aunt Mary Ann Shanks (b. 1834), née Paterson, and her husband Robert Gray Shanks (b. 1834), a basket maker, at 6 Donalds Court, Schoolhill, St Nicholas, Aberdeen. Still living with them at the time of the 1891 census she was described as a dressmaker and living at 32 Ashvale Place, Old Machar, Aberdeenshire.
She was married in 1896 to James Reid Watt (b. 17 October 1868), an architect and a native of Forfarshire (modern-day Angus) near Aberdeen and they had one child, a daughter named Robertha Josephine (b. 1899), better known as Bertha. The family appeared on the 1901 census living at 45 Holburn Road, St Machar, Aberdeen and also living with them were Bessie's aunt and uncle Shanks. The family were active members of the Belmont Congregational Church.
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.
Mrs Watt wrote a letter from the Titanic on April 10 which was posted in Queenstown and later published in the Portland Oregonian, 24 April 1912:
Wednesday, April 10th, 7.05 p.m.
At last you will see we have started to cross the Atlantic. We have just taken on passengers at Cherbourg (France) and tomorrow we go to Queenstown (Ireland). Oh dear. The style is awful. It seems it is not a fast boat, it is built for comfort, not speed, and they say we won't be in till Wednesday night (the 17th).
There are two other ladies in our stateroom, but it is nice and big; two wardrobes in one, with a large mirror door and four drawers, two wash basins, besides the lavatory and bathroom.'
Mrs Watt was in bed but unable to sleep when she felt a tremendous bump and the engines stop. She threw on a night gown and ran out of her cabin and up the stairs. She examined crew to establish what the problem was but was told not to worry. Unconvinced she went onto deck where she met a man from Edinburgh (possibly Robert Douglas Norman) who informed her that the ship had hit an iceberg. She therefore returned to her cabin to fetch a heavy coat and then went back on deck.
Bessie and her daughter were rescued in lifeboat 9 alongside Marion Wright, Kate Buss, Ellen Toomey and Rosa Pinsky.
Whilst aboard the Carpathia Bessie later recalled how Bertha had gone off her food with the shock and told how they had to sleep in the sailors quarters. Still in the clothes they wore to leave the ship, Mrs Watt made Bertha a skirt from one of the blankets given to them by the crew of the Carpathia.
Mrs Watt and her daughter were eventually reunited with her husband and they settled in Portland where she maintained lifelong contact with Marion Wright who also lived in Oregon and became a surrogate grandmother to her children. She did, however, dislike discussing the Titanic disaster.
Bessie and her husband later settled in Vancouver, British Columbia where Bertha lived with her husband and family. Widowed in 1937, Bessie died on 18 September 1951, just days shy of her 80th birthday, and was buried in Mountainview Cemetery, Vancouver.
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