Miss Edith Eileen Brown was born in Cape Town, South Africa on 27 October 1896.
She was the daughter of Thomas William Solomon Brown (b. 1851) and Elizabeth Catherine Ford (b. 1872), both of colonial families. She had English ancestry on her father's side whilst on her mother's side she had both English and Dutch Boer heritage.
Edith's parents had married around 1891 and she had one sibling, younger sister Dorothy Beatrice (b. 1899) who died in 1906 aged just seven. She also had five half-siblings from her father's first marriage. Her family was well-established in Cape Town and financially comfortable, her father owning numerous properties, including hotels and other real estate. Their wealth allowed them to travel first class aboard ships of the time.
By 1912 the Brown household had seen an economic slump and the question of migration arose; Edith's maternal aunt in the USA, Josephine Acton, encouraged them to come to America where prospects were much more favourable than South Africa. Mrs Acton's husband Edward was a teller in the Northern Bank & Trust Company and they lived at 2155 7th Avenue West in Seattle, Washington. Plans were made for the Browns to make an extended visit to the Acton family home before setting up their own residence in or just outside Seattle.
Arriving in England, Edith's father secured passage on the Titanic, their joint ticket number being number 29750 which had cost £39. They were travelling second class, much to the chagrin of Edith's mother who was accustomed to first class travel. Nonetheless, Edith was awe-struck by the beauty of Titanic, even in second class accommodation and would later laud over the handsome paintings, tableware, fine linens and excellent meals.
Her father reportedly had a presentiment of a tragedy before they even left Southampton, her mother later relating to the Seattle Daily Times (27 April 1912) that they had heard reports of a fire in one of the coal bunkers. She also recalled the incident with the New York, a near collision with the smaller vessel when Titanic's powerful propellers whipped up enough suction to snap the moorings of the New York and pull her towards the hull of Titanic. Edith's father saw that as another bad omen.
During the voyage the Browns became acquainted with film-maker William H. Harbeck and Reverend Carter and his wife Lillian, among others. Edith also recalled being introduced to first officer William Murdoch whilst on a tour of the bridge and in later years recalled meeting a woman travelling with her husband and daughter who had never been at sea before and who was not happy at all with travelling aboard a ship. The description can only be Esther Hart and her family but Edith states she doesn't know what became of the woman or her family. Esther Hart's daughter Eva and Edith later became acquainted through the Titanic circuit.
Interviewed by the Seattle Daily Times from the home of her uncle and aunt at 2155 7th Avenue West, Edith related that on the evening of 14 April 1912 she and her parents had retired to bed early.
"I had been asleep for some time when I heard a crash and felt a slight jar. I awakened my mother and she called my father who was in a separate compartment. He went on deck and soon returned, saying that the boat had struck an iceberg, but that there was no danger. We then went back to bed..."
Only minutes had passed when Edith's father returned to her cabin, this time more ashen-faced and awkward, telling them to get dressed as there was some concern over the ship's safety:
"When he spoke to us this time he acted queerly and did not look either my mother of myself in the face when he told us. We dressed hurriedly and I put on extra warm garments. My father appeared with life preservers which he strapped on to my mother and me, and then put one on himself..."
The small family made their way up to the boat deck where the evacuation was underway, Edith noting that people were already filing into lifeboats. As the years passed Edith's memory may have become corrupted by the romanticism involving the disaster, for in later life she described her father pointing out a light of a ship in the distance, he explaining to her "see that little blighter, that ship is coming to our rescue." She also related how he stood casually smoking a cigar after he had seen his wife and daughter away in a boat. Edith's 1912 account of their farewell is slightly less grand:
"My father helped us into boat number 14 and then turned away. That was the last I ever saw of him. I saw him standing there with his back toward us. He never turned round while we could see him."
More dramatic however was her description of the disorder developing around the last few lifeboats:
"Some men attempted to get into the boat and the officer who was in charge drew his revolver and shot into the air and said he would kill anyone who jumped in. This, I think, accounts for some of the stories of men being killed for trying to get into the boat. However, just as they started to lower our boat a foreigner, whose nationality I could not determine, leaped into it and it was too late to make him get back... With the exception of the man who jumped in and the officer and four firemen who manned the boat, I do not recall that there were other men in the boat. I think that they were all women and children..."
Despite this mounting panic the young but mature Edith stated that she and others were of the opinion that Titanic could not sink:
"It would be almost impossible to one aboard to believe that she could sink. She was so big and palatial that one could forget that they were on the sea and the idea that anything so monstrous could be buried to the bottom of the ocean was quite incomprehensible."
The scale of the disaster unfolding only came to Edith when her lifeboat was in the water and she was able to observe from a distance the ship's death throes.
"As we rowed away from the ship we watched her. As the boat was lowered the band was playing a hymn; hardly had the strains of the hymn died away from our ears before we could see that the mammoth vessel was sinking slowly. One by one the lights on the lower decks disappeared from sight, but those above the water were still burning. Finally the bow seemed to sink more rapidly and we could see the little forms on the deck running to the other end of the vessel, the instinct of self-preservation making them fight for those last minutes of life. Then we turned our heads away."
Although a young Edith stated that she had turned her back on the final throes, in later years she related how she witnessed the ship break up with the stern section settling almost level in the water before sinking. One detail of her story that never changed was her description of the pitiful cries that echoed around of those struggling for life:
"I could see nothing, but the shrieks and the screams that filled the air were terrible. I presume that it was just as she went under water that the most horrible moan as from a thousand lips came over the water as that many men and I believe some women were hurled into the water and struggled about trying to find something on which to save themselves. After the awful moan it was quiet for a moment and the screams broke out again, but I heard no cries for help. They were more like the agonised cries of men that knew there was no help for them."
Edith and her mother may have been transferred to another lifeboat during the night but she does not state this. She did recall passing the overturned, and by then abandoned collapsible B sometime after daybreak, she and her mother coming to the conclusion that it had overturned due to the incapability of the crew that launched it.
Safely aboard Carpathia, a shocked Edith and her mother searched in vain for her father. In a later interview she recalled running up to the railing of the ship every time another lifeboat drew in, hoping to spot her father among the survivors. Alas, it was not to be, as she recalled in 1912:
"When we were on board the Carpathia a man told me that my father was in another boat. I don't know whether he knew him or not. Perhaps my father was in one of the overturned lifeboats. We were treated finely on the Carpathia, everything possible being done for us. When we reached New York we were placed in taxicabs and hurried to a place where many of the survivors were cared for."
Arriving in New York Edith and her mother were listed on the Carpathia manifest and stated their destination as 2400, 9th Avenue, Seattle, the home of her aunt (although the addresses differ in contemporary media). She was described as standing at 5' 6" and with brown hair and brown eyes. The media had initially reported that she and her father were among the saved, her mother reportedly being lost. Her distraught family in Seattle had cabled a message to the Carpathia seeking confirmation, as reported in the Seattle Daily Times on 18 April 1912, seeking to confirm matters.
When the list of survivors was first sent from the Carpathia, the name of T. S. W. Brown and Edith Brown appeared among those saved, but the name of Mrs Brown, the sister of Mrs Acton, was not. A wireless from the Carpathia before she reached New York stating that it was Mrs Brown who was saved and that Mr Brown was missing, was confirmed by a telegram from New York at 11 o'clock last night. - Seattle Daily Times, 18 April 1912
Edith and her mother lingered in New York for several days, hoping to gain news of her father. No news materialised so they went on to complete their journey and headed west to Seattle where they spent time with family and where Edith gave an account to the Seattle Daily Times, her mother being too prostrated with grief to make comment at the time.
The pair soon returned to the familiarity of Cape Town where Edith became concerned about a downturn in her mother's health; consulting a doctor the pair were advised to go, on all things, on a cruise. Astonishingly they did, this time to Australia, and on a voyage which Edith stated her mother appeared surprisingly relaxed. Whilst in Melbourne they visited a medium who reported they were in contact with Edith's father; the pair were reportedly deeply touched and convinced of this meeting that they talked about it for years to come.
Returning to South Africa Edith and her mother moved to Johannesburg around 1914. Although still financially comfortable Edith's mother began to dabble in fashion millinery and feather work, a skill she had a acquired as a young woman, and on the back of this began her own business. Around that time a much younger man came into their lives who advised Mrs Brown on the financial side of her new venture, eventually to its detriment it would appear.
Edith's mother and the young man, a Mr Parrott, began a relationship that was more than business, much to Edith's disapproval. Despite Parrott's shortcomings, such as hard-drinking, he and Mrs Brown were eventually married. The relationship between Edith and her new stepfather, who was barely older than she, was tense and often confrontational with, on one occasion, the young man insulting the memory of her late father. Edith responded by slapping the upstart across his face. From then on Edith felt unable to live under the same roof as her stepfather she moved away from home to live with friends, albeit remaining close to her mother.
A regular at functions of the Johannesburg Wemmer Sailing Club for several years, Edith crossed paths with Frederick Thankful Haisman (b. 13 May 1895), the son of cycle engineer Fred Haisman. Haisman was born in Kensington, London but migrated at the height of the Boer War with his family to South Africa at age five where he later made a hobby of sailing with his father, meeting and becoming friendly with a certain Robert Hichens during this time. He and Edith met at a function and following a whirlwind romance of just six weeks the pair were wed on 30 June 1917.
The newlyweds purchased a home in Johannesburg and on 21 January 1918 welcomed their first child, Frederick Charles (1918-1980). With Frederick hoping for better work prospects in the shipbuilding industry the family migrated to England in 1920; before leaving Edith had a meeting with her mother which, unbeknownst to both of them would be their last. Elizabeth eventually died in a hospital in Salisbury, Rhodesia on 29 June 1926.
Settling in England Frederick Haisman obtained work and another child was welcomed in 1921, Edwin Kenneth (1921-1996). He would be followed by another eight children until the Haismans became parents to ten, their added children being Graham Geoffrey (b. 1923), Leo Walter (1925-2002), Joy Clara Lily (1927-2018, later Mrs William Lester), John William (1929-1985), Dorothy Beatrice (b. 1932, later Mrs Geoffrey A. Kendle), Donald L. (b. 1935), George Brian (1937-1951) and David (b. 1938). Edith's children remember her as the disciplinarian of both their parents, a stern woman who administered "wallops" if good manners and obedience were not observed.
The family appears on the 1939 register living at Spring Road in Southampton when Frederick was described as an engineer draughtsman. With the outbreak of WWII the family endured the hardships of many but their son Brian, who had been in hospital at the time of an air raid, survived a direct hit but was left shell-shocked and never emotionally recovered, becoming morbidly overweight and further emotionally unhinged until he died in 1951 at age 14 following a heart attack. At the height of the war Edith's husband was posted to Simonstown, South Africa where the rest of the family followed a year later, making their home in the old colony in a household complete with servants.
The stay in South Africa only lasted a few years and in 1948 they returned to post-War Southampton which still bore the scars of conflict; with housing scarce their new home for the next few years was a Nissen hut located in Houndswell Park, much to Edith's displeasure. The rebuilding of Southampton took years and it was not until the 1950s that they gained a new home in Bitterne where they lived a few years before spending another few years living in Australia from the mid-1960s to the close of that decade.
Back in Southampton Edith became a widow when her husband of sixty years died on 26 November 1977; just a few years after that she lost her eldest son Frederick in 1980.
It was during the 1980s that Edith became more and more called-upon to talk about her experiences on the Titanic. Her first brush with the Titanic community came in 1958 when she had been a guest of honour at a screening of A Night to Remember where she met several other survivors, including Millvina Dean with whom she became close friends. Her fame only intensified from the late 1970s onwards. Despite frail health in later years and becoming wheelchair-bound she attended numerous conventions in the UK and USA and was frequently interviewed in TV, radio and by local newspapers.
Edith (right) at a 1987 convention in Delaware with Marie Aks, wife of Frank Aks
Philadelphia Inquirer, 15 April 1987
Edith (left) with fellow survivors Eleanor Johnson Shuman and Frank Aks in 1987
Delaware News Journal, 10 April 1987
Edith was critical of any such attempts to salvage from the wreck, stating in 1987 "Everything should be left exactly where it is. It's wrong to disturb things after they have been down there so long." Despite these misgivings, she stated she would claim any personal property salvaged, including the 400 gold sovereigns belonging to her father, as well as expensive family jewellery and diamonds and her own coral and ruby necklace and emeralds. In 1993 she was presented with her father's pocket watch which had been recovered from the ocean bed by an expedition.
Edith in 1993 holding her father's watch, alongside her daughter Dorothy
Windsor Star, 22 December 1993
In 1996 aged 99 she and her daughter Dorothy, who was always by her side at Titanic events, sailed on a cruise aboard the Island Breeze that took them to the spot where the Titanic sank; joined by fellow-survivor Michel Navratil, an emotional Edith tossed flowers into the ocean to remember her father and others who had been lost.
Reaching the age of 100 in 1996, Edith joined a select few Titanic survivors who become centenarians, the others being: Edwina Troutt MacKenzie, Ellen Shine Callaghan, Marjorie Newell Robb and Mary Davis Wilburn. She died following a chest infection in her Southampton retirement home on 20 January 1997 aged 100 and was buried in St Mary Extra Cemetery in Southampton (section M106, plot 159).
Edith in April 1995 beside a plaque in the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, London that she unveiled
Reno-Gazette Journal, 15 April 1995