John Collins was born in Belfast, Ireland (modern-day Northern Ireland) on 24 October 1894.1
He was the son of James Henry Collins (1856-1908), a mariner, and his wife Harriett Russell (1859-1921) and he grew up in a Roman Catholic household.
John was one of nine children born to his parents, two of which were lost in infancy. His known siblings were: James (b. 24 September 1877), Benjamin (b. 30 October 1879), Elizabeth (b. circa 1880), Paul (b. 6 November 1885), Joseph (b. 16 April 1889), Margaret (b. 21 December 1891) and Catherine (b. circa 1895).
John first appears on the 1901 census of Ireland living at 53 Dagmar Street in the Court Ward of Belfast City Centre. His father passed away around 1908 and by the time of the 1911 census John, his widowed mother and a few remaining siblings were by then living at 33 Ballycarry Street in north Belfast's Clifton Ward. John, aged 16, had already left school and was working as a messenger. He would later work at the Ulster Reform Club, a gentleman's club on Royal Avenue in the city centre of Belfast which consisted of liberal Unionists and whose members included Lord Pirrie.
When he signed on the Titanic on 4 April, 1912 Collins gave his Belfast address as 65 Ballycarry Street and indicated that the Titanic was his first ship. As a Scullion he received £3, 10s per month.
On the evening of the 14 April Collins stopped work at 9 o'clock and walked up and down the alleyway for a bit, before going to his bunk where he fell asleep around 10 o'clock. He was jarred awake by the collision and put on his trousers. He got out of bed and heard steam being vented off from the stokeholds.
Leaving his quarters he proceeded on to the forward well deck and saw the deck almost packed with ice on the starboard side. Following his journey, he returned below where word was passed that it was not serious. John went back into his bunk, but remained dressed. Soon after he came out again and saw stewards in their white jackets in the passageway directing passengers. Soon word came to get lifebelts on and get up to the upper deck. He proceeded to the deck, where he met with a steward he had befriended and asked his lifeboat assignment. He was told No. 16, so he went up to that boat and saw firemen and stewards "with their bags ready for No. 16." Sensing there was no hope for him with that boat he proceeded along the port side saloon deck where he found a steward helping a woman and her two children. The steward had one of the children in his arms and the woman was crying. Collins took the child off of the woman and the group made for one of the boats.
They saw the collapsible boat taken off of the saloon deck, and then the men forward began shouting to go aft. Just as they were turning around and making for the stern a wave washed them off the deck and the child that Collins was carrying was washed from his arms. He was held under the surface for a bit by some wreckage and the people around him, but he finally managed to break the surface. He saw the boat that had been taken off, collapsible B, with a man on it. He swam over to it and pulled himself aboard.
''...I met a companion of mine, a steward, and I asked him what number my boat was, and he said No. 16, and I seen both firemen and sailors with their bags ready for No. 16 boat. I said to myself, ''There is no chance here,'' and I ran back to the deck....the wave washed us off the deck.....When I came to the surface I saw this boat that had been taken off...I swam over to it...
Senator Bourne: How many were on the collapsible boat?
Collins: Well, Sir, I could not exactly say; but I am sure there was more than 15 or 16...we were drifting about for two hours on the water...she was upside down, Sir, and the water washed over her. She was turned over, and we were standing on her.'' (Am. Inq., pp 626-633)
The boat drifted about a mile and a half from the Titanic, from where she sank. Collins described an explosion followed by the stern popping back in the water. It then turned over and went down. They were drifting about for a few hours, when they saw the lights of the Carpathia, her topmast lights first. With daylight, they saw their own lifeboats and shouted to them. Those standing on the overturned collapsible were taken aboard lifeboats 4 and 12.
Collins later testified before the U. S. Senate inquiry into the disaster.
John Collins returned to his native Belfast but did not let his disastrous first working voyage deter him and he continued to work at sea into the 1920s and beyond. He lost his mother to a stroke on 10 November 1921.
Collins was married in Holy Cross Roman Catholic Church in Ardoyne, Belfast on 11 July 1919 to Mary McCorry (b. 22 May 1891). Mary hailed from north Belfast and was the daughter of grocer Hugh McCorry and the former Mary Muldoon. Her then current address as was stated as 15 Elmfield Street, Belfast whilst John's address at the time was 23 Hillview Street, Belfast and he was described as a merchant seaman. They went on to have three children, Benjamin, Hugh and Mary.
In later years John lived at 15 Elmfield Street, Belfast with his wife's family. He later suffered from the deleterious effects of syphilis and was soon paralysed as a result of his illness. He was committed to a psychiatric facility, Belfast Mental Institution in Ballylesson, Northern Ireland where he died on 6 February 1941.
His last surviving child Mary died in Spain in 2011.