Miss Mary Ann Charlotte Davis was born on Park Place in Southwark, London, England on 18 May 1883, later being baptised on 10 June that same year in St Saviour's Church.
She was the daughter Henry Davis (b. 1855), a general labourer and later a carman, and Eliza Gill (b. 1853), both native Londoners who were married in 1876, and she was one of seven surviving children from a total of eight. Her siblings were: Henry (b. 1877), Eliza (b. 1879), William (b. 1881), Maud (b. 1886), Nellie Elizabeth (b. 1888), Frederick Thomas (b. 1890) and Alice (b. 1894).
Mary first appears on the 1891 census living with her family at 1 Cooke Buildings, St George's, London and would still be at this address by the time of the 1901 census and was then described as a domestic servant. Her parents were listed on the 1911 census living at 29 Fleet Lane, Old Bailey, London but Mary was not present and her precise abode at this time is unclear although she is known to have been living and working in London as a domestic cook for wealthy families. She later recounted working for a "titled lady" who ran a home with 22 servants, including an Italian cook with whom she did not get along with.
Mary decided to emigrate to New York where she had several siblings. She boarded the Titanic at Southampton on 10 April 1912 as a second class passenger (ticket number 237668 which cost £13). Whilst aboard she shared a cabin with an elderly nurse, Lucy Ridsdale.
Speaking of the night of the sinking, following her awakening by a steward: "I threw a coat on over my nightgown and put on some shoes. Then I gathered up a few trinkets, and things my parents had given me." She then began making her way up to the boat deck, assisting her cabin mate Lucy Ridsdale who was afflicted with a club foot. On the way a sailor ran by, hitting Mary painfully in the shoulder with his life jacket. It was then she realised she and Miss Ridsdale were not wearing any so she retreated back to her cabin to fetch them, leaving Miss Ridsdale to carry on. By the time she reached the boat deck Lucy was already in a lifeboat which was beginning its descent. An overzealous crewman saw her and threw her into the boat, already a few feet down, and she landed awkwardly in the bottom of the boat, striking her knees painfully.
Whilst aboard the lifeboat she recalled hearing Nearer my God to Thee and how the chilling screams of the dying were a sound that would never leave her. She reported how the occupants of her boat sang Pull for the Shore, Sailors to drown out the sound.
Arriving in New York aboard Carpathia, Mary was met by her sister and brother-in-law. She did not remain in New York long and returned to England but returned to the USA shortly after.
She was soon married to John Archibald Wilburn (b. 31 January 1891), a painter and decorator and native of Tottenville, Staten Island, New York. Their only child, a son named Carl, was born on 16 July 1915. Her husband later served in the American Navy during WWI and he ran a hardware store in his native Tottenville before becoming a machine operator. The family appear on the 1925 census living in Richmond, New York and Miami, Florida by the time of the 1930 census. By 1940 they were back in New York and living in Syracuse. Mary was an active Red Cross Volunteer for many years and became a widow when her husband died on 23 April 1972. She then entered a nursing home in Syracuse, the Loretto Geriatric Centre, but remained surprisingly bright even for her advanced years and continued to give interviews for interested Titanic enthusiasts and newspapers by the time she was over 100-years. By the time the wreck of the Titanic was discovered in 1985 she was 102 years old. Even to the end she retained her native London accent and was described by all who met her as a very pleasant lady.
Visiting Mary Davis Wilburn in 1985
(Courtesy of Frederick Rueckert)
Mary died at the Community-General Hospital, Syracuse on 29 July 1987 aged 104 years, 2 months and 11 days. As a Titanic survivor she became the one to hold the record for longevity of life and she was one of only five survivors who became centenarians, the others being Edwina Troutt Mackenzie (100), Edith Brown Haisman (100), Ellen Shine Callaghan (101) and Marjorie Newell Robb (103).
Mary was buried with her husband in White Chapel Memory Gardens in DeWitt, Onondaga, New York. Her son Carl was married to a lady named Anna Possenti (1914-2006) and had one son and one daughter, Carol and Robert. He lived in Syracuse and died on 9 November 1994.