Encyclopedia Titanica

Percy Edward Keen

Mr Percy Edward Keen was born in Southampton, Hampshire, England on 9 August 1881.

He was the son of James Keen (1841-1912), a house decorator, and Ellen Barnes (1845-1906); his father hailed from Wiltshire and his mother Southampton and they were married in 1875. He had three siblings: Arthur Ernest James (b. 1876), Frederick Charles (b. 4 January 1878) and Gertrude Ellen Evans (b. 1886, later Mrs William Thomas Smith); his elder brother Arthur died in 1880 aged four. 

On the 1881 census, taken only months before Percy's birth, his family were living at 4 Woodbine Terrace, Portswood Road, South Stoneham and they would still be present there on the 1891 census. The 1901 census would see Percy still with his family at 242 Portswood Road, by then working as a printer. His circa 1905 seaman's card described him as 5'5" with blue eyes, brown hair and a medium complexion.

Percy was married in 1908 to Adelaide Martha Jane White (b. 3 February 1886 in Southampton). Together they would have two daughters, Kathleen Frances Ellen (b. 1910, later Mrs Charles Goff) and Vera Winifred Lucy (1913-1989, later Mrs Edward Ings and again Petrie).

On the 1911 census Percy is absent and most likely at sea. His wife and first child are listed as living at 14 Rigby Road, Southampton.

When he signed-on to the Titanic on 6 April 1912 Keen gave his address as 14 Rigby Road, Southampton. His previous ship had been the Oceanic and as a saloon steward he received monthly wages of £3, 15s.

Keen escaped in lifeboat 15 and, in an interview published in Hampshire Independent on 4 May 1912, said of the sinking:

Most of the stewards, except those detailed for late duty, were in bed and asleep when the contact with the iceberg took place. I was dozing off when I felt a slight jar, or shock, such as might be caused when a ship sheds a blade or propellor. The engines stopped, and there was the distant sound of the blowing off of steam. 

I got up and proceeded to dress. The shock had awakened several of my companions, but others were still asleep, and I roused them one by one. Steward Butterworth was in a deep slumber, and when I shook him hard and shouted in his ear: “Wake up, old chap, the ship’s stopped, something has happened,” he answered me drowsily and when at last I got some sense into him and saw him begin to put on his clothes we were ordered to come on deck and bring wraps with us, I never saw Butterworth again. 

We caught hold of everything we could find, and I put on my overcoat, as we knew before we turned in that night was very cold. On my way up to the boat deck I saw several passengers, some of them smoking, and apparently unconcerned, it was common talk that the Titanic was unsinkable. The subject was repeatedly discussed at the dinner table, even on that fatal Sunday night, when it was rumoured that we were in the vicinity of ice and that some bergs had been sighted in the distance. 

On the boat deck order and discipline prevailed, but I saw that passengers and all concerned began to look anxious as they observed that forepart of the ship took a downward dip. This was particularly noticeable by those standing aft. As the lifeboats began to clear away from the ship and only a few were left there were signs of disorder. The bedroom stewards, who behaved with great gallantry, and kept their heads admirably, were formed into an extemporised police force, and kept the way clear for women and children. Several of the women, even when pleaded with, refused to leave the ship, and a few men—I believe they were foreigners—rushed forward to take their places. The stewards kept them back, and when they became violent hit out at them with their fists. I saw no shooting, but forcible action certainly was necessary. At Southampton we had taken aboard ten Chinamen, part of the crew of a ship, some of whom came up dressed as women, with shawls over their heads, and managed to smuggle themselves into the boats before we discovered the fraud. 

Fortunately, the sea was smooth. So calm a surface is not often met with in the Atlantic, and had there been even half a gale of wind few of the boatloads could have ridden it out. A fireman took command of our boat. We hailed other boats and asked them if they had an officer to spare, but none of them could help us.

I heard afterwards from those who jumped overboard at the finish that there were heartrending scenes when the truth came home to the passengers who were left that the ship was slowly but surely sinking, and that with the departure of the last boat death was staring them in the face. Many leaped into the sea with lifebelts on, and everything portable that would float was cast overboard. We saw the lights go out, and through the darkness we could faintly hear shouts for help mingled with cries of agony and despair. The ship seemed to break in two forward of the first funnel, which crashed down on passengers and crew abaft. There was a terrible rumbling sound, which we believed was the machinery breaking and tearing through the hull, and this was the end of it. The Titanic and all remaining on board her were swallowed up in the ocean. 

We rowed about waiting for help which we believed was coming and longing for the dawn. For at least and hour after the ship went down we heard the cries from a distance, but in the darkness we could not locate them. They must have come from men adrift on wreckage. In the icy cold water no swimmer, however strong, could have lived for any length of time. 

'The boat I was in was No. 5 [sic] on the starboard side. It was the last boat on that side of the ship to leave. The Titanic had then a heavy list to port, and as our boat was lowered away it scraped the side, and we had some trouble to keep it off. When it was in the water about ten minutes were occupied in attempting to release the boat falls, and then somebody cut the ropes. There was no seamen with us, and a fireman took command. After the Titanic sank we hailed several boats, and asked if they had an officer to spare; but we could not get one, and the fireman remained in charge...We left the ship about an hour before the Titanic sank. Titanic Voices, pp. 214-215

Keen was not required to give evidence at either of the American or British Inquiries into the sinking and he returned to England and resumed a career at sea. He would lose his father before the end of the year.

He continued a long career at sea and crew manifests in 1931 and 1934 show that he was serving as a lounge steward aboard Olympic, later as a printing steward, and he was still at sea as late as 1938. One shipboard acquaintance on numerous voyages was his friend and colleague Edenser Wheelton

Percy lived for the rest of his life at 59 Hillside Avenue, Bitterne and by 1939 was described as a temporary Post Office sorting clerk and full-time mercantile marine printer. He died in The General Hospital, Southampton on 2 November 1954 aged 73. His body was cremated and the ashes were scattered in the Garden of Rest in South Stoneham Cemetery (section 6).  His widow Adelaide passed away a decade later on 30 May 1964.

Titanic Crew Summary

Name: Mr Percy Edward Keen
Age: 30 years 8 months and 6 days (Male)
Nationality: English
Marital Status: Married to Adelaide Martha Jane White
Last Residence: at 14 Rigby Road Southampton, Hampshire, England
Last Ship: Oceanic
Embarked: Southampton on Saturday 6th April 1912
Rescued (boat 15)  
Disembarked Carpathia: New York City on Thursday 18th April 1912

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References and Sources

Agreement and Account of Crew (PRO London, BT100/259)
Titanic Voices
Hampshire Independent,
4 May 1912

Newspaper Articles

Neil Hotson Southern Daily Echo (16 February 2002) Human tragedy of the Titanic
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