Thomas Arthur Whiteley was born in Didsbury, Manchester, England on 3 April 1894.
He was the son of Arthur Whiteley (b. 1869 in Huddersfield, Yorkshire), a linotype company agent, and Elizabeth Gillies, née Ross (b. 1867 in Edinburgh, Scotland), an actress. He had a younger sister, Violet Stuart (1897-1974, later Mrs Leslie N. Weller), and an elder half-sister from his mother’s first marriage, Isabella Johnston Ross (b. 1886, later Mrs Richard Cornelius Elliott).
Thomas’ mother’s first marriage was in 1882 to a journalist named Grahame Gillies with whom she had a son who died as a toddler, Grahame, and a daughter, Isabella. She was described as a widow when, in 1891, she was living and working as a servant in a Leeds Hotel, together with her daughter, her mother Isabella Ross and her younger siblings Maggie and Andrew. In 1892 she married Arthur Whiteley with whom she had Thomas Whiteley and Violet Stuart Whiteley. In 1916 she took a third husband, William Golding, whom she also outlived.
Thomas was educated at a preparatory school, Chatham House in Ramsgate and later attended school in Tonbridge in Sussex. With his mother’s links to the theatre, he became familiar with the stage and made appearances in several child roles as a boy.
The 1901 census shows Arthur and his family living at Cross Lane in Marple, Cheshire; living with them were his maternal grandmother and aunt, Isabella and Margaret Ross. By 1911 Thomas’ mother was described as a widow and by then living at 32 Hampstead Road in St Pancras, London where she worked as a theatre manageress and his sister Isabella as an actress. Thomas’ whereabouts at the time are not known but it is believed that by this time he had already travelled widely and was perhaps in Italy at that point.
When he signed-on to the Titanic he gave his address in 1912 as 29 St. John's Park, Highgate, London. Prior to joining the Titanic he had previously served on her sister ship the Olympic.1
Whiteley worked as a steward in the First Class dining saloon. In an uncorroborated account, he recalled a dinner party attended by Captain Smith, Dr O'Loughlin and J. Bruce Ismay amongst others: at one point ‘Dr. O’Loughlin rose and lifting his glass, exclaimed: ‘let us drink to the mighty Titanic.’ With cries of approval, everybody stood up and drank the toast.’
On the night of April 14th 1912 Whiteley claimed he was left on board after the last lifeboats had been launched but as the ship went down he jumped into the water and injured his leg on wreckage floating in the water. After five hours of swimming, he got aboard a lifeboat. He later told how someone on board hit him with an oar as he tried to get near but eventually he was able to haul himself aboard.2
Whiteley's own experience was a hard one.
"I floated on my life preserver for several hours," he said. "When the sun came up I saw the collapsible raft in the distance, just black with men.
They were all standing up. Mr. Lightoller, the second officer, was one of them.
It's 31 lives against yours,' he said, 'you can't come aboard. There's no room.'
"I pleaded with him in vain, and then, I confess, I prayed that somebody might die so I could take his place. I was only human. And then someone did die and let me aboard."
Stevens Point Journal, 27 April 1912
In a 1914 newspaper report, it was recorded that he had swallowed so much water that his stomach had to be removed and replaced.
After the Carpathia docked in New York, Whiteley was taken to St. Vincent's Hospital to recover from injuries he sustained in the sinking, including bruises and a fractured leg.
Whiteley at St. Vincent’s Hospital
Left (Courtesy of Senan Molony, Ireland)
Right with behind, left to right John William Thompson, William McIntyre, Emilio Pallas y Castillo (Courtesy of Gunter Babler, Switzerland)
It was while convalescing in New York that Whiteley gave an interview, widely syndicated, in which he alleged that the Titanic's officers had ignored numerous ice warnings. He suggested that while on the lifeboat he had helped Phillips the radio operator to keep warm, and that Phillips had told him of the repeated ice warnings. Despite these claims, Whiteley was not called as a witness at either the American or British enquiries.
After recovering sufficiently to leave hospital Thomas Whiteley remained in the United States having made contact with his uncle and namesake Thomas Whiteley who had moved to Providence, Rhode Island in 1910 where he ran a Turkish Baths establishment. In an unpublished memoir, possibly intended as the basis for a film script, Whiteley implies that it had been his intention to jump ship in New York and remain in the United States.
For the week commencing 27 May 1912, he was appearing at the Merrimack Theatre in Lowell Massachusetts giving his account of the sinking.
... although inexperienced in presenting such a talk before the public, Whiteley recites his story in a decidedly interesting manner. To repeat it at this time would tend to make the story less entertaining to those who intend visiting the theatre during the remaining performances. Be it said, however, that his story is first hand and contains many features not touched on by the press either at the time of the terrible catastrophe or since then. — Lowell Sun - 28th May 1912
Sometime after this, he returned to England because in 1914 he filed a law suit against the White Star Line in which he claimed negligent steering and that Titanic had been unseaworthy. The case was scheduled for March 1914 but it appears never to have come to court. It was recorded at the time that he was working as a music hall artist.
What happened to Whiteley after this date remains a mystery but there are tantalizing glimpses of an adventurous and creative life.
There is a suggestion that he may have served in some capacity in the Royal Flying Corps during world war one and possibly been injured in the face or throat around this time.
The next reference is to a steward “Thos Whitely” on the Celtic in 1924. On the voyage, from Liverpool to New York, the steward deserted and therefore received no pay. Could Thomas Whiteley have been working a free passage to America to start a new life?
Again the trail goes cold but around this time the name “Tom Whitely” and other variations begin to appear in press publicity and playbills for some notable stage shows including Sky High (1925), The Merry World (1926) and The Nightingale (1927).
The Messrs. Shubert, in association with Eugene Howard, will present Willie Howard in a new musical production entitled "Sky High" at Poli's theater this evening for an engagement of one week preparatory to its subsequent metropolitan premiere in New York... in the cast are Ruth Welch, Vannessi Florenz Ames, James Liddy, Ann Milburn, Shadow & McNeil, Violet Englefield, Edward Douglass, Marcella Swanson, Emily Miles, Thomas Whitely, Stella Shiel and a large and talented chorus of more than 50 girls. — The Washington Post, 22 February 1925
Three years later Whiteley had become involved in the film business but was also in trouble, finding himself on a morals charge in Los Angeles.
WAR HERO WHOM DANCER ACCUSED PUT ON PROBATION
Thomas Whiteley,34-year-old writer, aviator and World Ward hero, yesterday was placed by Judge Scott on probation for one year on a charge of contributing to the delinquency of Dorothy Frederick, 17-year-old-dancer.
Whiteley, engaged in motion-picture work, is asserted to have given the girl a drink when she interviewed him in regard to prospective employment in pictures. There was no other charge against the man, and Judge Scott granted probation on the strength of Whiteley's excellent record as reported by the probation office.
Whiteley, who during his career in connection with the theater traveled over the greater part of the world, was decorated three times for bravery during the World War. — Los Angeles Times, December 19, 1928.
1930 publicity for the film Journey’s End described how one of the players, “Tom Whitely” had served in the British air force during World War One and had been the "last survivor" to leave the Titanic.
SUNNY CALIFORNIA UNKIND TO ARMY
... to Thomas Whiteley the cold meant little. When the Titanic went down he was the last living survivor taken off, and for seven and a half hours he floated in water of sub-zero temperature, wearing a lifebelt and clinging to pieces of wreckage. — The Ogden Standard Examiner – 3 July 1930
Journey’s End was directed by James Whale who went on to direct Frankenstein with Boris Karloff. The translation to the screen of the play by RC Sherriff was extremely well received at the time although like many early talkies seems has dated considerably.
Left: New York Times - 13th April 1930; right: Kinematograph Weekly - 10th April 1930
In the picture, Whiteley plays the Company Sergeant Major in a brief scene.
According to the 1930 census, in April 1930, he was living at 66 Melrose Avenue, Los Angeles, his occupation being Moving Picture Actor.
He seems also to have appeared in the short film Ship Mates (1929) with Lupino Lane, and, his last role, as the "Second Drayman" in the Janet Gaynor vehicle Merely Mary Ann (1931). He is also credited as having written scenarios for Won by a Neck (1930), directed by Fatty Arbuckle (as Will B. Goodrich) and Pleasure (1931).
ON THE CINEMA HORIZON
An unusual fellow is Tom Whitely, who has a role in the Janet Gaynor and Charles Farrell film "Merely Mary Ann." It is said that he was one of the last men rescued from the Titanic when it sank some nineteen years ago. He also flirted with death as a member of the British air forces during the war.
New York Times - 28th June 1931
Tom Whiteley, supporting Jane Gaynor and Charles Farrell in "Merely Mary Ann" was the last man rescued from the Titanic when it sank after hitting an iceberg 19 years ago. He later had hair-raising experience in the British air forces during the war. — The Oil City Derrick, 13 July 1931
In 1932, Thomas Whiteley returned to England. About two years later he married Isabel Florence Agnes Green.
At the time of his marriage, Thomas Whiteley, former steward, actor and writer was working as a "speciality salesman" with a trading stamp company, the couple went on to have two daughters and lived in Streatham, South London.
In December 1936 Thomas Whiteley, “Film Director” travelled San Juan, Puerto Rico. The purpose of the trip is not clear but a clue emerges in newspaper reports from March 1937 in which he is again mentioned in connection with a notable shipwreck; however this time it is not the Titanic but the Lusitania!
In 1935, an expedition had located the wreck of the Lusitania off the coast of Ireland. Now the celebrated film producer and adventurer John D. Craig (1903-1997) and his deep-diving colleague Gene Nohl, planned to film the wreck and salvage bullion they supposed lay within the wreck. For the filming effort Craig would employ “co-director and film technician” Thomas Whiteley.
It is hard to know what “co-director and film technician.” really meant in practice because the expedition to the Lusitania never took place.
The Munich Conference in 1938, forerunner of World War II, put a final halt to the Lusitania salvage operation. — Danger Is My Business by John D. Craig, CORONET magazine - January 1946
The technical limitations of the diving suit Craig and Nohl had developed was another of the stated reasons. Strangely, in view of the previous publicity, Craig seems never to have mentioned Whiteley in any other context so the extent and nature of their relationship is a cause for some speculation. What is known is that in 1938 Craig was filming Spanish treasure wrecks off Puerto Rico and it is possible that the 1937 trip was some form of reconnaissance.
What Thomas Whiteley did after this date is unknown but a record from later in 1937 gives his occupation as “Cast Director” in a film studio. Which studio and what films remain to be discovered.
On 3rd September 1943 the Allies invaded the Italian mainland. With them was Royal Air Force Warrant Officer 23247 Thomas Arthur Whiteley. As the allies progressed up the Adriatic coast in August and September 1944 Whiteley went with them but on 11th October 1944, in circumstances that remain a mystery, Thomas Whiteley died, en route for a hospital; apparently as the result of cardiac problems. He was only 50 years old. Today Thomas Arthur Whiteley's simple headstone stands amongst 1,000 other allied graves at the Ancona War Cemetery, Tavernelle, Italy.