Encyclopedia Titanica

Thomas Arthur Whiteley

RMS Titanic steward and later Hollywood actor

Thomas Arthur Whiteley
Thomas Arthur Whiteley

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

Thomas Whiteley Signing-on Sheet
Whiteley's signature in the Titanic crew sign-on sheets

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.

Thomas Whiteley Grave
Thomas Whiteley's Grave
(Courtesy of the War Graves Photographic Project.)

Notes

  1. In a memoir prepared some 20 years later, he claimed to have had no prior experience when he served on the Titanic.
  2. As survival time in the water was minutes rather than hours, the reliability of Whiteley's statements regarding his survival, and other experiences aboard the Titanic both in the press and in his memoir is questionable.

Titanic Crew Summary

Name: Mr Thomas Arthur Whiteley
Age: 18 years and 12 days (Male)
Nationality: English
Marital Status: Single
Last Residence: at 29 St. John's Park, Highgate London, England
Occupation: Saloon Steward
Last Ship: Olympic
Embarked: Southampton
Rescued (boat B)  
Disembarked Carpathia: New York City on Thursday 18th April 1912
Died: Wednesday 11th October 1944 aged 50 years
Buried: Ancona War Cemetery, Ancona, Italy

Page Options

Watch this page

Improve this Biography

If you have any corrections or something to add please  get in touch

References and Sources

1930 Los Angeles Census
London Telephone Directories 1932-37
Cedar Rapids Evening Gazette - 15th January 1914
Celtic crew list 1924
Celtic deserting crew 1924
Centralia Daily News - 3rd March 1937
Coronet Magazine - January 1946
Daily Northwestern - 16th January 1914
Deutschland - passenger list 1936
Kinematograph Weekly - 10th April 1930
Lowell Sun - 27th May 1912; 16th January 1914; 28th May 1912
New York Times - 13th April 1930
San Jacinto passenger list 1937
Stevens Point Journal - 27th April 1912
The Ogden Standard Examiner – 3rd July 1930
The Oil City Derrick - 13th July 1931
The Washington Post - 22nd Feb 1925; 8th Nov 1925
Tyrone Daily Herald - 18th January 1930
Washington passenger list 1937 1901 England Census
1930 Los Angeles Census
London Telephone Directories 1932-37
Cedar Rapids Evening Gazette - 15th January 1914
Celtic crew list 1924
Celtic deserting crew 1924
Centralia Daily News - 3rd March 1937
Coronet Magazine - January 1946
Daily Northwestern - 16th January 1914
Deutschland - passenger list 1936
Kinematograph Weekly - 10th April 1930
Lowell Sun  - 27th May 1912; 16th January 1914; 28th May 1912
New York Times -  13th April 1930
General Register Office Records of Births, Marriages and Deaths
San Jacinto passenger list 1937
Stevens Point Journal - 27th April 1912
The Ogden Standard Examiner – 3rd July 1930
The Oil City Derrick - 13th July 1931
The Washington Post  - 22nd Feb 1925; 8th Nov 1925
Titanic - crew sign-on sheets
Tyrone Daily Herald - 18th January 1930
Washington passenger list 1937 Tom Whiteley's IMDB Entry
Thomas Whiteley Family Website (Archived)

Research Articles

Senan Molony Titanica! (2004) Why did White Star settle with Whiteley?
Steward's sensational claims were never tested in court.

Newspaper Articles

Daily Sketch Steward's Premonition : Thomas Whiteley
"I don't think I shall ever see you again. We are going to have a wreck."
Chicago Daily Journal (19 April 1912) Thomas Whiteley : Wireless Operator Dies
Steward claims Phillips was taken aboard life-raft and died before rescuers reached him.
Washington Post (20 April 1912) Titanic's Wireless Chief Died on a Liferaft
The first Marconi operator aboard the Titanic, stuck to his post till the last.
New York Times (21 April 1912) ALARM FROM LOOKOUT IGNORED, SAILOR SAYS
Officer on Titanic's Bridge Had Warning of the Iceberg from the Crow's Nest.
Washington Herald (21 April 1912) Describes Last Meal on Titanic
“It Was the Gayest Night of Trip Among Diners,” Says Assistant Steward
New York World (21 April 1912) Lookout claims Murdoch Shot Himself
He knew he should have changed his course. He shot himself because he knew it.
New York Herald (21 April 1912) Three warnings were given to the officer on the bridge
First Officer, Repeatedly Refused to Act on Their Report of Danger.
New York Times (22 April 1912) TO HOLD ISMAY TO THE END
Smith is determined that the Director-Manager of the White Star Line shall be held in this country until the investigation is closed
Boston Daily Globe (22 April 1912) Whiteley Finds Uncle
Patient recalled he had an uncle who came to America many years ago
Boston Globe (23 April 1912) Steward Who Was Saved
A Waiter, Who Survived the Disaster and Who is Now Recovering in a New York Hospital
Oxford Times (27 April 1912) Steward's Statement
Thomas Whiteley interviewed from his hospital bed
Lowell Sun (27 May 1912) Thomas Whiteley to Speak at Massachusetts Theatre
Advertisement for a lecture by the Titanic Survivor
Lowell Sun (28 May 1912) THOMAS WHITELEY : Appearing at the Merrimack Square Theatre
Mr. Whiteley is to appear afternoon and evening for the remainder of the week
(28 May 1912) Thomas Whiteley's Titanic Lecture
A transcript of Thomas Whiteley's lecture in Lowell Massachusetts
Cedar Rapids Evening Gazette (16 January 1914) Claim Titanic Not Seaworthy
First time that a suggestion in regard to the unseaworthiness of the Titanic has been raised in the courts
Chicago Daily Journal (16 January 1914) Titanic Was Unsafe
Steward, Suing for Injury in Wreck Says Precautions Were Disregarded
The Times (17 January 1914) Thomas Whiteley : Another Titanic case
Whiteley v. Oceanic Steam Navigation Company (Limited)
(17 January 1914) TITANIC UNSEAWORTHY, HE SAYS
Steward Who Escaped With Broken Leg Sues the Line
Nottingham Evening Post (28 May 1914) A TITANIC SURVIVOR : MUSIC HALL ARTIST'S ORDEAL IN HOSPITAL
Thomas Whiteley sought compensation in connection with the Titanic disaster.

Images

Grave of Thomas Whiteley
Located at Ancona War Cemetery, Tavernelle, Italy
Thomas Whiteley Convalescing in New York
Titanic Steward in Wheelchair at St Vincent's Hospital
Survivors at a New York hospital
John William Thompson, Thomas Whiteley, William McIntyre, Emilio Pallas y Castillo

Documents and Certificates

1901, 1911 Census (England)
Agreement and Account of Crew, National Archives, London; BT100/259
General Register Office: Index of Births, Marriages and Deaths
Search archive online

Comment and discuss

  1. Anthony Cunningham

    Anthony Cunningham said:

    I really enjoyed this article. Thanks for taking the time to dig around into Whiteley's past! More to come?

  2. Encyclopedia Titanica

    Encyclopedia Titanica said:

    The family have now published their own website on Thomas Whiteley

  3. Melanie Newman

    Melanie Newman said:

    I think anyone interested in Thomas Whiteley will be delighted to know that I possess his handwritten and typewritten account of his Titanic experience. It has never been made public before, nor is there any known prior written documentation from Thomas Whiteley himself. This was passed down to me and my husband from an uncle that was friends with Mr. Whiteley and I am currently researching the details of what we have. We have had possession of it for quite some time, but never really realized what we had. Now with the 100 year anniversary coming up, it has sparked our research and we are... Read full post

Showing 3 posts of 18 total. View all.

 Reply  Watch Thread Search other threads

Acknowledgements

Günter Bäbler, Switzerland
Gavin Bell, UK
John Curran
Rob Easterla
Terry Harrington
Jim Kalafus
Ken Kirkman
Senan Molony, Ireland
Craig Stringer, UK
Brian J. Ticehurst, UK