Mr William Burke

William Burke

Mr William Burke was born at Clifton Terrace in Glenbrook near Queenstown (modern-day Cobh) in Co Cork, Ireland on 5 November 1872. He was baptised on 14 November the same year. 

He was the son of James Burke (b. circa 1837), a shipwright, and Catherine Calway (b. circa 1843) who had married in 1866. 

He had eight known siblings, including two sets of twins: Catherine (b. 27 June 1867), Ellen (b. circa 1868), Catherine Mary (b. 4 April 1875), twins Hanna and Lizzie (b. 29 September 1877), twins Rebecca and James (b. 8 October 1880) and Agnes (b. 6 January 1884). 

The family appear on the 1891 census of England living at 216 Arlington Street, Kirkdale, Lancashire and a young William was described as a grocer's assistant. 

The family later appear on the 1901 census as residents of Virginia Street, Bootle, the home address of his sister Mrs Edward (Ellen) Campbell and her family; William, then aged 28, was still a grocer's assistant. 

By 1902 William Burke had already began service at sea and was shown serving as steward aboard the Haverford of the American Line before making several trips aboard Cymric of the White Star Line; at that stage his Liverpool address was 8 Grove Street. During 1903 he was living at 23 Belmont Drive and was serving aboard Suevic before joining the Majestic on which he would serve for several years. By 1907 he was a resident of 7 Aubrey Street, Liverpool.

When Burke signed-on to the Titanic on 4 April 1912 he gave his address as 57 Bridge Road, Southampton1.  His previous ship had been the Olympic and as a first class dining room steward he received monthly wages of £3, 15s.

During the voyage Burkes assigned passengers were Isidor and Ida Straus; he recalled that they came to dine at 7.15 pm on Sunday 14 April but never saw them after that.

At the time of the collision Burke was in his quarters in his bunk but not asleep. The sensation of the impact brought him to the conclusion that the ship had dropped as propeller blade and he remained unstirred from his bunk for around 15 minutes before getting up. Another 15 minutes or so passed before an order filtered down to get dressed and to bring overcoats and lifebelts and head up top. Burke did as commanded but nearly left without a lifebelt, a colleague reminding him to fetch one. Burke made his way topside and positioned himself at the starboard boat deck and went o his assigned boat, boat 1, but found that it had already left.

Burke busied himself assisting in the loading of other lifeboats on the starboard side before crossing to the portside and assisting in loading and lowering boat 8 before heading aft to boat 10. Chief Officer Wilde was conducting matters around boat 10 and his query as to how many seamen were in the boat was answered by "Two, sir." Wilde called out if there were any men who could handle an oar and a man, who Burke took to be a foreigner, approached the Chief; he could not hear their conversation but Wilde brushed the man aside, saying "You are of no use to me." Burke approached the officer and told him that he could handle an oar and he was immediately told to board the lifeboat. Another unidentified officer arrived on the scene at this time.

Burke assisted women and children into the boat; one of the last to attempt to board fell between the side of the lifeboat and the deck; Burke miraculously caught her ankle and attempted to haul her into the boat but a man on A-deck had other ideas and attempted to pull her onto the deck--Burke eventually relinquished the woman to the other man.

After the boat was lowered Burke took an oar with a seaman and fireman Charles Rice and he helped row the boat about a quarter of a mile out from the ship. During the night boat 10 was tied to other boats to form a flotilla and received more passengers from other boats. 

During the night some women drew his attention to the fact that there were two men hiding in the bottom of the boat; he approached and pull both men up; one was Japanese (Masabumi Hosono) and the other, a large man, Burke identified as Italian but all the man could say was "Armenian." He put the two men to the oars. 

Upon arrival in New York Burke was called as a witness to the US Inquiry, giving evidence on day 9 (27 April 1912).

Burke resumed his career at sea. He was married in Liverpool on 23 June 1917 to Mary Elizabeth Osborne (b. 1894) and they had three children: William Francis (1918-1918), Lilian Winifred (b. 1921, later Mrs Ronald Jones) and Harold Edmund (b. 1922). Their firstborn, William, lived just five days and was buried in Ford Cemetery, Liverpool.

During the 1950s William spoke of his experiences whilst Titanic-Mania was at its height following the publication of A Night to Remember and the following movie of the book.

William lived for many years at 42 Albert Edward Road, Liverpool but died at 41 Connaught Road, possibly the home of his son Harold. His wife Mary died on 28 September 1959 in a hospice.

William Burke passed away on 2 April 1961 aged 88 and he was buried in Yew Tree Cemetery in Liverpool (plot 1E 187) on 7 April.


  1. At the American inquiry he gave his address as 15 Dodge Street, Southampton.

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Gavin Bell, UK
Pat Cook
Peter Engberg
Chris Dohany

References and Sources

United States Senate Hearings, 27th April, 1912, Testimony of William Burke United States Senate, Washington 1912. n° 806, Crew List United States Senate (62nd Congress), Subcommittee Hearings of the Committee on Commerce, Titanic Disaster, Washington 1912
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Link and cite this biography

(2020) William Burke Encyclopedia Titanica (ref: #1786, updated 13th January 2020 09:33:30 AM)