This new book explores the life of one of the heroes of the Titanic, Harold Godfrey Lowe. As the Titanic was sinking his actions were instrumental in saving the lives of many, and afterwards, he was one of the few survivors to suggest and organise a rescue of those unfortunates struggling for life in the freezing waters of the Atlantic. Books and films have recorded his bravery numerous times since 1912, and a number of his comments have passed into Titanic legend, such as “Jump, God damn you, jump” said to first class passenger Daisy Minahan. It is curious then that no book has previously been written about this young Welshman.
The cover blurb tells us that Inger Sheil has ‘worked closely with Lowe’s family to compile a gripping biography of this heroic Welshman’. What is doesn’t say is that Inger has devoted years of research to the life of Harold Godfrey Lowe, and probably knows more about him than most. That less is made of Inger’s passion for Lowe is also telling. This book is about a man, not an author. Inger recounts Lowe’s life as it was, without frequent attempts to analyse the man, and without numerous references to what the author thinks. I like this; in creating this account, the author has let Lowe speak for himself.
Lowe, though, was not a man to commit his words and thoughts to the page. In this book you will not find long passages from diaries and letters. Lowe was a private man, who lived life guided by a strong moral compass. Instead, Inger has sought out those people who travelled through life beside Harold Lowe. Some he met briefly, yet their memories of him, stayed with them a lifetime. Others had long associations, and were able to contribute a much rounder picture. But a common theme from all of them was the high regard and affection they held Lowe in.
The book is divided into fifteen chapters, with a prologue, epilogue and appendices. Broadly speaking the book is made up of three parts. The early chapters deal with Lowe’s life before the Titanic, the last chapters with life afterwards, while the middle third of the book looks at the Titanic and its aftermath, and Lowe’s place in the disaster.
For many readers the Titanic pages will be the most eagerly sought, but I found I lingered in Lowe’s early years, and indeed, after finishing the book I went back and read these early pages again. Lowe’s early life is painted in broad strokes in many Titanic books; the story of a young man who ran away from a home and a father to join the sea. Here, Inger fills in the details. Lowe’s early life in Wales, and the relationships with his parents make fascinating reading. The tragedy of losing a brother at sea is poignant, and it would have been easy for the author to make much more of the fates of Lowe’s brothers, and to look at what happened to Lowe on the Titanic in an entirely new light. Thankfully, Inger never does this. Lowe’s early life at sea, in sail and steam is covered in some detail, and the author uses contemporary accounts to create a strong image of his early working life. From sail Lowe moved to steam, as a man and mariner, working the African coast, and as an officer on the Australian run for the White Star Line. Inger relates how Lowe’s experiences on the Belgic in 1911 may have led to his transfer to the Atlantic run and the Titanic.
Lowe’s experiences on the Titanic are a tale told many times. He joined the ship at Belfast for her trials, before sailing to Southampton to begin the maiden voyage proper. On the night of April 14th Lowe came off duty and ‘died’, falling into a deep sleep, so much so, that he slept through the collision and only woke when disturbed by passengers gathering on deck wearing lifebelts. He quickly joined the activity of deck, assisting with the launching of the early starboard boats before moving across to the aft end of the port side, where he boarded lifeboat 14. Once afloat, Lowe marshalled together several other boats, and after the sinking, redistributed his passengers to these boats and returned to the scene where he rescued four people from the water. When the Carpathia came into view, Lowe’s lifeboat, with a sail hoisted, collected a number of people from stricken collapsible A, and then took collapsible D in tow. In all, he acted with courage and confidence, when both were needed.
Inger retells Lowe’s Titanic experiences through the eyes of others, using accounts and testimony by surviving passengers and crew to follow Lowe across the boat deck and into lifeboat 14. On the way she touches on Lowe’s use of strong language, and the more serious accusation made by Daisy Minahan, that Lowe was drunk. This is a method that works well, and it becomes clear that those who met with Lowe that night were generally very impressed by him, and continued to hold him in high regard for years after. Indeed, Daisy Minahan becomes a lone voice, drowned out by the praise of other survivors, and I couldn’t help but wonder if Miss Minahan’s sister-in-law who was in the same boat felt the same way about Lowe, or if Daisy Minahan ever came to change her mind about Lowe.
Lowe’s experiences at the inquiries follow on from the sinking, and the author cleverly examines both American and British Inquiries through the testimony of Harold Lowe. In many ways this brings a freshness to the inquiries which have been examined many times before by many authors. Inger makes it clear that Lowe was deeply affected by any sugggestion that he may have been drinking, and his hurt is almost tangible. However, the highlight of these chapters for me was to read about the friendship that developed between Lowe and Joe Bayliss, the sheriff who had accompanied Senator William Alden Smith from Michigan, and was charged with the job of delivering subpoenas and with chaperoning the surviving crew. This friendship was in contrast to the relationship Lowe had with the other Titanic officers, and reminds readers that Lowe was a stranger to everyone on board the Titanic. It is easy to think of the Titanic’s crew as a homogenous whole, when in actual fact they were as diverse as the passengers they cared for, with relationships as complex as those at any other workplace.
The final third of the book travels through Lowe’s life after the Titanic. Lowe experiences during the First World War are worthy of a much longer examination, and a reminder that for some the Titanic was only part of a richly lived life. Marriage and children and the advancing years are covered, and it was here that I wished Lowe had left more to find, and I can only hope that any future edition of this book will allow more space for Lowe’s life post-Titanic. Lowe’s death on May 12th 1944 was premature, and I felt for a man who clearly hoped to live longer.
In the prologue of the book Harold’s son expresses to Inger Sheil that he hopes she would ‘seek accuracy’, and that he would not want his father to ‘receive any more praise or blame than is his due.’ Sadly, Harold W.G. Lowe never saw this book in print, but he trusted that the telling of his father’s life was in safe hands. This trust has not been misplaced. Inger delivers an account of a man’s life, warts and all. Titanic Valour is a book I thoroughly enjoyed, accessible to all, and one I would highly recommend. My only criticism is that I have had to wait so long. But thank you, Inger, it was worth the wait.