Encyclopedia Titanica

Thomas Roussel Davids Byles

Roman Catholic Priest

Fr Byles

Fr Thomas Roussel Davids Byles 1 was born at Grosvenor-road, Headingley, England on 26 February 1870, to Louisa Davids and Alfred Holden Byles; he was the eldest of seven children.

Byles' father, the Reverend Dr. Alfred Holden Byles was a congregational Minister and a successful businessman. He was the first pastor of Headingley Hill Congregational Church, Leeds. Records show the family's home address as York Road Council Schools, Leeds, Yorkshire. In the 1890s he was the Minister of Shelton-Hanley, Stoke-on-Trent and also lived for a time in Omaha, NE, USA with his wife and two of their children (a daughter and Winter, their son). Whilst in America he supplied the First Congregational Church in Omaha with a pulpit. The family later returned to England. Rev Byles senior died on 8 December 1911 2.

Byles' uncle, Mr F. Byles, lived in Bradford, and another uncle—who was born in Bradford—was Sir William Pollard Byles (1839?1917), radical, social reformer and member of Parliament for Salford North (elected 1906). One of Roussel's sisters became a missionary in China.

Byles was educated at Leamington College and Rossall School, Fleetwood, Lancashire (1885?89) where he was a 'scholar' and school monitor for Crescent House.

In 1889 Byles went to Balliol College, Oxford 3 where he studied mathematics, modern history and theology. He was also Vice-President of the Arnold Society (a select undergraduate debating society at Balliol). He graduated as a Bachelor of Arts (BA) in 1894. While studying at Oxford he converted to Catholicism and the following year went to work as a Master at St Edmund's College, Ware, Hertfordshire, a boys' school and Roman Catholic seminary. In 1897 he wrote 'A School Commentary on 2nd Epistle of St Paul to the Corinthians', his only published work.

Byles it would appear was not in generally good health his letters allude to occasional beak-downs and fits:

I hope to enter some Religious Order early in next year, but I want to wait a little, partly because I have not yet found out which Order I am best fitted for, & partly because my doctor tells me that by next February, if I have not recurrence, I may consider myself quite cured of my fits, & till that is safe it would probably be difficult to find any Order willing to accept me.
Sept 14, 1897

Byles worked at St Edmund's until 1899 when he travelled to Rome to study for the priesthood. He received a B. D. (Bachelor of Divinity) from Gregorian University in 1901 and was ordained on 15 June 1902; he finished his studies in Rome in 1903. From 1905 to 1912 he was the Roman Catholic Rector of Ongar, Essex.

Byles' younger brother William also converted to Catholicism but moved to America to run a rubber business and fell in love with Katherine Russell of Brooklyn. When they planned to marry William asked his brother to officiate at the ceremony (planned for the Sunday after his arrival). He and his brother Winter (living in America) made arrangements to travel to New York. Fr Byles was initially scheduled to travel on another White Star liner but switched at the last minute to the Titanic. His second class ticket was number 244310 and cost £13. He boarded the Titanic at Southampton on 10 April 1912.

While the Titanic lay at anchor at Cherbourg he wrote to his housekeeper, Miss Field back at his parish in Chipping Ongar, Essex

(© Joan Barry Collection)

In the letter, which left the ship at Queenstown the following day, he gives a description of the ship and the journey from Southampton to Cherbourg. He found the vibration of the ship unpleasant but said that although the sea appeared rough there was no reflection of this on the ship itself. He also mentioned meeting two other priests in second class 5 one a Benedictine from Bavaria, and one is a secular from Lithuania6.

On the morning of Sunday 14 April Father Byles held the Catholic mass with second class passengers in their lounge and afterwards with the third class passengers for whom Fr Byles delivered a sermon in English and French, Fr Peruschitz followed with a sermon in German and Hungarian. According to an article in The Evening World the two priests preached on the need to have a "lifeboat in the shape of religious consolation at hand in case of spiritual shipwreck".

After the collision—by many accounts—Father Byles was a hero till the end, helping the third class passengers up the stairs, into the boats, hearing confessions and praying with those that had been unable to escape. Some newspapers reported that he was offered a seat but had refused.

(Courtesy Joan Barry, USA)

'Continuing the prayers, he led us to where the boats were being lowered. Helping the women and children in he whispered to them words of comfort and encouragement.'
The Evening World, April 22 1912 Miss Bertha Moran

Father Byles died in the sinking. His body, if recovered, was never identified.

Memorial Card for Fr. Byles
(© Encyclopedia Titanica / Courtesy Joan Barry, USA)

Katherine and William did not reschedule their wedding. They had another priest perform the ceremony. In a Brooklyn newspaper it reported the bride and groom went home from the wedding and changed into mourning clothes and returned to the church for a memorial mass. The couple then left for a short honeymoon in New Jersey.

Later that year Katherine and William travelled to Europe. They visited London and the Houses of Parliament to meet 'Uncle Willie' (Sir W. P. Byles). Katherine had to wait outside in a parlour—women could not enter. According to family legend, a young man came to her and said "Hello Mrs Byles, I am here to give you a tour, my name is Winston Churchill". From London they travelled on to Rome where they had a private audience with the Pope, who declared Father Byles a martyr for the Church.

A door installed by his brothers at the Roman Catholic Church in Chipping Ongar, Essex, stands as a memorial to Father Byles. A memorial photograph of him also hangs there.


1. Thomas was a name Roussel took when he became a catholic priest, it was not a given name. He was named after a Huegenot ancestor Francois Roussel who arrived in England in 1684. Davids (with an 's') was Roussel's mother's maiden name, her father being the Reverend Thomas William Davids.
2. Probate for Alfred Holden Byles:
1912: Byles, Alfred Holden of Oak-terrace, Headingly, Leeds; Congregational Minister died 22 December 1911 at 8
13 March to Frederick Glyde Byles gentleman and Arthur Stanway le Mare,schoolmaster.
Effects £5926 16s. 9d.
3. At Balliol College, Oxford Roussel had two principle tutors J. W. Russell and A. L. Smith:
'[J. W. Russell] was an erratic mathematical genius; he was an FRS [Fellow of the Royal Society]; alcoholic [and] spent the last part of his life in a mental hospital. [A. L. Smith] was later Master of Balliol'.
It would appear that Byles was hardly an outstanding student:
'he was a Scholar of the College, elected as a mathematician. In his Mods. (intermediate examination) it appears that he got 3rd class Honours (Scholars were and are expected to do better) and then changed to modern history in which he got a 3rd class Honours degree (not bad considering he had started as a mathematician); then in the following year he took finals in theology and got a 3rd in that too'.
Dr John Jones, Dean and Archivist, Balliol College, Oxford.
4. 'Liverpool St.' Fr Byles would have arrived from Essex at Liverpool St. Station - the station that serves the east of the country. He would have then taken taxi, omnibus or London Underground to Waterloo Station (platform 12) where he would have joined the Boat Train for Southampton.
5. The other priests were Rev Juozas (Joseph) Montvila (from Lithuania) and Rev. Joseph M. Peruschitz (from Bavaria, Germany). Lawrence Beesley recorded the following observations of passengers in the Second Class library:
'In the middle of the room are two Catholic priests, one quietly reading-either English or Irish, and probably the latter-the other, dark, bearded, with a broad-brimmed hat, talking earnestly to a friend in German and evidently explaining some verse in the open Bible before him...'
Second Class passenger Ellen Toomey told reporters after the disaster that Montvila, Peruschitz and Father Byles said Mass every day on board the Titanic.
6. This word is almost illegible. Secular can refer to a priest not bound by a specific religious rule, see the entry for Rev Joseph Montvila for more details.

References and Sources

Birth Notice:  Leeds Mercury, 28 February 1870
The Evening World, 22 April 1912, Article
MKKZ (Germany), 12 April 1987, Mrs Agnes McCoy (translated by Hildegard Wechs)
Lawrence Beesley (1912) The Loss of the Titanic: Its Story and Lessons. Houghton Mifflin
Bridgwater Mercury, April 24, 1912, "Honeymoons on the Titanic"
Colchester Gazette (Essex), April 24, 1912, page 4, "Ongar priest among the missing"
John P. Eaton & Charles A. Haas (1994) Titanic: Triumph & Tragedy, 2nd ed. Patrick Stephens Ltd. ISBN 1 85260 493 X
Sir Ivo Elliott (1934) The Balliol College Register, 2nd ed. 1833-1933. Oxford, Oxford University Press
The Evening World, April 22 1912, "Heroic priests gave up lives to quiet crowds"
Don Lynch & Ken Marschall (1992) Titanic: An Illustrated History. London, Hodder & Stoughton. ISBN 0 340 56271 4
MKKZ (Germany), April 12, 1987
Omaha World Herald (Omaha Nebraska), April 17, 1912, "Byles' father Omaha preacher"
Rossall School Records
Somerset House Index of Wills 1912
The Times (London), April 22, 1912 "Some of those lost"
Unidentified Newspaper (Germany), 1912
Who Was Who. Vol. 2.

Research Articles

Fergus Mulligan Titanica! (2015) Titanic and the Beda: Fr Thomas Byles
In James Cameron's film Titanic a Catholic priest is seen praying with his fellow passengers and reciting from the Book of Revelation. This man was not a figment of Cameron's imagination: his name was Fr Thomas Byles

Newspaper Articles

Daily Mail (18 April 1912) Rev. Byles Missing
The Globe (18 April 1912) Tragic Honeymoons
Among the passengers of the ill-fated Titanic were a number of honeymoon couples
Evening World (22 April 1912) Heroic Priests Gave Up Lives to Quiet Crowds
Roman Catholic Priests Went Down on the Titanic
Newark Evening News (23 April 1912) PRIEST GIVES AWAY A LIFEBELT OFFERED HIM

Letters and Diaries

Father Thomas Byles writes to his brother Winter from Germany where he had been staying at a Benedictine Convent.
Search archive online


Dave Aldworth, USA
Fr. Scott Archer, USA
Joan Barry, USA (Great niece of Father Byles, granddaughter of Katherine Russell and William Byles)
George Behe, USA
Dr John Jones, UK (Dean and Archivist, Balliol College Oxford)
Karen Kamuda, USA
Don Lynch, USA
Steve Rigby, UK
John Russ, UK (Librarian, Rossall School)
Dr David Thornton (The Thoresby Society, The Leeds Historical Society)
Brian J. Ticehurst, UK
Geoff Whitfield, UK

Comment and discuss

  1. Joan Byles Barry

    Joan Byles Barry

    Your site is very good, My Great uncle was Father Thomas Roussel Byles of the second class. I have a letter from him posted in Queenstown.I can scan and send if you are interested. He is mentioned in many books as praying and hearing confessions till the end. He was on his way to officiate the wedding ceremony of my Grandparents. One newspaper reports he was offered a seat three time and each time he refused it to stay with the doomed passengers. The pope declared him a martyr. Joan Byles Barry Grand niece of Father Byles 2nd class New Jersey

  2. Fr. Archer

    Fr. Archer

    Thank you very much for the great page! I have been looking for information on Fr. Byles, and was happy to find so much on your site. I have long been a Titanic buff, and have always been inspired by the bravery of Fr. Byles (and the two other Catholic priests) during the sinking. Keep up the great work. Fr. Archer Illinois

  3. Lora Byles

    Lora Byles

    I am a relative of Rev. Thomas Rousel David Byles. Looking for other members of the Byles Family...Would love to get in touch with anyone who has any additional information about Rev. Byles or the Byles Family. Lora Byles Texas

  4. Beryl Welburn

    Beryl Welburn

    So glad to finally find some info on Rev. Byles, whome I have confirmed as a relation to my grandfather, James A.Byles,on whome I have a family tree, and he is a direct decendant of Sir William Pollard Byles. who origionaly was decendant of a Byles from Connamora, Ireland, and was given a land grant in England, and the name was origionally Boyle, and because of a mistake on a manifest, rather than go to the trouble of changing it , it was left as byles. My great Uncle Leslie Byles O.B.E. deceased, was my Mother's second cousin, Leslie has a son Allan, and a daughter Shirley living in London,... Read full post

  5. Arthur Barrow

    Arthur Barrow

    I have a great interest in Father Thomas Byles, who was a passenger on the Titanic and who gave such help to many passengers. He was my predecessor in this parish in 1904 Arthur Barrow Kelvedon Essex England

  6. Bob Godfrey

    On Father Byles' biog page there is a letter from William Byles to his mother-in-law, which includes the passage: 'From St Vincent's we went to the Chelsea Hotel, where we met Mr & Mrs Bean, who had only been married a month, and were both saved together. They knew little, but they gave us the address of Roussel's cabin companion. If he has been saved we may hear more from him.' This is a long shot, but does anybody know the identity of Father Byles' cabin companion, or what onboard connection existed between this person and Ted and Ethel Beane (or perhaps between father Byles and the... Read full post

  7. mueller

    hello everyone i have some new information concerning fr byles i have just read an article that said fr graham smith the current parish priest of saint helens church the church where byles was priest at has launched an effort to make fr byles a saint i will post a copy of that article here . may he one day become a saint.

  8. Sean McCarthy

    Sean McCarthy

    Your site is very good, My Great uncle was Father Thomas Roussel Byles of the second class. I have a letter from him posted in Queenstown.I can scan and send if you are interested. He is mentioned in many books as praying and hearing confessions till the end. He was on his way to officiate the wedding ceremony of my Grandparents. One newspaper reports he was offered a seat three time and each time he refused it to stay with the doomed passengers. The pope declared him a martyr. Joan Byles Barry Grand niece of Father Byles 2nd class New... Read full post

  9. Mark Baber

    Sean, please note that Joan's message is from 1997 and that she's no longer a registered Message Board user. It would seem unlikely that she'll respond to you.

  10. Joan Barry

    Joan Barry

    Hi Sean Sister Joe McCarthy used to visit us in NJ every summer, I went to Kitty’s wedding with my mother in late 60,s and met the family, I do have pictures that I can share

  11. Y. Hadden

    Rev. Byles' sister, Dr. Hilda Margaret Byles, was a colleague of my granduncle, Dr. George Hadden. He was at her funeral in July 1931, in Hankow, China. You may find me on Facebook. My name: YVONNE FREUNDL (HADDEN)

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Titanic Passenger Summary

Name: Fr Thomas Roussel Davids Byles
Age: 42 years 1 month and 17 days (Male)
Nationality: English
Religion: Roman Catholic
Marital Status: Single
Last Residence: in London, England
Occupation: Priest / Minister
Embarked: Southampton on Wednesday 10th April 1912
Ticket No. 244310, £13
Died in the Titanic disaster (15th April 1912)
Body Not Identified

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