Mr Hugh Richard Walter McElroy was born at 3 Percy Street, Liverpool, England on 28 October 1874 and baptised on 1 November.
Growing up in a Roman Catholic household, he was the son of a Liverpool-born father, Richard McElroy (1844-1888), a shipwright, and a Scottish mother from Edinburgh, Jessie Fox (1847-1927).
One of four children, Hugh's siblings were: Charlotte Mary L. (1871-1938, later Mrs Dominic Anthony Edgar Stuart Palmer-Stone), Jessie Helen Mary (b. 1873) and Richard Marie (b. 1878).
He first appears on the 1881 census when the family were living at 6 Eversley Street, Toxteth Park. His father passed away in 1888 aged 44 and two years later, at age 16, Hugh joined a Roman Catholic Religious Order, "Canons Regular of the Lateran," as a student for the priesthood. At that time the Order's seminary was based at St Mary's Priory, Bodmin, Cornwall where St Mary's Roman Catholic Church is still situated today; he appears there at the time of the 1891 census. After only two years' study McElroy decided that the priesthood was not for him and he left the Priory in 1892 and returned to his home in Liverpool where he followed his father by joining the Merchant Navy. He and his family appear on the 1901 census living at 6 Wilton Street, Liscard, Cheshire, where they had moved to the previous year, and Hugh was described as a ship's purser.
During the Boer War McElroy served aboard the troopship Britannic; he is mentioned in the Boer War Transport Medal Roll book and was awarded the Transport Medal and the South Africa Clasp. He was shown in September 1899 earning £10 a month as purser aboard Cymric and his address was given as 17 Central Park Avenue, Liscard. He served briefly aboard Germanic before returning to Cymric before the close of the year and was shown working aboard her until at least December 1900. Throughout 1901 and 1902 he served aboard Majestic; by 1903 he was purser aboard Cedric and earning £15 per month and stating his address as Hotel St George, Liverpool. By 1906 he was back aboard Majestic and still working aboard her until at least January 1907. He served aboard Majestic and Adriatic under the command of Captain E. J. Smith before he, alongside chief steward Andrew Latimer and surgeon Dr Norman O'Loughlin were transferred to Olympic.
He was married in Ballymitty, Co Wexford, Ireland over the summer on 9 July 1910 to Barbara Mary Ennis (b. 18 May 1876) in a ceremony performed by his brother, Father Richard McElroy. He was described as a purser for the White Star Company.
Barbara Ennis, born in Liverpool, was the daughter of John Ennis, JP and Elizabeth Taylor; her father, the manager of steamship company the Allan Line, was an Irish Catholic from Co Wexford. Her family had relocated there sometime around the turn of the century and made their home at their estate, Springwood, at Tullycanna. John Ennis was a sick man and was cared for by a resident nurse at his home which consisted of ten rooms and was run by domestic servants, his farming property also employed farmhands and a stableman.
Hugh and his wife appear on the 1911 census living at the home of his father-in-law John Ennis in Tullycanna; they were and would remain childless. By early 1912 they were living at Polygon House in Southampton.
McElroy signed on to the Titanic on 9 April 1912 and as chief purser he could expect to earn a monthly wage of £20. Before joining Titanic Hugh sent two postcards from the Royal Southampton Yacht Club, both were to his priest friends. One sent to Phillip Corr dated 6 April 1912 read as follows:
“Many thanks for your letter and good wishes which I reciprocate, the “Titanic” is in many ways an improved Olympic and will I trust be a success, I am sorry I could not get down to Swanage this time but I was tied to Southampton and the train service too erratic to take chances, all kind of messages to you both”.
On the card, which still exists, a different hand had noted “coal strike time” against the reference to the train service and so the Titanic sailed. The other card was to his friend Cuthbert McAdam still in Bodmin Priory; this was also dated 6 April 1912 with a message in a similar vein.
On the 11 April 1912, before Titanic sailed Hugh and his wife Barbara attended a special Flying Matinee in Southampton at the Hippodrome Theatre to see the world-famous Danish dancer Mademoiselle Adeline Genee and after watching her performance they sent flowers backstage, which were in the Danish national colours.
Hugh had taken to babysitting a canary and it is alleged the animal sailed on the Titanic and survived; it was owned by a Mr Meanwell who lived in France and who wanted to get his precious canary to Cherbourg from England and asked McElroy to do this.
Apart from Bruce Ismay and Captain Smith, the only other officer who regularly dined with the passengers was McElroy; renowned for his amiability and good sense of humour McElroy appears to have been almost as popular with passengers as the captain and many timed their journeys so they could travel with him.
On the night of the 14-15 April 1912, Hugh had spent an evening (as was his normal duty) in the First Class dining saloon. Many survivors reported seeing him during the evacuation.
Steward Samuel Rule stated to the British Inquiry
"... as I passed up the staircase, I got to A deck and I saw Mr McElroy the Chief Purser, and Mr Dodd, the Second Steward. They were in deep conversation. I thought to receive some orders from them, but there were no orders given, and I passed on to the next deck, the boat deck."
Purser McElroy was seen at boat 9 where he was assisting in the loading. First Officer Murdoch was supervising and Ismay and McElroy were engaged in conversation. Bathroom steward Isaac Widgery stated "I was asked by purser McElroy if I understood anything about lifeboats I said “I understood a little” and just then some biscuits came up from the storekeeper. I helped him put one of the boxes into the bottom of the boat. I was then told by Purser McElroy to get into the boat. Saloon Steward William Ward said "Purser McElroy sent me along. They had taken the canvas off of No. 9 and lowered it, we lowered her down to level with the boat deck, and a sailor came along with a bag and threw it in the boat. This man said he had been sent down to take charge of the boat by the captain. The boatswain’s mate, Haines, was there, and he ordered this man out of the boat, and the man got out again.
He stayed there for three or four minutes, and the purser took hold of my arm and said, "Get in the boat and help the boatswain’s mate pass the ladies in." So I got in the boat, and stepped on the side, and the purser said "Are you all ready?" Haines answered “Yes” and we started to pass the ladies and children into the boat. We thought we had them all in, and the purser called out, “Are there any more women?”
Jack Thayer witnessed McElroy at collapsible C late in the proceedings; two men jumped into the boat and McElroy is said to of fired his gun twice into the air as First Officer Murdoch ordered them out.
With the water at C Deck and rapidly rising, Purser McElroy stood with Drs O’Loughlin and Simpson and Assistant Purser Reginald Barker. For a brief time they were joined by Second Officer Lightoller who was sweating from his work at the boats. Simpson joked "Hello Lights, are you warm?" After spending most of the night on the starboard side of the ship, loading passengers into the lifeboats, the small group shook hands and said goodbye.
Purser McElroy was last seen standing on the Boat Deck near the gymnasium, beside mail clerk Mr William Logan Gwinn.
A few days later a body was pulled from the sea by the crew of the MacKay-Bennett and among the effects were keys tagged “Linen locker No 1 - C Deck” and the address “Miss McElroy, Layton, Spottisbury, Dorset” (Mary McElroy who was Hugh’s sister).
NO. 157. — MALE. — ESTIMATED AGE, 32. — HAIR, DARK.
CLOTHING - Ship's uniform; white jacket; ship's keys; 10 pence; 50 cents; fountain pen.
CHIEF PURSER. — NAME — HERBERT W. McELROY.
The body was buried at sea at 8 pm on 22 April 1912.
McElroy's estate, worth £4330, 13s, 3d, was administered to his widow on 31 July 1912.
Barbara McElroy was remarried on 3 June 1914 in Kingstown (modern-day Dún Laoghaire), Co Dublin, becoming Mrs John Clancy. She remained in Ireland for the rest of her life and died at Springmount, Ballymitty, Co Wexford on 18 December 1953.