A brief biography of Walter Francis Fredericks (14 Apr 1891 – 30 Jun 1960) with a focus on the events of April 1912
Walter Francis Fredericks’ grandfather was Francis Fredericks – a Naturalised British subject born around 1820 in
John (as many people did in those days) preferred to go by his middle name of George.
Growing up in the Chapel/St Mary’s area, he followed his father’s footsteps and became a general labourer at
The family grew up and moved out – each boarding in a different property by 1911. By this time, Walter was dating a girl by the name of Elizabeth Ethel Weeks who had moved to Southampton from
In April 1912 Walter decided to take a job aboard White Star Line’s newest liner, RMS Titanic. It was a tough decision as Ethel was eight months pregnant and could conceivably give birth to their first child any day, but it made financial sense. Hopefully with the three week turn around he would be home again in time for the birth. Walter got up early on 6th April and signed on as a Trimmer at the Union hall. He was 5’ 81/2”, had blue eyes, fair hair and a tattoo of a cross on his right arm. His agreed wage was 5 pounds 10 shillings.
April 10th saw another early start for Walter. After saying his farewells to Ethel, he wandered down to the dockside with his kitbag and gathered with some of the other crewmen for their 6am start. Role call on the ship was at 8am and lasted about half an hour. After that, some of the ‘Black gang’ returned ashore for one last drinking session, but Walter settled into his bunk and prepared for his shift. He was due on at 12 – the ships departure time.
The next few days were fairly uneventful. Walter did his shifts – four hours on, eight hours off on a rolling rota. He was part of the 12-4 shift. It was thankless work being a Trimmer - endlessly shovelling coal to the boiler rooms for the Firemen whilst maintaining an even load within the coal bunker itself to prevent the ship from listing to one side or the other. Intense heat coming up from the boiler rooms and air thick with coal dust made it a very unpleasant place to be.
April 14th 1912 – Walter’s 21st birthday and very nearly his ‘death-day’. Twenty-first birthdays are supposed to be memorable, and this would definitely be one that Walter would never forget. Although it was largely business as usual, several of the Black gang had promised Walter a celebratory drink once the ship made port as they played cards in their quarters (Promises that would die with many of them later that night). With his birthday almost at an end, Walter prepared for the midnight shift. He pulled on his short pants and sleeveless shirt in preparation for the furnace-like conditions below.
About twenty minutes before he was due to start, there was a noticeable jolt and a groaning of metal. His quarters on E deck were on the fore starboard side of the ship – directly above where the iceberg had perforated the hull – although he didn’t know it at the time.
The hum of the ships engines was silenced, so the crew knew something was amiss. They half expected to hear an explanation such as the ship losing a propeller at the pending shift change. Walter and the others started down the spiral stair that led to the Firemen’s corridor, They all took this route twice daily to reach their point of work, but on this occasion the bottom of the stairwell was completely flooded due to the watertight doors being closed to try and contain the leaking. It was not a good sign. Walter headed straight up on deck with several of his comrades without stopping to change clothes.
Up on deck, things were relatively calm. The lifeboats were being uncovered, but there were many passengers refusing to believe anything was seriously wrong. A steward walked by handing out spare life jackets to those on deck without them and Walter gratefully took one and put it on. He was thankful for the extra layer of insulation against the freezing night air. By this time he had heard that the ship had hit an iceberg. Several people were carrying chunks of ice that had fallen onto the well deck floor.
As the night wore on and the bow of the ship dipped lower and lower, Walter’s thoughts alternated between his crew mates and family back home. Those men from the 8-12 shift, what must have happened to them? Were they drowned down below? If this had all happened a half hour later then their fate would have instead been his. It still may come to that. And what of home? Would he ever see his beloved Ethel again? Had his baby been born yet he wondered? Would he ever get to hold it in his arms?
It was desperately cold. Walter considered going back down for his overcoat, but did not want to lose his place in the lifeboat ‘queue’ as the crowd of men now wanting to vacate the ship was steadily growing. It was a decision that probably saved his life.
Walter had assembled on the aft starboard of the ship with a lot of the other Trimmers and Firemen. Lifeboats 13 and 15 were being readied at about 1.40am. The call for women and children came. Fortunately (for Walter), there were not that many to be found in that area for whatever reason, and what few there were got placed aboard. Walter waited anxiously as the call went out again from First Officer Murdoch – “Are there no more women and children to be found? Right men - Let’s get these boats filled then.” Sixth Officer Moody oversaw the actual lowering of the boats as Murdoch went portside.
Boat 13 went first. Walter climbed into boat 15 and offered to row. Although technically not an Able Seaman, growing up next to the river Itchen had provided several opportunities to hone rowing skills. The exercise he thought would get the blood moving in his body to stay warm. Frank Dymond, a Fireman from the same shift as Walter took on responsibility for the boat. As it neared the water, there were frantic cries from below to stop lowering. Lifeboat 13 had been forced directly underneath number 15 by the backwash from Titanic’s condenser discharge. They were unable to release their lowering lines as they were still under tension. Frank desperately shouted up to the deck to stop lowering, but still they continued downwards until the very last second.
Fortunately, the heads up crew of boat 13 managed to manually cut their lines away with a pocket knife and got clear just before boat 15 hit the water – much to the relief of both boats occupants.
As Walter rowed away from the doomed liner he could see that Titanic was by this time well down by the bow, but amazingly still fully lit. Music could still be heard being played from the liner. Everyone in the packed lifeboat gasped though as the lights finally went out and the ship noisily broke in two before plunging below the surface, drowning many still aboard.
The sea was littered with what looked like white specks – the unfortunate souls left behind who had jumped at the last moment with nothing to keep them afloat bar their lifebelts. Walter closed his eyes but the sound of the distant cries and moans would haunt him for many years. Eventually the screams faded, leaving only the silence of the dark night sky and the bitter cold. Frank Dymond offered Walter a blanket to help fend off the shivering. A few of the men wrapped cloth around the boat hook and set it alight as a torch to signal the other boats, but it burnt out very quickly and proved ineffective.
As dawn approached some 3 hours later, rockets were seen on the horizon and woe turned to cheer as the Carpathia approached to rescue them all. It was a huge relief. Bobbing up and down in a small overcrowded boat in the middle of the ocean, not knowing when help would come had been an unnerving experience. The crew and passengers of the Carpathia were extremely sympathetic and accommodating to the survivors. Walter slept most of the following day. It had been an exhausting night.
Once the Carpathia docked at Pier 54 in
Crew members attending a memorial in New York. Walter is second down on the right (near the top of the pyramid).
Once again, the surviving Titanic crew were made to wait as the
Unlike several of the other survivors, Walter was not put off going to sea again. He signed straight back on the next available Royal Mail Steamship, but this time as a Greaser. A little over a year later, the couple had another son, William George born 16th September 1913.
With the start of WWI, Walter continued to work in the merchant navy – often aboard ships that had been commissioned by the British Government for troop transportation. The ships he served on also carried mail from servicemen back to their loved ones and vice versa which must have had a positive impact on morale. It was business as usual for Walter, albeit in a more dangerous environment. He volunteered in 1914, and during the war served in many ships, included among which was H.M.H.S. “
Mercantile Marine Medal
Walter’s father John George sadly died in 1915 aged 50, but the following year Ethel gave birth to Walter’s only daughter – Phyllis Gwendoline Irene. The joy was short lived however as once again tragic events hit the family just one month later. On 14th June 1916 the eldest son Walter Charles died aged only 4 years on the way to Royal South Hants hospital,
In 1917, Walter, Ethel, William and Phyllis finally got their own home at
More heartbreak would strike the family when Walter’s only daughter Phyllis, fell ill. She died of Tuberculosis Meningitis in 1923 aged only 7. The death of her daughter hit Ethel hard, and she died herself just one year later in 1924. Walter now sadly found himself in the same situation his own father had been in years ago, a widower with two boys under the age of ten to care for. Fortunately, Walter had Ethel’s parents to lean upon. Mother-in-law Elizabeth Wallbrige agreed without question to take the boys in so Walter and his 2 sons left
Right: Walter’s daughter-in-law
Walter continued working aboard the Royal Mail ships. He sailed many times on the White Star Liner Olympic, as well as the Majestic and
In 1940, Walter’s youngest son Ernest married Annie Morley in Eling (near
During WWII Walter again worked aboard commissioned troop transporters. The only one found recorded at time of writing on his CR Seaman cards however was the Empire Attendant. Walter seemed blessed with maritime luck, as several ships that he had previously served on were sunk at later dates without him aboard.
By the time of the war, Walter and
Walter also sailed on other White Star Line Ships : Olympic, Adriatic and Majestic
Walter Francis Fredericks died 30th June 1960 aged 69. He was living at
The author is the second son of Kenneth William (who was Walter’s 1st Grandchild)
Information pooled from National census records, General Register Office, Electoral rolls, Central index register of Merchant Seamen (Southampton Archives), National Roll for the Great War 1914-1918, Ellis Island Record Service, several Titanic websites, numerous Titanic books and verbal accounts taken from older family members.
Photographs from author’s collection.
WWI research courtesy of Andrew Williams collection –
A special thanks to Brian Ticehurst for research guidance, and to Gillian Blake for locating Walter’s final resting place.