The centenary of the Titanic’s sinking is a good opportunity of reminding the world about the fascinating material concerning the ill-fated Royal Mail Ship in The Royal Mail Archive.
Three years ago the BPMA blogged on the subject telling the story of the post office on the ship and the bravery of the five postal clerks who went down with the ship. This blog shows images of a number of items in the collection including telegrams sent about the sinking. We also included the Titanic story in the 2010 Empire Mail exhibition at Guildhall.
This lantern slide comes from a series of slides of early 20th century Royal Mail Ships (in our museum collection).
Another item I particularly like is this blue print (from POST 29/1117) showing the position of the Titanic’s (as well as that of its sister ship the Olympic) post office (situated on G-deck) and mail room (on the Orlop deck) below, both almost at the bottom of the ship.
This time I also decided to focus on the two Post Office employees (the post office was also manned by three US postal workers), James Bertram Williamson and John Richard Jago Smith (known as Jago), using their details to interrogate the BPMA’s family history records. These sources can be used in a similar way to track down details of postal ancestors in your family.
Both men can be found (at least) three times on the British Postal Appointment books, available online via Ancestry (given the various permutations on their initials I am by no means certain I found all their entries in the books). Williamson starts as a Sorting Clerk in Dublin in December 1896 (POST 58/96), eventually ending up in Southampton in November 1908 as a ‘SC and T’ (Sorting Clerk and Telegraphist, POST 58/104).
Jago, a Cornishman, began as a Sorting Clerk and Telegraphist at Liskeard in May 1898 (POST 58/96) before moving along the coast to Southampton in September 1901 (POST 58/98).
On 5 May 1912 all ranks of the Southampton postal staff attended a service at St Peters Church in Southampton in memory of their colleagues and a later memorial was erected. The Postal and Telegraph Services also placed a memorial plaque in the church at St Keverne, Cornwall, in memory of Jago Smith.
The GPO staff journal St Martin’s le Grand (which is currently being digitised for the BPMA by SDS Heritage, who kindly supplied this image) also paid tribute to the two men in July 1912, albeit incorrectly initialling Williamson as ‘E D’ and calling him an ‘Englishman’!
The two men feature again in the Treasury correspondence (POST 1). This is a key family history source since GPO pension and gratuity (including for death while an employee) applications were sent to the Treasury from 1860 to 1940. The index (POST 1/471) entry for the men stands out on the page below.
Though neither man was married nor had children both contributed to the well being of their families. Williamson sent ‘the whole of his trip allowance (£8 to £10 a month) to his mother’, who had no other means. Jago contributed £15 a week to his father and sister’s support.
This letter from September 1912 (POST 1/449, pages 405-6) which details their dependents goes on to emphasise:
Mr Herbert Samuel [the Postmaster General] is strongly of the opinion that compensation should be paid, in one form or another, to the relatives of the deceased officers … [having] regard to the exceptional nature of the case, and the unfortunate effect which the refusal of compensation would almost necessarily produce in Parliament and on public opinion.
A later letter (POST 1/450, pages 725-6) seeks clarification on the nature of the payment.
Another former postal worker who died on board was John George ‘Jack’ Phillips. In April 1902 at the age of fifteen he joined the Post Office as a ‘Learner’ at Godalming in Surrey (POST 58/98). He trained as a telegraphist leaving in March 1906 for further study at the Marconi Company’s Wireless Telegraphy Training School. He worked as a wireless operator on various liners and in a station at Clifden, Galway before joining the Titanic at Belfast. As senior wireless operator on the ship he sent many of the messages asking for assistance from other vessels as the Titanic went down. (For more on this see our blog post on Marconi and the Post Office.)
The BPMA has also this year been assisting Royal Mail and Canada Post on their special products. This commemorative sheet has been produced by Royal Mail; these products by Canada Post. In this vein, our curator of philately Douglas Muir helped debunk the myth that this photograph is mail being loaded onto the Titanic. Sadly it is not.
We’ll be showing some of the BPMA’s original Titanic documents (including telegrams on the sinking) in The Royal Mail Archive search room prior to Julian Stray’s talk Disaster at Sea! The talk is on 19 April at 7pm, see our website for full details.
Gavin McGuffie - Head of Archives