Royal Mail Ship Titanic – centenary 2012

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).

Titanic leaving Southampton (2012-0126/04)

Titanic leaving Southampton (2012-0126/04)

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.

Blue print of mail room on Titanic (POST 29/1117)

Blue print of mail room on Titanic (POST 29/1117)

Titanic blue print, detail of Post Office (POST 29/1117)

Titanic blue print, detail of Post Office (POST 29/1117)

Titanic blue print, detail of Mail Room (POST 29/1117)

Titanic blue print, detail of Mail Room (POST 29/1117)

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).

Williamson’s appointment as a sorting clerk in Dublin listed at bottom (POST 58/96)

Williamson’s appointment as a sorting clerk in Dublin listed at bottom (POST 58/96)

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).

Smith’s appointment in Southamption. His name is the second one listed under September. (POST 58/98)

Smith’s appointment in Southamption. His name is the second one listed under September. (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 Postal Clerks of the Titanic, St Martin’s le Grand, July 1912 (POST 92/1141)

The Postal Clerks of the Titanic, St Martin’s le Grand, July 1912 (POST 92/1141)

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.

Index entries for the two men (POST 1/471)

Index entries for the two men (POST 1/471)

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.

Letter concerning the dependents of Williamson and Jago (1).

Letter concerning the dependents of Williamson and Jago (1).

Letter concerning the dependents of Williamson and Jago (2).

Letter concerning the dependents of Williamson and Jago (2).

A later letter (POST 1/450, pages 725-6) seeks clarification on the nature of the payment.

There is also a very large file on the issue of compensation for valuable mail lost on the ship (POST 29/1395B) from which our copies of the telegrams concerning the sinking come.

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

2 responses to “Royal Mail Ship Titanic – centenary 2012

  1. Alex Obradovic

    Gavin,
    Many thanks for this fascinating and timely blog and for highlighting again the dedication and heroism of the joint British/American sorting crew on the sinking Titanic. Their forlorn efforts to move the registered bags from the mail room to the upper deck of the doomed ship ranks among the finest annals of the postal service.
    I can offer a few more details about one of the two British Sorting Clerks, James Bertram Williamson. As you point out, he was Irish by birth. He was born in Dublin in on 28 November 1876, son of David Wallace Williamson and his wife Eleanor Grace (née Webster). Both James’ parents were Scottish but had moved to Ireland in around 1870 and raised a large family. As we know, James joined the GPO in Dublin as a Sorting Clerk in 1896. James’ decision to transfer from Dublin to Southampton in 1908 must have been influenced by the prospect of the relatively generous travelling or ‘Trip’ allowances paid to the marine sorters serving on the transatlantic liners. His father had died in 1899 and, as you note in your blog, during the period leading up to his ill-fated duty on the Titanic James was remitting his Trip Allowance to his widowed mother, Eleanor Williamson. She was still living in Dublin with three of James’ unmarried sisters. The Titanic disaster was a tragedy for thousands of families and must have been a bitter blow for Eleanor. She died less than 15 months later on 6th July 1913, aged 63.
    James’ death on the Titanic is recorded on a Williamson family tombstone in Dublin’s Mount Jerome cemetery, although his body was not identified among those found. The Irish Genealogy Project has an image of the stone on its website:
    http://www.igp-web.com/IGPArchives/ire/dublin/photos/tombstones/mt-jerome-40/target83.html
    During his years at the GPO Dublin, James would have known colleagues who sorted the mail on board the mail steamers plying between Kingstown (Dun Laoghaire) and Holyhead. He may well have performed these duties himself. Less than seven years after the sinking of the RMS Titanic, the RMS Leinster was torpedoed by a German U-Boat en-route from Kingstown to Holyhead on 10th October 1918, a month before the end of the First World War. Although the enormity of the war and subsequent events in Ireland eclipsed the sinking of the Leinster in public memory, the tragedy cost more than 500 lives, including 21 of the 22 GPO Dublin sorting staff working on board. This was surely the greatest single death toll of staff on duty in the history of the British Post Office. The Dublin GPO staff lost in the Leinster disaster were at last properly remembered in time for the 90th anniversary in 2008. An Post, the Irish Post Office, issued a special stamp and a commemorative plaque is on display in the small but excellent An Post museum in the GPO Dublin.

    • Dear Alex

      Many thanks for that further information on James Bertram Williamson which helps personalise his and Jago’s story. Interestingly enough we have also heard recently from a relative of Jago Smith who provided my colleague Julian with a couple of rather wonderful images of the man.
      Your comments on the RMS Leinster are also fascinating. We will need to make sure that we properly mark the centenary of its sinking in 2018 particularly given that this tragedy is perhaps not so well remembered in this country. Julian will be talking about this event along with the Titanic in his talk Disasters at Sea on Thursday.
      Gav

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